About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."


Demons demythologised

I still vividly remember one of my early seminary colloquia in the NT theology. Our New Testament professor was an internationally recognized scholar and that day he challenged us to take seriously the biblical world-view teeming with demons.
            At first, we students wanted to dismiss it as an outdated superstition. He agreed with us that demons were part of the ancient mythological world-view but he also wanted us to approach it more creatively. He pointed out that ancient people were not stupid, they were just as intelligent as we are. They perhaps did not have modern laboratories, and modern science, but they were keen observers. They experienced rapidly spreading infections and they quite correctly surmised an influence of some kind of invisible agents which were hopping from one person to another. They called them demons while these days we called them bacteria and viruses.
            But he went further and talked about demons causing what we would call mental illnesses. In that instance our professor quoted his wife, a clinical psychologist, and soon to be a psychology professor at the Charles University. He proposed to us that the world-view with demons responsible for mental illnesses was in fact very benevolent, gentle, kind and gracious.
            That ancient perspective was benevolent because it allowed a clear distinction between the person and the demon(the illness). The possessed person was not evil to the core, evil behavior was caused by the demon which controlled him or her. Only the fully developed and most mature psychology, psychiatry, and sociology were able to reach this level of insight, sophistication and humanity recognizing influences of environment, physiology, family history, and personal or societal trauma.
            I am thankful to my professor for this lesson, for showing us this example of constructive Bultmanian demythologisation, this respectful interpretation of an ancient world-view.

            We do not need to truly believe in demons or engage in magical exorcisms to appreciate their deeper and still relevant lessons leading us to a more humane way about illness and people in distress. 





Fishing adynaton

 A spoon lure - a shiny metal disc used for sport fishing.
Some fish are clearly attracted to glittering objects
yet it is highly unlikely any fish would swallow a coin and then another hook.  

Humor is a very efficient way of resisting and even subverting the unjust status quo. Jesus was a master of this technique. Many of his parables tell that story and are gems of humorous observations and social commentary. Sometime, he went even further employing absurd humor.
            Here I need to give you a little bit of an introduction. Disciple Peter, we are told was accused that his master Jesus did not pay the temple tax. Peter lied claiming that Jesus did. Jesus probably overheard it, afterward took Peter aside and talked with him. He asked him whether children of a king paid taxes to their father. Under feudalism the answer was self evident - Of course not! Then Jesus gave to Peter a very bizarre instruction. Take a fishing rod, catch a fish, find a silver coin in its mouth and pay with it taxes for me and you.
            The pious commentators twist themselves into knots interpreting this bizarre instruction and firmly asserting an even more bizarre and unique self serving miracle. Well, the miracle is actually not reported. Commentators just infer it - if Jesus commanded it, it must had happened that way!
            Oh, how very pious and at least, according to my opinion, how very wrong! Can you imagine fish with a large silver coin in its mouth being caught on a hook? And that was exactly the instruction. I am not a fisherman and I know it is an absurd situation.
            It was an Adynaton - sarcastic hyperbolic figure of speech. When hens grow teeth, When cats grow horns, When fish build nests on the poplar trees, On the second Thursday of the week! Those are all modern European examples of this type of expression. And we know that Jesus used that figure of speech before - do you remember threading a camel through the needle’s eye?
            In our English speaking world with not that many fishermen among us I would interpret Jesus’ instruction this way: Peter, go to a forest, catch a flying pig, sell it and pay our taxes.
            Jesus had a keen sense of humor and resisted unjust taxation with biting sarcasm. And that is something you might not know about the Bible.


This Sunday we will hear about Jesus calling fishermen what he offered them and what they provided back to him. And why it is still relevant for us today. 



Gate and road logion (new reading and interpretation)

Enter through the narrow gate;

for the gate is wide and the road is easy

that leads to destruction,

and there are many who take it.

For the gate is narrow and the road is hard

that leads to life,

and there are few who find it.


Gospel of Matthew (7:13-14 quoted here from NRSV) preserved for us this saying of Jesus with clear signs of Semitic parallelism. Gospel of Luke has an abbreviated version (13:24). It is therefore highly probable that this logion was preserved in the Q source (A presupposed Early Christian collection of Jesus’ logia).

     Often it is being interpreted along the lines of Christian ethical or moral exclusivism. I would like to suggest a different reading based on the historical context and how ancient city gates and roads were built and how they functioned.


The Hellenistic walled cities, and sometimes even cities without walls, had what can be described as a ceremonial gate - a main entrance to the polis which was used for different processions and for welcoming dignitaries and imperial or royal messengers. This main ceremonial gate was built on a main road leading to the city. Besides this main entrance, the city often had several side entrances connecting it to the countryside either in the form of postern gates, if the city was walled, or just streets extending to surrounding farmland.


A network of the Roman imperial roads is not necessary to introduce. Romans inherited and perfected earlier similar networks which were built by preceding empires (Hellenistic kingdoms, as well as Persian and Assyrian empires). It is also well understood that these imperial roads were built for easier and more efficient administration but primarily for military purposes of communication and easier movement of armies. On the other hand local roads were formed by local communities to serve their immediate needs of local commerce and farming.


Based upon these observations I would like to offer my dynamic equivalence translation of this logion:


Always take a narrow gate.

            The main ceremonial city gates

            and straight Roman roads

            are built for armies and lead to destruction.

But the narrow gate and the twisty roads

            are for civilians and lead to life.


This reading (interpretation) clearly goes beyond the narrow moralistic exclusivism and offer richer and deeper context, anti-imperial outlook, and theology which fits well with the rest of Jesus’ message. 


Choose life

Several years ago, while talking about the biblical beatitudes, I also mentioned that the Bible contains lists of curses. I will never forget the surprise of one of our dear members!
     Of course, there are curses in the Bible. When it comes to important matters in life you cannot have blessings without complementing curses. Actually, there are entire lists and even solemn cursing liturgies.
     Here is a sample from the Book of Deuteronomy:

"Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor's boundary marker."

And all the people shall say, "Amen!"

"Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person of the road."

And all the people shall say, "Amen!"

"Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice."

And all the people shall say, "Amen!"


      Hebrew Prophets often composed litanies of woes and prophetic invectives. Here is just a verse from one of the litanies in Isaiah: 

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,

who put darkness for light and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

     In the New Testament Jesus' famous beatitudes are complemented with what can be described as his rant of woes against religious and political hypocrites. Here is an example.

Woe to you, religious teachers and leaders, you hypocrites!

For you proudly give religious tax even of mint, and dill, and cumin, while you neglected what really matters to God, justice and mercy and humble faith.
     There are clearly times and situations when matters are truly serious and present us with a stark choice between blessing and curse. Just as Moses of Deuteronomy reminds us:

     "Today I have placed before you choice between life and death, blessings and curses. And I call on heaven and earth to witness your choice. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your children might live!


Our renunciation

John the Baptist, as his epithet suggest, baptised people and with it he preached repentance. There is quite a widely shared and deeply rooted confusion what he actually meant.
     For John and in the Bible - repentance has little if outright nothing to do with guilt feelings or displays of self-affliction or self-denigration. The New Testament was written in Greek (Hellenistic Koine) and repentance in Greek is METANOIA μετανοια that literally means a thorough reorientation of thinking, of outlook on life. But John the Baptist did not speak Greek - his language was either Aramaic or Hebrew. In Hebrew repentance is TEŠUVAH תשובה‎ . This word is derived from root ŠVB שוב which means turning around, going one direction and then ŠVB turning 180 degrees and going back - that is repentance - redirecting of our life. No melodramatic outpouring of our inner spiritual feelings and our yearning for personal salvation. True repentance is a down to earth practical reorientation of our individual and communal lives, eventually an ideal  redirection of the entire society.  

For that reason in the past four years at Rutgers we adopted in our worship at least once a month this litany of renunciation and acceptance.

We renounce falsehood, lies, deceitful words, and actions.

   We take up truth, honesty and openness.

We renounce anger that leads to harm with words and actions.

   We take up words and actions that help create peace.

We renounce egotism, selfish grasping, and stealing.

   We take up honest work and care for others.

We renounce racism, nativism, and dividing people to us and them.

   We take up divine love which embraces all people.

We renounce insults, slander, and evil judgment of others.

   We take up what encourages, comforts, and offers hope.

We renounce bitterness, violence, and the desire to cause harm.

   We take up kindness, gentleness, and work for divine justice and peace.

We do it, because we want to live out biblical repentance and its true original meaning and ethos. Depending on the socio-political context it can be quite a radical part of liturgy. The more dire situation we live in the more radical it feels. 

And that was also the situation of John the Baptist and what he had in mind when he preached repentance - reorienting lives to be in harmony with God’s will. And conducting baptism - through baptism opening up a new realm - welcoming people to God’s future.

On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday we want to do just that. Reaffirm our Baptisms and commit ourselves to God’s will and God’s future.