Father and Son: Matthew 11:25-27

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Matthew 11:25-27 (NRSV)

Jesus has just finished drawing a contrast between the Israelite cities who, by rights, ought to recognize what Jesus is doing right away and get behind that effort, and Israel’s historical enemies infamous for wickedness who, Jesus believes, would have repented and followed Jesus much more readily.  He may be making this projection based on the fact that the people who seem to have truly notable faith in Jesus thus far have been Gentiles and noted sinners.

The vast majority of Israel at this time appears not to put too much stock into what Jesus is saying about the kingdom coming and judgement being right around the corner, at least not enough pursue the fruits of repentance or drop everything and follow him.  In fact, Israel’s religious leaders and scholars actively oppose Jesus, and Jesus sees this opposition only getting worse – drawing in not just him, but his followers.  He sees persecution coming from the synagogues, and not acceptance.

These thoughts lead to a prayer.  The prayer seems to be more for the benefit of the listeners than the pray-er.  In fact, if the last verses of chapter 11 are still part of the prayer, Jesus just starts directly talking to the people listening.

In this prayer, he identifies the dynamic he’s been experiencing.  Obviously, he’s being a little metaphorical.  Infants are not following Jesus around.  Elsewhere, he has referred to his faithful followers who are at the mercy of the world’s oppression as “little ones,” and we might think of other passages in Matthew and other gospels where Jesus has pointed out special places in the kingdom for children or encouraged his followers to be like children.  The idea here seems not to be that intelligent adults are hard-hearted rebels while literal infants have the true revelation of God, but rather Jesus is drawing a contrast between two kinds of people, and this is a theme in Matthew that bleeds everywhere starting in the earliest chapters.

On the one hand, you have a group of people who, by all external indicators, should have been the first to hear Jesus’ warnings and get behind them, encouraging the rest of Israel to turn their hearts back to God, loving Him and loving their neighbors as themselves, and listening to Jesus’ warnings about the judgement that is right around the corner.  This group of people are the priests, the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, those who serve in the temple – these people are trusted scholars and leaders of the Jewish people of their day.

On the other hand, you have a group of people who are just trying to keep their heads above water under Roman dominion.  They are poor and uneducated.  They have only a cultural-osmosis level of understanding of the Old Testament.  They are farmers and fishermen.  They are the very referent of the phrase “unwashed masses.”  They are sinners, doing whatever it takes to survive and keep their lives tolerable.  They do not meditate on God’s Law day and night, nor is it a lamp unto their feet nor a light unto their path.  They once were the glorious kingdom of David, and now they are the flotsam and jetsam of a backwater Roman province.

On paper, it is that first group who should have embraced Jesus as a welcome prophetic addition to their ranks.  “Yes, exactly, Jesus.  We need, again, a passion for loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and we need to rekindle the people’s affection for one another, loving each other as they love themselves.  We need to be the faithful people God has called us to be starting with our father, Abraham, and we need to be the kingdom once again.  We need to take seriously the idea that God will not allow this condition to go on indefinitely for His people and prepare ourselves for the hardships that are about to come.  Thank you, Jesus, for taking this message to the people in ways we could not.  Please, come speak at our synagogues and revive our people!”

It is the second group that should be apathetic or even opposed.  Their lives are close to the bone – brutal and short.  And now here comes a man talking about how money changes a person for the worse and turns hearts away from God.  He’s talking about trusting God to provide if we make being the kingdom – something we lost a long time ago – our first priority.  He wants to take my weekly visits to prostitutes away, or my skimming off the top of the people’s taxes away, and he wants me to spend my time thinking about how to love and serve God and my fellow Israelites instead of thinking of how I’m going to earn enough coin to stay out of prison.  No, thanks.

But, amazingly, the exact opposite happens!

The group that is supposed to know God and pursue faithfulness rejects and opposes Jesus.  They may not like the Romans much, but they’re doing just fine!  They enjoy respect, wealth and the knowledge that they are the true faithful because they observe all the regulations of Moses as they seem them, and they like that situation in life, thank you very much.  While this rag-tag group of sinners who smell like chum believe Jesus, repent, and make amends to those they have harmed.  Some leave the only jobs keeping them alive to follow Jesus, trusting that God will take care of them.

This is what it means for God to have revealed Himself to infants and not the wise, and this is what it means for those who have believed Jesus and followed him to have a true knowledge of God that seems to have eluded the scholarly, powerful, and outwardly righteous.

Consider This

  1. In what ways does what Jesus is doing for Israel more clearly reflect the true God than an exhaustive knowledge of the Torah?
  2. What does this say about what our efforts as a church should be?  What should be our priorities?  What things do Christians make big deals about that perhaps don’t reflect a clear expression of who God is, and what things do we neglect that might be an eye-opening revelation of who God is?  How does Jesus model these things?
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Sunday Meditations: The Devil

This morning started with a most unwelcome reflection on mortality and loss.  This led to me breaking out the ol’ Slavery of Death by Richard Beck.  I think I may have to read this book once a year or even once a quarter if I’m going to make it through mid-life without joining a Buddhist monastery or spending my life savings on a whirlwind of hedonism or a giant statue of myself or any of the kinds of things that I really would rather not do for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which respect for God.

Anyway, tangentially related is the figure of Satan (which I often misspell as “Stan” – sorry, Stan) or the devil, and I was thinking about him this morning.

Christianity these days struggles with what to make of Satan.  As we get, you know, older and wiser (?), it’s harder to imagine this malevolent spiritual entity with intelligence and personhood, even less so the one pictured in Byzantine art.

But I would say that the Judeo-Christian faith has always had to work through this in some form or fashion.

In the Old Testament, Satan is not mentioned very much, especially once we eliminate the passages that later Christian theologians have said are about Satan but don’t actually mention him.  He appears to be a heavenly being who can converse with God, and the thing he likes to do is accuse God’s people of being terrible so that God will forsake or destroy them.  Charming.

It’s interesting that the prophets also accuse God’s people of being terrible, but the difference seems to be that the prophets do so to warn the people of the outcome of their actions in the hopes that the people will repent.  What the prophets are after is a restoration of Israel and reconciliation with God.  Satan in the Old Testament, by contrast, is trying to drive a wedge between them.  This difference is something to keep in mind as we contemplate various visions of “the end of the world.”

As we get further along the timeline in Scriptures and Jewish theology, a change takes place.  Either Satan changes tactics or, more likely, God’s followers have an evolution of their understanding of Satan.

Somewhere along the line, Satan moves from an observer and accuser to an active participant, but he’s a participant through physical mechanisms.  In other words, Satan may be the spirit, but other things are his body – most prominently, the oppressive armies of other nations, but also in the forms of disease and various physical and psychological afflictions.

It is this understanding of Satan that seems to be in the air during the time of Jesus and provides a background for how some of the gospel story is told.  Jesus heals the sick, raises the dead, and in some regions cast out demons (while in other regions, the same activities are described as physical healings).  Perhaps the clearest example we get of the view that Satan is the spiritual animus behind the afflictions and oppression of God’s people is when Jesus confronts a demon who says his name is Legion, which is the name of the Roman army.

As time goes on and we get further away from the world of Jesus, the Christian church continues to evolve in her understanding of Satan, eventually arriving at a spiritual figure who primarily spends his time trying to get people to sin, perhaps so he can claim their souls.  He becomes God’s slightly less powerful opposite – the ruler of Hell to oppose the ruler of Heaven in an eternal, cosmic war for the soul of mankind.

Not surprisingly, I think that middle description does more justice to the biblical data and makes for a view of Satan that can be cogent for a variety of theological perspectives.  Whether you think of Satan as a person or as the transhuman forces at work in the world to bring death and destruction, they both fit.  For Jesus, you can’t conceive of Satan without also thinking of his incarnations in the world, and vice-versa.

The factor that unites the idea of Satan as found in the Scriptures is what Satan is after: death.  He’s after the destruction of the creation that God loves, especially mankind.  Satan is not presented as wanting sin as though sin had some intrinsic value to Satan.  Satan only wants sin because he wants death and destruction.  He is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.

And it is this, then, to which Jesus refers when he speaks of coming to destroy the “works of the devil.”  He did not come to get people to stop sinning; he came to save his people from destruction.  He came to take the power of death away from Satan.

Death, after all, is Jesus’ last enemy, and after that enemy is destroyed, Jesus will retire from being king (1 Cor. 15:24-26) because a kingdom just isn’t necessary when the last threat to creation is destroyed.  We see this captured in the Apocalypse where Satan is defeated with the fall of Rome, but after a long period of peace, he is released again and destroyed, followed by the destruction of death and the realm of the dead.

Sin, certainly, has a role in this.  The primordial story of Genesis tells us how we ended up a world where the forces of death do not serve man but rule over him – sin.  In the West, primarily owing to Augustine, we took the sin bit and ran with it as though the point of Genesis 3 was to explain where sin and our sinful desires came from, but Genesis 3 is prologue for the world in which humanity’s drama will play out – a drama that is not about people committing sins, but mortals surviving and perishing and whether they pursue life or pursue death.  We all, individually, play this story out in our own lives, choosing words and actions that bring harm to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us, and the wage of those actions will be paid out.

And this picture, I think, has the potential to line up across all kinds of theologies and hermeneutics.  We may not all agree about the nature or even existence of heaven and hell, but we can all agree that everybody dies.  We may not all agree about the doctrine of original sin, but we can all agree that sin racks up destruction until it is paid off in death.  We may not all agree that Satan is a literal person, but we can all agree that there are forces in the world that cause and even profit from the death of people and the destruction of creation, and these forces are bigger than individual human beings and bigger than their singular manifestations.  In these senses, everyone believes in Satan.

But Jesus enters the story to destroy the works of the devil.  Have you ever thought about what it means to renounce the devil and all his works?  It’s much bigger than your personal sins.  It is, under the banner of Jesus, to wage a war against all that would tear down mankind and creation, and in its place establish life and provision.  Nor is this merely some eschatological hope that, at some point in the distant future, Jesus will do all of this work for us and all we have to do until then is just camp out, make money, and try not to look at naughty magazines.

Jesus commissions and empowers us by the Spirit to destroy the works of the devil.  Let’s get into this fight.

Sunday Meditations: Interpreting the Bible

People who know me know that I have been on something of an intense reexamination and realigning of how I’ve read the Bible and how that relates to various beliefs and doctrines I’ve held.  The main catalyst for that has been my own journey through recovery and letting go of a lot of past things.  What do I believe when I am not required by my past or my social structures to believe anything in particular?  What does my journey look like when I do not feel like I have to arrive at a particular outcome and can just see where the road takes me?

As part of this, a renewed interest has sparked in my own life in looking at the Bible as a historical document and how that helps us understand how the original receivers of Scripture might have heard it.  In fact, the whole reason this online experiment exists is for me – to document my attempts at bringing this perspective to the Scriptures and seeing how they can speak through that corridor.

I have several good, wise, and especially patient friends who are beside me in this, and while they may agree with some things and critique others, they all share in common the willingness to let me bounce wildly off a few walls before coming to rest.

But in these reexaminations, certain questions occur to me and to them like:

  1. Did everyone get the Bible wrong after the first century?
  2. Do we have to read the Bible according to the framework of the original audience, or is it ok to read it in other ways for various purposes?
  3. Is it wrong to get something out of the Bible if it wasn’t part of the original context?
  4. Do you believe that the only people who understand the Bible are you and Andrew Perriman?

And so on.

These questions and others like them (with the possible exception of #4 – the answer to which is “no,” btw) basically boil down to the same issue: what do we do with varying interpretations of the Bible?  Is one of them correct and the rest are wrong, or are they all correct in some way?

There Has Never Been One Interpretation of Scripture

One reality we have to acknowledge is that there has never been a time when the believing community carried a single, unified interpretation of Scripture as far as we know.

As we look through rabbinic and pre-rabbinic literature, we find dialogue, debate, and disagreements among teachers both about translations and the teachings of Scripture.  Most commonly, these disagreements are allowed to stand side by side as authoritative treatments and, to this day, Jewish seminaries will teach their students to read the Torah in pairs so that they might debate its meaning and, in the process, learn and discover new facets.

By the time we get to the first century, there are several, main divisions of Judaism with multiple subdivisions.  These are not over small issues, either, but on questions as large as whether or not there is a resurrection of the dead, or how many Messiahs there would be, or whether or not angels and demons are real beings.  The divisions were not limited to purely doctrinal matters, either, but deeply practical ones: Did certain laws pertain only to those who labored in the Temple or all of Israel since all were a holy priesthood to YHVH?  Since the laws tend to be general, what specific practices are required or forbidden?

This isn’t even getting into Christian history with its own schisms.  The Monophysite debate erupted into outright violence between cities.  Nowadays, we have so many Protestant denominations that it gives more credence to the theory of multiple universes.  At every possible branching point of doctrine, a Protestant denomination exists that went the other way.

Roman Catholicism posits a singular, unified voice on Scriptural teaching in the Magisterium, but even if one believes that (which I do not), one still has to reckon with the fact that Scripture and faithful followers of God went most of their history without any kind of divine provision of certainty or doctrinal unity.  There is no Old Testament version of the Magisterium, and arguably the New Testament version of the Magisterium hasn’t always been in lockstep, either.

The widespread multiplicity of meanings that readers get out of the Scriptures is as old as the Scriptures themselves.  Even (especially) the more historically minded of us need to take care that we do not talk about the views of “the ancient Near East” or ” first century Judaism” as though this were one, monolithic thing.

Is this upsetting to God?  Possibly, but the fact that we can have the Spirit and still read Scriptures very differently sort of makes you wonder how big of a deal this actually is to Him.  Maybe it’s enough that we’re all generally pointed in the right direction of fulfilling His vision for the world.

Believers Have Often Held that Scriptures Have More than One Meaning

This may offend our logical sensibilities, and may especially offend Protestant sensibilities.  For example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, Section IX, we read:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

Emphasis mine.

However, we have to keep in mind that those Reformers were both reacting to what they perceived as excesses in the Roman Catholic church as well as establishing the logical prerequisites for the doctrine of sola scriptura.  If you remove the authority of the Church to tell you what to believe and place that authority in the Scriptures, then the Scriptures had bloody well better say only one thing.

However, this disposition was shared with neither Judaism nor a decent chunk of church history.

It was several months ago that I was reading the Ruth Rabbah tracking down the source of a particular Messianic interpretation of Ruth 4:14-15.  As it happens, different rabbis had different takes on who this passage was talking about, but one of the rabbis offered that the passage was talking about six, different people: David, Solomon, Israel, the Messiah, Boaz himself, and someone else I forget.  It caused him no tension whatsoever to say that this passage was about all of those different referents.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that every passage of Scripture has four meanings: the historical, the allegorical, the tropological (moral), and the anagogical, and this is a standard part of Catholic exegesis.

This is not to say these people are necessarily correct.  It is to acknowledge, however, that in the long history of the Scriptures and their interpreters, not only are there disagreements on the meaning, but there is a well-attested sense that a given passage can mean more than one thing.

Meaning Comes From Both Readers and Writers

Here is the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There was a time when it was very popular for English teachers to tell their students the poem was about suicide, and if you read it, you can see it in the imagery relatively clearly.  In a sort of allegory, a man pauses to consider taking his own life and entering into quiet, beautiful oblivion, but he ultimately decides that he has obligations and commitments to which he must be faithful, so he continues on.

The interesting thing is that this interpretation is wrong, according to Robert Frost.  Frost was up all night writing a different poem, “New Hampshire,” and when he went out to see the sunrise, he had a mental vision of a person riding a horse by the woods and stopping to contemplate them, and he wrote a poem about it.

But here’s the kicker – all those people who read the poem and took something away from it about suicide, were they all wrong?  What if someone were contemplating suicide but read Frost’s poem, and it encouraged them to keep going?  Is this illegitimate?

What gives Robert Frost the authority to tell you what you can and cannot get out of his poetry?

When anyone creates communication, they have something in their heads they want to communicate (with the possible exception of art that is specifically designed for you to fill in your own meaning, e.g. much of modern art).  The text is the medium they create to try to convey that idea – whether it is a speech, a written text, a statue – whatever.

However, as any parent can tell you, there is a big difference between the message you intend to send and what the receiver makes of it.  In some contexts, we would consider this a failure.  We wouldn’t want an architect to draw up blueprints for a skyscraper and hand them over to a builder who subscribed to an allegorical interpretation of them.

In other contexts, however, what a text means to the reader may differ from what the author had in their head, and this is not only not dangerous but may, in fact, cause the text to spring into even greater purpose.

We see this happening the Bible, itself, as Jesus and/or the gospel writers will take passages out of Israel’s history that quite clearly are envisioning their local, current situation at the time of their writing.  Yet, Jesus/the authors will reuse those texts to explain Jesus, and they are not shy about this.

Is this wrong?  Is this illegitimate?

I ask you, is it wrong for someone to read Frost’s poem and find it an artistic and thought-provoking picture of contemplating, but ultimately rejecting, suicide?

I do not think that is wrong.  I think it means the text can be valuable for people in different ways and, as they share their reading into a larger community of readers, we can appreciate the poem in ways we did not, before.

What would be wrong, however, would be for someone to say that the suicide thing is what Frost wants all of us to take away from his poem, and that leads me to my last observation.

Not All Proposed Meanings are Equally Plausible, Valuable, or Likely to Reflect the Intent

It’s one thing for me to read a text and take away something of personal significance.  It’s another thing altogether for me to announce that as “the meaning” of a text, or what the text “teaches,” or what “God says,” or anything that might imply that how a text reads to me is also what the author intended or the role the text played to the original audience.

I could read a newspaper article about a drop in the stock market as an allegory of an individual’s struggle with emotional depression, and that’s fine (although I might find it valuable to also recognize that the stock market is dropping), but I need to be careful about making that interpretation in any way anything other than something I got out of it personally.  If I were to tell people that the stock market article was “really about” a person struggling with emotional depression, I should be prepared for people to point out that this is not what the author intended or how anyone else read it because newspaper articles report news and are meant to be read as such, not as allegories.

Let’s take my favorite chestnut, Jeremiah 29:11:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

If a teenager is about to enter college, reads this verse, and finds comfort there, I’m not going to take that away from him.  The text has affected him in a personal way that may not at all be the original intent of the passage, but it was used by him in a helpful way that had meaning for him.

However, this passage is to the Israelite exiles in Babylon.  God is promising that He will rescue them from Babylon and bring them back to their land.  That’s who He’s talking to and that’s what He means.  There’s nothing about anyone else except Israelite exiles in Babylon and God making good on His promise to Abraham.  There’s definitely nothing about teenagers or college or careers or what have you.

It is because of this that I am on very shaky ground when I tell someone else that God has promised that He has good things in store for their future, and I quote that verse.

What I might do is tell someone, “When I read this verse, it reminds me of God’s commitment to His people and His promises.  I feel like He could be talking directly to me, and that always brings me comfort and confidence.”

All fine and good, but that is not and should not be the same as me telling someone that’s what the passage means.  In terms of possible meanings of Jeremiah 29:11, the meaning that “God has an awesome future for each and every Christian” is hugely unlikely, not just because we can obviously see in people’s lives this is not true, but the fact that Jeremiah 29 circumscribes who and what it is addressing.  Other contexts are notably absent.

A very good question, however, would be: can it mean both?

I’m ok saying that as long as we keep in mind what we mean when we say it.  There are no indicators that Jeremiah 29:11 is meant to fit any historical circumstances but its own.  And yet, we also know that the biblical authors themselves will repurpose passages to describe something happening in their own day.

Could this passage, for example, be used to comfort an imprisoned church in China?  The historical circumstances would be similar in some ways.  I think it could be (and is actually a lot closer to the original passage than the college thing), once again, being very careful with requisite qualifiers and a knowledge of what we’re doing.

And this is kind of where I’m at with all this.  The Scriptures had something to say to their original audience.  Knowing what this is not only helps us get at The Meaning of the passage, but it also provides some sanity checks if and when we repurpose it or look at our own circumstances through the lens of that text.

But at the same time, we also should allow for the fact that an individual will get meaning from a text that is just for them.  Like looking at art, it will mean different things to different people at some level, and I have little ground and even less motive for telling someone what they got out of a passage is “wrong.”

But we do need to understand what we’re doing when we do that, and I’m not sure most of us do.

Tyre and Sidon: Matthew 11:20-24

Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,

will you be exalted to heaven?
    No, you will be brought down to Hades.

 

For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Matthew 11:20-24 (NRSV)

This comes, narratively, after Jesus has praised John the Baptist and positioned his work in the line of Old Testament prophets and being the herald of the Messiah.  He ends this with a note that, even though John the Baptist has come like Elijah and Jesus has come like one of them, they are still unresponsive.

That introduces this bit where Jesus gets a little worked up over this idea and delivers some very prophetic claims of his own.

First, Jesus contrasts the cities of Judea where he has been at work with traditionally wicked cities from Israel’s past history.  Both Tyre and Sidon were historical enemies of Israel, and both were prophesied against as we see in Ezekiel 28.  Both cities were threatened by destruction via conquest, and both cities were so conquered in the course of time.

These cities become the prototypes for what Jesus announces will happen to Israel.  And they are not just prototypes, but condemnations.  Because for all their historical opposition to Israel, Jesus is of the mind that, if they experienced Jesus’ words and work, they would have listened and repented.

This is not the first time this idea has come up in Matthew.

For example, Matthew describes a scene where a Roman centurion – a pagan oppressor of Israel – comes to Jesus in Capernaum and believes Jesus can heal his servant.  Jesus announces that no one in Israel has shown the faith that this centurion has, and that many foreigners would find themselves in the kingdom of God eating and talking with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while many Israelites would find themselves shut out of it.

In Capernaum, a pagan oppressor of Israel believes Jesus, but the Israelite people of Capernaum themselves do not.

And so, as he did in chapter 8, Jesus turns these counter-examples against unrepentant Israel.  These pagan oppressors of Israel would repent, but Israel herself would not.  When the terrible Day of the Lord comes, Israel will find herself much worse off than these historical oppressors have found themselves.

Speaking of Capernaum, Jesus reserves a little quote for them.  This could be a summation of Ezekiel 28:1-10, where the prince of Tyre exalts himself as a god, but God will bring him down to the Pit.  But it more directly matches Isaiah 14:13-15, which is a prophecy against Babylon.  Either way, the parallels Jesus is drawing are clear – here are pagan enemies of Israel that God shattered with another nation.  You, corrupt Israel, have become the oppressor of the people of Israel, and your day is coming when God will shatter you, and your heritage will mean nothing on that day.

Finally, Jesus draws from a comparison of Israel to Sodom that the Old Testament prophets also make.  In Ezekiel 16, we read that Jerusalem has become a “sister” to Sodom and Samaria.  They have followed after their ways, yet they have become even worse.  In what way have they become worse?  The prophet tells us:

As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:48-50 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

That’s an interesting bit of information, isn’t it?  God destroyed Sodom primarily for their pride and unwillingness to use their prosperity to help the poor, and this becomes part of the prophet’s case against Jerusalem.  And this is how the chapter runs itself out: you used to refer to Sodom as a byword, but now you are about to be destroyed as they were, and I will restore your fortunes when I restore hers.

Jesus brings that message forward into his day.  The Israel of Jesus’ day has become a worse oppressor of her own than any of those historic enemies of Israel; but, in Jesus’ opinion, any of those historic enemies would have repented if Jesus had been doing his works and preaching his message in them.  (In fact, we have an Old Testament depiction of this in Nineveh’s response to Jonah.) Because of this, these great cities of Israel should expect that they, too will meet a fate in their day of judgement that will be even worse than what those other cities experienced.

This is, in fact, what happened.

Consider This

  1. Put yourself in the position of a Jewish religious official in first century Judea. You’re doctrinally sound.  Everyone comes to you with questions about the Bible and how to live a faithful life.  You are respected, and it appears God has blessed your life with wealth and influence.  How would Jesus’ message that you are actually unfaithful strike you?  What evidence would you muster to argue against that?  What would have to happen in order for Jesus’ message to break through?
  2. How can we be aware of when we are falling short?  Where could those messages come from and how should we receive them?  How can we communicate these things to others?

Sunday Meditations: World Vision

I believe that God wants the world to be full of people in His image, both in their characteristics and behavior.  This is a world where Jesus is King and the clearest example of the image of God.  I believe this is the plan, the mission, the goal.

A world like this is a world where love is the spirit of the law.

It is a world where a person will freely give of their property, their rights, and even their own life if it means the promotion and protection of another.

It is a world where justice seeks first reconciliation, repair, and recompense over retribution or destruction.  It is a world where justice is given equally to all and is not contingent on belonging to a favored group or having enough wealth to win a legal battle with someone who is poor.

It is a world where a person’s word is as good as a binding contract.

It is a world where a person takes responsibility for their wrongdoing, is honest about it to God, to themselves, and to others, and endeavors to turn away from it and make amends for the damage they have done.  It is a world where this is rewarded.

It is a world that promotes and rewards the active pursuit of good works where each person tries to outdo the others in showing honor to others – not out of pride, but out of a desire to reduce suffering and increase joy.

The pursuits of power, wealth, and fame, rage, aggression, dissipation – all things that exalt the self over others are discouraged, unrewarded, and lovingly corrected.

This vision has appeared in the world in various forms.  It is told as the story of our earliest ancestors.  It has appeared as a family making their way through foreign lands.  It has appeared as a nation.  It has appeared as an exiled and dispersed people.  It has appeared as small, embattled communities of faith in a larger Empire.  It has appeared as that very same Empire.  It now appears as communities throughout the globe whose experiences and conduct seem as varied as the regions they are in.

At no point has this vision been perfectly realized, or even realized very well at all depending on what point in history we’re talking about.  Yet, it remains the vision.

This vision claims all areas of life.  There is no area of life that goes untouched by this vision.  Family, work, finances, recreation, worship, how we spend our time, priorities, and how we go about everything from the thoughts in our head to eating and drinking.

Like many on this mission before me, there is no area in which I am fully pursuing the mission and not a few areas where I am working against it, seeking my own selfish comfort or reward regardless of the expense to others – either as a direct consequence or indirectly due to what I am not doing that I could or should.  This is sin.  I do not need a long list that spells out what is a sin and what isn’t; sin’s nature and principles are clear and can manifest in a multitude of ways.  What might be acceptable or even commendable in one circumstance could be a sin in another circumstance.  It all comes back to the vision – where am I working to promote it, where am I working against it, and where am I indifferent to it?

This vision transcends doctrinal differences, even severe ones.  We could disagree on baptism, Hell, or the divinity of Jesus, but we can work together to be the world God wants.

We may disagree on the particulars of what that looks like, but how different those discussions are!  How can we best show love?  How can we best make this broken situation right?  How can we best take care of the people involved?

This vision even transcends religious affiliation.  There are others outside the fold who want a world like this and are working to be this world.  In Jesus’ day, they were the Gentiles who feared God or did by nature what the Law requires.  In our day, they might be the Muslims who embody a religion of peace regardless of what the rhetoric says they must “truly” believe.  Their actions show what they truly believe.  Perhaps even atheists, who do not want to tear Christians down, but want a just and loving world and have dedicated themselves to being people like that – people who profess that they do not believe in God, and yet carry His name in their actions.

Perhaps it might sound that such a vision embraces everyone, and it potentially could embrace everyone.  It is big enough to embrace every human being and all the world to be saved.

But the reality is that it does not.  There are countless people who believe in the pursuit of wealth and power for their own welfare and will do violence to protect and advance that pursuit.  There are many who would place their own pleasure as the chief end of their life.  There are many who have defined themselves exclusively in terms of what they can get, achieve, and experience even if the world has to burn while they do it.  Many such people end up ostensibly rewarded for this with the riches or power they crave or idolized by our media because they draw our attention and admiration.

A fairly good-sized chunk of such people claim the name of Christ for their own and call him Lord and even point to the great things they have done in his name.

The vision is something that is divisive, not because the vision itself sets one group against another, but because of the responses.  For there are many who embrace such a world as God envisions.  It sings within their hearts and gives them hope.  The people who are most drawn to this vision are the ones to whom it is gospel – the poor, the oppressed, the weak, the needy, the sinners – all who want a new world.

But the rich, the powerful, the comfortable, the “righteous” – these people stand to lose.  If they do not get to use their money for their own exaltation, of what use is it?  Why should they have to be less prosperous so that the less worthy might benefit?  If they do not get to use their power to get what they want, why have power?  Why should they labor to put someone else in the spotlight when the spotlight is just as easily theirs for the taking along with the accolades and benefits that come with it?

No, such people do not want a world like what I’ve described, and they will oppress, suppress, persecute, ridicule, demonize, undermine, and sometimes flat out kill any incarnations of that world.

How, then, in the face of such opposition, is God’s dream to survive?

If the Bible tells us anything it all, it tells us that God will ensure that His dream survives.  Not even death can stop it.

Sunday Meditations: Misconceptions About Evolution

This is probably less of a Sunday Meditation and more of a “this keeps coming up and I actually wanted to write about it on Tuesday, but I waited until Sunday” kind of thing.

A week ago, I participated in a discussion over coffee with other Christians about the creation accounts in Genesis and the theory of evolution and other theories and hypotheses that typically go along with it.  All views that I’m aware of were represented among the five of us.

Something that struck me this time around, though, was not so much the various points people were making about who was right – I’ve heard and said most of these, and you probably have, too.  What struck me were some of the misconceptions that some of the participants had about evolution and how that shaped the discussion.  It appears some of these are actually very common, and I thought it was worth pointing out a few.

Macroevolution is not a Thing

In the discussion, someone literally said, “There’s more than one theory of evolution.  There’s macro and micro evolution, so there’s two right there.”

There is no theory of macroevolution as distinct from microevolution.  It’s all microevolution.  In other words, the theory of evolution only ever posits tiny, incremental changes that in and of themselves do not radically shift a creature into a brand new type of creature.

This division is generally posited by creationists who are trying to fence off the phenomenon of tiny, incremental changes in creatures – which we readily observe – from the idea that this could account for all the diversity of life that we see, today.  But evolution does not posit a different “level” or mechanism.  It’s all tiny changes.  In other words, all evolution is microevolution, by those definitions.

The question is really more about time than mechanism.  If the Earth is a few billion years old, then these tiny, incremental changes add up.  Some of the creatures with the changes survive, some don’t.  Some without the changes survive, some don’t.  Parallel branches exist while other branches die out altogether.  Traits get handed down in different rates and in different combinations, and those eventually develop more incremental changes.  If this process happens over a staggeringly huge amount of time, you will by necessity end up with a wide diversity of end products.

By contrast, if the Earth is six to ten thousand years old, there’s no way those tiny, incremental changes could produce the diversity of life we now observe.

So, if you believe that organisms will develop small mutations over time that allow them to survive in changing environments – a phenomenon we have observed in a laboratory – then you believe in the theory of evolution.  There is no “macro” version of the theory.  It’s all a matter of how much time you believe that mechanism has been in operation.

Proponents of Evolution Don’t Automatically Dismiss Creationism as Unscientific Because It Posits a God

The reason creationism (or Intelligent Design, for that matter) isn’t science is not because it posits a God, and scientists don’t believe in God, so they arbitrarily declare the belief as non-scientific.

The reason creationism is not scientific is because it doesn’t offer testable, falsifiable hypotheses.

In order for science to be science, it can’t just offer a possible explanation of natural phenomena; it has to present testable, verifiable hypotheses that can be accepted or rejected based on the results of the tests.  You have to be able to say, “If X is true, then we should be able to look for Y and find it.”

For example, if evolution is true, then we should be able to observe mutation happening in the world around us.  If evolution is true, then we should expect to be able to engineer an environment and observe an organism adapting to it biologically.  If evolution is true, then we should expect to find that life has been developing on earth for a staggeringly long period of time.  If evolution is true, then we should expect to find fossils of creatures at varying levels of complexity more or less chronologically distributed through geological strata.  And so on and so on.

You might argue whether or not the data supports the hypotheses, but what you can’t argue with is that the hypotheses are testable and falsifiable.  Even if you think every last one of those hypotheses is unsupported by the actual data, you can see how we are using the scientific method to pursue them.

By contrast, creationism (and ID) is not science because it does not offer anything we can test against observable data.  That in and of itself does not mean it can’t be true; it does mean that it isn’t science.

If creationists could say, “My theory is that the God depicted in Genesis created all life on planet Earth in a special, supernatural act of creation where the animals were formed by divine fiat.  If this is true, we should find the Hebrew letters for YHWH encoded in DNA.”  That would be a testable, falsifiable hypothesis (it’s false, btw), and then would be subject to the scientific method.

But there aren’t any testable hypotheses for that doctrine that are being offered to scientists that I’m aware of.  And that’s what makes it not science.  It’s not because a God is involved; it’s because there aren’t any testable hypotheses around it.

It is because of this that creationism or Intelligent Design is not science.  In my opinion, this means neither should be taught in science classes – in public or religious schools.  It is a faith commitment.  It doesn’t make it false; it just means it isn’t science no matter how you dress it up.

Evolution is not a Theory in Crisis or a Controversial Theory in the Scientific Community

There are scientists who reject the theory of evolution.  They are very few and far between.

For instance, the Discovery Institute put up a petition for scientists to sign who upheld Intelligent Design.  In four years, they received around 700 signatures with almost no earth-life scientists on the list.  In response, the National Center for Science Education put up a petition for scientists named Steve who supported evolution (called “Project Steve”).  They surpassed 700 signatures in three years and, to date, have about 1400 signatures mostly comprised of prominent earth and life scientists.  Just to recap, there are twice as many scientists named Steve who support evolution as there are the totality of scientists the Discovery Institute managed to round up.

The debates within the scientific community over evolution are not about whether or not life as we know it evolved into its present form; the debates are things like the origin of the process and the role various factors play.  For example, most scientists believe natural selection is the mechanism that drove the direction of the development of life, while other scientists debate natural selection as a primary role and look at other factors like synergies with other forms of life.  And of course, there are several different ideas on how this whole thing got kicked off to begin with.

But virtually nobody in the scientific community is arguing that life as we know it, today, is not the product of evolutionary changes that happened over a huge amount of time.

A Naturalistic Explanation for How Life Evolves Does not Rule Out God

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:44-45 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

There are probably few, if any, Christians today who would argue that the rain is a supernatural act of God’s power.

The Bible talks about God sending the rain, creating the rain, withholding the rain, etc.  And yet, we also observe that rain is caused by the water cycle.  Water evaporates from the earth, collects and condenses in the air, and when this reaches a certain saturation point, the water returns to the earth as rain.  It is observable, repeatable, and everyone knows this is where rain comes from.

And yet, many Christians have somehow figured out a way to acknowledge the water cycle without becoming raving atheists.

How do we do this?  Well, some Christians believe God is responsible for creating the mechanism, and it pretty much runs itself.  Some believe that, in some sense of fundamental reality, the rain exists and is sustained by the will of God.  Some believe that God’s plan and purposes are behind the rain even if they play no role in directly making the rain to happen.  Some believe some combination of those things or other things altogether.  But what you don’t see are Christians up in arms about the water cycle.  The Bible says that God sends the rain.  We know rain comes from the water cycle.  Everyone is totally cool with this.  No one has ever said that the Bible is a pack of dumb lies because water evaporates and condenses.

And yet, this seems to be the inevitable horns of the dilemma that gets brought up in these discussions.  If we evolved, then the Bible isn’t true.  If we evolved, then God didn’t create us.  If we evolved, then God doesn’t exist.

Now, someone may come to these conclusions.  Certainly, an evolutionary view of life does not require a God, and if the only reason someone ever believed in God was because He was the most likely explanation for the development of life on Earth, then I could see someone ditching the whole thing because He is no longer strictly necessary.

But it is not a necessary move.  The Bible is not a treatise on how the natural world works or used to work.  It tells us about a being and His people and their lives together over a long period of time.  It gives us theological commentary on events.  It prods us to see into a world -behind- our world that is not readily available for falsifiable, empirical testing.  Behind our natural world which is fully accessible to science, the Bible offers us a dimension of reality that is apprehended by faith (or discarded due to a lack thereof).

We have long since come to terms with this for many of the other propositions in the Bible.  My guess is that this will happen, eventually, for evolution as well.

Children in the Marketplace: Matthew 11:16-19

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

 

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Matthew 11:16-19 (NRSV)

This concludes Jesus’ commentary on John the Baptist, although this particular point will cause him to launch into a round condemnation of Israel’s unbelief.  Just to recap the context:

  1. Jesus is about to scatter his disciples throughout Judea to carry his message and works.
  2. Jesus warns them that such declarations and acts will bring increased persecution from the powers that be, and this will tempt them to lose faith.
  3. As if on cue, John the Baptist, who is in Herod’s dungeons for his proclamations, asks Jesus if he is actually the Messiah or not.
  4. Jesus responds with prophecies that explain what he is doing.
  5. Jesus offers effusive praise for John the Baptist and the reminder that the humble nobodies who will be persecuted for the kingdom are even greater than that.

Here, we get to an interesting bit that seems to stump a lot of commentators – this bit about children in the marketplace.  Nobody seems to know for sure what this mini-parable is really all about, and I’d count myself in that number.

If I were to take a stab at it, though, I’d say the basic point is, “No matter how we call out to you, you won’t respond.  John the Baptist came as an ascetic prophet in the wilderness calling to you, and you did not respond in faith.  I came as just a regular Israelite, and you did not respond in faith.  You said the guy eating locusts in the desert must be possessed, and you said the guy eating and drinking regular meals is a partier who hangs out with sinners all the time.”

The principle is illustrated by children out and about in the public square.  Some are playing the flute, and the people do not respond.  Some are crying, and the people do not respond.  If someone doesn’t care about these kids, there’s no approach that’s going to get a response.

This sentiment, if accurate, would explain why it’s a segue into the next section when Jesus condemns the cities that have seen his works, yet do not repent.

There are a couple of items of note in this section besides the little story.

One is that Jesus zeroes in on “this generation.”  This is a recurring theme with Jesus, especially when it comes to the topic of hearing his warnings of a coming judgement and repenting.  Although we might find similarities in our own generation, Jesus is bringing the focus to that specific time in Israel’s history and that specific crisis.  An impending doom is coming upon those very people and those people are not listening.  It is time sensitive.

Jesus’ frustrations are not simply that he isn’t being listened to; it’s that a terrible calamity is at the doorstep of that generation, and he’s trying to help.  It’s like knowing for sure a bomb is about to go off in your building, and you’re running around trying to get everyone out, but everyone just writes you off as a nutjob.  They don’t believe you.  The building looks fine to them, and the idea that a bomb is about to go off is absurd.  In that situation, you might well become frustrated, get angry, get loud, get extreme – but all of it is because a crisis is imminent and you care about saving people.  We know that, later, Jesus will weep regretfully over Jerusalem because they would not turn to him, and he will express his earnest desire that their sufferings are short.

Another interesting bit is the line about wisdom at the end.  The NRSV has “wisdom is known by her deeds” because that’s what the majority of our manuscripts say, but some of our older manuscripts say, “wisdom is known by her children,” which I think is probably more appropriate, not the least of which because it connects with the little parable.

But either way, Jesus is talking about a very old image in Jewish theology – that of Wisdom being a lady who is an agent of God.  As we see in Proverbs 8, Wisdom is God’s first creation, who is with Him in the beginning and works with Him as a master craftsman to create the world.  It is this same image that John will borrow from to talk about Jesus in John chapter 1.  We see all through Proverbs that Wisdom is pictured as a woman who is calling out to all who will listen, and those who listen, she calls her children (for instance, Proverbs 8:32-36).

For the purposes of Jesus’ allusion, it comes directly from Proverbs 1:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
    in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
    I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
    have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
    they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
    and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
    and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
    and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple,
    and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
    and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:20-33 (NRSV)

That whole passage could come directly from Jesus’ lips in the situation he is addressing, and that is likely his intent.  He is a child of God’s Wisdom calling out her words, but the foolish will not listen and, as a result, will have calamity come upon them “like a whirlwind.”  John the Baptist was also a child of God’s Wisdom calling out her words, and they despised his reproof.

These children were in the marketplace playing the flute and wailing, but nobody danced, and nobody mourned, and the complacency of fools destroyed them.

Consider This

  1. Are there people today pointing out that terrible consequences await if the Church does not change her course?  Are these warnings credible?  What is the price of being complacent?
  2. In Proverbs, following the Wisdom of God is depicted to bring you an easy and prosperous life.  How does this square with the life of Jesus and the Apostles?  How does this change what we’d expect to see from a faithful life?  What expectations should someone have for reward and prosperity if they are faithful?

Elijah Reborn: Matthew 11:11-14

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!

Matthew 11:11-14 (NRSV)

This is part of a speech Jesus is giving about how great John the Baptist is.  Somewhat surprisingly, it is part of Jesus’ response to John the Baptist publicly questioning whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.

Certainly, the hyperbolic statement at the beginning shows that Jesus thinks nothing but good things of John the Baptist.  Jesus says that John is the greatest person who has ever been born, and it’s hard to give a higher compliment than that.  Certainly, as a prophet, John has much to commend him.  He saw the upcoming judgement and was desperately trying to turn the ship of Israel around so that she might be reconciled to their God, and this after almost 500 years of prophetic silence from Israel’s God.  John is also the forerunner of the promised Messiah.  He has been put into a special role at a special time in history and has risen to the occasion as the great prophets before him.

But Jesus begins to turn our attention to something to the Kingdom of God – an end point to which both he and John have been pointing.

Within the Kingdom of God are “the least.”  Who are they?  Well, the way Matthew uses the phrase, it refers to the powerless faithful who cannot protect themselves from persecution.  Apart from Matthew 10:42, there’s also the parable in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus rewards those who took care of “the least of these” and exiles those who did not.  In this passage, Jesus appears to be saying that, as great and important and vital as John the Baptist was, that pales in comparison to the small, humble, and weak who remain faithful even under persecution – incidentally, a category that describes John the Baptist at the time Jesus is saying this.  It is no accident that Matthew has this occurring immediately after Jesus’ encouragement to his disciples to remain faithful even though persecution will be heating up.

This provides our context for understanding Jesus’ comment that the kingdom of God is seized violently by the violent.  John the Baptist is in one of Herod’s cells, and this is only the beginning.  Many people less capable than John are about to experience persecution from both government and religious authorities.  The same Greek words are used in 1 Enoch 103-104 to describe the plight of Israel under her oppressors, and she is encouraged to wait patiently because the day of her liberation is near.

And should this surprise anyone?  No, because this has largely been the experience of the prophets in Israel’s “recent” history, and when I say “recent,” I mean like the past millennium from Jesus’ standpoint.  The faithful prophets warn of impending doom if Israel will not change her direction and call her to repentance, and they are persecuted, incarcerated, exiled, and killed for their troubles.  In this way, everyone in the Kingdom of God is about to become a prophet.  They, too, will carry this message to Judea and they, too, will suffer for it.

This leads to Jesus’ crescendo – that John the Baptist is fulfilling Malachi 4.  Malachi (which simply means “My messenger”) chapter 4 is only six verses long.  It is the end to a diatribe against the corruption of Israel’s priesthood whose hearts are far from God and have used their position for gain, even at the expense of the rest of Israel.  In Malachi 4, God promises that the day is coming when he will destroy the arrogant evildoers, but the faithful will experience the rise of righteousness and healing.  There is a reminder for them to return to the obedience of God’s Law, and then:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Malachi 4:5-6 (NRSV)

The prophet Elijah will come to bring Israel to repentance so that they might not fall in the destruction.  This will happen before that terrible day comes.

This mission is not lost on John, who purposefully dresses up like Elijah and lives like Elijah in the wilderness.  John, like the prophets before him, is putting on a dramatic show along with his message, and the point of his show is, “I am Elijah.”  In this way, he connects himself directly with Malachi’s warning, and Jesus affirms that John the Baptist’s understanding of his role and place in history is dead on.

Even as Jesus praises John the Baptist, it’s also an occasion to remind the audience that a coming judgement is imminent, and the day is near.  John the Baptist is here.  Jesus is here.  The things the prophets looked for as signs of the great Day of the Lord are all here.  On the one hand, this is a great reason for hope: the oppressors will be put down and the faithful will be restored.  On the other hand, it is a sobering call to faithfulness, even with the knowledge that violence against the faithful will increase.

Consider This

  1. Who are the power structures that affect the lives of “the least of these” today?  In what ways do the least of these suffer violence from these power structures?  How would that violence increase if those structures were confronted with the message that God will one day put them down and exalt the humble faithful?
  2. When John the Baptist called people to repentance, he was clear that the people who repented “bore the fruits of repentance” and not just confessed their sins privately to God.  What does it mean for us to bear fruits of repentance?