Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Figuring out what Jesus accomplished

This past Sunday, my thoughts were brought back to the question of Jesus. If I had been called to do a homily on the reading and the lesson at Evensong, here's what I might have said.

I began this journey of translating the Old Testament in 2006. At the time I had buried myself in the New Testament in lots of ways, also using software to analyze parallel passages in the Gospels, using a diagramming tool to image the keywords of the epistle to the Hebrews, reading with intensity in Revelation and Romans, and generally putting up with my surface knowledge of the NT. I had read the OT of course and even studied the sacrificial system with the help of some excellent scholars, like Jacob and Jo Milgrom 20 years ago (2001) at a conference in Cambridge. 

(I cannot find a record of this Cambridge conference online any more except on this blog under the label Milgrom. How frail are our memories. And we have such a noisy electronic record. I am currently reading East-West Street, the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity. Philippe Sands creates the personal history of several protagonists from fragments of paper evidence out of the silence of the Shoah. A contrast in method.)

Having translated the Tanach, what then do I make of Jesus? When Peter jumped to his conclusion, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." what did he mean? (Uh - Bob you don't like that word mean.)

But I love what Jesus has demonstrated: exactly what is implied though not so easy to read in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Jesus shows what it 'means' - yes I will use that word here - to be a fully accountable 'son' of God. (Interesting that Matthew adds 'living' to God. There is something present about that word.)

What is this 'son'? Having now having had to read the OT (known to Judaism as the Tanach) in some detail, I extend son to signify child and thereby to include all sorts and conditions of humanity, girls as well as boys, and all the variations in body parts and capacities that are demonstrated in the human condition, able or not.

The 'sonship' - what I might like to call 'the fullness of being a child of the living God', is 'described' in the Epistle to the Hebrews, how this human learned to hear with God's voice. I was reminded of my obligation to explain what I thought about Jesus this past Sunday since I had to read at Evensong. The first reading was a reading from Ecclesiasticus 38 - I think that's right - (have I already forgotten) and the second lesson was Hebrews 8. I think I can say that the Mystery called me back to church for that one lesson.

I can scarcely call Ecclesiasticus more than a reading (text is below) - but it is interesting. It describes a religious separation between attaining wisdom by study of the Word of God, something that the writer claims requires leisure, and all the other professions in the world, like shepherding (David), herdsman (Amos), potter (even the Most High), maker of seals, and so on. Nevertheless, Ecclesiasticus describes our time, when the Word of God is the property of the cult and the scholar, rather than of the people. 

But Hebrews is a lesson. How does it describe how Jesus learned 'the fullness of being a child of God'? 

Hebrews clearly points to the Tanach, and particularly to the Psalms as the working out of 'our childhood' and our responsibilities to each other in our full set of communities. According to the writer to the Hebrews, whoever it was, specifically quotes the psalms as the conversation between Father and Son, Parent and Child, couched of course in the language and expectations of the time. 

In other words, the homilist who writes the letter claims that Jesus demonstrates this knowledge of the conversation in the Psalms and lives his 'sonship', maturing and informed through the Psalms. (To be fair to Ecclesiasticus, the writer of chapter 38 does point to the Psalms as well, once to Psalms 1:2.)

Here is the list of the psalms used in Hebrews: (extracted from my book Seeing the Psalter, 2010)

  • Psalms 2:7, Hebrews 1:5, 5:5;
  • Psalms 8:5-7, Hebrews 2:6-9;
  • Psalms 22:23, Hebrews 2:12;
  • Psalms 40:6-8, Hebrews 10:5-7;
  • Psalms 45:7-8, Hebrews 1:8-9;
  • Psalms 50:14, Hebrews 13:15;
  • Psalms 56:11, Hebrews 13:6;
  • Psalms 95:7-11, Hebrews 3:7-11, 15, 4:7, 4:3-5;
  • Psalms 97:7, Hebrews 1:6;
  • Psalms 102:25-26, Hebrews 1:10-12;
  • Psalms 104:4, Hebrews 1:7;
  • Psalms 110:4, Hebrews 5:6, 7:17, 21;
  • Psalms 118:6, Hebrews 13:6;
  • Psalms 135:14, Hebrews 10:30.

Or for another view, here is the usage in the sequence of chapters in the homily called the letter to the Hebrews:

  • Psalms 2:7, Hebrews 1:5, 5:5;
  • Psalms 97:7, Hebrews 1:6;
  • Psalms 104:4, Hebrews 1:7;
  • Psalms 45:7-8, Hebrews 1:8-9;
  • Psalms 102:25-26, Hebrews 1:10-12;
  • Psalms 8:5-7, Hebrews 2:6-9;
  • Psalms 22:23, Hebrews 2:12;
  • Psalms 95:7-11, Hebrews 3:7-11, 15, 4:7, 4:3-5;
  • Psalms 110:4, Hebrews 5:6, 7:17, 21;
  • Psalms 40:6-8, Hebrews 10:5-7;
  • Psalms 135:14, Hebrews 10:30.
  • Psalms 50:14, Hebrews 13:15;
  • Psalms 56:11, Hebrews 13:6;
  • Psalms 118:6, Hebrews 13:6;
When I saw this 15 years ago, (it was presented as such in the conference in 2006), I knew I had to learn the psalms in the language that Jesus would have read them in. It's a long journey. Clearly, the psalms are the backbone of the epistle. What is learned through the epistle is also to be learned through the psalms and through the instruction that they address. The psalms are the canonical commentary on Torah and the Prophets. And these too are for our learning how to become a fully matured child of the Creator.

As we did on this blog and on Christopher's blog these past 3-4 months, Jesus too would have heard the voice of the oppressed, as the words of God, in the words of the Psalms.

It was not an 'opportunity of leisure', but I was given the opportunity over the last 15 years of studying the instruction 'of the Most High'. (Not law - that religious morphing of the root for throw or shoot (irh) is a hurtful and misleading translation; torh is derived from irh.)

My point: we must together become like this one who gave himself for others. I know there is a theology behind the NT that lies in opposition to a human view of this Jesus. But God is living, with us, in us. The point is that Jesus was in a living conversation with his Source. And so also can we be. Then we will become who we must be. Is this gift only for 'Christians'? God forbid. This gift is for everyone, bar none. 

No one needs to change religions to read Tanach, and particularly the Psalms, and learn wisdom (or the NT). No one needs to reduce these words to 'meaning' when the sense of them is demonstrated in a human life. 

All of us need to come to our senses, and leave behind the innumerable bindings that we impose on others. If we say we know what was accomplished by Jesus, let us show it then. It takes all of us in all our professions together, artisan and cleric alike, to do the work we are called to do.

The service is online here. (Begins about 10 minutes in.)

Ecclesiasticus 38: (not in the canon)
The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; only the one who has little business can become wise. How can one become wise who handles the plough, and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls?  He sets his heart on ploughing furrows, and he is careful about fodder for the heifers.  So it is with every artisan and master artisan who labours by night as well as by day; those who cut the signets of seals, each is diligent in making a great variety; they set their heart on painting a lifelike image, and they are careful to finish their work.  So it is with the smith, sitting by the anvil, intent on his ironwork; the breath of the fire melts his flesh, and he struggles with the heat of the furnace; the sound of the hammer deafens his ears, and his eyes are on the pattern of the object. He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork, and he is careful to complete its decoration.  So it is with is the potter sitting at his work and turning the wheel with his feet; he is always deeply concerned over his products, and he produces them in quantity.  He moulds the clay with his arm and makes it pliable with his feet; he sets his heart on finishing the glazing, and he takes care in firing the kiln.  All these rely on their hands, and all are skilful in their own work.  Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live, they will not go hungry. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people,  nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly. They do not sit in the judge’s seat, nor do they understand the decisions of the courts; they cannot expound discipline or judgement, and they are not found among the rulers.  But they maintain the fabric of the world, and their concern is for the exercise of their trade. How different the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High! 


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