Friday, February 26, 2010

Transformers Fans Unite to Support Hasbro Children's Hospital

It all started when David Willis (better known to many Transformers fans as "Walky"), creator of the "Shortpacked!" online comic strip (among others), noticed an item on eBay.  Someone had a copy of the catalog that Hasbro produced before the 1986 American International Toy Fair.  Toy companies often use Toy Fair as one the main venues to unveil the toys they plan to release in the upcoming year.  Just the few images posted by seller were enough to demonstrate some previously unknown design intentions for toys that came out later that year.  For example, the original Galvatron toy, which was released to toy stores with a bright orange cannon barrel, was apparently at one point advertised with a black barrel.  This is the kind of thing that obsessive Transformers fans drool over.  It suggests that some of the now-current concerns that Hasbro has about gun safety were actually taking hold by Galvatron's actual release later in 1986, a surprisingly short time after the all-too-realistic Walther P-38 Megatron toy (I describe the issues at play a bit more here and here).

Anyway, Walky posted a link to the Allspark bringing the catalog to the attention of other fans.  The catalog was advertised as being on sale for nearly $500 (or "best offer"), so Walky jokingly suggested that fans could contribute $5 apiece so that the TF Wiki could get access to the information the catalog promised to contain.  Surprisingly, a lot of fans said "yeah, I'd give $5 to that cause."  Indeed, a few offered to contribute even more.  Seeing a groundswell of support, Galen Rafferty (who goes by the handle "Galenraff"), one of the moderators of the Allspark, offered to collect the funds for this purpose.  Within just a few hours, it was clear that enough money was going to be raised, and so the question quickly turned to "what should we do if we raise more than we need?"  The idea of giving the money to a charity quickly became the favorite suggestion, and Hasbro Children's Hospital became the charity of choice.  Galenraff secured the catalog (having negotiated a lower price with the seller, even) and with the catalog now "ours," the movement developed into a full-fledged charity fundraiser, setting new goals to reach... and then exceed.  "Let's raise as much for the hospital as we did for the catalog" evolved into "Let's raise $500," which evolved into "Let's raise $1000!", which has evolved yet again....

As the fans looked into the possibility of donating this extra money to the hospital, it was discovered that the hospital was, itself, in the middle of a major fundraising event.  If we could reach one of the sponsor levels by Monday (March 1st), we could send representatives to the event (this, perhaps as much as anything else, should help ensure to outsiders that no one's going to just take our money and run.  It's going to the hospital!) and get a bit of recognition for the fandom at the same time.  Indeed, coupling our existing efforts to the event provided additional impetus to raise even more money!  At the time I'm finishing up this blog post on Friday night, the total had already reached $1370.  That's money just for the hospital.  It doesn't count the money raised for the Toy Fair catalog.  We'll know what "sponsor level" we've reached by the end of the day Sunday night, and Galenraff will get the money to them first thing Monday morning.

This is easily the most unifying event I've seen the Transformers fandom get behind in many years.  If you'd like to join in, you can find instructions to donate via this thread on the Allspark.  If donating through some people you don't know via PayPal makes you uneasy, but still want to support the Hasbro Children's Hospital, that's fine, too.  Here is the hospital's own "make a donation" link.

(By the way, since the purpose of getting the catalog is to make scans that make the historical information public, we're not planning on holding on to the catalog once we're done.  Walky--who will be receiving the catalog and making the scans--has already stated his intention to auction off the catalog again once he's done with it, and donate those proceeds to the hospital as well.  This really is a gift that keeps on giving!)


UPDATE - 3/1/10 - The Allspark drive is now over, and Allspark member "Master Fwiffo" put together this image, which is included here with the Allspark's permission. Please don't donate through PayPal anymore, but feel free to continue to give through the Hasbro Children's Hospital site.

Learning to Say "Thank You"

Last night, I had the honor of having dinner at Tournament House, the permanent headquarters of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association (yes, the folks who do that big parade every New Year's). I was there because my wife Michelle (who's working on her PhD in Christian Worship) was one of the guest speakers at a Development function intended to say "thank you" to those who donate money to make scholarships possible.

Michelle shared some of her own story. How she had a passion for playing the flute at the age of three, and trained as a Flute Performance major at the University of Southern California School of Music (which is quite prestigious, from what I can tell). Then, while working her "day job" (since not-yet-established musicians usually have to have one to pay the bills) at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, she found her calling take a sharp turn toward theology. Enrolling at Fuller, she worked in Financial Aid and took night classes for four years to afford classes. Even that wouldn't have been enough, but she was blessed to get a scholarship that took care of most of the difference. Then, when she determined that she was being called to do PhD work as well (enabling her to combine her musical and theological gifts), she applied for several schools, and received offers of assistance that enabled her to choose the school which she determined to be the best fit for her, without worry about how she would cover the cost of tuition. She again chose Fuller, largely on the basis of her mentor, Dr. Todd Johnson.  She would not have had this freedom—not only to attend, but to choose the best school to attend—if it weren't for the generosity of others.

Listening to Michelle's story—most of which I've naturally heard before—got me to thinking about the assistance I've gotten in going through college and seminary, myself. I have to confess that I've not been mindful enough of the generosity that enabled me to do those things. I haven't said "thank you" nearly enough.

And I really do have a lot to be thankful for. Not just for money that kept my educational debts lower than they might otherwise have been (indeed, enabling me to go to the institutions I've attended in the first place!), but also for some truly amazing opportunities that I would not have otherwise had. Last night was just one example. Even though I've lived in and around Pasadena for a dozen years now, I've never even imagined setting foot in the historic Tournament House. It was just a huge mansion that I might pass by on occasion as I drove on Orange Grove toward South Pasadena. I got to go upstairs and see pictures of all the people who have served as Grand Marshals (including personal hero Fred Rogers, who shared the honor with Bill Cosby and Art Linkletter in 2003, just a month before his passing. Even though there were three Grand Marshals that year, I like to point out that only Mister Rogers got to do the coin toss at the Rose Bowl game!), and stood next to a cabinet filled with Emmy awards given for Parade broadcasts. I haven't really done anything to deserve being here (unless you count marrying well, and even on that I'd say that itself is something to be grateful for more than something I did anything to deserve). I've been given a gift.

I don't pretend to say that everything is going "great" these days. These are still times of struggle and stress. Yet I've been blessed, too. I don't know what God is doing with my life, but I am glad for the reminder that God is doing something. I'd like to take the opportunity to say "thank you," both to God, and to all those people that God has used to help me get through my life thus far. I hope that I will be more conscious about such blessings in the future.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Special Transformers Feature: Ultimate Battle Optimus Prime

I keep a few Transformers figures in my office.  Although most of the people who have occasion to come in and see them aren't really Transformers fans, Transformers are enough a part of our popular culture that quite a few people remember them from their childhood.  As such, I get a few comments, almost always positive, about the toys.  This Optimus Prime figure tends to get special attention.  I always find this mildly amusing, because this particular figure is wildly disliked among fans.

It must be understood that those of us who have followed Transformers for 25 years now know that there have been many Optimus Prime toys (and that's just counting the Generation One character, as opposed to the alternate versions of Optimus Prime found in, say, Armada or Transformers: Animated).  People who stop by my office may remember only the original toy (if even that.  They may simply remember the character from the old cartoon).  If one considers this toy alongside all those other Optimus Prime toys, it may well be considered inferior.  But if one is only comparing it with the original, or sees it as a representation of the cartoon character, it's really not all that bad.  It's certainly got far better articulation than the original toy does, and evokes the memory of the character perfectly well.

Of course, no one who has come into my office and has seen this figure has actually transformed it, and it really is in the alternate mode that the toy's deficiencies are most obvious.  It kinda-sorta evokes the classic truck mode, but the cab looks like it could fall apart at any moment, and the legs try even less to look like part of the back of a vehicle than the legs on the original toy from 25+ years ago do.  I do have to give credit to the simple, but effective, way that the weapon folds up to become a vehicle-mounted weapon, though.  It's definitely a saving grace of this toy.  That, and the fact that it has proportionately long smokestacks.

A peculiarity of this particular Optimus Prime toy is that the designers attempted to incorporate an action gimmick in robot mode.  If you push on this button in back of the toy, Prime is intended to respond with a "power punch."  In reality, what happens is that the entire upper torso spins around... completely.  It's really pretty silly, and makes the figure difficult to keep in a "standard" pose.  Thankfully, you can pull the button outward (it requires what may seem to be excessive force, though) and "lock" the figure into a regular position.   Thus, if you keep the figure on display in robot mode all the time, it looks pretty good, but as a toy one might play with, it loses it's charm pretty quickly.

And this is exactly why I keep the figure on the shelf in my office.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Mark 8-12

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Mark, chapters 8 through 12.

Chapter 8

  • Verses 14-21 - Mark's version of a story we talked about already in Matthew.  I find it interesting that the gospels set up the story by telling us that "the disciples had forgotten to bring bread" before Jesus makes his confusing (to them) statement (Matthew did this, too, but for whatever reason it didn't stand out to me then as it does this time).  Perhaps Jesus specifically used this instance of forgetfulness as an opportunity to teach something (which on the surface, seems wholly unrelated to the issue of bread, and indeed Jesus does get frustrated when the disciples make that obvious connection between yeast and bread...)?  I'm still not sure.
  • Verse 24 - I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the blind man being healed here hasn't been blind his entire life.  If he had, how would he know enough what trees look like to say that the people he (thinks he) sees look like walking trees?  At least as noteworthy, of course, is the fact that Jesus performs this particular miracle in two stages.  Why not have it accomplished all at once?
Chapter 9
  • Verse 1 - This strikes me as yet another odd place to put a chapter break, as the sentence seems directly attached to the preceding passage.  However, the fact that the chapter break is here may at least be an indication that the early church (or, at least, that portion of it responsible for the chapter breaks) considered the upcoming Transfiguration passage as the coming of the kingdom of God foretold by Jesus here.  Hooker acknowledges this connection, but suggests that "it is not obvious how the transfiguration can be understood to be the coming of the Kingdom in power," and reflects on the possibility that Jesus was mistaken--a possibility which has obviously been difficult for Christians to accept.1  It is certainly known that many first century Christians expected an eschatological event to occur sooner rather than later, and this would account for how such a statement could be attributed to Jesus in a document written by the end of the first century, even though we in the 20th century do not view such an event to have occurred.  Other explanations for Jesus' statement have been considered, and one of them may well be right, but this is clearly a passage which is considered difficult to interpret.
  • Verse 4 - I didn't mention this when going through Matthew's version of this story, but one does wonder how the disciples could know the identities of Moses and Elijah in an age before photographic records.
  • Verse 10: "They kept the matter to themselves" - This passage is difficult to interpret.  Hooker suggests that this translation is less likely than "They seized on this saying" (as with the NASB).2
  • Verse 10: "discussing what 'rising from the dead' meant."- Clearly, the disciples have been listening to Jesus' teachings about his own resurrection, but they just as clearly still don't understand.  The disciples can seem pretty dense, can't they?  (Of course, we have the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight) 
  • Verse 23 - I continue to wrestle with the implications that Jesus' power is dependent on our belief.  Is Jesus' own power and ability insufficient if a mere mortal has insufficient faith?
  • Verse 24: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" - My favorite verse for attempting to respond to this conundrum.  It acknowledges the importance of our own belief while putting the power back upon Jesus to help us out.  Whatever the father's faith limitations, Jesus was still able to heal the son.
  • Verse 29 - This is a bit different than the version of this story in Matthew.  In that version, Jesus tells the disciples that they couldn't drive out the demon because of their insufficient faith.  Here, Mark (perhaps because he's already addressed the faith issue) depicts Jesus as requiring prayer (which, itself, is an act of faith).  But are we therefore to assume that the disciples haven't been praying over their would-be exorcisms?
  • Verse 40: "whoever is not against us is for us" - I've already commented on this verse in contrast to a verse in Matthew which says the exact opposite.  Hooker suggests that Jesus is telling the disciples not to put too much emphasis on "whether someone belongs to the right party (as opposed to) whether he acknowledges Jesus as lord."3  In this light, I imagine Jesus would be especially critical of the zealous denominationalism in our time (and, more to the point, the attitude we often have the Christians that don't espouse certain specific--often denominationally-based--doctrines are suspect as to truly being followers of Christ).
  • Verse 42-50 - When I listened to this passage this week, I got the sense of a disjointed sequence of sayings that have a word or phrase in common, yet did not flow especially well from one thought to another.  "Don't cause to stumble" leads to "if something causes you to stumble, lest you be thrown into fire" which leads to "everyone will be salted with fire" which leads to stuff about salt losing it's saltiness.  It seems a bit like the Wheel of Fortune category "Before and After," where a common catchword is used in two completely unrelated contexts: "Star of David Beckham," for example.
Chapter 10
  • Verses 1-12 - It is perhaps significant that, although there is a valid sense in which Christians talk about not being bound by the law (a sense which itself comes from the teachings of Jesus), that we here are given an example of where Jesus calls followers to a life more stringent than the law itself does.  For Jesus, the concern should not be the adherance to rules (thereby allowing oneself to do no further than the requirements of the law once met) but seeking to please God.
  • Verses 17-22 - The "rich young man" perhaps understands that Jesus teaches that following the law is not enough.  Even though he proclaims that he has kept the commandments Jesus names, the fact that he came asking what (more?) he must do is telling.  Hooker suggests that Jesus' response to the man is, in essence, he must do "everything." He must be totally committed.4
Chapter 11
  • Verses 1-6 - When I read through the version of this story in Matthew, I considered the possibility (but apparently did not mention it in this blog) that Jesus had made a previous arrangement with the owner of the colt (and donkey, as Matthew has it) for borrowing it.  That seems less likely in this version.  As Hooker puts it, "the instructions (to the disciples) could, of course, have been the result of a private agreement between Jesus and the owner of the animal; but if so, why should the story be told in this detail?"5
  • Verses 12-14, 20-26 - The story of the fig tree is an odd one.  Mark goes to the trouble to tell us that "it was not the season for figs" as if to say that Jesus shouldn't have expected to find any on the tree.  The fact that Jesus curses it, then, comes off as petty and vindictive--condemning a life for failing to grant his momentary hunger.  While it is certainly true that many people do see God in this way, it is unusual in the extreme for even non-believers to grant such attitudes to Jesus.  Yet here it is.  Hooker sees an answer in the fact that this tale is sandwiched around the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.  Thus, the fig tree represents Israel, which has fallen under the judgment of God for failing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah foretold by the Scriptures.6  I've certainly heard this interpretation before, and it's moderately better than accepting a petty Jesus, but I definitely wonder how readily the original readers of Mark (who at least did have the context of witnessing God's judgment via the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) would have understood this interpretation.  It seems far from "obvious" to my two-millennia-removed eyes.  And, even so, why did Mark go to the trouble of telling us that it wasn't the season for figs?  Why not make it look like the fig tree's demise was truly its own fault?
Chapter 12
  • Verses 34-37 - The antecedent for "no one dared to ask (Jesus) any more questions" is markedly different here than it was in Matthew.  Indeed, it was Jesus' making the Messianic claim re: David, which comes after that line here in Mark, that was the cause of that reaction in Matthew.  An exact reversal.
  • Verse 42: "But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny" - There is some variation among translations on this one.  For example, the ESV says that the two coins are worth a penny, rather than a fraction of one, as here.  Of course, the widow was not putting in anything quite like our American penny, or 1/100th of a dollar.  The "coin" in question here is a λεπτον (hereafter transliterated as "lepton").  The widow gave two lepta.  The "penny" Mark is actually referring to is a Roman "quadrans" (which was indeed worth about two lepta).  Like our American penny, the lepton was indeed the lowest-valued coin in circulation in Palestine.7  For those who are curious about how much the widow gave in American equivalence, I can confirm that the lepton was 1/128th the value of the contemporary denarius.  A denarius was the amount commonly given to a laborer as a day's wages.  So, in modern terms, if we argue that a day's pay for a laborer would be about $100 (and this may not be the best standard with which to judge.  Another method would be purchasing power, at which point the denarius is closer to only $20.  This kind of interpretation is not an exact equivalence, anymore than translating from one currency to another is an exact science even today.), the widow would be argued to have donated about 78 cents (or, even using the $20 figure, about 16 cents), which is considerably more than a single American penny.  Of course, all this pedantry really does miss the point of the widow's sacrifice.


1Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Black's New Testament Commentaries), Hendrickson Publishers, 1999. p. 212.
2Hooker, p. 219.
3Hooker, pp. 229-230.
4Hooker, p. 242.
5Hooker, p. 258.
6Hooker, pp. 261-262.
7Hooker, p. 296.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Special Transformers Feature: Mighty Muggs Bumblebee

A couple of years ago, some marketing guru at Hasbro thought of a very simple idea: Create a line of simple vinyl/plastic figures.  All figures would use the same basic shape (with one or two minor variations possible), but the images on the figures will resemble any of a number of popular characters.  Thus, the Mighty Muggs were born.

Mighty Muggs quickly became inexplicably popular, and other companies have picked up on the concept in various ways.  Disney theme parks sell "Vinylmation" figures that all use the same Mickey Mouse-inspired shape.  There's a line of DC Comics hero figures called "Blammoids" that are clearly Mighty Muggs-ripoffs.

Anyway, despite the fact that these figures are little more than glorified and overpriced paperweights, Transformers (being one of Hasbro's most profitable franchises) are in on the Mighty Muggs theme, as well.  I picked up this Mighty Muggs figure of Bumblebee more than half a year ago when it was on clearance at Target for less than half of its original price (Target is generally pretty good about clearancing figures that have been on the shelves for too long.  Toys R Us, by contrast, still has full-priced Mighty Muggs Bumblebees on their shelves to this day).  Truth be told, I still feel like I overpaid for the thing.  I guess I just don't understand what they big craze is about.  The horns are the only feature of Bumblebee that are physically any different than practically every other Mighty Muggs toy in existence, and it doesn't really do anything but stand there.  It's not even especially poseable, although I suppose the arms might raise up if I cared enough to bother to try to do so.  Basically, it just sits in my office looking cute. 

But, hey, if you don't mind spending some $10 to $15 for a cute paperweight, go for it!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shadowstorm: Firestorm's Very Own Bizarro

20 years ago, the DC comic book hero Firestorm was going through what has been called his "Elemental" stage.  That is to say, instead of the familiar "Nuclear Man," he was understood to be a "Fire Elemental," and all of his powers (which were essentially the same powers as before, although he stopped using his previous signature power of changing things into other things) were understood through a lens of having to do with fire.  Most fans consider this period a misstep in Firestorm's history, but it did make a few contributions to the myth that were interesting at the time, if all but forgotten now.

One of those contributions was the character of Shadowstorm.  Long story short, Firestorm, who was at that time experiencing a crisis of faith, was taken to a land of African gods called Ifé (called the "Living Land" in the story, although this is somewhat at variance with the real Ifé and its African mythology).  Ifé was imperiled by shadows which threatened to overtake the land, creating shadow copies of everything--and everyone--they touched.  At one point in the story, Firestorm himself was overcome by the shadows.  Although he quickly emerged, the shadows spat out a shadow copy of Firestorm, which eventually took the name of "Shadowstorm" for himself.  The gods of Ifé finally realized that the shadows were not a force to be fought, but rather an essential part of creation, as necessary as light itself.  Although these gods therefore made peace with their shadow-selves, Shadowstorm was not so easily placated.  Whereas Bizarro was a kind of "backwards" clone of Superman, Shadowstorm was a clone created from darkness and anger.  He considered it a denial of his very being to make friends with Firestorm, and departed swearing that they would remain enemies.

Firestorm soon returned to the mortal realm, and found a sign of hope in a small plant growing in the middle of the desert.  After Firestorm departed that area to return to America, Shadowstorm appeared at the same spot, to do nothing more than to destroy the plant simply because it gave Firestorm hope, an act that seemed to promise that Shadowstorm could become a major Firestorm villain for some time to come.

The cancellation of the Firestorm comic only two issues later dictated that this was not to be.

Shadowstorm did reappear about a year later, in the last story arc of Captain Atom's self-titled series.  Shadowstorm had apparently never ventured far from the place of his origins, and was slowly turning an entire African city into a city of shadows, burning away all but the anger and darkness each being possesses within themselves.  Captain Atom sought to combat Shadowstorm, but was easily overcome himself, and the outcome at the end of the series was left uncertain, at best.  The intention was to set up the possibility of Captain Atom's becoming the villain Monarch in the Armageddon 2001 series, but the last-minute decision to turn Hawk into Monarch negated the impact of that story.  Another mini-series event, War of the Gods, was taking place at that exact same time, and Shadowstorm made a quick appearance there, basically long enough to take a pot shot at Firestorm and then disappear again.

Shadowstorm has never been seen since.

This gives Shadowstorm the somewhat interesting distinction of being a villain that Firestorm has never truly defeated.  He could theoretically still be out there, perhaps having built an empire of shadows and anger where he rules supreme.  But, given the several continuity reboots the DC Universe has undertaken in the years since, and the fact that Firestorm has long since left his "Elemental" persona behind, I'm not holding my breath waiting on seeing Shadowstorm again.  Indeed, this month marks the 20th anniversary of Shadowstorm's creation, and I would truly be surprised if anyone besides me even notices.

It's too bad, because there was truly some interesting potential here....

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Offbeat Transformers Collectibles: Valentine Candy

Often, after one of the major "candy holidays" (Valentine's Day, Easter, or Halloween), I'll make a trip to one of the local drug stores, which can reliably be expected to have a clearance on all candy related to that holiday.  During such a trip yesterday, I was surprised to discover this pair of chocolate sets, cashing in on the popularity of last summer's Transformers movie.

Of course, I'm using the word "collectibles" very loosely here.  I'm not going to hold on to these.  Chocolates are for eating!

Monday, February 15, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Mark 3-7

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Mark, chapters 3 through 7.

Chapter 3

  • Verse 2 - I want to take a step back and reconsider what the Pharisees are thinking about.  Clearly, they consider it unlawful to heal someone on the sabbath.  It is considered "work" to do so, and the commandment against working on the sabbath is well-documented.  But, for Jesus, how much "work" can he really be said to be doing when he heals a person?  He says "be healed," and the person is healed.  It's not like he's having to perform physical labor to achieve the healing, nor even a more minor action like listening to the patient's heartbeat or taking the person's temperature.  I'm wondering not just how petty the attitude about sabbath observance has gotten, but just how common such an effortless healing "work" was as performed by others, that the Pharisees would have been able to adopt such an attitude against it that they're so actively looking for it to happen, even before Jesus has actually done the deed.
  • Verse 18 - Notice that Matthew is still listed among the Twelve, just as in Matthew's gospel, despite the previously-mentioned story starting in Mark 2:13 naming the tax collector Levi, instead.  A quick note re: "Simon the Zealot."  Hooker says that the word for "Zealot" was not actually used to describe the nationalistic political movement of that name until after the time of Jesus.1  This is news to me.  The word therefore may simply refer to the passion of Simon's faith, rather than his political affiliation.  In any event, it does seem likely the this word is properly translated as "zealot" rather than "Cananaean," as some translations have it (the Greek for both words is very similar).
  • Verses 31-35 - I'm curious about the fact that Jesus' sisters (referenced later in Mark 6:3) are omitted in verse 31, although am quick to note that Jesus himself puts a reference to "sisters" into his response to the observation that his family is looking for him.
Chapter 4
  • Verse 24-25 - Verse 24 sounds a lot like Matthew 7:2, which is put in the context of forgiveness, and verse 25 sounds like Matthew 25:29, which is the ending of a parable of how servants use money entrusted to their care.  It seems strange to see these verses placed here, in completely unrelated contexts, where Mark seems to be using them simply as a way of saying "pay attention."
  • Verse 34: "He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything." - Verse 12 repeats a teaching I commented on when Matthew used it, but when I listened to Mark, in particular around verse 34, I thought about a possible explanation for why Jesus might have taught in this way.  Most of us have seen commercials where we are shown just the first part of story, or a small bit of information, and at the end of the commercial, we are told to "go to oursitename.com for what happens next/for more information."  Now, I don't actually want to go so far as to suggest that Jesus would have used the Internet in this way if his earthly ministry was happening today, instead of 2000 years ago.  But it does seem to me that the parables to have a bit of a "teaser" nature about them, as if they're saying "do you want to know what this means?  Follow me and you'll find out."
Chapter 5
  • Verses 1-17 - This account is (ironically) longer than the one in Matthew, which didn't give us the demon identify of "Legion."
  • Verse 19 - Why doesn't Jesus allow the man to join as one of Jesus' followers?  Hooker, noting the setting of this particular story, suggests the possibility that this man may have been a Gentile, and that Jesus may have been limiting his ministry to the Jews (suggested elsewhere in the gospels), and thus did not allow the man to join him.2  However, Jesus did tell the man to spread the word of "how much the Lord has done for [him]," which is obviously a mission of evangelism. 
  • Verses 21-43 - I've always been struck by how this passage contains two stories, not obviously related to each other, except for how one embeds itself within the other chronologically.  While Jesus is setting out to perform one miracle, he ends up performing another on the way.
  • Verse 41: "talitha koum!" - We get a few snippets of Jesus' speech in it's original language (Aramaic), which must then be translated into Greek (and, of course, other languages such as English for modern readers) so the reader may understand it.  I've always wondered at why these particular examples are chosen.  I'll have a bit more to say after another example in chapter 7.
Chapter 6
  • Verse 1-3 - Whatever the people of Jesus' hometown (not named here, curiously) thought of Jesus, I see that at least they thought to mention that he has sisters (unlike in chapter 3), although they don't bother giving the sisters' names, as they do with the brothers.
  • Verses 5-6 - Why "couldn't" Jesus perform healings here?  Is he actually powerless/impotent if a person has no faith?  I find this troubling, because it implies that the power of a miracle lies not in God (nor in Jesus), but in the person having faith.  While I want to emphasize the importance of faith, this seems to make God too small....  Hooker suggests that Matthew had this theological problem, as well, but not Mark.3
  • Verse 8 - Unlike in Matthew (and in Luke), a staff is one of the few things Jesus does allow the disciples to have as they go out on their mission.
  • Verses 17-19 - Apparently there are some discrepancies between Mark's account of the family and marriages of Herod and the account of the historian Josephus (among other things, Josephus has Herod's brother Philip married to Salome, not to Herodias, who was apparently married to another half-brother of Herod).  Whoever's right, it's safe to say that the Herod family tree was quite complicated, and more than a little incestuous.4
  • Verses 47-52 - The familiar tale of Jesus walking on water.  Two things that stood out to me: 1) Peter is not mentioned (and thus he never walks on water himself, even for a little bit), 2) Mark takes the opportunity to comment on the disciples amazement at this feat of Jesus' by saying "for they had not understood about the loaves" (that is, in the feeding of the 5000, detailed in verses 30-44, just previous to this story).  I'm not especially clear on how, if the disciples had understood about the loaves, they wouldn't be so amazed at Jesus walking on water.  The two miracles are utterly dissimilar, aren't they?
Chapter 7
  • Verses 3-4 - Apparently, Mark is writing to an audience not immediately familiar with Jewish customs.  However, he may be overstating the case.  There is some dispute about how widespread ritual hand-washing customs were in Jesus' time, and how much these practices became more widespread in the century to follow.5
  • Verses 21-22 - Hooker notes that the first six acts are all plural nouns (indicating repeated offenses) while all the ones at the end of the list (from "deceit" onward) are all singular, denoting particular vices.6  Make of that what you will.
  • Verse 34: "Ephphatha" - Another word from Jesus' mouth, apparently transliterated from the original Aramaic, and then translated for the benefit of the reader.  Like the example in chapter 5, verse 41, this example is used in a miracle narrative.  Despite historic Biblical prohibitions against the use of magic, there is a sense in which this sounds a lot like magic, and apparently this formulation is common in miracle narratives throughout the ancient period.  However, despite Mark's insistence on retaining the original words (and I'm still not quite clear as to why he makes this choice), the fact that he translates them demonstrates one clear difference between these gospel passages and other miracle narratives: while other miracle stories would include "foreign formulae," the words were foreign to the characters in the narrative, as well as to those who might be reading the story.  Here, the words were almost certainly in the common language used by the other characters alongside Jesus, and they would have understood "ephphatha" as "be opened" without assistance.  Thus, Mark is demonstrating that the words are not a "magic formula" in the way that contemporaries would have understood such to be used in the original context.  (Imagine if Harry Potter shouted "Disarm!" instead of "Expelliarmus!")7


1Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Black's New Testament Commentaries), Hendrickson Publishers, 1999. pp. 112-113.
2Hooker, p. 145.
3Hooker, p. 154.
4Hooker, p. 160.
5See Hooker, pp. 174-175.
6Hooker, p. 180.
7See Hooker, pp. 150, 186.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Depressing Times, Unlucky Ages, and Self-Esteem

When I read this article on The Atlantic's online site, I can't really say I was surprised.  I mean, I've been commenting on economic hard times for a long time now.  I work in an institution that has been hit hard, and we're still struggling to adapt to the current climate.  And I've long understood that my generation has always lived in an economic reality very different than that of the previous generation.  So, to read in the Atlantic article that "trauma... will remain heavy for quite some time" really isn't anything new.

But it's still kind of depressing.

The article is pretty far ranging.  Racial dynamics, marriage, generational shift, and more are all covered.  I can't begin to comment on it all.  Perhaps the bit that stood out the most to me is the following statement:
...those who had entered the workforce during inhospitable times were still earning 10 percent less on average than those who had emerged into a more bountiful climate. When you add up all the earnings losses over the years... it’s as if the lucky graduates had been given a gift of about $100,000, adjusted for inflation, immediately upon graduation—or, alternatively, as if the unlucky ones had been saddled with a debt of the same size.
Recognizing that the country has been struggling economically for roughly a decade already, about the length of time that I've worked full-time, that would make me one of the "unlucky ones."  The article hits that point even more when it suggests that, "for a sizeable proportion of 20- and 30-somethings, the next few years will likely be toxic."  I'm 35 now.  These guys really aren't trying to be comforting, are they?

Now, I've done the math.  If I take my wages from 10 years ago and compare them to my wages today, I find that I've averaged an increase of 3.5% per year each of those years.  Basically, I'm keeping up with historic inflation.  I'm not really gaining any ground, and it's not like my "starting point" was very high to begin with, but I'm not really losing ground, either.  It could be worse.

Another aspect of the article that struck me is the assertion that a culture of self-esteem is partially to blame:
Twenge notes that self-esteem in children began rising sharply around 1980, and hasn’t stopped since.... Twenge attributes the shift to broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what. As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem—and to decouple it from performance—have become widespread....

Twenge writes that "self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work....  There’s an element of entitlement—they expect people to figure things out for them.”
Neither Twenge nor the article itself go so far as to blame Mister Rogers, as others have done, but there's still something about the criticism that makes me bristle.  I've already agreed that self-esteem without basis is a bad thing, but I'm simply not convinced that "performance" is the best "basis" on which a person should determine their worth.  A person is valuable because that person is a child of God.  That's not to say a person should take pride in mediocrity, or fail to work hard to achieve success, but this paragraph looks to me like an older generation trying to find something to blame in the younger generation that may not have anything to do with the actual cause of the current economic difficulty (which, no doubt, is complicated enough that anyone confronted with this suggestion would realize it's too simplistic, anyway).

Perhaps I bristle at the suggestion that I "expect people to figure things out for [me]."  I don't think I'm doing that.  I'm trying to be as creative as I know how to earn enough money to get by, and to work as hard as I have the strength to do to earn the money my job pays.  If it's not enough, is that my fault for not being imaginitve enough to try something else, or am I not working hard enough, despite putting in a full 40-hour work week at a job that has been a stable source of income in a very unstable climate? 

Perhaps it's the fault of my high self-esteem that I don't think so....

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The (Second) Return of the Popples?

If you were a kid in the mid-to-late 80's, you might remember "Popples."  If you weren't around then, or don't remember, I suppose that I might describe Popples as a kind of "plush Transformer."  That is to say, in one form, a Popple is just a fuzzy ball, but you can "pop" it open and turn it into a pudgy stuffed animal.  I seem to remember hearing something about the line "coming back" (as so many 80's toy lines have done) a couple of years ago, but I don't think I've ever seen any.

I have, however, stumbled upon these toys called "Fur Berries" while at Toys R Us recently.  So far as I can tell, it's pretty much the exact same thing as a Popple, perhaps with the Strawberry Shortcake gimmick (they're scented to smell like fruit) thrown in.  (Incidentally, both Popples and Strawberry Shortcake were done by the same company way back when.  Fur Berries don't seem to be by the same folks, though.)

I actually have to wonder if they've been around for a while, and I've simply never noticed.  The Fur Berries web site says you can buy these at (among other places) KB Toys, but KB went out of business more than a year ago.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Name is NicodemusLegend!

I've been trying to be more conscious about my web presence lately.  In some forums, I use my real name, and no doubt will continue to do so for a while yet, since I think that anonymity is the enemy of open dialogue.  In others (especially Transformers-related ones), I use G.B. Blackrock, and again, that will probably continue, since that's how people know me in those venues.  But there are times when using my real name simply isn't appropriate in an online venue, and those periods in "G.B. Blackrock" don't play nicely with certain web standards, such as in an e-mail address, or a Twitter username.

I've also been trying to figure out how to promote this blog a bit better.  I thought about changing my Twitter account to "Transforming Seminarian," to tie it more explicitly to this blog.  Unfortunately, it seems that "Transforming Seminarian" is too long to work as a Twitter username.

So, what else should I try?  I've been referring to myself as "B-W" on this blog since more or less when it started nearly five years ago.  It's a reference to my real last name, Baker-Wright, that I latched on to shortly after getting married.  But if you don't know me already, "B-W" isn't a very strong identity.  I decided to go with the name I've been using in non-Transformers venues for a decade or more now: "Nicodemus Legend" (or, more properly, "NicodemusLegend," given the fact that many web venues don't like spaces in usernames, either!).  It's pretty unique, so far as I've been able to tell.  I've yet to come across a venue in which the name was already taken (on the couple of occasions where I thought it was being used already, I soon discovered that I was the person who created it, and I'd simply forgotten!), and thus the name is readily attached to me, at least in most places where one is likely to find it, yet it's just enough removed from my actual name to discourage spambots.

Of course, I didn't create the name, myself.  Nicodemus Legend is the namesake of a show from 1995 called LegendI've written a little about it here, and already have plans to do so a bit more in the not-too-distant future.  With the exception of a blog I did for The Price is Right for all of about two weeks (don't bother looking for it.  I deleted it, and don't even have copies of anything I wrote for that myself, anymore), it remains to this day the only television show I've cared about enough to devote an entire site to (unless you argue that this is a site dedicated to the Transformers television show, which I think is a stretch in the extreme, since I focus much more on the toys themselves).  Adapting the nom de guerre of Nicodemus Legend (which, itself, was the "nom de guerre" of the Legend character Ernest Pratt, in Pratt's own words) has simply made sense.

So, although I expect traces of "B-W" will remain on this site, especially in older parts that I haven't thought to go back and edit, I'm going by "NicodemusLegend" here at Transforming Seminarian from here on out.  Now I don't even have to change my Twitter account!

UPDATE: 3/14/11 - Actually, I've changed my mind, and will go by "Transforming Seminarian" here.  "NicodemusLegend" remains my Twitter account, and until/unless I can change that to reflect the full "Transforming Seminarian" name, it will continue to do so.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Matthew 26-28 and Mark 1-2

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Matthew, chapters 26 through 28 and Mark, chapters 1 and 2.

Chapter 26

  • Verses 3-5 - The enemies of Jesus state a clear intention not to arrest and kill Jesus "during the Festival" (i.e., Passover).  Yet it becomes clear (especially see verse 17) that this is exactly when Jesus is indeed arrested and eventually killed.  Were the actual people who actually performed the arrest (and subsequent events) different individuals?  Did such people actively ignore the requests not to do this during Passover?   Perhaps the opportunity of Judas' betrayal simply came at that time, and it was too good an offer to turn down...
  • Verse 18: "a certain man..." - I assume that Jesus actually named this person (otherwise, how would the disciples be able to find him?), and moreover assume that this person was a follower of Jesus (although Hagner suggests otherwise on this last point1).  Even so, I'm curious that Matthew seems unaware of the man's identity.  He goes to the trouble to name Simon the Leper in verse 6, even though Simon isn't an active part of that story at all, and he is named nowhere else in Matthew.
  • Verse 25: "'Surely not I, Rabbi?'... 'You have said so.'" -Errr... said what?  Judas asks the same question the other disciples do (verse 22) with the sole exception that Judas calls Jesus "Rabbi" rather than "Lord" (the Greek is identical for these verses, as well).  But I don't see how "You have said so" can refer to Judas calling Jesus "Rabbi."  Rather, it seems to be a response to the question of Judas' guilt (Hagner seems to agree2), but I don't see how that response flows out of the question the way it is worded here. 
  • Verses 39-46 - If the disciples are sleeping through Jesus' prayers, how do we have recorded what he prayed?
  • Verses 40, 45 - Jesus is annoyed with his disciples again.  But who can blame him?
  • Verse 52 -This is a famous passage, often cited by Christians who believe that Jesus advocated pacifism.  Full disclosure: I'm very sympathetic to a "pacifist" philosophy, myself, although I can't quite claim it fully.  Without a doubt, not only is Jesus saying that violence was undesirable in this specific instance, but was advocating for something larger.  However, it is inconceivable that Jesus was unaware that Peter (one of the very closest of Jesus' followers) didn't have a sword with him.  Indeed, he must have carried it around for some time before this moment, and swords aren't exactly easy to hide.  Why did Jesus allow Peter to carry this sword up until now?
  • Verses 67-68 - When I read this taunting, I can't help but be reminded of schoolyard bullies and mean-spirited childhood teasing. 
Chapter 27
  • Verse 3 - I've always wondered what Judas expected to happen.  What did he want the authorities to do to Jesus?  
  • Verse 6 - The chief priests care about following the law in regard to what to do with Judas' money, but the kangaroo court they just got through in Chapter 26 seems not to be on their conscience....
  • Verse 8: "to this day" - This phrase evokes, for me, myths like Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories," tales designed to explain certain realities, even though the tales aren't necessarily factually true.  Perhaps the passage of 2000 years of time has heighted that sense, and so it's worth nothing that "to this day," for Matthew, simply means the decades (not centuries, let alone millenia!) that have passed since the events being depicted.
  • Verse 17 - Jesus is actually a fairly common name of this period.  Ironically, "Barabbas" itself might be translated as "son of the Father."  It seems unlikely that such a name is intentionally used for the person in this story that isn't Jesus Christ3, but the irony is hard to miss.
  • Verses 24-25 - These verses have often been used by Christians to justify anti-Semitic attitudes and actions.  Even if Matthew did intend to demonstrate Jews culpability in Jesus' death, it must be noted that he almost certainly saw them as having already received their punishment via the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.  Matthew did not imagine that Christians should persecute Jewish people in perpetuity.4
Chapter 28
  • Verses 11-15 - This section ends with another use of the phrase "to this day," which evokes much the same feel as the one in Chapter 27.  The tale that the chief priests ask the soldiers to tell is remarkable, since it amounts to having the soldiers say that they were sleeping on the job (an act of gross irresponsibility that could have them killed!), and I find myself questioning how the priests could successfully "keep [the soldiers] out of trouble" if the governor made an issue of things.
Mark
Chapter 1
  • Verses 1-4 - I've always (well, at least since having this pointed out to me in a 1989 Youth Conference sermon by Tom Are, Jr.) found it remarkable that, to Mark, "[t]he beginning of the good news about Jesus" is not Jesus' birth, but rather the coming of John the Baptizer.
  • Verses 9-11 - This section is notable more for what isn't here than for what is.  There's no balking by John at the prospect of baptizing Jesus (despite verse 7).  Jesus makes no defense of why he needs to be baptized.  It pretty much just... happens.
  • Verse 11 - Mark's account here gives no indication that the words were heard by anyone other than Jesus (besides the fact that someone must have shared them in order for them to be written down, that is), whereas other gospels suggest "a wider audience."5
  • Verses 12-13 - As was the case with Jesus' baptism, Mark doesn't seem to care about the details of Jesus' temptations at the hands of Satan.  It is apparently enough to tell us that they happened.
  • Verse 22: "as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law" - Mark makes a big deal about Jesus' teaching and the "authority" from which it comes.  It's hard for me to imagine just what Mark is getting at here.  When I think of a person as teaching "with authority," I think of a person who teaches with confidence, boldly proclaiming truth.  Surely, Mark doesn't mean to say that "the teachers of the law" taught without such confidence!  Indeed, elsewhere in the gospels, it seems that such teachers are often arrogant!  However, Hooker suggests that this kind of authority may have indeed been the source of the crowd's reaction, noting that while many teachers were able to "[quote] at length what previous teachers had said," they generally hesitated "to make any authoritative judgment."  However, she also suggests that "for [Mark], the authority of Jesus is unique, and totally unlike that of anyone else."6
  • Verse 41: "Jesus was indignant" - Why does Jesus get upset at the man's request for healing?  Is it because the man hedges the healing with Jesus' willingness?  If so, why should this matter?  Hooker acknowledges the alternative reading (also in the footnotes at Bible Gateway), whereby Jesus is moved by pity or compassion, but the more "embarrassing" reading is almost certainly correct. Hooker's conclusion is that Jesus is angry, not at the man, but at "the evil forces which have claimed the man as their victim."7
  • Verse 45 - Another person healed, who disobeys Jesus' instructions afterward.  Again, if there are any consequences (to that person, that is) of this disobedience, we never know about it.
Chapter 2
  • Verses 13-17 - This passage sounds a lot like one in Matthew, where Matthew's name is substituted for Levi's.  Many think that Matthew and Levi are the same person, but there is no direct evidence to suggest the two people (or, indeed, the two similar incidents) are the same.8
  • Verse 26: "In the days of Abiathar the high priest" - The story being referenced can be found in 1 Samuel 21:1-6, but in that account, Ahimelek is the high priest, not his son Abiathar.9


1See Dr. Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary), Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995. p. 765.
2Hagner, p. 768.
3Hagner, on p. 823, notes a scholar who actually does argue that "Jesus Barabbas" is another name for Jesus Christ himself, but dismisses this notion as depending "more on imagination than evidence."
4See Hagner, p. 827.
5Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Black's New Testament Commentaries), Hendrickson Publishers, 1999. pp. 45-46.
6Hooker, p. 63.
7Hooker, pp. 79-80.
8See Hooker, p. 94, for further complicating details.
9See Hooker, p. 103.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Kicks on 66: "Attend The Church of Your Choice"

A prominent sign on Route 66 in the nearby town of Azusa displays a message that is by no means unique to Azusa, but which might be seen in any of a number of cities not only in Southern California, but all over the country (indeed, some of my "Bible Belt" friends, who have formed their own opinions of what Southern California is like on the basis of what they see on television, might be surprised to learn just how common such a sight is around here!): "Attend The Church of Your Choice."  This particular sign then proceeds to to offer a dozen-and-a-half options representing a range of denominational options within the broad Christian tradition.

There's quite a bit about signs like this that I appreciate.  I appreciate the ecumenism that such a sign represents.  Rather than encouraging particular denominations (be they Roman Catholic, or Southern Baptist, or Presbyterian, or whatever) to see themselves as holding exclusive claims to "truth," this kind of sign encourages Christians to think of each other as part of a family of equals.  Likewise, I'm a fan of encouraging people to make their own "choices" about where to worship, and feel that this sign provides that kind of encouragement in a low-pressure, guilt-free way.

I do have a few concerns, however.  The first and most obvious one is the lack of non-Christian faiths represented on this kind of board.  Far from being encouraged to attend a Christian church (much less become a Christian), I imagine that a person of Jewish or Muslim background would look at this kind of sign as kind of Christian "imperialism," whereby Christians assume that they are the only people that matter.  My evangelical impulse is bothered by this potential problem, but I don't pretend to know how to fix it, nor would I suggest that including a more diverse set of worship gatherings would necessarily solve the problem.  Indeed, I'm sure it would just raise evangelical questions of its own.

The idea of "choice" in worship also raises a few questions for me.  There seems to be a hyper-individualism at work in American society (perhaps especially in Southern California!) that tells people "if you don't like your current church, just go to another one!"  I'm sure that I've been guilty of this, myself.  On the one hand, I don't think that a person should just go to the closest church to where they live (or even necessarily the closest church within that person's denomination), nor that a person should just "put up with" any amount of dysfunction within a congregation.  On the other hand, I think that it's important to recognize that any church, being a gathering of human beings, is going to reflect in some way or another the broken nature of humanity.  There is no such thing as a perfect church, and I can't help but wish that more people were committed to seeing their local congregations through periods of difficulty.  Or, to put it another way (and to paraphrase a former president's famous words), I wish more people would "ask not what their church can do for them, but ask what they can do for their church."

I do find myself wondering about what attendance is like at the churches mentioned on this sign.  Whatever its intentions originally were (and I suspect that this sign dates back quite a few decades!), do people attend these churches on the basis of having been made aware of them by their mention on the sign?  Does the sign encourage newcomers to attend, when they first arrive in town?  (And how many "newcomers" come to Azusa these days?)  When new members come to one of these churches, do they come from one of the other churches on the sign, or are they truly new to church attendance in the first place?   I fear that quite a bit of new church membership comes at the expense of church losses somewhere else, rather than representing any true growth.

None of this is to say that I don't think that this sign should be here.  I'm glad to see this kind of open expression of Christian involvement in a community.  But it's also a reminder of the fact that this world is not as it should be....

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Offbeat Transformers Collectibles: Play Shave Set

It's been a while since I've delved into the more bizarre side of Transformers collecting.  This is an item I don't actually have, myself, but I shot this picture with my cell phone (hence the low resolution) while I was at the toy store.  I can't actually say that, as a kid, I wanted to "play" at shaving, but I suppose that kids want to emulate their parents in all sorts of ways, so why not this one?  And if the marketing folks can make a little extra money by capitalizing on the popularity of Transformers... well, naturally, very little is considered "out of bounds" if someone thinks that they can make money off of it.

I did find it a bit odd to see that this play shaving set also includes a little brush (just left of center in the picture), since I wasn't even aware that brush-style shaving cream still existed, even for adults!  I've always just used the stuff you squirt out of a can.....

Monday, February 01, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Matthew 21-25

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Matthew, chapters 21 through 25.

Chapter 21

  • It's not quite Lent yet, but I find it interesting that we come to this section with Lent right around the corner.  I'm sure we'll get to the parallel passage in Mark shortly after Lent begins, and maybe even to the version in Luke before Easter, which wasn't planned, exactly, but seems rather appropriate.
  • Verses 4-7 - Matthew's attempt to tie the actions of Jesus to Old Testament prophecy creates an interesting hiccup, here.  The Old Testament passage in question is Zechariah 9:9.  The oddity comes less from the Old Testament itself, but rather from how the action plays out in this gospel.  In Zechariah, there seems to be but one animal: a donkey referred to as a colt.  Matthew clearly depicts two animals: a donkey and a colt. In fact, Matthew seems unclear about which of the two Jesus rode upon.  Some English translations (the KJV, for example) seem to depict the improbable picture of Jesus riding upon the two animals simultaneously!  Although Hagner notes that the other gospels only have one animal, he dismisses the idea that Matthew was confused about the Zechariah passage (reading two animals where only one was originally intended) as unrealistic for one as well-versed in the Jewish scriptures and tradition as Matthew.  Rather, he suggests that "an unbroken colt... was usually introduced into service while accompanied by its parent" and suggests that it is therefore probable that both animals did, in fact, enter Jerusalem with Jesus (who, it would appear, rode on the younger animal).1
  • Verses 18-22 - I'm going to leave aside the symbolism of the fig tree for now (this passage is paralleled elsewhere, and I need to leave a few things to talk about later), but I do want to call attention to Jesus' emphasis on faith without doubt again.  These passages trouble me, because I've seen them abused so often.  If something goes wrong for a person, even after prayer, the person is often made to feel as though it is the person's own fault, due to lack of sufficient faith.  My best response is that of the man in Mark 9:24: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
  • Verses 33-44 - I know that this is a parable, but I'm struggling to understand the internal logic by which tenants would ever come to think that killing a landlord's son would make them heirs....
Chapter 22
  • Verses 11-14 - Why does Jesus put such importance on this person who managed to show up without wedding clothes?  Again, Jesus says something that strikes against the common notion that our works don't matter.  But what "important work of response" is this meant to suggest for us?  Hagner notes that, although the parable these verses are a part of appears in Mark and Luke, this part is unique to Matthew.2
  • Verse 21: "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." - I have heard preachers use this quote to say that there are two categories suggested here: things that are Caesar's and other things that are God's.  This almost certainly is an erroneous interpretation.  What can be said to be not God's?  Hagner has an interesting note on this passage, highlighting that an earlier incident where Jesus addresses an issue about paying tax was in regard to the Jewish temple tax, whereas this incident concerns a tax to the Romans.3
  • Verse 41-46 - Why should this teaching, regarding the "son of David" being called "Lord" by David himself, be the one that causes everyone to no longer "dare" to ask Jesus any more questions?
Chapter 23
  • Verses 8-12 - So, should Christians refrain from all honorary titles, including (for example) "reverend"?
  • Verses 13-39: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!" - I count six times that Jesus uses this exact phrase.  "Angry Jesus" is definitely on full display here!  (The TNIV has the heading "Seven Woes..." for this passage.  Verse 16 is the seventh, but it uses "Woe to you, blind guides!"  "Blind priests" seems to be a favorite epithet of Margaret Fell, as I recall.  I wonder if she had this passage in mind....) 
Chapter 24
  • There is some confusion about how much of this chapter (and Chapter 25, really) is about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (in 70 AD, which had already taken place by the time Matthew was written down) and how much is about the End Times.  It's worth noting that, for the disciples in Jesus' context, there really was no comprehension of a difference between the two.4
  • Verse 36 - The idea that even Jesus himself admitted to not knowing something (specifically, the time of his Second Coming, and of the End) was apparently so scandalous to the early church that some copyists removed the reference to the Son's ignorance entirely (both here and in the parallel passage in Mark).5 Back when I was taking classes from Dr. Hagner (one reason I'm using his commentary for now. I'll try to use Fuller professors whenever I have a commentary of theirs available), I learned about the "criterion of embarrassment."  That is to say, if evidence exists for different versions of a text, the one that would have been considered "embarrassing" to the church is the one most likely to be changed by the church later on (thus explaining the variation), and is thus more likely to be original.  The "criterion of embarrassment" is, of course, not the only criterion used to determine textual authenticity, of course.  However, it's obviously a relevant one here. 
Chapter 25
  • Verses 14-30 - The point about being faithful with what one has been entrusted with is obvious enough, but I wonder why, in this particular story, "faithfulness" and "ability" are correlated.  It seems to be the case that, as often as not (in both other parts of Scripture and in the world around us), those who have very little are often very faithful with what little they have, yet those with great wealth are often hostile to matters of faith, and indeed often have obtained their wealth itself through less-than-honest means.  Why does Jesus go the other direction in this instance?
  • Verse 24 - For that matter, the servant seems to think that the master himself is less than honest.  Surely Jesus is not trying to say such a thing about God!
  • Verses 31-46 - For the purposes of this teaching, Jesus sets up two distinct and separate categories of people: "sheep" and "goats."  However, it seems to me that this does not accurately describe our reality.  I may (through the grace of God) do kind deeds for those in need from time to time, but I also fail to do more often than I care to admit.  Am I a sheep, because I occasionally do what is right, or a goat, because I occasionally fail to do so?  
  • (Same verses) - Although it may not be obvious from the passage itself, there is also the question of whether Jesus intends for the "sheep" to do good deeds for literally everyone, or if he is limiting the scope of this teaching to say that good deeds must be done for fellow followers of Jesus.  Hagner suggests that the latter is the original intention,6 but this would by no means preclude good deeds to all as a general principle of behavior.


1Dr. Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary), Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995. p. 594.
2Hagner, pp. 627, 631.
3Hagner, p. 636, although the text of Hagner erroneously cites Matthew 17:4, rather than 17:24.
4See Hagner, p. 688.
5Hagner, p. 716.
6Hagner, pp. 742-747.

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