John Chapter 1: Seeing pt. 2

02/12/2018 § Leave a comment

I continue my word-study on “seeing” in the first chapter of John’s gospel with a meditation on the 3 passages which have in common the verb  θεάομαι  theaomai.

First, the texts (blame translations on me; occurrances of the verb are italicized).

Verse 14:  And the word became flesh, and came to dwell for a time among us (lit. “in us”).  And we saw its glory, glory as of an only son from the father.

Verse 32. And John testified, saying “I have seen the Spirit coming down from heaven as if a dove, and it dwelt on him. ”   In verse 33, we learn that John needed preparation for this seeing: ” I didn’t know him;  but the one that sent me to baptize in water, that one said to me, The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and dwelling, this is the one who’s baptizing with the Spirit.”

Verse 38.  Turning, and seeing them following, Jesus said, “What are you looking for?  They said to him, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher’), where are you dwelling?”

So who’s doing the seeing and what are they seeing?

Verse 14, We saw — the glory of the word made flesh.

Verse 32: John saw the Spirit, guiding his eye to the Lamb of God

Verse 38:  Jesus saw the two disciples of John.

In each case, there is something that is mediating or making the seeing possible.  In verse 14, the meaning seems to be that “we” saw the glory of the Word, made visible to us by the body, the earthly person, which made it accessible.    In verse 32, John is seeing the Spirit as pointer to the Lamb of God. But he would not have known what he was seeing, if the Sender of Prophets had not schooled him beforehand.   In verse 38, Jesus sees the disciples unmediated, but the encounter was made possible by the seer, John.  His disciples took Jesus seriously because John, because of his preparation and its fulfillment in his seeing, enabled him to ascribe to Jesus a role of great if puzzling meaning:  “Look, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!”  That was not what the disciples were looking for.

Kittel’s theological dictionary of the New Testament says (sub voce ὁράω  horao) that θεάομαι  theaomai “suggests spectators, and denotes attentive seeing, i.e. ‘behold’. Having a certain solemnity, it is used for visionary seeing and the apprehension of higher realities.”  Contra Kittel, as I mentioned in my first post in this series, Raymond Brown questions whether we can find such consistent nuances in the uses of this word, in contrast to the other verbs “to see.”  


I am haunted by the interactions among these 3 verses in this luminous, puzzling, mythopoeic chapter, in which our verb seems to mean “beholds with insight or understanding.” The Word (=God) becomes flesh.  Meanwhile, the Sender of John (= God) prepares John the Seer so that when the Incarnate Word is pointed out,  when the Spirit alights and dwells upon him/it, John not only beholds  who it is, but understands his mission (the Lamb of God, the sin-taker).  John the Seer directs two of his followers (two of “us”) to Jesus, on whom the Spirit dwelt (same verb), who beholds them following, and opens a dialogue.  They want to know where he dwells (same verb). He invites them to come, and they’ll get a look. They dwell (same verb) with him, and they (”we’) behold the glory of the Word, as it were the glory of a unique child sent from the Father.  The result is that they (the first of “us”)  become followers indeed, and the first proclaimers (after John) of the New Thing that God is doing. We are the recipients of that proclamation through all the witnesses of the centuries, but we, like they, receive it to the extent we behold the glory of the Word at work, Christ come in the bodies of his saints, teaching his people himself.

The Word has been at work in all and through all this, working God’s purposeful self-revealing:  creation, light, life, Spirit, and Incarnation.  The result is that the Word is, among other things, manifested as story or proclamation, the meaning (logos) that we discover in our living as Children of the Light.


Prophecy against the grain: testifying to the Light

02/11/2018 § 2 Comments

Many people these days, among them Friends, feel a calling to prophetic action, prophetic witness, prophetic utterance. The times are pressing us to be as clear, as honest, as faithful as we can, in proclamation, in calling others to join us in earnest and whole-hearted commitment — in action as well as word — to the Gospel life.  This is no doctrinal matter, but rather an understanding and enactment of Christ’s call to compassion, to truth, to justice, to servanthood, to transformation: To any who received him, who believe in him,  he gave the power to become children of God.  (John 1:12).

Alive to the urgency of crises like climate change, and the willful blindness of the wealthy and powerful, we long for prophetic outcry, disruption and denunciation of the veneer of a moral, well-running social order.   It is hard work to seek,under divine guidance supported by all the wisdom, know-how, and community life that we can muster, actions that effectively say,  Wake up!  Turn back!  Choose life!

But the task before us is even harder, because Christian prophecy has two themes:  the first is, “You must change your life!” and the second is “Christ offers us the power to become children of the light!”

This week, this passage from Isaiah (Isa. 30:9-11) came back before me:

this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD;  
Which say to the seers, ‘See not’; and to the prophets, ‘Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits. 
 Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.’

I was struck by the realization that it can be an unwelcome message, a rough thing to hear, that our understanding of our prophetic task is too narrow. In the liberty of the gospel, we need to be free of our own habitual ways of thinking.  I realized that the rhetoric and the emotion of protest can absorb all our search for prophetic witness, so that the underlying message is fear and anger.  Bad things are coming, and anger at banal evil is justified and needed.  But one of the  “right things” that must be prophesied is the presence and power of the Light, as we can testify to it and demonstrate it.

John the Baptist denounced the immorality of Herod, called people to repentence,  demanded righteousness from soldiers and government agents, advocated material generosity, and warned that if righteousness was not restored, the wrath would come — the axe is already laid against the tree!

Yet in an important sense, these diagnoses and denunciations did not make him a prophet.  He was a prophet, because he called people to make way for the coming of God and God’s dominion, which would come in a form and in a way quite unlike anything expected or longed for. He recognized and pointed out the Lamb of God, whose path our renewed minds would make straight, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire:  the purifying power of the Light, and the creative power of the Teacher, the comforter, the inviter to the feast.

William Taber, beloved Friends teacher and minister, described the functions of the prophet thus:

  1. To know (or rediscover) the Law and to tell it (interpret it);
  2. To show how the Law is to be lived — point out paths towards faithful embodiment of the Law;
  3. To make spirit available — inviting others into the prophetic work

The only way to make spirit available is to live in it, and to accept its lessons, knowing that our efforts will seem (perhaps even to ourselves) foolish — our efforts to wait, to mind the light and life, even in the poverty of our spirits, where the holy birth is to be found — and to speak truth and judgment in love to the souls (not the feelings) of those to whom we are called to witness.

I decided to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified.  I came in weakness and in fear and much trembling.  My word and my proclamation were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in a demonstration of the Spirit and power. In that way, your confidence would be the power of God, not in human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:2-4)

If the motion of love is not interwoven in our witness, intrinsic to it however challenging we are led to be, then indeed our seeing and our prophecy will be more partial, more flavored with our own stuff, than the gift of it promised.



John ch 1: verbs of seeing pt. 1

02/04/2018 § Leave a comment

The first chapter of John’s gospel is inexhaustible. The Word, Light, Life; the lamb of God; the Spirit-dove — and more, of course.
This time through, it struck me that this light-filled chapter is full of seeing. In this and subsequent posts,  I will explain what I mean by this, and offer what reflections I can, arising from this view of text, action, and message.

First, the “problem”:  the sheer intensity of seeing/perception in this chapter.  This intensity or amount struck me in three ways.

  1. Several verbs for seeing.  The first thing that caught my eye is that in the Greek text of this chapter, there are 4 different verbs that can be translated as “see.”  [a] θεάομαι  theaomai;  [b] βλέπω  blepo; [c] a compouned of blepo, ἐμβλέπω , emblepo;  [d] ὁράω  horao.  This latter verb makes its future from a stem op-, and its past tenses from a stem eid- with an alternate form id-.  I will come back to the possible distinctions of these in a minute. 
  2. Lots of seeing.  The first chapter of John has 51 verses.  Somebody is seeing something or someone in 20 of these verses, using one or more of these verbs.  There’s a lot of looking going on.
  3. Moreover, there are also things becoming visible, or shining; there is light, and people and things receiving it (or not);  there is darkness/shadow;  and there is also the Word~light~life- become flesh, relating to people, rejected by people, giving power.  Finally (for now), there is the cosmos, usually translated “the world,” and taken here to mean “the worldly,” but not recognizing~knowing it/him. Oh, and there’s glory, and the Spirit like (as if) a dove. So in addition to the explicit seeing, there are also a lot of visual transactions.

Maybe I will pause the nerd-storm here to talk about what absorbs me in this little project.  First, I have read Greek since high school, but am mostly self-taught, and I know that, as a result, there are holes and sketchy places in my command of the language. Moreover, reading the Gospels, I want  to extract whatever evidence I can from the original, about what I would have seen, or heard, or felt if I had been there, in addition to any nuance or poetry that I can detect.

Second, I bear in mind thedistinction, ancient in Christian and indeed Jewish exegesis, among 3 (or 4)  kinds of Scriptural interpretation:

[a] Literal/historical: what do the words say, what is the setting, who are the players in the drama, etc.;  [b] the tropological, that is, the implications for ethics, morals, behavior;  [c]  the allegoric, which sees the words and events of the text as symbols of spiritual lessons and truths; and an even more mystical variant of the allegorical, the anagogic, which in its mystical interpretations seeks for lessons about the life of the kingdom of heaven here or in the life to come.  The first chapter of John fairly drips with opportunities for mystical interpretation — but before we can see what we can make out of the text, we have to make sure we can make it out — hence some attention to words and grammar. (Of course, there’s also the sheer fun of philology!)

I will close with some quick definitions of our verb stems, and next time explore who’s doing what kind of seeing, and what they’re looking at.

[a] ὁράω  horao  This is the word for “to see” that you learn first in Greek.  It can have meanings like “see to something” in the sense of getting it done; and noticing, or recognizing.  But it’s the closest thing in Greek to a “vanilla” verb of seeing.  As with some very common words in English, this verb has different stems used in different tenses (think “go, went” or “is, was, be”).  Mostly this is not relevant to this study, but I can’t help but point out that a key past tense stem is eid-/id-, which is related to the verb “to know”.  This old stem, which in Indo-European had a form like *weid-, shows up in many of the related languages, sometimes meaning something like “see” (think video, the Latin word for “see”), sometimes something like “know” (as in the Sanskrit Veda). 

[b] βλέπω  blepo. This can connote “glance at,” or just “see,” but also “look with intent or purpose, look carefully”; also “rely on” (as in our “we look to you for that kind of thing.”)

[c]  ἐμβλέπω , emblepo. This is a compound of en- “in” and the previous verb.  But it often can carry the connotation of “look directly at, look in the face” or even “look consideringly, consider.”

[d] θεάομαι  theaomai.  This verb often connotes “gaze at”, with a sense of wonder or surprise;  “look reflectively at,” “observe,” or even “contemplate.”  Unlike the other verbs for seeing, this one implies a longer look.

I have consulted the great Anchor commentary on John, by Raymond Brown, and (of course) he has a little appendix word-study on these words (in vol 1), which notes all these nuances as the verbs appear throughout the gospel, and then closes (pg. 503) with this warning: “Those scholars who think that the verbs are synonymous have almost as many texts to prove their point as do the scholars who would attribute specific meanings to the verbs.”

I  hear his warning, but will not heed it enough to be discouraged from my little word-study.




Ursula LeGuin

01/26/2018 § 3 Comments

I happened to be listening in my car to Tehanu, the “last book of Earthsea,” when I heard that Ursula Le Guin had died. The eloquent final chapters of that book, which thankfully were not the last of Earthsea, are full of Le Guin’s humanity, intelligence, irony, and reverence, and her understanding of how important, and mythic, the things of everyday life are. I happened to stop the book to turn on the radio, and so heard the news of her passing.  I found myself in tears for the miles between New Hampshire and Cambridge, recalling what she wrote on the occasion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s death, which came as she was reading The Lord of the Rings to her son:

Like all great artists he escapes ideology by being too quick for its nets, too complex for its grand simplicities, too fantastic for its rationality, too real for its generalizations… It does not seem right to grieve at the end of so fulfilled life. Only, when we get to the end of the book, I know I will have to put on a stiff frown, so that little Ted will not notice that I am in tears when I read the last lines:

‘He went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ” Well, I’m back,” he said.’

Library: Dymond on Gospel Ministry

01/13/2018 § 3 Comments

In the “Library” section of this site, you will find an entry entitled “Dymond: Gospel Ministry in the Society of Friends.”  (Given the technical difficulties that some readers had when I last posted something in the library, it will be simplest if you just go there and click on the link — you should then get the PDF document that I posted there.)

This, among the few books that Friends have produced on the ministry, was published in 1892, but the letters constituting its chapters are based on articles Dymond wrote for the Friends Quarterly Examiner and similar publications in the preceding decades.

Who was Joseph John Dymond?  The only biography I have found of him is in the Annual Monitor for 1908, or Obituary for Friends of Great Britain and Ireland (if you have not met the Annual Monitor series before, I encourage you to hunt for copies in your meeting library, if your meeting is of a certain age, or on-line.  The  1908 Monitor also includes the memorial minute for John Stephenson Rowntree, which has always seemed to me a model of the genre.)

JJ,  the nephew of Jonathan D, the Essayist, was born in 1825, and raised in Exeter in a lively, committed Quaker family of decidely Evangelical flavor.  At age 15, he began working at the bank his father managed, while continuing to live at home, which seems to have been a conspicuously happy one.  Dymond himself was seen as gifted, energetic, upright, and creative:  “Joseph John was almost the ‘beau-ideal’ of a strong young man— high-minded, talented, yet always yilding to the authority of his parents, and susceptible of impressions.”    When at age 27 he married Hester Grace, his sister later wrote, “I well remember the sorrow we felt in losing him…as our home brother, with the daily pleasures, fun and teasing incident to that relationship.”  Joseph and Hester’s family grew steadily, both before and after they moved north, where Joseph worked as an actuary for the rest of his career, gaining considerable esteem in the profession.

Dymond was active in Friends concerns, but his principal focus was the ministry;  his gift for preaching was recorded by his meeting, and “the sister gift of teaching was also largely developed.”  During his working life he traveled little in the ministry, being one of those whose gift was exercised mostly week by week in and around his home meeting. In later life, however, he traveled to America (twice), and to Australia. In 1878, he was made part of a deputation to North America, after British Friends were “introduced into deep concern by the information having been received of a separation having taken place in Western Yearly Meeting.” The other Friends traveling with him included Richard Littleboy, George Tatham, and Joseph Bevan Braithwaite.  They worked among Friends there to encourage unity and loving fellowship, and their sensitive work was (according to a Western YM minute of 1879 quoted in the Monitor) much appreciated.  The reader of his book on Gospel ministry will, I think, detect traces of his contact with American Friends, encountered at a time of much ferment, early in the rise of the pastoral movement. Joseph died in 1907, after some years of increasing debility.

Dymond wrote about the Quaker ministry during a period of intense debate and change in British Quakerism.  He was (quoth the memorial) “a strong exponent of evangelical faith, his arguments being supported by frequent and apposite quotations from the Bible, whilst his appeals were based upon his own personal experiences, and were made directly to the heart and conscience of his hearers, rather than to the intellect.”

In the latter years of the 1800s, however, British Quakerism was experiencing a growing movement from a predominantly Evangelical understanding of the Gospel as held by Friends, towards one more attuned to, and engaged with, the trends of modern thought.  Many elements of Quakerism were being revisited, debated, and renovated during this time, but everyone agreed that the ministry was a critical element in the continued (or renewed) vigor of the Society.  Should the old system of recording be continued, or was it an outmoded, undemocratic, and perhaps harmful practice? What education should minsters (recognized or not) be expected to have, to enhance their usefulness as Friends grappled with the questions of the age?  Should more organized arrangements be made to ensure that more meetings were helped by effective ministry?  Should Friends be more willing to provide financial support for rightly-called ministers, so that they could really dedicate themselves to the work (or was that bordering on “pastoralism”?!!)?  (A good overview of the main points and context of these debates can be found in Elizabeth Isichei’s Victorian Quakerism, pg. 90ff).

Dymond’s little book reflects on these and many more issues.  He writes as someone who was called  ” to my own amazement so long ago”  to take part “in a public duty which has been the joy of a lifetime,” who feels the need for critical if reverent reflection on Friends’ condition, and the work of the ministry in that context.   “If you ask a number of intelligent Friends from our 340 settled or allowed meetings whether the ministry they hear in them from week to week fully satisfies their spiritual needs, I venture to say that the great majority will answer in the negative.  Many will have to tell you that they have no resident ministry at all.  Others will reply that they have plenty of speaking, but very little true and edifying ministry of the Word.”

His essays speak in the voice of one who yearns for this condition to be addressed, and speaks on the basis of his long experience.  He writes at length about the value of “ministers meetings” as he experienced them: “They were occasions in which experienced ministers, with great tenderness , and under the sense of a blessed unity in the love and service of Christ, often gave wise and helpful counsel to their younger brethren. Offerings in the ministry from those whose names were not yet recorded on the list of approved ministers were passed under review, in a confidential and loving spirit; and when occasion seemed to call for it, individuals were deputed to procure interviews with some of these Friends, and to convey to them messages of counsel or encouragement as the case might require.”

He dedicates a chapter to eldership, another to “maintenance,” and to other organizational arrangements that might be made which might encourage women and men to more whole-heartedly take up the calling, and grow in service in all humility and boldness.  “Is it possible that our Heavenly Father who has bestowed upon us so many good natural gifts, has omitted to call for the dedication of some of them to His service? Or has the call been heard and not obeyed? Is it our Church system that has made us good tradesmen, good citizens, clever professional men, earnest philanthropists, but indifferent gospellers?”

He writes feelingly of the trials and anxieties of the work, as well as the great joy that can attend the sense of faithful service, and makes many suggestions about subject matter, study, and the inward work of the minister’s daily watch and preparation foe the service, as well as methods for nurture and oversight of the ministers, for the greater vitality of Friends worship and work in the world.

He closes with this: “The witness anointed by the Holy Ghost will proclaim, not men, not theological opinions, not ritual, not sacraments, not churches, but Jesus Christ and Him crucified; “for it pleased the Father that in Him should all fulness dwell.” This is the ministry for which the world is waiting. This is the ministry which the Lord is waiting to bless.”

Some of this little book is dated,  but it repays thoughtful reading, and I think it might be an interesting thing if meetings on ministry and counsel read and discussed it together!.


Note on the text:  The PDF I enclose is a transcription of the book done some years ago by Mark Wutka, who appends some reflections of his own.

New look coming in the new year

01/01/2018 § Leave a comment

just a note to those who follow this blog that sometime this week I am going to change the “theme” on the blog.  So the next post (I hope) will be in the New Style, don’t be surprised.

Also, since I am in the mood to improve the infrastructure, let me know if there is some tool or “widget” that would help the blog be more usable for you.

— brian

A letter, for those who watch for the signs of the times, not to be troubled by minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

12/25/2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Hearts, whose deep joy is to be Children of the Alive One, be careful what you allow to trouble you, and wound you.

The things that arise in minutes, hours, days, or weeks are not the signs you should be reading closely, for they are hints and whispers,  the children and the servants of that which would rule as the Distractor and Wounder of your souls.  But look through these,  to feel what arises across seasons, years, and generations, for those are the tides to watch and know, that batter and wear away at the firm land,  that have power and endure because they have gathered and endured already for years and generations, and caught us all up in their power.

The jagged rhythms of minutes, hours, days, and weeks are the tools that, distracting and alarming, cut us off from the Body in which the Living One’s life, which is love and truth, brings healing, and courage, and mercy, and patience, and joy to clear the ears, and open the eyes, strengthening the hand and heart to the works of Light.

The jagged rhythms of the Decoyers and Distractors, pretenders to meaning — these cut us off from the Living One and from each other.  And the poor abstracted Parts lie cooling and without the nourishment of love, and so the fear comes in, and the love once known grows cold and loses force, being as it seems all alone.

So the poor eye can no longer see truth and hope; the poor ear cannot hear the Shepherd’s voice, not the cry of the oppressed;  the poor tongue cannot taste the sweets of the Honey in the Rock, nor speak from it;  the poor hand can point out neither the true enemy, nor the Way back to Life and its true friends, which the feet forget how to follow.  All are cold, and cannot feel the guiding of the Head, where vision, compassion, and meaning come to birth, and give themselves to all the body, flowing where the Light flows.

So do not be troubled nor wear your self out, alarmed by the things that arise from minutes, hours, days, or weeks, the servants of Confusion, who long for us to fear, to buy and eat and cluster and forget, to live not in the true common life, but in its counterfeit;  for then we serve the evil and the messengers of death.

The Creating and Healing One still pours out the waters of life, feeding the tree of Life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and from early times these fruits we have tasted, and must digest and grow with.  We are not to be pulled down from our watch by the flock of distraction that makes Self an idol, but stand on the watchtower, where we can call on God in our seeking and our pain, and look out with the eyes of the One that watches not in vain.  So learning again what we are to stand against and for, we can sing out in joy and knowledge when we see, what is born of the inexhaustible life, whether in minutes, in hours, in years or generations or ages, out of the Womb of Eternity.

Given in love, on this day December 25th, remembering Eternity embodied in little poor Jesus, whose light shone outwardly from the heavens, to ox and lamb, and poor and rich, knowing and unknowing, all peoples;  but see! the light of Christ shines and has always shone in glory all around.  Alleleuia! Alleluia!

Library: Letters etc. of early Friends

12/13/2017 § 11 Comments

A.R. Barclay (1794-1845), a descendent of Robert Barclay “the Apologist,” was a passionate and scholarly evangelical, who was deeply acquainted with the history of Friends.  He lived at a time when theological innovation (the rise of evangelical Quakerism in Britain) stimulated re-interpretations — by traditionalists, progressives, and evangelicals —  of the “true message of early Friends.”  While some (like the Beacon) did this to argue that on key points early Friends were theologically unsound or deeply confused, however venerable,  Barclay sought to reconcile his understanding of the Gospel with that preached by Fox et al. , and to claim that they were really in agreement with him (more or less).

Barclay went past the well-thumbed works (like Fox’s Journal and the Apology), and dove deep into the little-known trove of documents from the beginnings of Quakerism. Indeed, it has seemed to me that no one surpassed his knowledge of those materials until William Braithwaite undertook his great histories in the early 1900s.

Barclay’s scholarship produced two works that heavily influenced later Quaker developments:  the Letters &c of Early Friends, and The inner life of the religious societies of the Commonwealth. The latter was left unfinished at his death (“the Author having been removed by death after a short illness, when a few sentences only remained to be written,” as the Prefatory Note says).  It is a good deal more interesting than one might suppose from the title. He had more interest in the development of the discipline — especially of the roles of ministers and elders — than many Evangelical Friends did, and despite his strong polemical intent, he had something of a historian’s eye (see his rather astonishing chart,  tipped in at page 548 of your copy  of historical developments and corresponding changes in membership, or his treatment of Quaker dress, for women Friends of different classes).

The book influenced J.S. Rowntree’s Quakerism Past and Present (1859), which in turn played a role in developments that resulted in the transformation of British Quakerism in the 1890s, and continued to be read and cited by scholars well into the last century (and I have benefited from it myself).

But perhaps even more important was Barclay’s collection of  Letters &c of early Friends, which I have now added to my Library, downloaded from Google.  (It may also be found in vol. XI of the Friends Library.) This work is a loosely organized collection of primary documents, in three sections (I quote):

I. Historical, or Letters which illustrate the history of the Society of Friends, as regards events, services, or sufferings, in London, and “in the Country,” with some few relating to Ireland.

II. Documents illustrative of the early discipline and testimonies of the Society.

III.  Epistles of Counsel and Exhortation to the Churches, &c. “ is hoped that some of these selected epistles (believed to be now for the first time printed) will be truly acceptable to not a few readers in this day.  The letters and epistles of Alexander Parker, have been more largely taken, as but few of the writings of that eminent Friend have come down to use in print.

Not an easy work to read through from front to back, but as one dips in ad libitum, one encounters many old friends first met as excerpts in books of Faith and Practice, or Quaker histories.   Although thanks to the interwebs it’s not hard to find, you have to want to find it.  I place it here so that all you have to do now is want to read it.






Luke 8:18: Pay heed to how you hear.

12/05/2017 § 2 Comments

Yet another entry in the long catalogue of “things I have been slow to notice.”

One of the best things about reading the Bible in another language is that it makes you slow down.  Reading Luke in Greek,  I came to a passage that is famous for its obscurity:  “Whoever has, it will be given to him;  whoever does not, even what he seems to have will be taken away from him.”  (gender as in the original: Βλέπετε οὖν πῶς ἀκούετε: ὃς ἂν γὰρ ἔχῃ, δοθήσεται αὐτῷ, καὶ ὃς ἂν μὴ ἔχῃ, καὶ ὃ δοκεῖ ἔχειν ἀρθήσεται ἀπ᾽ αὐτοῦ.).  The verse occurs after Jesus has explained the parable of the sower to the apostles, followed by his admonition not to put your light under a bushel, and to remember that everything said in private will be shouted from the rooftops.

This passage has been commented on, of course, but not to my mind with much insight.    Here is William Barclay, a fairly solid evangelical commentator:

Luke 8:18 lays down the universal law that the man who has will get more; and that the man who has not will lose what he has. If a man is physically fit and keeps himself so, his body will be ready for ever greater efforts; if he lets himself go flabby, he will lose even the abilities he has. The more a student learns, the more he can learn; but if he refuses to go on learning, he will lose the knowledge he has. This is just another way of saying that there is no standing still in life. All the time we are either going forward or going back. The seeker will always find; but the man who stops seeking will lose even what he has.

Good commentaries set their target verses in context, but most commentaries on this passage (that is, the ones I know about, not a large number) seem to widen their scope only to the immediately previous lines. On the one hand, this is reasonable since as in other places in the gospels we seem to have a collection of items that have been assembled in composition with a fair amount of disconnect — what have these few verses to do with the preceding parable, which is a significant and extensive teaching?

Moving at my snail’s pace, by the time I  arrived at verse 18, I had not yet forgotten the path there.  After the parable of the sower, the gospel provides us with a glimpse “backstage” — The apostles are unsure about the meaning of the parable, and Jesus says (verse 10), To you it is given to know the meaning of the kingdom of God, but for the others [to know] only by parables, with the result that looking they don’t perceive, and hearing they don’t understand.

The last phrase echoes passages in the prophets, diagnosing the lack of spiritual (and ethical) understanding of most people (no wonder they don’t heed the warnings and the invitations from God!).  However, I was struck by the echo between verse 10 and verse 18, the repetition of the verb  “look”  (in both places, it is the same word, blepo (βλέπω).  

In the first occurrence, in verse 9,  Jesus is talking about people who are not able to see below the surface of things.  And here we have a teaching, I think, that modern people resist:  that the full Gospel is not readily apparent, and our understanding of it (most importantly, our ability to let Christ dwell in us, and transform us) does not come all at once.  Experience makes a difference, and that is as natural in spiritual growth as in any other kind of growth.  Sylvia Fitzpatrick writes (drawing on Erasmus’s paraphrase of the gospel): Jesus told the apostles that they were allowed to know the truth but that for those people who were ‘excluded from the inner circle, all is conducted in parables, whether I speak or act before them. For they do not have suitable ears or suitable eyes.

More than once through history, this idea has been taken to mean that Jesus had some esoteric teaching available to the few, establishing somehow a hierarchy within the spiritual body.  It is so easy for the judging part to get up, and draw distinctions in the spirit of competition, of scarcity, when this is so antithetical to Jesus’ invitation to abundant life, the ever-flowing well of living water!

The key is walking on the path of faithfuless as it opens, so that our eyes and ears grow more and more sensitive and discerning — partaking of the banquet along the way as we have capacity, assured more and more by our experience that all are invited to full understanding, and that the diversities of gifts and insight we find in our fellow travelors is itself a gift, and affirmation of the promise.   Seeking to follow the way, you can grow aware of what you have learned already — and so you are able to receive new insight that reinforces and expands on what you already have discovered.  Otherwise, the parables we encounter  (whether they come in words or in experience) will profit us nothing.

Erasmus in wrapping up the whole passage, closes the loop between the two states of seeing, disarms the fear of exclusivity,  as he completes his paraphrase of this passage:  Do not think that it is my wish to keep always a secret what I now entrust to you in secret… At present I hide many things from the multitude because they are not capable of understanding, and even if they were capable, the time has not yet come. Truly, when the time comes, there is nothing so secret among us but it must be divulged; nothing so arcane but it must be openly preached to all.*

It seems to me that Friends need to continually remind ourselves not to let our worship and our practice become customary, searching inwardly for where the Seed is opening sweetly and quietly, and being eager also to see and encourage growth in each other.  At times, indeed, this will mean finding those with whom we can speak the current truth of our hearts.

I close with a familiar passage from Woolman’s Journal that feels closely connected to the thoughts above:

As I lived under the cross, and simply followed the openings of Truth, my mind from day to day was more enlightened; my former acquaintance was left to judge of me as they would, for I found it safest for me to live in private and keep these things sealed up in my own breast.

While I silently ponder on that change wrought in me, I find no language equal to it nor any means to convey to another a clear idea of it.  I looked upon the works of God in this visible creation and an awefulness covered me; my heart was tender and often contrite, and a universal love to my fellow creatures increased in me.  This will be understood by such who have trodden in the same path. Some glances of real beauty may be seen in their faces who dwell in true meekness. There is a harmony in the sound of that voice to which divine love gives utterance, and some appearance of right order in their temper and conduct whose passions are fully regulated.  Yet all these do not fully show forth that inward life to such who have not felt it, but this white stone and new name [cf. Rev. 2:17] is known rightly to such only who have it. (28-29 in the Moulton edition)

*Fitzpatrick, Sylvia. Erasmus and the Process of Human Perfection: The Philosophy of Christ. Stauros. Kindle Edition. Locations 4467-4470








“Your faith has rescued you”: a morning meditation

11/28/2017 § 3 Comments

In the seventh chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is invited to a respectable house to dine. The dinner is interrupted by a woman whom the host knows to be a “sinner.” She brings an alabaster jar of myrrh, settles at Jesus’ feet, and undertakes what clearly is an act of regret and reverence: weeping, she kisses and anoints his feet, wiping them with her hair. After a plain-spoken exchange with his host, Jesus concludes a little parable with the statement that her many sins are forgiven because she has loved much. One can draw lessons from the story so far about pride, and the importance of love (agape) in the hierarchy of virtue.
But this morning I was struck freshly by Jesus’ words directly to the woman: “Your faith has rescued you; go in peace.” This is a phrase that Jesus uses not infrequently, when he is healing. A standard interpretation, which is what I have carried around in my head, is that the woman is forgiven because of her faith in Jesus, as a sort of reward for acceptance of his numen, his teaching, or his mission.  This fits with the prior story, in which the analogue of “sin” is “debt.”

This morning, however, I hear another message in what Jesus says.  When he tells someone “Your faith has made you whole, has healed you, has rescued you,” he is saying that they have faith.  However empty their hands, or heavy their afflictions, this one thing is at work in them, which enables them to see a path to more abundant life: “The just shall live by faith (Habb. 2:4).”  Moreover, they have (even by touching the hem of his garment in a crowd) acted on that faith (as Bill Taber construed the prophet’s words, “The just shall live by faithfulness”)  And in these stories, Jesus is turning the focus away from his own agency to the evidence in the seeker that the divine author of faithfulness is at work.  (“Why do you call me good?  Only God is good.”  Luke 18:19).

Modern Friends often abbreviate “the gospel as traditionally understood by Friends”  to some such dry phrase as “everyone has access to the divine.”  I often worry that this unintentionally (?) puts the emphasis on the human agent and flirts with the language of ownership and individuality. In the unwary, it can reduce a multidimensional message to a simple one more easily accommodated to our complacency.

The power that works in us does seek our opening to it, however tentative  — “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” —  yet it often is working where and as we cannot see.  Our inward, unspoken poverty or hunger is invitation enough, and the Word of judgment and consolation can enter, cleaning and opening the springs of life.  Therefore, saying “In case you didn’t know it, you have faith, you are not abandoned, and the evidence is that you came here to me” is itself a powerful gift (a gift full of power), and can be a healing one, and a door to hope, of which we so much stand in need!

*    *     *

This is one root of the power of the Quaker message:  God is at work, and you can see the evidence, even in your trials, your regrets, and your longing for hope, and for transformation: Come and see where the pearl of great price glows for your enrichment!

Here a passage from James Nayler’s Love to the Lost (in the section on “Justification,” and the immediately following one on “Hope”).

faith… is the gift of God, believes in the light, and follows it, and so leads to the life; and this faith that stands in the light and life, is the living faith, never without works, which works are love, meekness, patience, mortification, sanctification, justification, &c., the works of God in Christ Jesus, in which God’s workmanship is seen in the new creation, received in the faith, and in the obedience, to which the soul is purified, and victory witnessed over the world, sin and death….

Hope is a gift of God, and is pure, showing the purity of God, and His righteousness in Christ Jesus, the beholding whereof stays the soul from joining to the wicked one, when he tempts, because he sees in the light a better work to serve; so that until the time of that work being fully manifest, the hope is as an anchor to stay from following the unclean one, and so keeps out of the sin, and so makes not ashamed, even then in the time of want it hopes against hope.

When that life of Christ is not yet seen in its full power, yet it is evidenced in the hope, which is wrought in the patience and experience, whereby the love appears and the faith works…  And this is that hope that enters within the vail, into the holy place, where the life and immortality is brought to light, which the mortal eye nor carnal senses cannot approach to.

And this is the living hope, which hopes to the end, that Christ and His righteousness may be revealed, to take away sin, and save from it, and out of it; and in hope of this, the children and babes of Christ wait in the obedience of the Spirit…but as He who has called to that hope is holy, so in His holiness is their conversation who are in His hope.

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