Lent 4: I Don't Like Spiders and Snakes


Welcome to week 2…   I get a little wordy - sorry - and there is a long quote from N.T. Wright, noted Anglican Know-it-all and theological standout, at the conclusion. As before, this is an attempt to draw us into a little more intentionality when it comes to both understanding the texts for the coming Sunday and also appreciating their complex beauty and scope (and their often simple message)  I hope this stimulates some thought and perhaps some conversation. Feel free to respond… And, see you next week.


Numbers 21: 4 - 9 - Snakes, alive!

I’m pretty sure that this lesson is placed in the lectionary to go with the Gospel’s (John) allusion to this story of the serpent on the pole being lifted up. (Jesus is lifted up so that all may see him too, and live. There is method to what seems like liturgical madness at times….)

John 3 gives it a Christological spin. Its original roots in mythology are a different story. It would take quite a study to find all the parallels in mythology and to which way and why the Hebrew tradition appropriated such stories. The most obvious link is with the Asclepius, the ancient Greek god for healing. His symbol - wouldn’t you know - was two snakes entwined around a pole (which is where the AMA gets its logo). The idea was that opposites at war within us, are brought into harmony, resulting in healing.

Looking at a snake on a pole to be healed from snake bite is also lifted from Greek culture: pharmakon - a drug is a poison that, taken in the right dosage, is also a remedy for the poison. (Shades of Iocaine powder in The Princess Bride!!! Or mandrake from the movie Excalibur!!!) The pharmakos, often translated as “sorceror,” was one accused of evil and run out of town and often killed — in other words, a scapegoat, a tradition the Hebrews also borrowed, where the sins of the settlement were heaped upon the ‘goat’ which was driven out of town to be consumed in the desert by the demons. Scapegoating then, is  like taking a drug: the poison of sin and violence is taken at just the right dosage in order to bring a relative measure of peace. This stuff is way too cool.

Ephesians 2:1 - 10

Well, as long as we are riffing in Greek, let’s talk a little bit about Paul’s useage of the phrases tais epithymiais tes sarkos (“desires of the flesh”) and tekna physei orges (“children by nature of wrath”). As we saw last week in our discussion of the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ discussion of the ‘greatest’ commandment, there is a close connection between desire (epithymia) and wrath (orge). In fact, that connection is within the word for desire itself since the other most common Greek word for “wrath,” in addition to orge, is thymos, a root to the word epithymia, desire (Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, pp. 154, 265). Paul’s take on our human condition is spot on: We are driven to have the things we want, no matter what we have to do or whom we have to hurt to get it. God loves us anyway, that the power of that grace shown us, might break us, and lead us to treat each other as if we were already residents of the peaceable kingdom yet to come (The future takes root in the present by the grace of God)

John 3: 14 - 21  Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

And, most of our misreading of this text comes from two phrases (once more into the Greek)…  zoen aionion (life everlasting) and gennethe anothen (“born from above” which Nicodemus - who has been cut out of the lectionary this time around but whose ignorance is important to understanding the whole text - misreads - it is a Jesus “pun” and wonders how he can return to the womb to be ‘born again’)

I want to focus on zoen aionion, “life everlasting.” The first two appearances of this phrase in John are in John 3:15-16 Most commentators are quick to point out that this phrase for John has an immediacy: that this kind of life begins right now. It is about a quality of life in this world more than about some other-world to come in the future. It is more along the lines of joining in with something that is eternal, entering into a deep relationship with the unending source of life itself, which is love itself, the force that will prevail in the end. (We connect to that unending source, just as Jesus describes later in John, when talking about us being ‘branches of the vine.’)  There is nothing to fear in life or death, since we are part of something eternal and good.

N. T. Wright in his New Testament translation (The Kingdom New Testament) renders zoen aionion as “the life of God’s new age.” And in his recent book How God Became King, he gives an excellent explanation, not only of the translation, but also what’s at stake: (And, sorry for the length, but this is interesting…)

“The.. expression that has routinely been misunderstood in this connection is eternal life. Here again the widespread and long-lasting assumption that the gospels are there to tell us how to go to heaven has determined how people hear this phrase. Indeed, the word ‘eternity’ in modern English and American has regularly been used not only to point to a heavenly destination, but to say something specific about it, namely, that it will be somehow outside time and probably outside space and matter as well. A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible and it’s a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom even realizes the fact. Anyway, granted this assumption, when we find the Greek phrase zoe aionios in the gospels (and indeed in the New Testament letters), and when it is regularly translated as eternal life or everlasting life, people have naturally assumed that this concept of eternity is the right way to understand it. God so loved the world, reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.

But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two aions (we sometimes use the word eon in that sense): the Present age, ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the age to come, ha-olam ha-ba. The age to come, many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the present age. You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the age to come. But there is no sense that this age to come is “eternal in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.

If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to the life of the age, in other words, the life of the age to come. When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (18:18, NRSV), he isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people. And he is asking, in particular, how he can be sure that when God does all this, he will be part of those who inherit the new world, who share its life. This is why, in my own new translation of the New Testament, Luke 18:18 reads, Good teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of the age to come? Likewise, John 3:16 ends not with have everlasting life (KJV), but ‘share in the life of God’s new age.’

Among the various results of this misreading has been the earnest attempt to make all the material in Jesus’s public career refer somehow to a supposed invitation to go to heaven rather than to the present challenge of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. (pp. 44-45)