Friday, April 22, 2011

Stormy Faith

Depending on which Gospel you follow, there is a different chain of prior events to this study. According to Matthew, Jesus (non-)prophetically healed a bunch of people and emphasized the extreme urgency of His mission on earth by telling a would-be follower to skip his own father's burial in favor of following Jesus and preaching about the Kingdom of God. According to Mark, Jesus dishonored His mother and brothers, and then taught a large crowd through several parables while sitting in a boat. According to Luke, Jesus taught people through parables while traveling town to town, and then dishonored His mother and brothers. According to John, you would never know that this story happened at all. It seems that John was not impressed by the event described below.

Stormy Faith
Faith is a curious subject. The word “faith” is used around 240 times in the Bible. Only nine of those times are in the Old Testament (OT), and only three of those times are in the sense a faith in God. The other six OT references of “faith” are in terms of honoring an agreement. Yet every single time of the roughly 230 times the New Testament (NT) uses the word, it is in connection with believing in God. As Hebrews 11:1 puts it:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. NIV
To see such a stark contrast between OT and NT usage should give you pause about your faith. While you are paused, let us take a closer look at one of the times when Jesus commented about faith.

Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25 all recount the tale of how Jesus and some unnamed, unnumbered disciples joined with Jesus in a boat ride to cross the lake of Tiberias (a.k.a. Sea of Galilee). A fierce storm quickly appears. The boat nearly sinks while Jesus sleeps. The disciples awaken Jesus, who then rebukes the weather, making it calm and peaceful.

Before (according to Matthew 8:26) or after (according to Mark 4:39-40 and Luke 8:24-25) calming the storm, Jesus rebukes His disciples; asking them why they are afraid and asking why they have little or no faith.

Little or no faith? At first glance, that does not make sense at all. The lake of Tiberias is about 8 miles (13 km) wide, so this is a lake in which you could drown from exhaustion in trying to swim shore, especially in a storm. As Luke 8:23 renders it, “the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.” And what did the disciples do in their peril? They turned to Jesus for help! They woke up Jesus and, as Matthew 8:25 renders it, exclaimed "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!" They did not say “Jesus, would you please help us bail out the boat?” They had faith that Jesus could save them supernaturally.

So why did Jesus say that they had little or no faith? The classic Christian exegesis says that their “little faith” was evidenced by the fact that they either did not believe that God would protect them, or did not believe that Jesus could not protect them while He was sleeping. That exegesis is all wrong. By all appearances, God was not saving them. They were indeed in danger. (Now if the boat was completely calm and dry despite the raging storm all around, that would have been a good indicator that God was protecting them!)

Some pastors will latch on to the fact of this danger like it was the central message; to encourage belief regardless of what was happening around you because God will protect you, but that was not the message. As I pointed out, the disciples did believe that Jesus could save them. So this claim of “little faith” has got to mean something else...

I suspect that this was meant to be a rebuke that these disciples had not believed or taken to heart what Jesus had been preaching about the Kingdom of God. No, there is not much specific about the Kingdom in the Gospels thus far, but it does say that Jesus was preaching quite often about it (Matthew 4:23, Mark 1:14, Luke 4:14-15, Luke 8:1). Presumably, the afterlife would have come up sometime during Jesus' preaching. If so, Jesus would rightfully be wondering why they are afraid to die. That is part of the message of Salvation, right? Death, where is thy sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55)

This should be a reminder to Bible-thumpers everywhere that not everything that supposedly happened is actually recorded in the Gospels. You are going to have to do some interpolation to get at the truth of the story, if you could call it truth. The trick is that you have to stay within the limits of the text in your interpolation. Interpolate. Do not extrapolate.

OK, now for the skeptical punchline. Check out the basic mechanics of this story. Storm comes in. Believers solicit Jesus for help. Jesus controls the weather to save the believers.

Why is this same thing not happening today? Why is God not protecting believers which seek His protection from natural disasters? Surely people pray for protection during hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis, etc. Yet you do not see any divine protection given, not at any rate above what could be called statistical chance. Even these mechanics point to my theoretical exegesis above.

Per the story, Jesus had to calm the storm for His own protection so that He could make it to the cross. Otherwise Christians would be praying to a boat, and that just would not do. So this divine intervention was a one-off, special event.

As for everybody else in the remainder of mortal time, why should God bother saving anybody's mortal life, when it is the deeper Salvation of the afterlife that really matters? So you may as well stop praying to God for healing or protection, oh you of little faith. God is not going to help you, and He is wondering why you want to keep living anyway.

That would have been an good message to send to new believers. It is not an attractive message in and of itself, but it does remind believers to focus on the afterlife, not on this life. Completely disregard the dangers of this life, and instead blindly follow, even to your death if necessary. The afterlife will be so worth it.

Oh, the power the early church leaders would have had over such sheep...

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