Posts filed under ‘interpretation’

‘And I will harden Pharoah’s heart’ – a Reflection and Proposal on God’s goodness

It was a beautiful morning as four of us prayed Matins today at St Mark’s Lutheran Church in Williamsport. The readings for before Holy Week are from Exodus, the plagues leading up to the Passover and the rescue of the Israelites from Pharoah, which Christians see as an anticipation of our rescue from sin, death, and the devil by Jesus the Messiah.

Of course, Exodus has that tricky dichotomy. God says, ‘I will harden Pharoah’s heart, so that he will not let the Israelites go.’ The reason for this, says the writer, is so God’s glory may be shown. In other times in Exodus, such as today’s reading, the wording is, ‘Pharoah hardened his heart’ or even ‘Pharoah’s heart was hardened.’

This of course is problematic on many levels. There are many attempts to justify God for hardening Pharoah’s heart, and depending on your point of view they work better or worse. Of course, trying to justify God’s action is a fundamentally dangerous thing to do.

But sitting there hearing this story, with sunlight shining through the windows,  I thought – what if God hardens Pharoah’s heart by showing him goodness? After all, every time there are plagues, and especially when the plagues get serious, Pharoah ‘gets religion,’ but when the plague is removed, Pharoah hardens his heart and changes his mind, and will not let the people go. His rash words and promises in the midst of the darkness are cooly reconsidered in the light of day.

This sounds much like what we do when there is tragedy, crisis, or other seemingly insoluble problems in our lives. But once the plague is removed, once our lives ‘return to normal,’ the urgency is removed. The openness to God and others that we had vanishes. We look at the world around us, with its pleasures and possibilities, and reach out for them. There is nothing to hold us back, and the problems we had seem far away. We return to seeing the world as we always did.

If it is God’s goodness that hardens Pharoah’s heart, the return of a relative sense of peace and security that beguiles Pharoah into living like he always did, into not changing his attitude towards God or the Israelites, then God is acting in character, as the benevolent, loving, sustainer of all life, and it his very activity as a good God that hardens an already calcified Pharoah’s heart. He shows himself to be ignorant of the source of the blessings of life, and refuses to turn and worship. After many of God’s attempts to change his heart, his hard heart is dashed to pieces. The expression ‘I will harden Pharoah’s heart,’ may anticipate Paul’s’ saying, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon their heads.’

Am I trying to justify God here? I hope not. And yet it seems to be consonant with reality as we know it. God acts in character, to give us all we need, and being surrounded by so many apparently good and permanent things, we harden our hearts against all that would take them away, or anything that seems to deny them.

In Christ Jesus, God himself entered into his good creation, and yet Jesus received it as a gift from God and not as God himself. Faithfulness to God led him on the road to the cross, and the darkness did not diminish his faith in his Father. His resurrection leads us to understand that in good and bad times, we may be open to the Lord who gives us himself as his best gift.


March 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday: The Church Confesses… (Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Guilt, Justification, and Renewal)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s radical message reaches to our own day.

From his unfinished magnum opus, Ethics, we are given an essay on ‘Guilt, Justification, and Renewal’[1]. In this astonishing document, Bonhoeffer dares to confess in the name of the Church the Church’s failure to keep God’s commands in his own time. Then he recognizes the objections some will raise and answers them.[2]

This Lent, may the Church not only remind individual members of their sins, but understand and confess its corporate guilt in refusing to be Christ for the world, so that in the confession of the Church, ‘humanity may be judged by Christ and therefore exist before him,’ and ‘convicted in their guilt, (be) justified by the one who takes on and forgives all human guilt, namely, Jesus Christ.’ [3]

The church confesses that it has not professed openly and clearly enough its message of the one God, revealed for all times in Jesus Christ and tolerating no other gods besides. The church confesses its timidity, its deviations, its dangerous concessions. It has often disavowed its duties as sentinel and comforter. Through this it has often withheld the compassion that it owes the despised and rejected. The church was mute when it should have cried out, because the blood of the innocent cried out to heaven. The church did not find the right word in the right way at the right time. It did not resist to the death the falling away from faith and is guilty of the godlessness of the masses.

The church confesses that it has misused the name of Christ by being ashamed of it before the world and by not resisting strongly enough the misuse of that name for evil ends. The church has looked on while injustice and violence have been done, under the cover of the name of Christ. It has even allowed the most holy name to be openly derided without contradiction and has thus encouraged that derision. The church recognizes that God will not leave unpunished those who so misuse God’s name as it does.

The church confesses it is guilty of the loss of holidays, for the barrenness of its public worship, of the contempt for Sunday rest. It has made itself guilty for the restlessness and discontent of working people, as well as for their exploitation above and beyond the workweek, because its preaching of Jesus Christ has been so weak and its public worship so limp.

The church confesses that it is guilty of the breakdown of parental authority. The church has not opposed contempt for age and the divinization of youth because it feared losing the youth and therefore the future, as if the future depended on the young! It has not dared to proclaim the God-given dignity of parents against revolutionary youth and has made a very worldly-minded attempt ‘to go along with youth.’ Thus it is guilty of destroying countless families, for children’s betraying their parents, of the self-divinizing of youth, and therefore of abandoning them to fall away from Christ.

The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering of body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them. It has become guilty of the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

The church confesses that it has not found any guiding and helpful word to say in the midst of the dissolution of all order in the relationship of the sexes to each other. It has found no strong or authentic message to set against the disdain for chastity and the proclamation of sexual licentiousness. Beyond the occasional expression of moral indignation it has had nothing to say. The church has become guilty, therefore, of the loss of purity and wholesomeness among youth. It has not known how to proclaim strongly that our bodies are members of Christ.

The church confesses that it has looked on silently as the poor were exploited and robbed, while the strong were enriched and corrupted.

The church confesses its guilt toward the countless people whose lives have been destroyed by slander, denunciation, and defamation. It has not condemned the slanderers for their wrongs and has thereby left the slandered to their fate.

The church confesses that it has coveted security, tranquility, peace, property, and honor to which it had no claim, and therefore has not bridled human covetousness, but promoted it.

The church confesses itself guilty of violating all of the Ten Commandments. It confesses thereby its apostasy from Christ. It has not so borne witness to the truth of God in a way that leads all inquiry and science to recognize its origin in this truth. It has not been able to make the loving care of God so credible that all human economic activity would be guided by it in its task. By falling silent the church became guilty for the loss of responsible action in society, courageous intervention, and the readiness to suffer for what is acknowledged as right. It is guilty of the government’s falling away from Christ.

Is this going too far? Should a few super-righteous people rise at this point and try to prove that not the church but all the others are guilty? Would a few churchmen like to dismiss this as a rude insult and, presuming to be called judges of the world, proceed to weigh the mass of guilt here and there and distribute it accordingly? Was not the church hindered and bound on all sides? Was not all worldly power arrayed against it? Should the church have endangered its ultimate purpose, its public worship and its congregational life, by taking up the struggle against anti-Christian powers? So speaks unbelief, which perceives confession of guilt not as regaining the form of Jesus Christ who bore the sins of the world, but only as a dangerous moral degradation. Free confession of guilt is not something that one can take or leave; it is the form of Jesus Christ breaking through in the church. The church can let this happen to itself, or it will cease to be the church of Christ. Whoever spoils the church’s confession of guilt is hopelessly guilty before Christ.

In confessing its guilt the church does not release people from their personal confession of guilt, but calls everyone into a community of confession. Only as judged by Christ can humanity that has fallen away exist before Christ. The church calls all whom it reaches to come under this judgment.

The church and the individual, convicted in their guilt, are justified by the one who takes on and forgives all human guilt, namely, Jesus Christ. This justification of the church and the individual consists in their becoming participants in the form of Christ. It is the form of the human being judged by God, delivered over to the death of the sinner, and awakened by God to new life. It is the form of the human being as it is truly before God. Only as drawn into the shame of the cross, the public death of the sinner, is the church – and the individual in it – received into the community of glory of the one who was awakened to new righteousness and new life.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol.6). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004, 134-145. (Quoted text from pages 138-42.)

[2] The critical apparatus in the DBW edition from which this excerpt is taken has several very helpful explanations of the specific problems in German society Bonhoeffer may have been addressing. Nevertheless, multiple interpretations and implications may be taken for our own day, which will no doubt vary depending upon the perspective of the reader.

[3] Ibid., 142.

February 22, 2012 at 7:00 am 2 comments

Bible Study: Mark 1:1-15

Notes on Mark 1:1-15

The following are my notes on Mark 1:1-15 based on what I presented for United Lutheran’s Bible Study. I am using the King James Version because that’s in the public domain. Questions and corrections are welcome. I will probably edit and hopefully cite sources as I go along.

1The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;

The gospel or the ‘good news,’ the euangelion in Greek, from which we get the word ‘evangelical’ in English.

Jesus translates to ‘God saves’; Christ is Greek for Messiah, or ‘anointed one:’ the hoped for return of the Davidic King of Israel. Some people refer to ‘Jesus the Christ,’ thus avoiding the misconception that Christ is Jesus’ last name, but confusing a lot of other folks in the process. Jesus would have been referred to as ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ or even ‘Jesus son-of-Joseph.’

‘Son of God’ was a title used by the Roman emperors of the time. In the very first verse of the Gospel, the claim is that Jesus is King and Emperor, not Caesar.


2As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
3The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

These verses remember Isaiah 40 and the preaching of Isaiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. In that time, they were being encouraged to return to Jerusalem by a ‘way’ that God would make through the desert. God was doing something new and restoring his people to his land. In this case, John the Baptist is preparing the way for people to receive Jesus, who will make all things new.

4John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
5And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.

Water-baptism was not an uncommon ceremony of the time. It sometimes was used as a part of a Gentile’s conversion to Judaism. The uniqueness of John’s baptism lay in the idea of ‘repentance’ and the location. To ‘repent’ is to turn around – from sin, towards God – and the location of the Jordan River represented a recapitulation of the return from exile. Again, God was about to restore his land to his chosen people, and those who came for baptism wanted to be in on it.
6And John was clothed with camels hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;

John is reminiscent of the prophet Elijah, who was independent of the court prophets of his day. John’s call came directly from God – he was not a prophet whose words were for sale. It was an expectation that Elijah’s return would precede the coming of the Messiah.

7And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
8I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.

Here John makes it clear that he is not the Messiah and that his role is, again, one of preparation for the Messiah.


9And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
10And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

‘Thou art my beloved Son,’ comes from Ps. 2 and Ps. 110, royal psalms. ‘In whom I am well pleased,’ comes from Isaiah 42:1, one of Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant. The king is a servant who will give everything for his people, and the servant is a king who will defeat the people’s enemies: sin, death, and the evil one.

Jesus is baptized because he shares everything with us; our flesh, the repentance needed for sin, our life, our death, so that we can share all that he has – his divine life and intimacy with the Father through the Spirit. He is attested as the Father’s Son by nature at Baptism – we are adopted as the Father’s children when we are baptized into him, and we share by grace in the Spirit shared by the Father and the Son.
12And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness.
13And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.

The One on whom the Holy Spirit has descended immediately shares in our temptation. We tend to think that the ‘holier’ you are, the fewer problems you will have. ‘Godliness’ is supposed to be a ticket to success: see Joel Osteen and other hawkers of religious self-help. Here we have the antidote to such claptrap: the One in whom God is well-pleased must live by faith even in the midst of suffering and temptation.
14Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,
15And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the
kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

The arrest of John is a sign for Jesus; he returns to Galilee and proclaims ‘The kingdom of God is at hand,’ a Messianic claim.  A bold claim, considering that nothing has really changed, and that Caesar still claims to be king. We might look around and say it’s equally bold today: the kingdom of God seems as far away as ever. What gives Jesus the authority to make such a claim: the kingdom of God is here? Stay tuned…

January 12, 2012 at 11:29 pm Leave a comment

Pat Robertson, Haiti, and Why Things Happen

Note: This appears on the front page of this week’s issue of Messiah Messenger.

On January 13, Pat Robertson stated on The 700 Club that the earthquake and other negative events in Haiti’s recent history might be linked to a “pact with the devil” which allegedly was made by Haitians to secure their freedom from French occupation in the 19th century. While I have my doubts, I have no idea whether any “pact” was made by anyone, but Robertson has a history of making such comments. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, he agreed with Jerry Falwell on The 700 Club that God had removed the protection around America because of the actions of some Americans. It should in fairness be noted that Robertson is urging prayer and material aid for Haitians and he did not suggest they should be condemned or that they deserved the disaster.

After every misfortune, disaster, or trouble, it is natural to ask ‘why?’ I believe it to be temptation to assign reasons for misfortunes, claiming to know God’s will by linking them to abnormal sinfulness or punishment for certain sinful acts. I think that many people give in to this temptation because they are uncomfortable and anxious with the question ‘How can a good God allow such evil, injustice, and tragedy?’ The question can also be asked the other way – if there are no consequences for being evil, then why be good? To silence these questions, all evil and misfortune must be shown to be somehow deserved and all sin must be punished with retribution in this life, lest God be shown to be neither good nor just.

The Bible gives the lie to such easy and convenient explanations. Job was a righteous man, and he defended his conduct to those who suggested that he must have committed sin to receive such terrible misfortunes. Psalm 73 is a meditation on the apparent success of the wicked. In John 9, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. His disciples ask him whether his blindness is the fault of his own or his parents’ sin, and Jesus responds in the negative on both counts.

Why do natural disasters occur, why do people die ‘before their time,’ why is there unexplainable illness, tragedy and pain? Such questions are shrouded in mystery. We dare not try to justify what happens so that it ‘makes sense.’ God never justifies himself. He does not explain himself to Job, but he speaks to him, and that is what Job needs more than any explanation. Jesus does not give the blind man an explanation, but healing and Lordship. The most we can ever say about these things is that tragedy and disaster is part of a fallen world which still waits in hope for its final healing; that we can never claim to know why such-and-such should or should not have occurred; but that we can confidently say that in such a world God always has the capacity still to act for us to reveal his justice and love. In the last analysis, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8), and that is enough for us to confidently proclaim his just love even in the midst of unspeakable suffering and death.

January 21, 2010 at 2:28 am 1 comment

Bishop Driesen’s Pastoral Letter to the Synod – Proposed Social Statement on Sexuality

Pastoral Letter from Bishop Robert Driesen

The First Week in Lent, February 26, 2009

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This is a difficult letter to write, because I realize that it touches the lives of so many, all of whom are seeking to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ. Despite our differences, however, all of us should be able to agree that questions related to human sexuality, while going to the core of what it means to be a human creature, are transformed, like every aspect of our lives, by our baptism into Christ. The sciences and other human disciplines, while informative, are not determinative, as we wrestle with what God’s intention is for us, having created us as sexual beings.

Continue Reading March 2, 2009 at 4:38 pm Leave a comment

What’s a hermeneutic?

A hermeneutic is a method of interpreting a text.  For theologians, hermeneutics mostly has to do with the way one interprets the Bible.

 Roy Harrisville has provided “A Primer on Lutheran Hermeneutics,” which, in his words:

“is intended for the general reader and is to be understood as a brief description of how Lutherans have and should approach the Bible. A Lutheran approach to Scripture has certain necessary components. They are: the priority of Scripture, Christ as the center of Scripture, law and gospel, the plain sense of Scripture, the power of Scripture, and the inspiration of Scripture.”

September 12, 2007 at 7:11 am


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