A Way of Truth: Matthew 5:33-37

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Matthew 5:33-37 (NRSV)

When I was sworn into the military, you had the option of saying, “I solemnly swear” or “I solemnly affirm.”  This passage is pretty much why.

As always, we need to remind ourselves of the role this sermon plays in Jesus’ ministry and in the lives of his audience.  If we take the sermon as just a patchwork of Jesus’ thoughts on various topics, we may miss some important things that help us understand the teachings as well as some of the richness.

So, when we come to this segment, we want to try to understand it as organically connected to the other material and not just Jesus going, “And another thing that really grinds my gears – oaths!”  We want to understand this in light of Jesus forming a new community – a new Israel – who is defined by faithfulness (which is supposed to look a lot like the original mission of Israel) to YHWH as a holy people who will invariably draw the persecution both of the Empires of this world and those who benefit from them.  He is also announcing to them the immanence of their forgiveness, restoration, deliverance, and exaltation (or their predestination, calling, justification, and glorification, if you prefer).

We have looked at how Jesus’ sermon brings them good news and hope with what God is doing at that point in history as well as a calling to be faithful Israel and not become like the powers around them.  It is in this vein that we get to this teaching about oaths.

This is perhaps the clearest indicator in the Sermon that we can’t just take Jesus’ teachings here and drop them on all places at all times.  Not only does God swear oaths, He also requires them.  There are laws around them, and a reasonable amount of Old Testament law depends on oaths and their validity (more on this in a moment).  One component of an oath was invoking either God Himself as a witness or something else holy and/or enduring like the king, heaven and earth, etc.  The other component was either directly stating or implying a curse if you swore falsely.  We still have a sense of this in modern day oaths, and not just legal ones.  Even children will swear “on their mother’s grave” or “cross their heart and hope to die.”

In virtually every culture at all times, there is some mechanism where you put collateral up for your credibility, and this implies a stronger credibility.  If someone says, “Bill robbed the gas station, and if that’s not true, I will poke my eyes out with hot irons,” that’s a lot stronger and has more credence than, “Bill robbed the gas station, as far as I can tell” or “I’m pretty sure Bill robbed the gas station, but you know, I’ve been wrong before!”

But what is it about the role that oaths played in the experience of first century Israel that would warrant Jesus telling his followers to avoid them, even going so far as to say they come from the evil one?

Some commentators have pointed out that, in the system of Midrashaic oaths that sprung up over time, there were ways for people to swear that left them an “out.”  They would swear, but not by God, and they would create sort of a non-religious oath that was acceptable to break.  One could only imagine how you could screw someone over by swearing an oath that you could “legally” get out of if it proved to be inconvenient.  Perhaps this sort of practice is what Jesus is speaking against.

That may be, and if that were an abusive practice of certain Jews against other Jews who could do nothing about it, that would certainly fit the overall theme of the Sermon.

What strikes me, though, is how big a role oaths played in the legal system of the time as well as the community’s esteem of the person making the oath.

In the absence of video cameras and DNA evidence, verbal testimony was important.  In fact, it was pretty much all there was.  If one person took another person to court, it was very often just one person’s word against another.  And most of the cases did not end with someone going, “Well, you say one thing, he says another.  There’s no way to know for sure, and innocent until proven guilty, so I guess we’ll let this one go.”  That would have been virtually all cases.

Instead of throwing out 99% of disputes, a person’s witness under oath in Jewish law was more or less the deciding factor.

But we know, and so did they, that people tend to lie for their own benefit.  Two things would be in place to offset this.

One would be the curse.  As part of your oath, you specified something terrible that would happen to you if it turned out you were giving false witness.  Granted, when you look at some of these oaths, the “something terrible” sometimes ran along lines of “may God strike me with lightning,” but at least it was there to make you think twice.

The other offsetting factor was whether or not the community held you to be reputable.  It is actually part of Midrashic oath laws that the burden of proof in a case can be shifted depending on whether or not one of the parties is “known to be a suspected liar.”  You don’t even have to be an actual liar.  People just have to think that you probably would be.  I’m going to let that sink in for a moment.

Let’s say that I am a reputable, upstanding, respected man in the community, and you are my servant.  Let’s say that my silver goes missing, and I accuse you in a court of law.  The odds are good that you are totally screwed.  If the community considers me to be the truthful one, and you the liar, then you have to prove you did not steal the silver.  I have to prove nothing.  Why should I?  I am an upstanding citizen.  You are a servant.

And if you have an accusation of criminal activity in your past, we might as well not even have a trial.

In other words, people who do not have a good reputation in the community (deserved or undeserved) are quite literally at the legal mercy of those who do.

Jesus has already warned his followers to settle their disputes among themselves and not wield the power of the court against one another.  I believe that this teaching is related.

On the one hand, oaths under this system can be used as a tool for oppression.  The Law tries to keep this from happening, but as Paul will point out to us, the Law tries a lot of things that human evil manages to circumvent and even use as a facilitator for evil purposes.  This certainly isn’t the first place in the Sermon where Jesus has pointed out that someone can observe the Law’s letter and still be doing evil.

On the other hand, taking an oath even of your own innocence is a huge risk, because if you do, and you are found out to be guilty (rightly or wrongly), then you’re done.  The best you can hope for is a ruling that, as we see in certain Midrashim, the plaintiff should have known better than to associate with you, so it’s their own fault.  If you take an oath falsely, or even if you take an oath truly and are convicted of falsehood, you now have a huge Welcome sign for anyone of solid reputation (like, say, Sanhedrin) who wants to fleece you and use the courts to do it.

It has probably been a while since you faced potential fleecing in court by the Sanhedrin.  Nevertheless,  it seems good and wise that we should carefully consider our agreements and commitments so that we would be known as people of our word – so that we can focus on being faithful to a few commitments rather than being halfhearted (or no-hearted) about many.  Limited faithfulness is better than widespread unfaithfulness.  We want to be trustworthy for our brothers and sisters and – whether we are persecuted or not – we want all charges to be false.

But also, as we think about the role of a faithful Jesus community that testifies to a new creation, it seems clear that we need to be careful about how we treat our brothers and sisters, how we handle our disputes, what we hold against them, and how we can seek their good above our own.  The community the Spirit builds is a community that looks after one another and is actually famous for it.  Whenever you put two or more people together – someone is going to wrong someone else.  How we respond as a community and as an individual to those times says a lot about our profession of faith.

Consider This

  1. What are some ways we can do evil in the name of being good?  What are some things that might not overtly be sin that can become sin in the way that we use them?
  2. If a brother or sister wrongs you, what should the ultimate goal be in that situation?  Justice?  Restoration?  Are those two things incompatible?

Sunday Meditations: Suffering

Dr. Benjamin Corey is going through some very hard times right now.  As a long time reader of his blog, I know it’s unusual for him to open up so directly about his current life events, and it’s a really bad time for everyone concerned.

Whenever these things happen, especially if children are involved, Christians have to struggle with God’s relationship to suffering.  Peter Enns often reflects in his blog on the reconciliation of our ideas of God and trust in God with the reality of suffering and tragedy.  He wrote some time ago (I can’t find the post – sorry) about a couple of instances in his area where tree branches just fell on someone, at least one was a child if I remember correctly, and killed them, which to our minds almost looks like a direct intervention.

This is a problem for everyone, and if it isn’t or has never been a problem for you, then I would gently offer that you might not have suffered enough.  It seems like we all run across that event, whether it happens to us or another, where we have trouble reconciling the event with a loving, powerful God.

In making sense of this, Christians tend to fall into one of two camps, assuming they don’t just give up the God thing altogether:

  1. God has purposes for our suffering; we just don’t always understand it.  Romans 8:28 is sometimes quoted, here.
  2. God loves us too much to violate free will, and therefore cannot stop the horrific choices people make.

I have to admit that both of these leave me wanting to some extent or another.

Perhaps by default, I tend to gravitate toward that first option (even though Romans 8:28 really has very little to do with suffering in general).  I am not a Taoist, but one thing the Tao Te Ching teaches is that we should refrain from labeling situations “good” or “bad” because we don’t know all the variables and outcomes necessary to make that judgement.  If I twist my ankle while I’m running, we’d say that was bad, but if we knew my slower pace kept me from running across an intersection at the same time someone was careening down the road texting their friend, we’d say it was good.  There is no way to know all these things.  We don’t know what horrors await a person or the world in general if the things we think of as bad didn’t happen.

But on the other hand, there are plenty of situations where it is really, really difficult to imagine what possible outcome would have been worth the suffering or, more to the point, would justify a volitional being allowing or causing that suffering.  It’s one thing to say that my suffering improved me in some way – that’s finding the good in a bad situation.  It’s quite another thing to say a loving being who could have prevented the bad thing in the first place allowed it or caused it for the “payoff” of my improvement.

Parents may let their children make mistakes with consequences, or they may discipline them to produce growth, etc., but there’s a sort of payoff limit.  Ben uses the example that a parent wouldn’t cripple a child for life just so they would develop strength of character and their relationship would be stronger.  You get into a certain range of events, and even though I acknowledge we can’t know all the outcomes of the great webs of cause and effect, it’s hard to imagine what kind of benefit could possibly justify a willing being’s assent or even causation of some kinds of suffering.  If a child dies in intense pain in a Syrian hospital because she was caught in a bomb blast that killed the rest of her family, it’s just really hard to acknowledge that there might be some good that was worth that.

Option 2 leaves me a little flat as well, though, because it sort of questions God’s character in the other direction.  There are certain kinds of evil and suffering where you wonder if “letting free will go unimpinged” was really the most loving thing that could happen.  If a little girl is molested by a next door neighbor, it is really hard to envision the most loving thing God could do is nothing because of the all-important free agency of man.

To return to parent analogies, a parent who never imposes on their child’s free agency is what we call a bad parent.  You do let a child make their own decisions and mistakes with consequences, but you also have a limit based on the capacity of the child and the severity of the consequence.  You might let them try to climb a small fence knowing that the worst that could happen is a skinned knee, but you’d probably stop them if the fence were electrocuted.  If you didn’t, no court in the world would let you off with the defense that you loved your child so much that you didn’t want to impinge on his free agency.  It seems even from our own experience that, at least in some cases, violating someone’s free agency is actually the most loving thing to do.

The other problem with Option 2 is that it only covers situations where free agency plays a factor.  What about floods and earthquakes?  What about falling tree branches?  What about disease?  The only free agency at stake in those situations is the victims’, and one would think they’d prefer not to have those experiences.  So, Option 2, even if it were true,  doesn’t really solve the problem.

So, where does that leave us?  I can only speak to where it leaves me.

I think it is no surprise to God that, when we take the biblical testimonies about His people’s experiences with Him (which were written by them in the ways that made sense to them), and when we couple it with our own experience, problems and uncertainties arise.  And rather than dispel those uncertainties, He asks, “Do you trust me?”

Because that’s what it ultimately comes down to, isn’t it?  Do I trust my ability to understand the Bible?  Do I trust that the authors always interpreted their experience correctly?  Do I trust my philosophical abilities to free God from every possible critique or accusation based on theodicy?  Do I trust the consistency of western, Aristotelian logic?

Or do I trust God?

Maybe I just have to come to that dark, silent, and still place that was God’s original state and go, “I don’t know why all this shit happens.  I don’t know if it’s a matter of can’t or won’t or random effects of a fallen world or unforeseen goodness or whatever.  Maybe every situation is different, or maybe none of those are ever the case.  What I do know is that God has a dream for the world and Jesus, who went around loving and healing and forgiving and restoring, is the clearest picture of what God wants.  I am on board with that project, and I am on board with the God who wants that for His creation.  I trust where He’s going with all this; I trust that He hates the things that plague the world; I trust that He hates the evil we do to one another.  I don’t know why sometimes people get away with it and why sometimes they don’t.  I don’t know why sometimes someone escapes suffering while other times someone is buried in it.  Nobody ever said that I needed to know that or that I get to know that or that I have a right to know that.  Do I trust God even in the middle of this cloud?  Yes, I do.”

I admit that is a very thin cloak against the experiential reality of suffering, and the times in my life that have been the most grievous, I would not appreciate someone saying this to me.  It’s not the kind of thing that really offers comfort or assurance.  But it may be the kind of thing that keeps me in this relationship for the long haul.

Divorce: Matthew 5:31-32

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 5:31-32 (NRSV)

As we noted in the previous section on covetousness, the practice of temporary marriage was something present in many ancient cultures, and ancient Judaism was no exception.

In two places in the Talmud, a Rabbi Rav and Rabbi Rav Nahman are recorded as soliciting short term marriages with single Jewish women in towns as they traveled, prompting a flurry of later explanations for how two such holy men could conduct themselves in this way.

This was not unique to Judaism by any stretch.  The practice has a tumultuous history in Persia and Babylon before that.  We even see it in ancient Egypt, China, and among the Celts.  In Judaism, we find the practice found sanctuary due to a particularly odd section of case law in the Torah:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (NRSV)

Notice a couple of things about this.  First of all, it is legal to divorce a woman if the man “finds something objectionable about her.”  Second, even if the woman’s second husband dies, she cannot remarry the first man because “she has been defiled” and this would be “abhorrent to the Lord.”

Interesting side note, we hear a lot about how the Old Testament refers to homosexuality as an abomination, but you don’t hear a lot from the Remarrying Your First Husband folks, which, by the way, is 100% legal in the United States and has been for a long time.

But it is this law that permitted a very freewheeling view of marriage and divorce that, if someone were so inclined, a “holy” man could engage in short marriages for sexual gratification and/or divorce anytime something happened he didn’t like.  In the first century, this had enormous effects in that woman’s life, because not only was her family not supporting her, the odds of her getting remarried were very slim.  She was “defiled.”

By the time we get to Jesus’ day, two Jewish schools of thought had risen up around divorce – the House of Shammai which held divorce could only happen because of serious offenses, such as adultery, and the House of Hillel which held that a man could divorce his wife for just about anything.  Burning meat was cited as a specific example.

This is not just some random topic thrown into the Sermon on the Mount.  It flows right out of the same consideration given in the previous section when talking about looking at a woman for the purposes of craving and taking her, and this is a very live issue in Jesus’ day, which is why a group of Pharisees tries to trap Jesus with it in Matthew 19.

Jesus, taking the position of the House of Shammai, informs the crowd that anyone who engages in this practice is committing adultery, even if it is technically legal by the written code, and therefore subject to judgement, just like the people in the previous section.  Casting away your wife for the purposes of your own gratification puts you squarely in the Oppressor category and outside the Faithful People of God / New Israel / New Creation category.

Even for his time, we have to recognize that Jesus is not laying down a new case law with stricter terms.  In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, Paul wrestles through the thorny issues of what can happen when someone becomes a believer, but their spouse does not.  Well, if Jesus were laying down a new, universal case law, that would be completely unnecessary.  All questions about divorce would come down to this:

Has your spouse committed adultery?
YES: It’s ok to divorce them.
NO: It’s not ok to divorce them.

In fact, Paul’s instructions would be in conflict with Jesus’ new case law, and his note about how the Lord did not speak to this situation would be wholly inappropriate.

However, Paul is aware that Jesus is not laying out a universal case that covers every possible situation, but is rather addressing a very live issue in the community of believers that had very real consequences for all participants – spiritual, political, and economic.

We ought not, then, assume that Jesus’ teaching has nothing that reaches outside of its specific historical context, as though divorce for trivial reasons and/or to provide “lawful” sexual gratification with many women is perfectly fine, now.

No, Jesus hearkens back to marriage being a leaving of an old way of living with old bonds to form a new bond – a bond so tight it can be described as being a new family, becoming one flesh.  The prophets refer to God being faithful to his marriage to Israel despite Israel’s serial adultery.  Paul will describe marriage as an embodiment of the mystery of the mystic union between Jesus and his followers.  While we understand that marriage is not literally God’s bond with his people and neither of the two participants are Jesus, the marriage bond is obviously meant to be something serious that surpasses our momentary fluctuations.

God chastised men in Israel for their divorces through the prophet Malachi, saying that they had exposed to danger the women they were supposed to protect (not entirely unlike our situation in this passage).  And of course, John’s apocalyptic vision of the consummated new creation is a marriage.

So, on the one hand, we know from Paul that these images and grounds and whatnot are not absolutes that can cover every bit of the messiness that is human relationships.  Even Jesus in his most strident allows divorce on the grounds of adultery.  To borrow Jesus’ thoughts on the Sabbath, marriage was made for man, not man for marriage.

But on the other hand, we also see the covenant bond holding things together, described in terms that are not just transcendent of the human relationship, but also carries from age to age to age.  It is only against the context of a serious, consuming bond that Paul can advise people not to marry if they can help it.  Jesus talks about people who have become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” with regard to marriage.  If you don’t intend to keep your bond, then it’s better to avoid marriage altogether, and Paul and Jesus are in total agreement on that point.  Obviously neither of them thinks a marriage should never be dissolved, but it is a serious dynamic that is present in God’s people long before Jesus and long after the crisis they will face in the first century.

Consider This

  1. Obviously divorce is emotionally damaging.  Are there other damaging effects that should give someone pause before divorcing in the kingdom of God?
  2. Have we as a church traded one club for another, using Jesus’ teaching here on divorce to force marriages to continue despite being profoundly unhealthy for one or both members?
  3. Have we as a church idolized marriage?  Do we do a good enough job of warning people beforehand, encouraging them to singleness, or do we try to get everyone married that we can?


Better to Lose a Hand: Matthew 5:27-30

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Matthew 5:27-30 (NRSV)

Jesus is continuing his warning of the things that will tear apart the community from within.  We have already seen this applied to the example of disputes, now we look to the example of covetousness.

In Jesus’ day, it was not uncommon for “holy” men to figure out ways to have sex with the women they wanted and cast them aside while still technically following the law of Moses.  For example, there was the practice of incredibly short term marriages where a powerful man would “marry” a woman he desired, have his way with her, and then get a divorce.  It is this practice that is at least partially the reason behind the next passage in the Sermon on the Mount and is also behind the question posed to Jesus in Matthew 19: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?

The thing Jesus is warning against, here, is not the momentary response we might have at running across a good looking woman or man in passing.  The Greek here – pros to epithymesai – spells out a very purposeful, intentional action that gets lost sometimes in the traditions and expediencies of English translations.  Anyone who looks upon a woman for the purpose of (pros) coveting/craving/taking her (epithymesai).  It is a very intentional action whereby someone actively engages in the process of craving someone – a craving that was responsible for all kinds of reprehensible practices under the technicalities allowed by the Torah.  It is the sin of David toward Bathsheba that ended in rape and murder.  It was the basis for the powerful in Israel to take what they wanted from a woman and cast her away, and in the society of the day, it was unlikely she would ever find a husband after that, which would also spell economic ruin.

This is why Jesus will condemn divorce in the very next passage – the Old Testament law around divorce was the key that made the whole oppressive, awful thing work.

Much like the last section urged the faithful not to become like the powers that oppressed them in terms of legal disputes, now Jesus urges them not to become like the powers that oppress them physically and sexually.  How easy it would be for men to imitate the Sanhedrin, the priests, or the otherwise powerful in this regard.  And you can see how this fits right in with Jesus’ exhortations about the salt losing its flavor and the light of the world.

Like the previous teaching, treating others in the community in this way is incredibly damaging to them as well as putting you in danger of being judged along with the world that you imitate, and this brings us to the second portion of the passage.

Gehenna (the word translated Hell in many English translations – thank you, King James) was an actual physical location outside the walls of Jerusalem.  Tradition held that it was here that unfaithful Israel would sacrifice their children to Molech by burning them.  It was cursed ground, and in Jesus’ day, it was used for nothing but dumping garbage and burning waste.  It is from here that we get some of Jesus’ – by way of Isaiah – most terrible images of flames that never go out and perpetual worms.


Hell, 2007

It also is famous for appearing in one and a half prophecies in Isaiah.

One is a verse where Isaiah describes what will happen to the Assyrian when God delivers Israel from them:

For his burning place (Topheth/Gehenna) has long been prepared; truly it is made ready for the king, its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of sulfur, kindles it.

Isaiah 30:33 (NRSV)

It also appears in the last verse in Isaiah, which comes at the end of the prophet explaining that God will deliver and exalt Israel under a righteous king, but then describes the fate of her oppressors – a fate Jesus will quote when talking about being cast into Gehenna:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

Isaiah 66:24 (NRSV)

This fits right in with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount and everything we have read in Matthew up to this point: if you become like the present world system, you will receive the judgement of the present world system.  Thus the intensity of Jesus’ examples: it would be better to lose a hand or an eye than for your entire body to be killed, cast out, and destroyed in the judgement when God delivers his people and destroys their oppressors.

How thorough and subtle the temptation for faithful Israel to become like the chief priests, scribes, Sanhedrin, certain Pharisees, and how those very men are held up as what “righteousness” looked like!  It is vitally important to Jesus that his audience is nothing like them, that they give up those ways for the ways of true Israel – ways of compassion and justice and taking care of those who are weak and marginalized.  And they are ways that apply not just in terms of personal morality, but the way the whole community functions economically, legally, and even sexually.

All through the Sermon, we have had these two polarities held up before our eyes.  They are the two polarities that run through the Old Testament ever since Israel was birthed at Mount Sinai.  They will run through the gospel, and they will sound in our ears as well: you can belong to the world that God will bring into new creation, or you can be part of the world that passes away to dust.

Consider This

  1. Are there ways in which we as individuals or the church treat others just like the rest of the world at large treats them?  Are there ways in which we might even be worse?
  2. Who are the weak, powerless, or socially despised in our community?  What is life like for them among the people of God?

Unity: Matthew 5:21-26

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Matthew 5:21-26 (NRSV)

Like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, we must keep in mind the immediate historical issues that make these teachings so relevant to Jesus’ audience.

Jesus addresses faithful Israel (or potentially faithful Israel) who stands on the brink of a huge work of God for which they have been waiting for centuries.  The kingdom has arrived and is among them.  Israel is repenting and being reformed.  The judgement against the powers faithful Israel is under is at hand.  How ought the faithful community behave now that the end of the ages has come upon them?

We have looked at how those who are miserable under the current conditions are about to have their fortunes reversed.  Good things they have been longing for are at hand.  We have also looked at how important it is for this community to remain faithful to see those blessings and not give in to pressures to conform to the world system that is about to be judged, especially since persecution is sure to increase.

Having addressed the threat that comes from without, Jesus turns his instruction to the threat that comes from within – that disputes within the faithful community will destroy it, especially at the hands of the powers that currently exist.

Jesus does a light contrast with Moses, here, not to counter Moses’ words, but to point out that the stakes are higher.  In Moses’ day, if an Israelite murdered another Israelite (their brother or sister), they would face judgement.  In Jesus’ day, merely disputing with another Israelite, creating some kind of stir or conflict, was enough to invite the potential judgement of the powers that be – both from Rome and the Sanhedrin.

The political situation in first century Judea was a powder keg.  It was breeding grounds for revolution and conflict.  The seeds were always there and everybody knew it.  It just would not take much to bring the attention of the Roman machine to quash a potential insurrection.  The Sanhedrin, easily the wealthiest Jews in Jerusalem, had a vested interest in keeping this from happening as well and served in many ways as Rome’s “first responders” to troubles with the Judeans.  They were Jews, themselves, and had power and influence, and their courts were often a prelude to Roman intervention.

When the faithful are under the thumb of such powers, it is vital that they do not pursue divisions and disputes among themselves.  This will draw the intervention of these powers, and that will not go well for the individuals involved and may impact the survivability of the early Jesus movement, itself.  The allusion Jesus makes to the “fiery Gehenna” makes this painfully clear – if you begin a dispute with your brother (fellow Israelite), you may very well end up being a corpse burned in the valley next door – killed by the authorities and, ultimately, cursed by God.

It is because of this threat that it was important for the believers to pull together and handle their own disputes without things getting out of hand.  To get Rome or the Sanhedrin involved was to invite the enemy right into your house.  Not only would this be bad news for your brother, but it would make you a de facto accomplice to their oppression.  Look at what the Lord tells us at the end of our passage – a trip to prison for your brother or sister is probably a life sentence.  At the very least, they will be completely impoverished, their lives and their family’s utterly destroyed by the time they get out.

Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians before Matthew wrote his gospel, and he included very similar instructions for very similar reasons:

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 (NRSV)

We see the same concern.  Settle your disputes among yourselves without getting the powers of this world involved, because when you do, you become participants.  You join the wrongdoers.  It is better to be wronged and defrauded than to wrong and defraud a brother by bringing the powers that be against him.

And so, we see this need for unity is actually very practical in the first century.  It isn’t just a spiritual ideal, although it is that.  Dissension in the ranks invites the intervention of the very power structure God is judging, and even if you are found to be in “the right,” you have brought that power structure to bear on your brother.

So, we see the urgency in Jesus’ tone.  Settling a dispute is more important than offering a sacrifice, which would of course have been hugely important.  Settle a dispute while you are on the way to court before you even get there.  Nip this stuff in the bud.  Handle it now.  Do not let Roman soldiers or the Sanhedrin “handle” it for you – it is bad for the safety of your brother, it is bad for the safety of the community, and it is bad for you in the imminent judgement.  Don’t end up on their side; side with your brother, even if you are wronged in the course of it.

As I have noted many times, we are not in the same situation as the people listening to Jesus or even the community of Christ-followers at Corinth, although for some countries, there may be some very direct applications in the sense of the terrible things that could happen if you brought the government against your brother or sister in the Lord.

But for most countries, our police and legal system will not use your dispute as a precursor to killing both of you to put down an insurrection or putting your entire church in prison to keep the peace.  Nor are our police and judges in immediate danger (near as we can tell) of being overthrown by God Himself.  They are not, at least in many countries, oppressive jail-keepers keeping the people of God under their thumb, although, granted, there are some countries where that is in fact the case.

But even if that is not the case in our country, we still have to acknowledge that there are powers and tools in this world that are just not going to make it into the new creation – corruption, greed, violence, haughtiness, wealth – these are all things that are passing away.  What damage might we do to a brother or sister, or to the people of God, or to ourselves to use them against one another?  To ally with those things so that we might get our way or be “right?”  Would it not be better to be wronged?  Would it not be better to be defrauded?

I don’t know if we can look at these passages and make an airtight case that a Christian should never go to court against another Christian under any circumstances.  There are many situations of injustice, abuse, violence, actual crimes – all kinds of things that happen between “believers” where true justice and healing may require the civil authorities, especially if the offending believer is unwilling to turn themselves in and/or whatever needs to happen for justice to be achieved.  The widespread, fragmented nature of “the Church” is not really something Paul had in mind, and it most certainly did not describe the community of people listening to Jesus’ sermon, and it is possible that a certain scope of “dispute” isn’t even what they were thinking of – certainly the scenarios described in Jesus’ examples seem more on the mundane conflicts between people side of disputes and not so much on actual, serious crimes.

At the same time, we must be honest with the fact that, especially in America, we like our rights, and if we perceive our rights have been infringed or we have been treated unfairly, we will spend all kinds of money, pull all kinds of strings, and wreak all kinds of havoc to be compensated or even just be right.  It’s an option to work things out among ourselves.  It’s an option to decide to be wronged for the sake of the person who sinned against you and/or the community.  It’s always worth thinking about the kinds of forces we might be allying with to bring to bear against a brother or sister in the Lord.

Consider This

  1. How important is it for you to be right?  What would it take for you to allow yourself to be wronged, or at the very least, give up the right to be right?  How much damage to the other person would you be willing to see?
  2. If you do have a dispute with another Christian, what are some avenues you could pursue before getting civil authorities involved?

Sunday Meditations: The Perspicuity of Scripture

Partially because of just natural friendships and partially because of online activity, I end up talking to a pretty good amount of atheists about Christianity (and atheism) and items germane.

The other day, a man who was being particularly obnoxious about his atheism (which just goes to show, we Christians haven’t cornered the market on obnoxious new converts) made the accusation that Jesus “lied” in Matthew 24:34:

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

Matthew 24:34 (NRSV)

For those of you who don’t have this chapter memorized, this is the famous Olivet Discourse where Jesus describes the upcoming destruction of the Temple and sacking of Jerusalem by Rome.  This gentleman’s contention that was Jesus was predicting the end of the world and his physical return, and since this obviously didn’t happen in that generation, Jesus was lying.  Of course, he also said he didn’t believe Jesus ever existed, so I’m not 100% sure where he was going with all of this.

But, anyway, I pointed out that the “all these things” was about the Roman siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, which began in the late 60s AD.  Jesus would have made this prediction in the 30s AD.  So, assuming this is a valid saying of Jesus (which you would have to do to accuse him of lying), it appears he did pretty well.

This man countered with the fact that the disciples had asked what the signs would be of the end of the age.  I proceeded to explain that age (Gr. aion) just means a period of time characterized by something.  For instance, in English, we refer to the Bronze Age and the Dark Ages.  It doesn’t even imply a long stretch of time, such as in Jonah 2:6, when the word describes a whopping three days.  An age is defined by a state of affairs, not a particular length of time, and the end of an age surely doesn’t mean the end of all history.

He countered with the idea that this was convoluted and not simple, and that Jesus’ audience wouldn’t have understood such a complicated explanation.

But here’s the kicker: it’s only complicated because of the way we understand those words, not the way the original audience would have understood them.

If we were first century Jews familiar with Greek and Aramaic and the expressions used in the idioms of the day as well as our own literature, this explanation wouldn’t be complicated at all.  In fact, it would be entirely unnecessary, because that would be your default way of understanding those terms.  If you said the aion or even the kosmos were coming to an end, you would actually need to explain that what you meant was the final end of the actual planet and its history, and not the end of the world situation as you knew it, which would be the common way at the time to use those words and ideas.

It is only because of centuries of distance, the Romanization of theology, and the rise of dispensationalism that we modern readers would read those terms the way we do.

I bring this up as an example.

There is a reasonably popular idea that a basic understanding of the Bible is simple to obtain – that anyone should be able to open it up and, especially with the New Testament, just grasp the basic ideas through a plain reading.

If we were first century Jews, or even first century Gentiles familiar with the Jews, I would completely agree with that.  The problem is, though, we aren’t.  We are separated from the original recipients of the Scriptures by about 2000 years for the New Testament, alone.  Further, many modern Bible readers are not Semitic and did not grow up in the Levant, so we are distant both geographically and culturally as well.

What we have, instead, are the Scriptures falling into the hands of Greco-Roman, Gentile theologians who are not only unfamiliar with Jewish theology – they are in many cases trying to actively excise it.  They make the Bible into a story about Greco-Roman philosophical interests like the immortality and transmigration of the soul and the cosmic battle between good and evil.  Through a series of councils, politics, and a fair amount of swords, this understanding becomes “Western orthodoxy” which is the default sandbox for both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  In the East, things went a little differently, but not as much as you might think, considering many of the prominent early Eastern theologians were not Jews, but were also Gentiles.  We had to have a Bible that spoke to us about our concerns.

This understanding of the Bible dominated missionary activity and continues to do so to this day.

By the time this makes it to America, our culture doubles down by also narrowing it down to the individual.  So, now, the primary story of the Scriptures is about an individual’s sin and what will happen to that individual’s immortal soul when the body dies.

This becomes the central message of American missionaries by and large as well.

So, over the course of history, we move from writings that are sacred to Israel that spoke to their history, their concerns, their hopes, and their expectations, and we basically cut them loose altogether to put the Scriptures into a story that spoke to our history, our concerns, our hopes, and our expectations.  Instead of asking, “How do we fit into Israel’s story?” we ask, “What does the Bible mean to me?”  And it is because of these centuries of baggage that any explanation of a passage that hearkens back to the concerns of the original audience barely sounds comprehensible to us.

It’s like when you play Bach for someone who has listened to Top 40 all their life.  It barely even sounds like music to them.  Music is supposed to sound like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus and mostly repeat four chords.  Anything that isn’t that doesn’t sound like music.

Now, I do want to make a distinction between trying to get at the Bible’s message versus how God might speak to us through the Bible devotionally.  We all get different things out of books, movies, songs, speeches – all the different things we’re exposed to in our lives.  Not only is the Bible not different in that regard, it also has demonstrated itself to be a vibrant source of people getting in touch with what they need to hear from God at a particular moment.  I don’t think we need to lobby against that, any more than we need to lobby against people listening to God in prayer or getting personal applications from sermons that the pastor never intended.

However, whatever someone gets out of the Bible that way personally is not what the Bible “means” in the sense of a text that God has brought into the world at the times of His choosing for the purposes of His choosing.  I might share with someone how a particular passage impacted me, today, but I’d better not confuse that with what the passage means, nor should I communicate that as something everyone else should get from the passage.

To understand the Bible as to what it means, what all those texts are about, etc. is actually neither simple nor clear for any of us, and it’s not the fault of the Bible; it’s the distance, backgrounds, etc. that keep us from being able to read the Bible the same way we read the newspaper.  The massive amounts of Christian sects and the sheer number of disagreements within those sects is empirical proof that the Bible is not clear to us, and we’re not doing anybody any favors by pretending that it is.

Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, were written in the very late 1500s – early 1600s.  So, here we have a Western author writing a mere 400 years ago.  Most of us can’t crack open one of Shakespeare’s plays with no frame of reference and get all the jokes, understand the political references, understand what the farcical elements mean, or even understand what’s going on at all.  The language, allusions, idioms, sense of humor, etc. come from another time.  We need help understanding them.  Yet, at one point, barely literate English hicks understood him just fine.

That was just 400 years ago in a Western culture.  The New Testament is five times that historical distance and, for many of us, was written from a completely different culture.  Few people would suggest all the meanings and nuances of Shakespeare are immediately apparent to your average modern American who reads his plays without any pre-existing knowledge.  And yet, we expect this will happen without fail for any modern reader who cracks open the Bible.

There is a differentiating factor – the Holy Spirit.  This is an important factor.  However, when we look at how the Holy Spirit has worked in the church through history, she does not seem to have been very interested in helping us all to understand the Bible.  Once again, well-meaning, Spirit-filled believers will have radically different ideas on many areas that the Bible addresses, or even what the Bible is to begin with.

It is possible this means that understanding the Bible is not very important to the life of the church, and we should think through that.  If we all agree that followers of Christ are supposed to be baptized, but we all disagree on the age people should be baptized, or how we baptize, or whether infants can be baptized, it is possible that understanding those things is just not important.  I don’t know that I can sign off on that train of thought, but it is a possibility.  Perhaps we place too much emphasis on the Bible – which the first century church didn’t even have – and not enough on listening to the Spirit – which the first century church did constantly.

But assuming the Bible is important and what the biblical texts mean are important, we have to own up to the fact that the Spirit is largely content to let us hash that out among ourselves, and there seems to be virtually no correlation between someone being a Spirit-filled Christian and their ability to understand the Bible very well.  I understand that may not “sound” right, but empirically, that’s the case.  People can live and die very spiritually mature in Christ and be used by God to accomplish some amazing things and have understandings of the Bible that would have been utterly foreign to the original audience.

New Christians do not understand the Bible when they read it for the first time.  In fact, I’d go so far to say that any modern reader (with possibly the exception of a very self aware Jewish person who grew up in Judea) is automatically wrong if they just read the Bible plainly, because they will invest those words and concepts with categories that fit the way they understand and use language and replace the concerns and hopes of the people who wrote and received the Scriptures with their own – most of which don’t even come close to being on the biblical authors’ radar.

Yes, it’s true that the earliest followers were just plain, uneducated folk, but they were plain, uneducated, first century Judean folk – not plain, uneducated, 21st century American white guys.  Those two people groups are not the same.  Those two people groups are not coming to those words the same way.

This is why I think a hopeful trajectory for modern missiology (and in this vein, Christian Associates is possibly leading the way in taking this to heart) is not just to understand that modern Western cultural appropriations of Scripture are bound to be wrong, but to understand that all modern appropriations of Scripture are bound to be wrong.  It’s not enough to de-Americanize doctrine; we have to de-everyoneize doctrine.  We have to plumb the depths of the Bible’s world and get our Jewish Jesus back.  God chose Israel and gave her the prophets, the Messiah, and the Spirit (at first), and we need to get inside her head to understand her Scriptures so we can find our true place and the world’s true place within them.

And I believe that effort has a lot to say about our current story; that’s largely what this online devotional project is all about.  But it is neither straightforward nor easy.

But to Fulfill: Matthew 5:17-20

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:17-20 (NRSV)

In this passage, a number of concepts are being brought together, and it’s hard to say with ironclad certainty exactly what Jesus’ pronouncements mean, here.  Certainly various people have suggested Jesus, here, institutes a radical break with Judaism all the way to people suggesting Jesus is making an announcement that nothing has changed whatsoever.

The first thing to note is that we are talking about both the law and the prophets, not merely the law.  Whatever we make of Jesus’ teaching, here, it needs to have the same effect for both.  Whatever it means for Jesus’ work to fulfill the prophets, that same thing applies to the law, and vice-versa.

The second thing to note is that both “abolish” and “fulfill” bring something to an end.  The contrast between abolish and fulfill is not that one ends and the other keeps going; both end, but they end in very different ways.

Let’s say you and I make a deal.  In this deal, I will mow your lawn all summer, and you will give me $1000 (I really hate to mow the lawn and would drive a really hard bargain, here).  If I mowed your lawn once, decided I didn’t like it, and refused to mow your lawn ever again, I have abolished our agreement.  If I mow your lawn all summer, I have fulfilled our agreement.  In both cases, our agreement comes to an end.  Fulfilling our agreement does not mean I keep mowing your lawn well into the foreseeable future – it means doing what I said I would do and, thus, bringing our agreement to its intended end.  This is in contrast to simply breaking and discarding our agreement.

But at the same time, Jesus says the law and the prophets will not be fulfilled until “all is accomplished” and the present world as it is passes away.  For this reason, the law should continue to be taught and practiced by Israel.  Thus, we see that Jesus is not instituting some new, non-Jewish religion, nor is he promoting a version of Judaism free from “legalism.”  He is, in fact, maintaining that, for the time being at least, people should continue to be taught to observe the law – the entire law, in fact – sacrifices, circumcision, food laws, the whole shebang – and he is embarrassingly clear about that.

I think this concept is best understood against the backdrop we have seen from Matthew so far – the law and the prophets defined Israel as a unique, faithful community in the world.  As time went on, Israel found that the law and the prophets condemned her and called her to repentance.  We also find a startling abomination – the very priests and teachers of the law who should have been leading Israel to greater faithfulness and trust instead began to use the law as a tool of oppression.  They gave rise to their own traditions to preserve a sort of “civic righteousness” while the actual law that called Israel’s leaders to show mercy, compassion, partiality to the poor and disadvantaged, etc. went ignored.  Prophets, too, were ignored or even killed.

Because of disobedience to the law and prophets, Israel found herself in exile, but her leaders began a campaign to keep them that way and used the law to help them do it.  Turns out exile as they knew it by Jesus’ day worked for them just fine.  They could afford the expensive sacrifices as well as the comforts the Empire had to offer.  They were respected and powerful.  Everyone who saw them saw how “righteous” they were with their extravagant displays of donations, fasting, and public prayers that made it clear that they were not sinners like everyone else.  What God had intended for covenant life, Satan had used to kill Israel and shut her up under sin.

And so, we have Jesus, who Matthew has already portrayed as faithful Israel.  He will keep Israel’s covenants faithfully and, in doing so, will cast off the strictures that the power structure in Judea has used to keep the common Israelite distant from their God.

But Jesus will also fulfill the law and the prophets by bringing the judgement they promised.  God is about to move against unfaithful Israel in a final way – a way that will irreparably change the face of their world.

What is the hope for those in Israel who have longed for restoration?  Jesus must save them from their sins.  Repentance, renewal, recreation – the things that the law and the prophets have been telling them would move God’s hand in mercy and deliverance.  The reformation of faithful Israel – their faithfulness to the covenant (i.e. righteousness) will exceed the scribes and Pharisees, and they will enter the kingdom.

Jesus lays this necessity out for Nicodemus when he says, “All of you must be born again.”  and “None of you can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”  The rebirth of Israel so vividly portrayed in Ezekiel 37 will now come to pass as a result of what Jesus has done.  He will create a new Israel of repentant followers who pursue what Israel had always been meant to be. He will put Israel’s sin on the cross in his own flesh.  He will be the first of Israel to be eschatologically vindicated by God in resurrection.  He will pour out on them the promised Spirit.  He will raise their martyrs from the dead to reign with him.  He will destroy the Temple and the structures both physical and political that had so long kept them in chains.  He will seal a new covenant in his blood with this renewed Israel that, wonder of wonders, will also include faithful Gentiles, which will be the herald of his Lordship over the entire world.

A call to Israel for faithfulness, a promise of judgement, and a hopeful guarantee of the future.  These are the things we find in our passage.

As we move through the Scriptures, we find faithful Jewish converts continuing to practice the law, and we find Gentile converts being warned not to, but both of them are enjoined to be the things in the world faithful Israel was always meant to be, and the promised rewards belong to both of them.  Then the Temple comes down, bringing an end to the era of Law-as-we-know-it for everyone.

All has been accomplished that Jesus set out to do.  We find ourselves on this side of those events.  We do not enjoin new converts to keep the Mosaic law, nor should be.  The law and the prophets have been fulfilled; they do not keep going.

But what we do find in both law and prophets, looking back on them, are those new creation strains that define a faithful people over and against the rest of the world.  We find those strains in the teaching of Jesus.  We find those strains in the letters to the new communities of faith, both Jew and Gentile.  We find some of them in the first creation.  We find them attested to throughout the scriptures and empirical signs of faithful communities that Paul notes will do these things whether they’ve ever heard the law or not – they do them by nature.  We share the same Spirit, Lord, and baptism with these communities, and like them, we by our behavior join hands with them and our faithful Jewish forefathers going back millennia – eons of testifiers that the God who created the heavens and the earth will see it through to its intended purpose.

Consider This

  1. Throughout history, believers have sort of intuitively seen in the law things that seem temporary versus things that seem ongoing.  The laws themselves do not make any such indicators or divisions.  How do you explain our perceptions that some of these laws seem to transcend their particular historical period?
  2. The covenants with the Jewish patriarchs defined what it meant to be a faithful follower of Jesus and remains the root that believing Gentiles are grafted into.  How does a deeper knowledge and appreciation of Judaism help us in being the faithful people of God in the world?

Light of the World: Matthew 5:14-16

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16 (NRSV)

Up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount, and regularly in the Gospel of Matthew, we have seen allusions to key points in Israel’s history, identity, and mission.  Jesus is being faithful Israel in the world and re-birthing the nation to usher in their hopes for the future and, ultimately, God’s plan for the world.

In this passage, Jesus explicitly ties his audience to Israel’s original identity and mission.

From God’s calling to Abraham, we see several times that the nation God will make from Abraham is meant to be a mechanism of blessing to the other nations (Gen. 12:1-3, 22:15-18).  Somehow, the prosperity and growth that comes from faithfulness to YHVH will result in good things for all the nations.

This is a key part of Israel’s mission in the world.  Her mission is to live in a hostile world as a new creation people, called out by the God who made the heavens and the earth.  Her faithfulness to God and the peace she enjoys as a result are a testimony to the surrounding nations.  Her very identity is a witness to the true God and a call to faithfulness.  This aspect of her mission was symbolized by the lampstands in the tabernacle and Temple.

Isaiah, already a reference point for the Sermon on the Mount, expresses many of these hopes.  For example, in chapter 19, Isaiah has Egypt and Assyria – traditionally enemies of Israel – crying out to Israel’s God for their deliverance and being treated the same as Israel.  “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth,” Isaiah says in a statement very radical for his day.

The explicit drawing together of these hopes with the light imagery is also in Isaiah:

And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Thus says the Lord,
    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
    the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Isaiah 49:5-7 (NRSV)

In these passages, we don’t have a sense of the other nations actually becoming part of Israel.  Israel is still Israel, Egypt is still Egypt, the nations are still the nations.  It won’t be until much later that Jesus hints at what Paul will explicitly state – that this new iteration of Israel also includes the faithful Gentiles.

But this hope of Israel is something Jesus puts in his sermon.  These people who are supposed to be a light to the nations need to be lights.  They are a light, not primarily in what they say, but in what they are.  They are supposed to be something, and when they are this something, God Himself keeps them safe and advances their growth and prosperity.

In the same vein, the apostles will call their fledgling Jesus-following communities to faith as a testimony to the world that God has vindicated Jesus, made him Lord, and brought about an impending judgment.  Yes, the community tells these things to the world, but primarily, they are a certain thing in the world.  Their faithfulness in the world and God’s response with signs, wonders, and a wildfire-like spread testify to the world the reality of their proclamation.

While the historical particulars of exactly what these people are testifying to the world around them will change, what remains constant is that the people exist in a certain way, and this way of being is a proclamation all on its own to the nations around them.  They are the proof of the new creation as it looks in world full of the old creation.  They testify that a new world is coming because they are that new world in the here and now.

In the modern West, we love our words.  The Christian faith is something you explain and people believe and explain to other people.  Whether or not someone is a faithful Christian is often defined by the integrity and purity of their beliefs.

It is true that proclamation – a message – has always been part of the witness of God’s people in the world, but it has always meant to be an incarnate word – a word made flesh and dwelling among us.  When we are the faithful people of God in the world, then our testimony rings true.  When we look just like the rest of the world, or the truths we proclaim are primarily a matter of propositions and assent to those propositions, then we become irrelevant at best and actively harmful at worst.

We spend so much time coming up with evangelistic and missional “strategies,” when the reality is that, if we looked anything like a faithful people the way Jesus defined it, people would be breaking down our doors to get into it.  Everyone would want to get in on this.  A kingdom where we pronounced forgiveness of sins, where we healed the sick, where we gave food, clothing, and shelter to the poor, where we took in those that society hates and persecutes and gave them love and safety, where all the things that divide humanity become pale shadows of a former life.

But we look very little like that in most parts of the world most of the time.  What we say with our lips is completely invalidated by our corporate testimony.  How can I credibly tell a homosexual man that we love him when we’re also fighting for the right of businesses not to serve him?  How can I credibly tell a poor man that the kingdom has come to make all things right when we spend our money on new buildings and work to cut welfare, proclaiming that it’s not the government’s job to take care of the poor, but refusing to do it, ourselves?  How can I credibly say that I stand for life and promote war?

We look like something in the world whether we’re trying to or not.  We are either a testimony of the reality of what God is doing in the world, or we’re telling everyone it’s all a huge lie.  We are either a light to the nations and a city on the hill, or we look just like all the darkness around us.

Consider This

  1. What are the characteristics of His people that God values?  What has historically gotten them into trouble?
  2. In what ways does Jesus “reset” Israel on the right path?
  3. What things are missing from the church in the world today that would testify that our message was true?

Sunday Meditations: Wayne Grudem

I have to say, I don’t care about American politics that much.  America is America and the people of God are the people of God, and my allegiance and focus belongs to the latter group.  I live in America, I obey America’s laws and pay America’s taxes, and it’s a fine enough country as countries go.  But I also know that she’s going to do whatever she’s going to do.  She’s not the kingdom of God and never was.  Money, power, and violence run America, not peace and compassion.  My investment is in a community of people that does run off peace and compassion as an alternative to America.  If it turns out that the whole of America ends up preferring this alternate community, that’s awesome, but I’m not holding my breath.

So, in most elections, I’m just sort of meh.  While I might find that one party tends to skew a little more “peace and compassion” while the other tends to skew more “money and violence,” the fact is that for someone to successfully be in power in America, they’re already severely compromised.  I rarely think Candidate A is going to usher in a new era of embracing the outsider, establishing justice based on mercy, and caring for the poor while Candidate B will be the end of all those things.  Everyone at the top of the world’s food chain gets there, somehow, and it’s rarely a path of unbroken virtue.

This election, I feel a little differently, because I think having Trump as Commander-in-Chief of the military will end up with large swaths of the world being a smoking, radioactive wasteland, but I digress.  My point is, 90ish percent of the time, American politics are just not that interesting to me, and if I had to describe my overall demeanor to the state of American politics, it would probably be: bemused resignation.

But now Wayne Grudem has become a media darling for evangelicals who, like Dr. Grudem, swore they’d never vote for Trump but now are encouraging everyone to do just that.  He’s important to the discussion because many Christians, rightly, wonder if they can honestly support someone like Trump.  Grudem has given them an “out” with the brilliant theological argument, “Well, he’s not as bad as the other person.”

This has caused something of a stir for all sides, so I forced myself to listen to “Washington Watch” this weekend, on purpose, because I wanted to hear from the man himself how he would articulate his position in person, especially in light of the back and forth that has happened since he first said something about it.

What, in the mind of this eminent theologian, is the moral calculus that has led him to believe that Donald Trump was the most moral choice in this election?  Had Dr. “Not a Rapper” Wayne done some research and discovered that Trump’s ideas would drastically reduce poverty?  Had he found some kind of political halo effect that would bring education to the nation’s uneducated?  Had he figured out some way that deporting Muslims would actually advance Freedom of Religion?

The radio host got right to the heart of the matter as well, asking Dr. Grudem what the one takeaway would be he wanted people to get.  Here are the issues that Dr. Grudem explained were the great pillars of his moral equation:

  1. The restrooms used by transgendered people
  2. The right of businesses to refuse service to homosexuals

Yes.  The completely anti-Constitutional and anti-humanitarian internment and deportation of a religious group, the stated view that there’s no point in having nuclear weapons unless we start using them, the complete absence of any cognizance of poverty, and the promise to prevent Putin’s advancement into the Ukraine that already happened two years ago pale in comparison to the two, major threats to America’s welfare: a person born biologically a woman ending up in the men’s restroom and a public business being legally obligated to provide goods and services to all people without discrimination.  The horror.

This perhaps should not have been as much as a surprise to me as it was.  Grudem’s primary contributions to Christian scholarship are book after book about who has what genitals and how central that is to Christianity and just societies.  His strident critiques of “evangelical feminism” let us know that it’s very important that white men get to define women and decide what they are and aren’t suited for.  Whether or not you have a penis and where that penis ends up are the issues that define the overwhelming majority of Grudem’s contributions to theology, the value of which has been literally incalculable.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that this is another, big notch in my Disappointments With Evangelicalism Belt (not an actual belt).  Really?  Really, Wayne?  These are the primary issues that you feel morally obligate Christians to vote for Trump?  These are issues whose cumulative moral value outweighs any of the moral considerations of, I don’t know, using nuclear weapons?  The forced deportation of American citizens because of their religion?  Personally, I’d allow every transgendered person who could fit into my stall follow me into every public restroom I ever used for the rest of my life if it would avoid a nuclear exchange, but I guess mileage on that may vary.

The reason this all had such an impact on me is because, ostensibly, Wayne Grudem is a member of the kingdom of God, represents at least part of the views of people who are ostensibly part of this kingdom, and is actively trying to alleviate the cognitive dissonance / conviction of the Holy Spirit that evangelicals feel when they think about voting for Donald Trump.  Is this what we believe?  Is this what we do?

To that end, I have a few questions for American evangelicals at large:

One: Is there anybody you wouldn’t get into bed with in exchange for political power?

I mean this seriously.  If Donald Trump is an acceptable bedfellow, then who isn’t?  What would have to happen for you not to vote for the Republican candidate?  How bad would they have to be?  Would they have to mass execute Muslims in front of your kids instead of deporting them?  Would they have to detonate a nuclear warhead in your favorite restaurant?  Would they have to send your sons and daughters to war to lower the price of pre-aged denim jeans?  I mean, really, if Trump is not the line, what is the line?  Paint me the picture of the person that would make you say, “As a Christian, I cannot vote for the Republican candidate.  I feel I must vote for the Democratic candidate, a third party candidate, or not vote at all.”

You know, Israel was called a harlot by the prophets because of her alliances with the worldly political powers of her day.  There was none of this, “Well, Egypt is flawed, but they’ll be better for the nation,” or, “Assyria basically is ok with YHWH, but they’re new converts, so you have to be patient with their orgies and overt idolatry and tendency to kill us.”

Those passages have no relevance to America’s alliances, but they are very pertinent as to the identity of the people of God in the world.

Two: Are LGBT issues more important than any other possible consideration?

Obviously, they aren’t more important than heterosexual issues.  You’ve firmly established that actual heterosexual sins are nowhere near as grievous as someone using the “wrong” restroom or homosexual activity.  We already know serial unfaithfulness, serial divorce, and sexual abuse and rape in most cases are not problems for you.  So, I’m not even going to try to plead with you on that.  That line in the sand is already drawn.  Being a monogamously gay Christian is a jillion times more offensive to God and destructive to America than a heterosexual pagan having multiple divorces because they keep cheating on their spouses.  Message received.

But even with that aside, are you fully prepared to tell Jesus that nuclear war or punishing massive amounts of innocent people because you think they might commit a crime someday was an acceptable compromise to you because it meant bakeries wouldn’t have to sell cake to gay people?  You are honestly going to tell me that reading through the Gospels has convinced you that selling cake to gay people or the wrong gender in the wrong restroom is a far, far more vital concern to Jesus than violence, poverty, or how outsiders are treated.

Obviously, for Wayne Grudem, those issues are far more vital to Jesus’ heart than any of the issues Jesus actually talked about, and people seem to agree.

Listen, if you are a Christian in America, you have to make your own decisions about A) whether to vote at all, and B) whom you’re going to vote for.  In any election, I don’t think any of that is ever clear cut and black and white.

But I will urge you that, whatever you do, at least be honest about it.  Don’t play this whole, “Well, even though we’re voting for this horrible person, we’re still coming out ahead, morally.”  You’re not.  You’re clearly not.  Not even close.  Unless you are prepared to declare, along with Wayne Grudem, that gendered restrooms and the legal requirement for public businesses to serve everyone without discrimination are the most important moral issues that eclipse literally everything else, then just own up to it.  You want political power in American government, and you think Trump will give it to you.  And then accept the consequences of that decision and what that means for the identity of the people of God in the world.

Salt of the Earth: Matthew 5:13

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Matthew 5:13 (NRSV)

Very early on in Israel’s history, salt was the most ubiquitous condiment there was, and there was always a plentiful supply of it due to the Dead Sea.  In arid regions, salt was vital to survival.  It flavored food just as it does in cookery, today.  It was a preservative.  Newborns were rubbed in it.  It was used to flavor foods that were of low quality.  It was given to animals.  Salt was not considered food, so you could eat it if you were fasting.  It was so essential to everyday life that an expression arose “eating a man’s salt,” which meant that you were taking his livelihood.

Because salt was so much a part of everyday life in the region, it also had several ritual purposes.  It was required with every offering to the Lord, and priests were allowed to use the consecrated salt for flavoring when they ate their portions.  It was used to top off a ritual cleansing bath.  It was present at any kind of meal that sealed a covenant – a tradition that is alive and well in the Levant, today.

Jesus, here, pinpoints the flavoring aspect of salt – a point of reference that would have easily spoken to anyone in the audience.  Salt was common, but it was also very important.

However, the value of salt depends on it being salty.  What would you do with salt if it were no longer salty?  You can’t salt salt, Jesus tells us, and he has a point.  If the salt no longer has its distinctive characteristics that make it what it is, it’s of no good to anyone.  The only thing left for it is to throw it out where it will be trampled.

This illustration imports some disturbing eschatological language.

In Isaiah 14, the idea of being cast out and trampled underfoot has a referent in God’s judgement against Babylon:

All the kings of the nations lie in glory,
    each in his own tomb;
but you are cast out, away from your grave,
    like loathsome carrion,
clothed with the dead, those pierced by the sword,
    who go down to the stones of the Pit,
    like a corpse trampled underfoot.

Isaiah 14:18-19 (NRSV)

And Assyria:

I will break the Assyrian in my land,
    and on my mountains trample him under foot;
his yoke shall be removed from them,
    and his burden from their shoulders.

Isaiah 14:25 (NRSV)

But those are just a couple of examples of many places where God’s people are described as being trampled by oppressors, such as Antiochus Epiphanes:

Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to the one that spoke, “For how long is this vision concerning the regular burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled?”

Daniel 8:13 (NRSV)

Or that the oppressors will be trampled by God.  There’s even a Psalm or two that pleads with God to trample the tramplers.  The point is that the image of trampling underfoot is an image of impending doom.  The enemies of God trample His people, but He will one day trample them.

This is what adds the bite to Jesus’ analogy.  His followers are like salt, but if the salt loses what makes it salty – if it loses its distinctiveness – it is good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot.  If his followers lose what makes them distinctive, and they become just like everyone else, they will face the same end as everyone else.

This sentiment is restated in the letter to the Laodicean church in Revelation 3:

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

Revelation 3:15-17 (NRSV)

The Laodiceans had become rich and prosperous and self-sufficient.  They had embraced the ideals of the world that was passing away and no longer looked like a faithful community of Christ followers.  They looked like a community of well-to-do businessmen.  This put them in danger of the coming judgement.  They had lost what made them “salty” and blandly blended in with the Roman Empire, and they were rewarded with financial success.  But they did not realize this had put them in the camp that would find itself shut out from the kingdom.  Jesus would spit them out of his mouth.

Again from Matthew:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'”

Matthew 7:21-23 (NRSV)

Once again, this is not how you win friends and influence people.  This is the worst youth rally ever.  It doesn’t matter how many “spiritual victories” you can claim if your life and values look just like the world that is passing away.

And here’s the kicker – you don’t even have to be particularly evil to fall into this trap.  You can live a perfectly normal life making an ok living owning your handful of things and going to church most Sundays (well, synagogue on Saturdays, for Jesus’ audience), and still be trampled underfoot, because you have no saltiness.  Broad is the road that leads to destruction, Jesus warns his followers.  It’s easy.  All you have to do to be destroyed with the present evil age is fit in with it.  If you look like a citizen of that age, no amount of proof or protestation will convince Jesus that you actually belong to the age to come.

It might be easy to think of this in terms of particular moral standards, and that may be applicable to an extent, but the Sermon on the Mount really hasn’t addressed having high moral standards.  Perhaps that’s a given; I don’t know.  But the Sermon on the Mount up to this point has been about being faithful to the coming kingdom – joining up with the poor, the oppressed, the outsiders – those longing for a new world that will turn the one that you’re in on its head – the restoration of Israel, and being that community of peace, being that kingdom where any outsider could look at you and realize that you believe Jesus is Lord and the kingdom is among you.

While we do not have the impending judgement Jesus’ original audience did, we do have a world that is passing away and a new one invading it.  No matter how real wealth, power, violence, self-exaltation, self-righteousness, and hatred seem, they all belong to a world order that is passing away.  A new world has snuck in right under its nose.

In some places, it grows quickly.  In others, slowly, but it is powered by the Spirit of God who is making all things new and guaranteed by His promise.

Stay salty.

Consider This

  1. In what ways should the people of God as a group look different than the world at large?
  2. What are the areas in your own life where the kingdom of God has not yet taken hold, and you’re just running off the defaults of your culture or the way you were raised?