Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Eating at the Wrong Time with the Wrong People

(Here's a little excerpt from my forthcoming commentary on Matthew for the Story of God Bible Commentary--to be published soon).

It’s easy to see a correlation between the healing of the paralytic and the calling of Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13).  Neither man asked for Jesus to do what he did.  The paralytic had his sins forgiven and the tax collector became a disciple of Jesus.  Furthermore, both men apparently popped up quickly in response to Jesus’ word:  the paralytic “got up and went home” and the tax collector “got up and followed him” (v. 9).  We might even be tempted to merge their stories together, seeing Matthew just as paralyzed by corruption as the paralytic was paralyzed by disease.  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus would say about Matthew and his friends (v. 12), almost leading the reader to hear echoes between these two stories.  And, in both cases, the Pharisees and scribes objected to Jesus’ behavior regarding sin and sinners.  Is that why Matthew put his story here, so that we would see him and the paralytic as “fraternal twins” of God’s mercy?  That’s certainly the lesson the scribes and Pharisees were supposed to learn.  Having just seen Jesus forgive the paralytic’s sins by healing him, they were forced to stand and watch Jesus dine with a bunch of tax collectors and sinners (vv. 10-11).  It was too much to take in for one day, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked the disciples.  The answer should have been apparent—at least that’s what Jesus thought.  Sick people need a doctor, right (v. 12)?  That seems obvious.  Sinners need God, right?  Still don’t understand, huh?  Time for a little homework, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (v. 13).  Boy, are they going to learn a lesson they’ll never forget.

The issue between Jesus, the Pharisees and even John’s disciples had to do with the question:  How can we restore sinners to God?  Of course, the question rests on two presumptions:  those doing the restoring are righteous and those who need restoration are the sinners.  Everyone should know the difference between the two groups.  And just in case anyone was fuzzy-headed about the distinction, the righteous people were the first to point out who was righteous and who wasn’t:  the righteous are the ones who are serious about sin.  Even though the Pharisees and the Baptizer had very different ideas about how to deal with the problem of Israel’s sin, they agreed on one thing:  fasting was necessary for repentance.  And, it’s easy to see why.  Of the six festivals Israel observed to commemorate God’s salvation, there was only one that required fasting.  Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.”  Forgiveness and fasting went together like feasting and Passover.  Evidently, both the Pharisees and the Baptizer (11:18) extended the practice of fasting beyond the once-a-year ritual.  In fact, the Pharisees were known to fast twice per week, Mondays and Thursdays.  But Jesus defied the tradition, choosing to eat with sinners rather than join the righteous in fasting.  This was the way he would restore sinners to God (v. 13).  That’s a completely different approach, feasting when you should be fasting.  And yet, it wasn’t the Pharisees who raised the objection this time.  Instead, John’s disciples were the ones who wanted to know, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (9:14).  In their minds, the man who preached repentance (4:17) should lead sinners to perform the proper acts of repentance.

Jesus knew his methods were unconventional.  He had already decided it was time for something new, something radical—an approach to sin that would change everything.  It was time for the mercy of God.  But, his approach wasn’t completely brand new.  Hosea had already predicted long ago that God would prefer mercy over sacrifice once he had disciplined Israel for their sin (Hos. 6:1-6).  So, as far as Jesus was concerned, it was time to show sinners the mercy of God; it was the only way to recover them, to lead them to the kingdom.  And yet, eating with sinners to deal with Israel’s sin problem seemed completely backwards, out of place, upside down to the righteous.  Feasting was the last thing sinners needed to do to get serious about their sin.  But Jesus acted like times had changed.  The bridegroom is here!  Mourning at a time like this would be completely out of place (v. 15).  Besides, to go back to the old ways of repentance would be like sowing a new patch on an old piece of clothing, or trying to put new wine in an old container (9:16-17).  It would just make things worse.  That’s what mercy does; it destroys the old ways of dealing with sin.  You can’t pour mercy into the wineskin of judgment.  You can’t cover the hole in your worn-out-jeans of sin management with the fresh patch of God’s forgiveness.  It was time for new wineskins to hold God’s mercy, a new way to get serious about sin:  eat with sinners.  And, of course, those of us who gather around the Lord’s Table know exactly why that is true, as we eat and drink our way into the kingdom of God.

Monday, June 05, 2017


I've always been intrigued by the idea of "profane" speech.  Perhaps it has something to do with my childhood.  Whenever I think of a "naughty" word, I get this bitter taste in my mouth--the distinct flavor of Ivory Soap.  I'll never forget the first time I repeated a "dirty" word (I must have been around 7 or 8 years old).  My mom was horrified.  "Where did you hear that?"  Of course, I didn't know.  A little boy can't remember what he heard an hour ago much less who? said what? when?  Anyway, I do remember what happened next.  With a stern look of disapproval, she marched me into the bathroom, lathered up a wash rag with Ivory Soap, and proceeded to "wash my mouth out" since it was "so dirty."  One never forgets the taste of Ivory Soap.

I only made that mistake once more.  My brother Denny, however, didn't.  He cursed like sailor around mom (he had a particular affinity for the f-bomb).  Sometimes, after letting one fly, Denny would head for the bathroom unfazed by the routine (I had begun to wonder if my brother had developed a taste for soap).  After the umteenth time of hearing Denny let one fly, mom changed her tactic.  She grabbed Denny by the arm, escorted him to the bathroom, grabbed a new bar of soap, shoved it in his face, and said, "Take a bite."  I watched from the hallway, wondering what he would do.  After some hesitation (and mom's insistence), Denny finally nibbled a little corner off the edge.  "That won't do," at which point mom shoved the bar into his mouth and made him chomp off a tobacco-sized plug.  Denny winced as he chewed on the white bite, foam pouring from his six-year-old "dirty" mouth..  "Keep chewing till I say so.  Don't swallow it.  Keep chewing."  Denny never spoke profanities in mom's presence again.

Profaned speech is culturally conditioned.  We decide what is vulgar and what isn't (and the list changes across time, across cultures).  In fact, the word "vulgar" comes from the Latin, "vulgarus" which means "common."  The term was used by the educated class to describe the low-brow language of commoners.  To speak in vulgarities, to use "profane" (common) speech, was a sign that you were not only uneducated but also inarticulate--unable to use the proper word at the proper time due to your limited vocabulary.  The same thing happens today.  Notice how some people use the f-bomb like a gap-filler when they can't think of anything else to say.  "That f***in' lawnmower won't f***in' work because the f***in' mechanic didn't fix the f***in' engine."  I usually don't walk away from that guy and think, "Wow.  He's brilliant."

And, why do we call it an "f-bomb"?  Obviously, some profanities are more explosive than others, which brings me to the point of this post.

A well-known, often crass, comic used a profane word the other day and it created quite a stir.  Now, that sentence alone should raise an eyebrow because comics are notorious for their profanities.  But, this was no ordinary vulgarity.  In fact, I would say the word he used has risen to an even higher level than the "f-bomb."  He used the n-word.  And, as a result, even this brash, arrogant, take-no-prisoners, abrasive, foul-mouthed personality was brought to the point of contrition (I must say I took a little pleasure in his mea culpa--something I never thought I 'd hear him say).

So, lest you think that profanities are old fashioned, a relic of the old days--that we've become more sophisticated due to our ability to accept vulgarities--know that even a guy like Bill Maher has to watch his potty mouth.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Real Meaning of Easter

Most of us are concerned about endings.  We talk often about the importance of closure, trying to make sense of our lives in the mean time.  It's no wonder, then, that eschatology plays such a crucial role in understanding the story of humanity--not only for all people, but especially for each one of us.  I may think about the destiny of humans, where it will end for all of us, but the question becomes more important as I think about my ending.  How much more time do I have left?  When will it end for me?  How will I die?  And, most importantly, what happens after I die?  That's the question that hangs over all of our heads, our clear sense of mortality.  One day it will be all over, then what?  Which is why our notions about life after death sometimes rise to the surface (even though we often try to suppress them), especially after we bury someone we love.  Where are they now?  Is this all there is?  Even for those of us who belong to Christ, sometimes the idea that we will live forever with him in a spiritual place called heaven isn't enough to shout down the pain of sickness and death.

And, it was never supposed to.

For our hope isn't that one day we will "shed our mortal coil"--this earthly prison--and live in heaven with those we love forever.  Rather, the entire NT is witness to this hope:  one day, for those of us who die in Christ, our bodies (as well as all creation) will be raised from the dead.  Sin and death cannot destroy what God has made in his image.  If it did, sin would win.  But God won't let that happen.  The resurrection of Christ (then, now, and in the end) proves it.

But, not all Christians celebrate Easter with that in mind.  Rather, for them, Easter is about celebrating Christ's victory over his death and the threat of hell against us.  Sin and death lost the battle because God raised Christ from the grave, proving that the penalty of sin has been paid for us, which means we get to go to heaven when we die.  That's what Christ did for us.  That's what Easter means to them.  It's not about our hope that one day we too will be raised from the dead.  Rather, for many Christians, Easter is a celebration of our victory in Christ over sin and eternal death (hell)--but not our grave.

To be sure, sin is a horrible enemy--one that we have welcomed into our lives, our world.  Genesis 3 tells the story of when it all began:  how Adam and Eve sinned against God and brought about the curse of death to all creation.  We inherited this mess.  And, even though we "didn't start the fire," we've certainly added gas to the flames.  Therefore, for those who see Easter as our "get out of hell" card, the defeat of sin through the death and resurrection of Christ is truly worth celebrating.  But, to me, that kind of Easter celebration doesn't go back far enough (nor far ahead enough).  Instead, the significance of the Resurrection of Christ goes all the way back to Genesis 1 and all the way ahead to Revelation 21-22.

Christ not only conquered sin and death, he restored us to be what God intended from the beginning:  to bear the very image of God, who is Christ, in life, in death, and--this is crucial--in resurrection.  One day, on the last day, we will reign with Christ over sin, death, and our graves on this resurrected earth.  That's when we truly celebrate Easter, from the first chapter of the Bible all the way to the last.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Prodigal Son: the next day

I've often wondered what some of Jesus' "unfinished parables" would look like if we took them to their "logical" extreme.  Here's my "extended" version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (you'll notice my add-on appears in brackets):

Prodigal Son Revisited

A man had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.” So he divided his wealth between them.

And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.  Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.

But when he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.’”

So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and  put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”  And they began to celebrate.

Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.  And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.”  But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him.  But he answered and said to his father, “Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.”  And he said to him, “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”  [But he refused to join the celebration.

Early the next morning, the older son went to work in the field, waiting for his brother to join him.  But, he never came.  The longer he worked, the angrier he got.  That evening, once again he heard music and dancing coming from his father’s house.  Inside he found his father and brother still feasting and celebrating.  Enraged he cried out, “Why do you spend what is not yours?  You are drinking my wine, eating my food.  Am I your slave?”  But the father replied, “Since we are eating your food and drinking your wine, come, dine with us!”  But he refused to join the celebration.

The next morning, while working in the field, the older son thought to himself, “I’m tired of doing all the work.  If the fattened calf shall be slain, I shall eat it with my friends.”  So that night he had a party, feasting and drinking with all of his friends until the sun came up, then he slept the day away.  This happened for several nights until one day the younger son confronted his brother, “Wake up!  How long will you lie around in your drunkenness?  Are you not wasting your inheritance?”

Then the brother replied, “All that I have is yours.  Why should you worry about my inheritance?”]

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Jesus and Politics

When I was a pastor, I would occasionally receive phone calls, letters, messages from members who were disappointed in me because I hadn't taken up the latest political issue in the pulpit. They wondered if I had enough courage to "take a stand for what is right."  My predecessor was known for that:  the marquis issue of the day would be the theme of his message on Sunday--a message meant to stir up the base, rally the troops against moral decadence, reminding the religious right that we were righteous in our cause.  People had grown accustomed to the war drums and they missed the beat in my sermons.

What I had decided to do in my first year as their pastor was to focus on Jesus and the kingdom of God.  Consequently, I spent a lot of time in the Gospels, working through Jesus words and works, reminding us all of the one we want to follow.  That approach frustrated several members; one (a retired minister) was so disappointed he set up a meeting with me to talk about why he didn't leave worship on Sunday inspired to take up arms against the ways of the world.

He said (I can't remember his words exactly; but it went something like this): "Why don't you talk about the evil of our world?  Abortion?  Homosexuality?  The absence of prayer in public schools?  I miss a good, rousing sermon about these important issues.  We used to leave Church ready to take on the world every Sunday.  Now, . .  well, . . . I don't know what you're doing up there.  It's very discouraging."

He offered his critique in a very kind way--wasn't mean-spirited or angry. An older, experienced preacher, I got the impression he was trying to help out a younger man. When I tried to explain, telling him of my intention to continue to preach from the Gospels, he became even more exasperated:

"Is that enough?"  I said, "Shouldn't it be?"  To which he replied, stammering, trying to string a sentence together, "Well, . . . don't you think? . . .  I'm not sure . . . what you're doing is . . .   Look!  All you're doing up there is preaching God's Word."

Searching my face to see if his words hit the target, I just smiled backed at him.  Then, a look of horror fell over his face as he took in the irony of his critique.  He paused, looked down at the floor, grinned to himself, and said, "That didn't come out right.  Doesn't sound like much of a criticism does it?  Of course, you should preach God's Word.  But, . . . I'm not sure . . . do you know what I'm trying to say?"

I assured him that I understood, and I wondered out loud whether my sermons were doing any good.  But then I asked him a question--one that I think every Christian needs to ponder as they banter about their politics these days (again, I can't remember exactly what I said, but it went something like this):

"Why didn't Jesus consistently, constantly blast the Romans for their reprobate politics?  Why didn't he take on the important 'political' issues of his day, addressing the problems of infanticide, child abandonment, violence in entertainment, Roman aggression, military expansion, sexual promiscuity?  If we're supposed to follow Jesus, shouldn't we pay careful attention to what he said and how he said it?  Shouldn't we preach the same gospel?  Live the same morals?  Pursue the same kingdom of heaven on earth?  That's what I'm trying to do.  I'm trying to follow Jesus."

And so, as I think about our current political climate--realizing the stakes are just as high as back in the late 90s--I can't think of a better politic than that.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Word Craft

I admire people who are good with words.  Those who are reckless with words, on the other hand, I don't respect at all.  Even though I may not agree with the content of what someone is saying or writing, I enjoy good word craft.  I listen to them carefully.  (And, the converse is true: even though I may agree with the speaker/writer, if they're using crass, inflammatory words, I don't appreciate their comments.  But I still listen to them.)  And, in light of the rancorous political scene of late, I've come to realize (even more than I did before) that some (many?) people don't have the ability (or desire?) to discern the difference between what is being said and how something is being said.  And, I wonder why?  What makes me different?

For me, it goes back to my college days, hearing things in class that I'd never heard before (or strongly disagreed with).  And, since we were often discussing the Bible (I was a double major:  religion and speech), it was unsettling to listen to someone who was obviously "wrong." Now, even though I didn't know exactly why they were wrong (except that what they were saying didn't sound like what I had always heard), I tried to enter the fray and defend the truth.  When I encountered arguments that I hadn't considered before, I realized I was in trouble.  I didn't know how to assess an opposing argument.  I didn't know how to consider another perspective.  All I knew to do was either raise my voice or attack the person or walk away after I'd launched a dismissive jab.

Then I took three classes that rocked my world:  philosophy, advanced public speaking, and hermeneutics.  Philosophy taught me how to break down an argument, analyzing first the premise (is it sound?), then how the argument proceeds (logic).  We also studied logical fallacies (tricks that debaters use to throw off their listeners, like ad hominem and non sequitur).  Advanced public speaking taught me the power of rhetoric, and why carefully crafted speeches are desirable.  How occasion is just as important as purpose.  How style and delivery matter as much as diction and structure.  Of course, the course that affected more than even these mind-blowing classes was heremenutics:  principles for interpreting biblical literature.  Realizing that none of us read the Bible as a dispassionate (read:  "objective") observer but invested "believer" opened my eyes to the reality that the Scriptures are not a literary "flat-land."  The mountains and valleys of biblical genre require travelers to read the literary landscape before making sense of where they are, what they see.  We come to the Scriptures as visitors and take with us only what we want.  That is a very troubling, ominous, sober reality.

There have been other factors, influences in my life that have shaped me to try to listen to an opposing opinion charitably.  For example, doing Ph.D. work in biblical studies forces you to read a lot of stuff you don't agree with.  But that's never enough.  You need to know why you don't agree with certain parts of a scholar's work--even appreciating their line of thinking, wearing their perspective, using their method.  That's why I've never been satisfied with a lazy, "all-or-nothing" approach--those who dismiss that scholar as "liberal" or that one as an "unbeliever."  For, I've discovered that sometimes the liberal, Jewish scholar is paying closer attention to the Scriptures than the conservative "believer" out to defend the faith at all costs.

I've also been a pastor--an office that compels you to listen to (and care about!) people you don't agree with (that, in and of itself, was an eye-opening experience.)  I wish lay people had to be "paid professional" ministers at least one time in their lives.  Then you'll know what Jesus meant when he said, "love your enemy"--yes, your pastor has enemies in your church.

Which brings me back to what happened last night on Facebook.  Even though I didn't vote for President Obama (and often disagreed with his policies), I have great admiration for his ability as a public speaker.  I said as much, offering a little note of appreciation for his farewell address. Most of the comments revealed they missed my point, attacking the President with reckless abandon, snide remarks, and caustic asides.  Most of my "friends" are Christians, but a few comments revealed a pure hatred for Obama. It was breathtaking.  One wonders what they think Jesus meant when he commanded us to "love our enemies."  Does that include words too?

Yes it does, which is why I plan to listen to our President-Elect carefully and charitably--even though at times he is reckless with his words.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Why I don't believe Gay Marriage is Holy Matrimony

 I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from Christians who support marriage equality that a marriage between two men or between two women is holy matrimony—a covenant relationship between God and his Church.  And, here’s why I don’t think I ever will:

Those who are convinced that gay marriage honors God and should therefore be recognized by all Christians did not arrive at their conclusions due to Scripture (that statement, alone, will offend some of my Christian friends who support gay marriage, but let me explain).  There is no Scripture that supports gay marriage.  We have no example of gays or lesbians being held up as honorable examples in the Scriptures.  We have no canonical prescription that affirms same-sex relations.  Rather, the Scriptures prohibit homoerotic behavior, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  What that implies, I think, is that the locus of conviction regarding a pro-gay marriage position exists outside the Scriptures.

Gay marriage has recently been affirmed as a social good in America.  Marriage equality has been championed as a right—a matter of justice for all--within liberal democracy.  Because there is no Scriptural text to support the particular issue of gay marriage, Christians who support gay marriage do so because of the cultural convictions of our day.  And, once a Christian is convinced that marriage equality is right—justice for all, gays and straight—then that Christian must read the Scriptures in a way that supports their position.  I’ve read many arguments justifying gay marriage, scholarly and common, and none of them are convincing.  Here’s why:  they come to the Scriptures (our common book, where there is no affirmation of same-sex relationships) convinced that gay marriage is justified; I come to the Scriptures (our common book, where there is no affirmation of same-sex relationships) and hear their attempts at justifying gay marriage in spite of Scripture’s prohibition.  This is unprecedented:  what is universally prohibited within Scripture is now embraced as right, just, holy, Godly.  Think about that:  What is completely prohibited in Scripture (there isn’t a single text on this particular issue that leads one to say, “Hey, maybe God does honor gay marriage”), and what has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Christians (now and throughout Church history), must now be accepted and affirmed.

I don’t think that’s ever happened before:  something that is completely prohibited in Scripture is now accepted.  Divorce?  No, it is permitted in a few places in Scripture.  Racism?  No, racism isn’t universally prohibited in the Scriptures nor is it considered a cultural good (quite the opposite:  racism is prohibited in the NT, “neither Jew nor Gentile,” and we abhor it today).  Slavery?  No, slavery isn’t universally prohibited in Scripture nor is it acceptable today.  Women in leadership?  No, although “prohibited” in some texts, women are held up as leaders (in the OT and NT) and are affirmed as leaders in the Scriptures.  Pro-gay marriage Christians bring up these examples (divorce, racism, slavery, sexism), but none of them are strictly consistent, hermeneutical corollaries.  So, I’ll say it again:  I think (and I’m ready to be corrected on this point) there has been no other time in Christian history where some of us want the rest of us to endorse something the Scriptures completely prohibit.

To my friends who are “experts” (scholars and ministers who want to be consistent in their hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures) and support gay marriage, let’s be honest:  what you’re asking some of us (Christians who cannot justify gay marriage from the Scriptures) to do is unprecedented.  Basically, you’re saying, “The Spirit is leading us to a new truth that disregards Scriptural prohibition.”  What the Spirit once inspired he now inspires us to deny.  And, that’s why I don’t think I’ll change my mind and embrace gay marriage as holy matrimony.


This post has nothing to do with whether or not gays and lesbians should have the right to civil unions in America.  In other words, I’m talking about what should happen within the Church (whether in America or anywhere else in the world).

Christians who support gay marriage do rely upon the Scriptures to justify their position. And so, I plan to explain in later posts why their specific arguments are unpersuasive to me.

I’m a terrible blogger; I don’t monitor or referee comments.  So, I won’t be deleting posts or responding to questions directly.

Finally, for those who aren’t used to responding to arguments charitably—even though we disagree—this is the way the academy works.  I don’t take counter arguments personally.  Ad hominem arguments don’t mean much to me.  Personal attacks will be ignored.