Sunday Meditations: Biblical Distance

I’ve been having conversations with my good friend Bill, who is a very sharp thinker and is a Christian Who Means It and has taught me a lot – directly and indirectly – of what it means to work through being a Christian who has a relative level of prosperity.  We’ve been talking about what happens to us after we die.

That was almost what I wrote about, today, because that conversation and others have made me think about this topic a lot, but yesterday, Bill had mentioned several passages from various parts of the Bible with some exploratory thoughts on each one and different ways we might look at them, and one thing that struck me was whether or not we should read an account like Saul speaking with the ghost of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 differently than, say, Luke’s account of Jesus telling the thief on the cross that, today, he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).

I’m going to say yes, although it’s not because one of the passages involves a ghost.  That’s a whole different topic.  What I’ve been thinking about is the relative distance of biblical passages from the events they describe and what impact that has on how we read them.

Before I get too far into this, I want to remind people who maybe are reading my posts for the first time that this blog is largely an experiment for me.  That’s one of the reasons I don’t put my real name on it or turn on comments.  It’s primarily for me to work through ways of understanding the Bible and my faith, and if that happens to be helpful to others, I’m very glad.  I did put it on the Internet, after all, so I hope that does happen.

However, it also means that sometimes I’ll bounce off a few walls to see how it goes.  I may write things that I don’t agree with perhaps even months later.  I doubt I’ll look back on all this in five years and discover that I continued to hold on to all these thoughts.  My own history teaches me that I cannot afford to be too dogmatic at any stage in life because I change, and the thing I feel 100% certain of today becomes next year’s rejected hypothesis.

So, while this meditation does reflect where I’m at, and if you actually know me in person and want to talk about it, please do, but also keep in mind that I’m just working through these things the same as anyone, and God is kind and merciful to me while I do it, so I encourage you to adopt a similar posture.

When we think about the production of a scroll that eventually ended up in the Bible, there are a number of things to keep in mind, but for the purposes of this meditation, I’m only going to look at two.

One: The Way Ancient History Works

I’ve written about this, before.  The upshot is that the idea that a good historiography is one that is the most objective and accurate account of exactly how the events happened is, relatively speaking, a very modern development.

It’s such a common assumption to us that it seems almost absurd to evaluate a historical document by any other standard.  If a writer tells us exactly what happened in a manner that closely matches the actual events, and if they avoid injecting their own views and interpretations into the narrative, that is “good” and “reliable” history.  If a record deviates from what actually happened and/or includes a great deal of interpretation or speculation on the part of the author, that is “bad” and “unreliable” history.

This, however, has not been the case for the majority of the activity of writing history and was certainly not the case in the ancient world.  True, the basic activity is similar – someone is trying to communicate the past in the present, and this largely fails if there is no correspondence at all between what the historian is writing and what happened at the time.  However, historians to this day typically have some kind of agenda for producing their history other than communicating rote events, and nowhere is this more evident than in the ancient world.  The concept of something like a news report simply did not exist.  Instead, history was written to teach lessons, sway politics, bolster or destroy reputations, create common mission or identity, or provide an explanation for current circumstances.

This does not make ancient historical documents useless for determining what “really” happened; it does mean that we have to have our expectations set correctly, and the reality of how and why these histories were written have to be worked into how we understand them.

By analogy, take Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist:”

1200px-old_guitarist_chicago

The Old Guitarist, Pablo Picasso

I have doubts that this painting has an exact correspondence to an actual old guitarist and, if it does, Picasso needed to quit painting and get someone some serious medical assistance.  His flesh is a zombie grey-blue and his neck is bent at an angle that even a contortionist would have trouble replicating.  This is actually one of the more realistic paintings Picasso has done.

But Picasso’s intent is not to give us a photo-realistic portrayal of an old guitarist – it’s to present the vision he has in his head as he thinks about an old guitarist and present him in a way that communicates the misery, melancholy, and tragedy of the subject.  Ancient historiography was a lot like this.  It was more art than science.  It beckons us to enter into the historiographer’s world and see, not the actual events as they happened, but see the events through his eyes and thoughts.

Whenever we read an account of an event in the Bible, we have to keep in mind that we are reading someone else’s interpretation of those events after the fact, presented to us in such a way as to get the writer’s point across moreso than to give us details about the fact of the event itself.

This leads us to the second consideration.

Two: Biblical Distance

A biblical passage as we know it was not created until after the events they describe and, in many cases, a very long time after the events they describe.  That doesn’t mean that other stories and traditions about the event didn’t exist before the passage came into its final format, but it does mean that what we read is reaching back, not just days, but often decades or even centuries (or longer) to the events it describes.  Often, those other stories, accounts, and traditions floating around heavily influence what we end up getting, either in support of them or in reaction against them.

I do not have Andrew Perriman’s talent for creating diagrams, but if I were to make a diagram, I might start on the left side with Genesis 1.  There would be a dot near the bottom representing the actual events, and another dot way at the top to represent the recording of the text of Genesis 1.  Just a huge, massive span of time between them.

I would then extend the timeline(s) to the right, with the gap shrinking as we move through the Pentateuch and get into the records of the kings of Israel, then taking a huge drop when we get to the Exilic and Post-Exilic writings – now the distance between the event and the record is much shorter, comparatively speaking, even though we’re still talking about potentially centuries depending on what passage we’re looking at.

When we get to the Gospels, the distance between the dots gets even closer, although we’re still talking about decades.  Finally, with the other New Testament documents (Revelation being an exception, since it reverses the trend), the distances become much shorter, as Paul will even write multiple letters to the same church.

In this vein, it’s important that, even when we look at the Gospels, even if we believe the Gospels were written by the names tradition has associated with them (and that is a big “if” that, in some circumstances, seems barely plausible), they were some time after the fact.

Take, for instance, the Gospel of Luke.  Even if we hold that Luke the physician wrote that Gospel, he begins the Gospel by saying that “many” have already endeavored to write accounts of Jesus and what happened around him, and the reason he’s decided to write his own gospel is basically to set the record straight.  So, note, this is a decision Luke would have come to after other gospels had been written, by his own admission.  In other words, Luke would not have been walking around with a notebook making copious documentation of everything for a gospel he planned to write, later.

He and the other gospel writers are going off their own memories, other people’s accounts they also remember after the fact, other written accounts, stories, traditions, hearsay, and best guesses at filling in the gaps.  What we read in the Gospel of Luke is not an objective recitation of eidetic memory, nor is it Luke going back over his copious notes he took while traveling around with Jesus and the other apostles.  It is a narrative reconstruction of events that, by this time, would be at the very least a few decades in the past.

If you think this might create some dissonance between what Luke wrote down and what literally occurred when the event happened, I would say that you are probably right, and the differences between the Gospel accounts, although they are rarely big differences, seems to indicate this.

Now, imagine this occurring over a span of hundreds, or perhaps thousands (in the case of much of the Pentateuch) of years.  The distance between the record and the event becomes massive.  By the time anyone writes the texts that became what we know today as Exodus, the distance between that writing and an actual Moses is difficult to comprehend.  It would be like you, today, writing about Leif Erikson’s attempt to settle America without any of the benefit of any modern historical research.  All you could use to write that history was what you’d heard, what people you’d talked to had heard, and whatever remaining vestiges of Leif Erikson’s story were in the air in America or Norway, today.

Granted, the role of oral tradition and tribal memory was much sharper in ancient times because it was the primary way information was communicated, and it is also true that stories of Moses were more foundational to Israel’s culture and identity than Leif Erikson is to modern day America, but still, memory is still memory and stories behave the way stories behave and a thousand years is a long time to play the Telephone Game.

So, when we read the account of Saul consulting a medium to talk to the ghost of Samuel, apart from the metaphysical difficulties this passage raises, we also have to keep in mind that there is a large historical gulf between the recording of this story and when the event might have actually occurred.  It is unlikely this story was just fabricated out of nowhere when 1 Samuel was written, but it is also unlikely that it is basically a transcript.

Did a ghostly Samuel appear for all to see and make these dire pronouncements?  Did these things all come from the medium, herself, speaking on Samuel’s behalf?  Did Saul go for a walk with his entourage because he was at the end of his rope since the prophets weren’t talking, and he suggested all kinds of crazy appeals to other gods or diviners, and someone just snapped and said, “Saul, Samuel never would have put up with this crap.  We’re going to lose to the Philistines because we’ve turned against the God who has brought us this far.  That’s why the prophets aren’t talking, and if you think talking to some spiritist is a good idea, well, that’s just going to make things worse,” and it turned into a story where Saul did go see a medium and Samuel’s ghost said all that?  Did a chronicler many years later try to figure out why King Saul could not be victorious over the Philistines as opposed to King David, and he knows the characteristics of Saul’s reign, and with that in conjunction with various stories and traditions about Saul, he figures something like this probably happened?

Somewhere between those polarities is our passage.  It is Israel’s story, and it communicates to her and us a message – a purposeful, intended message.

But that very purpose of communicating a message also makes it shaky grounds for a metaphysic about the afterlife.

The Little Ones: Matthew 10:40-42

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)

When I first started this blog, I sort of randomly chose passages to write about, but I found that I had to spin up so much background and context before talking about the actual passage that I shifted to going sequentially, hoping that previous posts would establish the necessary background for later posts.

While this has generally been the case, Matthew 10 contains so many passages that are often dealt with in isolation from one another that I feel like I have to keep harping on the context with every section.

As always, when we read this passage, we need to keep in mind that this is part of a speech that Jesus is giving to his disciples who are about to go out into the world with the message of the kingdom and doing the works of Jesus.  They are going to encounter severe resistance and persecution.  Jesus is warning them that this is inevitable and they have reasons to stay faithful in the midst of it, not the least of which being that their oppressors will perish in the coming judgement, but God will shepherd the souls of the faithful disciples through it.

Please see previous posts for the fleshing out of all of that.

This passage, then, is not so much about generic humanitarianism as it is about how the world will treat the disciples as they are about their work.  There may be some bearing on generic humanitarianism, though, and I’ll circle back around to that.

In this passage, Jesus pronounces that, as the disciples go out, those who give them aid and comfort will receive the same reward as those who are faithful – “righteous,” no less.  When the coming catastrophe comes, God will not only take care of Jesus’ followers, He will also take care of those who took care of Jesus’ followers.  The reasoning behind this is, when they show hospitality to the disciples who are being persecuted by everyone else, they are showing hospitality to their master (Jesus, if you’re following along).  If they show hospitality to Jesus, they show hospitality to the one who sent him – God.

To sum up: their good works on behalf of the disciples will be accounted to them as righteousness.  I assume that causes no issues for anyone.  That’s a joke.

Because we are prone to come to the Bible with a theological framework in place, and we let that framework dictate what passages must mean, we can wrangle this however we want.  We can hypothesize that the sorts of people who care for the disciples do so after coming to saving faith and converting, for instance.  And, you know, that probably happened in some cases.

But that’s not actually what Jesus says, is it?  He doesn’t say, “If someone believes your message and repents of their sins and has faith in me and then takes care of you, he will have the reward of the righteous.”  It’s actually a very simple proposition.  God will give the reward for righteousness to the people who do good to the righteous.

Probably the closest parallel thought will come later in Matthew in chapter 25:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)

It’s the same thing in parable form, complete with images of eternal fire, eternal life, and eternal punishment.  At the end of the present age when God’s judgement comes, there will be a group of people who identified with all the right things who will not make it through the judgement.  There will be another group of people who have no idea when they ever did anything for God, but because they took care of Jesus’ people, they took care of him and are rewarded with the reward of the righteous.

I love the little dialogues in that parable.  We have Jesus actually trying to convince a group of people that God will reward that they deserve it, and the people themselves are like, “Um, we think you’ve got the wrong people.  We never did anything for you, trust us.”  And Jesus is all, “Oh, yes you did.  All that time you thought you were just doing good to someone in need, you were actually serving ME!  So, hah!  Suck on THAT!  Here’s your eternal life, doofuses!”

We want to make sure, before we make too much theological hay out of all of these, we come back to the historical contingencies that bring Jesus to these announcements.  Jesus’ disciples are about to go into the world saying what he said and doing what he did, and the corrupt power structure of Israel herself will persecute them, and they are not afraid to bring in the muscle of the Roman Empire to do it.

Those who will, in the face of this persecution, defy these powers and take care of Jesus’ disciples instead of turning them in or turning them out will be rewarded.  The Old Testament version of this is Joshua 2.  Two spies go into Jericho in advance of Israel destroying it.  A resident of Jericho hides the spies.  She survives the invasion and, as far as we know, lives a long and happy life in the land.  Another example, possibly closer to Jesus’ mind given his example of the prophets, could be 1 Kings 17, where a widow takes in Elijah during the reign of Ahab whose wife is killing God’s prophets.  She takes care of this lonely, persecuted prophet who the royal family wants dead, and in return, she receives an unending supply of income and her son is raised from the dead.

And it is perhaps the recurrent historical pattern that makes us wonder if the particular historical situation in Matthew 10 isn’t another instance of the Way God Works in History.  Because, if it is, our theology ought to make room for it.

In fairness, we can’t simply reduce the situation to people doing good works and getting good stuff.  In Matthew 7, for instance, we are confronted with the truth that the very religious power structure that will persecute Jesus has people who are prophesying and casting out demons and working miracles in Jesus’ name, yet Jesus calls them “evildoers.”  So, some level of internal alignment seems to matter, here.  What are the motives for these deeds, and how are they used, and who truly benefits?

But at the same time, we also cannot escape the very simple principle that Jesus articulates that seems to be reliably demonstrated in several instances in the Bible spread out over centuries – when the faithful are persecuted, the people who care for them instead of handing them over are also given the reward of the faithful, even if they have absolutely no clue that they are doing it for Jesus or are basically just pagans who recognize the realities of their situation.  And maybe that’s all the mustard seed-sized faith it takes.

There are Christian theologians who, regrettably, have written about the “fate” of unbelievers with a sort of perverse glee that the horrors of eternal torment will finally show them what’s what.  Some have even said that part of what makes heaven heaven will be that believers will be able to view the endless torment of all those who did not believe.  And we wonder why we make people edgy, right?  That’s sociopathic.

But I, too, take a perverse glee when I think of unbelievers at the final judgement, because I can’t help but wonder if there won’t be at least a segment of them to whom God says, “Hey, you know when you built all those homes for Habitat for Humanity because you wanted to show that atheists could be philanthropists?  Well, you built those houses for ME!  How do you like them apples?  Stick that in your empirical positivism and smoke it!  Welcome to the new heavens and earth, nerds!”

Ok, it probably won’t go quite like that, but still.

Consider This

  1. Even to this day, there are countries where Christians are actively persecuted.  There are countries where people of all kinds of religions are actively persecuted.  What should our stance be toward that?  What are some things we can do about it?  What can we do when we see low-level persecution in small ways around us?
  2. If God commends those who do not know Him for taking care of His followers, how much more ought we to be zealous for taking care of His followers?

Sunday/Monday Meditations: Nothing New Under the Sun

Pete Enns reposted an article that I really liked.  I started to write him an email about it, but it began to go longish, and I realized it earned “meditation” status, especially since I didn’t do one for this last Sunday.  A bit of warning – Pete’s article is about the cycles of generations passing away, so the mood it will leave you in is, best case scenario, pensive.  This post you’re reading will probably be similar.

I am in my early forties, and the kinds of things Pete talks about are things I have started to try and come to grips with.  I thought my thirties were my official separation from youth, but for some reason, my mortality didn’t really hit me, nor did the idea of the passing away of everything that was a frame of reference to me at one point.  But it does, now, and I wish I could say I always handled it with the gentle acceptance Pete portrays in his post.  Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t.  I tend to skew more toward the “rage, rage against the dying of the light” way of dealing with it, but I think that’ll change with time.  Lord, I truly hope so (that is a prayer).

I moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I don’t have a single childhood home per se.  There is one that I lived in for most of elementary school, and that’s the one I think of when I think of childhood homes.  I thought about my room.  I thought about how the overhang of the second floor and the bushes lining the front made for a sort of tunnel I used to duck into and play behind when I was a kid.  I thought of watching TV and playing in a family room that seemed, to me, to be truly massive.  I thought of my own room, reading a sci-fi book (yes, I have been a nerd for a really long time) and munching on a Dole pineapple juice bar.

There is another family in that house, now.  They have their own furniture and decorations.  Other children are growing up in that house.  Whole new lives and stories are being spun out in those walls that held my own vitality and stories as I grew up, and when that family is gone, a new one will move in and create a new world there of their own.

In the house we lived in when I was in high school, someone else will be thinking their relationship with some girl is the most important thing anyone could possibly be thinking about.  Someone else will be dealing with their insecurities, working through their spiritualities, and heading out to do stupid things with their friends.  Someone else will be mowing that lawn in the summer, resentful of the time it takes away from them to do absolutely nothing at all, because all they have is time.  And when those people are gone, someone new will live out new dramas where they are the center of the world and life is all about what comes next.

I wonder if the people who live in those houses would let me in if I came by and introduced myself.  I wonder if I would cry, seeing those spaces through my eyes now and what they’ve become for someone else, or how different the reality seems to me at my age and my height.  My eyes certainly aren’t what they used to be when I was ten, either.

Other people are on the Park Hill debate team.  They have another captain, and whoever was captain after me is long gone and replaced by another and another.  Those bleachers are filled with different people watching Homecoming rallies or basketball games, enjoying those moments when everyone – no matter what your clique – is friends as you join against a common enemy.  Other parents have come to watch their kids on the auditorium stage.  In twenty years, it’ll be yet another set.

Our current culture in the modern West has done a good job isolating us from death.  The average lifespan is no longer forty.  People do not have children expecting that only one or two will survive.  You don’t have to go back very far to find a time when a relative who passed on did so in the family’s house, and someone sat up with the body for a night, and they were buried in a small cemetery at their home or the village church.  Everyone in all ages was intimately acquainted with death as a part of the cycle of life.  It wasn’t strange or jarring.

But now you live twice as long as your ancestors.  You die in a hospital full of other people who are also fighting for life.  Your body is sent to a funeral home.  Death is something we hide away and try to forget about, like some deeply unpleasant secret shame every family shares.  While this may serve to keep our lives a little bit sunnier as we do not think regularly about death, it makes the thing itself seem more like a fundamental disjunction in reality instead of just what naturally happens.  It is a shock, and it is something to dread, avoid, fight, or even keep from talking about in any kind of concrete way.

Fifty years ago, my grandfather was coming to terms with the fact that he would die, someday.  A hundred years ago, his father was, too.  Somewhere centuries down the line, one of my ancestors thought about his life, his family, everything he had done, and contemplated that it would end.  All those people are gone, now, and someday so shall I.  Someday, my sons will enter their forties if the Lord wills and begin to think about these things, and their children.  One day, my grandchild will think about their grandfather passing away.  And his grandchild will think about his grandfather passing away.

To me, these are sad thoughts.  I want to cry even typing them out.  And I’m all right with that.  The instinct is to jump in with some comforting thoughts like the resurrection or what have you, but I don’t think I want to paste over this with doctrine.  This is the window to reality that Ecclesiastes gives us, and in some form or fashion, that message is from God.

This is the way things are and will be, and only a fool does not come to terms with it.

But I will allow myself a little bit of doctrine to seep in, I suppose.  That’s who I am.  My identity does not belong to me and never did.  My who-I-am-ness is something that is a gift.  I did not create myself or construct my consciousness.  It was given to me for meaningful use.  The God who gave it to me will have it back, one day, and it is up to Him to superintend that.  It is into His hands that I commit my spirit, and no other.  And while I do not know exactly what He’s going to do with it, or how, or when – I trust Him with it, and perhaps that is the seed of making peace with death before I die.

Bringing a Sword: Matthew 10:34-39

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew 10:34-39 (NRSV)

It’s always a little awkward when Jesus says things like, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  It seems to run counter to Jesus’ commitments to loving enemies and not hitting them with swords when they come to arrest you in gardens.  What is worse, Jesus specifically says that this conflict will turn family members against each other and offers that anyone who loves their family members more than Jesus is not worthy of him.

It’s like some kind of Hard Sayings of Jesus marathon.

As we try to see how all these things fit into the story, the first thing we need to keep in mind is where we’re at in the story.  Jesus is warning his disciples about the persecution they will experience as they announce the coming kingdom, forgive sins, and heal.  He encourages them to stay the course in spite of their persecution, however, because a terrible judgement is coming against Jerusalem, and their oppressors will fall in that judgement.  It will be better to remain faithful and be saved through the judgement than to give up the work and fall in the judgement.

That is the backdrop for these comments – a judgement is about to fall on “institutional” Israel because of what she has become.  This judgement is going to take the form of a war with Rome that is not going to end well for Jerusalem.

We have already seen how Jesus incorporates Jeremiah’s warnings to Israel in his own warning, and it happens again in this passage.

There are numerous places where Jeremiah talks about the sword coming to Israel.  Jeremiah 12 uses the image in response to the fact that “the shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,” referring to the fact that Israel’s leaders have ruined her.  Thus, the sword is coming.

Only a bit later, in Jeremiah 14, the prophet talks about both a sword and famine coming against the land, and he points out that family members will not even be able to bury the slain.  This passage is particularly apt because Jeremiah is contrasting himself with the false prophets who are telling everyone that these are days of peace and prosperity.

Another Old Testament prophet who announced a coming judgement upon Israel was Micah, and it is perhaps Micah 7 that Jesus has in mind in this passage, because Micah speaks of family members turning against each other when the day of punishment is at hand.

So, when Jesus says he has not come to bring peace to the land (gen), but a sword, he is not declaring that he has specifically come to start attacking people or instigate family members to start attacking one another.  He is announcing to Israel what the prophets have announced before him – God is bringing the sword against Israel, and it is happening in the form in which it historically happens: assault from another nation’s army.  Violence and famine and tribulation are not far off, but rather are very near, and Jesus is the harbinger.

The appropriate response from Israel should have been what it always should have been to the true prophets who announced this: repentance and restoration of the nation’s commitments to pursuing justice and returning to the worship of her God.  This is what Jesus is going around trying to get people to do, and in response, he announces God’s forgiveness, an end to the curse, and the dawning of the kingdom.

But this is where the conflict comes in that will turn families against each other.  Not everyone wants to do this.  In fact, many are fine with the way things are and would like it to stay that way.  The conflict does not originate between Israel and another nation; the conflict erupts within Israel herself, and it knows no distinction but those who believe Jesus and those who don’t.

As in the days of Micah, the faithful cannot count on their friends and families to be allies now that the day of judgement is at hand.  They must look to the Lord for their salvation.

This is what Jesus is telling his disciples now that this situation is about to take hold.  He is not telling them that he has come to be violent.  Nor is he asking them to examine their passions and make sure that they feel more love for Jesus than they do for their family members.  He is telling them what the prophets have always told them – the sword is about to be brought against Israel, and on that day, only those who follow me and my path will be saved.  You cannot count on anything else to carry you through that day – not even your own family members and loved ones – and if you do, you will fall in it.

It is this that Jesus sums up for his disciples in the very pithy statement: if you cling to your life, you will lose it.  If you give it up for my sake, you will receive it.

When Jesus talks about taking up the cross, it is important to remember that he had not yet been crucified.  He may very well have foreseen that as the inevitable conclusion to what he was doing, but when he tells his disciples to take up their cross, their point of reference is not the crucifixion of Jesus; their point of reference was getting killed by Rome.  That’s what crosses are for when Jesus is talking to them.  Crosses are how Rome executes her political enemies: rebels, criminals, insurrectionists.  Crosses are how Rome shows her power over those she has conquered.  In our day, we might say, “Get your blindfold and last cigarette, have your last meal, say your last words, and follow me.”  Jesus calls his disciples to experience that now.  Now, before you go out into the world, holster up your cross and get ready to walk a path that could cost you your life.

The disciples will experience persecution and even martyrdom if they faithfully follow Jesus to the end.  But if they do, they will save their lives, and even if they are killed, they will be restored to life by God.  But if they are not willing to do this – if they give it all up to go back to their lives as they knew them – they will not survive.

If they believe Jesus’ announcements and do what he says they will survive it and enjoy a new life in the age to come.  There is nothing overly spiritual about this.  It’s the hard, historical reality that faces Jesus’ disciples in the first century.  Stay the course and live, abandon it and die.

Two options, two paths, two kinds of people.  It is dire news for all those who are making the most of Israel’s plight, but it is very, very good news for the broken poor who have longed in their hearts for restoration.

Consider This

  1. What sorts of upcoming crises do you think the Church faces, today?  In that context, what would it mean to remain faithful to God as opposed to giving up the life He has called you to?
  2. In what ways are we encouraged to think of ourselves as dead in advance?  What things are we dead to, and what things have we been given new life to walk in?

Who Acknowledges Me: Matthew 10:32-33

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 10:32-33 (NRSV)

A quick recap of Matthew 8-10 up to this point:

  1. Jesus is bringing the coming kingdom, forgiving Israel of her sins and overturning the penalties for her sins, demonstrated by healing and casting out demons.
  2. Jesus is moved by the plight of how lost and oppressed his people are and realizes he can only do so much, himself.
  3. Jesus commissions a group of disciples with his own authority to spread out among the people, making the same proclamation and accompanying it with the same deeds of forgiveness, healing, and liberation.
  4. Jesus warns that this increased activity will draw the attention of the powers that be, inviting opposition and persecution for all of them.
  5. Jesus encourages his disciples that their opposition will fall in a judgement that they, themselves, will survive – if nothing else than by resurrection and glorification – and that no matter what happens to them, God knows, cares, and will act.

There is a flip side to all this, however.

Jesus knows that, when persecution heats up, the temptation will be strong to give all of this up and go back to fishing or whatever the disciples were doing before they decided to follow Jesus.  It might not even take persecution; they may be tempted to give it up the first night they have to go hungry because they can’t find someone to give them food and shelter for the night.  Giving up the kingdom and going back to trying to eke out a reasonably comfortable existence is both a reasonable and attractive option to consider in the face of persecution.

When a disciple is dragged in front of the Sanhedrin, perhaps beaten, and commanded to stop proclaiming that the kingdom has come and Jesus is its king under the threat of imprisonment or death, it would be so easy just to say, “Ok,” and get back to your regular life.  You think about your family.  You think about your own well-being.  You think about pain.  You think about your fears for the future.

And at this stage in the game, you may have seen what you consider miracles, but you still don’t know how all this is going to turn out.  There has been no resurrection nor ascension.  In fact, persecution from this age’s powers is something you’d expect not to happen if Jesus were the actual expected Messiah.  You’d expect the Sanhedrin would be in prison begging for mercy, not the other way around.  Healing people is all fine and good, but now the people in power are about to regulate, and Jesus’ counsel is to… suck it up?  Try and hang in there?

That doesn’t sound like a conquering king, does it?

These disciples in the first century had far more at stake and far less reasons to hang in there than many of us do in the West.  We’re petrified that a co-worker might make fun of us, but these disciples would have given anything for mockery to be their worst case scenario.  In other parts of the world, today, that’s still the case.

But always, always, Jesus in Matthew draws us back around to the fundamental decision: Do you want to stand and fall with the present age, or do you want to stand and fall with the new Israel?

The present age has a lot going for it.  It’s already here, for instance.  Its powers are in place.  Its society is defined.  You can find your place in it, and while you may be having a rough go of it, at least you’re alive.  At least you’re not being tortured.  At least you can deal with it.  And being an ally of the present age asks very little of you – in fact, all you need to do is absolutely nothing.

What does the new Israel have to offer?  It has no power.  Its members are the dirtiest, stupidest, sinningest, rag-tag dregs of society you can imagine.  No guarantees of even the basics of food and shelter.  The only, single, solitary thing they have going for them is Jesus and all the promises of God he claims to represent.  If you want to join up, you have to repent of your sins, embrace a new life of faithfulness, and follow Jesus even if that means your imprisonment or death.

Who on earth would make a decision to stand against the powers that be to embrace life with these other people?

The people who have faith – that’s who.  The people who believe.  The people who trust.  And, perhaps in some cases, that trust is facilitated by having lost everything this world had to give them.  Because if you believe Jesus then you believe the judgement is coming, and the world and its powers will find themselves on the business end of God’s great renovation on the road to a new, better world.  You can ditch Jesus, now, and remain separate from him when God’s wrath arrives, or you can embrace Jesus, now, and be found as one of his faithful servants on that day.

But this decision only has meaning if God is going to make good on His promises to Israel and Jesus is who he says he is.  At this point in the story, the disciples have no way of knowing that for sure.  They have signs, yes, but so much of what they see around them and what they are about to experience will challenge these claims of Jesus.

In the midst of such fires, they have to trust.

Consider This

  1. In what ways have you been challenged to give up the faith?  In what spheres of life is it difficult to be faithful and assimilation would be much more attractive?
  2. A lot of our journey continues to be based on trust.  Is our trust blind?  What are some of the reasons you find God trustworthy?

Sunday Meditations: Habitual Sins

I was reminded recently of a talk about habitual sins I gave at a men’s retreat last year, and it got me thinking about the subject, again.  At some level, I really never stop thinking about this subject, to be honest.  I don’t know if this will be helpful to the Internet, but I’ve been thinking about it and want to get down a few thoughts about dealing with these struggles.

First, we have to own up to the fact that it’s habitual.

We can call this whatever we want.  Some people don’t like to think of them as addictions.  Some don’t even like to think of them as compulsive behaviors.  I won’t press the case, but I will say that if there’s something that you’re doing that you desperately want to stop doing and have repeatedly failed to do so even in the face of consequences, then the line between “addiction” or “compulsive behavior” and whatever you think you’re dealing with is a very thin one, indeed.

I have probably had this conversation a dozen times with other guys:

OTHER GUY: “I really struggle with Issue X.  It’s not an addiction, but it’s a big struggle for me.”

ME: “So you could stop anytime just by wanting to, right?”

OTHER GUY: “Well, no.”

Ok, well, whatever you want to call that, you have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t stop, and any solution that relies on your ability to stop yourself will only work for the short term at best.

Perhaps you have even earnestly prayed for God to help you stop or to take it away from you.  Years, maybe?  Decades?  Maybe you’ve even offered desperate pleas like asking God to take away your free will in this area or throw the switch that would make you stop sinning.  But it isn’t stopping, is it?

This is where we get crushed, because we assume that every struggle with sin is just a matter of overcoming it with our Holy Spirit-infused willpower.  So, if we cannot, then we are actually terrible Christians, or perhaps not even Christians to begin with.  Praying and trying harder are the only tools in our tool belt, and if those fail us, even that becomes our fault and just compounds the shame of the whole thing.  Believe me, I know.

But let me let you in on a little secret.  I have never, ever met a Christian who did not have something like this.

It’s not always the same thing.  In fact, sometimes it can be kind of abstract.  In further fact, sometimes it’s even something that is relatively socially acceptable in the world and even in the Church.  There are a lot of gluttonous pastors out there, and congregations just think it’s funny, for example.

It may be a substance.  It may be a practice.  It may be something that only happens in your head or heart.  But all those people at church around you who you think would never relate to having a sin you can’t stop – all of them have one.  Usually, more than one.

Now, they don’t all react to that the same way.  For some people, it makes them very compassionate toward themselves and others.  For others, it has the exact opposite effect, making them relentless judges.  For many, it seems to have a sort of polarizing effect where everyone else is perceived to be basically righteous with a few understandable failings, but one’s self is seen to be the worst mass of depravity ever spawned.  And, honestly, a lot of our church experience sort of engineers that perception.

But I’m all over the place, here.  My point is this: if you ever want to stop, you must first come to accept the grim, difficult reality that you actually cannot stop no matter how much you want to, and your life is the proof.

It doesn’t make you not responsible.  These are your choices.  It doesn’t make it someone else’s fault or a product of your life circumstances.  Other things may aggravate the conditions that cause you to choose to sin, but ultimately it is your choice.  You could get a new job, new friends, a new spouse, a new whatever tomorrow, and you would still find yourself turning to this pattern because you can’t outrun you.

Second, there are reasons that this is a pattern for you beyond a “sinful nature” or whatever.

We are responsible for what we do and the choices we make.  However, there are events that have shaped us, many of which we could not control.

You may think you had an idyllic childhood, but every last one of us adopted ways of behaving and taking on interpretations of the world around us that helped us navigate and prosper in our environment.  This way of dealing with life didn’t stop in childhood; it’s just that’s where some of the most formative, well-entrenched things happen that become so much a fundamental part of our matrix that we can’t even see it as adults.

(NOTE: Whether you remember them or not, your parents also had issues.)

For instance, a large number of guys in my generation had fathers who were not home very much.  Their fathers may not have been abusive.  They may not have been enraged and unpredictable (although that’s not uncommon, either).  They were probably just doing the best they could to handle their obligations and deal with their pressures even with their own failings.  But, let’s say your dad was barely home or didn’t really spend time with you on a regular basis.

Well, kids are great observers and terrible interpreters.

To navigate this world, you might develop a rich imagination and internal thought life, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s so you could keep yourself company.  You might decide that real life is something that holds very little for you.  You might think that people don’t want to spend time with you.  You might think that, unless you did something spectacular, you weren’t worth noticing.  You might think that you just weren’t unconditionally lovable.  You might even think there was something actually wrong with you, fundamentally, that made people stay away.

If these things or something like them begin to worm their way into the way you think about yourself and the world, can you see the kinds of holes this creates?  Can you imagine, as you got older, what sorts of things you might do in response to this?  Can you imagine what sorts of people you would draw into your life and why?

And this is just one example of something someone might think because of one circumstance.  There are almost limitless variables in someone’s childhood and adolescence that begin to lodge various faulty interpretations deeply into our conceptual grid.  They go deep, we don’t even have conscious awareness of them as we get older, but they are there and, out of a sheer need for survival, they push us toward certain behaviors and steer us away from others.

There are reasons you have chosen your habitual sin, and you probably have no idea what they are.  But I can tell you that those reasons are there, they most likely were not things you chose but were sort of thrust upon you, and they helped you get through your world in some way, just as they are trying to “help” you get through your world, now, but they are actually destructive.

Like, I wish I could tell my body that food was plentiful and it really did not need to store up fat reserves to the extent that it does, but that fat storage is “helping” me survive, and when my choices are in line with keeping the fat storage mechanism up and running at full gait, it makes it a destructive force.

This is a reason why someone struggling with habitual sins needs to have compassion on themselves.  There is a constellation of false beliefs, possibly even trauma, about yourself, the world, your relationships, and God, that makes your behaviors not just attractive, but seemingly necessary.  You feel them in your core.  And you did not have any control over how this constellation got there.

But you are responsible for what you do, and you cannot stay here.  God does not want you to stay here.  You can’t throw up your hands like so many do and say, “This is just how I am.  I have to live with it and so does everyone else.”  It isn’t, you don’t, and they shouldn’t.

I put it to you that the reason God does not supernaturally take away your behavior is because that behavior is the tip of an iceberg of unhealthy spiritual junk you need to get rid of to heal and move forward, and if God took away that behavior, you’d never deal with what was lurking under it, and something even worse would take its place.  Or maybe it wouldn’t, and you’d think you were “sanctified” while all this gunk was still rolling around in your heart just because it didn’t manifest itself in a highly visible bad behavior.

Third, at the very least, start by getting someone else in this with you.

The very bad news I have for you is that you absolutely cannot stop your habitual behavior by yourself.  Read all the books you want.  Have a consistent Quiet Time.  Journal.  Meditate.  Whatever.  Those are all good things, you should do them, they will not enable you to stop.

Probably the best thing you could possibly do is find a group of people who have your struggle who are trying to work through it together.  Another great idea is to find a therapist or counselor who can ask you questions about your past and help you ferret out these core issues that have shaped you into the person you are, today.

But you might not be there.  Those may sound like the kinds of things addicts do, and you’re not comfortable with that right now.  That’s fine.

But at the very least, think about someone you can share your struggle with who will meet you with compassion, love, acceptance, and the caring impetus to help you move forward.  You don’t need someone who will just condone your behavior, but you don’t need a cop, either.

Because if you can share your story with someone, and what you get back is not condemnation, or shame, or lengthy explanations about why your behavior is a sin – but compassion, understanding, forgiveness, love, and a desire to help you out of it – those are all things God has for you.  You are experiencing Him through that other person, and that is what you want, because that is what it’s going to take to start untying those dark knots that live under your surface.

Fearing the Right Guy: Matthew 10:26-31

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Matthew 10:26-31 (NRSV)

The very important key to this passage is keeping in mind the context.  That may seem like a trivial thing to point out, but a reasonably large amount of exegesis of the pieces of this passage is done as if each sentence were some atomic saying that Jesus just spontaneously said one day.

Everything in this passage is occurring within a little preparatory talk Jesus is giving to his disciples before they go out doing what he’s been doing and saying what he’s been saying.  The main theme is that they should expect fierce opposition and even persecution, the vast majority of which will come from the authorities in the Jewish religion at the time.  They will be tempted to surrender, give up, fall back in line, get back to their old lives to end the suffering, but Jesus encourages them to press on.

This passage falls mostly under the “press on” part of the talk.

Jesus encourages them with the idea that, up till now, he has been working and teaching subversively, staying under the radar, but the time has come for the truth to be revealed in big, blazing signs.  This is, in fact, what will precipitate the steeper opposition that Jesus has already warned them about.  The true nature of the corrupt leaders will be revealed, and the true nature of faithful Israel will be revealed.

In explaining why his followers should not be afraid of this persecution, he contrasts his age’s power structure with God.

This is where the helpful English translations may point us in the wrong direction.

First, we need to look at the word “soul.”  The Greek, here, is psychen, and you probably recognize that word as the root of some modern English words like “psychology.”  Because of our theological framework, we probably think of the “soul” as an immaterial, immortal representation of ourselves, and while that is a possible reading, the word is generally used in Scripture to mean something more along the lines of “identity” or even just “life.”

For example, in Matthew 2:20, an angel tells Joseph that it is safe to return to Israel because “those who were seeking the child’s psychen are dead.”  Later in this same chapter, in Matthew 10:39, Jesus says that “those who find their psychen will lose it, and those who lose their psychen for my sake will find it.”  This is repeated almost word for word in Matthew 16.  In that same chapter, Jesus asks, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their psychen?”  The last appearance of this word in Matthew is 20:28, where Jesus explains that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his psychen as a ransom for many.”

Those are all the appearances in Matthew, but the pattern is similar throughout the New Testament.  Soul/psyche is much closer to something like “you as a living person” than “the immaterial, immortal component of your identity.”  A soul can lost or given up.  A soul can be preserved or taken.  Perhaps the most direct counter to the use of the word as something immortal is the LXX translation of Ezekiel 18:20 – “The psyche that sins shall die.”

The reason I’m going on about this is, when we are looking at this contrast, it is unlikely the point of contrast Jesus is making is that humans can only kill you, but God can torment your immortal being for eternity.

The other word that tends to send us on this trajectory is the English word “hell,” but once again, the Greek is Gehenna.

Gehenna is an actual, physical location outside of Jerusalem.  You can go there, today.  You can literally have a picnic in Gehenna.

Gehenna occupies in Jewish theology a location as a special place of God’s judgement, beginning with what we learn in Jeremiah 7:30-34:

For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

That “valley of the son of Hinnom” is Gehenna.  It is a location where Judah worshipped idols and sacrificed their children in flames.  Because of these horrible practices, God will slaughter them and fill the valley with their corpses and destroy the city of Jerusalem.

This is repeated with some more detail and an object lesson involving breaking a pot in Jeremiah 19, where the prophet actually delivers this pronouncement from the actual Gehenna.  Again, for their idolatry and unfaithfulness, God announces a great tribulation and disaster He will bring upon Jerusalem.

One must acknowledge that, in Jewish literature, this idea grew beyond its historical roots.  Gehenna became a metaphorical stand-in for God’s judgement.  One writer spoke about how Gehenna was so wide that the sun never went down on it.  Others, that it was the mouth of the grave.  As you flip through the ages of Jewish writing on God’s judgement, both on individuals and nations, Gehenna becomes a powerful image.  It is a place where God will judge you now and, if you happen to be a tyrant, after you die.

It is because of some of the relative fluidity of the imagery of Gehenna that I will say that the idea that Jesus is talking about God punishing an immortal soul in a spiritual location of torment is a possible reading.  And, given the contrast, there’s a certain logic to it.

However, I do not think this is the most likely reading.

Jesus’ reference to Gehenna takes the warning of Jeremiah and brings it into his own day.  Judah’s kings have led her astray into new kinds of idolatry and dissolution.  Jerusalem has become a site of infidelity.  A judgement to set this situation to rights is coming, and Jesus is announcing this to Israel.  Jeremiah foresaw this destruction coming at the hands of Babylon; Jesus foresees it coming by Rome.  Jeremiah was persecuted for his warnings by the priests of Israel, which is exactly what Jesus is warning will happen to him and his followers.

Very illuminating is the prayer Jeremiah makes in chapter 20, praying against his persecutors.  In this prayer, he describes the people who seek his life and make him wish he had never even been born, but he knows the Lord will defend him and rise against them.

This, I would say, tells us what we need to know to understand Jesus in his context.

Those who remain faithful to proclaiming the message God has given them through Jesus will experience opposition and persecution.  These people may torture the body.  They may even kill it.  But the faithful will not be destroyed, but live.  God will deliver them from their imprisonment, judge their tormentors, and even if they should die, they will rise to reign with Christ in the next age when God has broken the power of these oppressors and brought a new way of life to His faithful.

It is because of this that his disciples should not fear their persecutors.  It is the same hope that kept Jeremiah going, saying he could not contain the warning because it burned like a fire in his bones.  He had to proclaim it, and the suffering he experienced made him actually angry with God for putting him in this position, but he also knew God would vindicate him and save him.  Your body may die, but you will have saved your psychen.

By contrast, God is about to bring judgement once again on Jerusalem.  Gehenna will once again be filled with corpses as the pagan invaders raze the city.  The people who fall in this judgement will not live.  They will not be vindicated.  They will not reign with Christ.  They will not rise again.  The grave will be the end for them… if they’re lucky.  They will have lost their psychen.

The contrast Jesus offers is that it is far better to suffer and die at the hands of the persecutors and commit your faithful life into the hands of a vindicating God than to die in the judgement God is bringing, after which is no hope, no vindication, no salvation – only death, destruction, and loss.  Forever.

It is the same, pivotal choice Matthew has presented to us throughout his gospel, over and over again on different occasions.  You can conform to the powers of this age and die with them in the coming judgement, broken forever, wiped from the pages of the Book of Life, or you can identify with the poor, suffering, bedraggled faithful, and find yourself exalted.  And even if you die, you will not die, but live!  Live through this age into the next and endless ages to come.

Jeremiah made his decision.  Jesus made his decision.  His followers have to make that decision, and what they do with the rest of their lives will tell the tale.

But Jesus does not simply let the choice hang.  In one of the more touching and beloved passages of the Church, Jesus reminds them that this is not just some issue of cosmic accounting or the fallout of the clash of nations.  Jesus reminds them that God cares about them as individuals!

To those of us steeped in American evangelicalism, maybe this is old news.  We make the individual the center of the universe and the highest point of God’s attention, desires, and plans, so this is probably no big deal to us because we already think everything God is, does, or wants revolves around our individual lives.

But this perspective has more to do with our modern ethos and American values than it does the Bible’s world, which overwhelmingly emphasizes the collective.  God loves a people, calls a people, saves a people, justifies a people, and glorifies a people, and you are either in that people or not, and your destiny is carried by that larger vessel.

In the grandeur of the Bible’s perspective, we find very few nods to anything describing God’s relationship to individual, nameless believers throughout history.  But here is one.  Jesus comforts his disciples by assuring them that God even superintends the life and death of sparrows, and how much more important to God are the disciples than sparrows!  And just to make sure they understand the point, Jesus tells them that even the individual hairs on their head are noted by God.

I’ll admit it – I struggle with the notion that God cares deeply for me as an individual.  I intellectually agree with that idea, sure, but I struggle to truly internalize it as a deep belief that I walk in (to use a handy evangelical phrase).  But here is a bold proclamation of Jesus that God attends to even the smallest of things.  If He is interested in the lives of sparrows, how much more does He attend to my life?  How can He know the hairs on my head if He pays no attention to me as an individual?

Granted, Jesus is making a speech and using expansive imagery.  Granted, Jesus is talking to the people in front of him and not to everyone throughout time.  But the logic he uses does not seem to be able to be constrained only to the local audience.  If that deal about the sparrows works for them, for instance, it works for everybody.  It is unlikely God only cared about the sparrows within earshot of Jesus.  Jesus’ whole point is that God’s care and attention knows no bounds and no concept of insignificance.  There is nothing He has created that He does not attend to and have intimate knowledge of, and that scope includes you and me.  And birds and hairs, apparently, but Jesus lets us know that disciples rate higher.

And this truth about God’s regard is also meant to comfort the disciples.  When they are dragged into the synagogues and commanded to stop preaching.  When they are brought into courts under false charges to shut them up.  When they are in prison.  When they are beaten.  When their bodies are being burned.  However much they may hate it, the one thing they cannot think is that God has forgotten them, that God does not care, that God will let this situation go unanswered.  The timing may not be yours, and the form it comes in might not be yours, but He is there, He knows, He cares, and He will not take it lying down.

And why?  Because of His love.  His love for those poor, lost, wayward, dirty, poor, sinful sheep of Israel.  His love for the Gentile doofuses who believed in Jesus and are all ready for the Bible study as soon as they get back from the orgy.  His love for brokenly, uproariously, sinful fools who know nothing, but for faith, love, and hope continue to open their arms to God and walk forward as best they can.

People like you and me.

Consider This

  1. What is our message to our world, today, concerning this creator God.  Who is He and what is He doing?  How do we get that message across, and who is likely to want it to stop?
  2. Jeremiah is incredibly resentful toward God in chapter 20 as he prays because of what he is suffering, and he feels that God will not allow him to stop.  This doesn’t seem to diminish God’s regard for Jeremiah in the least.  Do you ever resent God because your attempts at faithfulness just seem to land you in deeper suffering?  Have you ever told Him?

Sunday Meditations: My Neighbor

As part of the What if the Church initiative, we’ve been talking a lot at church about neighborhoods and being a blessing to neighbors.  I’ve been encouraged to see so much interest and energy devoted to figuring out what it means for the Church to be something in the world and what it looks like to be a blessing to the people around us.

The command to love your neighbor as yourself first crops up in Leviticus 19:18, although the preceding verses also spell out a lot of what it means to live with justice and compassion with regard to your neighbor.  The word for neighbor is reaka (and derivatives) and is used, at base, to mean someone that you’re with.  It is sometimes used to describe a friend or a peer as well as someone you live around or even encounter in daily life.

In the context of Israel’s law, this commandment is close to the heart of Israel’s identity and mission, which is to be a special people dedicated to YHWH in a world full of other options.  By being this special people, they become a light to the other nations, inviting them to follow YHWH as well as enjoy a relationship with Him and the benefits that flow from that (protection, prosperity, survival from age to age, regard after death, etc.).

In order to be this special people, you need to live a certain way among one another and with one another, and the engine that drives this way of life is love.  Not courtesy, not tolerance, but love – the genuine pursuit of the welfare of the other person even at your own expense.  If Israel cannot live with each other in this way, then their testimony to the world is seriously impaired.  They’ll look just like every other self-serving people out for themselves.  The pursuit of love for one another and having that define all their relationships and interactions is something that marks them as different in the world (note John’s record of Jesus saying this is how the world will recognize his disciples – by their love for one another) as well as bringing tangible benefits to the world.  The creation of a just society that runs off of love of God and neighbor is what God wants the world to look like, and Israel at that stage of the game was intended to be the model for everyone else.  In fact, Leviticus 19 begins with the declaration, “You shall be holy as I am holy.”

By the time we get to Jesus’ day, this experiment has not gone well.  Israel has suffered at the hands of her own leaders, hungry for money and power.  Some of her own people have even taken up being tax collectors for the Empire, keeping their own people in poverty while skimming off the top for their own comfort.  Israel is not in solidarity tied together with strong bonds of love, but instead is scattered like sheep without a shepherd – each one looking to survive life however they can.

The vision of loving neighbors is something Jesus calls faithful Israel back to, but he puts a little teeth into it with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  In this parable, there is a man of indeterminate ethnicity, but he is from Jerusalem and, in the story, is most likely a Jew.  He is waylaid, and the people who are supposed to love him as themselves – a priest and a Levite – do not.  The person who does is a Samaritan, a people who were viewed by the Jerusalem Jews at the time to be of dicey descent and dedicated to a pseudo-Judaism that had many errors, not the least of which was not worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem.

This is what puts the teeth in Jesus’ parable – this Samaritan, who most in the audience would consider more outsider than fellow Jew, takes care of this man from Jerusalem.  He binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care.  This is love, and this man demonstrates to the haughty priest and Levite hearing the story what keeping this commandment looks like.  The Samaritan and the beaten man do not live next to each other, nor are they even considered to be the same people group at the time, but the Samaritan cares for someone in need at his own expense – someone God has simply put in his path – and thus fulfills the Law.

We do not have a biblical mandate to do things in our neighborhoods.  “Love your neighbor” in the Scriptures does not have a reference to your subdivision, and while the scope of the commandment may include people who live near you, that has never been the reference point of that commandment.  I heard a speaker recently comment on that commandment complaining that we “spiritualize” it too much instead of understanding it to be about our literal neighbors, and the problem with that complaint is that Jesus himself “spiritualizes” it by making it not about literal neighbors at all.  I’m assuming Jesus’ rabbinical commentary on the commandment should take precedence.

However, as the Church seeks to embody loving neighbors, it may very well be that a wise and good thing to do is to start embodying this principle with our literal neighbors.  Considering how little thought we give to doing this in the rush of trying to survive, having a deliberate project to love one another and be a blessing in one’s own neighborhood is actually a pretty great idea.  The deliberate, intentional focus on being the people of God in discernible ways in the world is nothing but good for the Church and often neglected.  Pursuit of this will benefit us and the world and provide a counter-testimony to our critics, many of whose criticisms are sadly well-founded.

But we also ought to examine ourselves.  Are we even loving our neighbors within the Church?  This is easy for me to say, sitting behind a keyboard, but do we have church members in danger of foreclosure while others are trying to decide if teak or cherry is the best wood for their new entertainment center?  Do we have families who refuse to speak to each other because of some offense or rift from the past?  Are we promoting the welfare of others in the church even if it comes at our own expense?  What are the limits to that expense?  What was the limit for Jesus?  Are we really doing anything for one another that would distinguish us from any other community?

I know biker gangs that are more self-sacrificial for one another than many congregations, and it is this phenomenon that is helping to lead an increasingly secular world to conclude that religion, at best, is irrelevant, and at worst, is directly harmful.

But with this, we also need to recognize that loving our neighbor encompasses a broad scope of activity.  Delivering meals to and lifting the spirits of those who have to stay at home.  Giving blood.  Sorting donated clothes.  Spending your night off with a person who is struggling to keep their life together.  Allowing someone to steal your silver because they need money.  Spending time helping your son with his homework when you don’t feel like it.  Writing off someone’s invoice.  Anytime you sacrifice something of your own welfare to promote the welfare of someone else, you are being a loving neighbor to them.

Rather than sit around feeling terrible about how little we do, we should be encouraged at the scope of how even our little efforts make the world look more like God wants it, and it can motivate us to give even more of ourselves.  Loving our neighbors, the way it appears as one of the greatest commandments, is less about singular, grand gestures and more about lifestyle.  It’s about making sure everyone who passes through your sphere of interaction is treated with love, whether it costs nothing, a little, or a lot.

 

Master of the House: Matthew 10:24-25

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”

Matthew 10:24-25 (NRSV)

Master o’ the house / dum da dee da dum / fifty cents for looking in the mirror twice….

I think the song goes something like that.

This passage is in a larger flow where Jesus is ready to ramp up the mission, so he is sending out his disciples to heal and cast out demons and announce the kingdom has finally come.  In response to the notoriety this will almost surely bring Jesus’ movement, Jesus foresees that persecution will increase and involve his followers at a level they’ve been somewhat shielded from.  Jesus is preparing them for this in the hopes that they will remain steadfast even in the face of opposition.

This short bit is simply making the point that, if people oppose Jesus, they will most certainly oppose his followers.  If Jesus, with his demonstrable power, authority, and following, will be maligned and persecuted, people won’t think twice about doing the same thing to ol’ Simon the Cananaean.  Do you remember Simon the Cananaean?  Exactly.  (HINT)

One interesting bit of the analogy is Jesus conjuring up the image of people calling him Beelzebul.

Beelzebul was a god of divination in Ekron.  He is mentioned in 2 Kings 1 as the deity that a sick Ahaziah (king of Israel) consults to see if he will recover.  Elijah meets the king’s emissaries on the way and has strong opinions about this, saying (among other things), “Is there no god in Israel such that you must inquire of Baal-zebul?”

The idea, of course, is that there is a God in Israel, but rather than consult with the true God of Israel, the king is consulting with a pagan one of some other nation.

Jesus’ opponents are apparently ascribing Jesus’ work to the powers of false, pagan gods as opposed to the true God of Israel.  This is an objection that will crop up more than once, and we’ll see it in more direct form in Matthew 12.

The irony of this is that it is Jesus who is a prophet of Israel’s God, and it is his opponents who have received their power from pagan sources – not ancient gods of Ekron, perhaps, but from Caesar and his Empire – the gods of their age.

This is how Matthew has drawn the lines of the conflict over and over again.  On the one side are the forces who have all the inertia.  They are the keepers of the Temple and the Law.  They have official leadership positions.  While some may criticize the Empire and appear to be defenders of Israel, the reality is that many of them were either placed in their position directly by the Empire or maintain their comfortable lives by not rocking the boat.  While they externally appear to be faithful to the true God and be shepherds of His people, the reality is that they are shills for a pagan power.  They enjoy their comfort and their position and that’s the way things are going to stay.  Not all of Jesus’ opponents will fit this model, but Matthew draws a picture of a great many who do. They are the almost faceless, transhuman “opposition” to Jesus.

On the other hand is Jesus, a wandering prophet with dirty clothes living off the land who speaks out against the established authorities and traditions – not because authority and tradition are inherently bad, but because these authorities and these traditions have contributed to Israel’s oppression, not helped set her free.  In fact, Jesus says that the more you follow after these people, the greater the risk of your own destruction when God brings them down.  Instead, you should embrace the dangerous, painful road that he himself is walking, because it is these people whom God will exalt.

It is because of this that perhaps we can have compassion for those we read about in the Scriptures who wavered or never got on board with Jesus to begin with.  If all you had to go on was appearances and the inertia of your day to day life, which group would seem more legitimate to you?  Which group looks more like they’re being rewarded for their choices?  Who looks like representatives of the true God and who looks like representatives of paganism?

But beneath the deceptive appearances is something more primal and powerful.  The leaders of Israel have failed to bring about God’s promises, but this crazy, dirty, wandering prophet guy – he’s bringing the kingdom, and the illusions will not hold together when they come crashing into the power of the kingdom come.

Consider This

  1. If the religious status quo as you know it needed to be critiqued, how would that happen?  How would you recognize the right side?  If a respected pastor was on one side and a homeless vagrant were on the other, would that influence your decision?  What would have to happen to tip the scales the other way?
  2. Does the world treat you better than Jesus?  Why is that?  How much of that is due to differences in time and culture, and how much of that is due to what you represent?

Sunday Meditations: The Mission

To me, the main story line of the Bible doesn’t get rolling until Genesis 12.

Yes, I know there are big things that happen before then.  There’s Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel.  But those events set the stage for the main drama to play out.

For example, the movie X-Men: Apocalypse starts with a segment in ancient Egypt where the powerful tyrant En Sabah Nur ends up trapped in his pyramid due to a revolt.  The movie is not about ancient Egypt or that revolt, though.  The story is about the X-Men facing En Sabah Nur in modern day.  Those past events give you the necessary background to appreciate what happens next, i.e. the worst X-Men movie put out so far.

By Genesis 12, mankind has attempted to build a Flood-proof bastion and God has scattered and confused them.  The plan to fill the world with His image seems to be a bust.  The first guy rebelled, one of his kids killed the other, their descendants filled the world with violence, God wiped them out to start over with a new guy, and he and his kids get off to a rocky start, and the next thing we get is the world conspiring to defend itself against God, and there’s even hints of launching a counter-offensive.

This time, God changes tactics a little bit.  Instead of starting with one family in an otherwise depopulated world, He starts with one family in the midst of a world populated with people who don’t seem to like Him very much, or are at least indifferent.  He selects His new progenitor, Abram, and commissions him to multiply and fill the earth with His people (same as Adam, same as Noah), but the twist is that this will happen in the midst of other nations, and what’s more, Abram’s descendants will grow into a large and powerful nation who will use their numbers and power to bring blessing to all the other nations, not the least of which involves being a light to them, pointing the way back to the true God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  They are supposed to be the new Creation in the midst of the old one.

The rest of the Bible is occupied with how this story plays out.

These people do grow, move to another nation that eventually enslaves them, are liberated by God who has to remind them who He is and makes a formal agreement with them to be their God and have their back if they will worship Him and live faithfully in a nation of justice, compassion, and uprightness.  Sometimes this goes well, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes they are led by judges, sometimes by kings, and sometimes these leaders lead them in the ways of their agreement with God, and sometimes those leaders lead them away from it.

As time goes on, the leadership becomes more unjust, more desirous of power and wealth at the expense of their people, and while they keep up all the rituals, they are far from God in their hearts and lead the people the same way.  God is losing them.  He sends prophets to warn them and call them back.  He sends other nations against them so they will remember where their help comes from.  He grants them reprieves from their trouble.  But nothing seems to work long term.  This great nation of Abraham’s ends up exiled from their land, dispersed, and under the dominion of one nation after another.  The only thing that even serves to remind them that they were once a distinct people and a great nation is enshrined in their Temple and their Law.  Now, they’re just members of (eventually) the Roman Empire along with every other conquered people.

And the curtain falls.

When the curtain comes back up, God sends a sign that He is still with His people and has not abandoned them in the birth of a special child, Jesus.  Turns out that God is still faithful to the now-broken-many-times agreement He made with Israel and still loves her and wants her back.  Jesus works in powerful ways to raise Israel back up from the ashes, turning the hearts of her people back to their God, teaching repentance, and promising a powerful work on the near horizon where God will bring down those who led them astray and give them a new life in a new age.  Jesus willingly sacrifices his life for this mission, and God begins the apocalypse (not related to the X-Men movie) by raising Jesus from the dead and pouring out His promised Spirit.

But there are so few faithful.  How can these people survive an apocalypse?  How can these rag tag faith communities, growing despite persecution, become once again the mighty nation they were so long ago?

In the biggest twist, yet, God gives His Spirit to Gentiles who believe in Jesus, repent of their sins, and take up their lives anew as His faithful people.  The numbers are swelled by a huge influx of those who used to be on the outside.  The boundary between “God’s nation” and “the other nations” is no longer whether or not you are a descendant of Abraham, but whether or not you believe in what God has done in Jesus and change your life, accordingly.  This mechanism not only bolsters the survival of God’s people through the terrible events of 70 A.D. that destroy the Temple and all vestiges of the old religious power structure, but it is the very means by which, years later, Caesar will declare Jesus Christ as lord of the Roman Empire.

It’s difficult for us, on this side of history, to appreciate what a world shattering chain of events all this was.

But here’s the thing – Jesus becoming lord of the Roman Empire was not the long term goal.  It was something that happened that was a great advancement for God’s people at the time (although, over time, it also became a setback in other ways).  In all this, God’s mission never wavered, which was to have a new Creation people in the midst of the old one until, ideally, there was no more old one and the world was filled with the image of God.

This is why I do not believe it is the church’s mission to produce conversions or to “get people saved” (unless by “saved” we mean something very holistic that is much broader than saying a prayer).  Conversions are a side-effect of the church’s mission.  The church’s mission is to be the new Creation people in the midst of the old one and, by doing so, be a blessing to all nations, not the least of which involves pointing them to the true God who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  We do not measure our success by the number of people who pray the Sinner’s Prayer; we measure our success by how well we, collectively, look like new creation in the world in such a way that allows us to effectively testify to the existence of and our commitment to the true God, inviting any and all to join in the new creation with us.

In America, where I live, does this look like it did in the first century?

There are certainly some commonalities.  For example, we also have religious leaders who have gotten in bed with the national powers of our day, and they stir up their followers to exercise what power they have in a republic to advance the causes of wealth and power through force.  In many places in America, such values and efforts are even equated with faithfulness to God, and Jesus is a prophet for free market capitalism and protecting our borders from immigrants.  American patriotism is a spiritual value.  In the sense that we, as a people have been severely compromised by the powers of this age starting with our leadership on down, this is very much like the first century.

But (once again, speaking in terms of America) we do not have the same relationship to America those first century faith communities had with the Roman Empire.  America is not a hostile power that needs to be overthrown by God so that His people can be rescued.  Or, I don’t know – it doesn’t seem like it to me, anyway.  Maybe that day will come.

But the cultural dominance Christianity enjoyed in the West is not just in decline; it’s pretty much gone, and it’s only getting goner by the day.  Christendom is vanishing and, in its place, is the rise (backlash?) of secularism.  I recognize this is not the primary phenomenon in all countries, but it seems to be in ours.  The flow of power is shifting to forces that are not simply pluralistic, which America was always supposed to have been, anyway, and I’m ok with that or even becoming more that if that will increase justice and fair treatment for Americans of other religions or none at all.  If I thought Christianity being politically ascendant would provide more justice, compassion, and mercy in the world, I would fight for that, but that honestly does not seem to be the case.  The overwhelming majority of politicians who profess the name of Christ are also about power, wealth, dominance, and disenfranchisement of anyone who is not like them.

So, please, I am not saying that the power structure we face in America is an erosion of exclusively Christian values.

But what we are facing is secularism with teeth.  It’s not about all religions existing peacefully; it’s about no religion existing at all.  It’s about a vision of a better world if humanity could shake off the idea of any kind of God whatsoever.  It’s a narrative that God is at best irrelevant and at worst harmful to a just and compassionate world.  And you know what?  We have loaded that gun with bullets, ourselves.

In face of this situation, which is really just getting started, and it will get far, far worse before it gets better, it is more important than ever before that we, as a people, are about the business of living out the new creation and being a blessing to the nations.  It is not only the reason we have been called to serve God, but it is perhaps the only testimony we can make that dismantles the incoming wave.