The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer edited and introduced by Isabel Best (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 210 pages.
There are so many ways to introduce this review…
I have spent many years as a pulpit minister. I have preached hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sermons. I have three degrees in ministry/theology and am working on a fourth. Suffice it to say I love the church, theology, preaching and ministry. And when I come across books on preaching like this one I realize just how much of a failure I have been in serving in these various ministries. I have often said that I am just an apprentice in the field of ministry, but there are times I do not even feel qualified to say I am an apprentice. Sitting at the feet of Bonhoeffer is just one of those times.
I have 15 out of the 16 volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (to the best of my knowledge, vol. 14 is still forthcoming at this date). I have both Eberhard Bethge’s and Eric Metaxas’ biographies of Bonhoeffer. I have numerous other volumes about Bonhoeffer. Needless to say I know his story, if not well, then at least better than most. I was genuinely excited to get word that this volume had been printed, and I bought it at the first chance that I had.
My review in a nutshell – if you love preaching, or if you are interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or both, then you need to buy this book!
Many writings by Bonhoeffer are difficult for the modern reader to understand. For one reason, Bonhoeffer was writing in a different historical, theological and philosophical realm than what we are living in today. Classic liberalism (which Bonhoeffer was writing to largely reject) was in the flower of its youth. Even though the world had just experienced World War I, there was still the idea lurking that it was the “war to end all wars.” The evils of Adolf Hitler were still to be unleashed as Bonhoeffer penned and delivered most of these sermons. Technologically the world was still a toddler compared to our current day. The atom had not yet been split (although physicists on both sides of the Atlantic were getting closer by the day) and so many things that we take for granted were not even on the drawing boards.
Two, unless you know how to read German (and theological German at that), you are forced to read Bonhoeffer in translation. That is where I am. That limits your understanding to the quality of the translator and the overall translation. Any literary work suffers in translation. Bonhoeffer’s complex and very intricate arguments are no exception.
However, (and getting back to the point of this review), Bonhoeffer’s sermons are very different. Whereas Bonhoeffer’s early theological writings can almost be opaque, his sermons shine with a clarity that is remarkable. You can see Bonhoeffer’s theology through and through his sermons, but he wrote and delivered them with the common person in mind. He wrote them to be challenging, to be sure. But he wrote and delivered them to be effective, and the spoken word cannot be effective if it is not understood. Bonhoeffer’s sermons in his collection are brilliant examples of how to make the complex understandable. Take the following as an example:
One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough. A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. (p. 34).
It is impossible for me to identify my “favorite” among these sermons, but if I absolutely had to pick one, it would be the sermon on Gideon, delivered on Feb. 26, 1933 (p. 67-74). Quite honestly, I do not think that I have read or heard a finer sermon in my whole life.
One word about style. Many people are so used to the “three points and a poem” type of preaching that nothing else fits the bill. That person would be terribly disappointed in this collection. Bonhoeffer did not preach topically, and he hated reducing the gospel to mere moralization. In these sermons Bonhoeffer simply took a single text (often based on the church calendar that the Lutheran church followed) and preached it – he made the text come alive. When you understand the political events that were taking place as Bonhoeffer delivered these sermons you realize just how courageous he was. As Isabel Best notes in her introduction, Bonhoeffer did not preach overtly political sermons, and yet he spoke to the political situation of his day in virtually every sermon that he preached. But he let the text do the convicting – he simply “explicated” the text so that the message of the text could come through. His technique was brilliant, and yet if you heard one of these sermons delivered in their original setting I doubt you would have notice “technique” at all. You simply would have heard the word of God.
Someone who knows me and my theology well might be surprised that I am able to write such glowing reviews about Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor educated in the thick of German Classical Liberalism. My response is this: the gospel is not denominational. When Bonhoeffer preached the text there is simply no finer explication and application of God’s word. I am not so naive as to suggest that every word in these sermons is absolute truth. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, and when he gets closer to Luther than he does Jesus it is obvious. He preached salvation by faith only – something that neither Jesus nor Paul preached, but something that Luther did. So be it – I am smart enough to sift the wheat from the chaff. It is just that (in my most humble and otherwise brilliant opinion) there is very, very little chaff in these sermons.
Another positive note about this collection in particular. There is a brief introduction to the entire collection, and each individual sermon receives a brief historical note. Isabel Best is highly qualified to be the one to introduce and edit this collection, and if you are unfamiliar, or just barely familiar, with Bonhoeffer’s life and work her historical notes will be invaluable in helping you “hear” these sermons.
And now the one huge burr under my saddle about this book. It received the title, “The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” and yet even in the introduction it is admitted that there are 71 extant sermons or homilies recorded in the collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book only includes 31. Therefore, it should not have been labeled “The Collected Sermons” but something like “A Collection of Sermons” or even “The Collected Sermons, Vol. 1.” That is a small quibble, I grant you. But you cannot call something “The Collection” if you are only including less than 50% of the total of whatever it is you are collecting.
There is so much more I would like to say – but I am already over 1,300 words. But this book is a gem, and I love reading beautiful books.
This book is not just for preachers, but it is for serious Bible students. If you use books that include short devotional readings for your personal prayer time this would be a wonderful guide for your devotions. These sermons are not long – there are no 45 minute harangues in this collection. If you are a preacher and you want to be fed by one of the best, I highly recommend you obtain this book. It will push you in your interpretation and in your delivery of your sermons. I really, really, really wish I had the opportunity to read this book back when I was 22 and just getting out of college. It would have changed the course of my career significantly. As it is, I am thankful I had the opportunity to read it, and it will help me for as long as I have left to preach the gospel.
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.
Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) 234 pages including end notes.
I have not mastered the art of making proficient book reviews. If you have read any of my other reviews they are basically extended comments about why you should obtain the book for yourself. A proper book review includes summaries of the author(s) main arguments and an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Like I said, I’ve never really been taught how to do that exceptionally well, and I’m lazy to boot. But, that having been said, I will try to evaluate this book a little more carefully.
How is that for brevity? I was guided in a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dr. Stassen as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Fuller Theological Seminary. I read and loved his Kingdom Ethics. I appreciated his Living the Sermon on the Mount although it was written on a much more popular level and I felt like he oriented the book a little too much toward the popular reader. I was excited to purchase this book, which Dr. Stassen edited, as a continuation of his discussion on the importance of “Just Peacemaking” in a world that has basically gone mad.
This book simply disappointed on so many levels. I will attempt to share with you some of my frustrations.
The book begins with a 40 page introduction that needed an introduction. It was kind of like turning on the TV and hearing the announcement, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programing already in progress…” There are five names associated with the writing of the introduction, and it genuinely reads like the product of a committee. The first eight pages contain a rambling discussion of terrorism with no real context to frame the discussion. It is not until page nine that a coherent discussion of Just Peacemaking begins. The rest of the introduction is valuable, but perhaps overly lengthy. The purpose of an introduction is to introduce the subject. At 40 pages the introduction was a chapter in and of itself. As I said, the introduction needed an introduction.
The first chapter, “Support Non Violent Direct Action,” written by John Cartwright and Susan Thistlewaite, was, in this blogger’s estimation, simply dreadful. Not only dreadful, but profoundly contradictory. The authors state as the lead of the second paragraph, “Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and produces healing without resort to war.” (p. 42) All well and good, if not a little flowery in the language. What “nonviolent” actions do the authors recommend? The first is boycotts, which they define as “…a concerted action designed to isolate an individual, group, or nation in order to express disapproval and to coerce change.” (p. 44) I nearly gagged on my coffee when I read that sentence. Let me get this straight – we are to lance the festering boil of violence by isolating and coercing people that we disagree with into behaving the way we want them to. It gets better. The lead of the next paragraph reads, “After 1880 the term soon came into common use, broadening to describe and include all forms of nonviolent intimidation.” So, now the priests of nonviolence have encouraged their followers to use isolation, coercion and intimidation to achieve their goals. I almost put the book down right then, but I soldiered on. (Pardon the pun).
The next nonviolent action the authors recommend is a strike. They suggest that, “Strikes have often met with considerable violence on the part of both business owners and government.” (p. 47) I suppose the authors have never heard of, nor read about, the horrific violence that strikers have used against business owners and non-workers alike. Oh well, if you are going to advocate coercion and intimidation, a little violence might not be too bad. Except that the whole point of the chapter was supposed to be “nonviolent” actions. This chapter was clearly the worst of the book, and if you can get past this entry, the rest of the book is not that bad.
The next chapter, “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat” by Glen Stassen is quite good. It is brief, to the point, and well written – all hallmarks of Dr. Stassen’s expertise. The third chapter, “Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution” is a little bit longer, but still valuable. I found the fourth chapter, “Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness” written by Alan Geyer and Donald W. Shriver to be particularly valuable. Once again the chapter was direct, fairly brief, full of legitimate examples, and the concepts espoused fit directly into the title of the book, Just Peacemaking.
In the second (chapters 5 and 6) and third (chapters 7 – 10) sections of the book the second major flaw of the book was revealed. These chapters read like a manifesto produced by the Democratic party of the United States. The only American Presidents who received any positive mention were Democrats, and Jimmy Carter was clearly the favorite of all the authors. Ronald Reagan was vilified at every opportunity. Likewise, the Palestinians and their cause received all the positive comments, whereas the Israelis were never described as anything other than land hungry war mongers. I do not doubt but what the Palestinians have a legitimate complaint against the colonization of their land. But the one-sided nature of the treatment in this book made it sound like the suicide bombers and the indiscriminate missile firing of the Palestinian terrorists are somehow justified. The political stance of the authors was utterly transparent. And that was unfortunate in a book that was designed to be about Just Peacemaking. You cannot be a peacemaker if you are lobbing verbal hand grenades at your political opponents.
After finishing the book, especially the last sections, I could not help but think of the irony that the authors of the book really needed to read chapters 2-4 of the book and put those principles into practice in their own chapters. The authors of chapter one just need to re-write their chapter from scratch.
Okay, so I am not an accomplished book reviewer. I usually only review those books that I genuinely love and want others to read. I made an exception here, not that I do not want people to buy this book, but only that if you are interested in the title of the book that you purchase it carefully. If your politics are even moderately left-of-center you will probably love the book. The more left-of-center your politics the more you will like the book (if you can get past the theological arguments and the references to the Bible). But, if you are like me and have somewhat to moderate right-of-center politics and you are fairly conservative in your theology, this book is a frustrating read.
I will recommend you purchase the book with the above caveat in mind. If you are interested in the “new paradigm” of Just Peacemaking (a concept, by the way, that I approve of whole heartedly) then this is a good resource. The middle chapters are good, and the later chapters do have some good points. I simply wish the authors had checked their politics in the coat room when they entered the conversation hall. It would have made the book much more valuable, and also much more enjoyable to read.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11).
Being raised in the Church of Christ I grew accustomed to being among a people of “nots.” We did “not” do this, we did “not” do that. One of the defining pamphlets that seemingly was omnipresent as I was growing up was a little tract entitled, “Neither Catholic, Protestant or Jew.” That pretty much sums it up. I never knew what we were, but I could come pretty close to telling you what we were “not.”
Nothing in our pantheon of “nots” was more devoutly honored than the fact that we did “not” have to obey the fourth command of the 10 Commandments. I always thought this was somewhat strange - here God had made something pretty obvious, and yet we found a way to get around obeying it. There were many reasons given for the legitimacy of breaking one of God’s 10 Commandments, but growing up I kind of had a sneaking suspicion that most of our objection to commandment #4 was the fact that we identified ourselves significantly as “not” being Jewish. Therefore, to practice anything that smelled as if it might be connected to the Old Testament was strictly verboten. Why did we have to obey the other nine commands, you may ask? Well, because they were repeated in the New Testament, in one form or another; but luckily for us the fourth never was (specifically, anyway).
While I will never renounce my allegiance to Jesus, and I have no intention of making the Mosaic law code mandatory for entrance into the Kingdom of God, I do want to say that I am no longer comfortable with the way we have so blithely dismissed the fourth command. I have several reasons for this change of heart.
First, Jesus honored the true meaning of the sabbath command. He worshipped on the sabbath. At no point does he ever command, or even suggest, that the sabbath command could be negated. True, he healed on the sabbath. Reading the gospel of Luke it almost seems like he never healed except on the sabbath. But I believe the emphasis on the sabbath healings was to show that God really meant what he said – the sabbath was to be a day of deliverance and rest. Those who were suffering deserved to be set free from their ailments and diseases. Therefore, although a technical violation of the sabbath prohibition against work, it was a divinely sanctioned and approved technical violation, and Jesus soundly criticized the Pharisees and others because they could not see God’s hand in setting the oppressed free.
Second, the apostle Paul clearly honored the sabbath command. He sought out synagogues and other places of worship on the sabbath. Why? Well, for one reason I am sure he wanted to begin his ministry to his own people – the Jews. But I sincerely believe that he still worshipped God on the sabbath. That does not mean he did not worship on the first day of the week (we are clearly told he did – to remember the Lord’s death, burial and resurrection). But, we cannot overlook the significance Paul placed on the day of sabbath rest and worship. Not, that is, unless we want to be hypocritical about our emphasis on examples.
And, last but in no way to make the point insignificant, I believe there remains deep theological importance to the day of sabbath. For this point I want to quote Deuteronomy 5:12-15 in its entirety, even though I quoted the Exodus 20 passage above:
Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (RSV)
You will notice, as you compare the two readings, that the Deuteronomy passage is almost verbatim a repeat of the Exodus passage, with a couple of minor variations in that more animals are listed. But there is one very important difference. In the Exodus passage the reason given for the day of sabbath rest is the account of the creation and the LORD’s day of rest. In the Deuteronomy passage the reason given for the day of sabbath rest is the event of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The command remains the same, but the theology has changed! It remains a day of rest, but the reason has been amplified. Now we have not only a day of rest from creation, but we also have a day of rest in remembrance of divine deliverance.
Now, I simply pose the question – Do we as Christians not have an even better reason to join with God and all his creation for a day of rest?
I find it significant, profoundly so, that God goes to so much trouble to delineate all the people and animals that were to benefit from this sabbath rest. Making arguments about whether a Christian should or should not observe the sabbath is to overlook one huge aspect of the command – God is vitally concerned about how one person treats another person – and even the animal kingdom. And when we use other people to further our own agendas with no regard for their well being we are violating a core aspect of God’s nature. God has put within us the need to have a complete day of rest. You might say it is in our DNA.
You might argue that for the majority of Americans Sunday is a day of rest. I beg to differ with you. When we go out to eat Sunday lunch we force someone to open their restaurant and someone else to cook and someone else to serve. When we go to the grocery store or the convenience store we force the owners to open and the workers to be there. When we play a round of golf or go to a movie or do any one of a dozen other activities we force people to be there and serve us. We may be resting, but they are not. We force them to work on the Christian day of rest. How is that for consistency?
I have been especially mindful of this because as a minister Sunday was the hardest day of the week for me. It was my routine to teach a class and preach two sermons. Add to that the phone calls, the various “crises” that had to be dealt with on Sundays, the various committee meetings or other social events that are invariably planned for Sundays because “everybody is off on Sunday” and by the time I got home for the last time on Sunday night I was utterly fried. There is a very real reason so many children of ministers grow up hating the church. They see how abused their parents are every day of Christian rest. They see the hypocrisy.
So, yes. I am all for a day of sabbath rest, whether it is our Saturday or Sunday. A day of rest for me, my wife, my daughter, the person at the 7 to Eleven, the restaurant waitress and the hot-dog concessionaire at the ball park. A day of rest for everyone. Shut the whole stinking country down for at least 24 hours every week – lock, stock and barrel. It’s scriptural. It’s healthy.
We might even say it is a command of God.
Today, command number 2:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6 RSV)
As all the commands have a common thread they must all be read together. But command number two is inextricably linked to command number one, the command to have not other gods before, or beside, God. In my meditation on the first command I listed some, but by no means all, of the possible gods that we set up in opposition to the one, true God.
A graven image may or may not be synonymous with another god. That is to say, a graven image, or an idol, may actually be a false god, or it may be a false representation of the one true God. For continuity sake, in my last post I mentioned that some false gods are power, sex, glory, honor, entertainment, etc. I cannot remember if I mentioned ambition or not, but certainly ambition would be a false god. I believe each of these can be represented with a “graven image” or an idol that represents that god. On the other hand, we may have an image, an idol, that we believe represents the true God, but instead of worshipping the true God, we end up worshipping the idol, which then becomes a false god. In this regard I note that in Exodus 32 the name of the LORD was mentioned in regard to the golden calf that Aaron had created. Also, in 1 Kings 12 when Jeroboam set up the two golden calves in Dan and Bethel he said, “here is your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” connecting the two graven images to the one true God. Thus, creating a graven image certainly violates the second command, but also may violate the first command.
What are some of our graven images today?
A gun is an idol. It is an idol of the false god of power. It can also be an idol of the false god of safety and security. If I trust in the killing power of cold steel and lifeless wood, I am rejecting the power of the life-giving and life protecting God.
The flag can certainly be an idol. It is the image of political power, and also of an ideology. This is why I am growing very uncomfortable with the concept of pledging allegiance to the flag. In a very real sense I believe we are violating the second command, and possible the first as well, when we do so.
Methods of birth control can be considered idols. They are symbols of our unending fascination and slavery to our sexual natures. When anyone, male or female, loudly protests that “you cannot tell me what I can or cannot do with my body” you can be sure they are not very far away from idolatry.
Houses and cabins can be idols. We have an idol in the cool mountains to escape the summer heat. We have an idol in the warm south to escape the winter snow. We have an idol on wheels that we can drive or pull to escape the tedium of the work week. Some of us have all three, in addition to the mundane little mansion that we inhabit daily.
Health equipment are used as idols. They are images that we worship in order to create the perfectly sculpted and healthy body.
Vehicles are used as idols.
Anything that distracts us from our daily routine can be idols: music instruments, cameras, tools for hobbies, books, computers.
How do you know if any of these, or something else in your life, is an idol? Simply follow two well-traveled trails. The most obvious is the trail of money. How much money do you spend on a particular item? The larger the percentage of your annual income the greater the possibility that it is an idol. The second trail would be the trail of attention devoted to that object, especially measured by time devoted to spending with that object and the emotional attachment you have to that object.
Absolutely unwilling to part with your guns? Say hello to your idol. Salute the flag, pledge “allegiance” to the flag, and bow down before the flag as it passes by? Welcome your idol. Spend thousands of dollars annually and countless hours chasing a little white ball around a carefully manicured park? Meet your idol.
God said not to make any graven image, especially that of something involving a creature only he himself created. We have broken ourselves of worshipping calves and birds and cats and snakes. But mark these words well – our lives are full of idols.
The question is, when we stop and spend some time meditating and thinking about Exodus 20:4-6, will we rid ourselves of those idolatrous behaviors? Or will we make excuses for ourselves, and thus end up infuriating a God who very plainly tells us He will not stand for any created thing to replace Him as the center of our lives?
Dear God, as we contemplate the deeper meaning and application of this second command, please reveal to us our graven images. Purge our lives of our idolatrous thoughts. May we truly and wholly focus on you as our one and only true and living God.
Commandment number 1 – “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, RSV)
Really, how simple can it get? There is one God. Worship Him. Burn, throw away, discard, dismember all the rest.
For the sake of the series, I shall separate the idea of having a false god with that of having a physical image of a false god (idolatry) which is the topic of the next command.
The command here is to have no other gods before the one, true God.
Nothing, either physical nor metaphysical, can be in the place of God. None, nada, zip, zero. No other gods means no other gods.
We worship a pantheon of gods today – each one a testament to the myriad ways in which we violate this command.
We worship power, sex, self-esteem, education, freedom, love, health and safety, entertainment, glory, and honor – and many others. Each has its own little menagerie of idols (graven images) but each is truly a false god.
We fear losing each of these things, but the reality is that it is only when we lose those things that we can receive the one true God. Blessed are those who have absolutely nothing, because they are the only ones who can see that they need God.
How many gods are in my life. Not idols – we will deal with those in due time. But how many gods are in my life. What do I worship? What do I fear losing? What demands my attention? What receives my money? Track those things back and you will find your god.
We violate any and all of the other commands because we don’t get this one right. If we truly understood and obeyed this one, the others would be unnecessary.
God, forgive us of the worship of our false gods. Help us identify them, give us the courage to destroy them. Teach us how to have one, true God.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I was inspired this morning with the thought that I have not really worked through the 10 Commandments in any kind of meditative or contemplative manner. I think that I have taught and /or preached through them, but I wanted to take another look at these great words. I hope my thoughts will be beneficial, but as with everything else in this blog, I am speaking primarily to me.
A word about my outline. I plan on taking one “command” per post, and then at the very end I plan on adding an essay about why I believe the 10 Commandments have been neglected in many circles of Christianity (especially so in the Churches of Christ) and what can be done to overcome that omission.
So, here is installment one.
And God spoke these words, saying, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:1-2 RSV)
Most people think that the ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:3. That is our first mistake.
The ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:1. God is speaking to His people. He identifies Himself. But he does not identify Himself with any esoteric, profound ontological or theological definitions. God identifies Himself simply and profoundly by reference to His action. “I am your God. You know me because I am the One who just delivered you out of your miserable slavery. I am the LORD. I am the I AM. You’ve seen my mighty arm, now listen to what is in my heart.”
When we begin our study of this text in Exodus 20:3 we miss this monumental opening. We miss the main point. It would be like showing up at a wedding after the couple has departed for their honeymoon. Sure, there may be some cake left, and maybe a mint or two – but is that the point of going to a wedding?
We must see that the “10 Commandments” are built exclusively and entirely upon grace. “I am the LORD.” It is the greatest statement of grace in the Bible, repeated hundreds of times. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the “I am the good shepherd” of John’s gospel, but the meaning is the same. God is saying, “Don’t worry. I have your back. In fact, I have your front too. Just look at what I just did for you. Which would you prefer – slavery or freedom?” And that is the entire meaning of v. 2. God double identifies the place where the Israelites just were. “Out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Remember Egypt – the cruel taskmasters, the hours and hours of back breaking labor only to be beaten and humiliated? Bone crushing servitude with nothing to show for it? Do you remember that? Look at your hands, look at your feet, look at the backs of your neighbors – remember Egypt.
The ten commandments are all about grace. And if we miss that point we might as well not even try to study the actual commands. If we miss the grace concerning the deliverance from slavery all we do is return to the land of Egypt. Exodus 20:3-17 simply becomes another house of bondage if we miss v. 1-2. We become slaves to a legal code, a merciless task master that seeks only to impose it’s power over us. It beats us, brutalizes us, dehumanizes us. Built on the foundation of v. 1-2, however, and the commands become avenues of God’s grace.
It is interesting that in the original Hebrew text, the description for what follows are the “10 Words.” Not commandments, even though they may take the imperative form. No, this section of the inspired text is referred to as the “10 Words.” I believe that in the overall theology of the Bible this point is profound. In the beginning God spoke simple words and the world was created. In the book of Isaiah we read that “my words will not return to me empty.” In the prologue of the gospel of John we read that, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And the decalogue, the great charter of the Israelite nation, is referred to by these Israelites as the “10 Words.”
I like that. The 10 Words of Grace. That just sound so much more inviting, so much more welcome, so much more, well, God-like than the “10 Commandments.”
Mind you – these are still commands, they remain strictures about how a child of God is to think, act and believe. But they are primarily words of grace. And that makes them foundational for any understanding of the work of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and the very personification of Grace.
May we hear these words always new, always fresh. Amen.
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.
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.)