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Why I love the Bible

Today’s Gospel reading is the last in a series of Gospel readings from Matthew that dazzle me with their judgmentalism and violence. 

Three weeks ago we heard the parable of the unforgiving servant and how the master in the parable threw him and his wife and children into prison for the rest of their lives – an act clearly meant to symbolize eternal damnation. Last week we heard the parable of the wicked tenants with its violent content. Today is the latest in this series of brutal Gospel readings. Brutal because of its violence and because it goes beyond what is needed to tell us about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Luke also has this parable, but without the conclusion where one of the men is thrown out into “the outer darkness” – a symbol of eternal hell. And here is something that needs pointing out. We read Luke’s version every year on the second Sunday before Christmas. Did you hear the last sentence of our reading today: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew has that; Luke does not. But the church added Matthew’s last sentence to Luke’s version that we read in December! (Compare Luke 14:16-24 to Gospel reading of the 11th Sunday of Luke, two Sundays before Christmas, which this year will fall on December 16th.)

Do people like violence and exclusion? Why did the Church add Matthew’s punchline to Luke’s version, where Luke wrote no such thing? Which version is right, Matthew’s version, where a man is thrown out to eternal hell, or Luke’s version, which ends with the gathering of as many people as possible to enter the dinner? Which do you prefer? Would you draw pleasure to see some people thrown out of the Kingdom into eternal damnation? It’s an honest question, and I know many Christians who want to see people in hell! They get eternal life for themselves; and too bad for those others who end up in hell – whatever hell might be.

I’m not trying to re-write the Bible. I don’t need to re-write the Bible, because I take the Bible as it is. It contains words that are inspired by human beings listening to God. But it also contains words inspired by our having to live with people like us – people who often have hateful, violent thoughts right next to thoughts of love and spirit. Have you ever read Psalm 139? It’s beautiful; a long series of life-celebrating affirmations. But something happens along the way. See if you can catch it.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

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,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
    and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
    and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Did you catch that, what happened between verses 18 and 19? But that’s human nature, that’s the human heart. We can speak beautifully to God one moment and then turn with hatred and violence toward our fellow human beings. The Bible is not just God’s words to us; it’s also our words to God! And sometimes our words and our thoughts are not so beautiful. Did Matthew embellish the parable with that epilogue? Why doesn’t Luke have it? I asked similar questions about our other recent Gospel readings. And why did the church take Matthew’s “many are called, few are chosen,” and stick it to the end of Luke’s version, when Luke did not write that sentence?

Now if you are a fundamentalist and you believe that every word in the Bible came straight from the mouth of God, you will recoil that I’m even asking such questions. How dare I?

But here’s a little secret. This is one of the reasons I love the Bible. There are passages I don’t like, but then there are days and things in my life that I don’t like. Life is sometimes ugly, and painful, and life many times brings out the worst in us. So when I turn to Psalm 139 and I come to those words near the end, I take comfort that David wasn’t all that different from me. He also had his days, and the Bible says that God loved him. So perhaps God can love me, even in my worst days. I can be miserable, I can be negative, and still God can love me. Because God’s love is infinitely greater than my offenses.

In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the Feast of the Cross. And then we go back to the beginning, but this time with Luke’s Gospel – a Gospel that seems to be more focused on showing us the ways of compassion and forgiveness. We can only turn to Luke after the Cross; and the Church showed great wisdom in going to readings from Luke after the Elevation of the Cross. The cross of Jesus Christ is where forgiveness came into the world; where the compassion of God was most starkly revealed; where God’s love transcends all the hatred in the world. God is amazing, and the Bible is his amazing book – and our amazing, honest book!


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What about the Ten Commandments?

The incident of Jesus and the rich young man (or ‘ruler’ in one version) poses some questions worth discussing. The man in question asks Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus goes on to quote five of the “Ten Commandments” that Moses received on Mount Sinai.

Here are the commandments as they are given in chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus:

And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them….

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain….

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work….

“Honor your father and your mother….

“You shall not kill.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

In responding to the young man (Matthew 19:16-19), Jesus quotes the 6-9th commandments, then the 5th commandment, and then caps it off with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which is not one of the ten “words” (commandments) given to Moses. Where did that come from? 

In Matthew 22 we read: A lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” And here too, Jesus quoted two passages from the Books of Moses and combined them together as the sum of everything the Bible commands!

Here is what I find most interesting about the dialogue with the young man. In quoting the Ten commandments, Jesus completely ignored the first four commandments which have to do with our obligations toward God and only quoted commandments that have to do with how we relate to other people! And to cap it all off, Jesus concluded with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – but here too he ignored the first of the two commandments that sum up all the law and the prophets: “you shall love the Lord your God”. So Jesus’ answer is completely about the man’s relationship to the neighbor! He leaves God out of the equation.

The man claims he’s okay with all those commandments, but Jesus knows better. So he throws the challenge to him: If you want to be perfect…. The young man goes away disappointed. And Jesus speaks those terrible words about how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. But is it then easier for the poor to enter heaven? Many, including myself, have often drawn that conclusion. It’s also a standard tenet of liberation theology. But perhaps it’s good to remember Dostoyevsky’s parable of the old woman and the onion that I shared in my previous post as a corrective to that simplistic idea.

Really, if you look at the actual commandments Jesus used in his response to the man, you see that money is not really the issue, but how we relate to each other. There is no point in talking about love of God if we don’t first talk about love of the neighbor. As John wrote in his first epistle:  If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother (=neighbor), he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother (=neighbor) whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20). Our sins go beyond money. Our sins are always against the neighbor.

But let’s go back to the so-called Ten Commandments. The Book of Exodus refers to them as “words” rather than commandments; but commandments they are for our purposes. For many years now there have been constant and relentless efforts by right-wing fundamentalist Christians to have the Ten Commandments placed in public buildings, especially courthouses. The discredited extremist Roy Moore was one of the biggest promoters of that campaign. I can still remember writing a letter to the editor of our local newspaper many years ago in opposition to the efforts by Moore and others like him to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings and courthouses. I’m against all such efforts even more strongly today, as we face the relentless war for “religious freedom” being waged by the Christian Right against all other religions and anything that stands in their efforts to impose a theocracy on American society. Religious freedom for them means freedom only for their religion!

My objection to these right-wing efforts rests on those first four “words”/commandments that Moses received on Mount Sinai, and which Jesus did not invoke in his dialogue with the rich young man. Yes, the Lord is my God, but he did not bring me out of Egypt. And neither can any other American – religious or not – relate to the preamble of the Ten Commandments, unless he or she is a recent refugee from Egypt! I should have “no other gods” in my life – so I guess I’m fine with the first commandment. But in a pluralist society such as ours, what right do I have to impose that commandment on anyone else? Especially anyone who might not even know where Egypt is? (And we know how little geography is taught in American schools!)

The second commandment is about images and idolatry. This is a touchy one for us Orthodox who have images in all our churches and in our homes. We of course deny the allegation that we are breaking the Second Commandments, but the allegations are regularly made against us by Protestant fundamentalists and Evangelicals – in other words, by the same crowd that wants to impose the Ten Commandments. I wonder how much “religious freedom” we Orthodox would have in a right-wing theocracy.

And let’s carry the argument further. What is an idol anyway? When these same Christians who oppose icons and images begin their church services with the Pledge of Allegiance, are they not treating the American flag with the same respect and devotion that we Orthodox show to our icons? I’m not against the Pledge or the flag, they are part of American civil life. And if some Christians want to begin their worship services with the pledge to the flag, that is their business and their freedom to do so. But let’s not allow them to impose their narrow understanding of images and idolatry on the rest of us. So the Second Commandments is problematic in a pluralist society such as ours.

What about the Third Commandment? Oh my God, what a farce we have made of that – we “Christians” first of all, as I just did in the way I opened this sentence and the way most of us open countless sentences and exclamations. Or the way we toss out “Jesus Christ” as a swear word. We Christians treat the names of God with no respect or mindfulness; so what right do we have to impose respect for the name of God on others who do not recognize the validity of the Ten Commandments?

And finally there is the Fourth Commandment, the wonderful Fourth Commandment, loaded with such beautiful theology, even more important in our our ecologically disastrous age than it was in Moses’ time. When is the last time any of us honored the sabbath? When is the last time Roy Moore honored the sabbath? Or any of his right-wing fundamentalist cohorts?

But isn’t Sunday now the sabbath for Christians? Yes, the new Moses of Byzantium changed the sabbath to Sunday. Okay, so when is the last time you honored Sunday by not working, by not going to the Mall, by not taking your child, grandchild or niece to hockey practice, or soccer practice? Need I go on?

Do you see how hypocritical we are when we talk about the Ten Commandments? And how obscene are the efforts by a large segment of right-wing Christians to impose the Ten Commandments on our society? These same right-wing Christians constantly raise alarms about Moslems, that they are intent on imposing Sharia law on us. But they don’t see their own efforts at theocracy as the more immediate and more plausible evil.

The Ten Commandments themselves have become an idol in the hands of many Christians, so it is refreshing to consider how creatively Jesus used the Ten Commandments in his dialogue with the rich young man. Perhaps I can be excused for concluding with a couple of cartoons as a small act of deflating the idolatry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A different version of the above, without the extended reflections on the Ten Commandments, was given as a sermon on August 19th.

 


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Did Jesus Really Say…?

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church presented some serious conundrums – serious at least to me, but perhaps not to anyone else. Here is the Gospel passage as it was read at Liturgy:

The Lord said this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the torturers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

Did Jesus really say what Matthew wrote at the end of this passage? Did Jesus really speak that very heavy, very final threat? And is that threat consistent with the message of the parable? And is the message of the parable clear the way it was read at the Liturgy in Orthodox churches? These are my conundrums – at least for starters.

The first problem that arises from the way it was read at the Liturgy is that the context is missing! And that’s a recurring problem in the Gospel readings of our Lectionary. According to the 18th chapter of Matthew, Jesus did not utter this parable out of the blue. It was prompted by a question from his disciple Peter:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22)

Note that I didn’t close the quotation, because Jesus did not stop at that point, and Matthew did not write The Lord said this parable, as our Gospel reading began yesterday. As a matter of fact, this is what Matthew wrote:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants….”

Do you see how the parable came about? It was directly prompted by Peter’s question. Jesus immediately answered Peter’s question and immediately went on to further illustrate an answer to Peter with the parable: Therefore… Διὰ τοῦτο ὡμοιώθη….= For this reason/in this manner the kingdom of heaven may be compared….

To separate the parable from its context in Peter’s question is to do huge damage – and is a further step in making it a parable of insurmountable threat. But the first step in making it a parable of threat was taken by Matthew himself in the way he drafted this passage. The church merely took it further by removing the context and making it an absolute threat!

The only way I can make sense of this parable as written by Matthew, with its context (and not as it was read without the context!), is to assume that the threat was added by Matthew and was not spoken by Jesus. In other words, I’m saying that Matthew put the threat in Jesus’ mouth. Only a fundamentalist would be shocked by such a statement. Scholars have demonstrated beyond any doubt that the writers of the Gospels injected their own understanding in how they represented the words and actions of Jesus. That is why the four Gospels often differ and even contradict each other in many specifics. That is why John stands almost completely alone in how he represents Jesus – and is the reason why the Orthodox Church gave him, alone among the New Testament writers, the epithet “Theologian”. And even though the other three Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – share more similarities than differences – which is the reason they are called Synoptic Gospels – nevertheless, each of them chose to emphasise different aspects of the multi-dimensional impression that Jesus made to first-century Judeans and continues to make to 21st-century global citizens.

Close-up of writing in the Codex Sinaiticus (click on the image to enlarge)

Am I being anti-fundamentalist, liberal, politically correct in attributing the threat to Matthew rather than Jesus? It might not even have been Matthew; it could have been an early redactor somewhere in the Mediterranean when the Gospel began to be copied and distributed among the early churches. After all, the earliest manuscript that contains the full text of Matthew is the so-called Codex Sinaiticus, which is kept secure in the British Library in London. This manuscript dates from the fourth century, about 300 years after Matthew wrote his Gospel. A lot can happen to a written text in 300 years, as the various papyrus fragments and manuscripts clearly show. (The page of Codex Sinaiticus that contains the parable can be viewed by clicking here.)

The Codex Sinaiticus on protected display at the British Library in London, England

Jesus often spoke about forgiveness – both God’s forgiveness of our sins and our need to forgive each other. But it seems that only Matthew included a statement of threat: here, in verse 35 of chapter 18; and in verse 15 of chapter 6…“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) The fact that only Matthew includes such threats is one reason to believe that he put the words of the threat in Jesus’ mouth in our Gospel reading.

Furthermore, the threat is inconsistent with the message and context of the parable. Peter’s question came from a mindset of placing limits to forgiveness. “How often should I forgive, seven times?” Jesus’ answer – seventy times seven – was not meant to place a higher limit, 490 times, to forgiveness, but to eliminate the thought of limits altogether! He was telling Peter to not count the times he would forgive.

Therefore… Διὰ τοῦτο, Jesus goes on to give a parable, an illustration of what God is like and what man is like. The lord in the parable is an image of God. His forgiveness is limitless. The servant receives limitless forgiveness, but cannot reciprocate even minimal forgiveness on his fellow servant. Here lies the answer to Peter’s question. With this parable Jesus is telling Peter that the minute he starts counting how often he should forgive his brother, he comes close to resembling the servant who cannot forgive. The parable is addressed to Peter!

The parable is addressed to Peter and in response to Peter’s question. But it is also addressed to every one of us, because we all have a hard time forgiving. We find it difficult to forgive once – never mind seven times or seventy times seven! But because the parable is addressed to every one of us, removing the context of Peter’s question removes also from the discourse our own human preference for limits. And then when Matthew throws in the threat at the end we end up with a parable that is overbearingly threatening.

And here is the crux of the matter and why it is so wrong to ignore the context. Peter’s question is meant to put limits to forgiveness. The parable shows the contrast between God’s limitless forgiveness and man’s/Peter’s limited forgiveness or even complete inability to forgive. If the lord in the parable is meant to illustrate God’s limitless forgiveness, how is it logical for this lord to consign the wicked servant to total and final punishment? Why doesn’t he at least decide to forgive the wicked servant the rhetorical “seventy times seven” that Jesus spoke to Peter? How is God’s limitless forgiveness consistent with the treatment of the wicked servant and with the threat that concludes the parable?

Perhaps Jesus concluded the parable with some statement contrasting the limitless forgiveness of God and the limited forgiveness that human beings can barely manage. And perhaps Jesus rounded out his answer to Peter by encouraging Peter to act like the lord in the parable instead of the wicked servant. Because the minute you start counting, Peter, you run the risk of not forgiving at all. Perhaps Jesus concluded the parable with something like that – and something got lost in translation from Aramaic to Greek when Matthew put his Gospel together. Or, perhaps Jesus concluded the parable without any moral message to Peter. Perhaps he threw out the parable like a Zen koan; just to show two extremes and let Peter draw his own conclusion – and for us to do likewise. 

In Dostoyevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, there is another parable about forgiveness, with a similar message about limits. This is the story of the old woman and the onion.

“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”

The message of Dostoyevsky’s parable is different from Jesus’ parable, but the contrast is the same, between God’s limitless forgiveness and mercy and man’s selfish, limited ability to be merciful. That one onion represented the only good deed the woman had ever done in her life, and it could have been the means of saving not only her, but countless, maybe a million, others. God was allowing it. But the woman’s selfishness overcame even God’s limitless mercy. The only obstacle to God’s limitless forgiveness and mercy is man’s selfish small mindedness. The woman was so absorbed in her selfishness, she could not trust in God who held out the onion to her!

Perhaps, in the final analysis, forgiveness is about trusting God. 


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The φρόνημα of the Cross

 

One of seventeen crosses representing the seventeen who were shot and killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla., are arranged in the Pine Trails Park during a candlelight vigil, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The cross is the stumbling block for most people who turn away from Christianity or refuse to accept its vision of God. How could God be so cruel as to demand such a thing? How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death? Of course to even ask a question such as, How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death, does put our own questions in perspective: How could God allow the shooting at the Parkland high school, or at Sandy Hook? How can God allow thousands of refugees to drown every year in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to flee war and starvation?

Well, before we get to the God question, let’s answer these questions with one single word: Evil. Evil men shot to death those students at Parkland and Sandy Hook. Evil governments and human traffickers are responsible for those refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. And of course it was evil men who put Jesus to death on the cross.

But where is God in all this? To invoke free will, as we Orthodox usually do, is a cop-out. We Orthodox like to get to resurrection, to Easter, so we try to get through talk of cross as quickly as possible. We even boast that we are the resurrection church – while the western churches talk too much about the cross and the blood of Jesus. The blood of the western churches does get to be rather much; but too much resurrection and theosis talk in the Orthodox Church also falls short of any answers we can offer to the God question.

Attendees pass a wooden cross as they arrive at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

We can’t rush to the resurrection. We have to go through the cross first. Jesus tells us today that if we want to follow him we must pick up our cross and follow him. What is this cross? Is it some catastrophe that falls to us in our home? Is it a deadly illness we have to go through? Some struggle that overwhelms us? “This is my cross… This is your cross…” we casually speak about our problems and each other. Maybe something might be “my cross” or “your cross,” but not necessarily the cross Jesus has in mind.

 

Paul said it very clearly in a great passage in his letter to the Philippians:

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (Philippians 2:5)

φρονέω – an amazing, multifaceted verb in the ancient Greek, together with several derivatives, like φρόνησις, φρόνημα, φρόνιμος, etc. – all ultimately deriving from φρήν, usually in the plural φρένες “diaphragm.” Originally this was regarded as the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity. The diaphragm determined the nature and strength of the breath and hence also the human spirit and its emotions. In Homer φρένες means “inner part,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “understanding” etc. and like the other terms for inner organs it is the agent of spiritual and intellectual experiences. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 9, page 220)

But in ancient Greek these words all had to do with attitude, mindset, attitude to life

Romans 8:6 – “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The word translated as “to set the mind on…” is φρόνημα, phronema. For Paul and for the ancient Greeks, φρόνημα was not simply about thinking – just thinking never killed anyone, or almost never. To set the mind on something, meant for Paul and the ancient Greeks the action that goes with the mind’s thinking – more broadly, the life that goes with the mind’s thinking. And later in this chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says something even bolder. Verse 27: And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. τὸ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος is the key phrase.

That simple word, φρόνημα, phronema, is used by Paul in his letters in such a way as to unite our approach to thought and life with God’s own Spirit. So when Paul says in Philippians, Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, he is basically saying be united with the Spirit of God so that you can live as Christ lived. “Have the same mind” (or, attitude) is the usual translation, and it falls very short.

The cross is not some particular problem or sickness we have to bear; or something God sends to test us – another very popular idea – and in my opinion thoroughly pagan. The cross is not a problem or an instrument of death. The cross is a way of life. That’s what Paul is saying when he wrote to the Philippians to have the same mind, the same mindset, the same approach to life, that was also in Christ Jesus.

This is what the two disciples walking to Emmaus could not wrap their heads around. They didn’t have the φρόνημα of the Holy Spirit in them until Jesus opened their minds on the road and then their hearts when he broke bread with them at the dinner table. And there, their minds and their hearts were united and they understood; they saw Jesus. They understood what was at the very heart of the universe. Stephen Hawking and his fellow physicists will hopefully some day discover a theory of everything. But for us and for all eternity, from the very beginning of time, the Cross is at the heart of the universe. It reveals God without the need for religion.

Jesus did not take the shortcut – Hey, guys, it’s me, I’m risen, forget about the cross and everything else that happened in Jerusalem these past few days. No, he had to take them through the whole history of God’s ways; he had to educate them in the φρόνημα of the Spirit before they could understand the resurrection, before they could see him as the resurrected one.

So, to return to the God question, we cannot even begin to ask the question unless we have the φρόνημα of the Spirit. But we can answer some questions. Where was God at Parkland or Sandy Hook or the Mediterranean crossings? How could he allow such horrible deaths and killings? Where was God at Auschwitz? He died in the gas chambers, some Jewish writers have asserted. Where is Jesus when those refugees are drowning? He is drowning with them. Where was he when those students were gunned down? He was killed with them. That is the φρόνημα of the Spirit – to see life through the lens of the cross; which is the lens of reality, rather than some make-believe fantasy. We are to see life – all life – as completely wrapped up ἐν Χριστῷ, “in Christ”. He tells us in today’s Gospel reading to pick up our cross and follow him; but in fact it is he who is still bearing the cross.

The cross IS the core truth of Christianity. Other religions have resurrection. The Moslems believe in a resurrection and a judgment. But they don’t have the cross. And I don’t mean as an ornament, a symbol, a slogan.

The cross is a way of life – the way of life that unites us with Christ. How that life unfolds will be unique for every one of us. Carry your cross and follow Christ – means accept the calling, accept the φρόνημα of the Spirit.

 


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The Truth About Repentance

 

I read an incredible story in the Washington Post.  A man is trying to get his son’s death sentence commuted to life. What was the son’s crime? He conspired with two other men to kill his parents and his brother! The mother and brother were killed and the father barely survived. The father forgave his son from the beginning, and is now begging the governor of Texas to commute his son’s death sentence. In many ways it reminds me of the Gospel parable of the prodigal son.

It’s a story of sin, self-awareness, love and repentance.  Who is more prodigal, the son in his sinfulness or the father in his forbearance and love? I’ve asked that question in other sermons in the past, and my answers is of course the father, he’s the real prodigal in this story, and he reflects the prodigal, excessive love of God the Father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. One could even call Jesus the prodigal son of his Father. Prodigal in love, humility and self-sacrifice.

We read this parable every year as part of the church’s preparation for Lent. But the monks, who over a thousand years ago decided what Gospel readings we would read at the Liturgy, got it wrong. This is a story of repentance, but not the kind of repentance monks preach.

I turn to Romans 2:1-4 for a particularly enlightening passage:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Focus on that last statement: Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? This question strikes me as the key we have ignored. We are taught by church tradition that repentance is about us grovelling to God and begging for forgiveness, which God then gives to us because he is kind and loving. Paul says it’s the other way around: It’s God’s kindness and goodness that leads us to repent! A very crucial difference, in my opinion.

Paul didn’t use the word μετάνοια very often in his letters, probably because he was very aware how people are prone to take it legalistically, which is precisely the way it has been taken for most of church history. Paul uses the word here in Romans and in only two other places:

2 Cor 7:9-10 Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. Crucial contrast: ἡ γὰρ κατὰ θεὸν λύπη…ἡ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου λύπη.

2 Tim 2:25 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance so they may come to knowledge of the truth.

So Paul basically says that two things lead to repentance: God’s kindness and the grief that comes from God κατὰ θεὸν. The only repentance that has any chance of producing genuine faith is the repentance that arises from God’s kindness and the grief that God plants in our souls. It is not repentance that we manufacture in ourselves in order to bargain with God.

What kind of repentance did the prodigal son experience in the parable? He was hungry, he missed being in his father’s home where he could eat anything and as much as he wanted. “But when he came to himself,” Luke tells us, he decided to return home. He came to himself, εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν. That’s not repentance; that’s just awareness of how hungry he was and how well fed he was at his father’s home!

He goes home, speaking his well rehearsed speech – as a form of bargaining – to his father, who doesn’t even listen to it. The father is not interested in grovelling and long speeches. He has been waiting in love and ready to pour all his kindness on his son. He doesn’t even say I forgive you. He is all kindness and love. And it is here, I believe, that repentance happened in the son, although the parable says nothing more about him. I bet he also experienced that godly grief that Paul wrote about. It’s left to us to picture the scene and what transformation happened in the soul of that young son. The older son objects to the easy way the father took his son back, and the father teaches him also the ways of God.

This is repentance, dear friends: To receive the love and kindness of God. Let the kindness of God lead you to repentance. If Lent this year does nothing else than reveal the kindness of God it will be a transformational. time. Let it begin here at the Liturgy, where God waits to embrace us and clothe us with love and mercy and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

AFTERWORD: A friend told me about a Fresh Air story he heard this morning on NPR. It concerns a white supremacist who changed his ways because of the kindness that was shown him by people that he targeted with his racism. It is a perfect example of kindness leading to repentance! Here are his own words:

What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.

The community, even though it’s Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.

In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.


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The church knows only one totality

In a previous post I outlined some thoughts Karl Barth offered at a gathering in 1962 and which constitute one chapter of the book, Barth in Conversation. He was asked to say something about the church in a totalitarian state, such as existed in 1962 in East Germany and other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Barth had experienced totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s and had opposed it in his sermons, writings and church activism. So it was perfectly reasonable for that 1962 gathering of Protestant book dealers in Switzerland to ask him such a question. In my previous post I shared his thoughts on totalitarianism in general and I drew a connection between his thoughts and what Paul called the powers and principalities that rule our lives. I offered the example of social media and the internet as contemporary manifestations of the powers and principalities. But let’s return to Karl Barth and see how or if he answers the question about the church in a totalitarian society.

Barth was asked about “possibilities” for the church in a totalitarian state. Barth turns to the question by first rejecting the term possibilities in the plural.

For the church in a totalitarian world and in a totalitarian state, there is only one possibility – one alone, but it is a genuine possibility. And I would now like to describe it simply with the word in the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “And looking around at those who sat about him” (Mark 3:34). The Latin text of the New Testament puts it in a remarkable way: circumspiciens ad eos, qui erant in circuitu. I believe that this word circuitus is actually the proper word for “church”. The church is those who are around Jesus and whom he looks at around him. And that the church be this circuitus, and so simply be church in the totalitarian world – that is its “possibility.” (Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, page 242)

Barth quoted the verse in Latin probably because it was more accessible to his listening audience. But the Greek original is just as powerful: καὶ περιβλεψάμενος τοὺς περὶ αὐτὸν κύκλῳ καθημένους. The church is only church when it is κύκλῳ. κύκλῳ (around) whom? Christ Jesus! When the church is κύκλῳ, the “circle” around Christ, Barth likens it to a wall – but “a completely different one from Mr. Ulbright’s”, and here Barth makes reference to a man associated with the building of the wall in Berlin; or, in 2018, Barth might say, a wall “completely different from Mr. Trump’s!”

The church knows that all the totalities of the world and society and also of the state are actually false gods and therefore lies… Whenever the church takes these lies seriously, then it is lost. With all calmness and in all peace, it must treat them as lies. And the more that the church lives in humility and knows that “we too are only human, and there are also many lies in us,” then it will know all the more surely that “God sits in governance” over and against the lies that are in us and over and against the lies in the world and in the state and wherever else they may be. And in that case the church, regardless of the circumstances and no matter how entangled and difficult the situation, remains at its task and knows itself to be forbidden to fear for its future. Its future is the Lord. He, not the totalitarian state, is coming to the church.

But, of course, the church must believe that. The church must be in its place. The church must get serious about what it proclaims… (Ibid., page 243)

I don’t need to quote any more of Barth’s comments. It’s plain to see his approach in dealing with matters of political and spiritual urgency. He always comes back to the original vision of the Scriptures. He does not rely on any historical experiences of the church because he knows that the church easily fell and falls into lies. He saw the German church capitulate to the lies of Hitler in the 1930s. He and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the most prominent spokesmen against the lies of Nazi racist ideology. But almost all German church leaders preferred to listen to the lies of Hitler than the warnings issued by Barth and Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer and other courageous Christian opponents of Hitler paid with their lives and became martyrs for the faith in the murderous hands of the Reich.

The execution grounds at Flossenbürg concentration camp, where Bonhoeffer and others were executed on the morning of 9 April 1945

Memorial to those executed on 9 April 1945 (click to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barth refused to give allegiance to the powers and principalities, whatever form they took. Standing firmly on the Scriptures, he was able to see through the lies and deceptions. That is the church’s greatest task in every generation. We are not here to adapt the Christian message to any social movement or moment. As another recent Christian activist put it, Jesus Christ did not bring about the kingdom of God by “christianizing the social order” (John Howard Yoder, as quoted in The Wisdom of the Cross, edited by Stanley Hauerwas et al, page 199). The patristic era of the church is often invoked as a time when the Roman Empire was indeed “christianized”: pagan practices, rituals and temples were replaced by Christian analogues. Barth would have none of that. The temptation is too great, and the church never mustered the spiritual strength to withstand the allure of prominence and success in the eyes of the world.

So yes, there is nothing outdated in Barth’s opposition to Hitler in the 1930s or the comments he made in 1962 in the face of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. The church must always be κύκλῳ, around Christ. He is the only totality the church should recognize. And I love that word, totality, that Barth uses. We always have and always will live in times of totalities: entities that command our full attention and allegiance, that drain our attention spans, that make it impossible for us to be challenged by the Scriptures in their full force.

Barth was born (1886) into a world where the integrity of the Scriptures was questioned. How could the Bible still be called the Word of God when scholars had proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the Old and New Testaments were written by fallible human beings over the course of many centuries? Barth’s confidence was not shaken by these developments. But neither was he a fundamentalist. He saw that the writers of the Bible were completely, passionately absorbed and transformed in the message they were communicating, and by their writings they transmitted this message to anyone who is prepared to be similarly affected.

The Scriptures are a message from God. True, spoken and transmitted indirectly through human words and understanding. But that does not take anything away from their power to transform human lives and to guide us through difficult times. Indeed, acknowledging the human element only strengthens the Scriptures: in addition to being God’s message to us, the Scriptures are also a response to God’s message. And we also must stand in our own time and respond to God’s clear message. Jesus Christ is the only totality I as a Christian should accept in my life. When I don’t, I capitulate at least part of my affections to the powers and principalities that lurk at every corner. I will never be a Karl Barth. But I know from experience that I am strongest in my resistance to the fallen powers and totalities when I place myself under the government of Scripture.


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Unfinished Business with the Devil

 

What did Jesus do after his baptism? Why was he baptized to begin with? Perhaps we will find the answer by looking at what happened after his baptism. Today’s Gospel reading coming on the Sunday after Epiphany might give you the impression that right after his baptism he began preaching, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But between the baptism and today’s passage in the Gospel, something very significant happened in the life of Jesus.

You’ll remember that at his baptism the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus. Mark then tells us, “And right away the spirit drives him out into the desert – και ευθύς το πνεύμα αυτόν εκβάλλει εις την έρημον.” The implication of the verb εκβάλλει is that the spirit drove him out into the desert in a forceful manner. Jesus was thrust, almost thrown into the desert. Why? Matthew tells us in order to be tested/tempted πειρασθήναι by the devil, the διάβολος. Luke’s version puts it in a softer, more spiritual manner: “Jesus departed from the Jordan full of Holy Spirit, πλήρης πνεύματος αγίου, and was guided by the spirit (but the Greek says, ήγετο έν τω πνεύματι!) into the desert, where he was put to the test by the devil for forty days.”

Note the more aggressive action of the spirit in Mark’s version – ευθύς…εκβάλλει! What happened in the desert is the key to understanding his baptism. There he was tested by the devil three times. I’ll follow Matthew’s sequence of the three temptations instead of Luke’s.

First temptation: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” An echo of the time in the desert when God fed his people with manna from heaven. Jesus goes right back to that time and quotes Moses’ words in Deuteronomy: It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It is interesting that Moses himself said that in the same sentence as he reminded his fellow Jews of the manna! As if he was saying to them, don’t get too excited about the miraculous manna; get excited about the words God speaks to you and the reasons why God sends the manna and does other miracles in your lives.

Second temptation: The devil takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem and tells him to throw himself down to see if angels will come to rescue him. Jesus answers again from Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus allows himself to be tested/tempted, but he will not test God!

Third temptation: The devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world and all their glory and promises to give all these to him if Jesus would bow down and worship the devil. This is the last straw, and now Jesus calls him by his more proper name: Away from me, Satan. For it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only – and again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, the same chapter 6 he used to fight the second temptation. It is in that same 6th chapter of Deuteronomy that we hear those wonderful words: “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This is the Shema Yisrael – the most important affirmation that Jews speak morning and night as the summary of their faith.

Jesus’s baptism was necessary as his own immersion into the history of his people. The God of the Bible is not an aloof God; he is in the midst of his people. As he was in the desert with Moses after the exodus, he is here in the person of Jesus. But the baptism was not only an immersion in the history of his people, it was also the conclusion of that history. Something new, something great was about to happen. “Behold, I do something new,” God spoke through the prophet Isaiah. God was always doing something new, something surprising. And the greatest surprise was about to unfold.

But first some unfinished business. The devil had to be dealt with. He was and is the constant opponent of God’s new order. And he does this with the tricks of the marketplace: good food, security, idolatry… Anyone who promises a comfortable and secure life we will gladly vote for and gladly worship. Money, security, and all the goods the marketplace has to offer – that’s all we need to turn away from God. Ancient Israel had barely escaped slavery in Egypt that they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt: at least that was better than facing an uncertain future with Moses!

Can you love God more than you love the trinkets and comforts of a secure life? And how secure really is our life, really? A wrong button in Hawaii yesterday could have started a nuclear war! “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength – that is the challenge. Don’t accept the deceptive promises that the gods we have created make.

Matthew and Mark tell us that after the devil left, angels came to look after Jesus. Luke says something more ominous, no angels in Luke’s version: And when the devil had finished all his tempting, he left him, for the time being – άχρι καιρού – until another time. Ominous. The devil is the same tempter at all times. He does not change. God changes – the devil does not! He tested Israel in the desert; he tested Jesus in the desert; he tests every one of us in the desert of our own failures. Jesus was baptized in order to immerse himself completely in the story of his people. He re-lived all the temptations of his people by confronting the devil. Then and only then does he go out and start preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent, change your mind about God and life. Don’t worship the false gods and the enticing promises they make. Worship the Lord your God, and let the Holy Spirit take you into the marvelous new life of Jesus. He was baptized for you; he lived for you; and he died for you. But he then rose from the dead so you and I might also rise from the dead. Awake, O sleeper, face the new dawn!