Monday, March 31, 2008

Matthew 5:21-26: Hate and Reconciliation

In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus says the following:

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

I read my usual E-Sword commentaries, and one thing I've noticed is that they don't really tie the part about reconciliation with the part about hate. But I think that the two are connected, in at least two possible ways. Jesus could be saying that, if we offended someone by calling him a fool, we should try to reconcile with that person so that he won't take us to court. Or he may mean that we should go out of our way not to do something that would make somebody hate us. After all, we don't want to encourage that person to commit spiritual murder!

I have practical problems with the passage, or, more accurately, how it's been used. Garner Ted Armstrong, who led the church of my childhood, affirmed that we should reconcile with our neighbors before we engage in an act of worship. At the charismatic Vineyard church, the person leading communion tells people not to partake of it if they've not reconciled with their neighbors. If a Christian feels that he may have even remotely hurt somebody else's feelings, he tries to appease that person (at least if he's in his Christian clique).

I have two problems with these approaches. First of all, I need God in order to reconcile with my neighbor. Approaching a person and apologizing is awkward, daunting, and intimidating for me, since I am a very shy person. I need God in order to feel good about my neighbor, and to possess the strength to approach him or her. And worship is a way to get that strength, as is reminding myself of Christ's sacrifice through communion. The approach of Garner Ted and Vineyard church seems to be that we should be perfect before we approach God, and I just don't buy that. I think that our imperfection is one reason that we come to God.

I understand why Jesus says what he does, though. He's speaking in the prophetic tradition, which criticizes those who worship God yet go out and hurt their neighbors. They don't bring their faith into their day-to-day lives. To his credit, God doesn't only want us to focus on him. He cares about our neighbors as well, so he wants us to love them.

My second problem is that I cannot please everybody. What does reconciliation mean? That everyone has to like me? That's not possible. I'm not going to make myself a slave to other people's desires and expectations. I can't give everyone what he or she wants. That's just the way life is: We don't get our own way all of the time, so offense is inevitable.

But something that gives me comfort is this: Matthew 5:21-26 may refer to legal charges, the sorts of things that can get us into court. Jesus refers to a debt, since he says that we should reconcile with our accuser to avoid debtor's prison. We're not talking here about someone not liking me because my stuttering gets on his nerves, or because I make a social faux pax. This passage presents clear, identifiable offenses that can bring about a legal punishment.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we should go out of our way to offend others. Hebrews 12:14 tells us to "[p]ursue peace with everyone," so we should try not to be jerks, and we should also be polite. I just don't believe that we have to like everyone and everyone has to like us before we can enjoy God.

But I question even my own interpretation, which is based somewhat on the E-Sword commentaries. According to John Gill and others, Matthew 5:21-26 refers to rabbinic laws and institutions, such as the Sanhedrin and the three-man court. But a lot of scholars in rabbinics (particularly Jacob Neusner) have problems with projecting rabbinic customs onto New Testament times, since they may have emerged after 70 C.E.

But, aside from that, Jesus' point in the Sermon on the Mount is to offer people new commands that differ from what they've heard before. That's why he says "You have heard that it's been said...but I say to you." Jesus is showing his authority (Matthew 7:29). But, if Jesus is teaching what the rabbis were already doing anyway (namely, punishing insults), then his contrast between what the Jews heard and what he says to them makes no sense.

But maybe Jesus is helping his audience to make connections that they did not make before. "You all know that murder is wrong," Jesus says. "But hate is the same as murder. And it will not only get you in trouble with God. It can get you in trouble with human laws. So make sure you make amends for the wrong things you've done. It will keep you out of a lot of trouble!"

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Matthew 5:13: Salt

Matthew 5:13 says, "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot" (NRSV).

Christians are the salt of the earth. In the same way that salt gives food a decent flavor, the presence of Christians is supposed to make the world a better place, or at least a less bad place than it would be without them. But Christians need to have flavor to give flavor. And they have flavor when they follow Jesus' commands to love God and neighbor.

My interaction with this passage is rather negative, but I don't want to dwell too much on that in this post. Christians have often beaten me over the head with this passage, using it to say that I should be a happy happy extrovert. According to their spiel, when I enter a place, I should have a positive effect on it, as I draw people to Christ with my (fake) winsome personality. But if you're an introvert who fades easily into the background and is not even remembered a lot of the time, then this command can be a huge burden, especially when you feel that you're disobeying God.

But I'll come back to that shortly, only I'll be a little more positive, I promise. Right now, I want to turn to Mark 9:50: "Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."

Have salt in yourselves. Like I said, you need to have flavor to give flavor.

But how do I get flavor? Colossians 4:6 is insightful: "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone." There is speech that is seasoned with salt. It contains grace, love, truth, and wisdom, the kind that Jesus Christ brought (John 1:17). We communicate savory speech by first absorbing savory speech.

And how do we absorb savory speech? We eat God's word, and that has a positive effect on us. Seventh-Day Adventist founder Ellen White said that by beholding we become changed. As we continue to reflect upon the beauty of God and his Son, Jesus Christ, we come to look more and more like them in our attitudes and behavior. And Ellen White was not getting this idea from her own mind, for II Corinthians 3:18 says, "And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit."

Lest someone accuse me of importing Paul into Matthew, let me say that the Sermon on the Mount contains a similar idea. Jesus states in Matthew 6:22-23: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!"

The object of our gaze influences the kind of people that we become. If we focus on money, sex, status, prestige, people who hurt us, etc.--"the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches" (I John 2:16)--then we will become corrupt. That's why Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away" (Matthew 5:29). And a desire for money does not only mean wanting a big mansion with a swimming pool and a butler, for Jesus also criticizes a preoccupation with life's necessities (Matthew 6:25-31). Sure, we should have a plan for our provision, since the Bible emphasizes the work ethic, especially in Proverbs. But our focus should be on our loving God, who values us more than the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, both of which benefit from God's goodness (vv 26-30). As Jesus says, "[S]trive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).

How do I follow this? I do a daily and a weekly quiet time. I go to church. I attend AA meetings. Do these things magically transform me into a loving person? No, but I'm better than I'd be without them. Plus, I never know when I might hear or read something that gives me strength, hope, and inspiration.

But it is possible for the word of God to have no impact on a person. Both Paul and James criticize those who hear God's word without doing it (Romans 2:13; James 1:22-25). The word of God somehow has to bear fruit in one's life.

And where am I on this? Well, as I said, I'm a better person having read the word of God than I'd probably be otherwise. If I didn't interact with positive things, then my mind would be mostly negative, filled with bitterness, hatred, lust, jealousy, and other bad feelings. At least my daily quiet times give me some opportunity to think about something positive, for a change.

The effect on me may be small, and yet significant. I remember reading Henry Blackaby's book, Experiencing God, and he said that good fruit can include any thought or action that glorifies God. Extroversion and community service are not the only examples of good fruit. Good fruit can encompass any inclination or desire I have for good.

And that can actually lead to good works. Often, I do not reach out to others because I do not know how to do so. But as I learn social skills from my therapist and books, I receive a road map on how to love. The Bible tells me the importance of love, but social skills help me to put that love into practice. If I ever become socially adept, I can use those skills for evil--to manipulate others, seduce women, or become someone who is nice to people's faces while shredding them behind their backs. But I do not want to do that, for I have absorbed other values through my reading of God's word.

God's values influence me in choices that I may encounter. If a homeless person wants something to eat, God's values tell me that I should give him food. And, interestingly, I have had opportunities to encourage homeless people in God's word. That's a blessing, since I get to pass on what I've absorbed. And, to be honest, the encouragement has not been one-sided, for homeless people have encouraged me with their faith in God. I once asked one of them if God provides for him on a day to day basis, and he responded with an unequivocal "yes." I don't have to possess all the answers to encourage people with God, since I can often find God's wisdom in them.

Now that I've ditched my chance for a divine reward (since Jesus says I should do my good deeds in secret), let me stress that I still have a long way to go. I want inner peace. I want to forgive. Often, I feel that I have not grown much over the ten or more years of my relationship with God. One way that I am blessed is through this blog, for that gives me an opportunity to bless others with the things that bless me. Indeed, my posts contain a lot of negativity, since this blog is a form of free therapy for me. Overall, it is about my growing and healing. And I hope that my journey can touch others, even if I've not reached many of my destinations.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Is TV Getting More Liberal?

I suppose that television has always been rather liberal. Dallas, for example, presented rich capitalists as a conniving bunch of people. On Thursday night, however, I felt that the liberalism got more blatant.

I watch Eli Stone on Thursday nights. It is about a lawyer with a brain aneurysm who sees visions, which guide him on what to do. He believes that those visions are from God because they equip him to help people. Over the course of the show, he has changed from a self-centered jerk to someone who actually cares for others.

But last Thursday night, I had a difficult time cheering him on. On that particular episode, a teenage girl is suspended from school because she disrupted an abstinence education program. Basically, she played some sexually explicit lyrics over the loudspeaker. She decided to contest her suspension in court, and the foreign singer who wrote those lyrics graciously testified on her behalf. She was restored to school, and she asked for better sex education, the "pass out condoms" kind. The principal said that the school only received money for abstinence education, and so the singer held a concert to raise funds for the pro-condom brand of sex ed. Eli Stone was smiling at the concert, and I suppose that we were all supposed to applaud his heroism.

The liberalism was so blatant. On the stand, the singer excoriated Ronald Reagan for not speaking out against AIDS until it was too late. He also expressed admiration for the American principle of separation of church and state, and fear that it was being undermined. Hmm, I wonder if he was criticizing a certain President when he made that point, one who actually takes his faith seriously. Just a hunch I have.

First of all, most of the federal AIDS programs that exist today go back to the Reagan Administration. But even if Reagan didn't do as much as he should have, was AIDS his fault? It spread as rapidly as it did because of promiscuous people, many of them homosexual and bisexual. Over time, it entered the heterosexual community.

Second, what is wrong with America respecting Jewish and Christian principles like abstinence? I'd say that we could use more of that value, not less. If more people saw sex as a gift from God for a husband and his wife, then AIDS and other STD's would not be so rampant. Sex has become cheapened over the years. In one of the sub-plots on that episode of Eli Stone, one of the female lawyers sleeps with a male lawyer because he tells her his father died. When she finds out that his father is still alive, she gets upset. Well, perhaps she should have gotten more acquainted with him before she entered his bed.

At the same time, I think that Eli Stone is longing for better values, on some level. The female lawyer tells the male lawyer, for example, that he has been afraid of truly caring for a woman because he fears that she might leave him. When they are in bed, the male lawyer is disappointed when the female lawyer tries to get up before he does to avoid a deeper commitment. The singer on the witness stand said that he did not view his song as smut because he wrote it when he was in love. In the entertainment industry, there is a hunger for love, caring, and commitment, but a reluctance to embrace the Christian ideas that safeguard those values. Such ideas include the concept that sex is to be reserved for marriage, and that a man and his wife are to love each other until death do them part.

So why do I say that television has become more liberal? When I grew up, I watched L.A. Law. At some point in the course of its run, it brought on board a new character: a lawyer with conservative Christian convictions. She held off the advances of one of the male lawyers, as she upheld the value of chastity before marriage. She also bravely defended the right of a schoolteacher to tell his students about creationism. And the show did not present her as a nut job.

But that was before the Republicans took over Congress and, eventually, the Presidency. In those days, we were an interesting bunch with out-of-the-mainstream ideas (well, not really, but the entertainment industry saw us as such). When conservatives got power and started enacting their ideas into public policy, however, the other side viewed them as more of a threat. And that is why I think that Eli Stone attacked them so.

I liked the episode for one reason, though: the person who played the principal was Ethan Philips, who was Neelix on Star Trek: Voyager. I always wondered how he looks without his make-up!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Matthew 5:10-12: Is Jesus Worth It?

Matthew 5:10-12 says the following: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (NRSV).

One can ask various questions about this passage. Are Christians in America truly persecuted, since this is the land of the free? When are we legitimately persecuted for our beliefs, and when do we bring unnecessary persecution on ourselves (e.g., by being obnoxious)?

I'm not really going to touch on those questions today, as good as they may be. My intention when I write about my daily quiet time is not to offer an encyclopedic explanation of a given passage, but rather to discuss what was important to me in my time with God. And it is different at different times, since I am different at different times.

The main question that entered my mind is another query that Christians often raise about this passage: Would I (James Pate) be willing to suffer and die for Christ? Suppose I lived in an Islamic country, where people have to choose between renouncing Jesus Christ and death. Would I renounce the name of Christ to save my own skin? If I lived in Communist China, would I embrace the inconvenience that comes with being a member of a church? Is Jesus worth all of that?

I first became a Christian in my sophomore year of high school. If you would have asked me at that time if I were willing to die for Christ, I would have given you an unequivocal "yes." I discussed this with one Christian classmate of mine, and she told me that, in her youth group, the leader asked its members what they would do if someone burst into the meeting, pointed a gun at them, and told them to renounce Jesus Christ. And this was long before that horrible incident at Columbine.

In my early Christian days, I read books such as Ellen G. White's The Great Controversy and the famous Fox's Book of Martyrs, books that were mainly about the Catholic persecution of the Protestants. I said to myself, "Suppose I were them? Would I die for my faith? I believe that I would. Looks like I'm a real Christian, after all!"

But if you asked me that question today, I'm not sure what I would answer. In order to die for Jesus Christ, I need to love Jesus Christ. And my feelings about him and Christianity are rather mixed. I like the idea that he died for me, since that demonstrates a lot of love on his part. But, in the Gospels, he seems to attach so many conditions onto salvation that I wonder if I can ever be secure. I can't hate? I can't lust? Granted, these are thoughts that are not exactly healthy, but I'm only human. And God will forgive me only if I forgive others? What is forgiveness? Does it mean I have to be friends with my enemies? After all, when God forgave me, he became my friend. Will he keep being my friend only if I feel good about people I don't like?

And it was much harder for Christians in New Testament times, let me tell you. In America, there are lots of Christians, so becoming a Christian usually doesn't lead to being kicked out of one's family or community. In New Testament times, however, faith in Christ divided Jewish families. The Roman authorities persecuted Christians. I once read that Christians in the Roman empire were like Communists in 1950's America, in terms of society's perception of them: they were that stigmatized.

Suppose someone pointed a gun at my head and said, "Renounce Jesus or die." On the one hand, I can see myself saying, "Go ahead. Pull the trigger!" That's not so much because I love Jesus as I should, but more because this life can be pretty hard. Plus, if I die as a martyr, maybe I'll enter the good afterlife and avoid the bad one (h-e-double hockey sticks). But, then again, I Corinthians 13 says that martyrdom doesn't count if a person lacks love, so oh well. Nobody's perfect, even though Jesus tells us to be (Matthew 5:48).

On the other hand, I have such resentment against Christianity that I can envision myself saying to myself, "Christianity is not worth dying over." Add to that my doubts. There are times when I wonder why I should believe that Christianity is true while all other religions are false. I mean, what proof do we actually have? Sure, Christianity has merit because it can help someone become a better person, but so can other belief systems. Is belief in Christ important, or is just being a good person enough? If I cannot even be sure that Christianity is true, then why should I die for it?

My thoughts in my last paragraph scared me when I was doing my daily quiet time, for I felt like I was entering dangerous territory. But they are important because they lead me to a crucial question: Is Christ worth it, and, if so, why?

I have three musings on this:

1. Polycarp was the Christian bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the John the apostle. He became a martyr in the second century C.E. When the Romans asked him to renounce Christ, he replied, "Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9:12).

That reminds me of certain passages from the Hebrew Bible. "You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense" (Isaiah 43:23). "O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!" (Micah 6:3).

For Polycarp, Second Isaiah, and Micah, following God is not a burden, for God is not a slavemaster. I can add some New Testament passages to that effect.

Matthew 11:28-30: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

I John 5:3: "For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome."

Unfortunately, I do view God's commandments as burdensome, for I find loving others to be extremely difficult. If God were to ask me, "How have I wearied you?" I can come up with a list. But, at the same time, these texts do provide me with a certain degree of comfort, for they tell me that things are not supposed to be this way. God is not a slavemaster. His commands are not a burden. So maybe I'm seeing the situation all wrong.

2. I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting this last Wednesday, and it was a good meeting. All sorts of people were in the same room, offering each other their strength, hope, and wisdom. They talked about how AA has helped them get their lives back together, as they learned to love others, have good relationships, be responsible, and depend on God amidst life's difficulties. At the end of the meeting, everyone joined hands for the Lord's prayer. They were blacks, whites, and Asians, well-dressed professionals and people who were probably homeless. Yet they were drawn together by a common spiritual bond.

These people had a deep sense of gratitude to God and to AA. And that may be how Christians are to view Jesus. Jesus is someone who has changed people's lives for the better. As a gentle teacher and Savior, he has taken them from their old, self-centered lives into lives of hope, love, and purpose. In the first century and thereafter, he brought together diverse kinds of people--rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, slave, and free--into a divine family of brothers and sisters. Is Jesus worth persecution and death? When we consider his values, and compare them to the self-centered immorality of most of society, then the answer is "yes." Many early Christians died for their belief that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn't, and they were right to do so. Jesus is a just, loving, and merciful king, while Caesar was a brutal dictator. To testify with one's life that this is true is a worthwhile endeavor.

3. But not every Christian feels this way about Jesus, and so Jesus is not above using warnings to influence our behavior. Matthew 10:28-33 is an example of such:

"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. 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."

Jesus warns Christians that he can cast them into hell. That is incentive enough to die for him if one must choose between Jesus and this temporal life. Of course, Jesus doesn't want us to see God as a big ogre, since he assures us that we are of more value to him than many sparrows. But he does not hesitate to give us warnings.

So is Jesus worthy of persecution and death? Well, there's a possibility that he may be the Son of God, so I don't want to take the chance of crossing him!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Matthew 4:18-22: Why Did They Follow Him?

In Matthew 4:18-22, Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be his disciples. All of them immediately leave behind their family fishing business to follow Jesus.

Why did they follow Jesus? They had good jobs. Why did they exchange them for an unpredictable life of economic insecurity? When a scribe requested to follow Jesus, Jesus told him that "[f]oxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20 NRSV). "There are times when I go homeless, friend," Jesus was saying. "Is that the type of life you really want?" Yet, Peter, Andrew, James, and John not only followed Jesus--they followed him immediately, as in right after he called them. Why?

When I was in college, I had to write an undergraduate thesis for my major, which was religion. A young lady in my seminar wrote about the twelve disciples, and one of her questions was, "Why did they follow Jesus?" I don't entirely remember her answer, but I remembered her question when I was reading Matthew 4-5 for my daily quiet time. I wondered if the Bible contained any answers, and, after much thought, I concluded that it did.

So why did the disciples leave everything behind to follow Jesus? The reason is this: They believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the person who would rule Israel and the rest of the world. Both before and after Jesus' death and resurrection, they thought that he was the one who'd restore Israel (Luke 24:21; Acts 1:6). They desired power and influence. James and John exemplified this attitude when they asked to sit beside Jesus in his kingdom (Matthew 20:21).

So did the disciples believe that following Jesus entailed a crown and not a cross? Their view on this seems to have changed over time. When Jesus said that he was going to Jerusalem to die, Peter rebuked him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." That prompted Jesus to call Peter "Satan," then to give his disciples a lecture about taking up their cross to follow him (Matthew 16:21-26). At first, the disciples didn't really anticipate a cross, for Jesus or for themselves.

Later, when James and John asked for thrones next to Jesus in his kingdom, they affirmed their willingness to drink the cup of persecution that Jesus was about to drink (Matthew 20:22). At the Lord's supper, Peter said he'd die with Jesus (Matthew 26:35). The disciples still expected status and prestige in Jesus' kingdom, but they acknowledged the possibility that their deaths could precede that.

But they didn't think that death was a barrier for Jesus. In John 6, when many of Jesus' disciples abandoned him because of his hard teaching, the twelve stuck with him. Jesus inquired why, and Peter responded, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life" (v 68). For Peter, Jesus as the Messiah had power over life and death. Consequently, they could embrace the possibility of their martyrdom even as they maintained their hope that Jesus would grant them status in his kingdom. Similarly, the death of Jesus himself did not inhibit the faith of the thief on the cross that Jesus was the Messiah. There Jesus was, dying right next to him, yet the thief believed that Jesus would get power once he entered his kingdom (Luke 23:42).

So the disciples followed Jesus because they thought he was the Messiah, and being with the coming king could bring ultimate advantages. But why did they believe that he was the Messiah? The New Testament has some answers on this.

In Luke 5:2-11, there are details about Jesus' calling of Peter, James, and John that are not in Matthew. In that passage, Jesus tells Peter to cast his net into the sea. Peter replies, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets" (v 5). Immediately, they caught so many fish that the boat was about to sink! Peter then realized that he was in the presence of a man of God, and his own personal inadequacies became glaring to him. "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" he exclaimed.

And so the miracle may have confirmed for Peter that Jesus was the Messiah. Yet, there are other things to notice. First of all, Peter appears to have already known Jesus, and, second, he calls him "master." Peter was not an official disciple (or, for Luke, apostle) until Luke 6:13-16, yet he still recognized Jesus as some sort of authority. Why?

John 1:35-51 may contain some answers. Peter possibly knew Jesus through his brother Andrew, who initially followed John the Baptist. According to the Gospel authors, John the Baptist recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, and Andrew respected his mentor's opinion. Andrew's regard for Jesus may have rubbed off on Peter, such that Peter called Jesus "master" even when he wasn't a follower. Or perhaps Peter saw something in Jesus that he admired, only he was not yet ready to leave everything behind. But the miracle gave him the extra boost to follow Jesus as the Messiah.

Also in John 1:35-51, we see other disciples receiving Jesus. The passage is not specific about why Philip followed him, but Nathanael was impressed because Jesus saw him (Nathanael) under the fig tree before Philip called him. That must have been some miracle, even though I'm not exactly sure what it was! One minute, Nathanael was asking if anything good could come out of Nazareth. The next minute, after Jesus tells him about the fig tree, he praises Jesus as the new king of Israel.

So Jesus' miracles played some role in convincing the disciples of his Messianic identity. But the Gospels are clear that there is an additional factor, and Calvinists are going to love this: God personally revealed to the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus prayed, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants" (Matthew 11:25). When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus responded, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:17).

So why did the disciples follow Jesus? A desire for power. Miracles. A respect for John the Baptist. Something about Jesus' personality that seemed worthy of honor. A revelation from God. Most of these were legitimate reasons. Some of them were not. All of them set the disciples on a journey in which God used them profoundly.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Matthew 3:11: Baptism of the Holy Spirit

In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist says, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (NRSV).

What did Jesus do that John the Baptist did not? John's baptism already removed sins, so why was Jesus' work even necessary? John implied that his own ministry was inadequate when he differentiated his work of water baptism from Jesus' baptism with the Holy Spirit. So what is the baptism of the Holy Spirit?

Here are three proposals:

1. My personal favorite goes like this: John baptized people with water, which brought about God's forgiveness of their sins. But something was missing. John could get them wet, but they still walked away as sinners. Their carnal minds remained at enmity against God. They needed the Holy Spirit to change.

I realize that I'm reading Paul into Matthew, which is not the best approach, since I want Matthew to explain himself rather than forcing him into another author's mold. But Paul stresses that the flesh is sinful, and he states that the Holy Spirit is necessary for one to defeat the flesh and bear spiritual fruit, including love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and generosity (Romans 6-8; Galatians 5). Could that be what John means when he contrasts inadequate water baptism with the baptism of the Holy Spirit?

The Hebrew Bible also discusses the Holy Spirit's role in making people internally righteous, and John the Baptist as well as Matthew were most likely familiar with that theme. Ezekiel 36:27 says, "I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances."

And the Dead Sea Scrolls seem to present something similar. Community Rule (1QS) 3:6-12 talks about the Holy Spirit cleansing the initiate of injustice, while the water purifies the flesh. Is the Community Rule implying that water is not enough to cleanse the initiate, who needs the extra "umph" of the Holy Spirit?

As far as Matthew's message is concerned, Matthew 1:21 says that Jesus will save his people from their sins. Perhaps Matthew thinks that Jesus will do so through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which makes sinners internally righteous.

2. In the Hebrew prophets, the Holy Spirit is a significant aspect of Israel's end-times restoration. When God pours out his Spirit upon Israel, she thrives and experiences God's intimate presence. Isaiah 44:3-4 states:

"For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams."

Ezekiel 39:29 has, "I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord GOD."

By contrast, the prophets often present an unquenchable fire as an instrument of God's judgment (Isaiah 33:14; 66:24; Jeremiah 17:27; Ezekiel 20:47). Remember: John said that the coming one would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

So perhaps John was saying this: "I baptize with water, but that's so you'll be prepared for the truly powerful person, the Messiah to come. He will immerse Israel with the Holy Spirit as he restores her and brings her blessing. But the wicked he will destroy with unquenchable fire. So make sure you're righteous. Repent!"

3. The Book of Acts offers its own interpretation of John's statement. For the author of Luke-Acts, Jesus baptized the Jews with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and he also did so to the Gentiles who were with Cornelius (Acts 1:4-5; 11:16-17). In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit brings joy (13:52), praise (10:46), comfort (9:31), guidance (8:28; 13:2; 16:7), and power for the Christian mission (1:8). It is responsible for certain gifts in the church, such as prophecy (11:29). It's often accompanied by a visible manifestation, mainly tongues (Acts 2:3; 10:46; 19:6). In Acts 8, the church leaders could somehow tell that the baptized people from Samaria had not yet received the Holy Spirit. And, when they did receive it, Simon the sorcerer saw something impressive, since he tried to purchase the ability to give it. And so the reception of the Spirit must have been identifiable in some way.

And here is where I struggle. Does that mean I have to speak in tongues to be saved? There are a lot of charismatics who would answer "no" to that question. Their reason is John 20:22, in which Jesus breathes on his disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. According to many charismatics, the disciples initially received the Holy Spirit in John 20:22, which led to their entry into the Body of Christ and their status as children of God (Romans 8:9-16; I Corinthians 12:13). In Acts 2, however, the Holy Spirit empowered them for ministry. For a lot of charismatics, every Christian receives the Holy Spirit at salvation, but there is a "second baptism" that God graciously gives to some Christians. This baptism includes greater closeness to God, joy, peace, and empowerment for Christian service. And tongues are the sign that it has occurred.

But the charismatic scenario doesn't really convince me, for the Book of Acts does not mention a second baptism. Acts 8 says that the Samarian converts received the Holy Spirit when Peter and John prayed for them (Acts 8:14ff.). And, as I said, the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 8 had to be identifiable in some way, through tongues, miracles, or other indications. John 20:22 and the Book of Acts may have different traditions about when the disciples first received the Holy Spirit.

In my opinion, if tongues are a requirement for salvation, then that is pretty low of God. There are many people who seek God but do not have the gift of tongues. If tongues are a necessary indication of the Holy Spirit's presence, then God's unwillingness to give such seekers his Spirit is pretty callous. And that would not make sense in light of Luke 11:11-13:

"Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

According to this passage, God is generous with his Spirit, not stingy.

But how does this relate to John the Baptist? If number 3 is correct, then John could be saying this: "Look, I'm getting you wet, and that's leading to your forgiveness, which is well and good. But do you want to experience the presence, fullness, and power of the living God in a way that you never have before? Then wait for the one who will immerse you in the Holy Spirit. Purify yourself, for he is coming soon! You Jews who repent will experience God in this profound way. The rest of you will perish when the Romans destroy Jerusalem. The choice is yours."

An Aspie Catholic

"Anonymous" has left a comment under an old post of mine, Asperger's and Religion. I want to share it with everyone because it contains a lot of jewels, and I don't want people to miss them because the post is old. But don't worry, fans: I'll be writing another post today about my Matthew daily quiet time, though something tells me that these comments from "Anonymous" will get a lot more replies. I've corrected some of the spelling and punctuation, which I'm just saying because there may be a law about that (who knows?). Enjoy!
I'm an Aspie Catholic myself and I totally agree with all the comments on this issue.

It's great to know that I am not alone in my thinking. Where i come from in Asia, Catholicism has become rather "feel good" and "charismatic" with emphasis on "healing" and other "touchy feely" activities. I absolutely cannot stand hugging or joining hands with strangers, even though they may be fellow Catholics, and I hate it when I am made to feel "unloving" because of this. Anyway, I have solved the problem by looking for more "traditional" churches. Another trick is to go for early morning mass. I find that these hyper folks tend to be more subdued when deprived of sleep!! Would just like to add my two cents worth about why Catholicism is suitable for Aspies.

Latin chants. I find Latin music and Latin prayers which are sung especially soothing to my senses. It happens even when the priest uses English to chant. I suspect it repeats the "spinning" experience that we Aspies are known to like.

Ignatian Spirituality. I highly recommend this to all Aspies. Years ago, I read the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," and a lot of it did not make sense to me. For me, codification of Catholic doctrine confused more than clarified my faith issues. Because of this, I was lapsed in my faith for a long time, but this was before I learned about the Jesuits and their highly scientific and methodological approach to doctrine and spirituality. Before I came across the Jesuits, almost every catholic or priest I knew always said I used my head too much. I was made to feel that to be a good Catholic or Christian, an Aspie had to suspend his highly logical and critical mind and "listen to Rome."

The Dominicans are highly logical as well, but I find some of their stuff a bit " beyond me." One last thing. Would an Aspie ever become a good missionary, priest, or pastor? It's quite a complex question. On one hand, an Aspie's preference not to socialise would make him unsuitable. On the other hand, an Aspie's hyper-sensitivity means that he will be acutely aware of life issues like injustice, suffering, and other morality issues. This is one issue I grapple with even as a lay Catholic. On one hand, I want to put my faith into action to help the poor and the marginalised. On the other hand, I have an aversion to working with people. Religion has pretty much been "me and my God," and I have no clue whatsoever on how to go beyond that.

Thought Anyone?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Matthew 2:1-2: The Magi

In Matthew 2:1-2, we read the following:

"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, 'Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.'"

Why did the wise men (or magi) care about a newborn king in Judea, a subservient nation that lacked political power and prestige? Here are three possible answers:

1. According to wikipedia's article on the biblical magi, the magi were Zoroastrians who were expecting a Messiah:

"John Chrysostom suggested that the gifts were fit to be given not just to a king but to God, and contrasted them with the Jews' traditional offerings of sheep and calves, and accordingly Chrysostom asserts that the Magi worshiped Jesus as God. This is believed to be unlikely by some, if the theory that they were members of a Zoroastrian priesthood is correct. However this possibility remains, since zoroastianism prophecies of a messiah type figure Saoshyant who would be born of a virgin."

Unfortunately, the article does not document this point, but, even if it did, I'd have problems with it. The magi came to Jerusalem asking for the king of the Jews, not God incarnate or the Messiah Saoshyant. Indeed, I believe that Jesus was God incarnate and the Messiah, but I also think that we should factor Jesus' status as king of the Jews into the reasons that the magi came to see him. After all, that is the status that they mentioned when they sought him.

2. John Gill, Matthew Henry, Adam Clark, Albert Barnes, and the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia appeal to the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius to explain the magi's visit. Tacitus was a first century C.E. Roman historian. In History 5:13, he states the following:

"[I]n most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth" (translation by Alfred Church).

Tacitus respects the Jewish prophecies enough to seek some sort of fulfillment in them, even though he does not agree with most Jews' interpretations. He says that one of the powerful rulers who'd come from Judea was the Roman emperor Vespasian, who was not born in Judea, yet was prominent there because he subdued the first century C.E. Jewish revolt. Maybe people respected the prophecies of other nations, so the magi took seriously the Jewish tradition that a powerful Messiah would come from the Jews.

Another first century Roman historian, Suetonius, is more explicit about this point. In Vespasian 4:5, he states:

"There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome, as afterwards appeared from the event, the people of Judaea took to themselves; accordingly they revolted" (translation by J.C. Rolfe).

According to Suetonius, people in the East expected a Jewish Messiah who would rule the world. In light of this, the magi's search for the king of the Jews is not surprising. They wanted to gain the favor of the one who would rule the world.

3. Steven Collins is someone from the Armstrongite tradition who has written in support of British Israelism, the belief that the British people are descended from one of Israel's lost ten tribes. Although the vast majority of historians dispute British Israelism, Collins offers some interesting thoughts about the visit of the magi. For him, the magi were from the eastern empire of Parthia, which was trying to make inroads into Judea. During the first and second centuries C.E., the Parthians and the Romans fought over who would be king of Armenia, since each wanted its own puppet in the country. Maybe the same thing was happening with Judea. And who would be a better candidate for a king than a newborn member of the Davidic dynasty?

Personally, I go with number 2, since the magi were expecting a king of the Jews. If number 3 is correct, then it is true because of number 2: the Parthians wanted to establish a foothold in Judea, and the star proclaiming the birth of the Jewish Messiah would have given them such an opportunity.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Matthew Henry on Malachi 1:2-3

Malachi 1:2-3 says, "I have loved you, says the LORD. But you say, 'How have you loved us?' Is not Esau Jacob's brother? says the LORD. Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals."

Malachi tries to assure Israel of God's love by saying that he hates somebody else, namely, Jacob's brother Esau. Why? Matthew Henry offers a rather inadequate answer:

"Wherefore hast thou loved us? as if they did indeed own that he had loved them, but withal insinuate that there was a reason for it - that he loved them because their father Abraham had loved him, so that it was not a free love, but a love of debt, to which he replies, 'Was not Esau as near akin to Abraham as you are? Was he not Jacob's own brother, his elder brother? And therefore, if there were any right to a recompence for Abraham's love, Esau had it, and yet I hated Esau and loved Jacob.'"

For Henry, the Israelites believed that God only loved them for the sake of Abraham. "You only love me because of my father," Henry envisions them saying. "But you don't really love me." I can understand why Henry makes this interpretation, since he's trying to understand why the passage specifies that Esau was Jacob's brother. But I have three problems with Henry's claim. First, in Malachi 1:2, Israel questions God's love, and Henry's interpretation nullifies the need for her to do so. If the Israelites assumed that God loved them for the sake of Abraham, then they were at least acknowledging that God loved them. So why did they ask their question?

And I believe that they were questioning God's love for them. Throughout the Book of Malachi, Israel displays a smart-alecky skepticism. The Israelites often talk back to God and his prophet in arrogant disagreement. God tells Israel that she has despised his name, and she responds, "How have we despised your name?" (Malachi 1:6). Or check out Malachi 2:17: "You have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet you say, 'How have we wearied him?' By saying, 'All who do evil are good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.' Or by asking, 'Where is the God of justice?'" Israel seemed to be disputing God's care for them, period, not saying that God's reason for his love was not good enough.

Second, there are times in the Hebrew Bible when God does love Israel for the sake of Abraham. In Genesis 22:16-18, God promises to bless Abraham's descendants because of his willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. When the Israelites were in slavery to Egypt and cried out to God, God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 2:24). In Exodus 32:13, Moses is pleading for Israel after the Golden Calf incident. God wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, but Moses reminds God of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This (among other factors) influences God to relent from destroying her. Like later Judaism, the Hebrew Bible appeals to Israel's righteous ancestors as a justification for her blessing and survival.

And, third, Malachi himself appeals to an ancestor of the Israelites: Jacob. If Malachi disagrees with the idea that God loved Israel because of her righteous ancestor, then why does he mention her ancestor Jacob? He wants to show Israel that God loves her for herself and not because of one ancestor (Abraham), and he does so by referring to God's treatment of another one (Jacob)? That doesn't make much sense. Henry assumes that the Israelites of Malachi's day radically distinguished themselves from their ancestors, and I'm not sure if that's completely the case.

So what could Malachi 1:2-3 be saying? I don't think that Henry is totally off-base, for the reference to Esau as Jacob's brother is indeed significant. I think that the passage is saying this: "I (God) could have chosen Esau as the line of blessing, since he is your brother. But I chose you. And you can see the evidence of my love for you in Edom's destruction. Edom did you harm, O Israel, and I punished him. I'll fight for your honor, for I care about you."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

My Dream about the Clintons

I've just spent several days reading Sally Bedell Smith's For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years, so I'm not that surprised that I had a dream about the Clintons last night.

In my dream, I was getting my hair cut by a woman who cut my hair when I was a kid, only I wasn't in her place of business but in a much larger establishment. I think I may have passed the place when I lived in Boston. Well, she passed me on to someone else, and that woman couldn't cut my hair, for some reason.

In the next scene, I was sitting on a sofa in a circle with other people, including Bill and Hillary, who were sitting across from each other. Bill was talking about how Hillary recently had a physical illness, and he felt sorry for her because he cared about her. He had tears in his eyes. I rolled my eyes in disbelief. Eventually, I decided to enter the conversation. I began to speak, and everyone was looking at me intently, probably because I hadn't yet said anything in that conversation.

"So how do you guys feel about being blown out by Obama?" I asked.

Bill and Hillary laughed. "Well, I don't think we're being 'blown out,' do you Hillary?"

"Yeah, I guess you guys are close in the number of delegates you each have," I replied.

As the conversation went on, Bill said to me, "You know, you and I are the only Republicans in this room."

"You're a Republican?" I said, astonished.

"Well, yes. I'm past middle aged, and I have a big belly, so I fit the Republican profile," Bill said.

Bill then talked about how conservative he was. "You know, I opposed the teaching of evolution in Arkansas public schools," he said (which I'm sure is not true, but this is what I dreamed).

We then talked about the Supreme Court. Bill mused, "You know, I just appoint justices and let them do what they want. I actually think it's good if they do their own thing, including ruin the country."

"Yeah," I responded, "but you should do research into their records before you appoint them to the Supreme Court. I mean, what was up with that Ruth Bader Ginsburg?"

"She's a likable person," Bill said.

"Yeah, she has a certain charm to her," I responded. "She reminds me of this Jewish professor I once had. But she's so liberal. She was once in the ACLU. And what about that other guy you appointed. What's his name? Breyer?"

"Guyer," Clinton corrected me. Actually, I realized I was right when I woke up: it's Breyer. And I was disappointed when I did wake up, since my conversation with Bill was rather enjoyable. By contrast, when I dreamed about Cheney a few weeks ago, the Vice-President kind of blew me off, even though I'm a fan of his.

My Easter Experience

Trying out new churches has always been hard for me. "Will the people accept me?" "Will I get anything out of the sermon?" "Will I have a worthwhile experience?" "What type of people will be there?"

Well, this morning, I tried out a new church. Over the past six months, I've been attending the Latin mass for a conservative Catholic church. It is so conservative that the people there carry around copies of The Wanderer, a conservative Catholic newspaper. I used to read a series of books called Opposing Viewpoints, which presented both sides of various issues. They often drew from The Wanderer for the conservative side.

I have liked this church because the priest refers to Latin, Greek, philosophy, and the church fathers. I've gotten a lot of food for my mind there, and I've interacted with the priest's sermons on James' Thoughts and Musings.

But the church has been a disappointment to me for the past few weeks. The priest who ordinarily preaches there has been gone, and so I've had to hear other speakers. And their sermons are pretty lame, to say the least. Some of them have said straight out that there's not even a need for their homily, but that's part of the service, and so they had might as well say something. I walked out of those services empty.

There is another church that I've passed a few times in my walks. It's close to me, but it's kind of in the middle of nowhere, so I wasn't sure what type of church it was. I knew it was Protestant, but I didn't know if I'd get anything meaty out of it, or just the usual evangelical cliches. You can never tell with these backwoods sorts of churches. But I decided to give it a try.

I usually feel rather isolated in Protestant settings. When I walk into my Catholic church, the people there are saying "Hail Mary"s before the service, and so I use that time for my own personal prayers. In Protestant settings, however, people socialize before the service. I'm sitting there thinking "Come on, when's this service going to start?" At the Protestant church that I attended this morning, people came up to me and shook my hand, but we didn't get into any conversations.

But to its credit, the pastor came up to me and shook my hand. And that doesn't always happen. I've been to churches in which the pastor looks at me as if I'm a creature from outer space. At this church, I got that look from some of the congregants, but there were friendly people as well.

At the beginning of the service, the pastor got up and said that nothing turned out as he expected. The overhead projector was not working, and other things were not going so well. But he gave the service over to God and expected God to do wonderful things. I admired his faith and anticipation, probably because I've often heard "Expect good things" from one of my favorite preachers, Joel Osteen.

We started the praise and worship, and I had a hard time getting into that. I've not sung praise songs for a long time. One of the songs was "Nothing but the blood of Jesus," and I had a hard time singing it, mainly because I have struggled with blood atonement on this blog. At first, I wrestled with my cold reaction to the song, but then I asked myself why I felt so cold. After that, I felt more at peace.

The kids went up to sing, and I liked their song. It had a soft tune, and it was about wanting to fall in love with God. That's how I feel. I want to love God. At this other meeting I went to on Saturday, a person said about religion, "I just don't feel it. I don't know what everyone is getting so excited about." I could identify with him because I have experienced those dry times myself. At this moment, I find things in the Bible that interest me, but something is missing. I want to fall in love with God. And, yet, I don't just want to accept a dogma and assume that it is all there is to know. That would be boring! That's what I like about looking at all sorts of approaches to the Bible--not only Christian, but also Jewish and historical-critical. I have a desire to learn new things rather than seeing the evangelical approach as the end-all-be-all. But I also want to fall in love with God.

As the service continued, I did something that I was often afraid to do in the past: I filled out my name, address, and phone number on an attendance sheet. Normally, I'm afraid to do this. I fear that a bunch of militant evangelicals will come to my apartment and try to shove their religion down my throat. But these people weren't imposing themselves on me, partly to my joy, partly to my sadness (because of my feelings of isolation). But this woman sitting beside me gave me a Bible so I could write down my information, and that was really nice of her.

Eventually, we got to the sermon. I could tell that the church was evangelical, since it emphasized blood atonement (Anselm style) and the need to witness. The preacher was extolling the Passion of the Christ, and he said that the Jews only gave people thirty-nine lashes because forty could kill someone. I didn't exactly agree with that. I mean, why couldn't thirty-nine lashes kill someone? But the preacher told a story that I had already heard about the actor who played Jesus, Jim Caviezel, only, this time, the story made an impact on me. During the filming, Jim Caviezel actually got struck with one of those torture elements, and he went into convulsions as a result. The preacher told us that Jesus received lashes from those sorts of devices two millennia ago, and he submitted to that pain for us. I rarely think about Christ sufferings on my behalf, probably because it's not often put to me that concretely.

The preacher then said that there are thirty-nine root causes of disease, and Christ received thirty-nine lashes, one lash for each sickness. For the preacher, Christ died not only for our spiritual healing, but for our physical healing as well. He then went to the audience and picked up a baby who had been healed of Down's Syndrome. The baby had an extra chromosome when he was in the womb, and then it was gone. The doctor didn't know how it happened.

I like hearing those kinds of experiences. I have been so removed from the evangelical community for so long, that I haven't heard too many stories about God's activity in people's lives. And that has worried me. I've feared that those experiences would become a distant memory for me, and that Christianity would then become so theoretical in my mind that I would ultimately reject it.

I do participate in an evangelical online prayer board. Sometimes I read of healings, and sometimes I do not. But it's been a while since I heard something like the healing mentioned in that church.

I have no problem with believing that Jesus heals today. I don't think that he always does, and he has his reasons for that. But I admire people coming to God with faith and expectation. The Bible says that God rewards that. That is not to say that those who continue on with their diseases or die do so because of a lack of faith. There is a certain divine experience that can occur when a mother raises a child with Down's Syndrome, for example. Such children are so unconditionally loving, and parents can learn a lot about the love of God by raising them. But God is also good when he shows us his compassion and his power through physical healing. The mother of that child was a single mother who came to church one day for the first time, not knowing what to do. Well, I'm sure that she will keep coming back after that miracle. She has tasted and seen that the Lord is good.

The preacher talked about how we can determine whether a thought is from God or Satan. He referred to Mark 16:7 in which Jesus commands the women to go tell the disciples and Peter of his resurrection. A few days before, Peter had cursed and ranted, claiming that he did not know Christ. But Jesus' goal was not to shove that in Peter's face. He wanted Peter to have a new beginning.

The preacher said that God does not give us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and a sound mind (II Timothy 1:7). So we can rest assured that thoroughly negative thoughts are not from God. I've often heard Joel Osteen say the same thing, but I liked the way that this particular preacher tied that concept to Scripture.

The preacher offered other insights: about how Peter gave himself away as a follower of Jesus because he talked like him, and we become like Jesus the more we hang around him; about how God offers us a supernatural change, so that we can walk out of church different from what we were before. That appealed to me. He also mentioned God not throwing in our faces that we may have cursed the day before. Well, I had cussed the day before. And the preacher said that God can use us: we don't have to be good-looking, or thin, or have a sparkling personality for God to do so. Most of the people in that church were attractive, even the ones who were overweight. But I liked the preacher making that point.

Afterwards, some music was playing, and a few of the people were speaking in tongues. And, believe it or not, one of them offered an interpretation of what she was saying: that God loves us and wants to heal us. I used to be freaked out by tongues, but I'm not so much anymore. I see it as a display of God's presence within the church service. I don't like the way some charismatics act as if they're more spiritual than those who do not speak in tongues (like me), but I did not detect that sort of spirit in this church. The message, after all, was that God loves us.

After the service, I asked the woman sitting next to me about the mid-week service and the Sunday school. For some reason, I felt hungry for more, and I don't entirely know why. These people may not have taken Hebrew or Greek. They probably read the entire Bible in light of their evangelical beliefs, without a regard for biblical diversity or other interpretations. But I feel that they can offer me something that I don't presently have. Maybe they can give me some practical insights into the Scriptures.

And so I went for the exit and shook a few hands. As I went out the door, one of the women who gave me that "he's a creature from outer space look" said "Come back, James." I said "Thanks," then I said her name, a social skill that I am practicing. And I may very well go back. I'll have to see.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rejoice in God's Wrath

Felix offered an interesting response to my post, Yancey, Kushner, and Prayer. I was complaining about the existence of evil and life's unfairness (as usual), and Felix replied as follows:

"That is why I stubbornly believe in an 'Apocalypto' ---which means an end of an era of this age. God at some time in human history (which you and I may or may not see in the flesh) will balance the books. It is His nature. For anyone to coldly and stoicly argue the opposite does an injustice to the 'justice and fairness' of God. Plus having a belief in God balancing the books keeps me sane, though others seem to enjoy being afraid of the concept."

I agree with Felix overall. The problem of evil does pose a significant challenge to Christianity, but (unlike atheism) Christianity at least offers the hope that God will bring evil to an end.

And that is why there are people in the Bible who actually rejoice in God's wrath. Isaiah 14:5-7 says about the fall of Babylon:

"The LORD has broken the staff of the wicked, the scepter of rulers, that struck down the peoples in wrath with unceasing blows, that ruled the nations in anger with unrelenting persecution. The whole earth is at rest and quiet; they break forth into singing."

Similarly, the final verse of Nahum says concerning the destruction of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria:

"There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?"

As these passages make clear, Assyria and Babylon wreaked destruction and terror on a lot of nations. So it is no surprise that these nations are happy about their oppressors' downfall. Not only do they have a sense of satisfaction that justice has been done and that God cares about their pain, but they also get a respite from oppression. What victim wouldn't be happy about this? It's like the defeat of the Empire in Return of the Jedi, or (more realistically) the deaths of Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

But here is my problem with the whole wrath issue, and here is why some may be afraid of the concept: For evangelicals, anyone without Jesus is going to hell. And this does not only apply to Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein. It applies to your nice Jewish or Buddhist neighbor, or that happy-go-lucky secularist you know who has problems with religion and church. Some of them are really good people who help others. And many are not particularly good or bad--they're just regular people, like me. I have a hard time rejoicing in God's wrath against them.

I often feel that, when evangelicals defend hell, they appeal to the worst examples of human wickedness. In Christian scholar N.T. Wright's defense of the doctrine, for example, he refers to people who sell young girls as sex slaves. For N.T. Wright and other Christians, such activity cries out for justice.

But not everyone going to hell in evangelical doctrine is that bad.

At the same time, evangelicals have a point. If they are wrong, then there is a question that confronts us: How good do you have to be to go to heaven? And how bad do you have to be to go to hell? At least for evangelicals, one has to be perfect to go to heaven, period, and, since no one can reach perfection, we all need Christ as our personal Savior. Such a binary system seems less fuzzy than other systems.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Matthew 1:21: Jesus Saves!

I'm in the early chapters of Matthew for my daily quiet time, but I don't want to give you Christmas posts during the Easter season. And so I'll write a post today that is appropriate for Good Friday.

Actually, this post has been on my mind for the past month or so, before Good Friday even entered my radar screen. When I was reading Zechariah and Malachi, I was going to comment on the tendency of the Israelites to fall continually into sin, even after the exile. Then, I got to Matthew 1, and my study of the prophets gave me thoughts about Matthew 1:21 and Jesus' role as Savior. And so I've finally gotten to this post, and it comes at the right time!
In Matthew 1:21, an angel tells Joseph, "[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (NRSV).

What could this have meant to Joseph when he first heard it? The Jewish religion already had means of atonement: people repented to receive forgiveness, and they offered sin offerings for unintentional sins. Every Day of Atonement, the high priest would supervise a ceremony that released the sins of Israel into the wilderness, giving the nation a fresh start. Why would Jesus need to save his people from their sins, when Israel already had ways to get God's forgiveness?

Often, Christian sermons and Jesus movies (including the controversial Last Temptation of Christ) present the following scenario: the Jews were looking for a political Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression, but God instead gave them Jesus, who was more interested in their spiritual salvation than their liberation from Rome. So was Joseph's reaction to the angel, "He'll deliver us from our sin? Is that all? I'm already a pretty decent guy. I do an honest day's work and pay my bills. What I don't like are these oppressive rulers! What are you going to do about that?"

Actually, I think that the angel's message would have resonated with Joseph, if not the entire nation of Israel. Why? Because sin was continually tripping them up, dragging them down, and holding them back.

This is evident in the Old Testament story of Israel. The Israelites sinned through their idolatry, oppression of the weak, dishonesty, and adultery, and so God sent them into exile. During their time in Babylon, God promised to restore them to their land. He said that he would reconstitute the Davidic monarchy and defeat Israel's Gentile enemies.

But that didn't exactly happen. Sure, the Jews returned to their land, but there was no restoration of the Davidic monarchy, plus Israel was still subservient to a foreign power.

And the post-exilic prophets attributed Israel's lackluster restoration to one crucial factor: sin. Third Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi all point out that Israel is holding up the show when it comes to her restoration. She is doing many of the same sins that got her into exile in the first place (e.g., oppression of the weak, Sabbath breaking, etc.), along with some new ones (e.g., offering defective animals to God). And Ezra and Nehemiah discuss such sins in their narratives on post-exilic times. The post-exilic prophet Third Isaiah sums up the situation quite well: "See, the LORD's hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear" (Isaiah 59:1-2).

Plus, even after her exile, Israel did not feel fully forgiven. Ezra prayed to God, "O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt" (Ezra 9:6-7). Even after Israel had taken her punishment, she didn't feel like she could look God in the eye.

Israel needed spiritual salvation in order to possess political salvation. And God promised to accomplish this in the prophets. God wanted Israel to dwell in the land, and yet her doing so was contingent on her obedience to him. Consequently, God vowed to spiritually regenerate the people of Israel, to program them so that they would naturally avoid sin and pursue righteousness (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-28). And God also said that he'd forgive them and cease to remember their sins (Jeremiah 31:34; Micah 7:19).

So what went through Joseph's mind when he heard the angel's promise? Probably that God was about to redeem Israel from her continuous cycle of sin and punishment, which continued even after the exile. A sinful human nature led to Israel's exile and managed to follow her home, allowing the same problems to creep up even after her restoration. God would free her from the penalty of sin through the death of Jesus Christ. And, more importantly, he would deliver her from sin itself.

N.T. Wright's ideas planted some of the seeds for this post, so I want to give him credit. Happy Good Friday!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Yancey, Kushner, and Prayer

I'm still working my way through Philip Yancey's Prayer: Does It Make a Difference? It has quite a few gems, let me tell you! But, recently, I found myself comparing this book to another book that I read several years ago: Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Kushner is a Conservative rabbi whose son was born with progeria, a disease that includes rapid aging and an early death, usually at the age when normal children undergo puberty. Kushner and his wife once saw God as a benevolent parent, who takes care of people and works out their lives for good. But Kushner's experience with his son challenged his conception of God, as did the stories of other people's suffering. Kushner concludes that God allows evil because he's unable to do otherwise: he's not omnipotent. For Kushner, God cannot overturn human free will or the laws of nature. Kushner's God is as outraged about evil as we are, and he'd stop it if he could, but he can't. He can, however, give us the strength to endure, and prayer is a channel through which that occurs. Kushner appeals to the story of Jacob. At first, Jacob's relationship with God was quid pro quo: Do this for me, and I'll serve you. Later, Jacob outgrew this childish religion, for he realized that he needed God for strength.

Interestingly, there are areas in which Yancey overlaps with Kushner, only he doesn't go so far as to deny divine omnipotence. For Yancey, God is reluctant to interfere in human free will and the laws of nature. He can do so if he wants, and he has sometimes done so in the past, but he doesn't make a habit of it. Ordinarily, God will not suspend natural laws at the whims of human beings. Yancey also says that he doesn't really pray to God for favors, but for the company. He mentions a victim at a Nazi concentration camp who made the harsh journey with God through prayer, and experienced joy as a result.

I've not read Yancey's Where Is God Where It Hurts? or Disappointment with God, so I'm not familiar with his overall theodicy. I've heard that he distinguishes the bad things that happen in life from the will of God, which seems to imply that evil exists despite God's will. In his book on prayer, however, he appears to believe that God is in control and does what he does for good reason. He points out the positive outcomes of certain unanswered prayers. The death of David's son by Bathsheba, the fall of Judah to Babylon, and the thorn in Paul's flesh, for example, all served a good purpose.

This presents me with a dilemma. Which should I prefer: A God who hates evil but is powerless to do anything about it, or a God who temporarily permits it for some unknown reason? I can sympathize with Kushner's sentiment that there are some things that don't have any justification: they are just plain evil. To seek a justification for them seems cold and inconsiderate, and it appears to trivialize evil's depth. For some, it presents evil as good in disguise.

But a God who is powerless against evil can't give much strength or hope. I wonder how Kushner believes people can find strength in his version of God.

I once had a professor who wrestled with theodicy, and a historical-critical approach to the Hebrew Bible helped him out. In the Hebrew Bible, God continually struggles against chaos, which is depicted as a dragon. It's quite a battle, but God wins in the end. In the Septuagint, however, God is omnipotent, so evil exists with his permission. My professor liked the Hebrew view (or, rather, that particular Hebrew view) rather than the Greek one, for he thought that it presented a decent theodicy. It upheld God's hatred of evil along with his eventual defeat of it, after a lot of struggle, of course. In this Hebrew scenario, God is not powerless against evil, but neither is he all-powerful enough to stop it anytime he wishes. In a sense, it preserves the best parts of Kushner and Yancey.

Personally, I think that God permits evil for a reason: He wants to show us that evil is evil, and that good is good. He can tell us this until he's blue in the face, but we only get it when he actually shows us. Of course, this view too has its problems. How does it account for accidental deaths? And does it make other people guinea pigs for my moral education?

Kushner doesn't particularly like the "God permits evil for an unknown reason" approach, for he asks if we would say the same about Hitler's deeds. Kushner equates this theodicy with saying something like "Hitler killed people, but he had a good reason that's unknown to us." But we should assume right off the bat that God is not Hitler. God may permit evil for a reason (and a season), but we know from his moral standard, his activities on behalf of justice, and the character of Christ that he takes no pleasure in doing so.

Zechariah 12:10: Who Is the Pierced One?

Zechariah 12:10 has a variety of translations and interpretations.

1. Let's look at the King James Version:

"And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn."

According to this translation, the person who is pierced is the one identified as "me." According to interpreters, this "me" could be God, who endured continual indignity from the Israelites. According to this view, Israel feels bad about her past treatment of God, particularly after God is nice enough to restore her and defeat her enemies. Or "me" may refer to the prophet, who experienced persecution in Israel. Once his message is fulfilled, however, his Israelite persecutors change their tune.

2. The Jewish Publication Society offers another translation:

"But I will fill the House of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem with a spirit of pity and compassion; and they shall lament to me about those who are slain, wailing over them as over a favorite son and showing bitter grief as over a first-born" (NJPS).

In this translation, "me" is not the one who is pierced, but the piercing happens to someone else.

The New Revised Standard Version takes this one step further:

"And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn."

The NRSV removes "me" altogether. And, according to the Biblical Hebraica Stuttgartensia, there is a variant of the text that does precisely that.

So who is the pierced person in this scenario? Ehud ben Zvi offers the following comments in the Jewish Study Bible:

"The Hebrew is ambiguous, because it may refer to a person or a group whom they have pierced...[I]t is more likely that it refers to an individual or group within the nations. For an understanding of the verse as pointing to the Messiah from the House of Joseph, see b. Sukkah 52a. Radak reads the text differently; for him it describes such a salvation that if even one person of Israel were killed in the battle, they will be astonished."

According to ben Zvi, the object of mourning in Zechariah 12:10 can be individual or collective. Many Jewish interpreters have applied it to the Messiah of the House of Joseph, a Messiah of Israel who will get killed in God's battle against the nations. He is distinct from the Messiah of the House of David, the one who will rule Israel in the Messianic Age.

Or, for Radak, the pierced one can refer to the Israelite casualties in the battle against the Gentiles. But these interpretations distinguish the "they" who mourn from the "they" who pierce. This is possible, but Zechariah 12:10 doesn't explicitly mention the Gentiles fighting back against the Israelites and piercing them.

And then there are other interesting interpretations. In b. Sukkah 52a, the text that ben Zvi cites, another candidate for the pierced one is the evil inclination within humans. Rabbi Judah explains:

" In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, 'How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!' The wicked also will weep saying, 'How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!'" (translation is from my Judaic Classics Library).

So, in this view, God will kill the inclination within humans to sin. Some will marvel that they were ever able to conquer what seemed to be insurmountable temptations, while others will regret that they caved into sin too easily.

And then there is the view that the pierced one of Zechariah 12:10 is Jesus Christ (see John 19:37; Revelation 1:7). This gets played out in a few different ways. Some believe that Zechariah 12:10 began to be fulfilled in Luke 23:48 and Acts 2. In Luke 23:48, many people at the crucifixion smote their breasts, probably in repentance for their role in Jesus' death. And, in Acts 2, Jews who were involved in Jesus' crucifixion (either directly, or through Israel's overall rejection of him) repented in his name and received baptism.

Another scenario is that people will mourn at Christ's return. Ellen White, the founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, posits in The Great Controversy that God will resurrect the very people involved in Jesus' crucifixion (e.g., Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, etc.) right at the Second Coming, allowing them to see the triumph of the one they killed. And many dispensationalists apply Zechariah 12:10 to Israel's conversion to Christ at his return.

But I have a question about applying Zechariah 12:10 to the Messiah, the son of David: Doesn't Zechariah 12 say that the House of David will mourn for the one who is pierced? My impression (which could be wrong) is that Zechariah distinguishes the pierced one from the Davidic line.

I have another interpretation: Could the Israelites be weeping for all of the Gentiles they killed in the eschatological battle? In Zechariah 12:8-9, God talks about making even the weakest Jerusalemites like David and slaying the Gentiles who attack God's city. Perhaps the pierced ones are those very Gentiles. God may want Israel to mourn for them in recognition of their (the Gentiles') humanity. In this view, God did not want to kill the Gentiles, but he had to do so because of their aggression against God's people.

In Zechariah 14, we read of the Gentiles coming to Jerusalem to worship God, so God may want to impress upon the Israelites that he loves everyone, Israelite and Gentile. If the Israelites are to accept the Gentiles who come to Jerusalem, then they must honor their humanity. And one way for that to happen is for them to realize that the people they killed in battle were human beings, with their own thoughts, feelings, dreams, and people who cared about them. The Gentiles' deaths may have been necessary, but they were still tragic.

Midrash Avkir and b. Sanhedrin 39b, both Jewish sources, have a story about the Red Sea. When the Egyptians drowned, the angels wanted to sing for joy, but God stopped them. "The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in my presence?" (translated by William Braude). According to this midrash, God loves even the people he has to destroy. And the point of Zechariah 12:10 may be that God will enable the Israelites to see their enemies as God sees them.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama and Jeremiah Wright

I wrote this article for Helium. It was part of a debate entitled US elections 2008: Will Rev. Wright's radical views harm Obama's chances? I defended the "No" side.
Barack Obama is a smooth operator. Ronald Reagan was called "the teflon President" because nothing could stick to him-he always found some way to deflect attention from his mistakes. When Reagan said that trees cause pollution, for example, that could have hurt him politically. But his mannerisms influenced the American people not to care so much about his errors or gaffes.

A similar scenario is evident with Barack Obama, only he is different from Reagan in his teflon nature. Reagan could dissolve criticisms with a joke, but Obama has other things going for him that make him unstoppable. First, Obama comes across as a friendly, level-headed, reasonable guy. He is the sort of person with whom you'd watch a ball game or have a beer (if you drink). He does not strike me as a wild-eyed fanatic, unlike his pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Second, Obama is able to distance himself from Wright while acknowledging that Wright raises some valid points. Obama simply says that he does not have to agree with someone 100 per cent to get something out of his message. American political culture loves to put public figures on the spot. It's either all or nothing for a lot of these pundits and politicians. They act as if Obama's only choice is to totally disavow and denounce Wright's church, or to participate in it and swallow everything Wright says. But Obama can accept some things Wright preaches, disagree with other aspects, and remain a member of the church in good standing. And Obama points this out, which is why he doesn't fall into the trap that American political culture likes to set for people. Because Obama pursues a third alternative, he will probably escape any political damage from his membership in Wright's church.

And, third, when Obama does make a mistake, he admits it. For example, he said that his relationship with slum-lord Tony Rezco was an error in judgment. He doesn't try to spin away his actions. We don't hear him saying something like "I didn't inhale," as we did from a certain spouse of another Presidential candidate. Overall, Obama is open and honest, and therefore he comes across as human. Obama does a good job in explaining himself in a manner that appears genuine rather than artificial. Because of that, he will most likely survive a lot of political hits.

I Love George W. Bush

Today, NPR has a few stories that make me glad I voted for George W. Bush. They are as follows:

1. New Ob/Gyn Guidelines Stir Ethics, Legal Debate

"March 19, 2008 · The Department of Health and Human Services says organizations that oversee certification for obstetrician-gynecologists may be breaking federal law by instituting new ethics guidelines. The guidelines have stoked the debate over whether a doctor's right to refuse care trumps a patient's right to obtain it."

Basically, the "ethics" guidelines "require physicians to make referrals for abortions or other procedures they don't wish to perform themselves." Bush's Health and Human Services Department is saying, "I don't think so."

As a pro-life doctor said in the story, he wouldn't send a woman to a hitman, so why should he send her to someone he believes is a murderer? A lot of liberals talk about being "pro-choice." Apparently, they don't want doctors to choose whether or not to refer women to abortionists.

2. "Individuals' Rights Key in Landmark D.C. Gun Case" (Listen Now).

"The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments on the District of Columbia's law essentially banning handgun ownership in the city...For most of the past century, the courts have interpreted the constitutional right to bear arms as a collective right, linked to military service and state militias. But Tuesday, a majority of Supreme Court justices indicated that they believe the right to bear arms is an individual right, like the right of free speech or the right to be free from unreasonable searches."

Horray for the Supreme Court, which is now more conservative because of George W. Bush. I liked Scalia's argument that, historically, oppressive authorities tried to prevent militias by taking away the guns of individuals. Therefore, the part of the Second Amendment about a "well-regulated militia" fits quite well with "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" (emphasis mine).

D.C. banned people from owning handguns? That is going too far. Someone else had a similar policy. Adolf Hitler said, "The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms" (Hitler’s Secret Conversations, trans. Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens; New York: Signet Books, 1961; p. 403).

I'm glad we have a President who is serious about being a conservative, at least on abortion and gun control.

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