Friday Facts: Lectionary A – First Sunday in Lent

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Matthew 4.1

Then Jesus was led out into the desert by the spirit in order to be tempted by the devil.

Today’s reading offers a good opportunity to talk about the difference between a concordance and a synoptic word study.

A concordance word study, as I’ve done several times in Paul’s epistles (see here or here), is a study that takes a particular word and looks at its use over a body of text. That body can be as small as a single book, e.g. studying the use of the word υδωρ [water] in the gospel of John. Or it can be slightly larger, e.g. studying the use of the word πιστις [faith] in the epistles of Paul. Or it can extend to an entire testament, or with a little translational work, it could encompass the entire Bible. The goal of a concordance study is to examine how a word is used over a variety of different circumstances in order to draw out its meaning.

On the other hand, a synoptic study does the opposite. Rather than looking for parallels or contradictions in usage of a particular word, a synoptic study looks at the different ways in which different authors talk about the same story. Because a synoptic study requires authors to report on the same story, the opportunity to conduct them is much more limited than for concordance studies. In the Old Testament, the books of Kings and Chronicles provide one such opportunity. In the New Testament, the first three gospels provide the same opportunity, and because of that have earned the collective title of Synoptics.

But how exactly does a Synoptic study work? Matthew 4.1 provides a good example. The Greek word πειρασθῆναι, often translated “tempted,” can also mean “tested” or “tried.” And in the context of Jesus’ contest with the devil, either seems appropriate. But a synoptic study looking at the parallel passage in Mark helps to weight the translation of Matthew towards “tempted.”

Looking at the parallel passage, we see that Mark describes Jesus as being ἐκβαλλει [thrown out] into the wilderness, a word often associated in Mark with demonic exorcism. Mark’s uses of the word sets up Jesus’ encounter with the devil as a contest like the other exorcisms, and so translators are justified in rendering πειραζόμενος as tested. However, in Matthew, the word is not ἐκβαλλει. It is ἀνήχθη, a much more sedate verb choice. It means to “to lead,” and the thus sets up a less confrontational, but perhaps more tempting encounter between Jesus and the devil. Thus, by comparing the two passages, we can mark that Matthew sees the event in a different light than his fellow evangelist, and we can choose “tempt” as our translation for πειρασθῆναι.

Aldo Leopold, Self-Evidence, and the Iowa Caucus

As referenced below, this post original was published before the Iowa Caucus. However, I think that the outcome of the election has rendered the contents moot.

Let me begin with two caveats. One, this actually has very little to do with the Iowa Caucus that happened last night. I just thought I’d jump on the trending hashtag. Two, I’m a big fan of Aldo Leopold. In fact, I was once quoted as saying A Sand County Almanac is my favorite book in a seminary admission’s brochure.

Aldo Leopold begins the foreword to A Sand County Almanac with these words: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” In making this statement, Leopold takes the humble step of admitting that his deeply held values are not self-evident. He realizes that not all people love the wild places in the world like he does. Now, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think those people shouldn’t love and protect those wild places. In fact, in his book, Leopold maintains that people, wilderness lovers and city-slickers alike, need to change their views of the world. But, he realizes that it will not come easily or without careful exposition, and in the opening to his book, he acknowledges that perhaps, some people will never get it.


Christians in the United States, on both sides of the political spectrum, need to learn this lesson. On both sides of the aisle, the assumption is that the Christian message is self-evident. Whether a message of morality or social justice, the assumption is that people who don’t get on board are ignorant, malicious, etc. As the oft-bandied saying goes “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” The prevailing wisdom is that the message ought to make sense to everyone, that it’s logical and obvious. The problem, with Christians who don’t march for racial justice or who destroy family values is that they don’t understand.

And, I’m here to say that’s backward. In fact, the Christian message is not self-evident in the least. Jesus didn’t say to his disciples, “Use your common sense,” he said “To you is granted the secret of the kingdom of God, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables, so that they may look and look, but never perceive; listen and listen, but never understand; to avoid changing their ways and being healed” (Mark 4:11-12). The key is not cognitive understanding or emotional relationship. Rather, the secret of the kingdom of God is faith. Faith unlocks the Christian life, not the other way around. “Christian” politics that appeal to general understanding, to natural law, or to common decency are only masquerading as Christian. “Christian” politics that assemble a coalition of support based upon similar philosophies of living are not Christian either. They are simply human attempts to draw lines around who’s in and who’s out.

The irony of Jesus’ promise that he will give the disciples wisdom that the world cannot refute is that the wisdom of God is foolishness in human eyes. As Paul writes, God chose what is foolish in the world to confound worldly wisdom. We do not preach self-evident logic. We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the righteous and foolishness to the wise.

Mark 4:1-9 Sower, Soil, and Seeds

Listen! Imagine a sower going out to sow.

Sometimes, in the course of following a lectionary, odd juxtapositions of season and text come about. For those following the Narrative Lectionary, this Sunday is one of those odd juxtapositions. Here in Minnesota, we’re bracing for the coldest weekend of the winter. Snow blankets the ground, and the prediction has the mercury falling down near negative twenty. And yet, in the selections from Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells us a parable about growing seeds.

The parable of the sowers is a parable for preachers, not for hearers.  Too often, the preacher will stand up and shout at their hearers, “Don’t you want to produce a good crop? Be good soil!” But to shout those words is to twist the audience of the parable. This parable doesn’t endeavor to inspire its hearers to run out and produce good fruit. Rather, Jesus intends this parable to give direction to those who are called to preach the word. To his preachers, Jesus says, “Go out and preach the word, in all places. Sometimes it will take root, sometimes it will be choked out, but God (not the preacher) will be responsible for that growth.” The challenge of this parable is to abandon the need to find the best soil and the need to try to change the seed to fit the soil type. The word of God is to be cast out with reckless abandon, and we must trust that God will give the growth.