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Maybe You, Too? — John 9:1–41

“IF YOU WERE BLIND, then you would not be guilty; but since you claim that you can see, this means that you are still guilty” (John 9:41, TEV).

C.K. Barrett writes: “Many have their own inade­quate lights . . . which they are too proud to relin­quish for the true light which now shines. The effect of the true light is to blind them, since they wilfully close their eyes to it. Their sin abides pre­cisely because they are so confident of their righteousness.”*

We all are capable of falling into such darkness. We see what we want to see, but we do not see what we ought to see.

That is why the insight of Jesus into our world-blinded eyes is both barb and bait. He pronounces judgment when we expect grace. He announces grace when we expect judgment.

The Pharisees said of Jesus, “The man who did this [healing] cannot be from God, for he does not obey the . . . law” (vs. 16), which was the only power the Pharisees could see. Jesus, who saw by the light of love, “split their ranks” and said, “I came to this world to judge, so that the blind should see and those who [think they] see should become blind” (vs. 39).

Who of us has not harbored the fear that pres­ent calamity is punishment for previous sin? Or looked upon someone else’s plight and nodded, “Your sin has caught up with you”? So does Jesus, full of grace and mercy, catch up with us.

Naturally, the disciples contended that the poor fellow was blind because he reaped exactly what he had sown, or because he was visited by the “sins of the fathers.” Like the church most of the time, the disciples had trouble seeing it other­wise. Jesus saw the man’s blindness not as an op­portunity for condemning the man for sins either committed or inherited, but as an opportunity for grace, “that God’s power might be seen at work.”

He said to him: “Go and wash your face in the Pool of Siloam.” Siloam meant “Sent.” Alter­nately: “Go, be rid of your dirt by the cleansing waters of the One who is sent.” “So the man went, washed his face, and came back seeing.” (vs. 7).

To rephrase the theology, the man was made whole again (able to see) by the power of God’s grace, by nothing else. The Pharisees objected because they believed preeminently in the fulfill­ment of the law as the only way to salvation. Jesus had broken the law for the sake of grace. “The man who did this cannot be from God, for he does not obey the . . . law.”

But what is “from God”? The law? Certainly. To live up to the law? Yes, for Jesus.

But for us? Impossible. For us, “from God” means to live, to “see,” to be healed by grace.

So the man said to his accusers concerning himself: “I do not know if he is a sinner or not.” And that makes you want to laugh for joy, because it doesn’t matter. “One thing I do know: I was blind, and now I see” (vs. 25). That does matter. Cry for joy! “Maybe you, too, would like to be his disciples?” (vs. 27).

*C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, An Introduction with Commentary and Notes of the Greek Text  (London: S.P.C.K, 1962), p. 293.

COPYRIGHT © 2023 (1982)  CHARLES DAVIDSON, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
BIBLICAL QUOTATIONS FROM Today’s english version (TEV), American Bible Society, 1952
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS “BIBLICAL INSIGHTS FOR CHRISTIAN LIVING,” TODAY’S WORD FOR ADULTS,
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION SHARED APPROACHES, VOL. IV, COURSE 3, APRIL 1982

 

 

What Has He to Do with Me? — Luke 8:26–39

IMMEDIATELY BEFORE THE ENCOUNTER OF JESUS with the Gerasene demoniac there appears the story of the stilling of the storm, in which “the wind and the raging waves” (Luke 8:24) are symbols of the fearful demonic powers of the deep that threaten to engulf us all. The story of the tormented demoniac follows as a picture of one for whom these destructive powers have become “legion.”

Tucked away in the place of the dead, the demoniac comes out of his hiding long enough to meet the One who has the power to rebuke the invisible curse. Yet this poor, captive recluse did not seem to recognize, much less desire, the available means of his release; if he did, his cynical despair did not think it possible. “What have you to do with me, Jesus…?” Nobody else had. Why should Jesus? Indeed, the dark side of reality had so overtaken and shackled the demoniac’s mind, body, and spirit that he cringed at the very thought of exposure to the One who could set him free. “I beseech you, do not torment me” (vs. 28).

Was the demoniac so long imprisoned in the darkness of self-doubt that he was afraid of his liberty? If he was unsheltered among the tombs, think how unsheltered he would be in a world that deemed him utterly crazy and irretrievably lost! “For a long time he had worn no clothes” (vs. 27). Vulnerable to the world and so completely identified with the demonic as to be called the “demoniac,” he epitomized the very thing the world is afraid of—abandonment.

Psychiatric wards, back alleys, and less obvious places are full of such people—psychotic, “possessed,” out of their minds. How remarkable that many of these divided selves, who come out so anxious—but at the same time not so anxious—to meet Jesus, raise the religious question for all of us: What have you, God, possibly to do with me, wretch that I am?

The story is a parable about us, about what to do about the staggering proportions of evil that daily take up residence within us. No one knows the extent to which this is true better than persons, any persons, whose conscious chaos matches the subconscious chaos of the demonic deep, “the lake” which even the most seaworthy traveler fears. The “abyss” within ourselves is the very region which sea-devils occupy and from which they are so reluctant to depart.

Luke suggests the preposterous possibility that Jesus really does have the power to rebuke “the wind and raging waves” in whatever form, to whatever extent they inhabit the human psyche, individually and collectively. Thus, even modern psychiatry and medicine, if they only would, could “cry out and bow down before” God (vs. 28).

The arch-demon is Fear. It stalks every spiritual burial ground. But Jesus, “Son of the Most High God,” is precisely the One who, by stilling the storm, conquers all the legions of Fear. We see that God has not abandoned us but has rendered the demons powerless, casting them into the deep.

Seated Demon by Mikhail Vrubel, 1890
COPYRIGHT © 2023 (1982)  CHARLES DAVIDSON, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
BIBLICAL QUOTATIONS FROM THE REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV), 1952
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS “BIBLICAL INSIGHTS FOR CHRISTIAN LIVING,” TODAY’S WORD FOR ADULTS,
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION SHARED APPROACHES, VOL. IV, COURSE 3, APRIL 1982

 

The Gifts of the Giver — John 8:1–11

FAITH, ITSELF A GIFT OF GOD, is the willingness to receive the gifts of God without insisting upon either our worthiness or our unworthiness. If we consider ourselves worthy (which we are not), we refuse the Giver by implying that the gift is something which ought to be given. In that case, the gift is not a gift of unmerited love, but reward for good conduct.

By the same token, if we insist upon being unworthy (which we are), we refuse the Giver by implying that the gift is something we ought not to be given until we deserve to receive it. In that case, the gift is not a gift because we refuse it as a self-punishment for sin.

In both instances we seek to justify ourselves: in the former by pride, in the latter by false humility. In neither instance are we willing to be justified by the grace of the Giver, who knows that our pretension to pride and our pretense of humility are equally ungrateful responses. The two are but opposite sides of the same sin: self-centered works-righteousness.

The gospel throws down a gauntlet to all who think they can save themselves by humble pride or proud humility. Our only justification is to be forgiven of both our worthiness (virtues) and our unworthiness (vices), our self-righteousness and our unrighteousness, and to take satisfaction in neither.

By definition grace is a gift freely given. If it is to be possessed, it must be freely received. Grace unconditionally received is the meaning of justification by grace through faith alone.

What then of the woman caught in adultery? Adultery is unfaithfulness. We are all “caught” in it. We are all unfaithful to God. That is why it is dangerous to throw stones unless we want to throw stones at ourselves. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone…” (John 8:7).

The scribes and Pharisees went away unrighteous, unrepentant, and condemned. They were “caught” by their refusal of grace and thus were trapped in their guilt. The woman “caught” in adultery went away righteous, repentant, and not condemned. She was freed by her acceptance of grace and thus was not imprisoned in her sin.

It is all a question of how we seek to be justified. Our works of keeping the law do not justify us, nor can we justify our works. Only God’s grace—forgiveness—has the power to put right what is wrong, be it the sin of law or the law of sin. Both condemn us for failing to do God’s will, which is to love unconditionally and to forgive unequivocally. Since neither of these is humanly possible, unconditional love and forgiveness must be accomplished for us by God through Jesus Christ.

Righteousness, too, is the gift of the Giver. It is never ours. It is still God’s when it is given to us. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Copyright © 2023 (1982)  Charles Davidson, All Rights Reserved
BIBLICAL QUOTATIONS FROM THE REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV), 1952
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS “Biblical Insights for Christian Living,” TODAY’S WORD FOR ADULTS,
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION SHARED APPROACHES, VOL. IV, COURSE 3, APRIL 1982

 

 

 

Reapers and Gleaners — Deuteronomy 24:19-22, Mark 12:41-44.

“WHEN YOU REAP YOUR HARVEST in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow….You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 24:19, 22). Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in…everything she had” (Mark 12:41-44).

Israel’s sabbaticals, jubilees, third-year tithes, and laws of gleaning were intended so that grace would not be hoarded. The sojourner, the orphan, the widow—the defenseless poor—by divine law were protected against laws of supply and demand, which invariably reward those who control the supplies and who make demands for themselves exceeding the most generous limits of need.

God objects: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev. 25:23). And, “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge; but you shall remember that you were a slave…” (Deut. 24:17- 18).

Jesus gazed at streams of the faithful and the rich (not to be confused) placing their tithes in holy coffers. He glimpsed this poor woman casting in the least amount possible, two halfpenny coppers. And he said they added up to the greatest amount possible, everything she had. She had nothing left over! What she had gleaned from reapers she gave to be reaped again, “devoured” as Luke has it (Luke 20:47), by wealthy plutocrats who were direct beneficiaries of all the gifts deposited publicly.

In the quiet fashion of her poverty the woman was beheld by Jesus and commended as a steward of grace and truth. Was it not Jesus also who gave everything and “emptied himself” so that in the abundance of his poverty we should be made rich?

When we taste the “leftovers,” when we have only morsels of the world’s bread before us to remind us that there are worse forms of bondage than to be without bread, then we come to that moment of truth when we know that as God’s reapers or gleaners we can never simply reap or glean God’s fruits for ourselves only. We are never too poor to share what was not ours to begin with, but God’s! Yet we may sometimes be too rich to share it.

And the church? Is the church ever so wretchedly poor as when it reaps only for itself, and so abundantly rich as when it gleans for others?

If it belongs to Christ, the church is among “the leftovers.” There is nothing more shockingly extravagant to the world than when the church gleans for others, for it contrasts with the pitiful greed the world reaps when it stockpiles for itself.

The Reaper after Millet by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
COPYRIGHT © 2023 (1982)  CHARLES DAVIDSON, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
BIBLICAL QUOTATIONS FROM THE REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV), 1952
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS “BIBLICAL INSIGHTS FOR CHRISTIAN LIVING,” TODAY’S WORD FOR ADULTS,
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION SHARED APPROACHES, VOL. IV, COURSE 3, APRIL 1982

 

 

 

The Elder’s Song — Psalm 71

WITH SUFFERING COMES WISDOM? With the advance of age, the increase of learning? Perhaps, but not without years of unbridled struggle with the tangle of contradictions that daily surrounds us. An enemy approaches? Indeed, a “wicked” enemy is near at hand (captor, oppressor, anxiety, disease) whose firm grip latches on with “the grasp of the unjust and cruel”!

A “lament” is not a supplication cushioned by casual thanksgiving. It is a plea of pain joined to praise. Like most other laments, this one is the cry of a person who knows both need and consolation. The advancing wisdom is not that the years have brought lessening of the pain; rather, with the years has come a closer identification of the pain-ridden with the One who is able to comfort and sustain. “Be thou to me a rock of refuge.” Who, indeed, has not sought that Shadow of Stability as the years crept snail-pace along, or in sudden debility leapt upon us?

Whether we live to be eighty or forty (and in many primitive societies only ten percent of the populace exceeded forty), the issue of our mortality and the taunt of our mortal enemies is of grave concern to any would-be psalmist (you, reader?) who knows our frail, earthly condition.

Hymn seventy-one of Israel’s songbook strikes a chord of universal disharmony, exposing a personal dilemma with which all of God’s creatures sooner or later must contend. The feelings of forsakenness, and of being the one who is “put to shame and consumed” are no respecters of age and circumstance. Yet perhaps oldtimers attend more resolutely (thus their wisdom) to the only lasting source of strength, which can out-distance “The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks I That flesh is heir to.”*

This gray-haired songster gives a testimony. This music is obedient passing-on of the living traditions of the elders, whose mouths are founts of complaint and adoration, whose faith is a descant lifted “all the day long” but only slightly above the sonorous lament. Together they break forth in sacred chorus. The message? Either our earthly ballads are ended with a dread finale composed by the Enemy; or the last strains of hope are played by Hands whose grace redeems all death-dealing adversaries, including the “last enemy” itself.

In this oft-practiced chant, an ageless ancient’s voice transcends “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,”** holding forth in triumphant melody as though to say: Is not the praise of God our deepest fulfillment? Is not the trust of Yahweh our everlasting hope?

Pray you, wise and weary fellow traveler, chant the same.


* William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 3, sc. 1, lines 62-63
** Ibid., line 58.

COPYRIGHT © 2023 (1982)  CHARLES DAVIDSON, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
BIBLICAL QUOTATIONS FROM THE REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV), 1952
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS “Biblical Insights for Christian Living,” TODAY’S WORD FOR ADULTS,
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION SHARED APPROACHES, VOL. IV, COURSE 3, APRIL 1982

 

 

 

The Discipline of the Lord — Hebrews 12:1-13

IS SUFFERING THE WAY of God’s saving love? Is pain a means to our redemption? The Scriptures lead us to believe so. Whatever else suffering is, it is a primary path to holiness. As pain causes us to rely on strengths beyond our own strength, so is the perseverance in grace of people who encounter humiliating defeat a sign of God’s transcending power.

Admittedly, it is a temptation to think of God as cruel and unmerciful when the tragedies of life befall us; but God is not a despot, a ruthless taskmaster who inflicts suffering for the sake of revenge, heaping punishment upon us so that eventually we will break down and surrender. Yet neither is God a permissive God who sets no limits to human indulgence and provides roses without thorns. The truth about God lies somewhere between the extremes of a theology of unremitting judgment and a theology of “cheap grace.”

Is that not why the writer of the letter to the Hebrews counseled the church not to “regard lightly the discipline of the Lord” (vs. 5) and at the same time set the discipline of the Lord within the context of the redemptive suffering of the cross? God, to the fullest extent possible, enters the pain and suffering of the created order.

God could have remained at a distance and chastised us for our disobedience; instead, in Christ, God drew near and was “in every respect… tempted as we are” (Heb. 4:15). The discipline of the Lord is therefore the divine self-discipline of complete identification with the human predicament. This places our discipline in an entirely different perspective. God is not against us, but for us. We suffer with hope. “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (12:3). We look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (vs. 2).

To what avail, then, is the discipline of suffering? It becomes the essential way for us to identify with God. And not only that, but it is the essential way of our participating with God in the suffering of all people. Our suffering has redemptive value for others, just as “he does it for our good, to make us share his holiness.”* This means that all reproval and correction, which we experience as trial and tribulation, is filled with redemptive possibilities. “With his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).

The Lord’s discipline has a double edge; we are disciplined by one who first has subjected self. The “disciple” is one who is so “disciplined.” “At the present, all discipline seems not to be joy, but pain; later, however, it produces a peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained through it.”**


*Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Bible: An American Translation (University of Chicago Press, 1935), Hebrews 12:10.
** George Wesley Buchanon, To the Hebrews, The Anchor Bible, vol. 36 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), Hebrews 12:11, p. 180.

Photo by Hakan Erenler on Pexels.com
COPYRIGHT © 2023 (1982)  CHARLES DAVIDSON, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
BIBLICAL QUOTATIONS FROM THE REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV), 1952
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS “Biblical Insights for Christian Living,” TODAY’S WORD FOR ADULTS,
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION SHARED APPROACHES, VOL. IV, COURSE 3, APRIL 1982

 

 

 

Self-Denial? — Romans 15:1–13

“FOR THE WHOLE LAW is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself”’ (Gal. 5:14).

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1).

Self-abasement? Self-denial? Are they dirty words? Self-assertion, self-fulfillment, doing one’s own thing, the me-generation—are these not the hallmarks of an age preoccupied with self-actualization, with the responsibility for bearing one’s own burdens?

Perhaps lack of self-esteem leads us to compensate by self-indulgence. Hence the question should be raised: Does our age and culture destroy the self by being too concerned with preserving the self? The ancient myth of Narcissus may accurately reflect the poor condition of our modern self-image, namely that the self is consumed by having gazed too long upon itself. Too much egocentricity is not good! What if we were to gaze at Another? What if we were to turn toward this Other and give up some of the self-importance that results in the self-in-isolation, in order to gain the quality, value, and dignity of the self-in-relation?

Paul recalled the self-abasement of Christ, the humility of Jesus, whereby he “did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6-7). Christ Jesus refused to deify himself, but turned himself into a self-for-others.

It is true that we cannot love others unless we love ourselves. It is equally true, however, that we cannot love ourselves unless we love others. Being loved and loving co-exist in delicate, reciprocal harmony. Each is as necessary to the life of the spirit as bread and water are to the life of the body.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind….You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37,39). Is this not the only way to love? to love the self?

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” What If, in being obsessed with pleasing ourselves, we are so weakened by self-indulgence that we have no strength to bear the burdens of others? What kind of a world would that be? Perhaps something like the one in which we live.

It is holy paradox that by losing ourselves, and discovering Another, we find ourselves. This is what it means to be self-abased and self-fulfilled. The great hunger in our time is a craving for community larger than ourselves. “Therefore I will praise thee among the Gentiles… (Rom. 15:9). “Gentile” refers to the fact that real community is found only when we embrace the one who is stranger—the other.

“Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7).

It is the only glory worth living.

Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin) by Vincent van Gogh, 1888
COPYRIGHT © 2023 (1982)  CHARLES DAVIDSON, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
BIBLICAL QUOTATIONS FROM THE REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV), 1952
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS “Biblical Insights for Christian Living,” TODAY’S WORD FOR ADULTS,
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION SHARED APPROACHES, VOL. IV, COURSE 3, APRIL 1982

 

 

 

Rachel Weeping at Bethlehem for the Children of Israel and Palestine

THEN THEY JOURNEYED FROM BETHEL; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. . . As her soul was departing . . . she named him Benoni; but his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave . . . the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.”    —Genesis 35:16–20  

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“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them. . . .’ Then pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’”Exodus 1:8–10a, 22

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“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea . . . When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger . . . Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.’” —Matthew 2:16–18 (Jeremiah 31:15)

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“Did the dead in their kingdom have eyes for seeing? . . . Would Abraham see Rachel’s eyes and know she was Rachel he was seeing? Did the dead have speech? Was there any remembering among them?” —Frederick Buechner, The Son of Laughter, 192

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Oh, my dear, dear children!

Such wretched grief is this

That stirs within my bones  

Entombed among these stones.

 

Through all of Israel and Palestine

I weep for you by day and cry for you by night.

 

Where Jacob tricked his father Isaac

And stole his brother’s blessing

Then strove with God who struck his hip

Which left him walking limp.

 

Through all of Israel and Palestine

I weep for you by day and cry for you by night.

 

Where Shechem plundered Dinah

Then her brothers took revenge

And deranged old King Herod

Massacred the holy innocents.

 

Through all of Israel and Palestine

I weep for you by day and cry for you by night.

 

Where I in harsh labor pains

Gave birth to my precious Benoni

Son of my sorrow, babe of my distress

Whom sadly I left motherless.

 

Through all of Israel and Palestine

I weep for you by day and cry for you by night.

 

Where futile feuds and fatal wars

Sweep across this Promised Land

And cactus sheds its tears

Upon the sun-scorched desert sand.

 

Through all of Israel and Palestine

I weep for you by day and cry for you by night.

 

Where wrenched and wracked your bodies lie

Beneath the holy sphere your spirits seek for rest

I pray my cries to reach your ears

My eyes to see your eyes in heavenly light.

 

Through all of Israel and Palestine

I weep for you by day and cry for you by night.

 

Where shepherds keep watch below

And angels stand guard above

Mary gives birth to her beloved son

Who is Yeshua, God’s deliverance.

 

Rachel Weeping at Bethlem
“Rachel Weeping for Her Children” by Jacob Steinhardt, 1962
Published December 25, 2023 on Voxpopulisphere.com
permission is granted for liturgical use of the poem “rachel weeping at bethlehem” so long as attribution is cited along with copyright
Copyright © 2023 Charles Davidson, All Rights Reserved 
verses from the New Revised Standard Version, 1991, Oxford University PreSS