Archive for the ‘Blasphemy’ Tag

Second Day of Christmas: Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr (December 26)   5 comments

Above:  St. Stephen, by Luis de Morales

Image in the Public Domain

The First Christian Martyr

DECEMBER 26, 2023


The readings for the Feast of St. Stephen remind us of the grim reality that suffering for the sake of righteousness is frequently a risk.  We read of one of the many difficulties of the faithful prophet Jeremiah, a man who spoke truth to power when that power was dependent upon hostile foreigners.  The historical record tells us that the Pharaoh of Egypt chose both the King of Judah and his regnal name, Jehoiakim.  Matthew 23, set in the Passion Narrative, reminds us of some of the prophets and teachers, whom God had sent and authorities at Jerusalem had martyred.  Contrary to the wishes of the author of Psalm 31, God does not always deliver the faithful from enemy hands.

St. Stephen, one of the original seven deacons, was probably a Hellenized Jew.  As a deacon, his job in the Church was, in the words of Acts 6:2,

to wait on tables.

The New Revised Standard Version (1989)

The deacons were to provide social services while the Apostles preached and taught.  St. Stephen also debated and preached, however.  His speech to the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:1-53) led to his execution (without a trial) by stoning.  St. Stephen, like Jesus before him, prayed for God to forgive his executioners (Acts 7:60), who, in their minds, were correct to execute him for blasphemy, a capital offense in the Law of Moses.  Saul of Tarsus, the future St. Paul the Apostle, was prominent in the killing of St. Stephen.  The Apostle recalled the death of St. Stephen and his role in it in Acts 22:20.

Religion, by itself, is generally morally neutral; one can be a moral atheist just as easily as one can be a moral or immoral adherent.  Good religion and bad religion certainly exist.  The test, in moral terms, yet not theological ones, is what kind of adherents they create and nurture.  Regardless of the name of a religion or the content of its tenets, does the reality of living it make one a loving, merciful human being or a judgmental person who might be quick to execute dissenters or consent to that?  This question is always a relevant one.








We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen,

who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ,

who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with

you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15

Psalm 31 or 31:1-15

Acts 6:8-7:2a; 51c-60

Matthew 23:34-39

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 139




Devotion for December 26, Year B (ELCA Daily Lectionary)   1 comment

St. Stephen

Above:  St. Stephen, by Luis de Morales

Image in the Public Domain

Unrighteous Violence

DECEMBER 26, 2023


The Collect:

All-powerful and unseen God, the coming of your light

into our world has brightened weary hearts with peace.

Call us out of darkness, and empower us to proclaim the birth of your Son,

Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 20


The Assigned Readings:

Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15

Psalm 148

Acts 6:8-15; 7:51-60


Let kings and all commoners,

princes and rulers over all the whole earth,

youths and girls,

old and young together,

let them praise the name of the LORD,

for his name is high above all others,

and his majesty above earth and heaven.

He has exalted his people in the pride of power

and crowned with praise his loyal servants,

Israel, a people close to him.

Praise the LORD.

–Psalm 148:11-14, Revised English Bible (1989)


The Psalm for today stands in dissonance with the other two readings.  Jeremiah preached the word of God–a word just in case people might repent–and they did not repent.  In fact, some tried to have him executed.  Centuries later, others succeeded in putting St. Stephen, who had also said much which certain people did not want to hear, to death.

The context of Jeremiah’s troubles (as 2 Kings 23:31-37) explains it, was the reign of King Jehoiakim, son of the great King Josiah.  Josiah had died in 609 B.C.E., losing his life to Neco, Pharaoh of Egypt, in battle.  Neco had appointed the next monarch, Jehoahaz, elder son of Josiah.  Jehoahaz had reigned for a mere three months before Neco imprisoned him.  Then the Egyptian ruler chose Eliakim as his Judean vassal and renamed him “Jehoiakim.”  The new vassal did his lord’s bidding, collecting the required tribute of one hundred talents of silver and a talent of gold.  (A talent was seventy-five pounds.)  Jeremiah’s message from God had a political tint for people living in a vassal state without the separation of religion and government.  King Jehoiakim tried to have the prophet killed, but one Ahikam son of Shaphan (Jeremiah 26:24) protected the holy man.

St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, had no such protector.  He was one of the original seven deacons, whose job descriptions entailed providing social services primarily.  Yet St. Stephen’s preaching, not his delivering of meals to widows, led to his death.  The crucifixion of Jesus was a recent event, so anyone who spoke as boldly as St. Stephen regarding Christ did took great risks.  For speaking the truth he suffered the Law of Moses-dictated death of a blasphemer.  His execution had a veneer of righteousness.  Some of his accusers believed him to have committed blasphemy, but sincerity did not excuse error.

Often we humans resort to violence to rid ourselves of inconvenient people who have merely spoken the truth.  We wish to defend our concepts of our own righteousness, but animosity and violence reveal the truth of our lack of righteousness.








Week of 1 Epiphany: Friday, Year 1   14 comments

Above:  Paralytic at Capernaum

The Paralysis of Unbelief

JANUARY 13, 2023


Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.


Hebrews 4:1-5, 11 (Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition):

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.  For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers.  For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,

As I swore in my wrath,

‘They shall never enter my rest,’

although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.  For he has somewhat spoken of the seventh day in this way.  “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”

And again in this place he said,

They shall never enter my rest.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.

Psalm 78:3-8 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

3 That which we have heard and known,

and what our forefathers have told us,

we will not hide from their children.

4 We will recount to generations to come

the praiseworthy deeds and power of the LORD,

and the wonderful works he has done.

5 He gave his decrees to Jacob

and established a law for Israel,

which he commanded them to teach to their children;

6 That the generation to come might know,

and the children yet unborn;

that they in their turn might tell it to their children;

7 So that they might put their trust in God,

and not forget the deeds of God,

but keep his commandments;

8 And not be like their forefathers,

a stubborn and rebellious generation,

a generation whose heart was not steadfast,

and whose spirit was not faithful to God.

Mark 2:1-12 (Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition):

And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.  And many were gathered together , so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them.  And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.  And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.  And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,

Child, your sins are forgiven.

Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts,

Why does this man speak like this?  It is blasphemy!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?

And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit what they questioned like this within themselves, said to them,

Why do you question like this in your hearts?  Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet, and walk’?  But that you too may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins

–he said to the paralytic–

I say to you, rise, take up your pallet, and go home.

And he rose, and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying,

We never saw anything like this!


The Collect:

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.


He who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him; the sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.

Leviticus 24:16 (Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition)

This is the passage the critics of Jesus had on their minds when they accused him of blasphemy for forgiving sins.

Let us pause and catch up with the narrative in the Gospel According to Mark.  Jesus had healed a leper and instructed to follow the germane rituals of the Law of Moses.  Instead the man had told everyone he could what Jesus had done for him.  So Jesus had to remain in the wilderness for a while until the excitement died down.  Then he returned to his home at Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  And people flocked to him there, in his house.  Four men had to cut out a portion of the flat roof of Jesus’ house and lower a paralyzed friend on a pallet, so Jesus could heal him.  We have no account of the paralyzed man’s faith, but that of the four friends is obvious.

Jewish orthodoxy of the time held that physical suffering, such as paralysis, flowed from sin.  One needed forgiveness from God before healing could occur.  Jesus, who had divine authority his critics did not recognize, forgave the man first then healed him.  Whatever the mechanics of how this happened, the story describes that is occurred.  William Barclay, in is volume on this Gospel, suggests a psychological cause of both the paralysis and the healing.  The man, Barclay writes, may have been paralyzed because he knew he was a sinner, and Jesus’ forgiveness was all the man needed to be whole again.  Maybe so, but I think the result more important than the process or the cause.

And, as Barclay writes in his commentary on this passage from Mark, “The experts in the law were hoist on their own petard.”  Jesus had forgiven and healed.  The man’s healed state was evidence of forgiveness of sin, in the standard theology of the time.  So could the elders of the Sanhedrin claim that God had not forgiven him and that Jesus was a blasphemer who deserved death by stoning without being hypocrites?

The men who wrote the canonical Gospels did so decades after the life of Jesus.  They know how the story ended, and so they planted foreshadowing in these documents.  They emphasized details they deemed germane to the development of the narrative.  We have such foreshadowing here.  It is about to get dangerous for Jesus.

These religious experts were rebelling against God, perhaps without knowing it.  The guardians of tradition were the disobedient ones.  God was doing a new thing, and they either did not perceive it or welcome it, or both.  They were frozen in place, stuck in the paralysis of their own tradition.  Sometimes trust in God requires us to abandon tradition and to accept the evidence we see with our own eyes.

I have watched all episodes of a 2002-2004 series called Jeremiah.  The events of the series occur in 2020-2021, 15 and 16 years after “The Big Death,” a virus that killed almost all post-pubescent humans within half a year.  Our heroes, headquartered at Cheyenne Mountain, are competing with other factions to rebuild the United States politically and otherwise.  Jeremiah, for whom the show is named, is angry with God, blaming the deity for letting all the unfortunate events occur.  One of the most interesting characters is Mister Smith, who claims that God speaks to him.  One day, Mister Smith passes along an invitation from God.  Those who to a certain place on a certain date and who wait long enough will receive a miracle of their choosing.  Jeremiah refuses to go along, but a few others agree to go with Mister Smith to the designated place.  Yet only Mister Smith remains long enough to receive his miracle.  He asked for the restoration of the use of one arm, paralyzed in a recent accident.  And only Mister Smith receives his miracle.  He tells the others that they should have stayed.

God might not make sense to us, but that is our problem, not God’s.

Here ends the lesson, for now.