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Archive for the ‘Message of Jesus’ Category

I think the meaning of Luke 18:10-14 remains unchanged even when the roles are reversed. Here’s what I mean: What if Jesus had told the story this way?

… The tax collector stood and prayed thus with himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not as other men are, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Pharisee.  I fast twice in the week. I give tithes of all that comes into my possession.’

But the Pharisee, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.

I doubt any of my readers would argue that switching the lines spoken by the two men has subtracted anything from the essential teaching of Jesus, but I’d be interested to hear.  The idea occurred to me while reading the following in a chapter on Prayer in the New Testament in a now-obscure 1926 book by W.F. Tillett.

“It is well for us to remember that there is no sin in being a Pharisee, and no saintliness in being a publican.  It is that for which one prays that reveals his real character and the quality of his religion… Thanksgiving is often the best kind of prayer, but such thanksgiving as this man offered was nothing but an offensive expression of self-conceit and complacent pride… The one supreme object of prayer is, first of all, to get rid of sin and to be justified before God.  Prayers that are directed toward this end are effectual and saintly, whether they be offered by Pharisees or publicans.” (Providence Prayer and Power, p. 214).

It is just as easy to detect the gist of the divine message when the Pharisee’s lines are placed on the lips of the wealthy publican. Because it’s not merely about the justification of the ‘outcast’ publican (although that element might have appealed to Luke) but about the inefficacious mindset of the self-congratulatory do-gooder at prayer – whoever he may be.

My role reversal does lose the implied criticism of the Pharisee as a religious type, but I doubt such a negative stereotype can explain everything – especially in view of the high probability that there were decent Pharisees among his own followers.

However, I admit that the New Testament version bears a glint of religious genius to which my role-reversal cannot attain – the added irony of the superior wealth of the ‘justified’ in the Gospel account.  The special shock-value contributed to the story by the wealth of the publican was a factor which I think cannot have escaped the mind of Jesus.  I’ve seen uninspired visual portrayals of the story which fail to deliver this irony because they depict the Pharisee as the far better-dressed man.

Wilbur Fisk Tillett  (1854-1936) was dean of the Theological faculty and professor of Christian doctrine at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.

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The parable of the Sower as a critique of church and theology?  I was surprised at how easily the tables can be turned to transfer the ‘onus’ from Gospel-hearers onto the heads of Gospel-preachers whose method and theologies limit our ability to hear and enter into the Kingdom.

“You may as well be pitching birdseed on the Roman road,” Jesus seems to say (Mt 13:18), “if you present to men a Kingdom of God having so little of the flavor of my Spirit that it is perceived as either humdrum or humbug” – the issue in this verse is lack of understanding, a problem which implicates teachers as well as students whenever man-made doctrines are either spiritually or morally flat or unintelligible and therefore misunderstood by large numbers of people.

“On the other hand,” we hear him saying (Mt 13:20-21), “if you think emotional hooks will frighten people into the Kingdom with threats covered by cheap grace, or entice them in with promises of great beds of roses, you are no better than the hardpan farmer who will not plow” – the issue here is lack of depth, and this implicates teachers as well as students if emotional appeals have cultivated shallow joyous puppets who are unprepared for the very tests of doubt and persecution in which their Savior must come to meet them.

“And it is a mistake,” he seems to imply (Mt 13:22), “to pitch my own sublime cares and delights in terms which resemble too much the cares of the world and its delights” – the issue here is confusion of realms, and this implicates teachers as well as students where preaching strives to resemble the everyday wisdom of the world in so many ways that the Kingdom is confused for the world and the spirit is choked by unspiritual meanings and values.

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In Luke’s story of the Sabbath healing of the woman ‘bent over 18 years,’ the synagogue ruler interrupts the woman’s grateful praise of God with an indignant take-off from the Decalogue, aimed at Jesus: “Six days shall ye labor, and do all your work…” (Ex 20:9)

I enjoyed reading yesterday’s post on this text by Daniel Kirk,  who suggests that we view this disgruntled chazzan as:

“the stand in for the bible-believing Christian in this story… the person who checks everything to see if it’s in line with the word of God, telling the people not to upset the biblical norm for their own convenience or exceptional spiritual experience… the guy who can tell you why this can’t possibly be something that glorifies God because it’s happening in contradiction to scripture… But Jesus calls him on it.”

Yes sir.  And I notice Jesus strikes deep with his response to the chazzan but does not threaten the heart of the commandment – that crashing sound we hear is the fall of a post-Sinai tradition of strict observances which had gradually become painfully binding on the daughters and sons of Abraham.  When this sedimentary slag of unwritten and re-written addendums is dashed to pieces by Jesus, behold, we see the ancient stone of the Law standing forth in its original purity:

“Give rest to my people, comfort my people, water my people.”  This word to the shepherds of Israel is like a refrain running from Sinai, through Second Isaiah, to Jesus.  The law reached into every moment of the people’s life, but Jesus here seems to transform the Sabbath into a jubilee of rest from the sharia of binding and tasking and testing which they endured under the quotidian observance-rituals of man-made religion.

Jesus restored two Sabbath principles to the religion of Israel when he bid this shepherd to allow that his people be loosed, healed, and watered on this day.  First he minimized the ownership of the day by the rulers and scribes and redirected it back to its rightful owners – the congregation of the daughters and sons of Abraham.  “The Sabbath was made for man,” not the other way around.  Second he restores the meaning and value of the Sabbath rest to the congregation as a truth of mercy rather than of judgment.

Note:  Interesting that this story seems to have no place in the three year cycles of readings followed by some of the mainstream churches (I’ve only checked the 1979 ECUSA 3-year cycle in my possession, but I know others are very similar).  Do we wonder why the kinds of high clergy who make such decisions found this story so little inspiring?

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“Our aim in the present study is to show that Jesus did not expect a speedy and supernatural destruction of the world.” (Lily Dougal and Cyril Emmet, The Lord of Thought, from the Preface, dated Sept. 1922).

At the time of their writing, these two New Testament critics were very much alarmed at a growing bias in NT criticism.  “It is now widely held that the whole thought of Jesus was governed by the belief that the end of the world was very near, or, at least, that this belief was a confusing element in his outlook.”  Of course the authors were discussing a 15-year trend inaugurated by Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book, Von Reimarus zu Wrede (The Quest of the Historical Jesus).

Schweitzer had claimed that the teaching of Jesus is inconsistent with itself except when everything is viewed from the perspective of a thorough-going eschatological frame of mind.  Except the problem with his view is that it makes Jesus inconsistent with reality – because some scripture texts make Jesus wrong about the proximity of the end, and his return in glory.

Dougal and Emmet agree with Schweitzer that the eschatological teachings attributed to Jesus are inconsistent with his higher teachings, but they reject Schweitzer’s means of achieving consistency for Jesus.  Schweitzer, they argue, has only created his own false pattern of consistency in Jesus teaching, “by forcing upon all his sayings and parables an interpretation in harmony with the more fanatical Judaism of his time.”  (p.2)

They offer a solution which can only alienate both fundamentalists and moderns:

“Considering the circumstances in which the Gospels were compiled, it is more becoming for us, in the first instance, to suspect the records of inaccuracy than to assume that the inconsistency lay with Jesus.” (p.9)

I’m fine with the authors’ rejection of plenary inspiration.  Trouble is, they imply a new principle which skeptical critics are sure to hate – the principle of an inerrant Jesus  But I like it! 

“In the history of any one of the canonized Christian saints, when sayings and acts are attributed to him or her which to us appear inconsistent and unworthy, our first proceeding is to suspect the accuracy of the narrator … on the hypothesis that the inspiration of the saint for goodness and wisdom was greater than the inspiration for accuracy enjoyed by the disciple.” (p.7-8)

Seriously, a hermeneutic principle like inerrant Jesus is unapologetically faithful – only it requires that our faith in the perfection of Jesus trumps our belief in the perfection of scripture.  There’s bound to be difficulty discriminating the inerrancy of Jesus from the inaccuracy of apostles and gospel writers.  But the result for eschatology is an important one – the axiomatic rejection of a merely human Jesus who is either self-contradictory or  a fanatic and delusional Jew yields refreshing fruit in a healthy critical skepticism regarding all assertions or allusions in scripture which suggest that a destructive end-of-the world scenario is a necessary adjunct to the true Gospel.

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The religious commands and injunctions found scattered throughout the sacred books of the Jews are generally admitted to be of very uneven spiritual value.  Many represent interpretations of divine expectations which are ‘all too human’ – more revealing as examples of anthropology than of theology. From a theologian’s perspective, however, the many primitive and unspiritual ideas found in those ancient books are far outweighed (though not outnumbered), by a few inspired concepts which I think exhibit a spiritual acumen as high as any known in all the literature of religions.

What is more, I notice that some of the most high (and most demanding) OT exhortations were ascribed also to Jesus.  For example, Mat 6:48:

“You therefore shall be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”

appears to be the Gospel upgrade for the earlier divine command which in the Torah introduces the ancient ‘Holiness Code’ in Lev 19:2:

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy”

The divine Son puts an interesting new spin on the old, but I don’t see where his innovation has lessened its tough (seemingly impossible) requirement.  What he has done is to render the statement harder to misinterpret as a kind of guarantee of holiness in a person or group simply by dint of their covenantal association with God – an error which might lead one to brand all outside the covenant as unholy, as goyim.

As for the implied difficulty of following this divine injunction, I like the midrash offered by C.S. Lewis, which has Jesus saying:

‘Make no mistake; … if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect-until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.’   – Mere Christianity, from Chap 31 ‘Counting the Cost’

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According to Mark’s record, Jesus is already preaching a “gospel of God” at the very start of his public career.  At some point not much later than the imprisonment of the Baptist and before his selection of the twelve, we find Jesus preaching, “The Reign of God is at hand; Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:14-15). 

Here it is, a long time before the cross and tomb and resurrection, long before Pentecost, but Jesus is already preaching a message which qualifies as “good news.”  Can this early “good news of God,” personally commended by Jesus of Nazareth shortly after his baptism resemble very closely the preaching about the crucified Messiah which was immediately proclaimed by Peter at Pentecost?

And what of the potential differences that might exist between the early message of Jesus and the later evangelical gospel of salvation, which follows (even surpasses) Paul in incorporating the whole redemptive work of crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost?

I want to look at the exegetical and/or theological apparatus developed in the church to reconcile these two gospels and ask, can they in fact be reconciled?  The answer is important, I think, for the next theology

In my view, The least helpful approach to Jesus is the one which apprehends his ‘reign of God’ in the manner portrayed by the Jewish eschatological writings which preceded his day, although their influence on his hearers and followers – and even on his precursor the Baptist – cannot be deniedBut this assertion will need further elucidation.

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