Friday, November 25, 2011

Circular Logic

We have just studied Jesus being rejected in His hometown. In our studies, we have been following the timeline as it is laid out in Matthew, but we are going to take a small diversion now to cover a section of John. The Gospel of John covers a two year (at least) ministry of Jesus (based on the explicit mention of three separate Passovers), whereas the other Gospels seem to suggest a ministry of less than one year. This makes it impossible to fit John into the timeline of any other Gospel, especially when roughly 90% of the material John covers is unique to John. So the other Gospels must instead be put into John, but there is a lot of gray area in determining the right way to do so.

According to John, before the speech we will study today, Jesus healed an official's son remotely and then later heals an invalid man who was waiting by a pool for a miraculous healing (John 5:1-15).

Circular Logic
The Gospel of John is always a bit of an enigma. John records no exorcisms, despite exorcisms being one of the most common miracles performed by Jesus according to the other three Gospels. John records no parables, despite the fact that Jesus supposedly did not speak to the crowds without using parables. John records Jesus giving many lengthy explanations about Himself, often using figurative language, which are not in any other Gospel. These explanations are very useful for fleshing out Christian theology, which is probably why John became part of Biblical canon despite such a contrast from the other Gospels. Yet along with the helpful verses come puzzling ones as well.

John 5:1-15 records how Jesus healed a lame man on the Sabbath, which angered the Pharisees. Jesus then told them that His Father also works on the Sabbath, which really pissed them off, inciting them to try “all the harder to kill Him” (John 5:16-18). For John, this is the first mention of the Pharisees trying to kill Jesus, so it appears that any effort in that direction would be counted as trying harder. :-)

Despite the Pharisees trying to kill Jesus, He manages to get a long-winded, and somewhat confused, response to them in John 5:19-46. Below are conceptual highlights from that speech. I think that the absurdity is pretty self-explanatory, but please do not hesitate to raise a protest if it seems logical to you. I could be wrong...

Jesus can do nothing by Himself (John 5:19, John 5:30)
Jesus does only what He sees God doing (John 5:19)
Whatever God does, Jesus also does (John 5:19)
God judges nobody (John 5:22)
Jesus has been entrusted by God to judge everyone (John 5:22)
Jesus judges based only on how God tells Him to judge (John 5:30)
Jesus will not judge the Pharisees (John 5:45)
Moses will judge the Pharisees (John 5:46)

God gives life to people (John 5:21)
Jesus gives life to whoever it pleases Himself to give it to (John 5:21)
Jesus seeks only to please God instead of Himself (John 5:30)

If you do not honor Jesus, you do not honor God (John 5:23)
Jesus does not accept praise from men (John 5:41)

Jesus' testimony about Himself is not valid (John 5:31)
The work which God has given Jesus is doing testifies for Jesus (John 5:36)
God testified about Jesus (John 5:37)
The Scriptures (divinely influenced by God) testify about Jesus (John 5:39)
Who ever hears Jesus' words and believes God will be saved (John 5:24)
Jesus and God are one (John 10:30) (OK, I did have to reach outside this section for that one.)

John the Baptist testified about Jesus (John 5:33)
Jesus does not accept John the Baptist's testimony (John 5:34)
Jesus mentions John the Baptist's testimony so that the Pharisees will be saved (John 5:35)
The Pharisees would accept the testimony of someone else (John 5:43)
The Pharisees do not accept Jesus (John 5:43)

The Pharisees believe only in the Scriptures (John 5:39)
The Pharisees do not believe the Scriptures (John 5:47)

That last set is probably the only thing which needs a little further explanation. According to Jesus, the Pharisees thought that the Scriptures (John 5:39), and the scriptures supposedly written by Moses in particular (John 5:45-47), held the key to eternal life (which they clearly do not). Jesus claims that the eternal life they reference is through Jesus, which Moses wrote about (John 5:46).

Moses supposedly wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy, the first five books of the Bible. The best Christian scholars have come up with for prophesies concerning Jesus from Moses are Genesis 3:15 (the curse applied to the snake from the garden of Eden), Genesis 12:3 (God says that all people will be blessed through the Jews), Numbers 21:9 (where Moses made a bronze snake on a stick), and Deuteronomy 18:14-20 (where God will provide a prophet who is explicitly not God and should be proved). The way Jesus speaks, you might expect Moses to have said “the son of God will come to you and make atonement for the sins of all of mankind and offer eternal life to everyone,” but that is very, very far from the truth. The message is cryptic at best, with a biased eye, and non-existent for those who tend to be a little more skeptical.

Altogether, this is just a tangle mess of confusion.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Hometown Frown

Jesus had a very busy day recently, which included being called Satanic, revealing the one unforgivable sin, revealing that the only sign to the wicked would be the sign of Jonah, disowning His biological family in favor of His spiritual one, and speaking a bunch of imperfect parables with the explicit purpose of keeping unwanted people out of the Kingdom of God. After a day like that, it is no wonder that Jesus was looking for a little hometown comfort.

The Hometown Frown
When you try to make sense of the chronology of the four Gospels, you can find some rather amusing anachronisms. It is too bad we do not have a WABAC machine to figure it all out with certainty. What is a WABAC? It is a time machine from a verbose, recurring segment in the 1960's cartoon The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. We are going to need to do a little virtual time travel in our study today. So, Sherman, set the WABAC machine to 30 AD, give or take a few years, as we begin the study with Luke 4:16-30.

According to Luke, right after Jesus was tempted by Satan, Jesus returned to the region of Galilee, and particularly the town in which He grew up, Nazareth. On the Sabbath, He went into the synagogue there, “as was His custom.” There, He read a prophesy from a scroll containing Isaiah 61 in front of everyone, reading verse Isaiah 61:1 and part of Isaiah 61:2, and then told everyone that that prophesy was now fulfilled (Luke 4:16-22).

Isaiah 61 is a rather interesting eleven-verse prophesy. Take a look, and you will find such highlights as ancient ruined cities being rebuilt (Isaiah 61:4), Gentiles doing manual labor for the Jews (Isaiah 61:5), Israel feeding off of the wealth of other nations and boasting in those riches (Isaiah 61:6), and subsequent generations of Jews being acknowledged by Gentile nations as being a people blessed by God due to God rewarding them (Isaiah 61:9). So you see, this prophesy exactly matches what happened with Jesus showing up, except for all of the details.

Continuing, Jesus goes on to chat about how the people of His hometown will disrespect Him, how a prophet has no acceptance in his hometown, and how Elijah and Elisha both helped out Gentiles despite there being a need for help among the Jews (Luke 4:23-27).

This angered everyone in the synagogue, so they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff outside of town, but Jesus somehow escaped right through the crowd (Luke 4:28-30). And that is it. Luke never records Jesus being back in Nazareth again, and apparently for good reason, if they were on the hunt to kill Him!

OK, so let us get back to the future, er, past, to catch up with Matthew's chronology. After Jesus was tempted by Satan, gathered disciples, gave the Sermon on the Mount, healed a leper, healed the Centurion's servant, healed others for prophesy, told a follower to leave behind his family obligations, calmed a storm, sent demons into pigs, healed a paralyzed man, snubbed some Pharisees, resurrected a dead girl, told His Disciples to remind God of the urgent need for harvesters, sent the Twelve Disciples out with instructions for their first mission, confirmed to John the Baptist that He was the Messiah, described how John the Baptist led the way and was Elijah, revealed that He could have saved Sodom if He had wanted to, revealed that God hides the truth from the learned, revealed God's selectivity in Salvation, called His “yoke” easy, inaccurately spoke about King David's sins, healed others again for prophesy, got called Satanic, revealed the unforgivable sin, spoke of the sign of Jonah, rejected His mother, and spoke in parables to keep people from understanding, yes, after all of that, He went to His hometown of Nazareth.

In Matthew 13:53-58 (and its parallel in Mark 6:1-6), you find Jesus just walking right into the synagogue and teaching on the Sabbath. Now, based on Luke's much earlier episode, you might think that the people in the synagogue would have immediately tried to detain and kill Jesus upon seeing Him in that very same place again, but that is not what happened. Matthew and Mark record that the audience was amazed at His wisdom and were asking rhetorically if this was really the same local man they all knew, as opposed to asking “hey, is this the guy we tried to throw off a cliff a while ago?”

Also in contrast between the Matthew/Mark account and the Luke story is that Luke, as noted above, stated that Jesus was a regular worshiper at the synagogue, and was learned respected enough to the point where He was handling Scriptural scrolls Himself and teaching from them, yet in Matthew/Mark the people in the synagogue cannot understand where He has gotten His knowledge of the Scriptures as if they had never heard Him discuss the Scriptures before. Clearly, this is a contradiction beyond just the botched chronology.

Matthew 13:57 and Mark 6:4 both state that Jesus said a prophet is without honor in his hometown and in his own house, with “his own house” obviously referring to the prophet's own family not honoring him. This is a confirmation of the earlier study where Jesus rejected His own biological family because they did not believe in Him. Meanwhile, Luke, the editor, drops the reference to the family, instead just noting that a prophet lacks hometown acceptance in general (Luke 4:24).

The Gospel of John is not completely left out. In John 4:44, Jesus says that a prophet gets no honor in his own country. The entire country! It appears John had a little scope creep. (Although note that the word interpreted as “own country” is sometimes used for hometown too.)

On a final note, Matthew 13:58 says that Jesus “did not” do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. Mark 6:5 says that Jesus “could not” do any miracles there other than healing and laying on hands. Logically, it appears that Jesus did not do many miracles because He could not due many miracles due to their lack of faith. Imagine that! God's omnipotence is powered by our willingness to believe that He is omnipotent.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Imperfection in Parables

In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, after Jesus gave the parable about sowing seeds on different kinds of soil, He revealed that the reason that He spoke in parables was to keep people from understanding His words, to keep them from repenting, as it was (incorrectly) prophesied. That leads into a string of even more parables.

Imperfection in Parables
From Christian pulpits, there is a tendency to exalt Jesus' parables to a status of perfection. They marvel at how effectively and accurately Jesus was able to explain the Kingdom of God to people through the use of parables. However, as we just learned, the reason that Jesus spoke in parables was to prevent certain people from understanding. So half of that position is wrong. What about the other half? Were the parables perfectly accurate representations? The interpretations of unexplained parables vary based on the scholars you refer to, so that is some proof to the contrary right there. We can go a step further and easily find ways in which the parables fall apart, and maybe have a little fun in the process.

In Matthew 13:24-30 is the Parable of the Tares, which is unique to Matthew. It says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who sows wheat in a field, only to have an enemy come a sow tares in that field while the farmer is sleeping. The farmer instructs his servants to wait until harvest time to pull out the weeds to avoid uprooting the wheat. The weeds will be pulled out first, and burned, and then the wheat will be harvested.

In the explanation of the parable in Matthew 13:36-43, God (Jesus) is the farmer and Satan is the weed-sowing enemy. The way that the parable is worded would suggest that Satan had planted the weeds unknown to God. That is a problem if God is really omniscient. So to be more accurate, the parable would say that the farmer sat and watched His enemy sow weeds in the field and did nothing to stop him. And in that case, you really have to question the farmer!

Also interesting is that, according to the parable, the weeds are gathered first before gathering the “sons of the Kingdom.” This creates a problem for people expecting a Rapture event where the good guys will be called up to Heaven prior to God unleashing His wrath on the world.

Switching over to Mark, he follows the Parable of the Sower with the Parable of the Growing Seed in Mark 4:26-29; a parable unique to Mark. The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who sows some seed, observes the crop growing all on its own, but he does not know how it grows, and then harvests the crop when it is ready. Because there is no given explanation for this parable, interpretations vary. However, it seems to suggest that very little effort at all would be needed to spread the faith and thereby enlarge the Kingdom, which is quite a contrast to the reality, which is presently a multi-billion-dollar affair requiring tons of effort.

Matthew 13:31-32 and Mark 4:30-32 then converge with the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which Luke 13:18-19 also records after Jesus healing a cripple woman on the Sabbath. The Kingdom of Heaven/God is like a tiny mustard seed growing into a tall shrub. So you see that that Kingdom start tiny, but grow large, but it would not be the only plant around, nor the strongest, nor the biggest, nor the most useful, etc.

Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21 then give the short Parable of the Leaven, a.k.a. Yeast. The Kingdom of Heaven/God is like a woman who mixes yeast into a large quantity of dough. Yeast, a bacteria, converts sugar (the sweet stuff of life) into alcohol (which clouds judgement) and the waste gas of carbon dioxide. Oh, maybe that parable is perfect after all. ;-)

There is a brief interlude where Matthew 13:34-35 and Mark 4:33-34 say that Jesus never spoke to the crowds without a parable. Mark says Jesus only explained the parables to His disciples in private, while Matthew misquotes Psalm 78:2. If you look at Psalm 78, the author is trying to tell everything, not hide anything through parables, so that the next generation will put their trust in God (Psalm 78:6-7). What makes this reference even funnier is that this Psalm was obviously written in a time before the concept of the afterlife existed, as can be seen by Psalm 78:39, which is given as the reason for God restraining His anger at the recurrent rebellion of the Israelites:
[God] remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return. NIV
Matthew continues in parables alone from here. In Mathew 13:44 is the Parable of the Hidden Treasure, in which the Kingdom of Heaven is a treasure which a man finds in a field, hides it again, and then buys that field from its owner, who is presumably unaware of the treasure. In other words, do whatever you can to get the Kingdom, even through deceptive means.

In Matthew 13:45-46 is the Parable of the Pearl. A pearl merchant finds a pearl of great price, and so he sells everything he has to get that pearl. Presumably unwilling to part with it, the man probably dies naked and starving clutching that pearl. Sméagol loves the pearl, oh yes, my precious...

Finally, in Matthew 13:47-52 is the Parable of the Net. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a big fishing net which caught all kinds of fish. After hauling it in, the fishermen separated out the good from the bad. If the Kingdom of Heaven is the net, then clearly some people who do not belong are going to make it into the Kingdom of Heaven, and then get kicked out. So, how sure are you of your Salvation? It is also pretty strange that God would call people into the Kingdom of Heaven who do not belong there, given that only those drawn by God will go (John 6:44).

This was all really just a fun exercise, but I believe that it effectively illustrates that not only are these parables far from perfect, but also without the proper interpretation given to the people who heard these parables would have been clueless to the truth when coming up with their own interpretations, which is apparently exactly how Jesus wanted them to be.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why Jesus Spoke in Parables

Just prior to the topic of this study, according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus disowned His own mother. However, according to Luke, Jesus disowned His mother after the events in this study. For Luke, the topic of this study was preceded by a sinful woman anointing Jesus (Luke 7:36-50), and Jesus wandering from village to village with His Twelve Apostles (Luke 8:1-3).

Why Jesus Spoke in Parables
“When its twigs are dry, they are broken off and women come and make fires with them. For this is a people without understanding; so their Maker has no compassion on them, and their Creator shows them no favor.” Isaiah 27:11 NIV

“Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.” Daniel 12:10 NIV
There are many divisions in the body of Christianity, but one of the more fundamental divisions is whether or not a Christian believes that the opportunity for Salvation is inclusive or exclusive. The inclusive perspective holds that God makes sure that, by some means, everybody is at least presented the option of Salvation, and their Salvation is usually based on their free will acceptance of it. The exclusive perspective is that Salvation is really only available to a subset of people, the Elect, and God will make sure that only and all of the Elect will attain Salvation. The inclusive perspective is the most fair, but the exclusive perspective is the most accurate to Scripture, as we can see through Jesus' telling of parables.

Matthew 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, and Luke 8:4-8 all recount Jesus telling a parable to a crowd regarding a man who sows seeds indiscriminately, ultimately resulting in only the seeds which had fallen on good soil producing fruit.

In each account, Jesus ends the parable with the essentially same line; "He who has ears, let him hear." From the context, it does not appear that Jesus added this remark in its literal sense; this was not a message for everyone who physically had ears. Instead, it appears that Jesus meant that only certain people would be able to understand this parable, and that they should take heed of it. It appears that Jesus was only really talking to select people, and that appearance would be immediately confirmed by the Scripture.

The three accounts vary slightly about what happens next, but they are all a variant on Jesus answering the question posed by Jesus' disciples in Matthew 13:10:
The disciples came to [Jesus] and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" NIV
Jesus' reply in each of these three Gospels is a demonstration of each author's perspective. Mark, which many scholars believe is the earliest of the four Gospels, is raw and terse. Matthew clearly tries to aggregate additional information to the recorded data. Luke appears to edit out an unsavory verse. Let us take a look at each reply, starting with Mark 4:11-12:

[Jesus] told them, "The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
" 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'" NIV
According to Jesus' own words, His parables were not brilliant metaphors which helped the masses understand the Kingdom of God. No. They were deliberate enigmas meant to keep unwanted people out of the Kingdom of God by keeping them from repentance by keeping them from understanding. Only Jesus' disciples were given the secret, true meaning of the parables, which is subsequently illustrated for this parable in Matthew 13:18-23, Mark 4:13-20, and Luke 8:11-15.

That last bit about “otherwise they might turn and be forgiven” seems especially harsh, making it appear that God did not want to forgive everyone. Plus, it sets up an interesting paradox where it appears that God would be bound to keep His promise, but keeping His promise is against His will. The concept of God doing anything against His own will is troublesome. These issues are probable reasons why Luke, being a bit of an editor, left off that line in Jesus' reply in Luke 8:9-10, which is otherwise essentially the same reply as Mark 4:11-12 above.

Matthew, on the other hand, continues in his trend of aggregating pieces into the story, expanding Jesus' reply by quite a bit before going into explaining the actual parable. In Matthew 13:10-17 we find the same theme main theme, that the parables are meant to occlude knowledge from non-disciples. We also find that those who have understanding will be given more while those who do not have understanding will be even more befuddled, we see a greatly expanded prophesy quote, and we have a reminder that Jesus' disciples are fortunate to have this knowledge that prophets and righteous men had longed to know.

So why did Jesus speak in parables? Biblically speaking, it was to condemn people in their lack of understanding. It was a type of mockery. It was as if Jesus felt obligated to tell everyone about His Kingdom, but He also felt like He had fulfilled that obligation if He were to do so in a foreign language, fully aware that most of His audience would never understand His words.

Regarding the Prophesy
This is yet another case of mangled prophesy in the New Testament. Jesus' reply appears to be centered around Isaiah 6:9-10. However, it does not quite fit.

Isaiah 6:9 says "...Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving," in hearing→seeing order, as opposed to how Mark and Luke reference a seeing→hearing order.

Isaiah 6:10 does have a seeing→hearing order which we find in the latter half of the verse with "...Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed," but you notice that it is not in the same sense of how Mark and Luke quote it (which is a closer match with Isaiah 6:9). As you can see above, Mark also quotes an interpretation of the last phrase of Isaiah 6:10, but has skipped the “understand with their hearts” phrase completely.

Alternatively, some scholars suggest the seeing→hearing order comes from either Jeremiah 5:21 or Ezekiel 12:2, but how Mark would then mash together these verses with only the very last phrase of Isaiah 6:10 is a real puzzle.

Matthew 13:14-15 more-fully quotes Isaiah 6:9-10. However, the supposedly Jewish Matthew quotes this passage from the Septuagint, a Greek interpretation of the Old Testament, as opposed to the original Hebrew source, as you can see here. By doing so, Matthew propagated an error in that particular translation which substantially changed the intent of the original words.

What was the original intent? Well, I encourage you to look at Isaiah 6 for yourself. It is a mere thirteen verses, so it will not take you long. In there, you will not find a prophesy regarding Jesus or any other Messiah. Instead you find a God who is exasperated by the continual cycle of backslide-repent-backslide of His people. Therefore, God wants to afflict them with a harsh punishment “until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.” This is a pre-exile prophesy.

The exile was meant to be a shocking blow to get the Jewish nation back on track, eventually, because they had been ignoring God's more-mild disciplinary actions, like drought and disease. Presumably, God did not want them to repent for the moment only to backslide again a few years later, as had been the case many times before. That is why God gave the command to Isaiah to curse the people so that they would not understand or perceive until their nation had been decimated and displaced.