The Gospel According to Solomon

In the real life version of Draughting Theology, we’ve spent the last five months (minus a break for Lent) studying the three epistles of John.  It has been a striking study in the dichotomy of the life of faith in the early Church between the overwhelming awareness of the deep love of God and the struggle (and at times, battle) to figure out the bounds of orthodoxy in this new religion.  This back and forth in the letters of John make for some interesting juxtapositions between “love your neighbor” and “the Antichrists.”

Last week, we finally arrived at what Raymond Brown says might be “the most famous saying in the NT,” 1 John 4:8b, “God is love.”  As Brown prophesied in his commentary on the Johannine letters, these three words took us down a path of conversation in which we wondered about the nature of God as God has revealed himself in Scripture.  The natural tendency seems to be to read the Old Testament as being all about a God of vengeance and the New Testament as being all about “God is love.”  Brown has this to say: “This outlook both misunderstands the biblical concept of justice as primarily punitive, and ignores OT passages that make hesed, ‘covenant love and mercy,’ characteristic of God” (p. 550).

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This is all still very fresh in my mind as I read the Track 2 Old Testament Lesson for this week and the great prayer of dedication that King Solomon prays over the Temple that he has built for God.  In the sight of all Israel, with his arms lifted heavenward, Solomon approaches God with these words, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart” (1 Kings 8:23).

Solomon is a wise man.  His words are spoken with intentionality, and so it is telling that he chooses to highlight the steadfast love of God (hesed) in this great moment of national, personal, and religious pride.  The Gospel according to Solomon, about as Old Testament a King as there ever was, is that God’s very nature is love.

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Luke [un?]intentional double entendre

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Sunday’s story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s slave is full of juicy preaching morsels.  As I pointed out yesterday, it is one of two instances when Jesus is said to be amazed.  There’s the fact that the Centurion never actually sees or talks to Jesus directly, but always through intermediaries.  It is also worth noting that unlike every other healing story I can think of, Jesus never declares the slave healed; he simply commends the faith of the unseen Centurion.  Reading the story some 2,000 years after the fact, it is always hard to tell what exegetical tidbits were intentional choices by the author, and which are just happenstances of language.

Take, for example, the final word in Sunday’s lesson.  In the NRSV, when the friends of the Centurion return to his house, they find the slave “in good health.”  Other translations say he is “well” (NIV), “completely healed” (NLT), and “whole” (KJV).  The Greek word that Luke uses is hugiaino, the standard Greek medical term for healing, but according to my Bibleworks lexicon, it carries another, deeper, theological meaning: “to be sound, correct or well-grounded (of Christian teachings and teachers)”

Luke 7:10 is the second time hugiaino is used in the Gospel.  It occurs first in the story of the calling of Levi the Tax Collector.  The Pharisees and scribes are upset with Jesus for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors and in Luke 5:31, Jesus responds, “Those who are well (hugiaino) have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…”  Here too, the word seems to be doing double duty.  Jesus’ mission on earth wasn’t to perform miracles and make people hugiaino physically, but rather, his primary mission was to make people hugiaino spiritually by restoring them to right relationship with God through a well-grounded teaching of the will of God.

I can’t be certain that Luke meant both meanings when he first put this Gospel to parchment, but I can’t help but read it that way.  Given the fact that Jesus commends the faith of the Centurion and never actually speaks a word of healing, I can’t help but think that when the Centurion’s friends arrive back at his house, they bring with them the good word from Jesus and, perhaps, a pretty solid understanding of the Gospel.  The faith of the Centurion surely would have been infections upon his household, and so it only seems reasonable that ailing slave would have been made hugiaino in both body and spirit by his in absentia encounter with Jesus.

Jesus was amazed!

Luke really seems like he was a fan of the word thaumazo.  Eighteen times in his two-part Luke/Acts he uses this Greek word that means to marvel, to wonder, or to be amazed.  The vast majority of the time, Luke uses it to describe the response of the crowd to something Jesus or his apostles had done.  It gets used a few times to describe the response to his resurrection, and once in a story about Moses, but Sunday’s Gospel lesson seems to have the most interesting use of the word:

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Jesus was amazed

The Synoptic Gospels only show Jesus to be thaumazo “amazed” on three occasions. Mark tells us that Jesus was amazed at the unbelief of the people in his hometown of Nazareth, while Matthew and Luke share the story we will hear this Sunday about the “great faith” of the Centurion.

Centurion might be second only to Tax Collector in the list of worst jobs in first century Palestine.  Centurion’s were Gentiles, more specifically Roman soldiers assigned to keep order.  This particular Centurion had been assigned a pretty awful gig.  Not only was Palestine a backwoods assignment on the edge of the Empire, but to be assigned to the small fishing village of Capernaum made it even worse.  There was no action in Capernaum, only a population of 1,500, mostly work-a-day folks, from whom not much extortion money could be extracted.

I imagine Centurions who drew Capernaum felt like FBI agents assigned to the Cleveland, Ohio field office, but this Centurion was different.  He immersed himself in the culture of Capernaum.  He fell in love with the Lord God that the faithful Jews worshiped, and even helped them build the first Synagogue in the village.  He was beloved by the people of Capernaum, and so, when his slave fell ill, the Jewish elders felt no qualms about approaching Jesus and asking him to help the slave of this outsider.  On the authority of their witness, Jesus was inclined to help, but it wasn’t until the Centurion’s friends came with his message of great faith in the authority of Jesus to simply say a word of healing that Jesus was “amazed.”  In fact, Jesus was so amazed that in both Gospel accounts of this story, he claims to have never seen such faith in Israel.

As one who has dedicated my life’s work to the Gospel of Jesus, I can’t help but wonder if my faith is strong enough to amaze Jesus.  I highly doubt it.  In fact, I’m probably more like the rest of Israel in that my familiarity with the Lord breeds laziness in my faith.  It is so easy to simply go through the motions of the life of faith and forget to be thaumazo “amazed” at the simple fact that God loves Creation so much that he sent his only Son to redeem it; to lose sight of the fact that it is even through grace, and not of my own doing, that I’m able to have faith at all.  This morning, I too am amazed at the great faith of the Centurion, and hopeful that I can remember to approach Jesus in the same way.