Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jesus keeps us honest about our religious pretensions, and about what God desires

When it comes to "morality" or "religion" or "spirituality", a lot of people assume that the goal is our own quest for excellence. Jesus challenges that self-centered type of religion by showing how that works out in daily life with the parable of the Good Samaritan: A traveler is attacked by thieves and left for dead by the side of the road. A priest passes by and ignores him. A Levite (another religious type) passes by and ignores him. A Samaritan sees him and has compassion. He bandages his wounds, takes him to safety, arranges for his care, pays his expenses.

The priest and the Levite are wrapped up in their own stories where they're the heroes, no doubt, more spiritual than other people, they may suppose. So they don't see that they’re half-villains in the story of the man they pass by without helping. The quest for personal excellence or religious status might be what stops them from being like the real hero of the piece: the Samaritan who set aside his own personal goals for the moment because he was moved by compassion for someone who needed help. The parable highlights the true nature of personal excellence and religious status.

And so, in his way, Jesus tells us that the story of following him may not be the story of our own quest for excellence, status, or achievement; it may be about how we fit into someone else’s story of their need for compassion and practical help.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Jesus' teachings are vivid and personal

Remember when Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son? How about the lost sheep, or the lost coin? How about the Good Samaritan? The Pharisee and the Publican? The sheep and the goats? The king and the wedding banquet? People who have heard Jesus' teachings tend to remember them.

Jesus' teachings are exceptionally vivid. Some of that is from the use of parables -- where morality is more than a set of laws or principles; it is the motive behind every good action. That desire for good, and the character who perseveres in good, is the cause of the good that comes to others in the parables.

Jesus' parables are more than simple figures of speech or comparisons; they are stories. We find ourselves caught up in the action; they light up our imagination. Somebody's life or happiness often hangs in the balance of whether another person is going to be good to them.

Jesus' approach is more realistic than discussing morality as some sort of abstract principle. In daily life, someone's happiness often depends on whether or not other people are going to be just or kind toward them. In Jesus' teachings, we see how much goodness matters to us and to those around us. We see its power to change everyday life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jesus knows what the Last Day will be like -- and what justice looks like

Jesus' teaching of the Last Judgment is something very nearly unforgettable.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?’

The King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’

Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’

Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46)

The teaching is striking and memorable in several different ways. First, there is the clear, plain rightness of the actions called for. Rarely do you find a teaching that is so plainly and thoroughly good. Here is a teaching that can change the world -- and to the extent that people listen and follow, it does in fact change the world. These are the words that created Mother Theresa of Calcutta and brought thousands of people to help her. The same words have created followers for Jesus in every age.

Next is the profound fairness of the way the groups are separated. Earlier in his teachings Jesus had said, "With the measure you use, it will be measured to you," and "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." Each person is shown to choose how the Judge will treat him by how he treats others. Jesus' teaching silences the complaint “God is unfair”. Can a person complain it is unfair for the Lord to treat them in the same way they treat others? ("You can't treat me the way I treat everyone else! It's unfair!" -- That person has just testified against himself, that he treats others badly, treats them in a way he would not want to be treated.) There is an unanswerable justice to it all.

There is the tender kindness shown to "the least of these brothers of mine" -- to show that the Lord sees himself in each of them. There is no room for doubt about whether the judge of all the earth has compassion on everyone, even the least. The only topic on the table is whether we have the same compassion.

The focus of Jesus' teaching is not on the judge, but on justice, on compassion, on mercy, on the least of the brothers -- so it's easy to miss what is not the focus: Jesus portrays himself as the one judging the world. He doesn't make a big deal out of his status; that seems taken for granted and not his main point. But it might explain how he knows so clearly what the Last Day will be like.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jesus knows what the kingdom of heaven is like

How many religious teachers are there? When we include those who are self-appointed, and those who are appointed by religious groups as their representatives, there must be a vast number. And out of all those, how many of them have any idea what the kingdom of heaven is like? There are a lot of people who like to talk, and a lot of people who like to teach, but very few of them leave the impression that they know anything at all about the kingdom of heaven.
"The kingdom of heaven is like ..."

Jesus taught about that time after time. I can find eight places in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus started to teach by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like ...". He found one way after another to explain it to us. He focused his teaching efforts to make sure we could grasp it. Even if I haven't grasped everything he said, I've grasped this much: Jesus knows what the kingdom of heaven is like. He knew what he was talking about. He didn't come across as someone who guesses or speculates, either. He came across as someone who knew.

The kingdom of heaven is not just the hidden treasure of the parables. The kingdom of heaven is also the point of repentance:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

The kingdom of heaven is worth changing our lives for. The kingdom of heaven is where we are called to belong. For Jesus, calling us to repent isn't about calling us to be respectable and responsible. Those are good, but Jesus us calls us to something better.

Next series: Name above all names

I don't know how many people actually follow the long slow arc of what topics are posted here; probably only me, I'd expect. In general, I've been working along on the Controversies series, where those posts take a good long awhile to develop. This fall, one or two posts each month have been background work for that series, where the next topic is controversies on the moral authority of the Bible. Some of the other, faster series have been offshoots or sub-topics there.

The next series that I start here has grown out of that -- but is probably more important than the Controversies series. So the next series here is "Jesus, Name above all names".

Why mention this? First, in case someone had been wondering about the Controversies series: yes, it's still coming along, with a pace that reflects that I'd rather do it right than quickly. Second, in case someone had noticed the faster-moving series here and how they tend to relate to my next topic in "Controversies" -- I wanted to make it clear that, to me, this next faster-moving series is the more important topic than the Controversies series.

I've gone ahead and scheduled the first post in that series to publish later today.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Youth worker succeeds beyond wildest dreams

Do we think of Christian calling too narrowly?

Back in 1891, a worker at the YMCA was given the job of developing an indoor sport that would use plenty of energy and prevent the students from becoming bad-tempered from inactivity during the long months of winter. In a modest way, it would improve the health and quality of life for those who participated. Isn't that a valid calling? The YMCA thought so. The assigned worker, James Naismith, thought so. Naismith had been an athlete in college and was gifted in sports. A valid calling is what makes the best use of our gifts and talents, isn't it?

Most charity groups run on a small budget, so that may have been why he chose the simple soccer ball and peach basket combination for his new indoor sport. The game quickly became very popular. The story has it that someone considered naming the game after its inventor, "Naismith ball", but Naismith wanted something to reflect the game itself: "basket ball".

Naismith probably could not have imagined the place basketball now has, not just in the U.S., but in the world. He lived to see his game included as an Olympic sport. I doubt, when he took his assignment to invent a new game, that he ever envisioned the wizardry of the Harlem Globetrotters or the artistry of Kobe Bryant, or the fact that every city park I have ever seen has basketball hoops.

A mission from God doesn't always mean preaching. If Naismith had tried to do that, he'd have missed his calling.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

One Greater than Solomon

The Queen of the South shall rise at the Judgment with this generation, and will condemn it. For she came from the furthest parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon. And see: one greater than Solomon is here. -- Jesus (Matthew 12:42, see also Luke 11:31)
It's amazing to me that sometimes we are embarrassed to acknowledge Jesus' greatness. American pop culture has spent generations now drilling it into our heads that Christians should be ashamed to think that Jesus is greater than any of the "other great teachers". We have been told time and again that it's nothing but bigotry and bias and narrow-mindedness to say that Jesus is greater than, say, Confucius. For the record, I find Confucius' teachings instructive. Many of them are insightful. But he doesn't hold a candle to Jesus. He isn't in the same league. And please don't imagine that my example is Confucius because of some thought that Confucius doesn't deserve his place among the great teachers; not at all, he has earned his place well. My example could just as easily have been Lao Tzu, or even someone considered great by people within the Christian tradition like Solomon.

Not many people could casually claim to be greater than Solomon and still come across as humble. (In the same conversation, Jesus also laid claim to being greater than Jonah, the prophet who called Nineveh to repent.) People came from distant lands and other cultures to seek the wisdom of Solomon. And one greater than Solomon is here.

I think it is important for us, as Christians, to have read the other people who have a reputation as Great Teachers. Many Christians, I suppose, are comfortable to say they follow Jesus, not Solomon, because Jesus is greater than Solomon. We can say this not only because Jesus said so, but also because we have some writings attributed to Solomon. We know that between Jesus and Solomon, it is Jesus who speaks to us more clearly and beautifully, whose call to follow rings through us. Solomon's ways may be truly good and we still study his words, but Jesus' are even better. Solomon seeks wisdom; in Jesus we see that wisdom personified that Solomon was seeking. So Solomon is not someone we would ever put down; in some ways Solomon walks beside us as we follow Jesus.

In proclaiming Jesus to the people of our day, we have a lot of chances that we don't always recognize. Every time someone says, "All religions are the same", there is an opening in the conversation to say differently. ("Wow, I see a world of difference out there. There are so many different beliefs. The tricky part is picking the good from the bad.") Every time someone tries to shame us into silence about Jesus is actually a chance to point to Jesus' uniqueness. We should not criticize or put down anything that is good; Jesus didn't put down Moses or Jonah or Solomon. Still, someone greater is here. Part of our job is finding the words to explain that to the people of our day.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

If I Corinthians 13 were written today

If I Corinthians 13 were written today, what would Paul have used as his examples? Just imagining:
If I study my Bible every day and have private devotions, but have not love, I am nothing. If I tithe to the church, and support good charities, but have not love, I gain nothing. If I pray day and night, and join the choir, and worship every time the church opens her doors, but have not love, it is nothing. If I teach Sunday school, and serve as a church officer, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful or proud. It is not rude or self-seeking or touchy [easily angered]. It keeps no record of wrongs. It does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It endures all things, believes all things, hopes all things, perseveres through all things.

Love never fails. Where there are Bible studies or sermons, they will cease ... for now we know in part, but then we shall see face to face.

Three things remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.
Some of the details would change based on church membership. Some might have
  • If I abstain from drinking, smoking, and dancing, but have not love ...
  • If I fast twice a week, but have not love ...
  • If I pray the rosary but have not love ...
  • If I observe the Sabbath, but have not love ...
Every group has its thing. Why isn't the thing love?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Forgiveness and the art of forgetting

I recently read someone who was teaching that forgiveness doesn't really involve forgetting. They made a would-be clever argument about how God cannot possibly forget because he is omniscient, and if God forgives without forgetting, then forgetting is not part of forgiving.

There's a lot more to forgiveness than forgetting; the main thing is love. Still, it's wrong -- and spiritually unsafe -- to leave people with the impression that they can hold tight to the memory of wrong and call it forgiveness.

Does God really stop remembering our sins? Actually, yes, he does. It's not a problem with his omniscience, it's a deliberate decision to wash us clean. It's a decision not to recall a memory:
For I will forgive their iniquities,
And remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)

Claiming that God must remember is not truly standing up for God's glory. When he stands up for his own name, he proclaims that he will not remember:
It is I, I who -- for My own sake --
Wipe your transgressions away
And remember your sins no more. (Isaiah 43:25)

Then what if we remember a sin of someone we have forgiven? We forgive again; we forget again. If the forgiveness is still firmly decided, then putting the memory out of mind will be easy.

Human memories are not like God's. They are like an old radio signal -- they fade with time and distance. If you do not boost the signal it will be lost, the further away you go. That's why we repeat things we want to remember, or look at them time after time to refresh our memories. Most memories fade with time. The memory of old wrongs could easily be forgotten, if only we would let them.

Our minds are like a sieve. We forget where we left our keys. We forget where we left our watch, or our phone. We forget what we had to eat just a day or two ago. Our minds have a natural tendency to forget. It takes a serious effort on our part to be able to recall all the wrong that someone did us awhile back. Don't we remember because we pay attention to those things, and keep close track of them?

If God -- God the omniscient, God the all-knowing, God the Almighty -- can manage to put away a memory and remember it no more, then how much more should we forgetful little creatures be able to put away a memory and remember it no more.

I have often -- too often -- watched my own mind call up old sins. A person who wronged me will cross my path again. And the old memories will rush into my thoughts. It takes effort to put these things out of mind. I admit that I resort to some silly tricks to chase out the memories. When there are images that I want to remove from my mind, sometimes I picture those images as printed on paper, and then imagine a paper shredder, and shred them. Sometimes when memory brings up images, I picture the memories falling into a video game, and I picture myself using the video controllers to blast the memories out of existence. Sometimes the memories are sounds and words; I picture them as a recording, and I picture myself hitting the "next track" button.

Are these amateurish ways to handle memories of someone's sin? Yes. But I'd rather have these silly tricks in my mind than the bad memories. Ideally, I should be able to replace these memories with other memories of the person being kind or friendly or trustworthy or helpful. One day I hope I can remember things that build love and compassion just as easily as I remember wrongs. Because we really are fighting an uphill battle against our memories of sin, until we learn to love the other person. Forgiveness hasn't reached its goal until there is reconciliation.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Monumental mistakes -- and corrections that open up a new world

"Then I shall sail for another great island which I strongly believe should be Japan, according to the signs made by the San Salvador Indians with me. They call that island Cuba ..." -- Christopher Columbus, log entry dated October 21, 1492
History has been full of mistaken ideas. People -- even those who made a careful study -- have taken wrong turns. And a wrong turn is not necessarily useless, if (sooner or later) someone realizes what we have actually found, rather than what we expected to find.

Columbus expected to find the westward passage to Japan and then to the realm of the Great Khan. He was on the right track, but he was only a fraction of the way there. He firmly expected to find one thing -- and that expectation was part of the reason he did not recognize that he had found something else entirely.

There is an intrepid crew of scholars who are firmly embarked on a mission to discover that Christianity is false. (It has to be; they are sure of it.) And so they seek out every alternative gospel they can find, and run its banner high, and claim that the early church was wrong to ignore these alternative writings.

And one "lost Scripture" after another shows that the alternative materials are of late date, or have edited out Jesus' Jewishness, or have removed Jesus from any recognizable historical context, or make no effort at recording the events of Jesus' life ... or all of the above.

I think that Biblical studies is on the edge of recognizing something monumental: that what they expected to find, and what they were so earnestly seeking (something to debunk Christianity) is not at all what they have found. I think that the discipline of Biblical studies, if they make a fair and objective assessment of the materials, will soon discover that the best sources on the life of Jesus are the earliest ones, the ones with a Jewish Jesus, the ones where Jesus lived in first-century Roman-occupied territory, the ones where he worshiped at the synagogues, the ones that are saturated with people and places that are recognizable context for his life. So far, no writing has come close to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John for material on the life of Jesus.

After a long journey, sometimes you end up back where you started. But that's not a waste of time; now you know so much more than you did before. If you keep a good map, you might even be less likely to get lost again.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A righteousness that surpasses

I say to you: Unless your righteousness surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. - Jesus (Matthew 5:20)
That must have been something to hear if you were a Pharisee, or a scribe. Those groups prided themselves on their righteousness. They were strict observers of the law. And there they were held up as examples -- of people who weren't good enough.

Jesus puts together an interesting teaching. First, he starts by lining up points in favor of the Law:
  • He hasn't come to abolish the Law or the Prophets
  • He has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets
  • Not a pen stroke will disappear from the Law, not until heaven and earth disappear, until everything is accomplished
  • Those who break the law or teach others to do the same will be least in the kingdom of heaven
  • Those who keep the law and teach others to do the same will be great in the kingdom of heaven

So why is the very next thing out of his mouth that the scribes and Pharisees -- those who teach and keep the law most zealously -- need to be surpassed?

Here again I'll mention that "inerrancy" can distract us from understanding Scripture. Because if the ancient Law of Moses is "inerrant" and what Jesus says is also "inerrant" then aren't they on the same level? And nothing can surpass anything, if "inerrancy" is the highest you can go, and everything in Scripture is at that level. Again we see "inerrancy" fall short of describing what we see in Scripture.

Jesus follows his statements on the greatness of the law with statements on how the law can be surpassed -- or truly fulfilled. His words, repeated time and again throughout his teaching, make a recognizable refrain: "You have heard that it was said (or, it has been said) ... but I say" (Matthew 5:21-22, 5:27-28, 5:31-32, 5:33-34, 5:38-39, 5:43-44). It's easy to see why he started by saying -- several different ways -- that he had not come to abolish the law; otherwise, his statements could easily have been taken as an attack on it. He calls for a pure heart, for surpassing goodness in the face of evil, for surpassing service in the face of our obligations. In the grand finale of those teachings, we see just how far Jesus' teachings of righteousness surpass the Law of Moses, and the Scribes, and the Pharisees:
I tell you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and brings the rain on the just and the unjust. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Don't even tax collectors [traitors and thieves] do that? If you greet only your brothers, what is the excellence of that? Don't even pagans [idol worshipers] do that? Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

The goodness that Jesus calls for is something he says we already do some people. What we lack is to do the same for our enemies. What we lack is mercy; we would rather judge. Ultimately, we lack love.

Now it's natural for us to try to turn everything into a set of rules -- a system where we win. But that's not how love works. It's not possible to love someone so that they can be a step on the ladder to getting something else -- whatever that is, it doesn't deserve to be called "love".

That's one way the righteousness of the law is good, but can be surpassed. How many times in the gospel do we see people use the law to tattle on someone, or as an excuse to put them down and look good in comparison? Remember the times Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath, and one person or another got all indignant about working on a day of rest? As if God would allow a miracle if he objected to it. Someone who looks at a miracle and calls it a sin, that has to set a new record in missing the point. And the same kind of mistake happened when Jesus reached out to obvious sinners. The lost is found, the wayward son comes home, there is rejoicing in heaven, God's love overflows in generosity and mercy -- and someone is there to use the law as a scorecard to try to put an obstacle in the way of love. Jesus calls for a righteousness that surpasses that.

Keeping the law is not necessarily petty. It takes determination and dedication. The Pharisees had the dedication, the determination, and the zeal. In their determination to be faultless, they risked becoming heartless. But even if they succeeded in keeping the laws faultlessly, Jesus would still have called them to a righteousness that surpasses that: The kind that turns the other cheek, and goes the extra mile, and loves even the enemy.