What we cannot avoid in Jesus’ story

Mar 02 2021

Between the Lazarus incident and Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem, he spent time in a remote region in a village called Ephraim. In John’s Gospel, we read the statement, “[Jesus] withdrew … and stayed there…” (11:54)

I wonder…For how long? Where did he stay? What did Jesus do to fill the hours? Can we legitimately fill in what we know of the geography, climate, and culture?

This wondering and filling is normal. In fact, it is inevitable. Literary theorist Seymour Chatman explains:

Whether the narrative is experienced through a performance or through a text, the members of the audience must respond with an interpretation: they cannot avoid participating in the transaction. [The audience] must fill in the gaps with .. likely events, traits and objects which for various reasons have gone unmentioned. . . .  There is a virtually infinite continuum of imaginable details between the incidents, which will not ordinarily be expressed, but which could be. The author selects those events he feels are sufficient to elicit the necessary sense of continual. Normally, the audience is content to accept the main lines and to fill in the interstices (the gaps) with knowledge it has acquired from ordinary living and art experience.**

Chatman’s observation leads me to conclude that SpendaYearwithJesus is the inevitable response of a participating audience member. I “must” fill in the gaps thereby infusing the story with meaning.

** Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978, 1993), 30.

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Feb 28 2021

I don’t envy the town leaders of Capernaum. I get to read the story of Jesus after twenty centuries of clarification. They had to live it in the confusion of real-time.

That said, Jesus doesn’t mince words about their fate. He pronounces “woe” on the three towns where he made his home base — Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida (Luke 10:13-15).

Let’s assume for just a second that the language is kind of like a radioactive sign. It’s a warning rather than retaliation.

Jesus had experienced plenty of social ambivalence during his teaching and healing tours. In fact, he had been asked to leave some places. People come and go around Jesus without “woe.”

But I take it that in these three cities there was some sort of official rejection since they had the most to lose if Jesus was condemned as a false prophet (which he ultimately was). And it’s that official rejection that Jesus warns against for the general population.

After Jesus left Galilee the summer of his last year, his world grew smaller and smaller until his final, fateful feast-visit to Jerusalem.

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What does it mean to be like Jesus?

Feb 23 2021

“Be like Jesus.” I’ve heard that phrase my whole life in articles, sermons, and now blog posts.

Some tell me that Jesus was focused on the poor. As a result he participated in the challenges of living common to the poor. And we should, too.

Others emphasize that Jesus was singularly focused on teaching, and therefore didn’t have time for the chores of common folk. Teaching is the goal of being like Jesus.

Still others relate that Jesus was always on the road (teaching), so go, go, go.

And further, Jesus could be an itinerant preacher always on the road because he had the support of wealthy people.

But wait a minute, I thought Jesus was poor and related to poor people.

SpendaYearwithJesus developed out of this puzzle of paradoxes with a focus on Jesus’ experience in the daily grind of first-century life — like I live in the daily grind today. Being like Jesus means filling the daily grind with the kind of person Jesus was.

Sign up for the epic conclusion of the story at SpendaYearwithJesus.com.

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Plunge into the origin of the phrase, “Fishers of men”

Feb 18 2021

Walking along the lakeshore, Jesus said to some fishermen, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mk 1:17). Great turn of phrase.

In Jesus’ experience, however, the phrase has an assorted history. In prophetic use, the phrase refers to God’s judgment of exile.

Prophet Amos warns the people of Israel, “The time is coming when you will be carried away in baskets, all of you in fishermen’s pots.” (Amos 4:2)

Habakkuk also describes, “The Chaldean brings all of them up with a hook . . . and gathers them in his fishing net…” (Hab 1:15; See also Ezek 38:4 for another reference to hooks.)

Jeremiah declares, “Look! I will send many fishermen,” announces Yhwh, “And they will catch them” (Jer 16:16).**

I conclude that Jesus knew his Hebrew Scripture. So is he using the fishing metaphor in spite of its earlier use? Or perhaps the disciples should have heard Messianic overtones. Who appointed fishermen? God did.

In broader first-century Jewish thought, we stumble across a reference to humanity-fishers in the Psalms/Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls that echoes the Messianic ring.

You made my lodging with many fishermen,
those who spread the net upon the surface of the sea,
those who go hunting the sons of iniquity.
And there you established me for the judgment,
and strengthened in my heart the foundation of truth.
The covenant, therefore, for those looking for it. (1QH XIII (=V) frag. 29 ++)

The entire psalm deals with rescue of the God’s approved ones, but the judgment of God toward oppressors.

There is an interesting reference to man-hunting in Plato’s Laws, 823b.

“There are…very many varieties also of hunts of land-animals—not of beasts only, but also, mark you, of men, both in war and often, too, in friendship [i.e. hunters of men]…”

Plato’s reference simply gives a larger Greco-Roman context to the use of the metaphor. Was Jesus aware of Plato? It’s worth considering but hard to build a case for or against. Some early Greek Gospel readers surely would have thought of Plato, however.

So what did Jesus mean, “Follow me, I will make you fishers of men”? The discipleship calling is clearly stated in the invitation, “Follow me.” Up to this time, it is God who appointed fishermen for epoch-transitions (Assyria-Israel, Babylon-Judah, Approved-Oppressors). The metaphor is startling because it was Jesus who was making this appointment.

** For more info, see Robert Eisler, Orpheus—The Fisher (London: J. M. Watkins, 1921), 75—83.

++ Florentino Gracía Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 337.

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Story-alert…Lazarus wasn’t the only one

Feb 16 2021

Earlier in Jesus’ experience, he was preaching and healing in Galilee when he approached a town called Nain.

A crowd had followed Jesus to the village. And a crowd, a funeral procession, was coming from the village when Jesus approached. A widow was burying her only son.

The Gospel of Luke tells the story (Lk 7:11-17).

Jesus saw the widow and had compassion on her. (If you know your parables, this same expression is applied to the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 and the Father in Luke 15.)

This couldn’t have been the only funeral Jesus experienced, yet this death he interrupted like Lazarus’.

Nain was far away from power centers and political conflicts. Jesus was still relatively unknown. Life, as it always does, returned to normal.

Bethany, however, was a suburb of Jerusalem at the heart of religious politics. Here, the escalating drama of religious conflict took a decisive turn in a graveside moment.


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Why did Jesus weep?

Feb 11 2021

“Jesus wept.” This phrase captures the humanness of Jesus’ experience.

When he received the news about his friend Lazarus, Jesus was involved. He was vested in the relationship. He felt the hurt and the pain surrounding the death of his friend.

Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch observe in The Shaping of Things to Come that Jesus was an “authentic human being” who engaged his world. In fact, they write,

 Jesus was Jesus precisely because of Mary and Joseph, his twelve disciples, the poor to whom he ministered, and all the others who interacted with him … He was changed in some way by all those he came in contact with in precisely the same way that we are changed by our relationships — for good or ill. To be a genuine human being, Jesus must have had such [interactions]… If this is not true, then his humanity was a sham (The Shaping of Things to Come, 36).

Jesus was moved by his friends’ experience. He wept.

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“No other name,” but actually it’s like any other name

Feb 09 2021


The Gospels refer to this common name almost six hundred times.
Only four times do they refer to “Jesus Christ” (Mk 1.1; Mt 1.1; Jn 1.17; 17.3). My attention was drawn to this fact by William Barclay in Jesus as They Saw Him.

Pick up a Septuagint Greek Old Testament and you will notice something more. The sixth book, commonly titled “Joshua” in English Bibles, carries the name Ἰησοῦς (translated “Jesus” in the NT). In the Greek, the name appears over and over throughout the OT book. If you’re thinking, “Not so fast!” link over to the Septuagint book list in Wikipedia to see for yourself.

Barclay observed, “The name Jesus underlines the real humanity of our Lord.” Would we say the same about the name “Jesus” today?

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Feel the familiarity and shock as Jesus confronts the Law

Feb 02 2021

“Do not think that I have come to put an end to the Law,” Jesus said. Then he added I have come “to fulfill” it (Matt 5:17).

This week the Sabbath reading includes the ten words (aka commandments) from Moses’ Law book, “Names,” (aka Exodus).

Every year, year after year, Jesus’ friends and neighbors gathered Sabbath day to Sabbath day to read the Law of Moses. Plus the priests read the Law at the Temple feasts.

In Jesus’ experience, whenever he spoke about the Law, his listeners only had to think of their previous Sabbath synagogue reading to consider his meaning.

Reading Jesus’ story today, the familiarity with the Law as well as the shock of Jesus’ words is often lost.

So consider this. It would be like someone telling Americans about re-writing the U. S. Constitution because there is a way of governing better than its democracy.

And of course, to make the illustration completely parallel, Americans would need to read and re-read excerpts from the Constitution every Saturday.

“I have not come to put an end to the Constitution but to fulfill it!” Whoa. What does that mean?

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The impact of weekend reading

Jan 28 2021

During the first-century on Sabbath the devout of Israel gathered to read the Law of Moses. In Jesus’ experience, the Law of Moses was authoritative. It came from God.

Jesus’ later follower Paul and his brother James confirmed the practice (Acts 13:27; 15:21). For example, James said, “For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21).

First-century Jewish writers Philo and Josephus also comment on the practice of gathering for Sabbath instruction (Philo’s Special Laws 2.15 §62 and Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, 16.2.3 §43; 2.17 §175).

Though the practice of reading is without question, the schedule of readings in the first-century is debated. There is an annual cycle of Torah readings as well as a three-year cycle that could have guided the Sabbath practice.

The SpendaYearwithJesus storyline follows an annual cycle, giving a flavor of what it could have been like to hear the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus in the same timeline.

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Earth-Bound Experience

Jan 26 2021

One of Jesus’ followers wrote that Jesus faced all of the same trials and challenges as any person on earth; and more, that Jesus lived with human frailty. Yet Jesus faced the challenges without frustrating himself or exploiting others (Heb 4:15).

That sounds nice, “Jesus faced the same things we do.” As we read the stories, however, do we assume that Jesus could tap his inner supernatural whenever he wanted control?

If that assumption is true, then he wasn’t challenged like I am challenged.

If Jesus controlled the natural rhythms of this earth-bound experience for his own advantage, then he cannot relate to my human experience.

I don’t float six inches off the ground, and if Jesus’ follower is right, neither did Jesus.

By writing SpendaYearwithJesus, I see the phrase “live like Jesus lived” in a new light.

I do not immediately think of moral or charitable activities. I think of a pace of life, an expectation of life, an engagement of life … Jesus’ experience.

For more on this topic, see No Shortcuts and No Shortcuts Revisited.

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