February 9, 2016

Matthew’s “Days”

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew :: Permalink

There are seven evenings in Matthew’s Gospel (8:16; 14:15, 23; 16:2; 20:8; 26:20; 27:57).

Not every instance of “it was evening” begins a new section — 16:2 and 20:8 certainly don’t! — but the number of evenings does interest me, suggesting as it does that the reference to evening ends a day or (as in Gen 1) begins a new day.

In turn, and that would suggest that there may be eight “days” in Matthew, the eighth being the day of resurrection, beginning with 27:57, which certainly seems fitting.

Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, 16:2 and 20:8 don’t seem to fit into any sort of seven- or eight-day pattern. Still, if you happen to see some such pattern or know of an essay where someone works this out, I’d be glad to see it.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:19 pm | Discuss (0)
February 5, 2016

The Centurion’s Servant (Matthew 8:5-13)

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew :: Permalink

In Matthew 15, when the Canaanite woman asks Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter, Jesus is initially reluctant: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But earlier, in Matthew 8, when the centurion  clearly a Gentile  asks Jesus to heal his servant, Jesus seems willing: “I myself will come and heal him” (8:7).

Some suggest that his words should be translated as a question: “Shall I come and heal him?” And some (e.g., Davies and Allison) even insert what they think is the implication: “Shall I  a Jew  come and heal him?” The effect is to make it seem as if in this story, as in Matthew 15, Jesus is reluctant to heal a Gentile at first, but then, in response to the Gentile’s faith, goes ahead and does it.

But even if this is a question  and there’s no reason it has to be taken that way  it really doesn’t imply much reluctance. At most, it elicits a further response from the centurion. Jesus is willing to heal the centurion’s servant.

What, then, accounts for the difference, for Jesus’ willingness to heal the Gentile centurion’s servant but his reluctance (at first) to help the Canaanite woman’s daughter precisely because she’s a Gentile?

I’m not sure we can know for sure.

One factor may have been that in the case of the centurion, as Luke tells us (but Matthew doesn’t), he was already a God-fearer, who had built a synagogue and who was highly regarded by the Jewish elders, who served, in fact, as his mediators to bring his request to Jesus.

But it strikes me that it’s possible that, while the centurion himself was a Gentile, the servant may not have been. The servant may in fact have been a Jew, and so, while the request for healing comes from a Gentile (mediated by the Jewish elders), it is still a request for healing a Jew, someone “of the house of Israel.”

Posted by John Barach @ 9:00 pm | Discuss (0)
February 2, 2016

Teaching with Authority (Matthew 7:28-29)

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew :: Permalink

Matthew tells us that the crowds were astonished because Jesus taught with authority, not like their scribes (Matt 7:29).

I’ve sometimes heard people condemn the scribes for this lack of authority, as if there was some problem with the way they taught. “All they did,” people say, “was quote one rabbi after another. But Jesus didn’t quote people” — and the implication sometimes seems to be that preachers today should somehow be more like Jesus than like those scribes, drawing on other people’s commentaries.

Well, that’s not really what Matthew means. Jeffrey Gibbs (if I may draw from another person’s commentary) puts it well:

None of their scribes taught with such conviction. Nor should they have. Any authority that a scribe might possess in his teaching would be completely derived from the authority of the Scriptures. Any other teacher in Israel would need to substantiate what he proclaimed by citing from God’s Word. Jesus, however, teaches God’s Word from out of himself, with unfettered power and divine authority, and the crowds were astonished at this (400).

Posted by John Barach @ 4:37 pm | Discuss (0)

Gate and Path (Matthew 7)

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew :: Permalink

In Matthew 7, when Jesus talks about the narrow gate and the narrow way and about the wide gate and the broad way, how are the gate and the way related to each other?

Commentaries debate about this. Most often, it seems, they think the gate comes first, followed by the way. Jeffrey Gibbs, on the other hand, sees it the other way around: first you travel by the narrow path and then you go through the narrow gate into the kingdom.

The former approach, it seems to me, ends up with the narrow gate being virtually meaningless. After all, it’s not as though going through the narrow gate actually brings you into the kingdom, then. Instead, it puts you on the narrow way — but you still have to stay on the narrow way instead of the broad way, which means that the gate itself is irrelevant.

(This, it seems to me, is a problem in The Pilgrim’s Progress: Christian passes through the narrow door, but that simply leads to a path, with temptations galore to go off the path. But then what is that narrow door? What does it symbolize? Christian still has quite a distance to travel after going through it before he gets to the cross even. So what’s the point of this door?)

Gibbs’s suggestion makes much more sense to me: You need to seek and find the narrow gate (“Few are they who FIND it”), and the way there is the narrow way, which you need to find and stay on, in spite of all allurements toward the broad path or elsewhere.

Better yet, I submit, is Van Bruggen‘s approach: The gate and way aren’t part of one picture (a gate leading to a way, a way leading to a gate) but rather two images, side by side, the first — the gate — focusing on entering into the kingdom or not, and the second — the way — focusing on the process.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:34 pm | Discuss (0)
January 7, 2016

Consumed by Moths

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew,Bible - OT - Isaiah :: Permalink

When Jesus talks in Matthew 6:19-21 about “treasures on earth” and describes the earth as the place “where moth and consumption destroy and where thieves break through and steal,” I suspect we think of clothing, eaten by moths, and of money stolen by thieves.  (The word I’ve translated “consumption” here doesn’t mean “rust,” for which James 5 uses a different word, but rather means “eating” and in Malachi 3:11 refers to grasshoppers or locusts.)

Interestingly, though, in Isaiah 51, we have similar language, but there it’s applied to *people”: “Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults, for the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool” (51:7-8).

This destruction coincides with the change in the heavens and the earth: “The heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell in it will die in like manner” (51:6). These things are temporary but, says Yahweh, “my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished…. My righteousness will be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation” (51:6, 8).

Coming back to Matthew 6: we take Jesus to be talking about rich clothing (which can be eaten by moths) and about gold and silver. And rightly so. But notice that in the earlier context, the hypocrites have their reward in the praise and notice they receive from men, while the righteous are to wait for their reward from God their heavenly Father, who sees their alms, prayers, and fasting in secret (6:1-18).

If we hear Matthew 6 in the light of Isaiah 51, then, it’s not just clothing and gold that Jesus has in view. There is coming a change in the heavens and earth — the coming of God’s kingdom in the near future, in Jesus’ time — and the very men whose praise and notice we’re tempted to seek as our security, our treasure, will be consumed and destroyed. But God’s saving righteousness is forever, and that is the treasure on which we’re to pin our hopes.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:12 pm | Discuss (0)
October 20, 2015

The Deadly Sin of Fiction Writing

Category: Literature :: Permalink

In his entertaining book on writing fiction — not great literature, but fiction that will hook the reader and give him enjoyment — H. Bedford-Jones, “The King of the Pulps,” reveals what he considers to be the “deadly sin” that fiction writers often commit.

It’s not the lack of plot.  Bedford-Jones himself was sometimes accused by editors of writing stories that didn’t have plots, novels that consisted of one episode after another, without one overarching plot that linked everything together.  He argues that that sort of plot really isn’t crucial for a story, that there are great stories that lack that sort of overarching plot, though every paragraph of the story should be critical and no paragraph should be extraneous.

But what is the deadly sin?  It’s the “lack of perception as to what must be emphasized, played up strong!” (46).  It is the “lack of proportion in telling the story” (50).  It’s … well, it’s what you’ve experienced from time to time when you’ve read a story:

You read a story, get interested in the characters, find the plot absorbing and good, entertaining.  When you come to the climax, do you want to be told that the hero “knocked the skipper into the scuppers, overawed the crew, and took command of the ship?”  Not much.  You want the details of the knocking and overawing.  You want to be on the inside, learn how the thing was done!  In other words, you want to follow the emotions of the hero in detail.

Never forget that the reader, in general, identifies himself with the chief character of a story.  He desires to see things through the eyes of that character.  When the reader arrives at some crucial point in the tale and finds it glossed over in a couple of sentences, he is bitterly disappointed….

The amateur writer seems bound to commit this sin.  He seldom realizes what points in his story he should lay most emphasis upon, and what points are least vital to his tale.  It is a question of seeing the story in his own mind, of visualizing it, in its proper proportions.  This perception of values, however, is something that he must come to learn unless he is to fail utterly.  It is, undoubtedly, the great essential of fiction writing (This Fiction Business, 46-47, 48).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:41 pm | Discuss (0)

To Be Seen or Not to Be Seen

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew :: Permalink

Commentary after commentary claims that the way to resolve the apparent contradiction between Matthew 5:16 (“Let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”) and 6:1 (“Take care not to do your righteousness before men to be seen by them”) is by focusing on intention. On the one hand, we aren’t to do good works before men to be seen by them, as if that and that alone, were our goal. On the other hand, we are to do good works before men to be seen by them so that they will glorify God.

But what these commentaries all seem to overlook in their exclusive focus on intention is that Jesus is talking about different sets of good works, different kinds of good works. Matthew 6:1 does not stand by itself, or as a conclusion to Matthew 5. It introduces a new section of the Sermon on the Mount.

The earlier section — which includes the works we are to do in order to be seen by men so that they will glorify our Father in heaven — talks about how we deal with anger and lust, with eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth, with the inconveniences that oppressors heap upon us, with our enemies.

The section that 6:1 introduces has to do with the three foundational acts of Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These acts, unlike the acts of ch. 5, are not to be done to be seen by men.

Jesus does not say that it’s okay to do these things in public, in an attention-getting way, so long as our motive is evangelistic and not self-aggrandizing, so that people will glorify God and not us. Rather, he says to do these things … but to do them in private, to not let your left hand know what your right hand is giving, to shut yourself into your inner room to pray so that no one watches, to look normal — or even as if you’re feasting — when you’re fasting.

That is to say, in his instructions Jesus does not focus simply on intentions (though intentions matter) but on actions that guard against our wrong intentions getting the upper hand.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:32 pm | Discuss (0)
January 16, 2015

Pitter on Narnia

Category: History,Literature :: Permalink

One of Lewis’s female friends (and yes, he did have some!) was the poet Ruth Pitter.  Largely unknown today, Pitter was the first woman to win the Queen’s Medal for Poetry.  She and Lewis met on occasion and exchanged a number of letters.  I expect that she found it rather tiresome, after Lewis’s death, to have quoted to her and to be asked about what Lewis allegedly said to his friend Hugo Dyson: “I am not a man for marriage; but if I were, I would ask R.P.”

She writes about one meeting with Lewis and his brother, Major “Warnie” Lewis.  Pitter had asked if she “might query him about the first of his children’s books,” and Lewis consented.  She reports that the conversation went like this (Ruth Pitter, “Poet to Poet,” in In Search of C. S. Lewis, ed. Stephen Schofield, 113):

PITTER: In the land of Narnia, the witch makes it always winter and never Christmas?

LEWIS: Yes.

PITTER: Does she allow any foreign trade?

LEWIS: She does not.

PITTER: Am I allowed to postulate on the lines of Santa Claus with the tea tray?

LEWIS: You are not.

PITTER: Then where did all the materials for the good dinner the beavers gave came from?

LEWIS: The beavers caught fish through holes in the ice.

PITTER: Yes, the potatoes to go with them, the flour and sugar and oranges and milk for the children?

LEWIS: I must refer you to a further study of the text.

MAJOR LEWIS: Nonsense, Jack!  You’re stumped.  And you know it.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:46 pm | Discuss (1)

C. S. Lewis’s Full Household

Category: History :: Permalink

When you think of C. S. Lewis, do you think of a somewhat crusty bachelor who would, of course, have little experience of women, let alone of children, least of all of female children?  If your image of Lewis comes from the movie Shadowlands, you might be forgiven for thinking that Lewis had no friends.  There isn’t a Coghill, a Williams, a Tolkien, a Barfield, or even a Warnie hanging out with Lewis in that film.  He’s a loner until the Joy Davidman character appears.

Even in his life, Lewis had something of a reputation as a misogynist, it seems.  In a really rather awful interview with Stephen Schofield, who actually eggs him on, Malcolm Muggeridge proposes that there is some mystery about Lewis, something to do “with his attitude toward women and sex,” and Schofield responds by saying that he was told that “whenever a woman came on the College grounds, Lewis would run as fast as his legs would take him to his room and lock the door” (Schofield, ed., In Search of C. S. Lewis, 128).  Sheldon Vanauken responded to this interview when it was first published and calls this a “rather silly story,” refuting it by pointing to Lewis’s female students (Schofield 164-165), but, while including Vanauken’s response, Schofield still seems to have thought highly enough of the original interview to publish it unedited, thereby perpetuating the legend of Lewis’s dislike of women.

If you read Lewis’s letters, however, you get a very different picture.  Though Lewis did spend weeknights at the College, his weekends were spent at his house, The Kilns.  And what a crowded house that must have been.  For most of his life, Lewis lived with an older woman, the mother of one of Lewis’s army friends who died in World War I.  Lewis regarded her as a sort of surrogate mother and called her his mother in his letters.  He also cared for her teenaged daughter, providing for her education out of his own salary.  His brother Warnie also lived in that house.  And during the war, when children and young people were evacuated from London, several of them stayed at the Kilns.

While I disapprove of Schofield’s interview with Muggeridge, I most heartily approve of his including material from a couple of these girls.  Patricia Heidelberger describes living at Lewis’s house with another evacuee, Marie Jose Bosc.  She says that they were “extremely lively, noisy and giggly.  He never reproached us” (53).  Lewis helped them with their homework, encouraged Patricia to go to Oxford.  She says, he “coached me in Latin, and even taught me a little Greek” (54).  And then he provided financial assistance to both girls to help Patricia with her university dues and Marie with the costs of her nurses training.

June Flewett (better known as Jill Freud) also lived for about two years at Lewis’s house.  She says that Lewis loaned her books. “He told me to go to Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, anytime, and buy any book I wanted on his account” (57).  She writes:

Lewis was the first person who made me believe that I was an intelligent human being and the whole of the time I was there he built up my confidence in myself and in my ability to think and understand.  He never put me down.  He never made me feel foolish, no matter how small my contribution towards any conversation might be (57).

She recalls Lewis’s attempts to help the houseboy:

For some months we had a young man living at the Kilns.  He worked as a houseboy and general helper.  He was probably introduced by the Social Services Department, and he was what we would now call educationally subnormal.  He had the mentality of a child of eight.  Every evening Jack Lewis taught him to read.  Lewis made drawings and letter cards for him; he went through the alphabet with him and tried to teach him small words, and so on.  I don’t think he had a great deal of success because the young man found it hard to retain anything.  But for more than two months Jack Lewis went through the alphabet with him every evening (57-58).

Misogynist?  Freud quotes the poem Lewis wrote in her copy of The Screwtape Letters (59):

Beauty and brains and virtue never dwell
Together in one place, the critics say.
Yet we have known a case
You must not ask her name
But seek it ‘twixt July and May.

As for female students, Rosamond Cowan, who was one of the first two women students Lewis had, writes,

At first we were a bit frightened as he had a reputation of being a “man’s man.”  We rather thought he would be a bit down on women.  Actually he was delightful.  He told me I reminded him of a Shakespearean heroine — a compliment I’ve always cherished. He certainly treated me like one (62).

At the beginning of chapter 14 of Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, he credits a Miss Muriel Bentley for the thoughts he develops in that chapter.  Who was she?  A Milton scholar?  No, says Schofield.  “She was nothing of the sort.  She was a student, aged twenty-one, of Somerville College” (74), which means she didn’t study under Lewis or write anything for him, nor had she even published an essay on Paradise Lost.  “All he had from me,” she says, “were examination papers” (74).  That’s all — and yet Lewis gave her credit for an insight that opened his eyes to something he might otherwise not have noticed.

Far from the loner-Lewis stuck in a lot of people’s imaginations, then, the real Lewis had a full household — brother, surrogate mother (often and increasingly sick), and a bunch of young women, to say nothing of a houseboy — all of whom he tried to help in various ways.  Far from being a woman-hater, the real Lewis, who may indeed have preferred the company of men to that of women, gave himself courteously in service to a great number of women in his household and in his classes and, as a glance at his letters reveals, in his correspondence.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:40 pm | Discuss (1)
December 12, 2014

Learning to Love Leviticus

Category: Bible - OT - Leviticus :: Permalink

If you’ve ever tried to read through the Bible in a year, chances are you bogged down, if not in the tabernacle instructions at the end of Exodus then almost certainly in Leviticus.  You’re not alone.  But Leviticus is essential reading nevertheless.  In this article, on the Theopolis Institute’s blog, I talk about the benefit of studying Leviticus.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:08 pm | Discuss (1)
September 11, 2014

Samson the Womanizer?

Category: Bible - OT - Judges :: Permalink

Samson, commentaries on Judges 14 tell me, was a womanizer. That’s probably because in Judges 16, twenty years later, Samson visits a prostitute and then gets involved with Delilah … and the commentators then read those events back into Judges 14, twenty years earlier.

But what does Samson do in Judges 14? Is he driven here by sheer lust? Well, he sees a woman, judges that she’s the right one for him, sends his father to negotiate for her, goes and visits her himself and talks to her and still concludes that she is the right one for him, and then proceeds to marry her. Wow! What a lust-driven womanizer, huh?

Commentaries puzzle me sometimes….

Posted by John Barach @ 1:01 pm | Discuss (0)

The “Pagan Origins” Fallacy

Category: Church Year,Ethics,Theology :: Permalink

“Christmas trees have pagan origins, so they’re bad. For that matter, Christmas and Easter have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. The theater has pagan origins, so it’s bad (and so are any other forms of acting).” And so on and so on.

Heard anything like this? Godly people should have nothing to do with anything that (allegedly) has pagan origins.

How about this one: Musical instruments have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. Truly godly people would stay away from them.

Here’s something we’re told explicitly in the Bible: It was in the line of Cain, among the ungodly, that we first find musicians with instruments. Cain’s murderous descendant Lamech has three sons, one of whom, Jubal, is described as “the father of all those who play the harp and flute” (Gen 4:21). So there you have it: According to the Bible, expertise in musical instruments springs from the family of the ungodly.

But does that mean that the godly must never use musical instruments? Certainly not. David plays an instrument. David, under the inspiration of God, designs and commissions instruments for the Temple that Solomon will build. The Levites play instruments from that time on. The Psalms commend the use of instruments, even in the worship of God.

In fact, notice that it’s not just music that the ungodly develop in Genesis 4. It’s also metallurgy and agribusiness. Lamech’s son Jabal “was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (Gen 4:20). And Lamech’s other son Tubal-Cain was, literally, “the sharpener of every craftsman in bronze and iron” (Gen 4:22).  As Jubal was the “father” of musicians–that is, the one who taught and trained and developed them–so Jabal and Tubal-Cain trained and taught all those who excelled in their fields.  If “pagan origins” mean that we have to stay away from something, then we ought to stay away, not only from music, but from agribusiness and blacksmithery, too.  But, of course, that’s not what Scripture teaches.

And therefore this argument — “If it has pagan origins it’s bad and godly people should abstain from it” — fails on biblical grounds. It adds to Scripture, setting a standard higher than the one God sets, and therefore ought to be rejected and condemned.   (For more, see James B. Jordan’s “The Menace of Chinese Food.”)

It certainly is true that these skills were developed first among the wicked, and that’s worth thinking about.  One of the patterns we see in Scripture, not least in Genesis 4, is what Jim Jordan calls “the Enoch factor,” which is this: The wicked get there first. It’s in the city of Enoch, Cain’s city, that we first find a lot of wonderful things. That poses a temptation to the righteous, the temptation to intermingle with the wicked and to forsake bearing faithful witness in order to enjoy those good things. But we fight that temptation by remembering what Jordan (somewhere) calls “the Jerusalem factor”: the righteous get there in the end.

So musical instruments and agribusiness and metallurgy may start in Cain’s city, among the wicked.  They may have “pagan origins.”  But they end up in David’s city, even being employed in God’s Temple. As the Proverb says, “The wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (13:22).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:50 pm | Discuss (0)