Archive for the 'Telling the Story' Category

Grateful tunes and Jesus’ playlist (the Hallel)

Mar 04 2021 Published by under Telling the Story

Do you ever wonder where church song writers get their material? If you’re a church-goer, you might have sung recently, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory” (Ps 115:1). Or another popular line, “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever” (Ps 118:1).

Jesus also sang (or chanted) these lines–at least four times a year, in fact. We call these Psalms, 113-118, the Hallel. The Mishnah (the 2nd century code of the Rabbis) gives their title and use.

At Passover, Israelites brought their lambs to the temple for butchering and sacrifice, and while the priests were preparing the meat … “[The Levites meanwhile] proclaimed the Hallel Psalms [113-118]” (m. Pesahim 5.7)

[In between courses] “The first Passover requires the recitation of the Hallel Psalms when it is eaten” (m. Pesahim 9.3).

According to the Mishnah, the devout also recited the Hallel at the Feast of Huts (Tabernacles) (m. Sukkah 3.9; 4.1) and possibly also on New Year’s day (m. Rosh Hashshanah 4.7) in the fall.**

L. Finkelstein makes the case from the Babylonian Talmud and Rabbinic practice that the Hallel was recited at the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) in the winter and at the Feast of Pentecost (Weeks) in the spring.++

Jesus and his disciples would have known the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) pretty well by repeating it at least these four times a year — year-after-year. I imagine that it was like some of the popular stadium-event tunes we hear repeatedly today.

** Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).
++ Louis Finkelstein, “The Origin of the Hallel,” Hebrew Union College Annual 23 (1951): 319–337.

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What we cannot avoid in Jesus’ story

Mar 02 2021 Published by under Telling the Story

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 Published by under Telling the Story

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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The impact of weekend reading

Jan 28 2021 Published by under Telling the Story

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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3 kinds of travel with Jesus

Jan 12 2021 Published by under Telling the Story

Jesus walked and walked and walked. Traveling was a major part of Jesus’ experience.

First, there was feast travel. At an early age, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his father Joseph (Lk 2:41). And since Jesus kept the Mosaic Law, he made three trips a year (Ex. 23:17) to Jerusalem for more than a decade before he started preaching. The trip to Jerusalem was a common travel scenario for the people Jesus lived among.

Teaching tours. The Gospel of Luke describes how Jesus went from village to village in Galilee preaching about the kingdom of God. Luke also mentions that the 12 disciples as well as some women went with Jesus (8:1-3). The region of Galilee must have accommodated co-ed travelers, meaning that necessities such as safe roads and separate quarters were available.

Withdrawals. During the summer of Jesus’ last year, he went to Tyre and Sidon and then to the Decapolis both outside Galilee. After the Feast of Dedication in the winter, Jesus went to the remote place where John had baptized years before (John 10:40). Later that last winter, Jesus and his disciples withdrew to a wilderness border town called Ephraim (John 11:54) where no one found him until he re-emerged traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread.

In all of this travel, Jesus used that most humble and human form of transportation, his own two feet.

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How to respond to rejection and hostility

Jan 05 2021 Published by under Telling the Story

Jesus’ experience included a series of withdrawals his last year. During the summer months, he traveled in and out of Galilee. During the winter, he visited Jerusalem and withdrew multiple times.

This pattern of engagement and withdrawal points to the mounting tension between Jesus and the religious authorities.

The perception of Jesus as a dynamic, likable teacher-leader is true enough. But often in our focus on Jesus, we ignore the feelings of all of the other dynamic leaders around him who were competing for public interest, let alone those who were attempting to preserve the power they had already attained.

The leaders in Nazareth and Capernaum and other towns in Galilee turned against Jesus. Not long afterwards in Jerusalem at the Feast of Huts, the religious leaders sent the temple guards to arrest him. And a few months later, on Jesus’ next feast-visit to Jerusalem, some of his listeners/competitors intended once again to seize him.

Jesus lived in this mounting tension of rejection and hostility for months. Yet he never lost his nerve or his focus.

If we tell the story overlooking this tension, we do it not because the circumstances demand it, but because we are so overawed by Jesus’ calm in the face of unrelenting opposition.

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Did Jesus say … “You are gods”?

Dec 24 2020 Published by under Telling the Story

Timing is everything.

It was the Feast of Dedication. As the people engaged Jesus in a heated argument over his identity, Jesus quoted a song. Today, we read about the exchange in John 10:22-42, but we hardly know the song.

What Jesus said was, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’?” (10:34). The people revolted against Jesus’ title “Son of God,” so Jesus invoked the authority of the Hebrew Scripture and Psalm 82 to validate the designation.

The problem is the next few lines in the song (which to most readers today are unfamiliar) — “But you will die like men and fall like one of the rulers” (Ps 82:7). The Psalm itself is about God judging injustice! Was Jesus trying to enrage his listeners?

But it gets even more interesting because there is a reference in the Mishnah to the songs that the Levites sang in the temple corresponding to the days of the week (m. Tamid 7.4).** On the third day of the week (Tuesday), guess what they sang? Psalm 82!

This song, Psalm 82, was well-known in Jesus’ experience. His words cut like a knife. And the attendees of the Feast of Dedication, the people in the temple court, mobbed to grab him.

** Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 873.

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The difference between good and bad shepherds

Dec 22 2020 Published by under Telling the Story

The “good shepherd” is an important leadership image from Jesus’ experience. Jesus referred to the metaphor during the Feast of Dedication when the nation celebrated political independence.

The national significance of the shepherd image originates from the Hebrew Scripture in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, among others.

Ezekiel described how bad shepherds feed themselves and ignore the needs of the sheep. They fleece their followers for wool, and kill them for meat. Strays are abandoned (Ezek 34:1-6).

At the Feast of Dedication, Jesus suggested that he stood (right there in the temple courts) as the antithesis of Ezekiel’s scathing metaphor. Jesus was the “good shepherd” (John 10:14).

One can imagine the reaction of the religious authorities. They wanted to finish what they had started at the Feast of Huts, but once again, Jesus retreats.

In the previous posts, we looked at Jerusalem’s resilient leaders and the preservation they achieved for their nation. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were part of that tradition.

So was Jesus trying to pick a fight with people in power?

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Extreme preservation from national threats, even Alexander the Great

Dec 17 2020 Published by under Telling the Story

As Jesus’ story continues, the plot thickens. On one side, the religious leaders’ work to preserve their nation. On the opposing side, the unpredictable popularity of an obscure teacher threatens the status quo.

The leaders in Jerusalem had a great heritage of national preservation. Their ancestors had survived invasions by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Syrians.

Josephus, the Jewish historian from the latter half of the first century, relates in detail the miraculous delivery of Jerusalem from Alexander the Great.

As Alexander approached the city, the high priest Jaddua dreamed instructions from God to go out and meet the conqueror (Ant 11.326ff. **). When Alexander saw the procession, he greeted Jaddua peacefully. For Alexander, too, had seen a vision of the scene many years before (Ant 11.331ff.).

After Alexander entered the city, the priests showed him the scroll of Daniel (possibly  Dan. 7:6; 8:3–8, 20–22; or 11:3). Josephus writes, “Wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that [he] was the person intended.” (Ant 11.337)

National preservation and national participation in the Law converged in the next scene. When Alexander asked how he might favor the people, Jaddua replied that they wished to follow the Mosaic law, the people in Jerusalem as well as those scattered among the nations.

Jesus collided with Jerusalem leaders committed to political and legal preservation within a world of foreign dominance. And as Jesus’ last year passed, it was becoming clearer to the authorities that Jesus threatened the gentle balance of peace.

** Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged ed. and trans. by William Whiston (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).


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A once-in-a-millennium opportunity

Dec 15 2020 Published by under Telling the Story

Around 200 years before Jesus’ last year, Judas Maccabees led his army into Jerusalem liberating the city from foreign invaders.

1 Maccabees 4:36-61 tells the story of the rededication of the temple — later called the Feast of Dedication and now known as Hanukkah. Judas and the people celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th day of the 9th month Kislev.

During the two centuries from Judas Maccabees to Jesus’ day, the temple feasts grew in national significance and participation. A major part of Jesus’ experience was the calendar of holy days and feasts reinstituted from the Law of Moses. In fact, the Gospel of John tells of Jesus’ travels to the feasts in Jerusalem including the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22).

The irony is that in the previous 1,000 years, the nation had inconsistent feast celebrations and participation at best. Kings David, Solomon (2 Chron 5:3), Hezekiah (30:1), and Josiah (35:1) as well as reformers Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 8:18) led efforts to revive the instructions of Moses including the celebration of the Feasts — during their lifetimes.

In the first century, the Mosaic Law was definitive not only for Jesus personally but also for the nation around him and not just a few devout leaders.

One of the major statements of Jesus’ teaching was that he came to fulfill the Law. Jesus could not fulfill the Law without the celebrations of his nation. When Jesus entered the scene, the stage had already been set starting centuries before his birth.

His was a once-in-a-millennium opportunity.

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