Monday, June 20, 2022

And the Words of the Prophets Agree with This

“And the words of the prophets agree with this.” (Acts 15:15)

James is standing up at the council of Jerusalem to support Paul and Barnabas who have been converting the Gentiles.

These new non-Jewish converts have been receiving the Holy Spirit.

Paul, Barnabas, and James are advocating for an open door policy for non-Jews.

Other Christians would require Gentile converts to adopt the ritual and cultural practices of Judaism. That would be a huge barrier to entry!

James offers an argument from Jewish scripture.

When we think of the Hebrew Bible, we often think of the great many rules, laws, and commandments imposed on God’s people. And so it might surprise us that James goes to scripture to support relaxing these laws.

But if you read the Old Testament attentively, as the early Christians did, you find it not only full of laws, but also full of promises and prophetic hope for a renewed and expanded relationship between humanity and God.

James is saying that to take these prophecies seriously requires an openness to change. This means letting go of many scriptural laws and adopting rules appropriate for what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world.

The Greek word James uses for agree is symphonousin. It is the same word that comes into English as symphony. It literally means to sound together or speak in harmony.

One way of interpreting the Bible sees scripture not as a set of fixed commandments forever determining what is and isn’t allowed, but as a harmonious voice singing along with and confirming the new things God is doing.

This is the symphonic way of reading the Bible. It was the practice of James and the early Christians.

Let’s make it our practice.

Nothing in the Bible is intended to limit the new things God is always doing and has always known he would do.


Monday, April 11, 2022

Righteous Before God and Blameless

 “They were both righteous before God and blameless, following all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” (Luke 1:6)

Luke’s Gospel begins with the story of a pious couple, Zacharias and Elizabeth.

Zacharias is a priest working in the Temple. He is the first person in history to hear any inkling of the good news—direct from the mouth of the angel Gabriel.

He is performing rituals and burning incense alone in the sanctuary of the Temple when Gabriel appears.

Later, his wife Elizabeth receives the Holy Spirit from Jesus when Jesus is still in his mother’s womb.

They are the first to be transformed by Jesus’s coming into the world.

What prepares them for this transformation? It is the blameless life they lead—their righteousness and justice and willingness to do God’s will.

They take their religious obligations seriously.

They make that essential leap from being religious to having good hearts which shows they understand the inner meaning of religion. They are exemplars of their Jewish faith.

Their son John the Baptist, also deeply pious, would go on to live a very different and much less conventional life. He would finally offend the powers that be and pay a heavy price.

John would prepare the way for Jesus who likewise would live a life outside the religious mainstream, ultimately suffering a fate even worse than John’s.

On one hand, there are the radicals who shake things up like Jesus and John, and on the other, there are the ordinary faithful like John’s parents.

Their ordinary goodness made Elizabeth and Zacharias extraordinary. Extraordinary things happened through them, and the world is better forever because of them.

They were the ones God came to first when he decided to intervene in history in a new way.

And so it’s appropriate that, for Luke, Elizabeth and Zacharias’s simple piety is the beginning of the story of Jesus.

May we be more like them.


Tuesday, April 5, 2022

He Will Serve Them

 “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds awake when he arrives. Truly I tell you that he will make himself ready and seat them at table and come and serve them.” (Luke 12:37)

When I try to understand Jesus, I end up looking into his historical and political context.

If I understand his context, I can understand the political and social implications of his words.

It’s important to understand that Jesus’s Palestine was not free.

In a world in the iron grip of slavery and imperialism, Jesus’s teachings loosened the shackles.

Couldn’t Jesus have called down twelve legions of angels and abolished slavery and imperialism by force?

Without changing people’s minds, such force could only be another form of slavery and imperialism.

Force may be necessary eventually, but persuasion comes first.

All change in society begins with persuasion—with an articulated vision of how things could be different.

Jesus spoke a lot about slavery. Slavery was the institution familiar to everyone.

To be clear, slavery is abominable. When Jesus spoke about slavery, he couched moral truths in the terms of an immoral institution.

Jesus did not support slavery, but he used slavery as a point of reference familiar to his audience.

The moral truths he articulated ultimately proved incompatible with slavery.

Jesus said God is our true master. He said slaves should not beat other slaves. And he said true service is characterized by a vigilant and consistent integrity.

In the verse quoted above, Jesus describes a “slavery” characterized by mutual devoted service.

Though Jesus could have condemned slavery outright, he chose the long, slow, reliable path of moral development over the quick, violent, unreliable path of political rebellion.

Jesus appeals to our innate capacity for moral clarity. He said things that would ring true in the consciences of his hearers and begin to wake them up from their fixed ideas about how things must be.

If we understand it, the Spirit of Jesus’s words can be as liberating today as it ever was.


Monday, March 28, 2022

Give Them Food at the Proper Time

 “Who is the faithful and wise slave whom the master will set over his household slaves to give them food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find doing so when he arrives.” (Matthew 24:45-46)

English translations of the Bible often render the Greek word doulos as servant, but that’s inaccurate. The precise meaning is slave.

The economic and social order of the time depended on slavery—so much so, that the idea of abolishing slavery was practically unthinkable.

Slaves generally hoped to buy their own freedom, and sometimes they rebelled to escape slavery. However, there's little evidence that anyone in ancient times imagined a possible society without slavery.

There are ancient records of freed slaves going on to acquire other people as slaves.

All power, violence, and money in society supported slavery. Slavish ways of thinking structured everyone’s hearts and minds.

Jesus chose to enter an enslaved world and speak to enslaved people. We sometimes forget this, and in forgetting it, we forget who Jesus is.

Jesus did what had to be done to liberate the world—I’m not speaking only of spiritual liberation, but of literal legal emancipation. He spoke to a slavish mentality and worked to defeat it with the power of its own logic.

In Matthew, chapter twenty-four, Jesus tells slaves to provide for the needs of their fellow slaves. He also tells slaves in supervisory roles not to beat their subordinates. These are not metaphors. Jesus is speaking literally.

He tells slaves not to contribute to the brutality of slavery, but to care for others.

He tells them they are answerable to God who is their real lord and who will hold them accountable.

This accountability to God was Jesus’s message to all, including slave owners.

Though Jesus didn't directly condemn slavery, the body of his teachings tended to make the institution untenable.

Three centuries later, St. Gregory of Nyssa—who arguably understood the drift of Jesus’s teachings better than anyone who came before—declared for the first time that slavery was sin and blasphemy.

* * *

For more on Gregory of Nyssa’s opposition to slavery, see here.


Monday, March 21, 2022

I Honor my Father

 “The Judeans said to him, ‘Do we not say correctly that you are a Samaritan and that you have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.’” (John 9:48-49)

The Gospels give an account of the conflicts Jesus had with the religious establishment of his day.

How is this good news? What is new or good about conflict?

The god of this world always pits people against each other. Each faction defends its own half-truths while dismissing and abusing any truth on the other side.

Does Jesus add fuel to this fire?

I think Jesus’s life shows us that, despite all the destructive and futile conflicts in this world, some battles are necessary.

Jesus fought the religious establishment knowing what would happen to him. He fought not to win but to maintain his integrity.

He fought because to fight was to be who he was. Not to fight would have been to lose himself.

Who was he? He was what he is—the one who honors his Father.

Ultimately, integrity is victory.

In his integrity, Jesus bore witness to truth—not in a neutral, non-committal way, but, where necessary, calling out people who were harming others by suppressing the truth. He wants us to do the same.

Of course, the fight for truth begins in ourselves. To have integrity, we must seek, find, and accept the truth—the work of a lifetime.

The opinions of our political or religious tribe should not be enough for us—just as they weren’t enough for Jesus.

Instead, we can interpret what our opponents say charitably, acknowledging whatever truth is in it.

And we can turn from rationalizations to reasons, from prejudice to evidence.

In bearing witness, we might be wrong. For the sake of truth, let’s be willing to be corrected.

Jesus had compassion for those who were wrong. Let’s do the same.

A servant of Truth is both militant and merciful.

The good news is that God fights for truth. We can fight with him.


Thursday, March 10, 2022

They Wash Their Hands

“For the Pharisees and the Judeans as a whole do not eat unless they wash their hands all the way up the length of the forearm, upholding the tradition of the elders.” (Mark 7:3)

Jesus healed and taught and fought.

He fought not so much against blatant evil as against the false appearance of good.

Evil always wants to look good.

Jesus especially fought against the false piety of the religious establishment.

It really looks like he fought mainly against respectable religious people.

The awkward truth is that respectable religious people often make life hell for others.

He fought against those performing rituals and following rules and preaching obedience to the letter of the law.

They were practicing religion in bad faith. They were gleaming white on the outside and dead on the inside.

Jesus was what his enemies only pretended to be. And they called him a lawbreaker.

They were legalists. When they saw something written in scripture, they called it God’s word.

They saw that scripture declared certain meats unclean, and they prohibited them.

Jesus saw the same prohibitions, but he declared all foods clean.

Jesus revered scripture, and yet the letter of scripture meant nothing to him—unless it communicated the living Spirit.

The Spirit can and does contradict scripture. The Spirit is God and scripture is only a thing that God made, imperfect like the people through whom it was made.

What is sacred in scripture is the self-revealing presence of God. God is present in the imperfect.

Jesus does not read scripture as a lawyer but as a child listening for the voice of his Father.

Legalism never hears God’s voice. It only worships the traditions of men.

To be clear, respect for the law isn't legalism. Law is a tool that helps maintain order. We must respect it.

And legalism isn’t morality. A legalist will immorally follow rules even if it means wronging their neighbor.

Either laws enforce our neighborly love, or they must bow to the higher Law.

 

Monday, January 3, 2022

Do Not Judge. Judge Righteous Judgement.

“Do not judge.” (Luke 6:37)

“Judge righteous judgement.” (John 7:24)

We are commanded to judge righteously and forbidden from judging at all.

The word judge cannot have the same meaning in both sentences. That would be a contradiction.

We know Jesus doesn’t contradict himself. What he says makes sense and describes reality. A contradiction can do neither.

But why did Jesus use one word to mean two things?

Isn’t this what we do? We praise one person, saying, “She judges fairly.” And we criticize another, saying, “She’s always judging.”

The bad kind of judging we call judgemental. The good kind we just call good judgement.

We often confuse them.

Sometimes we assume an angry person is judgemental and a calm person is judging fairly.

Though that can be true, there are people who express judgemental attitudes in the most infuriatingly calm way.

And then there’s Jesus who called such people a brood of vipers and said their father was Satan.

He spoke his mind with a freedom that scandalized the respectable folk of his day—and still scandalizes us.

But he wants us to speak as freely as he does. And we can—if, like him, we never judge and always judge righteously.

Try as we might, we can find no outward sign that infallibly distinguishes judging in the bad sense from judging justly.

The distinction is an inner distinction. It is in fact a spiritual distinction. Good judgement comes from a spirit of caring, concern, scrupulous honesty, integrity, and fairness.

Judgementalism comes from another spirit altogether.

This distinction is not conceptual. Thinking alone cannot show us the difference. The smartest people often fail to make it correctly.

The only person who can reliably make a spiritual distinction is the person who acts in the Spirit of Truth and Love.

We are such a person when we do as Jesus tells us.