Friday, July 27, 2012

The Kingdom Within You

Continuing though a section of the Gospels which is uniquely in Luke, we have come to two little verses which wrinkle the traditional Christian eschatology. Prior to these verses, Jesus explained how you should consider yourself a worthless slave of God, and then later He healed ten lepers, but only the Samaritan leper came back to thank Him.

The Kingdom Within You
What is the Kingdom of God? A while back, I created a comprehensive, but concise study of the references to the Kingdom of God given by Jesus. In general, they fell into one of two categories: one, a growing spiritual constituency, and the other, a reference to an eternal Kingdom physically on earth soon to be established. The implication being that the spiritual constituency would be the residents of the Kingdom to come.

You may be wondering if God's Kingdom is going to be established, then when is that supposed to happen? According to Luke 17:20-21, you are not the only one:
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The Kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the Kingdom of God is within you." NIV
As I had mentioned in the original discussion about the Kingdom of God, the Pharisees asked when the Kingdom would come. Or, given that they fully expected what the Scripture had actually prophesied, a better way to render their question may be "when will God establish His literal, earthly Kingdom?" There was no question of where that Kingdom would be, because the Scriptures, such as Zechariah 1:16-17, explicitly indicate that it would be in Israel, centered around Jerusalem.

According to Luke, Jesus does not really answer their question. Instead, He tries to correct their way of thinking. First, He says that the kingdom will not come with their observation, which may either be taken to mean that they will not be able to see it, or, in the other sense of observation, that their obeying of laws and rituals will not usher in the Kingdom. The former suggested meaning is more favorably aligned with the phrase that would follow: "the Kingdom of God is within you."

It should be noted that the word translated as "within" is "entos" in the Greek, which can also mean "among." In fact, some translations render the verse to the effect of "the Kingdom of God in your midst." Such an interpretation suggests that the Kingdom already existed in Jesus' time, perhaps meaning that the believers were collectively the Kingdom; a Kingdom without a country.

Also, what is likely obvious, note that the "you" is not indicating the Pharisees particularly, but rather a generalized pronoun which could be replaced functionally by the word "people."

What Luke is doing here is redefining Jewish eschatology. I say Luke, not Jesus, because this sentiment is unique to Luke. This is not a message about a growing constituency. This is a redefining of the concept of the Kingdom of God. Luke's/Jesus' words here imply that the literal, earthly Kingdom of God (in the sense of a traditional nation-kingdom) will never come to be, at least not in this life. Possibly more significant is the other possible implication; that the Kingdom of God already existed.

If we accept these possible interpretations of Luke's words here, they do not fit within the Gospels. This is evident in a couple ways. The first bit of evidence is a little weak because it is circumstantial. Namely; the eschatology-shattering impact of Luke's words were, for all practical purposes, ignored for well over a thousand years. It is hard to know exactly when they started to be ignored, but it was not until the 20th century when C. H. Dodd and John Dominic Crossan advanced the theory of "realized eschatology" that Luke's words here became truly relevant again. Realized eschatology, also known as "sapiential eschatology," states that the Kingdom did start with Jesus, who gave a rebirth to the world order through His teachings and life, and it thereby puts the responsibility on believers to imitate Jesus in order to make fully manifest the already initiated and existing Kingdom of God. That is a nice sounding story, but it is not at all consistent with the Old Testament prophecies.

The second piece of evidence comes right from Luke's Gospel itself. Luke was writing contemporaneously with an established belief in apocalyptic eschatology. This is captured in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, where you will find talk of the cataclysmic end times and Second Coming of Jesus. Matthew 25 continues on, making it obvious that it is during that event when the Kingdom of God will really be established, and when the final Judgement of mankind will be made. Luke 21:5-36 covers that same apocalyptic material, and it does so within the same part of the narrative as Matthew and Mark.

Obviously then, Luke agrees the apocalyptic eschatology. So what is the real truth with this Kingdom-within-you stuff? I am not certain, but I think an answer becomes apparent when we consider a little more context.

First, remember that Jesus was replying to the Pharisees with the Kingdom-within-you. You may remember in an earlier study, one regarding why Jesus spoke in parables, that the "secret of the Kingdom of God has been given" to the disciples, not to "those on the outside." So why would Jesus reveal such a monumental "truth" to the Pharisees? That does not make sense.

Right after this statement about the Kingdom of God being within you, Luke 17:22-37 has some of the same apocalyptic material which is also covered later in Luke 21:5-36, but it starts off a bit differently. In Luke 17:22 you see:
Then He said to His disciples, "The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it." NIV

Notice the "Then," connecting this passage with the previous one. Note that Jesus is speaking to His disciples here, not the Pharisees any more. It appears that Luke's Jesus is preparing His disciples for a long wait for His return.

Also, we have to consider that Luke most likely wrote his Gospel sometime after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and so believers and scoffing Jews alike would have been anxious about when the alleged Jesus-led version of the Kingdom of God would come to fruition.

When you piece this information together, it seems more likely to me that Luke's message here is how disciples can silence adversaries, and how they need to be patient in waiting for the Kingdom. So Luke has Jesus simply trying to brush-off the questioning Pharisees, trying to get them to stop asking "when" by replying with some mystical language about a Kingdom within you. Then Luke has Jesus speak to the disciples, the ones who really know the truth, urging them to be vigilantly patient.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Thankless Jews

We are following through a section of Luke, where Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem for the last time, and He is having discussions and performing miracles along the way. Recently in that Gospel timeline, Jesus had instructed to forgive someone absolutely any time that they repent, no matter how many times they transgressed and repented in the past. Then, Jesus explained how a little faith can move trees, and that you should consider yourself an unworthy slave to God.

Thankless Jews
Antisemitism has an undeniably strange relationship with Christianity. Jesus was a Jew, after all. The Twelve Apostles? Jews too. While there are several verses in the New Testament which remind us of the special prominence of the Jews in the eyes of God, there are other verses which seem to be written against the Jews as a whole. Let us take a closer look at a little bit of antisemitism, as well as an implicit reference to Jesus actually being God, brought to us by Luke.

In Luke 17:11-19, a miraculous tale goes like this:
While Jesus was entering a town in Galilee near the border with Samaria, ten lepers begged Him to heal them. Jesus told them to show themselves to the priests. (Per Leviticus 14, people needed to prove to the priests when they were cleansed of diseases, so that they could perform a purification sacrifice ceremony, and to permit them to re-enter society.) As the lepers walked to the priests, they became healed. Upon seeing that he was healed, one of the ten lepers, a Samaritan, went back to Jesus, praising God and thanking Him. Jesus was surprised that the other nine lepers did not come back to give thanks, and tells the Samaritan that he is saved. (My paraphrase)
One interesting point on this healing is the walk-of-faith aspect. Jesus did not heal the lepers right away. Instead, they had to obey Jesus' command and take it on faith that they would be healed in the process; and they were. In that theological regard, this is one of the better miracle stories of Jesus. If Luke had stopped there, it would have been perfect, but Luke was writing this passage with a purpose.

To see Luke's purpose, we have to look into a few of the details. Take a look at Luke 17:15-18:
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked Him—and [that leper] was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" NIV
The first important detail is how Luke equated Jesus with God. It is so subtle that it may slip by you because your mind automatically reconciles it to how you think it should be, but the claim is there, boldly. The NIV translation uses "Jesus' feet" to help you along, but they put "Jesus" in place of a possessive pronoun, and therefore it is better translated as "His feet." This pronoun usage makes it more ambiguous, but we can see how "His" could just as easily and more appropriately, per the guidelines of pronoun use, be interpreted as "God's," as in "God's feet." The implication that Jesus is God is made more strongly when we see that the leper did "return and give praise to God" in Luke 17:18, when the leper had both returned to Jesus and had clearly given thanks directly to Jesus. A third implicit reference is even stronger, but we will get to that in a moment.

The second important detail in this anecdote is that the leper who returned was a Samaritan. Jesus emphasizes this point by calling that leper a "foreigner" in Luke 17:18. If the only one of the lepers who had returned and given thanks to God had instead remained generically defined, that could be a statement about just how fallen mankind had become in general. But, no, this one thankful leper is defined specifically as a Samaritan and a foreigner, which draws the natural implicit conclusion that the nine other lepers who did not return to give thanks were, in fact, Jews. This becomes a specific statement against the Jews, about how they are thankless of all that God has done for them.

This passage provokes a righteous indignation against the Jews, which helps to foster antisemitism. An omniscient God would understand how verses like this, and others, such as we saw earlier in John 8:42-47 where Jesus claims that the Jews are children of the Devil, and what would happen later in Matthew 27:25 where the Jews appear to be taking the responsibility for Jesus' death, would spur on antisemitism and lead to the persecution of His Chosen People for millennia to come. Of course, if God has that omniscient understanding and let the verses be written anyway, then God is not good. If that is false, then God is not omniscient. This is a lose-lose situation for the Almighty.

This brings us to the third and final important detail, which is a lose-lose situation for Jesus too. Jesus asks both where the other nine ex-lepers were, and essentially, rhetorically, why they had not come back to give praise to God.

The question we should as is why would they have to return to Jesus to give praise to God? We can certainly understand why they may have wanted to thank Jesus as being an intercessor, but the ultimate power of the cleansing came from God Himself. If they wanted to give praise and thanks to God, the most appropriate traditional way to do that would be at God's Temple, possibly with thanksgiving offerings (Leviticus 7:11-15).

So who is to say that these nine Jewish lepers were not at their local synagogue or, more correctly, on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem to give proper and formal thanks and praise to God? The only way we can exclude this possibility is if Jesus is omniscient, if Jesus is God, and therefore He would know that the others were not off praising God somewhere else. Yet if Jesus was God, He would also know that it was appropriate for the Jews to give praise and thanks to God at the Temple, so there should have been no expectation for the lepers to "return and praise God" in front of Him (that Him being Jesus), except that Luke is equating Jesus to be God. So the details of this episode create quite a paradox for Jesus' accurate knowledge as either God or a Jewish man.

On minor point to consider as well is how did a Samaritan leper find himself hanging out with nine Jewish lepers in Jewish territory when, as John 4:9 puts it, the "Jews do not associate with Samaritans." Of course, this is a reportedly a border town, where the lines get a little more blurry.

When you consider all of these factors, the real truth becomes evident: this is fiction. Luke wrote this anecdote for a purpose, and that purpose was obviously for showing a condemnation of the Jews. However, this may not have been to provoke anger at the Jews. The Gospel of Luke was completed in a time after a major Jewish rebellion, one which ultimately cost them the destruction of their Temple at the hands of the Romans. Verses like these may have been used to put the Jews politically at some distance from the early Christian sect, so as to convince the Roman authorities that they should not be associated with those rebellious Jews.

A little drop of ink, such as this, would cause a great flood of blood.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Faithless, Unworthy Slaves

On our path through the Gospels, we recently studied how Jesus said that if any two believers pray for the same thing together, God will make it happen, but we know that is not true. Mixed in that same study we observed the difficulties in Matthew's policy of forgiveness, and the adjustments made by Luke in that regard. Following Matthew from there, Matthew 18:23-35 uses a parable to emphasize the fact that if you do not forgive your brother (a.k.a. a fellow believer) from your heart, then God will not forgive you. Following Luke leads us to this unthankful study...

Faithless, Unworthy Slaves
In a recent study, we examined Luke's episode where Martha had invited Jesus, and at least the Twelve Disciples, into her home while they were on their way to Jerusalem. I had suggested that Jesus insulted Martha's generous efforts of hospitality when He effectively told Martha that her sister Mary, who had been sitting around listening to Him talk instead of helping Martha with the preparations, was doing the only thing which was important to do. This perceived slight to Martha sparked on a great comment-debate with a Jehovah's Witness, and prompted me to write a post on my other blog, asking the question "would God thank you?" Little did I know, the definitive answer was chapters away in the same Gospel.

Yet before we get to that, let us proceed from where we left off; after Luke's Jesus clarified that you should always be willing to forgive, no matter how often, as long as the transgressor repents each time.

From there, Luke 17:5 has the Disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Apparently, despite the witness of John the Baptist and the many miracles, such as exorcising demons who announce that Jesus is God's Holy One, giving the Disciples the power to cast out demons themselves, calming the storm, resurrecting a girl, the miraculous feedings, Peter identifying Jesus as the Christ, and a few of them witnessing the Transfiguration, the Disciples still needed a little help believing that Jesus was the Messiah, or perhaps believing that God was really in control.

In Luke 17:6, Jesus replied, not with some miracle or proof of the power of God, but by saying that if they had just a little amount of faith, they could uproot and relocate trees with a mere command. Just like what was pointed out in the previous study, preachers have difficulty strategically saying that this is true, when they know it to be false. When, ever, in all recorded history, has anyone ever commanded a tree to be planted in the sea and then had it actually happen? Forget trees. When has faith ever worked with such instantaneous and absolute power on anything? Never.

Then, Jesus provides an illustration in Luke 17:7-10 which you just need to read for yourself:
"Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would [you] say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would [you] not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would [you] thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' " NIV
This. Speaks. Volumes.

First, we get a sense that Jesus condones slavery. (While the NIV uses the softer interpretation of "servant," the Greek word "doulon" means a slave with no rights of their own.)

Next, Jesus considers that the treatment of slaves should be as inferiors. So your slave has been working all day for you? So what? He is a slave. Have him make you dinner and serve you before he gets the chance to eat. And a slave's labor is not worthy of thanks.

Finally, obviously Jesus thinks that you should behave like a slave to God, an idea supported in Romans 6:15-23, 1 Corinthians 7:22, and Ephesians 6:5-6. You are not going to receive thanks for your efforts. Instead, you are to consider yourself an unworthy slave; a slave who is just doing what a slave is supposed to do.

So, no, Jesus did not offer thanks to Martha for her volunteer work. She was just acting appropriately as a slave to Him.

Given our modern sensitivities, this is an uncomfortable message at best. From the worst aspect, God comes across as, well, a pompous slave-driver. Yet that is not the real issue here.

The real issue is how this approach shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the human mind. This is a God who knows nothing of the beauty and strength and drive of an empowered human.

But then, we never were really dealing with God here, were we? This is a message of subjugation, and it is the kind of message that a leader of the early church would have been all-too-happy to use to manipulate the will of the believers. This is not to say that such a church leader would have necessarily ordered people around with evil intents, but we can understand how such a leader would have benefited from self-enslaved masses who were ready to take any instruction and follow any commands without asking questions, like slaves unworthy of exercising their own wills.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Is There Anything We Can Agree On?

Luke recorded the strangest parable that Jesus ever spoke, which was apparently aimed at loosening the purse strings of the congregation. Luke then went on to another parable regarding Lazarus and the rich man, which made it clear that (surprise!) Jesus believed in the eternal torture of Hell. As the Gospel continues, we find Luke's out-of-context reference to causing "these little ones" to sin. We will see another interesting edit by Luke, as we tag off to follow Matthew in this study.

Is There Anything We Can Agree On?
If you want to know how skillful preachers really are, see how they explain how certain verses are both true and not true. Oh, they would never come out and say that the verses are not true. How could they, when they are dealing with the book of ultimate Truth? Instead, what you will hear is a lot of clarification; this is what Jesus said, but this is what He really meant. We will take a look at one of the classic cases where truth is redefined, but first we have to deal with a matter of brotherly sin.

Matthew 18:15-17 starts us off with Jesus explaining how to handle when your brother sins against you. It is not clear what kind of brother Jesus means here, but I suspect that this is in the more broad sense; not specifically a family member, but rather in the spiritual sense of the family of fellow believers (a.k.a. the church), as is suggested earlier in Matthew 12:48-50, Mark 3:33-35, and Luke 8:21.

So, Jesus recommends progressive steps for handling transgressions against you from fellow church members; confront them privately, if that does not work then get witnesses, if that does not work then present your case to the church, and if that does not make him listen then, as Matthew 18:17 states,:
"... treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." NIV
This passage is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, and most obvious, is that Jesus is implicitly condoning the poor treatment of pagans and tax collectors. (Note: What is translated as "pagan" in the NIV is the Greek word "ethnikos," used to denote Gentiles, non-Jews, or foreigners.) Jesus could have just said to treat him like someone who was not in the "family," but instead chooses people who would have been detestable to the Jews as specific examples of how to treat such a stubborn person.

But wait! (You may object.) Jesus was a friend to the tax collectors, and He came for Salvation of the Gentiles as well! This very Gospel was even (allegedly) written by a tax collector!

Indeed, but if that is the case, then what is the point of Jesus' reference here? When you consider that question, it becomes obvious that the distinction in treatment is necessary in order for Jesus' words to have any meaning at all. It also becomes obvious that Matthew was written primarily for Jewish believers.

The second reason this is interesting is because it contradicts Jesus' earlier teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, that of turning the other cheek and not resisting an evil person (because confronting them and suing them would be resisting) and that of forgiving sins against you (because if you truly forgive them, then there is no act of justice needed).

Perhaps because of these issues, Luke (the Editor) changed his version significantly. Luke 17:3 says that if a brother sins against you, you should simply confront him and see if he repents. And if he does repent, then forgive him. There are no witnesses. There is no case before the church. And there is no treatment like a Gentile or tax collector. Luke's Gospel does not include Matthew's submission to evil people, but it does still address the forgiving others in the Lord's Prayer, making this statement more of a clarification on the type of forgiveness you should grant people; conditional, based upon repentance.

A little later, Matthew 18:21-22 has Jesus explain to Peter that you should forgive your brother essentially as often as necessary. The Luke 17:4 parallel also extends that frequent forgiveness, but again emphasizes repentance as the prerequisite for forgiveness.

Yet before Matthew gets to that explanation, there are a few other verses.

The first is Matthew 18:18, which appears to be granting the power to the Disciples to make judgements of condemnation on earth; a power earlier given exclusively to Peter in Matthew 16:19. This second pronouncement may exist due to haphazard aggregation on Matthew's part. It may be that the pronouncement of power was originally added into the storyline of Matthew 18:18, and then later added into the story in Matthew 16:19, or visa versa. It may seem odd that the specific case of Matthew 16:19 would be a later addition than the general case of Matthew 18:18, but the Matthew 18:18 case has very little contextual grounding here, making it easy to miss if you were simply scanning over what had been previously written.

The next two verses come to the heart of this study. In Matthew 18:19-20, we find:
"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by My Father in Heaven. For where two or three come together in My Name, there am I with them." NIV
Can you fathom how powerful that truth is?!? Cancer... cured. Wars... ended. Evil... cleansed. In fact, with such power, the reason why the world is in such a pathetic state today must simply be because no two Christians can agree on anything. But, obviously that is not true.

It is verses like these where preachers really have to get slick in order to survive. They have to convince the congregation that these words are true, and yet not true, simultaneously. The preachers I have heard cover this verse say something to the affect of "Jesus did not mean absolutely anything you ask for will be done, but rather if you ask for something which is aligned with the will of God."

That interpretation is not sourced from the verse, or its context, but it is a reasonable conjecture, which is why it is so easy to accept. However, the practical application of it is quite messy. Why? Well, if two Christians pray together for someone to be cured of cancer, and that cure does not come, then you can only conclude that it was God's will for that person to die of cancer, and that is pretty messed up. Besides, an obvious contradiction to that stance is seen earlier in the Gospels when nine of the Disciples together tried unsuccessfully to perform an exorcism.

Christians will all-too-often claim that the afflictions of this world, such as cancer, are not consistent with God's intentions for us, but rather are a product of the affect of our own sins on this world. Yet if they are not God's intention, then they are not God's will, and therefore group prayer should be yielding miracles so frequently that they cease to be miraculous, but rather are the norm, and afflictions like cancer would be relegated to countries without God. That would make the evidence of God's existence and power undeniable.

But it is not. We live in a real world, where the mechanics and frequencies of afflictions are unaffected by the whims of those who suffer, regardless of their faith, or how much they agree that things are not the way that they should be.