Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Time at the Far End of Life

This is a very personal note to my brothers and sisters nearing the end of their allotted term. It is time to start thinking in critical time. Life eventually boils down to time, particularly for those of us at the far end of life: how much time do we have left and what shall we do with it? At age 89 I have just begun to ponder both of these questions some three months after the death of my wife of 67 years from Alzheimer’s. From age 20 through her passing she, and later our children, formed the basis of all my decisions about time. The time we spent was always our time together or, when the children came along, family time. When Alzheimer’s manifested itself, I became her caregiver and my time became her time.

How much time is left and what to do with it are not existential questions that necessarily trouble those in youth or middle age.  The very young initially have their time taken-up with schooling mandated by the state, family associated activities, and, later, things concerned with preparation for life’s long haul: occupation, marriage, children, etc. For the middle aged there is daily work for paychecks to pay for the things of life that have claimed one’s time. All things being equal, these two questions about critical time belong particularly to those of us at the far end of life, and those terminally ill. Once life has irrevocably changed (retirement, death of a spouse, advanced old age, terminal illness, etc.) we stand in a critical moment, at a critical juncture, where we are turning into that period of life we begin to recognize as our final days.

            The ancient Greeks recognized the nature of critical time and distinguished generally between two words for time: Chronos (χρονος) and Kairos (καιρος). Chronos designated “a definite time, a period of time, a while, a season,” but Kairos with respect to time designated “the right point of time, the proper time or season for action, the exact or critical time.”1 The latter moment is where many of us now find ourselves, at a critical juncture facing the end of our days at some unknown point in the not-too-distant future. The question is very personal: what to do with these final days?

Since Peggy died, I have received advice for dealing with loneliness and grief in various forms: pamphlets from funeral homes, personal advice from good friends, calls from social workers, etc. The advice, probably coming from experience (personal and otherwise), is informally the same: seek counseling from a licensed therapist; find a support group; volunteer with some social service agency, hospital, or charity; take a class; perhaps take a trip where one is forced to make new acquaintances; find reasons to visit with old friends; take up a hobby or immerse oneself in hobbies of long standing. All of these are helpful suggestions. But, somehow, they have not resonated with me, being so close to the end of this final term of life (pardon the academic allusion). I have strong family support from my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, most of whom live right near in my neighborhood.

What religious rationalists might do, when confronted with a ponderable crisis, is pick up a Bible. In spite of its many blemishes, mistakes, and other shortcomings it records the ponderings of religious folk of two ancient religions over a 1300- year period, roughly from the Israelite Exodus (around 1250 BCE to the writing of 2 Peter (around 125CE).2 Not unreasonably one may expect here and there to find helpful suggestions. I found a convenient “hook” for pondering my last days in Eph 5:15-16 and Col 4:5. Two of Paul’s students, writings under the pseudonym of “Paul, an apostle” (i.e., they are putting words in Paul’s mouth)3 urge their readers to be wise “making the most of crucial time” (εξαγοραζομενοι τον καιρον),4 the only two instances in the New Testament that these two words are used together. How does one “make the most of crucial time”? The authors of these two texts do not share the specifics of their thinking about that question. Hence, everyone must decide for themselves what will be their specific response to their latter days. In short, they must decide in what they will invest themselves, considering their abilities, health, and interests.

            I have not yet finished the pondering process, but I have come up with four general suggestions (devoid of specifics because everyone is different) that have been helpful to me for staying engaged: 1. Make an effort to stay involved in living to the best of your abilities, and resist withdrawing into yourself. 2. Aim to make a contribution to the lives of others. 3. Learn something new every day (you just have to be curious). 4. Keep a sense of humor about yourself and your situation in life. There is nothing in these suggestions that is profound, but they are certainly cogent.

One other suggestion comes from the Apostle Paul himself. Writing from prison (Phil 1:7, 12-17) from Rome, Caesarea, or Ephesus (Phil 1:13; 4:22),5 Paul harbored hopes that his situation might yet change for the better (Phil 1:19, 26-27; 2:24). But whether it did or not was unimportant and he asserts: “I have learned how to manage in whatever circumstances I find myself” (Phil 4:11).6 Good advice for those of us at the far end.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The abridged version of Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (from the 7th edition of Liddell and Scott; Oxford: Clarendon, 1975). Here are some examples in the New Testament of time used as “the proper time or season for action”: Mark 1:15; 11:13; Matt 13:30; 21:34; 26:18; Luke 12:56; 21:8; John 7:6, 8; Acts 3:20; 7:20; Rom 9:9; 13:11; 1 Cor 4:5; 7:29; Eph 5:16; Col 4:5.

2See Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 2.

3For the pseudonymity of these two letters, see W. G. Kϋmmel, Introduction to the New Testament (Howard Kee, trans. 17th ed. rev.; Abingdon, 1975), Colossians, 340-46; Ephesians, 357-163.

4This is my translation of the expression in Eph 5:16 and Col 4:5. In some older translations (for example, King James Version) one may find the expression translated as “redeeming the time,” which doesn’t quite communicate the Greek, in my view.

5See Kϋmmel, Introduction, 324-32.

6A. J. Dewey, et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge, 2010), 181. This is the only occurrence of αυταρκης in the New Testament. The usual translation of the word as “contented,” is inadequate.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Provocative Possessive Pronouns in Matthew

This essay began when I was struck by an unexpected use of a plural possessive pronoun ("their") modifying synagogue (Matt 10:17), when the simple article, "the," would have been sufficient. There is no antecedent specifically identifying who these "owners" of synagogues are. In the immediate context "they" (Matt 10:17), that is, those people and "their synagogues" appears to be the "wolves" in 10:16, a rather harsh term for those who are Jews themselves to use for other Jews (Ioudaioi), who worship in synagogues. The possessive pronoun is provocative because it immediately calls attention to the other group in Matt 10:17 ("you") whom the Jews allegedly will flog in "their synagogues"; this group is unnamed, but in the larger literary context it is possible they are the twelve whom Jesus sends forth (Matt 10:5) with his instructions in Matt 10:1-11:1. There may be another possibility, however.

The use of the possessive "their," for those who gather in synagogues, is odd because Jesus and his disciples were also Jews and attended synagogues. The possessive pronoun (their) and the designation of Jews as wolves, on the other hand, suggest that Jesus and his disciples are in no way identified with the synagogue, which is obviously not the case in first-century Palestine. They also attended synagogues. By using the third-person possessive pronoun to modify synagogue, the author of Matthew has evoked for the reader another shadowy group who does not identify with the synagogue but who consider themselves over against those who gather in synagogues. Here is the rationale for this statement: If you say an object is "theirs," it implies an ownership not shared by the one who speaks.

The use of this pronoun without clarification raises the question, who is this group that is not identified with the synagogue? Has Matthew deliberately evoked them, or is it simply an accidental verbal slip? Has Matthew inadvertently, momentarily, let slip aside his cover as a (theoretically) neutral describer of earlier events and opened for readers a window into events current in the author's own later time, as happens at Matt 28:15 (and Matt 11:23 and 27:8): "And this story is still told among the Jews to this day (italics mine). That is to say, the story is still being told in Jewish communities in the author's own later lifetime, but it is not being told by those in the author's different community.

The word "synagogue" appears in Matthew's Gospel a total of 9 times.1 Out of 9 times Matthew modifies synagogue by the third-person possessive pronoun "their" a total of 5 times and once by the second-person plural possessive pronoun "your" (23:34). Mark, on the other hand, uses a possessive pronoun to modify synagogue only twice (1:23, 39) out of eight uses. Luke uses a possessive pronoun with synagogue only once (4:15) out of fifteen uses with synagogue. John uses synagogue only twice, both times without a possessive pronoun. In Acts, Luke uses synagogue 19 times, none of which are used with a possessive pronoun but he does modify synagogue with a prepositional phrase as the "synagogue of the Jews" (Acts 13:5; 17:10). James uses synagogue once with the possessive pronoun "your" (2:2).

Possibly the use of the possessive in "their synagogue" might allude to Jews in a specific geographical location. For example, if the possessive pronoun "their" modified synagogue in connection with the village of Capernaum, "their synagogue" would likely be the synagogue of the Jews who lived in Capernaum, as happens in Mark 1:21, 23. But no named villages are mentioned in Matthew with respect to any of the passages where Matthew writes "their synagogue." There are two unspecific general regional locations, however, in Matt 4:23 ("throughout Galilee") and 9:35 ("all the cities and villages"). Another general location sets-up a contrast in an area where Jesus was brought-up (Matt 13:54) in which "they" have "their synagogue." That is to say, there was a synagogue in the general area of Jesus' own part of the country (patris). This passage (Matt 13:54-58) sets up a negative contrast between the people of the synagogue and Jesus. The synagogue folk were quite familiar with the family of Jesus (Matt 13:55-56), yet what he said "astounded" them, and they became "offended" at him for what he said in "their synagogue" (Matt 13:54).

If one will allow that Matthew has inadvertently allowed his/her cover to slip and thereby evoked another religious group competing with the synagogue of the Jews in his (Matthew's) day by modifying synagogue with the third-person possessive pronoun "their" rather than an expected "the," how might this group be characterized? Apparently, they did not think of themselves as Jews, for synagogues are worship centers for Jews: the force of the pronoun is that "Jews use synagogues; we don't." This other group apparently used the anachronistic term "church" (ekklēsia, is usually translated as "church"), which turns up three times in Matthew. Matthew apparently conceived this later term as a worship gathering, which was not so used in Jesus' lifetime, to contrast with "their synagogue" at 16:18 (18:17 twice).2 Matthew even describes the term in connection with a few early community rules (18:17) of the later formal Christian ecclesiastical order (18:15-22).

Relationships between the church and synagogue in Matthew's later day appear less than cordial. The group represented by Jesus' church ("my church," 16:18) and who worship Jesus' Father ("my Father"),3 viewed those of the synagogue negatively, effectively replacing them as the people of God (Matt 21:43; 8:10-12). Jesus was sent to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:5-6; 15:24). The people of Jesus will in the end-time judge the twelve tribes of Israel (19:28). Matthew chapter 6 contrasts the people of the synagogue (6:2, 5, 16; 23:2-7) with the followers of Jesus (6:3-4, 6-15, 17-18; 23: 8-12). The people of the synagogue and the leaders of the Jewish people are excoriated and execrated for their behavior in Matt 23:13-36. And the Judean mob at Jesus' trial before Pilate audaciously accepts the blame for the death of Jesus (27:24-26).

Read in this way Matthew's Gospel reveals hostile relationships between the church and the synagogue in Matthew's day in the period from 80 to 100 CE when the Gospel of Matthew was likely written.4

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1With possessive pronoun: Matt 4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9; 13:54; 23:34; without possessive pronoun: Matt 6:2, 5; 23:6.

2In Jesus' day, and even in the later time of Paul, the term ekklēsia should be more loosely translated as "gathering." The term "church" does not appear in Mark, Luke, or John.

3My Father: Matt 7:21; 10:32-33; 11:27; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10, 19, 35.

4Werner G. Kϋmmel, Introduction to the New Testament (rev. ed.; from the 17th German ed.: SCM, 1975), 119-120.