Category Archives: Christ and Culture
And the Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29:13-14, RSV)
I wish I had a dollar for every book and blog post that has been written describing the decline of the church of Jesus Christ today, or the prescription of the one single magic potion that would reverse this decline. Depending on the theological worldview of the author the church either has to become more modern or it has to go back to a pristine form of some past era. The worship needs to become more vibrant, relevant and “hip” or it needs to become more contemplative and dignified. The church needs to surrender the reigns of leadership to the younger people (whether in actual roles of leadership or at least in terms of the direction of the church) or it needs to “put the young ‘uns in their place” and reject any and every call for modernization. Just about everyone has a silver bullet or at least a silver plated bullet that will bring the church back from the brink of destruction to a full blossom of youth and vitality.
I am struck with the realization that most of these suggestions, while every one might be good intentioned and even healthy in some respect, can be described simply as window dressing. Hiring a younger minister, recruiting a praise time or removing the praise band altogether, removing the pews, creating a prayer labyrinth, lighting candles and incense – all of these external changes will amount to nothing if there is not a substantial change somewhere else. That change has got to be in the heart of the individual, and the collective heart of the congregation, or nothing anyone does is going to amount to anything at all.
I am also struck with the realization that the one voice that most people refuse to allow to be spoken in the church is the voice of the prophet. Hence, I turn to the prophets with increasing interest. I am convinced we cannot hear the voice of the Messiah correctly if we refuse to hear the voices of those who prepared for his arrival. I believe our focus on surface religion and our avoidance of the prophetic message are inextricably related. If we want to restore our church, we must learn to hear the prophets once again. No, that is not a “magic bullet.” But it is a necessary beginning.
Notice in the passage above – Isaiah did not say the people were not honoring God. Oh, they were honoring God all right – dressed in their finery and exuding all kinds of spirituality they worshipped with great pomp and circumstance. But, and this is a common theme throughout all the writing prophets, God would not be mocked with their false worship. He saw straight through their empty and vain ceremony. As Isaiah stated it, the process of worship that had devolved by the time of his writing was simply, “…a commandment of men learned by rote.” How many of our worship services can be described by that one dreadful line?
I have been involved in multiple ministry situations in a relatively broad sampling of congregations and there is one characteristic that defines virtually all of them. (Note: I have not been to every congregation, so if your congregation does not fit this description, simply move on). That characteristic is a lack of commitment. I am not accusing every member of every congregation – some members are amazingly committed. There is, however, a disturbing number of individuals who simply could not be any less interested in the mission of the church.
I have known members who would not miss a softball practice or game to save their life, but who cannot manage to get out of bed early enough on Sunday morning to attend a Bible study. I have known dear sweet little old widow ladies who would not miss their weekly card game if they had double pneumonia, but let them be afflicted with a case of the sniffles and they are nowhere to be found on Sunday morning. I know men who can quote the batting averages of the complete roster of their favorite baseball team who could not find a Scripture if they were handed a Bible with thumb indexes for each book. I have known church leaders who had a chest full of pins from their social club honoring their recruiting prowess who never, ever invited anyone to attend a worship service. I have known salesmen who would drop everything to make a sales call for their business but who were always “booked solid” when it came time to make an appointment to study the Bible with a friend or neighbor. I have known brilliant teachers who were always “too tired” to teach a class. I have known retirees who had plenty of time for the golf course, for the fishing stream, or for the lunch room at the senior center but somehow never had any time to volunteer for a congregational ministry.
Why is it that the auditorium will be full on Sunday morning, but on Monday or Tuesday night when the “rubber is meeting the road” there is only a handful of members show up? And why is it that even though they are so worn out, so tired, and so distracted, that they would not be any other place but the Bible study table, the prison visiting room, the nursing home, the soup kitchen? Is it not because deep inside their heart they have the love of their Lord burning brightly?
Somehow or another the softball diamond, the card table, the bowling alley, the social club, the Senior Center – all of these can make absolute demands of our time and we do not even flinch. But let the Lord’s servant speak the words “total commitment” and watch the fur fly.
How dare you expect me to be totally committed to the church! You are not my master. I have more important things to do.
And so Bible studies go untaught, lonely people go unvisited, critical ministries wither and rot when the willing servants finally get burned out or die. And the members who only know the “fear of the Lord as a commandment learned by rote” wonder why their country is “going to the dogs,” wonder why no one seems to have any moral values anymore, wonder why no one is attending their church anymore, wonder why there is no teacher for their class, wonder why no one will ever come to visit them. And they dream up such wonderful ideas as adding PowerPoint projectors to their auditoriums and building a prayer labyrinth in the weed patch behind the building. And, if they are really radical, they might even recruit a praise team to make their vain worship more relevant.
Sometimes I really have to wonder – Is God through with us yet? When is he going to do something marvelous with this generation? And will we have the spiritual eyes and ears to become aware of it when it happens?
God, revive us again, and please give us eyes to see, and ears to hear when your Spirit starts working in our desperate world.
One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.
Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.
Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.
Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.
The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.
As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.
In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.
The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.
I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.
I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.
But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.
Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.
But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.
And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.
Our gender-neutral older sibling in the ethereal realm -
How, like, totally common is your personal identification.
May your egalitarian and democratic socio-political relationship utopia be realized;
May your totally non-authoritarian suggestions be accepted;
On this environmentally protected sphere as well as your inter-planetary dwelling.
Give us, like, everything we totally want, as well as the obvious things we need.
And forgive all those self-righteous bigots who are constantly making it sound like we need being forgiven.
Don’t let us get too close to the homophobes, male chauvinists and other haters;
And, for Thomas Jefferson’s sake, please keep us away from the Pope and anyone else who happens to care about his backward religion.
Nice chattin’ with ya – see ya later.
Many of you have followed my series of articles on the Sermon on the Mount, and several have commented on one or more of the entries. I realize that there are many who would like a more in-depth treatment of the subject, but are either unable or unwilling to access the material I referenced because of two very good reasons: (1) Dr. Glen Stassen’s book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context is 491 pages long and not everyone wants to wade into a volume that long and complicated, and (2) the article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount” is found in the Journal of Biblical Literature, a resource not many people have access to or even the desire to access. In order to alleviate those two issues I suggest a third possibility – Dr. Stassen’s smaller and much more accessible book, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) 201 pages in an easy-to-read format with many pages consisting of graphic illustrations.
This book eliminates several of the problems that are associated with longer, college text-book type volumes, and especially with articles in peer-reviewed journals. The book is written for the common member of the church, with few (but adequate) endnotes and a non-technical writing style. However, in terms of content, the book follows Dr. Stassen’s explication of the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount and even goes beyond the more technical works in providing some concrete proposals for how the “transforming initiatives” can be worked out in our contemporary society. The book is divided into 10 chapters, but in his preface Dr. Stassen provides information about how to divide three chapters in half, thus providing for a 13 week study of the Sermon on the Mount to fit into a congregational Bible class format.
Even though the book is relatively short (the 201 pages are easily read – this is not a cumbersome technical exposition) do not be misled – there is a lot of “meat” in this book. Dr. Stassen has studied the Sermon on the Mount in-depth and his writing reveals his research. One thing I found particularly valuable was the many ways Dr. Stassen ties the Sermon back into the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah. This is important because I think that all too often we believe that Jesus was teaching something new and never-heard-before, while all along he was teaching what His Father had been teaching through the prophets for generations.
Another aspect of the book that I genuinely appreciated was the illustrations depicting the “traditional teaching, the vicious cycle, and the transforming initiatives” that are located throughout the book. For those of us who are visually oriented, this is a big help.
Another thing I like about this book is that Dr. Stassen included a much longer section about the spiritual disciplines in this book, as opposed in particular to the JBL article, and this is a significant addition. In fact, Dr. Stassen goes to great lengths to show that the section on prayer is the pinnacle of the sermon, and every other teaching found in the sermon is incorporated into Jesus’ model prayer. It is this kind of working through the text as Matthew constructed it that makes this little volume so valuable.
This book is NOT a critical commentary on Matthew 5-7. If you are looking for a careful definition of terms and high-falutin’ biblical language, you will not find it in this book. This is a book designed to the the word of the Sermon on the Mount into our hearts, and therefore into our hands and feet. The scholarship behind the book is solid, but the presentation is in a popular writing style.
The standard caveat directed to every book applies to this one as well. I am sure that you will find something that Dr. Stassen writes with which you disagree. So be it. I have more than one question mark placed in the margin of my copy, along with an editorial “hmmmm” or two. But I do not buy nor do I read books simply to reinforce that which I already believe. Those volumes are okay to a point, and I have several of those type books on my bookshelves. But what I really look for in a book is the answer to the question, “What does the author have to tell me that I do not know, or that furthers my understanding of a particular topic?” Closely related to that question is another: “How well has the author prepared himself/herself to write this book, and how well does he/she present his/her research?” On the basis of these two questions I can recommend Dr. Stassen’s works on the Sermon on the Mount unreservedly. He is an accomplished scholar and knows how to write both professionally and popularly. He challenges with his insights, and even when you disagree with him you have to accept that he has done his homework well and that he presents his case energetically.
Bottom line – this is a fine addition to your “Sermon on the Mount” section in your library.
We live in a world of comparative justice – or comparative injustice if you will. By that strange term I mean that all we experience as justice, or injustice, is compared to others. We know what we think justice should look like, and “compared to _______” what we see is either very just or very wrong.
Jesus lived in a world of comparative justice as well. Consider the following:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners that all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:1-5, RSV)
We know little, if anything, about the two incidents that Jesus referenced. But obviously they were current topics, and the people to whom Jesus was speaking understood them quite well. The first was obviously an example of murder – Pilate had a group of “Galileans” killed while they were offering their sacrifices (at the temple in Jerusalem?). Why they were singled out as “Galileans” we are not sure. Was it because they were insurrectionists, or believed to be plotting an insurrection? Or were they just “out-of-towners” who got mixed up in an ugly case of mistaken identity? And what of the unfortunate 18 who happened to be in or under the “tower in Siloam?” Were they meeting there as a part of a plot? Or did the tower just give way as they happened to be gathered in the shade of the tower?
We have a lot of questions to which we may never know the answers. But one thing is quite clear – Jesus does not buy into “comparative justice” or injustice. Twice he asks, “Do you think this group worse that another?” and twice the answer is “No.”
We watch Tim McVeigh detonate his bomb in front of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City and we recoil in disgust. We watch two airplanes being flown into the World Trade Center and we react with hatred and revenge in our hearts. We watch as two bombs are detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and we are repulsed.
And every day bombs are detonated in crowded markets and in busses and in places of worship and we hardly notice. Every day (it seems like) President Obama agrees to use another secretive drone to bomb a target in Iraq or Afghanistan and scores of innocent bystanders are killed and if there is any reaction in the United States at all, it is simply to say, “Serves them right.”
I remember in some bygone conflict (Desert Storm I or II, or in Afghanistan, even I lose track) there was a member of the media that was killed. Dozens of American soldiers had already died with barely even a mention or without hardly a whimper raised by the TV talking heads. But when the media person was killed you would have thought the entire world had come to a crashing end. There were pictures on the TV, dozens of stories about how this person was trying to make the world a better place through journalism, about how it just wasn’t fair for such a young person to die, blah, blah, blah. Comparative justice. According to the TV types, it was okay for soldiers to die, maybe even expected, but it was NEVER expected or okay that a reporter or camera person to die.
In comparative justice, it is okay for our enemy to die, but never okay for one of ours to die. It is okay for other children to be cut in half by a roadside bomb, but never in America. It would be okay for our American President to use a secretive drone to bomb innocent bystanders into eternity, but what if it happened in Boston? Or New York? Or Dallas?
Jesus would not buy into the idea of comparing the value of deaths. A death was a loss of a human life to Jesus. There were no “greater” and “lesser” sinners in his eyes. There were none who did not deserve their deaths. No, for Jesus we all stand guilty. We all deserve the death that awaits us.
Or, I guess I should say the death that awaited us. Because, you see, Jesus stepped into the middle and “took the bullet” that was intended for us. We have the opportunity to live eternally because he died temporally (in time) on that cross. But his death was not without meaning; not without a warning.
“Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” I don’t think Jesus was talking about physical death here and was telling us in to how we can avoid murderous tyrants and creaky towers. I believe he was using two tragedies to tell us that a far worse death awaits those who continue to live in rebellion to God’s Kingdom.
The bombings in Oklahoma City, New York, Washington and Boston were horrific, make no mistake. But let us also be very clear. God does not view the death of an innocent American as any worse than an innocent Palestinian, an innocent Israeli, an innocent Iraqi, or an innocent Afghan. Let us dispense with the comparative justice concept. The murder of any human being is a stain against the image of God – for every human was made in the image of God.
And that should make us be very careful as we consider our response to whoever it was that murdered and maimed those people in Boston, as well as the victims and the families of the latest drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Have you ever been relatively sure of something, or maybe even profoundly sure of something, only to find out at a later time that you were relatively, or maybe even profoundly wrong? I hate it when that happens. Especially when I am the perpetrator and the victim.
Matthew 7:6 has always been a “question mark” verse for me. I know how others have interpreted it in the past, and for the most part I have agreed with them. The traditional interpretation is that Jesus is telling us to not call people dogs or pigs (I mean, in 7:1 he just told us not to judge, right?); but, as the interpretation goes, some people are just dogs and pigs. So, even though we are not supposed to, we end up judging people. We decide they are not worth having the gospel preached to them (“that which is holy” and the “pearls”). The amplified interpretation is that, while we are not supposed to judge people’s hearts or motives, we are supposed to be “fruit inspectors” (Mt. 7:16) and if someone looks like a pig, grunts like a pig, and acts like a pig, well, who are we to say otherwise?
As I said, this was my standard interpretation – one I taught and preached for years. I’ve never been 100% comfortable with that interpretation because there was always a nagging question in the back of my mind about how 7:6 was related to 7:1. But, many minds much more brilliant than mine have taught this traditional interpretation, so I put aside my uneasiness and just assumed I was being a little too hyper-critical.
In his article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12), Dr. Glen Stassen has finally given me the answer to my question mark. I encourage you to find the article and read it in its totality, as I do not have the time or the inclination to repeat Dr. Stassen’s entire article here. However, to make a fine and complex argument very short, Dr. Stassen points out that in the contemporary literature that would be circulating during Jesus’ lifetime, the epithets “dog” and “pig” was most uniformly applied to the Romans, and to the Roman government in particular. It is true that the epithets were hurled at other groups, but the overwhelming majority of uses applies to the Romans and the Roman government.
As a striking example of how this played out in the gospel, note the story of Jesus healing the demoniac at Gerasa (Mark 5:1-20). Note the language. Jesus asked the demoniac what his name was, and the man replied, “legion.” Now, a legion is a lot of demons, but a “Legion” was also the identification of a Roman military unit. When Jesus cast the demon(s) out of the man, the “legion” entered into a herd of pigs. Dr. Stassen points out that in the first century, in a culture in which the Roman occupation was hated with a deep passion, this little play on words would not go unnoticed. Was Mark trying to make a point about Jesus’ power over the Roman government, or was this just a fortuitous slip of the pen? It does certainly give me pause to think that there is something else to be considered in Matthew 7:6.
By keeping the “triadic” formula in mind, we see that Matthew 7:6a fits the “traditional teaching” portion of the triad. The “vicious cycle” comes next – if we give that which is holy and the costly pearls to the dogs and pigs they will not care about them or us. They will trample that which is holy and valuable and turn to attack us. The “transforming initiative” then follows, with an extended illustration. We are to continue to keep asking God for that which we need, we are to keep searching for that which we need, and we are to keep knocking at the throne room of heaven. If we ask, we will receive; if we seek we will find; and if we knock it will be opened to us.
But what is Jesus talking about here? Going back to Matthew 6:19 (the verse that takes up immediately after Jesus’ emphasis on the spiritual disciplines) Jesus has been focused on the Kingdom of God, and our relationship to that Kingdom. What Dr. Stassen points out is that we are to keep asking, seeking and knocking for the Kingdom to arrive on earth. Our trust, our hope, the point of our asking, seeking and knocking must be the reign of God on earth. If we hope and trust in his reign, if we ask for it, seek for it and knock on heaven’s door for it to be opened, we will receive, find and have it given to us.
So, if “that which is holy” and the costly “pearl” is our hope, our faith, our trust, how do we throw those things to the dogs and pigs? Simply by giving our faith, our hope, our trust to any and or every human government that we find ourselves subject to.
Bingo! Just like the light bulb coming on over the cartoon character’s head, suddenly now I get it.
Jesus is saying here that the most precious thing we can give to God is our hope, our faith, our allegiance. If we give those things to an earthly government, it will not respect those gifts nor those who give them. They will trample those precious gifts underfoot and then turn and attack the people who surrender those precious possessions.
Can anyone say, “The United States Government?”
I know I sometimes sound like a broken record – the same line being repeated endlessly. But I am just struck by how profound this teaching is throughout Scripture, and this view of Matthew 7:6-21 simply magnifies that teaching to me.
For well over 200 years now Americans have given their allegiance, their hope, their faith, and their trust to a piece of paper called “The Constitution of the United States of America.” Certain individuals have viewed it as the 67th book of the Holy Bible. Some conservative Christians can quote from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence more accurately than they can quote the words of Jesus. But let me ask every conservative, red-white-and-blue, flag waving Constitutionalist what that devotion, how that adoration has benefited the church of Christ?
We now have abortion on demand – and millions of babies die each year at the simple request of their mother. We have some states in which assisted suicide is legal and protected. The use of mind-altering drugs is increasingly becoming legal and protected (the most obvious is alcohol!). Building, staffing and filling prisons with prisoners is a growth industry. We have states in which same-sex marriage is legal and protected. But formal prayers in public schools and in public meeting places is illegal. Posting portions of Scripture in a public place is not allowed. Increasingly we have more and more limits on what once was considered to be free speech. On the other hand, vulgarity, nudity and violence are common themes even in forms of entertainment that are primarily oriented toward children. The divorce rate is astronomical, the birth rate among unwed teenagers is unconscionable, and a federal judge just ruled within the past week that any female should be able to receive an abortifacient drug over-the-counter with no prescription needed. Yes, indeed. We truly are a Christian nation.
We gave everything we considered to be high and holy to the government, and it return it trampled those offerings under foot and now has turned and started to attack those who surrendered those gifts.
Just like Jesus said it would happen.
When will we wake up, disciples of Christ? When will we quit throwing that which is holy and our precious pearls in front of a government that despises them and us? When will we finally understand that the only thing that the government wants is more power? And how long will it take us to finally realize that the government will do anything and everything it needs to in order to achieve that ultimate power?
And when will we start giving our faith, our hope, our trust, and our allegiance back to God?
“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” Matthew 6:33.
This ends my series of thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular, Dr. Glen Stassen’s profound explication of this sermon. I hope it has benefited you as much as it did me.
And I hope that we will soon begin to put this Radical Sermon into some very concrete behavior!
(Note: some bad grammar and punctuation fixed, and sentence clarified 4/14/13. Sorry about the confusing sentence.)
It has been a while since I have spent any time in the Sermon on the Mount, so if you are new to this series you may want to backtrack a little and pick up the context and the pattern for what we have been discussing.
In his article (“The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12)”), Dr. Glen Stassen does a good job of demonstrating how 6:24 really fits the context of what follows rather than what precedes. The verse really sounds like a concluding pronouncement, but in light of what has been discussed so far, the argument in favor of linking v. 24 with vv. 25-34 is quite convincing. As we will see in a couple of articles yet in the future, this stylistic manner of looking at the Sermon truly does open it up to a greater degree of understanding.
So, using the pattern Dr. Stassen has identified throughout his article, the “traditional teaching” that Jesus begins with is, “No one can be a slave to two masters.” [With my tongue firmly in my cheek this is perhaps the clearest reason given in Scripture as to why polygamy is wrong.] The “vicious cycle” is either found in the next phrase or the last phrase of the verse. I tend to think that the vicious cycle actually begins with the loving the one master and hating the other. However, Dr. Stassen connects that phrase with the “traditional teaching” and identifies the “vicious cycle” as, “You cannot be slaves of God and money.” Verse 25 continues the vicious cycle – those who are torn between possessions and God are constantly anxious, worried about everything there is to worry about.
The “transforming initiative” is found in three imperatives given in verses 26-28, “Look to the birds, learn from the wildflowers, seek first the kingdom of God.” The behavior that changes everything connected to anxiety and worry is to consider how God takes care of his creation. If man truly is the pinnacle of that creation (which a solid theology of the opening chapters of Genesis clearly pronounces), then God will certainly take care of his highest creation. The most imperative of the three imperatives (not to be redundant) is the command to “seek first the kingdom of God.” This is the major theme that has been running throughout the entire sermon up to this point, although clearly enunciated here for the first time. The Beatitudes illustrate the life that is given over to the Kingdom principles. The discussion of the “traditional teachings” and “traditional practices” that we have examined so far are all illustrative of the vast difference between those who seek the kingdom of this world over the Kingdom of God. Jesus straightforwardly demands that we pray for God’s Kingdom to arrive on this earth just as it exists in heaven. And so here at this climactic point in the sermon, Jesus tells us that any attempt to serve this-worldly kingdom and God’s kingdom is doomed to failure. Quite bluntly Jesus announces that anyone who is worried about the things of this transitory world cannot be concerned about things of the eternal kingdom. Conversely, those who are truly concerned about bringing the eternal Kingdom to the earth will not be distracted nor consumed with the things of this temporary world.
The problem I see with the church today has been amply identified by individuals far more capable of discussing it than I am. The problem is not that the world has defeated the church. That can never happen. The problem is that the church has opened its doors far too wide and has swallowed too much of the world. The church is consumed with concerns that are only important to the kingdom of the Accuser. The church is worried about power (i.e., who is elected in the next cycle of elections), status (do we have the latest technology housed in the most beautiful building?), relevance (are we reaching the next generation?) and its own future. What the church should really be concerned about is love, justice, and mercy. The church should be concerned about Kingdom issues, not power or status or relevance issues. God does not care if we are powerful (because He is our power) our status (because our status is only important in Him) or relevance (it is absolutely blasphemous to think that WE can make God relevant). God is concerned about whether we are faithful in obedience to his commands, which are ultimately based in his grace. If we are disobedient, that is an indication that we either do not recognize or do not trust his grace.
The Sermon on the Mount truly is radical. And, if we would just believe it, would make us a radical church!
It is an argument that is repeated endlessly. In the debate over homosexuality vs. heterosexuality someone who advocates the acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle will say, “The Old Testament may condemn homosexual behavior, but Jesus came to inaugurate a new relationship with God, and Jesus never condemned homosexuality.” Because the argument is so frequent, and on the surface has a degree of truthfulness about it, those who advocate for heterosexual relations, and monogamous heterosexual relationships at that, must learn how to respond to it.
Point number one: it is true that we have no recorded teachings of Jesus explicitly rejecting or denouncing homosexuality. However important that may appear on the surface, that point is really much ado about nothing, or at the most, much ado about very little. We have no explicit teachings from Jesus about abortion, nuclear warheads, genetic engineering, or driving while intoxicated. (Jesus could have at least given us a directive about riding a donkey while intoxicated!) Yet, Christians and non-Christians alike will agree that abortion is wrong, that nuclear warheads need to be destroyed, and that driving while intoxicated is a moral evil. So, to say that “Jesus never condemned X, Y or Z” is only to say that (a) we do not have any record of him denouncing X, Y or Z, and (b) if Jesus had addressed every single moral issue and every single permutation of every single moral issue the world’s libraries could not contain the books necessary, and as human culture is constantly changing, Jesus would still have to be on this earth giving his explicit approvals and denunciations.
End result – this is simply not that definitive of an argument. It would have to be augmented with other, more specific arguments.
Point number two: this may sound harsh and bitter, and I do not intend it that way – but I really do not think that those who use this argument are really all that concerned about what Jesus did have to say, even if he had condemned homosexuality. The fact of the matter is that we do have several teachings of Jesus regarding marriage and male/female relationships, and he always returns to God’s primary reasons for creating male and female, and that is for the fulfilling of human loneliness and for reproduction. Now, before everyone gets their knickers in a knot, yes, it is possible for same sex friendships to fill a person’s longing for companionship. But, and this is a huge but, after God had created the male he said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Gen. 1:18) Now, at this point God had an infinite number of possibilities open to him (our God is a God of infinite possibilities!) The answer to the loneliness of a male was not to create another male, nor to magically create a child, or whatever unseen option that God had open to Him. The solution that God chose was to create a female that was “like” the male, but also very different. When Adam saw his life’s mate he realized that he was complete, and it was at this point that the inspired author interjects this little editorial phrase, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother [note the heterosexual union] and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24, HCSB). Note, therefore, what Jesus had to say about marriage and divorce:
Haven’t you read, He replied, that He who created them in the beginning made them male and female, and He also said: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? (Matthew 19:4-5).
So, Jesus very clearly did teach about heterosexual relationships, especially in regard to monogamous and unbroken marriage.
It is my personal opinion, but I truly believe that even if Jesus had condemned homosexuality, those who advocate for it would simply dismiss his teaching as outdated, legalistic and unenlightened. Am I being too harsh? Those epithets and worse are all attributed to the apostle Paul, who very clearly labeled homosexual behavior as being sinful (Romans 1:24-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – notice that Paul explicitly says, “Some of you were like this” indicating that change from any sinful lifestyle is possible).
End result – those who advocate for a homosexual lifestyle disregard Old Testament teachings regarding homosexual sins, as well as New Testament teachings regarding homosexual sins, so I personally find it very difficult to accept that even if Jesus had specifically condemned homosexual behavior that it would have changed the debate to any great extent.
The end of the matter: I readily grant that we have no recorded words of Jesus on the specific subject of homosexual behavior. To me that is simply a non-issue. We do not have the explicit teachings of Jesus on a myriad of subjects, and yet we make moral and ethical distinctions based on the entirety of God’s written word, not just the ipsissima verba of Jesus. I will discuss the issue with anyone who so desires to keep an open mind regarding the subject of biblical sexual standards. But if we are going to discuss biblical teachings regarding sexual mores, then we have to include all biblical teachings, including the explicit teachings of Jesus regarding heterosexual marriage, the purpose of male and female union, and the original purpose of having a female and male mated together.
As I mentioned in my last post, I believe this debate over the issue of homosexuality will be a defining moment for the church. The members of the Lord’s church must respond with the dignity and respect that this issue demands, and that is also demanded of a disciple of Christ, but we must also stand firm in our convictions. Either monogamous heterosexual unions fulfill God’s original purpose for human beings, or they do not. We must not equivocate. But we must not be hateful or mean-spirited in our defenses, either. Let us be wise as serpents, and yet as innocent and gentle as doves.
Sometime this summer the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will issue its ruling on two major cases involving same sex marriage. I have a couple of iron-clad, crystal clear predictions. One, immediately after the rulings are made public there will be a massive amount of coverage on how the winning side is utterly convinced that the ruling in their favor changes everything and how brilliant the justices are and about how this makes everything right. Conversely, the losing side will shrug their shoulders, mutter something about how ignorant the justices are, and about how their side is still correct, even though everyone else may disagree with them. My second iron-clad crystal clear prediction is that regardless of the SCOTUS decision, the proponents of same-sex marriage will continue to press their agenda, moving from state legislature to state legislature until same-sex marriage ultimately does become the law of the land. For what it is worth, I fully expect the SCOTUS to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and the Proposition 8 in California that outlawed same sex marriage in that state. I see no indication from these 9 justices that they are willing (as a group) to move in a radically conservative direction. I could be wrong – we will find out sometime this summer.
And, as bizarre as this may sound, I think the SCOTUS ruling in favor of same sex marriage might be the best thing to happen for the church of Christ in a long, long time. Let me explain.
For far too long the meta-narrative of the conservative population of the United States has been that the United States is a Christian nation. Conservatives trumpet certain writings of our founding fathers that mention God, Christianity, the church, the Bible, and other fundamentally religious concepts. In this “back story” there is a very deeply held conviction that “if we can just get back to what the founding fathers intended” everything will be set right in America. The only problem with this view of history is that it is factually incorrect. For, whatever some of the founding fathers may have believed and held as their private convictions, the public, legal documents that cemented the creation of this union of states are anything but Christian. If you doubt me just read them. Underline or highlight every reference to Jesus, the church, Christianity, the Bible – or even God for that matter. You may find a reference to the Creator, but that is a far cry from a reference to the self-sacrificing God of the Old and New Testaments. The simple fact is, as I have argued earlier in this blog, the founding fathers wanted to move away from a specifically religious foundation for the government, and they achieved their purpose with amazing skill, and in so doing ultimately made it impossible for anyone to argue that this is a specifically Christian nation.
However, in drawing a parallel between the church and the government, and thinking that somehow the government held the same views as the church, something very dangerous happened to the church. Chalk it up to the “law of unintended consequences.” The church handed over to the government some of its most treasured beliefs, and along with those beliefs, the ability to enforce those beliefs. Perhaps chief among these surrendered values was the institution of marriage. When the church allowed the state to define, legitimize, and limit the act of marriage, the church surrendered every right to define, legitimize, and limit the act of marriage. And so, in a perverse sort of way, the church has no one to blame for the current debate over same sex marriage than the church itself.
Today the church has no power over who can get married – the state defines those parameters. If a couple does not want to submit to the teachings of the church they can go to a secular authority and join each other in marriage. If the laws in their state would preclude them from getting married (one of them being under age, for example) all they have to do is find a state that has lower standards. But if they were to arrive on the steps of a church building and produce their marriage license there is nothing the church can do to refute that legal standing.
This principle is even more pronounced in regard to a divorce. No couple ever has to present their case before a church in order to receive a divorce decree. Everything is handled in a court of law in the state in which the couple resides. In New Mexico a divorce petition is granted automatically – one party can protest, but outside of property issues and child custody issues, the question of a final decree is moot – the divorce will ultimately be granted unless the petitioner rescinds his or her request. In the Roman Catholic church a couple must go before the church to receive an annulment, but an annulment is different from a divorce. In an annulment a decree is issued that the marriage never occurred, not that it was made and then ended.
Why is this important, and why does the impending ruling on same sex marriage have the possibility of redefining the church?
Just this one profoundly important reason: it may allow the church to reclaim its position as a counter-cultural institution that proclaims its allegiance to Jesus as the Christ and Lord. But this can only happen if the church so desires it.
As it stands today, the church has surrendered its allegiance of Lordship to Caesar. We say that Jesus is Lord, but we bend the knee to Caesar. We allow the government to tell us what is legal, right, and acceptable. We have complacently followed the lead of Caesar because we have been laboring under the false assumption that Caesar follows Christ too. But, if that was ever true in our history, (and I have major reasons to doubt it) it certainly is not true today. Caesar as the U.S. government is the latest in a long line of anti-Christs: those who would deny that Jesus is the Christ and that He is Lord of all. Caesar is all about power – lording it over its subjects with the sword of financial or penal punishments if anyone dares challenge its authority. We should have seen it coming with the ruling in favor of abortion, but after the impending ruling on same sex marriage we will no longer be able to deny this fact.
For the church to reclaim its counter-cultural and thus its radically subversive message it must make clear that, whatever punishment is meted out, it will no longer allow Caesar to define the rules of its existence. If the church and the government are seen as one and the same, there is no opportunity for the church to make heard its radical claim of discipleship to Jesus. But, if the government reveals itself to be what it has always in fact been, then the church can stand free and proclaim the message of God with clarity and courage.
Many will view the impending decision of the SCOTUS with dread and as a statement of defeat for the church. I, on the other hand, will view the decision (assuming I am right in my prediction) with a certain amount of relief. We, as the church of Christ, can no longer labor under the false pretense that the government is just one more extension of the church. We will have to face our destiny exactly as the first century church faced theirs, with nothing to grasp but the cross and nothing in our pocket but the supreme power of the God of hosts.
And that, my friends, is exactly where we should have been all along.
(I want to express my appreciation to Tim Archer for inspiring my thoughts along these lines. He wrote a post some time ago that got me thinking about this issue, and just recently followed it up with another fine post. You can find a link to his “Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts” in my list of blogs I follow.)
Throughout this examination of the Sermon on the Mount we have see where Jesus begins with a traditional teaching (or practice), identifies a descending cycle of behavior (often vicious) and then offers a “transforming initiative” that not only breaks the cycle, but restores the “traditional teaching/practice” to its original, God intended purpose. Thus we see where these instructions truly are instructions for living in the new “reign” or “kingdom” of God.
The traditional teaching here is the injunction not to store up treasures on earth. This is certainly a laudable prohibition, very much in line with “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery.” The vicious or descending cycle is briefly noted: moths and rust eat away both soft materials and some metals, and thieves break in and steal that which is more permanent, but is vulnerable none-the-less. The “transforming initiative” occurs in v.20, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. A repudiation of the “vicious cycle” then occurs, moths and rust cannot destroy nor can thieves steal that which is “in heaven.”
With this section of the sermon the question does not so much lie with “what is the traditional teaching” or “what is the transforming initiative” but is more practical – “how in the world can you lay up treasures in heaven?” That appears to be one of the “impossible commands” that this method of examining the Sermon seeks to avoid.
The answer, as Dr. Stassen points out (readers new to this series of posts need to review the first couple of posts of this title to get the bibliographic information I listed in several posts) is to separate the idea of “this life” vs. the “life hereafter” from the idea of the life that is lived here on earth that is devoid of the reign of God and the life that is lived here on earth that is bathed in the reign of God.
Think of the contrast this way: if you invest heavily in things, if you take pride in your house, your possessions, your retirement portfolio, etc., that is where your heart is going to be. With every new purchase or with every new addition to your collection your level of worry is going to increase proportionally. You will need to buy better locks, invest in an alarm system, maybe buy a vicious guard dog, buy a whole warehouse of guns and ammunition. You will watch the stock market reports like a hawk – and worry incessantly about trends and events over which you have absolutely no control. Where your treasure is, your heart will follow.
Now, contrast that with the one who invests heavily in the reign of God. This person gives to make sure there is justice for those who cannot afford it, who provide food and clothing for those who need it, who share their physical blessings so that those who are lacking in certain necessities are able to receive them. This person will be vitally concerned about the reign or the kingdom of God because he or she has already invested heavily in that reign and kingdom. This person’s heart will follow their treasure as well. Except this person’s treasure cannot be taken away from them; it cannot be destroyed, and it will not self-destruct. This person’s treasure in invested in the kingdom of God. That is, this person’s treasure is invested in the very heart of God Himself. No worries here about the stock market or buying a bigger dead-bolt lock.
As Dr. Stassen points out, there is some debate as to whether v. 24 is attached to this teaching, or begins the next section. If it belongs with this teaching the meaning is self-evident. If you love your treasure here on this earth, you cannot claim to love and follow God. If your heart is firmly attached to kingdom concerns, then you will not be worried about following the god of this world.
Until next time, keep the shiny side up and the oily side down!