Category Archives: Ethics
I just discovered that one of my recent professors, Dr. Glen H. Stassen, passed away today. Dr. Stassen was the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. This is extremely difficult news to hear. I only knew Dr. Stassen through a couple of phone calls and his comments on my course work, but even those all-too-brief encounters with Dr. Stassen were life changing.
I was assigned to Dr. Stassen as my professor of record in a guided study on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had visions that the course would be fairly easy – it was a topic of my own choosing and I knew nothing of Dr. Stassen. I guess I found out how serious a scholar and theologian Dr. Stassen was when he sent back some comments on my suggestions for my course work. He agreed with my list of books (although he had some comments) and he had a slight alteration on the book reviews I suggested. I suggested a page to a page and a half, double spaced. He said three pages. Single spaced. Oops – this was not going where I wanted it to go.
Well, I did the three pages, single spaced book reviews, and also some reviews of lectures that I heard on Bonhoeffer in Chicago, and a comprehensive paper comparing Bonhoeffer’s theology to that of the Restoration Movement, particularly Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. It was over 90 pages of work. I really had no idea how Dr. Stassen would respond. I waited in equal parts terror and despair.
When I received my work back I was blown away. I was pleased that Dr. Stassen liked my submission, but what astounded me was the detail with which he responded to my work. He commented on all of my book reviews. He commented on my lecture reviews. He made extensive comments on my paper. He critiqued, he corrected my grammar, he added insights, he challenged, and when appropriate, he agreed with me.
Dr. Stassen was an accomplished author and leader in the realm of Christian ethics. I have a couple of his books, and now I am challenged to add to this collection. His epic Kingdom Ethics (co-written with David Gushee) is a masterpiece in the genre. His A Thicker Jesus is thought provoking and life changing.
I will remember Dr. Stassen for many things. He was an accomplished scholar in Bonhoeffer studies. He was a leader in proposing new steps in Christian ethics. His scholarship cannot be questioned. He demanded his students to perform at a high level, and he rewarded that high level of work. But, most of how I will remember Dr. Stassen is what a wonderful gentleman he was. He was so kind. The couple of phone conversations I had with him will be treasures in my memory. I will also treasure his written comments on my papers until I am no longer around.
Dr. Stassen’s death is a huge loss to the Bonhoeffer studies community, those who work in the realm of Christian ethics, and especially hard hit will be the Fuller Theological Seminary community. I was profoundly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Stassen. One of the things that I was looking forward to in finishing my Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller was the chance I was going to have to meet Dr. Stassen in person. Now that opportunity is no longer a reality, but in a very small way I did get to meet Dr. Stassen, and I hope that as I finish my dissertation I will remember what he taught me and that I will create a final product that would have met with his approval.
Anyone familiar with the 1970’s British hit “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” will recognize that tag line. In the 30 minute shows that aired on our PBS station that line would occasionally pop up to signal a shift from one really weird skit to another. That was the thing about Monty Python. Nothing was ever “normal.” You went from completely different to completely different.
I am not going to state my age (because, hopefully, it will be continually changing) but I will say that in my lifetime the moral culture of the United States has changed more radically than during any equivalent time period. I am not speaking in terms of technology, as there have been other generations in which technology has advanced more than during my lifetime. (I think of my grandfathers who were born before Lindberg and who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.) What I am talking about is in relation to what is considered right and wrong. I came from the time period in which Mary Ann had to keep her belly button covered to appease the censors. Rhett Butler was almost black-balled because he said he really did not care. Lucy and Ricky had to sleep in twin size beds separated by a night-stand.
Today, a person is considered a bigot if he or she thinks that marriage should be defined as an intimate relationship between a man and a woman. I have to take my shoes off at the airport because some crazy might try to blow the plane up with a bomb in his sneaker. I dread the month of April knowing that someone is going to shoot up a school, a movie theater, or bomb an athletic event.
I know there was a huge shift in morality centered around the major wars – the Civil, the World War to end all World Wars and the World War after that one, the Korean “Conflict” and the Vietnam “Police Action.” But, thinking in terms of the general public, the “man on the street,” has there been a more radical change in the mores and values of the American public than in the past 50-60 years?
Just think of it – we are now actually debating what the concept of “Freedom of Religious Belief” means. When I was born we were only concerned about freedom from ring-around-the-collar.
What does the future hold? Who knows – I cannot see it getting any better for persons of conservative religious or moral belief. You cannot put toothpaste back in the tube once it has been squirted out. Mary Ann’s bare mid-riff has morphed into Miley Cyrus’ bare, um, well you get the idea. Unless there is a cataclysmic change in society’s perception of “right” and “wrong” I can only picture things getting worse.
Does that mean we give up, throw in the towel, wave the white flag? No, never. But it does mean we must learn how to challenge the changing moral landscape a lot more intelligently than we have for the past half-century. It means, oddly, that we are going to have to go back to a way of thinking far more similar to the first century than the 21st century. Jesus, Peter, Paul and the early church fathers lived in a world where homosexuality was openly practiced, women were treated like chattel to be bought and sold, and infants were routinely allowed to die if the father rejected them. Yup, kind of sounds like the LGBT, pornographic sex-trafficking, and Planned Parenthood culture we live in today.
We can no longer rely on our supposed “Christian” foundation. If we ever had one it is quickly disappearing in our collective rear-view mirror. We must own up to the fact that biblical standards of morality will be viewed as “abnormal” and even bigoted and hateful. What once was normal is not normal anymore.
“And now for something completely different…”
So far I held off on commenting about the George Zimmerman trial. Well, that’s not exactly true, but I had to delete the posts I wrote Saturday night. At the risk of severe overstatement, let me say I was crushed by the verdict that jury reached. Far more than the O.J. Simpson verdict, or even the Rodney King verdict, I felt that, as a caucasian, conservative, attempting-to-be-disciple of Christ I was truly injured by this decision. When a miscarriage of justice speaks so clearly to one of the fundamental sins of our culture, everyone in that culture is injured – whether they realize it or not, and whether they admit it or not.
Several facts that came out during this trial prove to me that race was the sole and determining factor in the verdict. The primary one is that Trayvon Martin was doing nothing, absolutely nothing wrong when he was racially profiled by George Zimmerman that cold rainy night. He was a young black man walking down the street in a “hoodie,” a hooded sweatshirt. He had just been to a convenience store to buy a snack. George Zimmerman saw him, saw that he was black, became his own judge, jury and police force, and set out to make sure Martin did not get away.
Trayvon Martin did not need to “get away.” He was not doing anything illegal. He was returning to his father’s house.
George Zimmerman instigated this whole event. He was the one who decided Martin was guilty simply based on the color of his skin. He was the one who followed – make that stalked – Martin on the way back to his father’s house. Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and chased Martin some distance before an altercation occurred. What happened during that altercation no one will ever know – Martin was shot dead and the only witness to the shooting is a lying, self-serving, arrogant racist who claims self defense. And this became the greatest crime in the whole sordid story. In order for Zimmerman to make his case, he and his defense team had to turn Martin in to the aggressor. The victim of a shooting became the perpetrator of a fist fight. A man who was told not to follow Martin and who was carrying a loaded 9 mm pistol became the victim in a scenario that he created from start to finish.
And because Zimmerman looks lilly white (he claims Hispanic genetics as well) and because Trayvon Martin was black, and because Zimmerman represented law and order and because everyone knows that young black men are just murderers and rapists and burglars just waiting to happen, the predominantly white, all female jury let Zimmerman go totally free.
The Ku Klux Klan never had it so good.
This story would be despicable as it stands, but it gets worse. All across the country white people have gone on record throwing around some of the most hateful, vengeful, sinful racist comments imaginable – all worthy of coming out of a sweet little old church lady’s mouth. Martin “got what was coming to him.” Oh really – going to the convenience store deserves a death sentence? “Martin should not have been where he was.” Nice – he was visiting his father who lived in that gated community – and Martin was just walking home in the rain on a dark night. “If some punk jumps me and I have a gun you better believe I will use it to defend myself.” Oh, so racially profiling a young man (regardless of race is being profiled) and going against police dispatcher instructions and chasing (stalking) that same young man is perfectly okay, but having that young man defend himself is wrong? Here is the absolute tragedy of this case. Zimmerman, who is white, is afforded the right to shoot and kill a young man for the supposed reason of self-defense, but a young black man is not allowed to use his fists to defend himself. Remember – we do not know who started the fight. The only words we have are from the white killer who gunned down the black man. The same white man that, incidentally, was caught in multiple lies before and during the trial. Do you honestly think he would admit to starting the fight that ended in Martin’s death?
The prosecution of this case was a joke. I honestly believe the prosecutor wanted to lose this case. He did the defense’s job for them, and did not prosecute Zimmerman at all.
Perhaps worst of all was the racist venom spewed by national and regional news commentators. Sean “the white man’s Al Sharpton” Hannity was the worst, although several others came in closely behind. To these individuals all you need to do is look at the color of a man’s skin and that tells you who is innocent and who is guilty. Zimmerman – white = innocent; Martin – black = guilty.
Where does this story intersect with Christianity? Just this – anytime a racial or economic power can force its will, and warp justice, because of that race or because of that economic power, God will condemn those who perpetuate that hegemonic power. Just read Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-56. Read the scathing denunciation of the abuse of power in the book of Amos. Read Jesus’ own words of turning racial hatred upside down in the parable of the good Samaritan or in his dealings with the Samaritan woman at the well or the Canaanite woman and her demon possessed child. (Luke 10:25-37; Matthew 15:21-28) Read the concluding passages in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians and see how Paul commanded Christians to view others and treat others differently than what the prevailing culture sees and treats them.
The verdict in this case is nothing more than a repugnant stain against any claim of racial equality that white Americans want to delude themselves into believing.
I mourn this verdict. I mourn because Trayvon Martin did not get any justice. I mourn because his family if forced to deal with the incessant and vitriolic hatred of white so-called “Christians.”
And, I mourn this verdict because at the very core, if a young black man or black woman cannot walk home from a convenience store without being profiled by some racist vigilante, then my very white, very blond and very blue eyed daughter is not safe to walk home from that same convenience store.
As long as a person’s skin color is allowed to define innocence and guilt, no child is ever safe. But it appears in this country, African Americans have the most to fear.
(Postscript: Just to highlight my claim of racism, this story was brought to my attention. In the same state in which George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, and just few months more than a year ago, a young single mother was convicted of shooting a gun into the air when she felt threatened by her abusive husband. No one was injured, certainly no one was killed. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The judge in that case rejected her plea that she was simply “standing her ground” and defending herself. And, oh, by the way … she was a young single black woman. Here is the link, as long as it is valid – http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57433184/fla-mom-gets-20-years-for-firing-warning-shots/?tag=socsh. Do you still think racism is not an issue in this case? By the way, I do not know if subsequent to this sentence there has been any appeal or overturning of the sentence. The point is that Zimmerman’s claim of self defense only works if the supposed victim is white, and the supposed aggressor is black.)
Boy, did I nail it. I predicted here that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) would strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as well as the Proposition 8 in California which denied homosexual marriage. While the court did not actually rule on Prop. 8, they refused to rule against the lower court ruling which invalidated the proposition, thereby basically throwing the proposition out.
Make no mistake – completely removing the morality of the issue for a brief moment, these rulings are monumental – epic even.
Stop and think about what just happened. Both of the rulings overturned the legislative or the popular vote of a majority of elected officials or the population of a state. The DOMA was enacted by both houses of government of the United States and signed into law by President Clinton. Proposition 8 passed by a significant majority (if it had been a presidential election, the winning side would have claimed an ‘overwhelming mandate’.) In viewing both of these popular statements by a majority of Americans as being in violation of the 5th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the SCOTUS basically said that they, not the elected officials of the country, nor the general will of the population of a state, have the right to make the laws of the country. No piece of legislation that has been or ever will be passed that in any way, manner or form infringes upon a person’s real or imagined rights under the 5th Amendment will be considered legal.
And that, my dear readers, is epic. These rulings make Roe v. Wade look like a kindergartener’s crayon drawing when it comes to long term repercussions. We have been dealing with the fallout of Roe v. Wade for the past 40 years and we still have not figured out exactly what “right to privacy” means. That will all seem very tame in comparison to what was just delivered by the SCOTUS.
So, what is the church supposed to do in response?
Any legislative recourse has been effectively eliminated by the ruling itself. It matters not if the Senate and House of Representatives both passed a law unanimously declaring that marriage should be defined as between a male and female (and that was never going to happen anyway). The SCOTUS would simply strike that law down as well. I really do not think people understand how massive this ruling is. Our legislators do not matter anymore. The only law makers who have any power at all right now are the 5 liberal judges who sit on the Supreme Court.
So, Caesar has revealed his hand. The amazing thing is that some people are shocked, utterly amazed, at what just happened. I called it months ago. Anyone with eyes in their faces and ears on their head could have called it. These rulings were as close to “fore-ordained” as anything John Calvin ever proclaimed.
Will this wake the church up? Will we rise out of our slumber? Will we, at long last, finally realize that we are not living in a Christian nation, that the United States Constitution is not inspired by God, that it is a fallible, corrupt and corrupting piece of human governance? Will we learn that the only way to change the course of human events is to change the course of human hearts? Will we quit trying to convert the world to kingdom ethics by passing feeble legislation that can be overturned and erased by 5 utterly corrupt human beings?
Will we ever learn that leaning on the broken reed of human strength is the only sure way to destroy a nation? (Isaiah 36:6; 30:1-5; Ezekiel 29:6-9).
As I said in my earlier piece, this may be the best thing that could have happened to the church – at least in one respect. Now we can no longer hide behind flimsy legislation to advance the kingdom of God.
Let us stop trying to fight Satan with Satan’s tools. Let us repent of our misguided attempts to do so and return to the power of our God.
Last time I checked, no court has ever managed to invalidate any of His rulings.
Okay, I don’t know why I am writing this. I am not a businessman, and some would say I am not even a very good theologian. This is certainly not a theological topic, but it is something that occurred to me over the course of the morning, so in order to get it out of my head I thought I would put it in a blog.
I have been a part of some really good companies, and some really dreadful companies. As I pondered over what made the good companies great and the bad companies really lousy, a very few characteristics came to my mind. I hope I have crystallized them succinctly and beneficially enough. Maybe you have another one or two to add. Feel free to push back or add to. Here goes:
1. Really good companies hire the best person for the job and then let that person achieve what it was that he or she was hired to do. That is, really good companies ditch the boiler-plate human resources department mumbo-jumbo run-around that sucks so much life out of new hires and, eventually, the entire company. Really good companies take risks, look for creative, hard workers, and understand that a spotless resume often means an empty brain, and a somewhat tarnished resume might also reveal a brilliant worker. This applies to churches far more than the average pew sitter would expect. I cannot tell you how many “boiler-plate” job descriptions for ministers are out there. Everyone wants the most successful evangelist, most spellbinding preacher, highest educated teacher, most devoted home leader, accomplished counselor and universally admired retreat/lectureship speaker. Know how many of those there are out there? Yeah, I thought so: exactly zero. But chances are a good man will have two or so of those traits, and many will have one outstanding trait among all of those. The fact is you cannot be 100% introvert and 100% extrovert, which is what many companies demand (or, at least, demand on paper). But, find the best individual there is available and then release him or her to do his or her potential!
2. Very closely related – do not micro-manage your company. If you release your employees (or your volunteers, if that is what you are working with) then allow them to succeed brilliantly and allow them to fail spectacularly. Great achievements are born from the ashes of previous failures. Let your good people take ownership of their work, and that means you have to get your long nose and oversized posterior out of their workspace. In the job where I had the best owner/boss, he let us make our own decisions and we knew that. We knew we would have to justify those decisions if it cost the company money, but we also knew that our boss would have our back if our decisions were questioned by his superiors. Folks, that is the kind of boss I would run into a burning building for. On the other hand, the most wretched company I have had the curse to work for made it impossible for me to do my job without the fear of my immediate superior calling me into her office for a periodic dressing down. It was brutal. Sometimes the best lessons are learned from the worst teachers, and, heaven forbid anyone would have to deal with a teacher like that, um, person.
3. Never, ever, ever issue instructions or demands that result in a “double bind.” A double-bind is a situation in which an employee or a volunteer cannot obey one command without violating another. For example, one company I worked for had one “bind” that we would obey every single regulation that the FAA handed down to a perfect “t” and there would be no questions asked. However, an unspoken but very clear rule was that we were to deliver our packages on time and precisely where it was to be delivered, also no questions asked. So, even though it was against FAA regulations we flew in weather we were not supposed to, in aircraft that were not airworthy, and carrying freight that we were not authorized to carry. There was no way we could obey one “bind” without violating the other. I hate to say it, but during the time that I was associated with that company 3 pilots lost their lives. In every situation the “official” reason was “pilot error” but those of us who knew the inner workings of the company knew better. And, by the way, yes I did make an official complaint to someone outside the company in an official position of authority (law enforcement). To the best of my knowledge, my complaint went nowhere.
4. Do not write checks on the bank accounts of your employees (or volunteers). This one has more to do if you are working with volunteers, but never commit your employees or volunteers to do something that is physically impossible, or strategically improbable, for them to carry out. An example of this would be to commit your volunteers to give more time than is reasonable, or expect higher levels of sacrifice than is realistic, or to expect higher levels of return than what your people can deliver. If it takes an hour to fly from point A to point B, don’t promise you can have a package there in 30 minutes. If it takes an hour to create a poster, do not demand that 3 be made in the same time period. If your people sacrificially gave $100.00 last quarter, do not demand $10,000 this quarter. There are so many ways in which this is done in business and in churches. Be honest, be fair, and work with what your people can give you. You would be surprised at how frequently they will willingly give you more!
5. To inspire loyalty, demonstrate loyalty. I could not leave Jezebel and the company from Hades fast enough. While I actually enjoyed the position, the company ethics and the office politics were in the process of killing me. It was a wretched experience, but, strangely enough, I am glad I lived through it. It taught me how not to treat people. There was no loyalty, and yet the ownership demanded absolute loyalty. Workers came and went on almost a weekly basis. Morale was low. To hear the owner speak, though, you would have thought his company was the happiest on earth. There are many former employees who would disagree with him on that point! On the other hand, I truly regretted having to leave the “pleasant” company. I had to for health reasons – but it was anything but an easy decision. It certainly was not a glamorous position – socially far beneath the excruciating company position – but infinitely more enjoyable and worthwhile. While the nature of the company encouraged a considerable amount of turnover, many former employees would come back to this company after their next adventure did not work out. We had a standing joke that our company was the embodiment of the Eagles’ famous song, Hotel California – “You can check out any time you’d like, but you can never leave.” We (at least most of us) loved the company and parted on good relations with the management.
So there you have it – my five foolproof ideas for how to create a winning organization, whether it be a company or a volunteer group.
Many happy landings!
You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15)
A very good friend gave me a surefire way to determine whether you have violated this commandment. Just follow these questions -
Is it in your possession? (yes)
Did you buy it? (no)
Did you trade something for it? (no)
Did someone give it to you? (no)
Did you make it? (no)
Then you stole it. Give it back.
That logic is pretty easy to follow if we are talking about a candy bar at the local convenience store. But when the discussion gets to adult issues the answers are not so easy to come by.
Is gambling stealing? Well, at least if you win something?
What about the lottery, is that really gambling? And if you win something, are you guilty of stealing other people’s money? (They obviously don’t have it anymore!)
And, (drum roll please) what about the 6 million dollar question – is making a living off of welfare considered stealing? A person on welfare (and a whole host of other governmental give-aways) is not earning anything, is not receiving the benefit of any labor. A whole bunch of other people do not have the money that they did earn by hard work that was taken from them (by force of law, by the IRS). So, is welfare stealing?
Some would argue that living off of welfare is simply being taken care of by a benevolent government. I would agree with that argument if the government was accepting donations for the welfare system. I would also be more willing to accept it if the recipients were required to produce something in order to get the benefits. But when you coerce people into surrendering large portions of their income to support a systematic method of discouraging industry and self-reliance then I have to question whether there is any benevolence in the system at all.
In God’s economy as illustrated in the Old Covenant, a wealthy land owner was able to cultivate, plant and harvest his crops. This provided for his family, and no doubt the families of his hired hands (or slaves, as the case may have been). Perhaps he also sold or bartered his crops for the other things his family needed. It was an economy that was certainly not capitalistic as we use the term, but it did allow for hard work and industry to be rewarded. However, the land owner was specifically commanded not to harvest to the very edges of his field, and was not to scrape every last grape from his vine. He was to leave the edges, the corners, and the odd bunch of grapes for the poor, the homeless, the landless, and the outcast. There was no welfare system in God’s economy. Provision was made so that poor people could eat, but they had to get out and harvest or glean for their well-being and the care of those who were depending upon them. It was a perfect system of checks and balances. The wealthy could earn a decent living, the poor could be taken care of. But everyone had to contribute.
In my opinion, welfare is nothing other than legalized stealing, big government sanctioned theft. As I mentioned, that goes for a host of other government sanctioned subsidies and grants. We are simply stealing from the industrious and giving to those who cannot work, or more insidiously, are able to work but are simply not willing to work.
What about gambling and playing the lottery? A case could be made that, since everyone involved plays willingly, there is no theft as such. While the issue is not as clear-cut to me as the issue of welfare and other governmental “redistribution of wealth,” I do have some serious misgivings about such “games of chance.”
For one, gambling and the lottery have been rightly described as a repressive tax against the poor and ignorant. There is a reason wealthy people do not use gambling and the lottery as a way to get more wealthy – they know that the house always wins. It is true beyond question that the wealthy gamble, and gamble in huge amounts (just consider horse racing, the “sport of kings”). But I would suggest that for wealthy people gambling is primarily a recreation – a sport, a competition that raises their adrenaline level and makes their otherwise boring lives a little more interesting. On the other hand, the poor and the ignorant see gambling and the lottery as a way to move up, “I’m gonna hit it rich sometime.” There is a joke that says rich people have IRAs, 401(k)s, stocks, bonds, and other retirement portfolios; rednecks have PowerBall. That would be a lot funnier if it were not so true, and so very sad. Billions of dollars are wasted annually that should have been spent on rent, food and clothing.
(I suppose in the interest of open disclosure, I have been known to occasionally buy the tempting PowerBall ticket myself. The baby always needs a new pair of shoes. What was I saying about “ignorant”?)
It all boils down to those simple little questions and the heart of the disciple. Did you earn it? Did you make it? Was it a gift fairly given? Did you buy it or trade for it with money or something else you fairly earned?
If not, you stole it. It does not belong to you.
Give it back.
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.
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.
Those following this series of posts (“A Radical Sermon”) are familiar with the outline proposed by Dr. Glen Stassen. Those just joining in or dropping by need to take a little time and review the preceding material. That way I don’t have to keep repeating myself by repeating myself.
The “traditional teaching” of this section is found in v. 33 – do not break your promises, but keep your oaths to the Lord. To this teaching Jesus adds a somewhat lengthy series of descending practices, or in Dr. Stassen’s term, the “vicious cycle” that occurs when we do not keep our word. Notice that none of these oaths that are discussed in the “vicious cycle” have anything to do with making promises to God. Rather, they all have some aspect of God as a “witness” in an oath made to another human being. Because the name of God was considered too holy to even pronounce, various substitutes were considered appropriate to use, some with greater significance and some with lesser significance. So, instead of swearing by the name of God, one might swear by “heaven” as it was God’s realm, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or even by one’s own head. Each “oath” required and guaranteed less assurance, thus making the oath even more and more questionable. Jesus’ point here is so simple – if a person cannot trust your word, no amount of piling on oaths will make it any more trustworthy. And, in the “vicious cycle” as discussed by Dr. Stassen, once you break an oath, it takes more and more and more to “re-establish” or “rehabilitate” your credibility. However, the more you have to resort to flowery oaths, the less credibility you have. The reader can truly see the “vicious cycle” in this passage.
The “transforming initiative” occurs in v.37. Just tell the truth. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. There is no need for additional words. If you are trustworthy, those who hear you do not need the additional verbiage. If you are not trustworthy, all your extra words will be so much wasted breath. Your oaths won’t matter.
This section really does not need any further explication (and in Dr. Stassen’s article in JBL this section receives a brief treatment) but one issue does arise and since I have quite a bit of space left, I thought I would at least mention it.
Many people refer to this passage as a prohibition against taking any kind of legal oath. While it would be nice if such statements were not necessary, I do not believe that this section proscribes any state mandated oath of honesty. If it did, we would all be in a heap of big trouble. Just consider how many “oaths” are mandated today – the oath of a political office, the oath of jurors to uphold the law, the oath of peace officers to accurately enforce the law, the (written) oath we make to a lender for a loan or especially for a mortgage. In fact, if a person was to interpret this passage literally and not take any oath of any kind, either written or verbal, I simply do not see how this person could function in our society. Is this what Jesus is really saying?
No, at least not unless you want to place Jesus as one who violated his own law! In Matthew 26:63 the older translations read that the high priest (Caiaphas, if one goes back to v.57) says to Jesus, “I adjure you by the living God.” (RSV) The newer translations help us out a little by placing the term in a more colloquial term, “By the living God I place you under oath…” (HCSB). The point is identical – the high priest places Jesus under a legal oath. He was required to answer, and he did. Unless you want to do some real fancy theological footwork, you either have Jesus breaking his own rule, or you have a situation where Jesus is forbidding frivolous promises and oaths, but not restricting legal “promises” or “assurances” that we will tell the truth or pay our bills.
Our legal courts have made a concession of sorts for those who dislike the term “swear” as in “swear and oath.” In the jury pools that I have been a part of, the “oath” we had to repeat was one of “promising” to judge fairly and by the limits of the law. The “swear” word was removed, but the effect was the same. If we violated our “oath” we could be held accountable by the very law we were promising to uphold.
This is really very simple. Tell the truth. The more tap-dancing you need to do to “prove” that you are telling the truth just demonstrates to people that you cannot be trusted. When you say “yes” mean it, and when you say “no” mean it. Anything else is of the evil one.
By the way – the picture in the right hand corner is there because Uncle Jed had one of the best lines I have ever heard about telling the truth. In one episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” Uncle Jed was called on to testify at a trial of some kind. He was “sworn in” by placing his hand on the Bible and made to swear that he would tell the truth. When asked if he would tell the truth, Uncle Jed said, “I make it a habit to always tell the truth, but now that I’ve put my hand on the good book, I’ll try double hard to tell the truth.”
Y’all come back, y’hear!