Asking for a Sign: Matthew 16:1-4

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

Matthew 16:-1-4 (NRSV)

This is an interesting passage because it lays out a few, different sets of expectations and assumptions, and they don’t always line up with the people you’d expect.

The Pharisees and Sadducees are both Jewish but have fairly different theological ideas on a number of topics.  It’s helpful to keep in mind that first century Judaism was not a monolith.  It’s helpful not only in the sense of understanding these events better, but it also helps in that it reminds us how grossly inaccurate it is to cast Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews.”

The Pharisees were a group that believed Israel was under Roman dominion because they had failed to keep Torah.  Their solution to this was to preach stricter Torah observance among the people in the hopes that their obedience would motivate God to deliver them.  Since the Torah doesn’t exactly spell out in detail every little thing, rabbis of a Pharisaical bent threw themselves into that very task, creating traditions and interpretations of the Law to which they held their people accountable.

From the standpoint of Israel’s story up to that point, these views had a lot going for them.  It is true that the prophets explained Israel’s exile and tenure under foreign dominion as a result of their breaking of the covenant, and it’s reasonable to assume that, if the nation repented and began steadfastly obeying the covenant, God would turn their situation around.

The disconnect came in the fact that Israel’s failure to live up to the Law did not consist in the failure to observe this or that little detail – it was that Israel’s leadership had become corrupt and unjust in how they treated both their own people and foreigners, and they had led the people astray from devotion to their God into idolatry.  The indictments the prophets brought against Israel were indictments of how they treated orphans, widows, the poor, and the stranger.  Israel was doing fine observing the “religious” specifications of the Law and had abandoned anything that looked like love or justice.

As one example, take the opening salvo of Isaiah:

When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)

Here, the prophet tells us that God finds all the careful religious observances that are in the Law offensive because the same people doing those careful observances are oppressors.

We see this clash play itself out with Jesus and the Pharisees as well, as Jesus warns that a world-changing judgement on Israel is imminent, and the only way to be saved through it is to believe him, repent, and follow his path, which included not simply a spiritual reorientation to God but manifested in works of love and restoration of the least of peoples, even when doing so could be seen as technically a violation of Torah.  The Pharisees will not help a crippled man on the Sabbath because that would be doing work, but Jesus demonstrates that helping this man in love is, in fact, what God and the Law require.

You can see how these two would clash.  Jesus is preaching that the judgement will not be averted by more Torah obedience the way the Pharisees define it and, in fact, their definition of obedience is actually hypocrisy in the eyes of both God and Torah.

The Sadducees, by contrast, are more urbane than their Pharisee counterparts.  Sadducees do not believe in any supernatural beings but God, and even that might be a little iffy.  Sadducees do not believe that anyone has or could rise from the dead or even that people have an immortal soul.  They openly reject the “traditional” laws of the Pharisees and only hold strictly to the written words of the Torah, which affords them quite a bit of moral latitude.

The Sadducees tended to be something of a bridge between the Jewish people and the Greco-Roman control of the region.  They were often very high up in both religious and political hierarchies, performing grand Temple duties and serving in various councils and tribunals dealing with matters of Jewish governance.  As a result, they were a prosperous group and archeological evidence has shown us that they tended to adopt the customs of and even change their housing and decorations to match the tastes and preferences of whomever was in charge of Jerusalem at the time.

Perhaps Jesus has run afoul of this group because of the miracle stories or his teaching of resurrection, but I think a great part of the hostility probably comes from Jesus’ preaching against Israelites taking up the ways of her oppressors for their own comfort and prosperity.  God is in opposition to this world order, and those who are allied with it will fall in the judgement, and that puts Sadducees right in the crosshairs.

Honestly, both of these groups provide some good object lessons for looking at Christianity in America, today.  But that’s not really the point of the passage.

The point is that we have two groups who probably never agreed on anything – a fact that Jesus actually uses to his advantage a time or two – who are teaming up here to put Jesus in a bind of sorts.  They demand that Jesus show them a sign from heaven, presumably to validate his message.  The one thing that unites both groups is that Jesus represents a threat to their power base, and if they ask the Miracle Man to produce one, and he can’t, obviously he’ll lose credibility with the rank and file Jewish people.

One thing that’s interesting to me about this is that the author of the gospel of Matthew does not shy away from the miracle stories of Jesus.  In fact, this passage follows on the heels of a miracle Jesus performs.  Matthew, following Mark, even shows us a literal voice from heaven validating Jesus.  If the author is simply trying to establish Jesus’ credibility before gullible first century (and subsequent) readers, then it’s go time.  Jesus’ enemies ask for supernatural proof, Jesus does something amazing or another voice speaks from heaven, and boom – Jesus is vindicated, and you’re an idiot if you don’t believe him.  There are stories like this in both Testaments; it’s a well-established trope.  This is the kind of story we’d expect from a gospel writer who was more concerned with creating a Jesus movement than they were telling us what they believed to be true.

But here, Matthew shows us a Jesus who isn’t interested at all in a supernatural sign.  Honestly, in isolation, this story would look exactly like the story of a fraud – a shyster.  People quite reasonably ask for a supernatural demonstration that should be perfectly commensurate with the stories people are telling about Jesus, and Jesus cleverly and verbally evades the issue and produces nothing.  But it is clear that portraying Jesus this way is actually counter to the author’s intent.  It sort of hurts Matthew’s case, in a sense, to include this story.  If Jesus wants people to believe in him, and he’s fully capable of producing a miracle, why not do it right here, right now?  Those Pharisees and Sadducees would have no choice but to give in to the empirical evidence right in front of them, right?

Interestingly, John (the weird gospel) has an episode where this is exactly what happens:

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

John 12:27-32 (NRSV)

In this passage, John tells us that some people said the voice was just thunder, while others recognized it as a supernatural voice but ascribed it to an angel and not actually God.  If you continue reading this passage, some people in the crowd continue to grill Jesus as if nothing had happened. Maybe producing a supernatural event that convinces everyone is harder than it seems.  Even if you don’t believe John is recording a historical event, here, the author still has people reacting differently to it.  To me, these nods to skepticism not only give us a nice, honest depiction of how people of all worldviews interpret data according to their assumptions, but they actually add credibility to the gospel accounts in a sort of “we’d normally be embarrassed to say this” kind of way.  If you’re making up a miracle to prove Jesus’ identity, it really doesn’t help you out to note that a good chunk of people wrote it off as thunder, and it would just be weird to fabricate people ascribing it to “an angel.”

Anyway, that’s not the point either.  I’m getting there.

The point is that Jesus answers their request for a sign from heaven with an appeal to interpreting the world around them.  In other words, Jesus does not direct them to a miracle or even his past miracles, but rather he points them to the mundane events unfolding in the world.

In other words, they should be able to know Jesus’ message is true because they can look at world events and see that’s where things are going.

I really want to underscore that, so let me say it, again:

They should be able to know Jesus’ message is true because they can look at world events and see that’s where things are going.

If you ever had any doubts about orienting Jesus and his message to the concrete, historical circumstances of his world, allow Jesus to put them to rest for you.  The claims that Jesus is making should have been supported and evident by observing the events of the day.

This criticism would be ridiculous if we had a Jesus who was solely proclaiming “spiritual realities.”  You can’t validate “spiritual realities” by observing the signs apparent in the natural flow of events.  What you can validate is what’s likely to happen down the road on the basis of what you’re seeing, today.

That’s exactly Jesus’ analogy, isn’t it?  You look at the sky the night before, and you can tell what the weather will be like, tomorrow.  You look at the sky in the morning, and you can tell what the weather will be like the rest of the day.  Jesus says the reason people are asking for supernatural validation from heaven is because they’re incapable of observing the normal course of events and drawing the conclusion that Jesus is correct.

This has to mean that Jesus’ message is at least partially about where concrete history is going.  He foresees tensions building up to a conflict with Rome that Jerusalem will not survive, and he weeps over it.  He warns people of this coming calamity and that the time is now to repent, start helping one another, get their hearts right, and literally flee the city when they see the Romans show up.

We can’t really understand Jesus’ preaching about coming judgement, repentance, forgiveness, restoration, and salvation if we totally divorce those concepts from the historical situation and concerns of Jesus’ day.  I’m not trying to say there isn’t a spiritual component of those things, but I am saying that the Jesus the gospels show us is not a transhistorical teacher of timeless spiritual truths.  He is an apocalyptic prophet in the tradition of Israel’s prophets before him that are concerned with the survival of Israel among the nations, with the added status of being God’s own Son sent into the vineyard to warn the tenants.

Further confirmation of this is found in Jesus’ parting words, that this generation would get no sign except the sign of Jonah.

Jesus has already said this, elsewhere.

Part of this – the part that Christians love so much – is an allusion to the resurrection.  Just as Jonah was in the belly of the beast for three days and nights, so Jesus would be in the tomb for three days and nights.  That allusion is completely valid and, in the Matthew 12 reference to it, makes that allusion explicit.  So, I’m not trying to take that away.

But something the Matthew 12 reference also makes explicit is part of the “sign of Jonah” is Jonah bringing a prophetic message to Nineveh telling them to repent or their city would be conquered:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Jonah 3:1-5 (NRSV)

You see, Jonah’s warning wasn’t that Nineveh needed to repent or they would all go to Hell when they eventually died.  Jonah’s warning was that the great and powerful city of Nineveh would be overthrown.

Jesus is that sign of Jonah for Jerusalem.  He, too, is carrying that message in his day.  The tragedy is that, in Jonah’s day, the (very non-Jewish) city of Nineveh believed the prophet and repented, turning toward the mercies of the true God.  Here, among his own people, Jesus finds unbelief and rejection.  The overthrow of the great city will happen.  And Jesus cries over his beloved Jerusalem, praying that the disaster might not come on them in the winter or on a Sabbath.

But the gospel writers let us know all is not lost.

The kingdom of God has come like a tiny mustard seed, and it will grow until it is a mighty tree that fills the earth.  That seed begins with this rag tag collection of peasant fishermen and tax collector sellouts.  It begins with cripples and lepers and those who have been isolated because of the Law.  It begins with prostitutes who have no place in a first century society or economy.  Jesus’ opposition comes from the religious professionals who know their Bibles, but the salvation of Israel begins with the lowly.  And, thusly, a triumph of both God’s power and grace.

The day would come when all the nations who bowed the knee to Caesar would bow the knee to Jesus Christ.  Jesus was vindicated, and so were all who decided to place their faith in him.

Consider This

  1. What are the perfectly natural, mundane signs of our times showing us God is doing in the world?
  2. Do we have a hope for the immediate future?  What would have to happen in fifty years or a hundred years to vindicate our hope?
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Sunday Meditations: Salvation and Relationship

Imagine buying your first house.  Or, if you’ve already bought your first house, try to remember that experience.  Most of what I remember about it was looking at what felt like three dozen houses whose features all ran together into an indistinguishable blur.

As you’re buying that first house, and as you’re thinking about why you want that house and what sort of life you’ll live in that house, do you ever pause to think about what a great place that house will be to store all your stuff?

It’s a legitimate thing to think about, right?  Many Americans have lots of stuff, and we need a place to put it.  A house solves that need.  Certainly, that’s what happens in a house.  In fact, most of the experience of moving in is getting all your stuff into the house.  If you visit other people’s houses, you’ll note that all their stuff is in it.

Yet, if you were going to talk about your thoughts behind home ownership, most people would probably not cite “stuff storage” as the main reason they’re doing it.  Sure, they might talk about storage space as an issue when comparing houses.  Also, they most assuredly will move their stuff into the house when they buy it, and they probably spend a fair amount of time planning where all the stuff is going to go.  Despite all that, “storage” is just not what buying a house is all about.

When you imagine buying a house, the picture is much bigger, much fuller than a structure in which to store your property.  You’re thinking of a place to live – a place of your very own – perhaps to share with a spouse or children.  You’re thinking of all aspects of your life as it plays out inside your house.  Storage is a part of it, sure, but it’s a facet of a much larger gem.  In fact, buying your house affects your life so holistically that it seems almost comical to imagine a young couple buying their first house so they can finally have a place to keep their stuff.  If you were considering a specific house, and the real estate agent kept going on and on about what a great place to store your stuff it was, you might start to wonder what they were trying to pull.

At the same time, the house is a place to store your stuff.  It’s a great benefit that comes with home ownership, it’s kind of a big deal, and if the real estate agent told you that she had a great house for you but you couldn’t keep any of your stuff in it, you’d probably look elsewhere.

So, on the one hand, we want to maintain that storage is a feature of owning a house, and it’s an important one – one we don’t want to do without – and one that plays a big role in our experience of that house.

On the other hand, we acknowledge that storage is just one facet of home ownership.  The whole picture is much bigger than that, and if you narrowly focus on the house as storage space, someone will probably point out to you that you could, in fact, live in the house, use it, and enjoy it much more thoroughly than your narrow lens was allowing.

That’s all!  Thanks for reading.  This blog has been brought to you by the Realtors Association of….

No, this long, rambling prologue is meant to serve as a (very) loose analogy.  Making “storage space” the entire point of a house is similar to how I feel when people make “having a personal relationship with God” the entire point of the biblical story, or God’s acts in history, or the apex of all God’s desires.

Like storage space in a house, the “personal relationship” aspect of what God is doing and has done in the world is there.  It’s a thing, and it’s a big deal.  Without that aspect of things, joining a priestly people called to serve God would lack some essential benefits, much in the same way you wouldn’t move into a house that you couldn’t store your stuff in.

Further, America (where I live, and also where all my stuff is) is a country that simultaneously exalts the individual and can be a very disconnected, alienating place for people who crave community.  It’s extremely easy to slip through the cracks in a country that has made individualism and self-reliance national virtues.  In this climate, just knowing there is a God who cares about and reaches out to you as an individual person can be life changing, especially to those who have been mistreated and/or isolated.

As a matter of personal disclosure, the individual mystical aspect of my Christian faith is very important to me.  I have had several individual experiences of God that I’d be happy to share with you and they often changed the trajectory of my life in significant ways.  The ongoing emotional connection and spiritual feelings of the presence of God is a big part of my life and, when I’m not feeling those things, the effect is large.

What’s more, some of the more profound and moving effects of my contemplation of God have happened when thinking of God’s love for me.  God’s attention to me.  These things are demonstrated in big and small ways and not the least of which has been my inclusion in the great works that God has done in Jesus Christ.

So, I want to be clear that I am not at all trying to take that from anyone or criticize it as a powerful force in someone’s life.  My own life is a testimony to that power, and you sure aren’t prying it away from me.  Much less would I intend to do so for someone else.

At the same time, I often find myself getting a little wearied with books or sermons or comments from other Christians that essentially boil down to, “What God wants most is to have a personal relationship with you.”  I get wearied of singing song after song about this.  Me, and God loves me, and God wants me, and God can’t imagine life without me, and everything God has done He’s done for me, and the whole reason Jesus died was me, and the whole Bible was written for me, and there’s just nothing God wouldn’t do if it helped me in some way.

The reason I get fed up (almost literally fed up, actually) with this sentiment has nothing to do with “correct doctrine.”  I’m too old in Christ and too skeptical of myself to get hot and bothered about incorrect doctrine for its own sake these days.  It’s also not simply because it makes me the center of the universe and actually taps into the idolization of the individual, although that’s also a real problem and, all told, may be the worst thing about it.

But the reason I get fed up is that it all just seems so small to me compared to what we could be talking or singing about.  Yes, let’s talk about it and let’s sing about it – it’s an important piece to the whole thing – but it’s only a facet on the gem.  I find myself wondering if this is really all the Christian story has become for people – a conveyance for my personal experiences with God and how we feel about each other.  I feel like the entirety of God in history has boiled down to something I’d read in a Hallmark card except someone had to die in the process.  I don’t know; maybe that happens in Hallmark card production, too.

The Bible is primarily a story about Israel’s existence in the world, particularly as she exists side by side with other nations, the vast majority of whom are stronger than she is and worship other gods.  Old Testament, New Testament, this is the riverbed through which the river of Scripture flows.

I know many people might balk at that statement, and that’s fine, but if that summary is distasteful, let me encourage you to sit down and read the entirety of the Bible, letting each writing speak for itself and without projecting the text into a theology, insofar as you can.  I would offer that what you will find is a great deal of story and reflection on what is happening to Israel and the nations.

What you will not find is that the Bible is mostly theological truths about God, nor about man, nor about the human condition.  You will not find most of the writings discuss heaven or hell, nor do they provide instructions about getting to one and avoiding the other.  You will also not find the bulk of the writings asserting God’s ultimate desire to have a personal relationship with individuals.

Some of those things, we might find in the biblical writings, but it’s like the storage space aspect of a house.  It’s there, it’s important, but there’s a much bigger narrative in the works, and that narrative is the story of Israel as she exists with her God in the midst of the nations.  The Bible in our heads might make some of those other things the primary topics of conversation, but the actual Bible does not.

Because of this, all our categories for what we find in the Bible have a character that is defined by the life of Israel in the world over a very long span of time.  “Salvation” is what happens when God saves Israel from something.  “Relationship” is covenant, which God sometimes does make with individuals, but it’s on behalf a people.

The great stories of those great characters you remember – Abraham, Moses, Samson, Deborah, Gideon, David, and so on – are not there to provide examples of God’s desire for personal relationship (if God is dealing with you the way He dealt with Moses, you should probably say something to someone about it).  They are there because these people are pivotal to the preservation and prosperity of Israel.

And so it goes with salvation.

In Exodus 14, Moses says, “Behold the salvation of the Lord,” when they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea.  A very similar passage occurs in 2 Chronicles 20 when Jerusalem is about to be besieged by an alliance of Moabites and Ammonites.  In Isaiah 52, the famous “how beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” passage is about Israel being rescued from the Exile to Babylon.

“Salvation” is God saving Israel from whatever she needed saving from.  As we get into the prophets, that includes her own leadership.

“Well, ok,” says my imaginary reader, “But everyone is probably ok with that.  Sure, sometimes we misread Old Testament passages to be talking about a spiritual understanding of salvation the way we understand it, but surely you can see that these are all pointing forward to Jesus’ work of setting people free from sin, death, and Hell?”

First of all, I am very uncomfortable with the idea that the horrors that Israel and her neighbors experienced were all part of a very elaborate allegory.  It’s all very well and good to sit in your armchair and declare that being killed or imprisoned by Babylonians would give people centuries later a typological allegory of being in spiritual bondage or what have you, but I think an Israelite mother who saw her husband impaled on the end of a Babylonian spear might rather just have gotten a pamphlet.  I doubt, as she saw her little boys taken away from her to be raised in Babylon to ensure the people did not revolt, that she thought, “You know, all this is a really great metaphor for how we’re all in spiritual bondage.  Well, I hope when the Messiah shows up, he sets us free from what’s REALLY important.”

Second, I think Israel / the Bible’s ongoing concern with the welfare of Israel in the world does not get traded for the spiritual realities of all humanity in the New Testament.

For instance, John the Baptist announces to Israel to repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  This is also Jesus’ message, you’ll note.  When Pharisees and Sadducees show up, John demands, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Whatever you think this “wrath to come” is, I hope we can all agree it’s not what would happen to each individual standing there as they eventually all passed away from old age.  The “wrath to come” is not “Hell when you die” to John the Baptist.  It’s something imminent that’s about to sweep through Judea and will clear all the corruption out of it.  Faithful Israel needs to be saved from this.  She needs to be saved from her oppressors, and she needs to be saved from the mechanism that will clear them out – not unlike the tenth plague of Egypt.

But as you can see, the people who will be saved are those who repent and believe.  This is the new twist.  In the Old Testament, you were saved by God by being Israelite.  In the first century, Israelites are both the oppressor and the oppressed.  A new line is being drawn, and as Jesus continues his ministry, we find that he, too, announces that the kingdom of God has come near, but this also means a coming judgement and the need to be saved from it, and the people who will be saved are the people who, quite literally, believe him.

In his warnings, Jesus offers advice like, “Flee to the mountains,” and “Pray that your flight will not occur in winter or on the Sabbath,” which is really unhelpful advice for escaping Hell.  Or the end of the world, really.

Even in the context of the Gospels, God is saving His people from something in the world they needed saving from.  In this case, Israel’s oppressors are immediately other Israelites, and ultimately the pagan nation that rules them.

“Ok, hold on.  Isn’t Jesus called Jesus because he will save his people from their sins?”

Yes.  His people are Jews, and saving them from their sins means rescuing them from the state of affairs that has come about because of their sins.  It does not mean that he will get them to stop sinning, anymore than you have stopped sinning.

When Peter delivers his sermon in Acts 2, the audience is cut to the heart and they ask the Spirit-filled believers (who are all Jews), “Brothers (because the audience is all Jews), what shall we do?”  And Peter tells them to repent and be baptized so that their sins will be forgiven and they will receive the Spirit.

What is this message that causes everyone to be cut to the heart and cry out asking what they need to do?  Is it that they’ll go to Hell when they die?  Is it that the world will end?

It’s this:

Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.

Acts 2:36 (NRSV)

There you go.  You know that guy you killed?  God has made him Lord and Christ.

This terrifies the audience and they beg to know what they need to do in light of the fact that God has just exalted the man they had handed over to Rome for execution.

There’s nothing in that sermon about mankind’s sinful condition or estrangement from God.  There’s nothing about how God’s holiness demands the death penalty for sin in general.  There’s nothing about how God, desiring a personal relationship with them, sent Jesus to die to satisfy God’s wrath for their sins.

It’s just this:

“Why are all you guys stumbling around talking in languages we don’t understand?  Are you drunk?”

“No.  This is the Holy Spirit promised of old that would fall in the last days before the great and terrible day of the Lord.  You remember Jesus?  That guy you had crucified?  God raised him from the dead.  He made him Lord and Christ.  That guy you had crucified.”

“WHAT?  WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?”

“Repent and be baptized and be forgiven of your sins.  And you will receive the Spirit.”

God will save His people Israel in history in the world.  Even the inclusion of Gentiles, as Romans 11 tells us, is part of the plan to save Israel.  If you are a Gentile and you have faith in Jesus Christ, then you have been brought into the people of God so that Israel might be saved, and the wonder is that God has made one people out of the two, so that you are heirs of the promises to the patriarchs, and you, as well, are the Israel of God.

Above and beyond what salvation has looked like in my own, personal life and what my personal relationship with God looks like is God’s covenant with His people and His commitment to save them in the world when they need saving as they go from age to age.

Yes, the Bible tells us a (very) little bit about a final judgement and a new heavens and earth, and in that sense, that day may very well mark the telos of God’s saving works.  But the Bible has very little to say about that and, instead, tells a story of a people in a world among other people.  What happens to them, what do they need saving from, how does that happen, and how do they live as a distinctly holy and faithful people in their present historical circumstances?

Those questions are just as applicable today as they were to Israel, although we have to acknowledge that a lot has changed both on the world stage and for the identity of the people of God, which is no longer predominantly Jewish and is dispersed throughout all nations.  Still, to answer those questions involves reaching into our past for guidance, listening in our present for God’s voice and obeying it, and hoping for a future that may contradict our present circumstances but is grounded in God’s demonstrable historical faithfulness.

Those kinds of songs, books, devotions, sermons, and conversations would not be very small or boring, I think.

Sunday Meditations: God’s Behavior

A quick word of warning, this post is particularly long.  Not only that, the first big stretch is me talking about some doubts regarding God and the problem of evil and how many traditional positions have failed me.  If you are not interested in this or you are currently in a state where reading through those kinds of things might do you more harm than good right now, you might want to just read the next two paragraphs and then jump down to the first bolded subheading.  It’s “This World Has a Price.”

One of my biggest puzzles theologically is how to account for God and His intervention or lack thereof.

It turns out I’m not alone in this struggle; the history of theology even before Christianity is replete with people trying to work through this issue.  If you believe you’ve got this issue completely sorted, you might contemplate why this has been a mystery for literally millennia and still confounds many of our best sense-making abilities.  There’s a reason they call it “the problem of evil” and not “the brief question that’s easily solved of evil.”

The issue is that we want to maintain a list of things that appear inconsistent with our experience of the world:

  • God is always good.
  • God is all-powerful.
  • God intervenes in history to accomplish His purposes.

At the same time, we look around in the world and see things that don’t seem to square with all of those propositions.  There is suffering in the world.  There’s injustice.  There are tragedies that befall the innocent while prosperity comes to the wicked.  Some people are spared adversity while others aren’t.  It’s very difficult to come up with a philosophy or theology that harmonizes those experiences with the propositions about God.

Perhaps the most popular way to explain things is to appeal to human free will.  God wants humans to have free will so that their choices have meaning and value, including their choice to serve Him, and the price for this is that some will use their free will to do evil.

That might cover some scenarios, but there are still significant issues with it.

First of all, many suffering scenarios don’t involve free will.  When an infant is born with a terminal condition or a natural disaster kills and maims people and animals, the free will defense doesn’t really help us out of those.  Those are scenarios where people could have been saved and nobody’s free will would have been violated.

Second, this assumes that violating free will is the worst thing you can do to someone.  Perhaps from God’s perspective this is so, but it certainly isn’t from ours.  While there are plenty of times we allow people to experience the consequences of their actions, we have our limits.

Parents violate the free will of their children all the time for their own safety.  Don’t play in the street.  Don’t stay out past seven.  Don’t get into vans with strangers.  Parents will also physically intervene to prevent a child from doing something dangerous.

Even with adults, where we often do let consequences run their course for other adults, we still have limits.  If you visit a loved one and they’re lying on the bed surrounded by pills, breathing shallowly, with a suicide note on the table, you’re probably calling the hospital.  You’re probably not sitting there sadly regretting their decision but unwilling to go against their wishes.

Third, I’m not sure the picture of God we get from the Bible is a God who is unwilling to ever use coercion.  Granted, most scenarios I can think of still place the responsibility on the individual or nation to make the choice that’s in their best interest, but it’s still a consistency problem for the Free Will Defense.  God does not put an angel with a flaming sword in front of every rapist or strike every tyrant with insanity or supernatural death.

Even when it comes to the decision making process within the human heart, there are stories in the Bible that would indicate that at least the author thought God was at work in that process as well.  Exodus 7:3 comes to mind.  The Exodus narrative switches between Pharaoh hardening his heart and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, so we get the idea that Pharaoh is not some automaton being driven around by God, but at the same time, God is somehow involved in perpetuating Pharaoh’s unwillingness to release the Israelites.

Finally, as Christians, I think we have a hard time being consistent with a Free Will Defense.  If God will not intervene to violate human free will, that does mean we can’t blame Him for the evil that people do.  But it also means we can’t “blame” Him for the good things people do, either.  What sense does it make to thank God for a new job or an influx of donations to a charitable work if that was simply the outcome of human free will – something He refuses to violate?

Have you ever prayed specifically for the salvation of a loved one?  What is it that you’re expecting God to do that He isn’t already doing?

I realize these are painful questions, and I’m not suggesting that anyone stop thanking God for good things or asking Him to intervene in bad situations where free will is a factor.  What I’m saying is that the issue of God and His relationship to the good and evil in the world and His action or lack thereof is a very complicated issue and “free will” can’t be our bromide that smooths over all the tensions.

I do believe that free will and the price necessary to have free will are in the mix, here, but they don’t solve all our problems.

On the other side of the theological fence (not counting Deism) is the Reformed/Calvinistic view that, while God is not a primary cause of everything that happens, He foreordains everything that happens.

From the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

WCF Chapter III Section I

I have a grudging admiration for the Westminster Divines as they attempted to resolve the difficulties by fiat.  God unchangeably ordains everything that happens, but He’s also not the author of sin nor does He violate the will of creatures.  There you go, all done, nothing to see here, drop the mic.

Similarly:

Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

WCF Chapter V Section II

There are some things I like about this view of God and history.

One thing I like is that it does try to encompass the breadth of the biblical pictures we have for God and His acts or lack thereof.  In one story, we have God actively making things happen.  In another, He’s sort of sitting back and observing.  In another, He seems to be directly responsible for the good things that happen.  In others, He seems to be responsible in some way for the bad things that happen.  In one passage, the author tries to distance God from any kind of causal relationship to evil in the world, and then in other passages, the evil in the world is under God’s direction.

The statements in the Westminster Confession try to reckon with this diversity, which I appreciate, but they say little about the tensions between them.  There is no acknowledgement that it is a mystery how these things can all be true.  The WCF is pretty devoid of any sense of mystery about anything, even in the chapter on the Trinity.  “We’re not sure how this works,” is a phrase you probably didn’t hear a lot at the Westminster Assembly.

The challenge, of course, is that if God is in some sense the deliberate origin of all that comes to pass, then He is in that same sense responsible for it.  Like the problem with the Free Will Defense, it makes little sense to glorify God for the good things He’s ordained and then try to work it out so that He’s not in any sense responsible for the bad things He’s ordained.  We’ve freed God from being the direct cause of everything, but now everything is part of His plan.  I will say, in fairness, that there are voices in the Bible that seem to say exactly that.

Many Christians, however, sense an existential difficulty, here.  Who wants to look at some horrible crime or devastation and ascribe it to God’s plan?  Who wants to take a child who was sexually assaulted or an infant who was crippled for life by a neurological problem and say that God in some sense somehow decided that those things should happen?

So, then we get into some more contemporary variants.

One very popular one right now is the idea that bad things are not God’s will or part of God’s plan, but God is with us as we suffer through them and is at work to bring good things out of them.

This view has a number of advantages, not the least of which is that there is an extremely common motif in both Old and New Testaments of God doing exactly this sort of thing.  Someone does something that is intended for evil or some tragedy happens, and God does something that flips the script.  We also experience this sort of thing fairly regularly in our lives, that good comes out of something that seems bad at first.

But now we have the challenge that we’ve basically written off huge swaths of reality to happening outside of God’s control.  If we acknowledge that God could act to control or stop these events, then why doesn’t He?  We end up with similar problems with the Free Will Defense except, I’d argue, even greater in scope, because now we’ve got an entire world running amok with God reacting to it.  While I like that this emphasizes that God is in the boat with us, it does still challenge us with whether or God is capable of controlling or stopping things and, if so, why He opts not to do that.

Further, this tactic does not seem very consistently applied.  Why are some missionaries miraculously saved from a hostile government while others die in prison?  Why do some families come safely through a hurricane while others perish?

The most virulent form of this view is one I’ve seen crop up in premillennial dispensationalist circles and, oddly, Pentecostals.  In this view, Satan actually runs the world.  The reason why things seem so bad are all Satan’s fault, not God’s.  Why doesn’t God put a stop to all this?  He will, but the time isn’t right, yet.  More people need to be saved.  We should expect things to get worse and worse and worse for everyone until, finally, God has enough and takes believers to heaven and destroys everything else.

I cannot begin to describe what a massive failure both exegetically and theologically this view is for the Church.  What’s more, I’m very surprised at the Pentecostals who hold this view (#NotAllPentecostals) because I’m not sure how you reconcile a belief in exorcism in Jesus’ name with a belief that Satan controls the world.  Who’s in charge, here?

I’m not going to go into a detailed critique of this view because it is horrific, but I will say that it does succeed in freeing God from responsibility to a point.  I guess the larger issue would be what it would say about God that He would let such a situation go on for so long, and what does it say about the hope of God’s people when they are basically condemned to the Terrordrome for thousands of years.

This consistency vulnerability is an obvious point of exploitation for atheism.  When we look at the world with so much suffering and injustice in it, and that suffering and joy seem almost randomly allocated with no apparent rhyme or reason to it, isn’t that what we’d expect from a world without a God who intervenes in it?  Deists might be able to skate by, here, but not the rest of us.

For both atheism and deism, what we observe in the world is simply the running along of the various forces that propel events: sociological, economic, physical, etc.  Sometimes the combinations and timing play out one way for this person, other times they play out another way for that person.  This is more or less what we observe in the world and, when theism struggles to come up with a cohesive narrative that both explains these experiences and maintains a good, powerful God, then we have an obvious problem on our hands.

Because at that point, the issue isn’t just a belief in a non-empirical aspect of reality; the issue is a non-empirical aspect of reality that in some sense wishes reality were different and has the power to enact those wishes but apparently does not.  Christianity does not believe in the existence of -a- God, but rather the God who is described in the Bible, revealed in Jesus, and we contend is the actual God.

If you’ve stayed with me this long, I congratulate and appreciate you.  I have some thoughts on how these challenges might not be as crippling as they seem.

The World Comes with a Price

When God makes the universe the way it is, He imports in conditions and constraints in order for that universe to work.

For example, in our universe with our space-time features, God cannot create a square circle.  If you beat me in a chess match, God cannot make it so that I actually beat you after those same events occurred.  These are not limitations of God’s power so much as they are constraints of the universe in which He works.

These are not necessary constraints.  You can have a universe where time flows backwards or not at all.  You can have a universe where spatial relations are wildly different than Euclidean geometry.  But these are features of this universe, and God has to work with those materials unless He fundamentally revises the nature of the universe.

In order for this world to be what it is and work the way it does, things we think of as bad must be a part of it or at least potentially be a part of it.

The most obvious example is free will.  If you want a being freely capable of consciously choosing good, it has to be equally capable of consciously choosing evil.  Whether that being will choose one or the other is an entirely different story, but that potential has to be there.  If you create a being without the capacity to choose evil, that’s fine and good, but they don’t have free will.

But this is also true in terms of the mechanics of the universe as we know it.

For example, our cells can divide and mutate.  This allows us to grow and heal.  This allows a species to better adapt to the environment as the environment changes.  This also allows cancer.

You don’t get to have it both ways.  If cells are capable of reproducing and producing mutation, then they are also capable of producing cancer.  Hopefully, the day will come when we can spot cancer early, treat it with more success, and maybe even prevent it in practice.  But we will never be able to eliminate the very possibility of cancer without fundamentally restructuring the way cells work.  In fact, if we truly eliminated all capability of cells to produce cancer, we would doom our race to extinction, because that same capability is what enables healing and survival.

Even death – and I hate death.  This is not some philosophical statement for me.  I loathe death.  It has hurt me, taken from me, and plagues me almost daily in some form or fashion.  And it has hurt the people I love most very deeply.  But even death is necessary the way the world works right now.  Death is necessary for new life to spring up.  Death frees up resources and provides new ones.

In order for your children to live, and your children’s children, and your children’s children’s children, you have to die.  If people didn’t die, you probably wouldn’t be here, because the population would have to level out at a number commensurate with available resources (whatever that meant in a world where people didn’t die).  In order for new generations of people to be born, find God, experience Him, love and be loved, and return to Him, people have to die.  You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t have an Earth full of everyone God has come to know and love and not have people die.  You could have a world of immortals with fewer people and generations, but you can’t have this world.

We have a longing for a better world in our hearts, as we should.  That longing is God’s longing.  It’s difficult to explain why we would have this longing if it were not the case that things were wrong and could be different.

At the same time, we should also acknowledge that often these bad things are corruptions or negative side effects of the same things that introduce great good into the universe, and the absence of those things (or more accurately, a world where those things were totally impossible) might very well result in a very different world that we might not approve of at all.

A world where everyone is biologically incapable of being a jackass is the stuff of our dystopian stories.  A world where the Sun is incapable of going cold is a world where the Sun cannot generate heat.  A world where there is no friction is a world where you can’t walk.  While we can (and should) work to counter the things in the world that cause human suffering, we don’t really know what kind of world we would have if even their theoretical possibility was removed.  This is a good segue into the next consideration.

We Don’t Know How the World Should Be or How God Should Behave in It

The Tao Te Ching tells us that we should not label anything good or bad because we don’t know everything that gave rise to an event or what the total effects of it will be.

A man stubs his toe on a rock, and it hurts so bad that he has to sit down for a few minutes until the pain subsides.  Is that good or bad?

What if this delays him five minutes, and five minutes ago, a drunk driver was careening wildly across the very road that man would cross?  Was stubbing his toe good or bad?

(A somewhat less somber portrayal of the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching is the song “Oh, That’s Good / No, That’s Bad” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.)

While it’s easy for us to consider that, in the situation of the man stubbing his toe, the stubbed toe saved the man’s life, also consider that the man in the story has no idea his life was just saved.  The only point of reference he has is the stubbed toe, and it really hurt.  He might go on to have a pretty crappy day, all because of the stubbed toe that, unbeknownst to him, was the best thing that could have happened to him.

We can scale out this microcosm many times over.  As smart as we are individually and collectively, and as much as we know about natural and social forces, we really do not know all the factors that brought an event into being, nor do we know all the effects that event will have today, tomorrow, or years down the road.

We can readily acknowledge the bad effects of something or someone in the terms we can observe.  That’s all we can do, and that’s what we’re called to do.  We don’t allow murderers to go free because, hey, maybe that murder was the best thing that could have happened in the world!

But even as we acknowledge our obligation to judge in the present circumstances, we also have to admit that we are totally unqualified to pass judgement over whether or not, in the ultimate scheme of things with horizons far beyond our own, this event didn’t serve a purpose that, if we had known, we would agree that it was necessary.

Once again, I’m not being coldly philosophical.  I’m thinking right now of events in my own life that I’m pretty sure I could not tell you what possible benefit could justify those events happening.  Those events hurt, and every benefit I can think of pales in comparison to the suffering and trauma of those events on me and everyone in their orbit, to say nothing of all the suffering and evils that go on in the world that I haven’t experienced.

But that’s exactly the point.  The fact that I can’t see the factors that unspooled from those events or all the things that happened that resulted in those events is precisely the point.  I can’t.  You can’t.  We can’t.  On occasion we can, but often we can’t.

So, I ask you, why is it that we are so confident that we can accurately predict, prescribe, and judge what a good and powerful and loving God ought to do in the world?

Not only are we confident that we can chart out what such a God would/should do, we are so confident that it is actually more likely to us that God doesn’t exist than that we might be wrong about what omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness might look like.

Think about that for a moment.  When I doubt that God is loving or powerful or that He exists altogether because of the problem of evil, I’m assuming that my ability to judge an event and all its possibilities, variables, and effects on everything for all time is so cohesive, accurate, and absolute – that a contradiction of that judgement is a reason to believe God is not good, powerful, or doesn’t exist.

That position is mind-blowing in the sheer scale of its abandonment of perspective.

The story in the Bible that comes to mind, here, is the book of Job.  If you’ve not read Job, it opens with God and Israel’s accuser having a debate that God provokes.  God praises the faithfulness of His follower, Job, and the accuser responds that Job is only faithful because his life is prosperous.  In response, God allows the accuser to torment Job, removing everything Job has that makes life worth living.  Throughout the story, Job remains faithful despite everyone else telling him that he is either a grievous sinner or else terribly wronged by God.  Job, for his part, insists on both his faithfulness and God’s trustworthiness, but in his grief and confusion, he still wishes to bring his case before God.

It’s also interesting that Job explores other problems of evil, such as the wicked prospering on the earth.  It’s almost as if the story of Job was explicitly written to offer some kind of perspective on God and evil and suffering in the world.

When Job finally speaks with God, God does not explain His actions, nor pawn them off on the accuser (“I’m really not the secondary cause, here, Job”), nor offer either the Free Will nor the Calvinistic defense.  Even though the reader is actually told the reason for Job’s suffering at the beginning of the book, God Himself does not tell that to Job.  Instead, God questions Job’s ability to pass judgement on Him:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Job 38:1-7 (NRSV)

This goes on for literally two chapters.  God brings up an overwhelming multitude of scenarios about creation and the way the world works and the flow of history.

It ends with:

And the Lord said to Job:

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
    Anyone who argues with God must respond.”

Job 40:1-2

Job says, basically, “I think I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”

And then God takes off again, going into all these things that God has done and all the things that happen in nature in the world.  For two more chapters.  At the end of this, Job responds:

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job 42:1-6 (NRSV)

I mean, this is God’s defense.  “You have no idea how the universe is supposed to work, but yet you have the gumption to call Me into question.”

At the end of the story, God restores Job’s fortunes and condemns his friends.  Interestingly, God says of them, “For you have not spoken of Me rightly as my servant Job has done.”  But Job didn’t offer a defense for God.  Job made his case and then acknowledged that he wasn’t in a position to be able to pass judgement on God’s actions.  Job spoke rightly about God by having completely justified complaints about God and ultimately acknowledging he didn’t know what he needed to know in order to actually pass judgement.

Job is quite possibly the oldest Scripture in the Old Testament.  It’s a long book, too.  It’s easy to summarize the story, but there are so many issues raised by Job and his friends throughout the book about evil, suffering, justice, love, and God.  These issues are as old as the Levant, and this perspective on the issues served the Jewish people through exile, tyranny, dispersion, and prophecies and promises from God that seemed to have failed at the time.

The story of Job is a story of God’s people in the world, and at the end of it, God’s people are to say, “We have many complaints that are justified, but in the end, we don’t know everything that needs to happen.  You do.  We trust You.”

This would be a good segue into my conclusion, but I want to make a quick stop before we get there.

Scripture’s Portrayal of God’s Acts Are Multivocal, Complex, and Usually Look a Lot Like the Real World

There is a reason that the Free Will Defense, the God Ordains Everything perspective, the “God doesn’t want this and is with you and will turn this around” perspective, and others come into our discourse.  All these views are present in various places in Scripture.

Sometimes, they even collide.

One of the most fascinating passages of Scripture, to me, is Isaiah 10.  In it, God talks about how the leadership of Israel has oppressed her.  In response, God will send Assyria to conquer Israel.

Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger—
    the club in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
    and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
    and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.

Isaiah 10:5-6 (NRSV)

The perspective is that God is doing this, somehow.  Assyria’s conquest is an expression of God’s anger against oppressors.  The club in their hands in my fury.  Against a godless nation I send him.

But what’s this?

But this is not what he intends,
    nor does he have this in mind;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
    and to cut off nations not a few.
For he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
    Is not Hamath like Arpad?
    Is not Samaria like Damascus?
As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols
    whose images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
    what I have done to Samaria and her images?”

Isaiah 10:7-11 (NRSV)

Whoa, hold on.  You just said You were sending Assyria.  But now You say that Assyria just up and decided on their own to conquer Israel?  Conquerors gon’ conquer?  Jerusalem is just another city to them, and they’re just doing what they’d normally do?

So which is it?  Is God sending Assyria against Israel, or is Assyria just doing what they’d normally do without respect to God whatsoever?

Isaiah 10 seems to indicate that both are the case.

Then, it gets into some very deep free will / sovereignty / responsibility waters:

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride.

Isaiah 10:12 (NRSV)

So, to recap, God is sending Assyria to conquer Jerusalem.  Assyria, however, is conquering Jerusalem just because they want to conquer lands.  After this is done, God will punish Assyria because of this.

Catch that: God will punish Assyria because Assyria did what God planned for them to do in the first place.

Well, you know, Free Will Defense!

Ok, but read further:

Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it,
    or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it?
As if a rod should raise the one who lifts it up,
    or as if a staff should lift the one who is not wood!

Isaiah 10:15 (NRSV)

Here, God compares Assyria to an ax thinking that it’s greater than the person swinging the ax (God) or a staff trying to raise the person who is raising it.  This isn’t just God observing things human beings are choosing to do: God is swinging the ax and raising the staff, here.

And then, God will actually punish Assyria by… the liberation of Israel.

Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts: O my people, who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For in a very little while my indignation will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction. The Lord of hosts will wield a whip against them, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb; his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt. On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.

Isaiah 10:24-27 (NRSV)

So, which is it?  Is God in some sense in control of everything that’s happening?  Is Assyria just acting naturally doing the same thing they’d do if God didn’t exist?  Is Assyria morally culpable for this?  Will God turn this evil situation around for the good of His people?

Isaiah 10 portrays of all these as being somehow true and doesn’t bat an eye.

I use this text just because it pulls many different perspectives together, but obviously we find different portions of these perspectives emphasized throughout Scripture depending on the situation.

We also get a dash of this from Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts:

You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

Acts 2:22-24 (NRSV)

So, the crucifixion of Jesus.  Was it an evil that Peter’s audience is accountable for?  Yes.  Was it part of the definitive plan of God?  Yes.  Did God overturn the result for good?  Yes.

I hope that clears it up for everyone.

Even in our keystone story, Job, we get some of the ambiguity:

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Job 2:9-10 (NRSV)

Ancient near eastern misogyny aside, Job affirms that both good and bad events come from God.  At the same time, the reader knows that God is doing none of these things but has given the accuser liberties to do so.

God having a plan, God being in control, God being sometimes active and sometimes passive, people acting freely out of their own desires, and nature running according to natural law are all different layers that describe the same reality from the perspective of the biblical texts.

God is at work bringing everything to what’s best, and sometimes ancient Assyria is a jerk and conquers someone, and sometimes dead branches break off of trees when their structure degrades and someone happens to be under them when it happens, and sometimes things happen that God really hates.  Sometimes Jesus cries when his friends die.

This is hard for us to reconcile, because we can only envision our plans coming to fruition through control.  We are creatures and we exert our will on other creatures.  Even if I’m the most cunning, Games of Thrones manipulator on the planet, I still have to do things to make my plan happen.  The idea that I might have a purpose for an event to fulfill and that event coming amount solely through chance, freedom, and mechanistic naturalism would be absurd, but that’s because manipulation and force is the best I can do.

Somehow, in some way, God who created the universe with all its starting parameters running its courses, and this God who permeates and fills every subatomic particle, is both behind our reality, non-coercive in its execution, and an actor within it as He sees fit.  All these facets have their biblical data.  Is it any wonder we struggle to make a cohesive picture out of all of this that makes sense to us?

In a sense, this is what the Westminster Confession is trying to pull together for us, but we are forced to acknowledge that this is a portrayal of meta-reality that we cannot understand.  It is mystery.  And this is why all philosophical and theological constructs that try to put everything in a nice neat package will eventually fail us, the same way that an explanation for how something (anything) can exist eternally before everything else will fail us.

This is why I think that coming to a place of being able to live with the problem of evil is more about acknowledging our limitations than comprehending God.

Do We Trust God?

This is what it comes down to, doesn’t it?

Is God there?  And if so, is He good?  Is He powerful?  Does He have our best interests at heart?  Is He trustworthy?  If I pray, will He answer?  If He doesn’t, was He still doing what was ultimately best?

How much do I trust my own capacity for truly understanding an event in a cosmic context?  When I see evil or chaos, does my inability to see a good reason for it mean that there isn’t one?  If there is a God who has suffused all time and space and made them the way they are, should I expect that He will consistently behave exactly as I believe such a being ought?  Has God told us there are things we will not understand, and has He shown us things about Himself on which we can depend?

Everyone is going to have to answer those questions for themselves.  As for me, I have seen enough to believe that there is a God who can be known and can be trusted.

Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him

Job 13:15a (KJV)

Feeding the Crowds, Redux: Matthew 15:32-39

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

Matthew 15:32-39 (NRSV)

If you’ve been reading through Matthew, this story probably looks a little familiar.  It was only a chapter ago that we saw Jesus (or, more specifically, his disciples) miraculously feeding a crowd of 5000 men along with women and children.

The stories are not just similar in events, they are similar in the specific language and sentence structures used.  Other than some specific details, the only substantial difference is that, in this story, Jesus verbally says things at the beginning that are a summary of the beginning thoughts and dialogue back in chapter 14.

So, what does this mean?

One option is that it doesn’t mean anything.  Jesus happened to have two experiences that were almost exactly the same right down to the opening thoughts and dialogue.  This is possibly the most “conservative” option in the sense that it would make these stories in Matthew simply reports of exactly what happened in Jesus’ life.  It just so happened that Jesus, being an unusual person, had the same unusual event happen twice and be almost identical.

I think this is possible but unlikely.  This story reads almost like a copy and paste of Matt. 14:13-21 with some tweaks (this is also the case with the two accounts in the gospel of Mark).  The coincidences, if they were coincidences, would be shocking in and of themselves, even apart from the fact that a miracle is at the heart of these stories.

On the other hand, we have to take into account that Matthew’s author is not an idiot, and neither was Mark’s.  They obviously know these two accounts are very similar and they are intentionally present together.

It could be that our gospel writers are preserving two accounts of the same event that differ in some details.  This does happen in the Scriptures from time to time, although often the two accounts are interwoven into one story.  It’s easy to imagine that Mark pulls together multiple sources, but it seems unusual to preserve two narratives of the same event by portraying them as two, different events separated by other events.  It is possible, however.

As we think through our options, one thing we need to keep in mind is that our four Gospels are neither journalism nor biography.  Nobody is following Jesus around with a notepad chronicling his words and actions.  Our Gospels are stories about Jesus written quite some time after Jesus’ death.  That doesn’t make them untrue, nor does it mean their historical claims are just creative fiction.  It does mean, however, that they are reconstructive stories about Jesus, not news articles or biographies in the sense that we think of biographies.

Think of it like this: what’s the difference between writing a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and a novelization of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.?  There’s certainly some overlap between those two projects, right?  You’ve got the historical figure and you’ve got the contours of his life.  But one of those projects is aiming for more of an objective, “scientific” presentation of King’s life, perhaps with an analysis of his impact, while the other project is interested in telling a compelling story.

In a novel of Martin Luther King’s life, conversations and events will be presented narratively.  It is quite likely that the events presented in such a work will do some dramatization.  Events the author was not present for will need to be imagined and/or derived from other sources.  Dialogue will be presented narratively, and the odds are good the novel will not be presenting the exact words said or put everything in all the right characters’ mouths.  It doesn’t make the novel untrue; it does mean that the novel’s primary concern is telling a story, not objectively reporting facts, and while it intends to faithfully present Martin Luther King Jr. to you, it’s going to take some liberties in order to deliver the meaning the story is supposed to have.

Now, if you were writing a novel about Dr. King’s life, you’d have a lot of existing written material, both primary and secondary source, to rely on.  In the case of our Gospel writers, they don’t.  Their material is a lot more scattered and hard to come by and, by the time the Gospels are written, already dependent on various stories that have gone around.

Here’s where I’m going with this: we have to understand the Gospels are, in many ways, dramatizations.  That doesn’t mean their source information is untrue; it does mean we are looking at a dramatic reconstruction of events, not the transcript of a video camera recording.  The writer shapes the story being told and does so for various reasons.

These stories sometimes give us clues that this is happening.  For example, in Matthew 14, Jesus feeds a crowd of 5000 men along with some unnumbered women and children.

Really?  Exactly 5000?  They took the time to count all the men for some reason (tax purposes?) and came out with exactly 5000?

In our story, today, we have 4000.  Exactly 4000?  A while back, he fed exactly 5000 men and, this time, they counted everyone again and it came out to exactly 4000?

Does it seem likely these are objective facts, or does it seem likely these are big, round numbers used in a dramatic recounting?

So, when we read the Gospels, we want to ask why a story was told and why it was told a certain way.  Maybe not every little detail “means” something, but more is being revealed to us than simply the raw events described.

In the previous passage, I talked about whether this crowd was predominantly Jew or Gentile and how that affects the meaning.  I’m not going to rehash all those arguments, and I encourage you to read that post because a lot of what is said, there, applies here.

I do want to add a few reasons that come up specifically in this part of the story that lead me to believe the crowd is Gentile.

In the first place, there are less of them (exactly 1000 less, as it happens).  This is perhaps the primary difference in the details of this story and the miraculous feeding in Matthew 14.  The main strategy Jesus has employed with Gentiles is to avoid them altogether.  In the rare instances when Jesus ministers to a Gentile, he likes to keep things under wraps.  The consistent message we witness and that comes from Jesus’ own mouth is that Gentiles are not the focus of his ministry; he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.  These episodes are exceptions that happen on the way.  They may give us hints that Jesus’ work will eventually have meaning and ramifications for the Gentiles as well, but this doesn’t happen during Jesus’ regular ministry.

I admit that a crowd of 4000 is not a small number, nor does it really qualify as keeping things under wraps, but 4000 is a nice, big, round number less than 5000, and that may be our indicator that this crowd is “lesser” compared to the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14.  There’s fewer of them because Jesus isn’t focused on them.

Another potential indicator is that we get five baskets of leftovers.  In the other story, we got twelve.  The disciples go out in Jesus’ name bringing miraculous food to the people and return to Jesus with twelve baskets.  While this may be an incidental detail, it’s hard not to think of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Here, we have seven baskets brought in.  Seven is a number of perfection and fullness.  It’s also the number of days in which God created the world including humanity’s common ancestor.  It’s also the number of laws that define a righteous Gentile in Jewish tradition (the seven Noahide Laws).

But aside from these details, one has to ask why we even have this story if the crowd are not Gentiles.  We have a perfectly good story of Jesus miraculously feeding Israel and bringing them in as the good shepherd should.  What’s the point of including, later, another story that is almost exactly the same, even in the language used, except the numbers are smaller?

I’m not saying we couldn’t come up with reasons; I’m saying that, in my opinion, this story’s very existence makes more sense if what we’re seeing here is Jesus replicating a miracle that was done for Israel to a crowd of Gentiles.

And if this is so, then what we’re seeing is a preview.

Right now, saving the faithful from a coming judgement is very much focused on Israel, but after this, judgement will roll out to the nations, and so will the salvation of a faithful people of God.  This people will, of all things, incorporate faithful Gentiles.

And what is it that will identify these faithful Gentiles?  Their faith and belief in what God has done in Jesus Christ.  By sharing this characteristic with faithful Israel, these people who were not God’s people will be called His people.  They will receive the promises to Israel’s patriarchs and receive the Spirit of Israel’s God, and God’s people will be saved into the age to come at least in part because it now includes these people.  These Gentiles will come to Jesus in droves, and this will overthrow the Empire.

What we see here, I’d argue, is a picture that forecasts that day.  It’s a distant rumble of thunder that happens hours before the storm hits – where Israel’s promised shepherd and deliverer feeds a crowd of Gentiles because he has compassion for them.

If this is true, then the Canaanite woman deserves a lot of credit and air time, because it was her faith, persistence, and sharp reasoning that brought Jesus’ arc into this trajectory.

We might really owe her.

Consider This

  1. What elements of meaning from Jesus’ initial feeding of the 5000 might carry over to a crowd of Gentiles?  Which ones might not?
  2. If we think of Gentiles as the latecomers, what implications does this have for how we (I’m a Gentile) see ourselves in the story of the people of God?  What virtues should this engender?  Does this impact how we view Jewish people?

Restoring Israel: Matthew 15:29-31

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Matthew 15:29-31 (NRSV)

In both this passage and the one that follows, it’s unclear exactly where Jesus is and who constitutes these crowds.  Unfortunately, this is kind of important.

The reason we get into ambiguity is mostly because of Mark 7-8.  Toward the end of Mark 7, Jesus is going to the Sea of Galilee by traveling through the Decapolis region.  This region was almost certainly Gentile at the time.  During this leg of the trip, Jesus heals a man who was deaf and had trouble speaking.  It seems to be an example of Jesus healing a Gentile, especially underscored by the fact that Jesus heals him away from the crowd and instructs all the witnesses not to tell anyone what just happened – a common thing Jesus does when he doesn’t want the Gentiles to get wind of what he’s doing.

Mark tells us that in those same days, Jesus feeds a crowd of 4000, which is the miracle that follows today’s passage in Matthew.

Because of this, many commentators on our passage believe the healings described in Matthew happened to Gentiles.  Certainly, in line with Matthew’s narrative, this would make a certain degree of sense.  Jesus has just had a woman convince him to heal Gentiles, so it would be a very interesting continuation of the story to have Jesus go on to perform healing and exorcisms among a great crowd of Gentiles and even, as we’ll see, perform another miraculous feeding that mirrors his miraculous feeding to Jews in the previous chapter in Matthew.

What’s more, our passage points out that the crowds “glorify the God of Israel,” which many readers think supports the idea that this crowd was Gentile, because why else would Matthew point this out?  Of course Jews would glorify the God of Israel.  What would be startling and newsworthy would be if Gentiles were healed by Jesus and, as a result, began to glorify Israel’s God.

If this is what the text is trying to portray, then what we have here is a very dramatic foreshadowing of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God.  Now, Gentiles are receiving the healing, restoration, and liberation that was promised to Israel at the hands of Israel’s Messiah, with the end result being that these Gentiles turn to Israel’s God.  It should be noted that these Gentiles do not become disciples of Jesus, nor do they seem to join up with Israel in any way, but what we would have here is an incident of Gentiles being exposed to the miracles of Jesus and responding in faith, which is something Jesus has speculated would happen.

What’s more, this is an eschatological hope anticipated in the Old Testament – not the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of Israel, but their conversion to / glorification of Israel’s God when they witness the deliverance of Israel.  For example:

On that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the Lord of hosts raises against them. And the land of Judah will become a terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom it is mentioned will fear because of the plan that the Lord of hosts is planning against them.

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.

On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.

On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

Isaiah 19:16-25 (NRSV)

In the prophetic imagination, God is going to deliver Israel from her Gentile oppressors and put her back on top, and when this happens, those same Gentile oppressors will turn to the Lord and become a people to the Lord.

We still have to get through things like Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to see these hopes come into their own, but if Jesus is healing and casting demons out of Gentiles and they are, in turn, glorifying Jesus’ God, we may be seeing this happen in a small scale, foreshadowing way.  We have to keep in mind that, if this is what Matthew is showing us, this is the same Matthew who repeatedly highlights Jesus being sent to Israel and keeping his ministry hidden from the Gentiles.  We have to keep in mind this would be an exceptional episode, and because of its exceptionality, it draws our attention to what it says.

It’s also quite possible this is happening to a crowd of Jews, not Gentiles.

Bringing Mark’s gospel into play does not give us a clear cut indicator of what’s going on here in Matthew 15.  Firstly, there’s been some recent scholarly disagreement as to whether or not Mark 7 is meant to indicate Jesus is passing through the midst of the Decapolis region, sticking close to the border, or is at least at the border by the time the events happen.  I currently take the reading that Jesus is going through the middle of the region, but it’s possible that reading is wrong.

Secondly, Mark 7 tells us the route Jesus took on his way to the Sea of Galilee, but our passage begins with Jesus already traveling along the Sea.  We don’t actually know where he is now with respect to the Decapolis.  Mark’s “in those days” doesn’t really help us out, because that just means “around that time,” not that it happened on the same day.

So, by the time we get to our passage, we’re fairly disconnected from the background of Jesus healing the deaf man in Mark 7.

Regarding the healed people glorifying the God of Israel, well, Jews would glorify the God of Israel and would actually be more likely to do so than Gentiles.  But there’s another reason why Matthew might think it was significant to point out that a crowd of restored Jews would glorify the God of Israel.

We need to keep in mind that the mission of Matthew’s Jesus is to the lost sheep of Israel.  Jesus is not ministering to devout, faithful Jews.  He is reclaiming the lost ones.  He is recovering an Israel that has largely abandoned her God because she considers herself abandoned by Him.

We have already seen a number of places where Jesus is shown in Matthew to be a new Moses (including the feeding of the 5000), and it’s noteworthy that Moses believes that Israel won’t know who their ancestral God is:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13-15 (NRSV)

Moses is on a mission from Israel’s God to deliver Israel from her oppressors, but Israel has forgotten her God and has to be reminded.

What we may be looking at, here, is not a foreshadowing of God’s plan for the Gentiles, but rather a dramatic deliverance and reclamation of the lost of Israel.  Jesus said in the passage before this one that he was sent to the lost of Israel.  Of course, in the passage before this one, he also heals a Gentile.

Finally, we also have to take into account that a large display of Jesus ministering to Gentiles would be rather discontinuous with everything we know about Jesus’ ministry up to this point.  There’s no way he can keep this quiet (there are 4000 of them), so some dramatic display of healing to the Gentiles that everyone will talk about is pretty jarring, not just for Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry but all the Synoptics, really.

If you’re paying attention, you might have noticed that the “shockingness” of this story is both an argument for a Gentile crowd and an argument for a Jewish crowd.

Well, welcome to the wild, wonderful world of historical reconstruction.  When we do history, two truths have to be reckoned with:

  1. By definition, the things that are most likely to happen are what usually happen.
  2. When unlikely things happen, they’re worth noting.

Much disagreement among historians comes down to how this tension plays out.

On the one hand, it would be really irresponsible of a historian to accept all reports of highly unlikely events as historically accurate.  I’m not just talking about dramatic miracles, here, but even events that seem unlikely given the time or the culture or the people involved because they’d be inconsistent with what we know.  Generally speaking, responsible history work sticks with determining what was most probable.

On the other hand, we all know that improbable events are a… heh… normal part of reality.  Think about your own life.  Is everything that happens to you the most statistically probable thing?  Is everything you do or say completely consistent with your general character or culture or situation in life?  You probably don’t go an entire day without something discontinuous happening to you, and that’s just a day in the life of one person!  And when those things happen, you make note of them, don’t you?

So, this is the problem.  Jesus healing a huge audience of Gentiles in the midst of a mission very clearly defined as being to Israel with a self-conscious effort to keep Gentiles from finding out about it would be really out of sync with what we know about Jesus.  On the one hand, that makes it unlikely the crowd was Gentile.  On the other hand, it’s exactly the unlikeliness of it that would motivate Matthew to record it.

Personally, I’m inclined to think the crowds were Gentile.  I think that explains why Matthew bothered to include this story and, when we get to the passage about feeding the four thousand, I think there’s some numerical symbolism that bears this out.  I think there is a nice, narrative connection between Jesus insisting on a mission to Israel only, then a woman talking him into extending his healing to a Gentile, and then this act of mercy to Gentiles on his way back.  I am inclined to think of this story as a shocking foreshadowing – much like the story of the Canaanite woman.

However, I’m very on the fence and could easily be persuaded the other way.  This story serving as a reinforcement of Jesus’ mission to recover the lost sheep of Israel is more consistent with Matthew’s narrative and the second Moses imagery is also very consistent with Matthew.  What we’d be seeing here is a powerful incarnation of God’s fulfillment of His promises to His people as they are healed, freed from spiritual profession, and the lost detritus of Israel begin to praise the name of their ancestral God once more, also fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.

And who knows?  Maybe Matthew left out definitive, identifying information on purpose.  Maybe we’re supposed to come away with both truths – the hope for the Gentiles and the salvation of Israel – found pictured here in the ministry of Jesus.

Because whether the crowd is Jewish or Gentile, one thing is clear: Jesus is restoring them.  He is healing their sicknesses and diseases and will even feed them, and when they experience the good he is doing for them in their midst, they glorify the God of Israel.

How do you like them apples, J-Mac?

Consider This

  1. What does this story show us about Jesus’ concepts of salvation, deliverance, and redemption?  What implications might that have for the work of the Church in the world?

Sunday Meditations: Premature Theologization

Do we believe the Bible because (in some sense) it comes from God, or do we believe in God because the Bible tells us about Him?

The Westminster Confession of Faith comes down squarely on the latter side of that question.  The very first chapter is “Of the Holy Scripture,” where it lays down the validity of Scripture, including the canon.  The second chapter is “Of God and the Trinity.”

Although there’s a problem that crops up in item IV of the first chapter:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I Section IV

This captures the essence of the problem.  Do we rest our belief in God on Scriptures that we consider to be authoritative on their own merit, or do we believe in the authority of the Scriptures because they come from God who is intrinsically authoritative and trustworthy?

Many Christian systematic theologies are not quite as out front about the problem.  They start with the doctrine of God, but everything they say about God is derived from the Bible.  Well, why should we believe what the Bible says about God?  Because it comes from God.  Well, why should I believe it on that basis?  Because God is trustworthy and wants us to know Him.  How do I know that?  Because the Bible says so.  And so on.

Some have appealed to Christian philosophers like Cornelius Van Til who famously presented that all epistemology is circular.  I agree with this, but what Van Til was talking about is that all epistemological starting points are self-verifying.  Ultimately, we pick something to be our final arbiter of truth and, by definition, that arbiter is not validated by something outside of itself.  If it were, then that other thing would be our actual final arbiter of truth.

But that doesn’t really help us out, here.  Do we believe the Bible because God is trustworthy, or do we believe God is trustworthy because the Bible says He is?

Well, one thing to keep in mind is that any intuition or experience with God that mankind has ever had precedes the Bible.  We haven’t always had a Bible.  Even if we decide many Old Testament stories were being told and even written down before they appeared as “books” in the form we know them, today, and ended up in a canonical Old Testament, we still have to own up to the fact that most of what Israel knew about God came from their experiences, interpretations, and stories of such that were passed down.

This says nothing of other cultures who also had ideas and stories about the divine, albeit sometimes very different from what Christians would recognize.

In making statements about who God is or what God is like, we first have to reckon with the fact that, for most of human history, what people “knew” about God did not come from any holy Scriptures but, instead, came from stories from the past, interpretations of those stories, present experiences, and interpretations of those experiences.

In addition, we must also take into account that before there were stories, there were intuitions.  People observed the world around them and intuited a creator or creators and made some guesses at what their characteristics might be.

Far from being crazy packs of dumb lies, the stories of other primordial religions are attempts at understanding the divine that different cultures were perceiving in creation and in making sense of their own histories and experiences.  We can see that what the most ancient of Israelites were doing was not a fundamentally different activity than their neighbors or even other cultures.  Everyone intuited that there was a power out there greater than themselves and were fumbling toward what that power was.

Over time, as this God acts and people and cultures have more experiences, these gaps begin to fill in.  This seems very much to be the tack that Paul takes in Athens in Acts 17.  He tells the Athenians that they have perceived rightly various basic elements of the divine, but now he’s going to fill in the gaps for them.

“Ok, that’s all fine and good for when we didn’t have a Bible.  But now we do, so isn’t it appropriate to derive all our knowledge of God from the Bible?”

As a Christian, I believe in Israel’s God – the God of Jesus Christ – and I believe they were God’s chosen people to be a priesthood to the nations, so their experiences through their eyes offer me the best picture of God at that time.  Further, I believe Jesus Christ offers us in human form the clearest picture and message from God while he was alive on the Earth.

At the same time, I acknowledge that the Scriptures are a product of that process, not the origin of it nor its completion.  They are textual derivatives of the journey of God and mankind in the world.  Even when John talks about the Word of God, the Word is a person, not a book.

This does not denigrate the character of the Scriptures nor minimize their importance, but it does put context around them and put them in their proper place.  The God Who is There comes first and He is at work in the world.  People tell stories about this, make sense of this, and eventually write some of all that down.  Believing communities recognize these writings as true, valid, and helpful and canonize them.

To me, there is no circularity problem here.  The Scriptures are valuable to me insofar as the God who preceded them is behind them.  If He isn’t, then they aren’t.

“Well, ok, but if you don’t make an a priori commitment to the authority of Scripture, then how do you know that what it tells you about God reflects the true God?”

Well, I don’t, and neither do you, if what you mean is 100% epistemic certainty.  What I have instead is trust.  Faith, if you will.

I believe in the divine being who preceded all myths, all stories, all fumblings, all theologies, and all interpretations, and I trust that being.  I concede that this being, since He is inaccessible to most empirical verification, is fundamentally a mystery subject to many possible misinterpretations, and what I believe I know of Him must come primarily through how He has revealed Himself, not only to me personally, but to mankind throughout history, and what they have made of all that.

Because I have thrown my lot in with this God and I see the testimonies of Him all around me in both creation and believers and in believers through history, some of which have been specially codified into Scripture, I have some relatively firm ideas of what this God is like, what He wants, what He has done, and what He intends to do.  I don’t know for sure.  I trust.

And you, my evangelical friend, are in the same boat.  The question is: what is the primary object of your trust?  Is it the Bible, or is it the God who is behind that Bible?  It isn’t a question of one being trustworthy and the other one not being trustworthy; it’s a question of which is original and which is derivative.

My theology does not start with the Bible, nor is it exhausted by the Bible.  As high as the Bible is in my hierarchy of theological data, that data begins with a created world and a primordial human race.  It encapsulates the Enuma Elish, the Baal Cycle, and Moabite stelae with prayers to Chemosh.  It encapsulates the toppling of the statue of Dagon before the Ark of the Covenant, but it also encapsulates how an idea of Dagon even came into being in the first place.  It encapsulates nations and their dispersions and their births, wars, deaths, and vanishings.  It encapsulates agnosticism and atheism.

Behind all of this, for millennia and before the property of time, is the God Who is There.

Thrown to the Dogs: Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)

Well.  Talk about your un-Jesus-y moments.

This little story is a jarring pebble thrown into our placid, quiet pool of What Jesus Must Be Like.  In it, he ignores a woman’s cries for deliverance for her daughter.  When she keeps after him, he emphasizes that he is only here for the lost of Israel.  When she continues, he dismisses her with something of an insult.  Finally, her persistence seems to win him over, and her daughter is healed the moment this happens.

This story seems so jarring to us that a very common tactic to deal with it is to assume that Jesus is deliberately staging this whole thing for the purposes of addressing a Jewish misconception.

In this way of reading the story, Jesus’ actions and words do not reflect his own views or intentions, but rather they reflect the views of the Jews around him – that Gentiles are dogs that aren’t worth helping.  Jesus sort of dramatically/sarcastically pretends to have these views, himself, only to reveal at the end that he (and other Jews) should view Gentiles as neighbors worth helping and treat them accordingly.

I remember attending a presentation by Don Richardson when I was in college.  This was the tack he took with the passage, and he narrated this with gusto, having Jesus winking to the woman as he talked and the woman catching on to what Jesus was doing and proceeding to play her part.  And, you know, Matthew’s gospel does not have stage directions in it, so we don’t really know Jesus’ tone of voice or other contextual actions as he said and did these things.

This is a legitimate reading of this story, and I don’t really have any arguments to demonstrate this story can’t be read that way or shouldn’t be read that way.  I would certainly advise a couple of things for those who want to take this route:

  1. If this passage is meant to show Jesus not really believing something he says, be prepared to explain how you can tell the difference, especially when it comes to looking at other passages that are difficult sayings of Jesus.
  2. Make sure you can establish your case on the basis of the source material and not just initial distaste for the idea that Jesus might, in fact, actually think these things.

You see, when we find passages in the gospels that don’t seem to fit what we think Jesus was like, that may be our cue that we’re not reading the passage correctly, but it also might be our cue that our understanding of what Jesus was like isn’t entirely correct.

“Oh come on,” I hear my imaginary reader protesting.  “Jesus was the perfect image of God in the world and, as such, would definitely not have retained the cultural views of his people toward Gentiles.  That’s petty, prejudicial, and racist.  What’s more, Jesus was on a mission to reconcile all of humanity to God, not just Israel.  His mission was universal.  The idea that he would limit his deliverance to Israel and deny it to Gentiles is just really inconsistent.”

Ok, imaginary reader, I hear you, and those are good points.  In return, I would offer that the Jesus we are shown especially in Matthew’s gospel is not primarily a transhuman Jesus out to save all humanity but is primarily a Jewish Jesus who, at this point in his ministry, sees his mission mostly if not exclusively as a mission to recover Israel.  He may foresee ramifications this will have for the rest of the world, and we definitely see that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, but Jesus’ views of Jew and Gentile are shaped by Judaism and we will see that Matthew has taken pains to show us that Jesus’ pre-Resurrection ministry is focused on liberating Israel.

Are Gentiles Dogs?

In Jewish tradition, the primary distinction between Israel and other nations is that the Jewish people took on the yoke of Torah.  There is no particular sense that Jews as a race are somehow superior to everyone else.  In fact, some traditional stories have the Jews only accepting the Torah under duress, while others point out that it was precisely the lack of any special features of the Jewish people that made them the ideal people for God to have as a nation of priests so that His own power and faithfulness would take center stage (cf. Deuteronomy 7:1-11).

Nevertheless, the Torah itself makes plenty of distinctions between Jew and Gentile and even will contrast God’s expectations for the Jews with the normal behavior of the Gentiles.  For instance, Deuteronomy 18:14: “Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.”

Laws concerning Gentiles extend into the realm of clean and unclean, with Gentiles being denied entrance to the Temple.  It was certainly possible for Gentiles to convert, but to do so, they had to be circumcised, take on the whole yoke of Torah, and leave their lands to live and travel with the Jews.

So, right from the get-go, in the very Torah itself, Israel is elevated (not through any merits of her own) to a special status with God giving her a role of ruler and priest over the other nations.  These other nations are basically lawless idolaters who will corrupt holy Israel if they intermingle.  This principle is carried out symbolically into laws about food and fabric.

Very early on in rabbinic writings, we see the perspective that Gentiles even outside of Torah can follow the laws God set down for Noah.  They can fear the true God and they can obey Him in this general sense and even enjoy His favor if they choose to do so.  But the perspective on Gentiles as a whole is very negative.  As you look at the interpretations of laws that depend upon reciprocation, for example, the traditions assume Gentiles won’t hold up their end of the bargain.

One of my favorite examples of this is Siman 153:2 of the Yoreh De’ah that sounds like something your mother might say:

An Israelite should not be alone with a Gentile; they are idolaters and may commit bloodshed.

Yoreh De’ah 153:2 (translation mine)

So, even though the issue is not so much about race as it is about relationship to Torah, the general perspective found in the Torah and traditional commentary on the Torah is that Gentiles, being apart from the Law and worshiping false gods, are not to be trusted and, given the opportunity, will probably screw you over.

Unfortunately, history mostly seemed to bear this out in terms of Israel’s relationships to the other nations, and by the time we get to Jesus’ day, Israel had suffered much at the hands of Gentile rulers, and they were currently under an oppressive Roman regime in their own land.

While we might envision Jesus rising above all this, we do well to note that this would not be the first time Jesus refers to Gentiles as dogs, and even pigs.  If you don’t think Jesus is referring to Gentiles in general in that passage, he’s referring to somebody, right?  So, unless we’re willing to say that Beatitude is a sarcastic statement where Jesus is just taking on the stereotypical views of his day in order to contradict them (which is possible), then we need to reckon with the possibility that Jesus might actually mean what he says here in Matthew 15.

I think at least part of our distaste is because of the insults that we associate with referring to someone as a dog or a pig.  But the reason dogs and pigs can be used to describe Gentiles in the first century is not because dogs and pigs are ugly or fat or worthless – it’s that they’re unclean animals.

Dogs, especially, in Jewish law and tradition, are viewed not only as unclean, but they are seen as prone to violence.  Portions of the Talmud require dogs to be chained because they are unpredictable in their violent tendencies.  Elsewhere in the Talmud, a person who trains up dogs is called “accursed.”  These traditions continue in Jewish teachings even as late as the 12th century, where the Mishneh Torah requires all dogs to be chained because of their propensity to do harm.  It’s only the 16th century where we begin to see distinctions made between safe and unsafe dogs.

So, yes, Jesus comparing Gentiles to dogs in a proverb is derogatory, but it may not have the same insulting connotations you and I are used to.  In Jewish law and tradition, dogs are both ceremonially unclean and unpredictably prone to violence.  It is those characteristics that make them a first century image for Gentiles.

Is Jesus Only Interested in Helping Israel?

In our passage, Jesus says that he has only been sent to the lost sheep of Israel.  The two, powerful forces that make this seem out of character to us are that we already have a story in place of Jesus coming to bring salvation to all mankind, and that we know the end of the story.

Never ever underestimate the power of the narrative you have or I have in our heads about what the Bible says.  Many times, that mental narrative takes the place of the actual Bible, and when we read the actual Bible, our preexisting idea of what the Bible says is a huge controller of how we read the text.  This is so much the case that many people frequently fail to differentiate between “what the Bible says” and “what I understand the Bible to say,” especially in discussion.  So, if I have a different theological view than you do, it’s not that I understand the relevant texts to mean something different than you do, it’s that I’m deliberately disregarding “what the Bible says.”

So, when we come to this story already having a narrative about a universal Jesus on a universal mission to secure eternal life for all mankind, passages like this almost demand to be read in a way to make the tension go away.

In addition, we know that the mission draws in the Gentiles.  We know Jesus in Matthew will tell his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, and we know that people like Peter and Paul take their message to the Gentiles.  Perhaps because, today, the followers of Jesus are by far and away more Gentiles than Jews, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that God including the Gentiles in His people and promises is a huge shock to all parties concerned and plays a dominant theme in many Pauline writings.

Because of these powerful, existing perceptions, we can easily read these things backward into the whole of the gospels and assume that Jesus’ mission has always meant at all times to be directed at all mankind.

But is this really the picture Matthew has painted for us?

Right from the outset of Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph and says of Mary:

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NRSV)

At the stage in history Matthew 1 is describing, “his people” means Israel.  You could possibly argue it down to “faithful Israel,” but it would make no sense to argue it up to “all mankind” or “all who will become followers of Christ in the future, Jew or Gentile.”  While theologically we might refer to all Christ followers as “Jesus’ people” these days, it would be hugely anachronistic to read that back into Matthew 1.  That would be like saying everywhere the Old Testament says “Israel” it actually means both Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus because that’s how Paul and Peter will later use the term.

Joseph would certainly have understood this as Israel as would any of Matthew’s readers.

This is carried into Matthew 2, where the magi show up looking for “he who was born king of the Jews,” and the priests tell Herod Jesus has been born in Bethlehem, quoting Micah 5 and telling him that the Messiah has come “to shepherd my people Israel.”

The phrase Jesus uses here about the lost sheep of Israel is actually one he’s used before:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)

It is true Matthew gives us an occasional example of a Gentile showing faith.  For instance, the Roman centurion:

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.

Matthew 8:5-13 (NRSV)

But this does not mark the inclusion of Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry.  This event actually happens before Jesus tells his disciples not to proclaim the kingdom to Gentiles.  The reason this story stands out is that it’s an exception.  Jesus uses it as an indictment against Israel.  The point of the story isn’t, “Now I will begin to liberate the Gentiles,” the point is, “Even this heathen has more faith than you guys do.”

It’s also noteworthy that Jesus is amazed at this.  He’s shocked.  He’s surprised.  He did not see this coming.  If Jesus can be surprised by the faith of a centurion, then he can also be won over by the persistence of a Gentile woman.  Maybe it seems a little crass to you that someone could actually coax a result from Jesus from constant pleading, but in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable that God is like this when He delivers justice to His people who continually cry out, so Jesus’ listeners should be encouraged to keep praying and not give up:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)

So What’s the Point Then?

Like the centurion story, this story is meant to be exceptional.  This woman disrupts the pattern, and she disrupts the pattern by displaying great faith.

This story is immediately followed by Jesus doing great healing works among “the crowds” who “glorify the God of Israel,” but none of them are singled out.  This woman is, because she’s exceptional.

And because she is a Gentile, she stands in contrast to an Israel that has largely given up and does not have faith that Jesus will deliver them.  In contrast to an Israel that has stopped praying and lost heart, this woman follows Jesus, begging him incessantly for deliverance for her daughter.  She truly believes Jesus is her only hope, and she will not let him go.

Others in Israel will pass Jesus by without giving him a second glance.  Still others will try to silence him.  But for this nameless Gentile woman, Jesus is all she has to turn to, and she will not be dissuaded by either silence or opposition.  Even when Jesus himself tells her why he won’t do it, she won’t leave him alone.  She counters his argument, and Jesus gives in to her faithful persistence.  Many in Israel will not, but this Gentile woman will.

And this calls to mind the teaching Jesus gave to his disciples when the centurion asked for Jesus’ help:

I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 8:11-12 (NRSV)

Like I said, there’s not really an argument against reading our passage as a sort of drama or mockery that Jesus is intentionally using to show that the views he’s pretending to espouse are false.

But at the same time, I don’t think there’s a good reason to need to explain away tensions in this passage.  I think this passage as written is actually very consistent with the narrative Matthew is laying out before us – one of a Jewish Jesus who has come to save the lost sheep of Israel.

But, oh, along the way, we see powerful examples of faith that even Israel cannot deliver – examples that instruct her and convict her and call her to like faithfulness.  And these seeds of faith will grow into a mighty tree, for the same Jesus that, today, is focused on Israel, is the same Jesus who will unleash his followers to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all the nations, bringing Israel’s hopes for the future to their climax – a new world under the Messiah where faithful Israel has led the way.

Consider This

  1. Is it troubling to think of Jesus focusing first on Israel then bringing in the Gentiles?  Are there other passages of Scripture that indicate that God plans to deal with Israel first, then bring in the rest of the nations?
  2. Is it troubling to think of Jesus as a man shaped by his religion, his culture, and his time in history?  Why or why not?  What does it mean for Jesus to be completely, fully human?

Sunday Meditations: The John MacArthur Statement

I’m reluctant to write about this, mostly because I’m not sure that I can do a better job than what’s already being said about this.  Nevertheless, the Sunday meditations are about what I’ve been thinking on, lately, and this is it.

In case you are not aware, John MacArthur has become very distressed at the state of evangelicalism in the world, and I can certainly relate to that.  However, he is distressed that evangelicals are becoming too concerned with social justice.  I really wish I were kidding about that.

To combat the horrific trend of evangelicals being concerned about justice for all, MacArthur has done what is becoming the new trend in evangelical gatekeeping: he created a Statement of what he thinks and got a lot of people to sign it.

That’s it.  Not that I’m complaining, of course.

Everything about this from top to bottom is just ridiculous.  I don’t mean ridiculous in the generic sense, I mean it is literally ridiculous.  It looks like a joke, through and through.  If I were writing a satirical article about Christian America, this is the kind of thing I would write.  “Evangelical Leader Concerned with Christians Actually Improving Justice in World Stems Tide by Issuing Statement.”

On the one hand, it’s mystifying how someone could think, out of all the problems in the church and the world, that a growing concern for social justice is the big thing we need to head off at the pass right now.  On the other hand, it’s equally mystifying to think that the “solution” to this or any problem is to draft a statement (it’s not even a petition) and have people sign it.  It’s the perfect storm of the most ineffective means to combat a nonexistent problem.

It’s unclear to me exactly what got MacArthur up in arms about this issue.  It’s not like the sort of evangelicals who are like John MacArthur are filling up the ranks of Black Lives Matter or consumed with their lobbying efforts for equal pay for women.  I find it hard to believe that his church attendance has gone way down because his congregation was out counter-protesting in Charlottesville.

I cynically asked people this past week, “Where are all these evangelicals that MacArthur fears are too consumed with social justice?” and my friend Kirk reminded me that there is, in fact, a trend starting in this direction.  Considering that the church should actually be at the forefront of being a prophetic voice against the powers that be and calling for more justice, more peace, and more compassion, it’s good that there are more evangelicals who have decided to get around to this.  Maybe that’s part of what this animus against “social justice” is about.  The existence of Christians who are now zealous for increasing justice in the world is an indictment to Christians who aren’t.  And nobody likes to be criticized, especially when your status quo has made you very comfortable.

Maybe part of it, too, as Kirk pointed out to me, is that there is a fear of losing numbers.  This fear is very legitimate.  If your church seems set to prop up the existing power structure or at least leave it unchallenged, and the Spirit has moved in your heart to speak out for those who suffer injustice, then at some point you have to wonder about where you’re at.  I know the election of Trump was something of a watershed for many of us.  When this man embodies the hopes and dreams of what your church “stands for,” it really makes you wonder how much you’re on the same page.

I remember the day that the Reformed African American Network became The Witness for reasons that I’d sum up as, “We just can’t do this, anymore,” and it was a powerful statement to me.

It’s taking everything in me to avoid condemning this new Statement as a love letter to the Beast.  Its express purpose is to pull Christians out of social activism in the world and reorient our focus to the afterlife.  A spirituality like that serves the interests of the principalities and powers in this world.  It helps them out.  It keeps the engine running.  I don’t believe John MacArthur is intentionally in his own mind trying to keep the powerful in power and assure them that evangelicals won’t rock their boat, but this is functionally what that statement declares.

But, no, I don’t think MacArthur sees it this way.  I don’t think he intends it to be that way.  But that’s part of the problem, too.

You see, the gospel in America is largely about giving people a better afterlife.  This is the good news: that when you die, you’ll go to heaven instead of hell.  That’s what Jesus and the Bible are all about, in this way of thinking.  Social justice, the environment, poverty, sickness – these things are all potential distractions from the gospel, which is exclusively concerned about the saving of the soul and the furtherance of individual moral conduct.  This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through.

Now, please hear me.  I believe that most of the people who are committed to this idea of the gospel are genuinely concerned about the eternal well-being of other people.  What’s more, if this is what the gospel means to you, then anything else would be a distraction, wouldn’t it?  What’s unequal pay or police brutality in comparison to the eternal fires of Hell?

However, I don’t think that version of the gospel is a gospel that Jesus, his followers, or anyone who might have heard him would recognize.

The creation narrative is one that functions more like prologue than anything else.  It’s background information so that we might better understand the experiences of Israel in the world as the stories that formed the Old Testament were being formed.

Still, in those narratives, God does not create man in Heaven, nor does He create man as a disembodied spirit living out his eternal destiny.  Man is placed in this world with a family and the happy state of creation is mankind living in loving relationships with other people and with God Himself.  When mankind rebels, they are not sent to Hell, but rather are exiled out of the Garden and into a world that now has pain and struggle and, ultimately, the supremacy of death.  This is the prologue of a world where the line of the faithful all but fizzles out and the world is full of violence.  It’s all wrong.  Mankind is learning better ways to lie, steal, kill, and declare themselves God.  This culminates in the passing away of that world via the Flood.

It’s worthy of note that, in the story, God does not send all these people to Hell nor whisk Noah into Heaven.  The world that arises from the flood waters is a new one in one sense, but it’s also the same earth it was before.  God saves an entire family.  We once again have people meant to live in loving communion with one another and God Himself, and indeed the words to Noah reflect the commission given to Adam.  Mankind, in communion with one another and God, in this world.  The people who would turn the world into the opposite of God’s intention have been removed from it.

As humanity begins to recover, they conspire to build a fortification against another Great Flood.  God does not send them all to Hell, but rather confounds their purposes and disperses them into the world as separate nations.

It is out of this dispersion that God calls, once again, a family to be His people in the world.  He does not whisk them away to Heaven.  He instead has them live out their generations in faithfulness, growing in number, but always a faithful community in the present evil age providing a model of what it means to be the people of God in the world.  They have children, grow old, die, and their children have children, grow old, and die.

This is where most of the biblical story starts.  We follow the ups and downs of this community throughout history and, when they are in trouble in this world, God saves them in this world.  Faithfulness, destiny, salvation, justification, and eschatology never at any point leave the trajectory of this world and these people living it.  God’s judgement is destruction and His favor is long life in the land.

As Israel careens onto a downward slope of disobedience, prophets arise to warn her not about Hell, but about exile and destruction.  And as she begins to suffer these things, the picture of redemption her prophets hold out for her is not a spiritual existence in Heaven but a freedom, peace, prosperity, and protection on the earth.

It is into this picture – this historical, this worldly, this creation-y, this people-y picture that Jesus comes.

When Jesus comes, he does not simply tell people to pray a prayer of repentance so that they can go to Heaven when they die.  Jesus heals the sick.  Jesus casts out demons.  Jesus makes sure hungry people are fed, the poor are taken care of, and parents are honored.  And lest we think these are all just signifiers of Jesus’ divinity, he commissions his followers to do the same things, and they do.

If Jesus as prophet and Messiah is jettisoning all the this-worldly facets of deliverance to focus on the afterlife, I want to see evidence.  I want to see the compelling case that Jesus breaks radically from the viewpoint of the Scriptures and the prophets before him to redefine all extant categories in terms of an eternal afterlife.  I feel that case cannot be easily made.

Does Jesus care about the spiritual reorientation of the lost?  Yes, he does.  Does he hope in resurrection?  Yes, he does.  But the good news Jesus brings is not, “Pray a prayer of repentance and ask me to come into your heart, and you’ll go to heaven when you die!”  It’s, “The kingdom of God is at hand, and your King is here!”

And the kingdom of God is not a purely spiritual realm that one gets into after death; the kingdom of God is on earth in the midst of men and you can enter into it, today.

The kingdom of God is all the things the Old Testament hoped it would be: a people faithful to God enjoying His protection and well-being in the world, so much so that others would see it and want to be part of it.  The gospel isn’t simply about what happens after you die, it’s about how masters treat their slaves, the sick being healed, husbands and wives and children, orphans and widows and strangers.

It is a gospel that looks like this:

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:8-10

Zacchaeus did not pray a sinner’s prayer and long for heaven.  Zacchaeus quit abusing his power, ended his corrupt economic practices, and restored the financial welfare of everyone he’d wronged.  His sinner’s prayer was repenting of his injustice and turning around to do justice.

I say to you, if one man recites the Sinner’s Prayer, and another man ends his corrupt practices and restores everyone he has harmed, which one of them has truly repented?

Look, the first century Roman Empire did not care what you taught about the afterlife.  It did not care about a message that, if you repent of your sins, you’ll go to Heaven when you die.  The government does not execute you because of your views on the afterlife.

The Roman Empire executes you when you appear to be a threat to the power structure.  When you stop putting a coin in the guild bowl, when you stop bowing before the likeness of the Emperor, and when you stop standing and putting your hand over your heart when the eagle banner is carried past.  When you say that Caesar is only in power because God presently allows it and the real King who commands your real loyalty is Jesus Christ – a man crucified for insurrection, which didn’t work by the way.

Those are political problems.  Those are this-worldly commitments and Rome is quite concerned about those things.  They don’t care if you believe you or they will go to Heaven, Hell, or Horus.  They care if your good news threatens their power, which it can only do if it addresses the way this world works in the here and now – who is in charge and what does that society look like?

The gospel in every age has always put this creation, what it looks like, and what human community is supposed to be like front and center.

What Defiles: Matthew 15:10-20

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Matthew 15:10-20 (NRSV)

Right before this passage, some pharisees had criticized Jesus and his disciples because they did not wash their hands before eating.  This was a tradition with a great degree of weight behind it.

Jesus points out the hypocrisy of this criticism by demonstrating at least one case where the same people criticizing him used these traditions as a way to escape their obligations as God’s Law defined them – specifically, the obligation to care for your parents.  This is an example of a very common theme in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus’ opponents will go to amazing lengths to avoid violating the letter of the Law, but they have no qualms about circumventing love.  They will not tend to the sick lest they break the Sabbath.  They will pledge their money to the Temple while their own parents go uncared for.  They will make a great display of their donations to the Temple while the poor in Israel languish.

This is the very scenario under which the nation of Israel came under judgement and what brought her to exile in the first place.  She would not listen to her prophets and did not love God with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength, and she did not love her neighbor as herself, and in this way she became a sister to Sodom.  This is the very scenario Jesus is confronting and the very situation he hopes to turn around.

As we’ve noted before, this is not some abstract clash over legalism or tradition versus Scripture.  This is a clash over the fact that the Law – something that in Jesus’ mind is supposed to be an expression of love – is actually being used to preserve power, wealth, and comfort and build prestige, fame, and ego at the expense of the welfare of others, especially the weak and hurting.  The problem is not that people want to observe the Law; the problem is that behavior that is being framed as technical obedience to God is being used to withhold sacrificial love from the people who need it most.  Thank goodness we don’t have this problem, today!

(That was sarcasm.)

Here, Jesus turns his attention to the logic of the tradition, itself, and may have even challenged the logic of the Law itself as pertains to diet.

The whole point of the tradition of washing hands before eating was about ritual uncleanness.  We know, today, that there are health benefits from washing one’s hands before eating, but that’s not where the Jewish tradition came from.  Prior to knowledge about germs and their relationship to sickness or the health issues around various meats, the Law forbade the consumption of or even contact with substances, animals, and even people that were considered unclean.

These laws were primarily symbolic in nature.  There’s nothing particularly immoral about touching a corpse, for example, but Israel was meant to be a holy nation, distinct from the corrupt world around her, and her people were meant to keep themselves holy.  These laws along with others were meant to put this principle into very tangible and visible forms, not unlike how the Lord’s Supper is a ritual that puts the presence of Jesus among us and the spiritual bonds we share with one another into visible and tangible form.

Of course, some contact with unclean materials is inevitable, and the Law made provision for this: how long were you considered unclean and how could you purify yourself?  “Uncleanness management” is not a small topic in the Law.

At the same time, as detailed as the Law might be in some respects, it’s very general in others, and it was up to the people to figure out what that Law might look like in their context.  Thus, the tradition of washing hands (along with many others) was born.

We need to keep in mind that the situation Jesus is speaking into is one where the very teachers of the Law were using the Law as a means to avoid the very greatest commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.  We may be making Jesus paint with too broad of a brush if we think of this passage as a dispassionate discourse about the pointlessness of law-keeping or the worthlessness of traditions.  It is highly unlikely Jesus thought either of those things.

But the external, technical observance of the Law as a means of protecting selfishness and power is precisely the opposite of what the laws intend, at least the way Jesus reads them.  The Law is supposed to be subservient to the tasks of loving God and neighbor; it’s supposed to guide you in the ways of doing those things, not a means of avoiding those very things.

It is this background that fuels Jesus’ quip that it isn’t what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean, but rather what comes out of their mouth.  In other words, it is the things that are inside a person that makes them unclean.  You can outwardly observe the laws about food, contact, etc. all you like, but you can’t get away from what drives you on the inside.  This has the net effect of Jesus declaring the Pharisees to be unclean while he and his own disciples are clean, despite violating the tradition of washing hands.

Understandably, this is offensive to the Pharisees, and Jesus’ disciples tell him so.  This is probably because Jesus doesn’t really seem to care if he offended them or not.  We have to keep in mind that, even though there are Pharisees in the gospels who are portrayed as the bad guys, this is not the role they had in the eyes of the common Israelite.  They were the teachers of the Law who were zealous about Law keeping.  They were the ones who explained to you what obedience looked like.  They were the ones preaching convicting sermons.  They were the ones calling out all the sins of the surrounding culture.  They were the ones explaining that there was an earthquake because God was upset with homosexuality or paganism or eating bacon and the solution to all of this was to repent and follow the Law harder.

Like any such group of people, some of them were hypocrites secretly practicing the sins they decried in others, some were using their position to their own prosperity and advantage, and some were genuinely distressed over the condition of Israel and were just doing what they thought was best.  We don’t hear a lot from that third group of people in Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus, unlike his disciples, is not very concerned for the good opinion of the Pharisees.  He compares them to plants that will be uprooted, which is apocalyptic imagery that comes from the Old Testament.  Faithful Israel is a tree planted by God that will never be uprooted, but the oppressors around her are like trees that will be cut down.  The faithful are like rich wheat that God will gather to Himself, but the wicked are like chaff that will be blown away or weeds that will be consumed in fire.  When Jesus looks at this particular group of Pharisees, he sees a group that God will remove one way or another.

This may seem sort of dark to us.  Rather un-Jesuslike, perhaps.  But I think we need to keep in mind two things.  One is that none of these people are outside the bounds of repentance.  Any of these Pharisees are invited to follow the way of Jesus in faith, pursuing faithfulness out of love for God and His people, and living a life of self-sacrificial love – teaching the people in gentleness and care, forgiving those who are sinning, helping those who are struggling, caring for the sick and the poor, pouring their lives out as leaders for the good of the people.  Every encounter with Jesus or news of Jesus is a chance to respond to what God is doing in faith and put down the lives they have built for themselves to embrace a new life in the coming kingdom.

But the second thing is to realize that this removal, this judgement if you will, is not a vindictive God punishing sinful mortals, but a God who loves His people and wants to liberate them.  This oppression of poor and weak Israelites at the hands of their leaders has gone on for centuries, and God has sent prophet after prophet to warn them, followed by the calamities the covenant of the Law had in its terms, and still they will not change course.  In what sense could we say God loved Israel if He never acted to set her free?  It is clear that His obvious preference would be for these leaders to turn things around, but after generations of intractability, it doesn’t look like He’s going to get that.

And so, Jesus is not rubbing his hands in delight at the destruction of the wicked but is stating a regrettable fact: God will have to pluck up these plants.  They are the leaders of a blind Israel but they are just as blind themselves, and this is how Israel has ended up in her predicament.  Her leaders steered her in all the wrong directions.  Jesus is not making this statement up on the fly, either, as the “blind leader of the blind” was a proverb from the Roman poet Horace.

Peter, a common Israelite fisherman, is a little lost with all this talk of plants being uprooted and allusions to Roman poets, and he asks Jesus what all this means.  Perhaps he has no idea at all.  Perhaps he begins to grasp that Jesus might be describing an upcoming judgement on the Pharisees or even a possible insurrection.  He might even be getting a little excited about it.  But whether he’s totally lost or is beginning to suspect something, he wants Jesus to spell it out for him.

Jesus returns to the matter at hand, explaining clearly that it is the evil within a person’s heart that makes them unclean, not what they eat.  Food simply passes through a person temporarily, but their heart is where evil dwells.

In Mark’s version, the author makes the parenthetical conclusion, “Thus, he declared all foods clean.”  Matthew’s gospel does not see fit to make this statement, possibly because Matthew is very concerned about persuading a Jewish audience to believe in Jesus.  Matthew, you may recall, also tones down Jesus’ parable about the wine skins in comparison to Mark’s gospel.

Regardless of whether or not this might be a theological implication of what Jesus is saying, his point is not about the validity of the dietary laws in the Torah.  His point is that observing dietary laws does not make a person clean if their hearts are full of evil.

Our context is a little different in that we are not anticipating an immediate, eschatological overthrow of our religious power structure, nor do we have controversies over dietary laws.  Mostly.

But the principle of what is at stake here and how it works itself out practically is something we collectively and individually need to keep in mind.  It can be very easy to replace a Torah of love with a Torah of formal obedience and, by doing so, we become oppressors and teach others to become the same.

Jesus called his generation to a realignment.  Are you zealous for obedience?  Then listen to what God defines as obedience.  Everything we believe God has commanded us must be interpreted through the lens of love.  The acts that lead us to greater love for God and people in need, those are acts of true obedience.  The acts that lead us to a relationship with God based less on love or that show less love to the people around us, those are not obedient even if they conform to the letter.  We are misinterpreting and misapplying any commandment that removes our high calling to sacrificial love, especially for the people who need it most and “deserve” it the least.

Consider This

  1. By looking at how they lived their actual lives, how would you say Jesus’ opponents defined following God’s will?  How did Jesus define it?
  2. In what ways in your life and the life of the church has a desire for obedience led to showing less love or an avoidance of self-sacrifice?

Sunday Meditations: Dark Night of the Soul

If you are a Christian, or maybe even if you’re not, when you think about the things that need to be removed from your life, what kinds of things do you think of?

An initial answer to that question may be easy, as we think about various sins, shortcomings, and character defects we’d all be better off without.  Some of them are temporary struggles, some of them are ongoing struggles, and some of them are sublimated so deeply that they are simply habits of our mind, personalities, and behavior about which we do not and cannot make conscious choices.

And it is good to identify and give attention to these things.  Yes, there are dangers involved, not the least of which being a strong shame-based approach (individually or corporately) to dealing with these things, but I hope as I get older that I do not shy away from talking about sin or the need to rid ourselves of it.  My list of sins has changed some over time and as I’ve seen more of what happens in my own life and the lives of others, my severity hierarchy has been adjusted a time or two, but I hope my love for myself, individuals, and humanity in general does not erase the concept that we are beset by impulses, messages, and habits of the mind and body that take us along trajectories of alienation from ourselves, others, and God and ultimately our own destruction.

Identifying sins in ourselves and our spheres of influence is both difficult and uncomfortable and repenting of them even more so.  While I would not describe this process as easy, awareness of the situation certainly is.  Christians are almost hyper-aware of sin.  Sin and sin management tends to find its way to the center of our spiritual narrative.

But there is another layer that is more subtle.  In some ways, it is a sin.  In some ways, it’s the root of many (perhaps all) other sins, and that is idolatry – the valuation of something to a place that properly belongs to God.

Although the deliberate search for idols in our heart is less prevalent in Christian consciousness than sin, it’s still fairly widespread to an extent.

Idolatry appears in the Old Testament as Israel has contact with other cultures who make icons representing their deities.  The deity’s spirit was often thought to inhabit these vessels in some form, even though it seems very few people actually thought the icon was the deity (although this was a mockery YHWH’s prophets sometimes leveled at idolatry).  Israel’s God forbade making some kind of representation of Him to venerate as well as doing this for other gods.

When I was growing up, idolatry was most commonly brought into modern day in terms of following “false religions,” but this doesn’t really capture the essence of idolatry.  Idolatry is when you venerate something that is not God as though it is.

In Christian churches, it’s not uncommon to talk about idols such as money, celebrities, careers, or pleasures.  This is not wrong.  Anything in which we find a sense of safety and security, anything we trust, anything we define ourselves by, anything we are mortally afraid to lose – all these things can be idols and those things I just listed are some big ones.  Do I feel anxiety because I don’t have enough savings?  If some disaster happened to me such that I couldn’t keep going in my career and had to start over in something totally different, or maybe even no career at all, would I lose a sense of who I was?

If you really want to turn up the heat in an American congregation, you might start talking about the idols of nation or your spouse and children or your pastor.  This really starts getting people edgy because, depending on the church, the people may actually be encouraged to make idols out of these things.  And here we begin to enter an area of tension, because now we’re talking about things worth caring about, praying for, loving – maybe even things Jesus wants us to place at a very high level of importance – but how easily these things can demand our worship and command our deepest emotions.

This past year or two, I’ve come to realize how easy it is to make an idol out of the good things that come from God, Himself, but are not God Himself.

What are these things?

Things like feeling the comforting presence of God.  Things like doctrines and beliefs that define God.  Things like discernible spiritual growth.  Things like certainty.  Things like peace and safety.

The thing is, all those things and more can be seen as an end rather than a means to an end.  Do I love God or do I love what God does in my life?  Do I trust God or do I trust my understanding of Him?  Do I pursue God because of who He is and who I am or do I pursue Him so I don’t have to be afraid of dying?  Do I feel peace in my circumstances because I am abandoned to God or because of a handful of Bible verses that indicate that He’s in control of everything?

Yes, these things can be idols.  The things I believe about God.  The things I think I’ve figured out.  The feelings I get.  The changes in my life.

And, sadly, the only way to lose my attachment to those things and attach instead to the God behind them is often to lose them.

This is what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul – that period where it seems as though consolations of God are absent, but the longing is still there.

The dark night John of the Cross wrote of refers to indefinite periods of time, but I remember quite clearly a literal dark night almost a year ago where I was lying in my bed struggling heavily with doubt and anxiety and feelings of loss to the point where I thought it might be unbearable, and I cried out to God.  Being a Christian, I am used to prayer feeling a certain way.  Although sometimes it can seem kind of dry and rote and isn’t always some deep experience, I always have the sense that someone is listening.

But that night, there was nothing.  My bedroom felt like a cavern full of darkness, outside of which was only empty darkness that expanded out into infinity.  I felt like I was the only consciousness in my room or even anywhere.  I cried out to God in my need and, in return, felt utterly alone.

That night is sort of an extreme embodiment of that season in my life.  I felt like I was losing everything that had given me certainty as a Christian growing up and well into adulthood, and this cascaded into feelings of grief and anxiety about almost every aspect of life worth living.  I thought about my own death.  I thought about losing my spouse and my kids.  I felt like I had nothing to cling to that used to make me feel certain and safe in those times.  I felt like I felt once as a small child when I got onto a roller coaster that terrified me, but there was no way to get off because the train was rolling.

I wonder if that was how Jesus felt that night in Gethsemane, when he was so filled with stress and anxiety and prayed for hours, begging that the cup might pass from him if there were some other way.  Hours!  He never got some mystical feeling of peace or special word or revelation that ministered to him.  But, in the end, in the face of that vacuum of God’s presence, he pledged his trust.

It wasn’t until later that I would learn that I was being deprived of some of my idols and experiencing withdrawal.  All kinds of idols.  Ways I had idolized myself, my understanding, my expectations, and the benefits I had gotten out of my spirituality up to that point.  And when those things were taken away, the only thing left was God Himself and my decision to trust.

Before there was a Bible, before there were mystical experiences, before there were doctrines and theology, before there were miracles, before there were changed lives, God was and is.

Those things I felt absent from during the dark night – those things that made me feel close to God and confident in His presence and peaceful in dealing with life and peaceful when contemplating my death – those are not bad things, nor have they remained absent.  They are present in my life, again.  God may see fit to remove them from me again in my life, but I know that the outcome of those experiences will be deeper trust and greater love, not just for Him, but for myself for His sake and for all my fellow human beings.

From that standpoint, the dark night is far from being a period of deprivation.  The dark night is the active, obscure, presence of God doing His work.  We have been taught for so long that we feel separated from God because of sin that perhaps we miss the times when feeling separated from Him is actually a sign of His presence.  Perhaps we feel times of His presence with us as well as times of His absence from us because, in both, He is.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Psalm 139:7-12 (NRSV)