patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Saturday, March 2, 2013

blessed are those who never had children, etc.

I was reading around about the Beatitudes and came across this statement that the Greek word that ends up translated as “Blessed” in virtually all translations is actually more accurately Happy.

I sort of liked that idea, so I looked Blessed up in my exhaustive concordance with the goal of seeing how the same Greek word, μακάριος (makários), was translated in other passages, which is how I generally make up my mind in such matters of translation. Here’s the breakdown of what I discovered: of the 50 uses of μακάριος, 44 were translated in the 1984 NIV as blessed, 4 as good, 1 as fortunate, and 1 as happier. So, I concluded, while “Happy are the…” (or“Fortunate are the …” or even the synonymous “Lucky are the …”) might be a useful way of jerking ourselves out of our usual nonthinking about what the Beatitudes are actually saying, it probably wasn't any more correct.
That said, in case you want to be jerked out of your usual nonthinking about the passage, here’s how it might sound with a different word than Blessed:
Fortunate are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Fortunate are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Fortunate are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Fortunate are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Fortunate are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Fortunate are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Fortunate are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Fortunate are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
(Matthew 5:3-12 NIV with the word Blessed changed to Fortunate)

While I was researching μακάριος in my concordance, I got sidetracked into perhaps a better way of reseeing the States of Blessedness. Have a look at all the others that Jesus identifies as μακάριος— that is, as blessed or or happy or fortunate—elsewhere in his teaching:
Blessed are the poor (Luke 6:20).
Blessed are the hungry (Luke 6:21).
Blessed are those who are crying (Luke 6:21).
Blessed are those who never had children (Luke 23:26-31).
Blessed are those who never got to see the One God Sent in person but who nevertheless believe in him (John 20:26-29).
Blessed are those who pay attention to what God tells them to do and then do it (Luke 11:28).
Blessed are those who accept from God the power to recognize him as God (Matthew 16:16-17).
Blessed are those who look for the One God Sent and actually see him, who listen to him and actually hear him (Matthew 13:16 and Luke 10:23).
Blessed are those who aren’t offended by or embarrassed about the One God Sent (Matthew 11:6 and Luke 7:23).
Blessed are those who, as he does, lower themselves to serve others (John 13:12-17).
Blessed are those who love the unloveable (Luke 14:12-14).
To find out why Jesus considered such people fortunate—how, in other words, their current situation rewards them—you’ll have to look up the passages yourselves (which is why I went to the trouble of citing the passages I paraphrased). Have fun!

Friday, March 1, 2013

the states of blessedness

Jesus’ mountain sermon begins with a cheery little poem we call “The Beatitudes,” or “The States of Blessedness,” so called because all but the last of its ten lines begins with “Blessed are” (or with “Blessed be,” depending on whether or not the translation wants that verb to be in indicative or subjunctive mode).

I call it a poem because the repetition of Blessed and the stringent parallel structure of the lines—Blessed be…for…”—make it sound poetic. It also seems to be spoken forth as one would a poem. Before delivering “The States of Blessedness” to the crowds surrounding him, Jesus first climbs a mountain, presumably for better acoustics. Then—in the original Greek as in most early and some contemporary translations—Matthew goes out of his way to draw attention to the speaking itself with reference to Jesus’ mouth as well as three verbal communication verbs: “And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying…” (Matthew 5:2 KJV).

The Beatitudes are a formal proclamation of exactly what Jesus, reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, has already said is the reason God sent him to us in the first place: to preach the good news to the poor and miserable. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he told them, and is promising them now, “to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18). These poor sufferers are the very ones surrounding him, who’ve heard of his miraculous healings and come after him with their own griefs.

And into this suffering and longing, Jesus preaches the good news.

I love Matthew's reference to Jesus’ mouth. He didn’t just teach or speak, that day on the mountainside. He opened his mouth and delivered forth blessing upon blessing, word upon word.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

people everywhere

Me: Babe, d’you know what the Decapolis was?

Kris: No.

Me (surprised: Kris knows everything there is to know about history, modern or ancient, but, apparently, not this): I looked it up. It means The Ten Cities and refers to these ten cities in what would now be the Jordan area that amounted to the main Greek and Roman cities in that area in the early Common Era. That means the non-Semitic cities.

Kris: What about it?

Me: Well, it says in Matthew’s gospel that, when Jesus started going around healing, people from not only Galilee and Jerusalem and Judea followed him but also people from the Decapolis. That's Greeks and Romans. Right from the beginning. That's, like, people from far away.

(I went and got my Bible and showed him: “Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him” (Matthew 4:25 NIV).

Kris: Yes, we tend to think Jesus healed people to help them, but actually he did it so that  people everywhere would believe.

Me: But he told a lot of the people he healed not to tell anyone, so he couldn’t have healed them to spread the word.

Kris: No, he healed those ones out of compassion.

Me: Ah.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

word for word

I’m just about to start studying the Jesus’ mountain sermon recorded at length in Matthew the way Pericles’ speeches are in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, written five or six hundred years earlier.

Something that has always worried me, from a credibility perspective, about both Jesus’ mountain sermons and Pericles’ speeches is their perfectness. That the writers in each case somehow, without any recording equipment besides their brains—and afterwards, perhaps, pen and papyrus—managed to capture what was said so convincingly word for word.

Without being too there-really-is-scientific-proof-of-a-man-swallowed-up-and-vomited-out-live-by-an-enormous-fish about the matter, though, I have to remind myself that, even absent miracles, such a feat of documentation is possible. Back in the early days of my acquaintance with my husband—then this weird farmer guy, a star of our University of Arkansas MFA program who was looking for a wife—I happened to sneak a glance at the notes he took in class one day and discovered what looked like the script of a play: names of people in our workshop followed by direct quotes of what they had said and how others had responded, seemingly word for word as each person had said it, only clearer and more impressive than I remembered. 

I’m saying here I’m married to a Matthew or a Thucydides.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

temple tantrums

Okay, so all four of the accounts of the good news that God sent Jesus are arranged seemingly chronologically with respect to Jesus’ earthly life. It’s true they don’t all start in the same place. Matthew and Luke start with his birth, whereas Mark and John start with his baptism by his cousin John. Nevertheless, all four of the gospels use decidedly sequential language to link the episodes from Jesus' life they recount.

For example, “The next day…,” the gospel of John begins after the introduction of John the baptizer (John 1:29 NIV). Then Jesus enters the story, and a few lines later John writes again, “The next day…” (John 1:35). Often the sequential information is quite specific, as in this instance just a few sentences later: “So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon” (John 1:39). Reading the gospels, I generally have a clear sense of when each event happened with respect to what happened before and after.

That said, although each gospel sounds unambiguously chronological, the same stories told in several accounts often come at crazily different times in Jesus’ last years.

Take Jesus’ famous temple tantrum.

(Sorry. Just can’t resist. It’s either that pun or else an analogy to a similar—though admittedly less virtuous—anger episode of my own, which my daughters refer to as my “closet fit” because it took place in their closet. But temple fit just doesn’t sound as good as temple tantrum.)

Anyway, all four gospels recount this event, but whereas John’s telling happens very early on in his account and early on—just after the wine miracle in Cana—in Jesus' three years of preaching and teaching, in the tellings of Matthew, Mark, and Luke the anger episode comes very close to the end of Jesus’ life.

This really bothers me, I’ve got to say. What bothers me more, though, are the efforts of theologians to smooth my irritation over with tidy explanations, such as that Jesus had more than one temple tantrum. Or that the events are rearranged in John for stylistic or theological reasons and that the chronological references are at best rhetorical and at worst meaningless. I don’t want them tidying God’s story. I want it the way it really is. I want to have to deal with it.

And if this sort of thing happened just this once, it wouldn’t vex me too much—or, anyway, not any more than any other seeming glitch of scripture vexes me. I believe in a holy write that's 100% God-authored but also 100% humanly produced—and thus no more contradictory than Jesus himself. And human-authored texts are rife with contradictions. And errors.

But such chronological misalignments and mismatched tellings don't happen just once. They happen over and over and over again. There are three accounts of the woman who dumps perfume on Jesus’ head and rubs it in with her hair, to give just one example, and each one is different. And again, historians and theologians rush to account for the differences with multiple-story theories and rhetorical arguments. But how could it possibly be that more than one woman ever did that to Jesus?

I take  some comfort in one repeated story: the feeding of the hordes. In one account it’s four thousand, in another five thousand. In one there’s a boy’s lunch of bread and fish, in another there's no boy mentioned. In total, there are six separate accounts of the feeding in the gospels. But what fixes things in my mind is that Matthew and Mark each include both a four thousand and a five thousand story, so they’re themselves asserting, in effect, that there were multiple feedings of the multitudes. And these assertions get at, for me, the crux of what might be going on (apart from a millennia-long game of telephone, in which a story gets passed down through so many mouths that it becomes unintelligible).

Here’s what I think: the same things did keep happening over and over again, just as those theologians and Mark and Matthew themselves say. And just as the same things keep happening over and over again in our own lives.

As I was telling my creative writing students this afternoon, people, in real life, repeat themselves. It’s what defines them as individuals—that they always do this or that. That they routinely make these gestures, say these phrases, throw this sort of party, tell this sort of story.

I like to go to funerals, for example—even funerals of people I barely know or don’t know at all. Something about a funeral makes me feel God’s presence especially clearly. I like to pray-worry about the widows and other loved ones left behind. I like to be part of the community supporting them by my own presence. I like the ritual and pomp of it all. And, at every funeral I go to, I run into the same people—other locals who, like me, attend all the funerals and study the corpses and shake hands with the family members and probably sense throughout God’s hovering presence. We repeat ourselves. Repeat one another.

All this to say I’ve come to accept that Jesus probably had more than one temple tantrum. The same irritating stuff kept happening in those days at church. And he kept on getting fed up with it. And every so often he went in and flipped out and flipped their tables over. (Relax: I'm not going to use the word flipping again.) And the more Jesus does the same thing over and over again, the more real he becomes in my mind, the more believable.

Which is to say, accepting multiple temple fits helps me do God’s work, because isn’t that what Jesus said the work of God was: “to believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29)?


Monday, February 25, 2013

why he came

I have heard Jesus called a great doctor. (The great “physician,” actually, but I can’t stand puffed up words like that—like attorney in lieu of lawyer, purchase in lieu of buy, in lieu of instead of instead of). And I’ve heard him called a great teacher. But I’ve never heard Jesus referred to as a great preacher.

Which is odd, seeing as how that’s what he came to do. Or anyway, that’s what he tells Simon and his buddies:
          “Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’
          So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. (Mark 2:38 NIV)
Matthew writes that, after John the baptizer was imprisoned for badmouthing Herod, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17).

I guess you could argue that such preaching was teaching—that preaching and teaching are six of one, half dozen of the other. But Matthew actually goes out of his way to differentiate the two actions: “After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee” (Matthew 11:1).

He taught (διδάσκω, didaskō) and preached (κηρύσσω, kēryssō). (And also “instructed” his disciples, for which Matthew uses a different verb—διατάσσω, diatassō—which means something more along the lines of giving directions or training.)

So why not call Jesus The Great Preacher?
Certainly he was successful at it. “Everyone is looking for you!” Simon and his friends tell him (Mark 1:37), and from then on, when people found out he was in town, “They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them” (Mark 2:2).

Maybe we don’t call Jesus The Great Preacher because the word preacher has so much negative baggage. One preacher preaches one thing, another another. And there are false preachers. And scandals involving preachers.

And when we speak of preachers we mean those who tell us about Jesus, whereas what Jesus preached, early on, was largely the message of the whole Bible. Repent. And he preached from the Bible—literally reading forth what was written there and adding little to it besides “Heads up! This prophecy is happening right now” (Mark 4:21, my paraphrase).

Nevertheless, we’re told—although he soon made them so mad they wanted to toss him off a cliff—initially, at least, they were impressed with his preaching: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Mark 4:22). That must have been some sermon!

I think we think that Jesus came to Earth pretty much exclusively to die for us. And maybe, secondarily, to explain some spiritual stuff to us that we’re too stupid to figure out on our own. I think he also came, though, simply to preach the word. To tell us, in person, with his own mouth, the good news of himself.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

i'll take my scripture neat

Mark jolted me this morning out of mere dutiful scripture reading—in order to make my daily posting for Lent that I’ve committed myself to—into genuine puzzlement and absorption. A guy with leprosy comes to Jesus, drops to his knees, and begs, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40 NIV).

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus commends as faith such expressions of trust in his power—in which the speaker acknowledges that Jesus’ will is synonymous with his ability to perform miracles. The guy doesn’t say “If you can…,” as another guy does who makes Jesus respond angrily, “If I can?!” (Mark 9:22-23). Instead, the guy with leprosy seems confident that, if Jesus is simply willing to heal him, his leprosy will go away.

In this instance, though, rather than commending the guy’s faith, Jesus responds quite differently:

Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” (Mark 1:31 NIV).

Why in the world was Jesus indignant? I wondered as I read.

I should point out here that, as is typically the case when I come upon such counterintuitive moments in scripture (of which there are many), the verse is a point of contention among translators and biblical scholars and even, apparently, among the ancient scribes who made the manuscripts from which biblical translators work. Most other versions of the passage go with the more sensible and utterly unsurprising of the two antonymous Greek words the ancient scribes here used for Jesus’ response, choosing σπλαγχνισθείς (splancnisqei, to have compassion)

over the weirder ὀργισθείς (ojrgisqei, to become angry or irritated). So, in just about every English translation besides the newest NIV (even the 1984 NIV disagrees with the 2011 NIV), Jesus is either “moved with” or “filled with” compassion or pity at the man’s request, just as he is in two other of Mark’s accounts in which Jesus responds with splancnisqei to a request for healing (6:34 and 8:2).

All this to say, I have no idea which word is more apt to describe Jesus’ response or why, contrary to almost all other English versions of scripture, the latest NIV translators opted for the less predictable one. But I like to go with the more difficult choice, the one that doesn’t need to be smoothed over by some expert or tethered into predictability. I like my scripture neat, not watered down.

Also, I checked to see how Martin Luther had translated the passage back in 1545, and he seems to have gone with the angrier response: Und es jammerte Jesum. If the German verb jammern back then meant what it means today, Jesus griped at the guy right before he healed him.

And I know this: that guy, for all his faith in Jesus’ power to heal him, is annoying.

I mean, you’d think someone who’d just been given miraculous health after a period of suffering would want to comply with the healer’s request, “‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone’” (Mark 1:44).

But no. According to Mark, “Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news” (Mark 1:45). The guy was, in other words, a blabbermouth.

Just like me, I have to confess. (I’m suffering this weekend from one of my frequent bouts of ruing having said things I shouldn’t have said.)

Jesus probably knew the guy was an bigheaded blabbermouth—or sensed it from some flamboyance of gesture or boasting tone in his voice—and was ticked off by him before the guy ever knelt in the dirt and made his request. And yet, Jesus went ahead and healed him anyway.

Just as he healed me.

And keeps on healing me.