Friday, August 31, 2012

Inequity of Time

On Jesus' fateful final approach to Jerusalem, He stopped off and spent some time with the people of the Judean countryside. There, Jesus told a rich man to sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow Him, but the man apparently rejected His command. Then, Jesus explained how those who had given up everything to follow Him would indeed be compensated, but there was some discrepancy of whether or not that compensation extended to this life as well as the afterlife.

Inequity of Time
There are a number of recorded sayings of Jesus which do not have an immediately clear meaning. In most cases, the context immediately surrounding the verse define it, but occasionally you have to look well outside the immediate context for intent. Of course, if you are in the process of making your own Gospel, and one of those semi-ambiguous verses appears, and a situation at hand provides a more meaningful interpretation for the verse, you may neglect to look for the real meaning and just use your own, like Matthew did.

In closing out the discussion about what compensation the Disciples would receive for following Jesus, Mark 10:31 ends it with this peculiar expression:
"But many who are first will be last, and the last first." NIV
What could that mean? The first will be last, and the last first? Nothing in the immediate context in Mark, either before or after this verse, provides any insight to what Mark meant here. There is a reason for that. Mark's Jesus had previously explained what He meant with this kind of terminology in Mark 9:35 back when they were all in Capernaum:
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." NIV
This is a message of humility, and it fits neatly together with Jesus' statements about the compensation that the Disciples would receive in Mark 10:28-30. It is a reminder that they should not be seeking to attain prestige either through the honor of men or through the gaining of earthly wealth, but that they should keep in mind to humbly serve all, and, in doing so, earn righteous prestige from God.

Luke relocated this phase to Luke 13:30, presumably to have more immediate contextual meaning. In Luke 13:28-30, he has Jesus discuss people taking their places at the feast of the Kingdom of God (feast seating assignments were based on the honor bestowed on guests by the host, reference Luke 14:7-11). So the verse is saying that many who had high accolades in life will find their ultimate fortunes reversed with those who truly worked as servants to others. Luke understood Mark's text here.

What about Matthew?

Matthew 19:30 is where you will find the first-last, last-first phrase, in the same ill-context-fitting location as Mark. However, Matthew understood a different meaning, or defined a context of his own...

Matthew was likely written at least two decades after Jesus' death, but possibly much later than that even. By that time, many followers had likely become "mature" in their faith. So, similar to Luke, Matthew had his own issues within the population of the faithful to confront.

After laboring for many, many years in anticipation of a then-soon-coming Kingdom of God, some of the more-experienced members of Matthew's target audience had become indignant over the fact that the newly-converted believers were not going to have to labor very long before being rewarded with all of the riches of God's Kingdom. In this situation, Matthew found another meaning in Jesus' words. Matthew 19:30 closes the chapter with essentially the same first-last, last-first verse as Mark 10:31, but Matthew goes on to explain his meaning for the verse in the next chapter.

In Matthew 20:1-15, you find the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard:
The Kingdom of Heaven is like this: A vineyard owner hired men throughout the day to work in his vineyard for the day. Some he hired at 6 A.M, and he agreed to pay them a silver coin. Others he hired at 9 A.M., and he agreed to pay them "whatever is right." Others he hired at noon, others he hired at 3 P.M., and the last ones he hired at 5 P.M. At 6 P.M., the man called all the workers together to pay them for the day. Beginning with the ones he had hired last, and proceeding in succession to the ones he had hired first, he paid each man a silver coin. The men who were hired first complained to the vineyard owner for paying the last-hired workers the same as what they themselves were paid, despite having worked longer. The vineyard owner replied that they had agreed to work for a silver coin, and that he had the right to be generous with his money if he wanted to. (My paraphrase)
Just so you know that Matthew is indeed clarifying that previous verse, Matthew 20:16 caps off that parable with:
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last." NIV
This is fascinating! In black and white, captured for all posterity, we can see Jesus' message being manipulated to suit the needs of the circumstances. Perhaps "manipulated" is too strong of a word. Maybe "redefined" would be better, because we cannot be certain if Matthew knew that he was changing the message, or if instead his situation rendered an alternate interpretation to be the only logical one to him. We would be able to better judge Matthew in this case if we knew the origin of this parable. Did Matthew create this parable himself, or was it mixed in with other random sayings of Jesus which Matthew used as a source in creating his Gospel?

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Shifting of Riches

We are in Judea on Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem. Recently, Jesus explained to His disciples that the Kingdom of God belongs to people who are like children (Matthew 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17), similar to the sentiment discussed before. Then, Jesus told a rich man that he should obey the Commandments to gain eternal life, and also that he should sell his belongings, give to the poor, and follow Him. The man apparently rejected Jesus' proposal, causing Jesus to say that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

The Shifting of Riches
Jesus' Gospel focused on the coming Kingdom of God to a large extent, but were the God-granted benefits of the Gospel completely ascribed to the afterlife? Maybe so. Maybe not. Let us take at the benefits of being friends with Jesus.

The section we will study here is integral to the section studied previously, where Jesus told a rich man to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Him. Then, when the rich man had walked away saddened, implicitly rejecting Him, Jesus commented that it is impossible for wealthy people to be Saved without God's intervention (implicitly, an intervention above and beyond the atonement that would be offered through Jesus' crucifixion).

In Matthew 19:27-30, Mark 10:28-31, and Luke 18:28-30, you find Peter's response to the shocking episode with the rich man. Peter challenges or questions Jesus about the Disciple's compensation for giving up everything to follow Him. Jesus' subsequent response reveals much. But just like in the last study, it is most informative to start here with the source; Mark. So after Peter says that the Disciples have left everything, in Mark 10:29-30 we find the most interesting part of Jesus' reply:

"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father[ or wife] or children or fields for Me and the Gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life." NIV

First, note that I added "or wife" in brackets. That is because this verse has variations in it depending on which source manuscripts you use. Consequently, the King James Version reads "... or father or mother or wife or children ..." while the New International Version reads "... or mother or father or children ..."

Besides the inclusion of the wife, you can see that another variation is the order of father and mother. Given that Judaism was a patriarchal society, it is more likely that the father would have been listed first. Also, given that "or wife" is extra information and matches the context well, it is more likely that it was part of the original source, but was possibly dropped in a copyist's error. Coincidentally, the father-then-mother versions all include the mention of leaving the wife, suggesting that the error of dropping "or wife" came at the same time when the order of father and mother were reversed. Furthermore, Luke, who was using a Mark-based text in help to construct his Gospel, included "or wife" in his account.

It is no surprise that the NIV opted to follow the version without the mention of leaving a wife due to the cultural ideals modern Christianity is trying to promote regarding the "sanctity" of marriage. Having a Jesus who promoted leaving your wife would be contrary to their purpose. However, as noted before, there are other spots where Jesus' message promoted forsaking all others, including spouses, in pursuit of God and His Kingdom, and these could not be worked around by picking an alternate manuscript.

In the previous study, we noted how this episode had possibly provided a glimpse of the real Jesus. If that is so, then the glimpse may have ended in the section covered in this study. Why? Well, where before Jesus had apparently humbled Himself, stating that only God was good, here He is instructing that people forsake everything else "for Me," that is for Jesus, not for God. So, in a way, this Jesus is putting Himself above God, or at least at the same level. However, "for Me" could have been another way of saying "because of what I have explained to you." I lean more towards the latter, more-humble explanation, so I suspect that this may still be in line with what the real Jesus probably said.

More interesting is that Jesus said that people would receive rewards "in this present age" for forsaking everything else in this life, as well as being granted eternal life in the "age to come."

The rewards are enticing, but let us take a quick moment to reflect on what was meant by "in this present age" first. In our modern eyes, we would likely judge this to be equivalent to "in this present life," or perhaps "in the time up to God's final Judgement Day." Either of those may be the best interpretation, but history provides another possibility.

Back in those times, Astrology was a very meaningful practice. There are several verses in the Gospels with possible allusions to Astrology, like the verses we are studying here. This "age" could be referring to an Astrological Age. It just so happens that around the time of Jesus, the Age of Aries (the Ram), was coming to an end. The next age in line was the Age of Pisces (the Fish). It is then a curious coincidence that Jesus called His Disciples "fishers of men," like ambassadors for bringing people into the coming new age. It gets even more curious when in Mark 14:13, in preparation for the Last Supper, Jesus tells His Disciples to follow a man carrying a jar of water, which is the symbol for the Age after Pisces, the Age of Aquarius (the Water-Carrier).

Anyway, about those rewards in this present age... homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields. There are a few possible ways to look at this.
  1. These rewards are a metaphor for the spiritual wealth you receive in following Jesus, but that perspective seems unlikely given the specific nature of particular physical rewards being listed.
  2. These are actual physical rewards to be granted by God for giving up everything to follow Jesus. It is tempting to play the cynic and suggest that this verse was used as a justification for the wealth that early church leaders soon found at their disposal from the donations of generous followers. Indeed, many preachers of Prosperity Theology today probably see it in that same light. However, such an intent would seem oddly juxtaposed with Jesus telling the rich man to sell all of his belongings.
  3. These rewards come through a realigned perspective within the community of believers. In other words, you will get many new family members because your fellow believers will be your family, like what Jesus said about His own family, and the homes and fields you will gain will be the shared, communal property which each new believer contributes to the group. This communal message is seen to be implemented in the words of Acts 4:32-35, so this perspective appears to align with the true intent.

So in a nutshell, I believe Mark's Jesus' perspective was that those who gave up everything to follow His teachings would find that they had an even larger family than before; one consisting of fellow believers who shared their possessions generously. Just like with the hippie communes in the late 1960's in the U.S.A., they would be persecuted for their beliefs and communal living. But sometime soon, the next age would dawn, and God would grant them all eternal life and many other blessings.

Let us now quickly turn to the Luke 18:28-30 version of this story section. Luke may have been tired of copying, because he shortened the text a bit. Among the changes are writing "or parents" instead of "or father or mother," writing "for the sake of the Kingdom of God" as opposed to "for Me and the Gospel" (which conveniently avoids the possible misunderstanding noted above in Mark), dropping the specific reward list for this age, and writing "many" instead of "a hundred" times reward. Besides being shorter, Luke's alteration also drops the need to explain that "a hundred times" was not meant to be literal. Other than that, Luke matches Mark very well.

Matthew 19:27-30, on the other hand, significantly changes the message. The idea of rewards in this life vanishes, and the message becomes distinctively more Jewish in nature, as Matthew 19:28-29 demonstrates in the critical part of Jesus' reply:
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for My sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life." NIV

So for Matthew, the reward will not come until "the renewal of all things." The particular sect associated with Matthew may not have subscribed to the communal living practices which Luke had experienced, or perhaps Matthew just did not understand the allusion to the communal living, and so he changed that reward to be purposed for the next life.

It is difficult to know how the idea of "judging the twelve tribes of Israel" crept into this passage when it was obviously not in Mark, the source. It appears as though this may have been a teaching of Jesus which was recorded without any context. This teaching was available in some form for both Matthew and Luke when they wrote their Gospels. Matthew chose to insert it here. Luke would insert that same teaching much later, at the Last Supper, in Luke 22:28-30.

When you consider all of these factors and variances at play, things become paradoxically both unclear and more clear. What the real Jesus said, meant, and believed is unclear with a great degree of certitude. However, it does become clear that the Gospel texts were written with and subjected to all of the follies of men.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Subtly Rich Dilemma

We are continuing Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem, and have now made it to Judea, where Jesus spoke about why you should not divorce, why you should consistently and persistently pray, and why you should not be self-righteous, but rather think of yourself as you are; a sinner. Then, similar to before, Jesus reminded His disciples that the Kingdom of God belongs to people who are like children (Matthew 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17).

A Subtly Rich Dilemma
What if Jesus made a mistake? Impossible, right? Well, then we must assign that mistake to human hands. What if Mark made a mistake? What if Mark inaccurately recorded what Jesus said? What if you can see Matthew and Luke correcting Mark's mistake in their own unique ways? What then happens to the Truth?

In Matthew 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-27, and Luke 18:18-27, you will find the story of a man who asks Jesus about attaining eternal life. While these accounts are fairly similar, each of the accounts vary in some critical ways. While it would be tempting to call these variances merely products of differences in memory and/or perspective, the nature of the changes themselves suggest intent behind them. That becomes more apparent if we begin with the source; Mark. Let us look at the details in some length:

In Mark 10:17, you see:

As Jesus started on His way, a man ran up to Him and fell on his knees before Him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" NIV

So we have the image of a man enthusiastically (he ran) and humbly (he got on his knees) approaching Jesus. This man seems like an ideal follower of Jesus. Note that this question the man raises propagates the idea of a works-based Salvation. Continuing on to Mark 10:18:

"Why do you call Me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone." NIV

This is one of the most enigmatic verses in the Gospels. It is tempting just to fixate on the apparent separation of Jesus and God. It appears that Jesus is denying that He is part-God by stating that God alone is good. Forget the Godly Trinity or otherwise divine form of Jesus for a moment and ask "why is Jesus not good?" The sinless, self-sacrificing Salvation of mankind is not good? That does not add up. So how are we to make sense of this verse?

Imagine a different Gospel and a different Jesus. Imagine Jesus fully as a man; unaware of a future claim of his divinity, unaware of his supposed role in the Salvation of mankind as we understand it today, and unaware of the way in which his legend would grow to Biblical proportions. Imagine a man with a deep respect for God, the knowledge that the religious system of his time was seriously broken, and a sense of humility in the face of the flaws of his own humanity.

I suspect that what we are seeing here is a glimpse of the real, historical Jesus; that this is based off of a real exchange Jesus had. This realistic perspective is further supported by the context of this anecdote. Mark 10:19 continues:
"You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" NIV

If Mark's record is accurate, Jesus' reply is fascinating because it possibly shows a populist's understanding of the Ten Commandments. (That would be the popular version of the Ten Commandments as opposed to the Biblically-titled-Ten-Commandments version.) What do I mean by a "populist's understanding?" We will get to that in a moment.

If Jesus is referencing the Ten Commandments, then He skipped the first four Commandments: worship only God (Exodus 20:2-3), do not worship idols (Exodus 20:4-6), do not blaspheme (Exodus 20:7), and do not work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). Why? I suspect that these would have been "no-brainers" in that cultural context. Obviously you have got to worship God because He is the one offering eternal life, and you would not want to insult such a God by praying to idols or sullying His name. Whole towns mostly shut down on the Sabbath (aside from foreign visitors, the occupying Roman government, etc.), so the Sabbath command is equally obvious and culturally enforced (despite Jesus' own possible transgressions of this Commandment). If Jesus had been speaking to a Gentile man in a foreign country, then it would have been necessary to mention these initial four, but it is reasonably safe to assume that the man addressing Jesus was a Jew and thus was institutionally and intimately familiar with these four Commandments. They "go without saying."

The remaining six Commandments would have been far more difficult for a Jew to keep, because they involve the daily challenges and temptations of life. Coincidentally, Mark's Jesus lists precisely six commandments. However, while five of these commandments clearly come from the Ten Commandments, "do not defraud" is not one of the Ten.

Defrauding is just another word for achieving dishonest gain. Back then, such ill-gotten gains were often had by sellers of goods who would use weights which were either heavier or lighter than the standard, or measuring vessels which were smaller or larger than the standard, depending on the type of transaction. This would have been a very common problem, given that the sellers were essentially self-policed. God spoke out against general fraud, and especially improper weights and measures, often enough that a common person could have thought that it was one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 18:21, Leviticus 19:13, Leviticus 19:35, Deuteronomy 25:13-16, Proverbs 11:1, Proverbs 20:23, Jeremiah 22:17, Ezekiel 28:18, Hosea 12:7, Amos 8:5, Micah 6:11).

Four other factors of circumstantial evidence support this real, human, populist-Jesus' understanding of the Ten Commandments:
  1. Jesus gave the Commandments out of Scriptural sequence. Honoring your parents was originally the Fifth Commandment, not the last one. If Jesus did have a solid grasp on the Scripture, it would be more likely that He would have enumerated them in exactly the same order as the Scripture.
  2. Consider the missing Commandment: do not covet what does not belong to you (Exodus 20:17). Coveting deals with the sinful inclinations and desires of the heart, something which was central to several of Jesus' alleged teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. So for Jesus to skip this one is akin to skipping a major component of His teaching.
  3. Further consider the Commandment against coveting: As opposed to the laws against defrauding, there was no prescribed punishment for coveting. Every other Commandment had associated punishments. So the issue of fraud would have been much more prevalent as a law than the Commandment against covetousness.
  4. The fourth factor calls us to keep in mind what the more-mythical Jesus would later say in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34, or had earlier said in Luke 10:25-28, where He gave special prominence to only two commands: loving God, and loving your neighbor. In fact, in Luke's account, Jesus gave those two commands in reply to the very same question which spawned the episode we are studying here: "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

The story continues, in Mark 10:20-21:

"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."
Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," He said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow Me." NIV

It seems that Jesus was a little too hasty in His display of love for the Commandment-abiding man. As the story continues in Mark 10:22-24, you get the sense that the man ultimately rejected Jesus' offer to follow Him because he did not want to give away his great wealth. Using the man as an example, Jesus tells His disciples in Mark 10:25 that:
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." NIV

This verse spurs some controversy over whether or not anyone with wealth can be Saved. In Mark 10:27, Jesus would go on to say that Salvation of the rich was possible through God, but the precise meaning of that Salvation through God is not certain, because it could mean that God can change the heart of a rich person so that he or she chooses to give away their wealth.

More important, but less discussed, is the reaction which the disciples shared in Mark 10:26:
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" NIV

Why would the disciples be so amazed that it was nearly impossible for a rich man to be saved? Because, they believed that prosperity was a sign of righteousness; and that common belief was not without justification. In the Torah, God explains how He will grant great prosperity to those who obeyed His Law. It was part of God's covenant with the Jews.

The real Jesus was wise enough to discern this facade of righteousness for what it was, agreeing with the similar but rare sentiments of Scripture such as Job 21:7-21 and Ecclesiastes 7:15. It is likely that Jesus had seen first-hand how the downtrodden people could be relatively good when compared to the wickedness of some people who had power and wealth.

By the time that Matthew 19:16-26 and Luke 18:18-27 covered this episode, some of the problematic elements of Mark's story had been identified. Neither Matthew nor Luke record the man's humble approach to Jesus, or Jesus' mention of the non-Commandment commandment about fraud, or Jesus' too-hasty love for the man. Luke simply edited out those questionable parts. Matthew, on the other hand, gave it more thought and saw the Commandment issue more fully. So in Matthew 19:18-19 you find that he tried to correct the gaff recorded by Mark, and to cover the essence of the other important non-God-focused laws in the Torah, such as the laws against fraud, by aggregating the "love your neighbor as yourself" line from Matthew 22:34-40/Mark 12:28-34 with the intent of intoning that such love is the foundation of righteous behavior well beyond what any list of commandments could provide.

Obviously, there is a lot of speculation behind this study. However, by considering Jesus as just a man, a wise man but in no way or part a deity, it does make it easy to explain why he did not consider himself "good" and why he messed up in listing the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, if we take Jesus as divine, in part or in full, then these issues become very problematic. At best, we could say that Mark recorded it incorrectly. Yet if that is the case, and given that it is obvious that Matthew and Luke used Mark, in one form or another, as source material for their Gospels, then there is a very high probability of other errors propagated throughout the Gospels. In Truth, there is no error. So what do we have here?

Friday, August 10, 2012

God Loves a Whiner

We are following Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem, but we had jumped over to an episode in John which had happened in Jerusalem, where Jesus said that people should believe that He is God based on the miracles that He performed. Right after that, John records that Jesus went to the region where John the Baptist had been baptizing (John 10:40-42). This is roughly in the region where we again pick up trail in Jesus' final approach to Jerusalem. In Judea, Jesus said that divorce was not OK, despite the fact that God had permitted divorce in the Law. Luke had skipped that dissertation on divorce. Instead, Luke's unique precursor to the study below was an anecdote where Jesus stopped the Pharisees' scoffing by telling them that Kingdom of God was within them. We continue now with more material unique to Luke.

God Loves a Whiner
We all get asked to do things. See this patient. Add that up. Write this report. Weld that L-bracket. Make this presentation. Etc. Etc. Depending on our tasks, our types of jobs, and our schedules, we may not fulfill a request immediately. We have got our own mental lists and plans, and when we have such a plan in place, the last thing we want is to be repeatedly reminded by the original requester until we get that task completed. To us, such nagging represents a lack of faith in our commitment to get the job done. Apparently, God is of another persuasion.

In Luke 18:1-8, we have a parable from Jesus with a rather odd beginning. It begins with an explanation of its purpose, a protocol not found in any other Gospel. The purpose can be seen in Luke 18:1:

Then Jesus told His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. NIV

So that is the purpose, but let us come back to that in a moment. The parable goes like this:

There was a ruler who did not care about providing justice to anyone. However, a widow kept nagging him over and over again to bring justice against her adversary, so the ruler provided her justice just to stop her nagging. Jesus explained that God is much better than such an unjust ruler, and that He will provide justice swiftly for those who cry out to Him. However, will Jesus find anyone with faith when He returns? (My paraphrase)

That last part deserves a closer look. So here is Luke 18:8:

"I tell you, [God] will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" NIV

It may be tempting to bundle this mention of swift justice to the final Judgement fated for all of mankind, and to call this yet another reference to the then-soon-coming Apocalypse, based on the mention of the return of Jesus, but that does not appear to be the case when Luke's writing is considered more fully.

Luke, more than any other Gospel writer, emphasized prayer. Matthew used "pray words" (pray, prayer, praying, etc.) 17 times, Mark used them 12 times, Luke used them 27 times, and John used them least of all; only 7 times in his Gospel. It is widely thought that the author of Luke also wrote Acts, and within Acts "pray words" are used 33 more times. Furthermore, Acts emphasized the power of prayer and the direct and timely answering of it in episodes such as Acts 4:23-31.

So, unlike people, who only want to be told once what to do, and then be granted faith that they will get it done, Luke's Jesus is advocating patient and persistent prayer. To not do so is to not have faith in God.

Perhaps there is a little more we can learn here.

I suspect that Luke wrote or included this parable with a purpose, and that it did not originate with Jesus. As we discussed in the study about how Jesus instructed people to pray, this would partially contradict what Jesus said in Matthew 6:7-8:

"And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him." NIV

I say "partially contradict" because this verse has more to do with prayer length than frequency, but the principle is the same: God already knows what you need, so stop thinking you can persuade Him by how you pray. Just make your request and be done with it.

Furthermore, we need to consider that Luke was likely written sometime after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, an event which many early Christians would have taken to be a sign of the End Times. Yet the Second Coming did not occur, even decades later. Some people, being people, were probably becoming discouraged. Unanswered prayer would have been just one more source of discouragement, ultimately leading some to walk away from the new faith. This apostasy is echoed in the words Luke puts in Jesus' mouth at the end: "when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" It appears that Luke was trying to thwart a problem of weakening faith within the early church.

This was not the only problem that Luke had to confront. At that time, though the church was still young, it was likely mature in ways and issues that we still see in the modern church today. While some were struggling to keep the faith at all, others were parading around self-righteously in their knowledge of the "true" faith. That kind of smug behavior was both isolationist and unattractive to the outside world, which made it difficult to grow the church constituency.

Facing that problem, and already having inserted a targeted parable to deal with the apostasy issue, I suspect that it was easy for Luke to insert another targeted parable. So we see the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14, where Luke follows the same protocol of explaining his target explicitly in the beginning so that there would be no misunderstanding. In Luke 18:9, we see:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: NIV

So, from these elements, we can see the likely craft work of a man, not God; a man dealing with the real issues of expanding a new faith, while attempting to preserve the faithfulness of the present flock of believers.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Believe the Miracles

We are following Jesus on His final trip to Jerusalem, where, recently in our studies, He told some Pharisees that the Kingdom of God was within them, possibly just to mess with their minds and stop their scoffing questions. However, we are now going to quickly jump to the Gospel of John for an episode which occurred inside of Jerusalem, presumably at some time prior to where we are in the rest of our studies. Just before the event in the study below, according to John, Jesus had explained that He was the Good Shepherd because He dies for His sheep.

Believe the Miracles
Miracles: twists and tweaks in the physical universe which do not seem to have an obvious physical explanation; that which seems like only divine intervention could provide and explain. Jesus reportedly orchestrated a plethora of miracles during His ministry on earth. That should have been enough to make anyone a believer, right? The intuitive answer is yes, but is that the Scriptural answer?

In John 10:22-39, we find a case where "the Jews" were confronting Jesus in the Temple area during the Feast of Dedication. It starts off with these Jews demanding that Jesus clearly claim whether or not He is the Messiah. Jesus starts off strong in His reply, as we read in John 10:25:
Jesus answered, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in My Father's Name speak for Me," NIV

Jesus' reply is slightly enigmatic, because you still do not have a clear sense of if He had explicitly said "I am the Messiah" before now. However, what Jesus says here is more powerful than mere words, because He says that He is truly demonstrating His position as Messiah through the working of miracles, instead of just trying to convince people with unsubstantiated words. Jesus is doing more than "talking the talk." He is "walking the walk."

That is an incredibly moving and powerful reply. Actions are better proof than vacant claims. Yet something is not quite right about it. We will get to that in a moment.

As Jesus' reply continues in John 10:26-29, He tells those unbelieving Jews that they are not His sheep, that He gives His sheep eternal life, that no one can take His sheep because His Father (implicitly God), greater than all, gave them to Him, and no one can take sheep from the Father. John 10:30 rounds that out with Jesus' memorable words:
"I and the Father are one." NIV

This verse seems pretty clear that Jesus is really claiming to be God, but the context makes that claim less certain. When Jesus references God, He says that God is "greater than all," which would seem to include Jesus Himself. It opens the door for this verse to be interpreted metaphorically. Is John's Jesus instead saying here that He is just perfectly aligned with the will of God?

Indeed, as the account continues, in John 10:31-34 Jesus provides more context to suggest a metaphorical interpretation. When the Jews want to stone Jesus for calling Himself God, Jesus replies with "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods'?" Jesus was not quite right there. This quote does not come from the Law, a.k.a. the Torah, but rather comes from Psalm 82; a short psalm about God bringing rulers into judgement, where those rulers are metaphorically called "gods," presumably a reference to their great power and responsibility to act righteously. However, Jesus may have been using the word being translated as "Law" in more of a generic sense to mean the Scriptures.

From there, in John 10:35-36 Jesus builds the case that if God would call a mortal ruler a god, then surely His own special role, set apart by God and "sent into the world," garners a title of such respect as an even greater and more true version of God on earth. The reference to being "sent into the world" implies a much more significant role than that of a mere mortal, and that Jesus had existed before He lived on earth. This is more consistent with the idea John gave us earlier about Jesus in John 8:58-59, where Jesus made a reference to Himself being the "I am," one of God's names (Exodus 3:14).

So John opened the door for a metaphorical interpretation of Jesus' divinity, just to shut it again.

What John does do is emphasize simultaneously both the separate nature and the unity of God and Jesus. Jesus has the power and desire to do only what God wants Him to do. Jesus is God's articulating appendage. Within Christianity, everything regarding Judgement, Salvation, and praise get funneled through Jesus in His elevated position of co-diety, or Godly appendage, or whatever. This creates some real trouble, as we will see.

Continuing on, and getting back to the miracles, Jesus completes his reply in John 10:37-38 like so:
"Do not believe Me unless I do what My Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe Me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father." NIV

In this episode, Jesus made the case in the beginning and at the conclusion that His miracles should be all the proof you need to believe Him in His claim of divine nature. Furthermore, His ministry promoted that the path to Salvation was through Himself (who is also God), not through the one God who the Jews had always known, prayed to, and sacrificed to.

However, according to the Scripture, miracles are not enough. In fact, God may just send you a miracle-working prophet to try to lead you astray, to try and test your devotion to the one true God. Furthermore, as we see in Deuteronomy 13:1-5, God demands the death of such a prophet:
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, "Let us follow other gods" (gods you have not known) "and let us worship them," you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and Him you must revere. Keep His commands and obey Him; serve Him and hold fast to Him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you. NIV