Last week in San Antonio, Texas, Lutheran Bible scholar Mark Allen Powell stopped by the table where Kendra Haloviak Valentine, Bonnie Dwyer, and I were enjoying a chat.
New Testament professor to professor, Haloviak Valentine complimented him on his successful and informative textbook, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey, now in its second edition. Its first edition sold over 60,000 copies. Havolviak Valentine uses it in her undergrad and graduate classes at La Sierra University and praised the book’s free online resources. I like its critical grounding and undistracted look at the text’s main themes that concerned the first Christians.
To its credit, the Adult Bible Study Guide includes several large sections of the gospel story for this week. It begins with Luke 5:17–26 in which Jesus forgives and heals a paralyzed man. That mix of terms—forgiving and healing—is key to understanding the central meaning of salvation in the Gospel of Luke. This two minute video by Mark Allen Powell explains the point.
Both forgiveness and charitable acts create human salvation. While a whispered sinner’s prayer or a helping hand make a difference, the larger message of Jesus combines the physical and the metaphysical. Salvation truly means freedom. Eternal salvation thus loosens the bonds of our current reality. That profound hope for liberation is often expressed using phrases like “lay down my burden” and “no more tears.
example the structures of space and time. In conversation with ontological questions around existence and realness, the metaphysical aims for something immutable—beyond the structures it interrogates. But as social creatures we humans create (and also resist) myriad forms of binding structures. For instance, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Many contemporary social metaphysicians investigate the ontological natures of socially constructed groups, entities, and institutions. Key questions include: what, exactly, are corporations, restaurants, and sports teams? What is the nature of money? What are the natures of social categories, like woman, Black, lesbian, and disabled? What is the relationship between individuals and macro-level social objects? What does it mean to say that something is “socially constructed,” and what is the difference between the social and the natural in the first place?
Helping us explore these questions, the Sabbath school quarterly turns to the Gospel of Matthew. It states that “Jesus was a refugee. His earthly parents, Joseph and Mary, were forced to flee Bethlehem by night and seek refuge in Egypt to escape the murderous hand of Herod (2:13,14).” It adds, “The Bible says nothing about their experience in Egypt, but it’s not hard to imagine that it had its challenges, perhaps some of the same challenges that refugees face today, as well. In fact, somewhat parallel to how Jesus’ family sought asylum in a foreign land, many Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and nonreligious persons are seeking asylum in new lands today, as well.
Conceived out of wedlock, perhaps Jesus’s earliest memories were of crossborder flight or at least his parents’ stories about it. As we try to remember each Advent season, this story is more than a pageant. It happened in human time and space and therefore it’s not hard to see the humane nature of Jesus formed with a sense of alterity. That outsider status perhaps aids in seeing his missional empathy as deeply nurtured through experience and memory. It was more than a metaphysical divine nature—when he spoke about the first and the last, perhaps he remembered a day when his parents were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Generally speaking, it is easier to make friends with individuals from our own culture and language group because we share many things in common,” the lesson states for Tuesday. “It is more challenging, however, to find common ground with immigrants and refugees who look different from us, who do not speak our language, who do not share the same religious values, and do not eat similar food.” Providing a practical application, it adds, “The gospel calls us to get out of our ethnic, national, and cultural comfort zones and to reach out to those in need, regardless of how different from us they might be.
We all need forgiveness from each other over and over for how human differences distract us from our greater humaneness. Even around people we love during the holiday season these small annoyances that come and go can remind us how aleatory our constructions of alterity really are. The promise of salvation extends to all. We forgive others because God always forgives us. We reform the physical world—and our place in it—just as Jesus did. Salvation requires hope and healing. In the eschaton, liberation comes as we see past the first things and the last—to a time and place where no families flee because we study war no more.
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Title Image: Jean François Millet, The Flight Into Egypt, c. 1864.
Alexander Carpenter is Executive Editor of Spectrum.
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