Theology Thursday: Thoughts on Evolution

One of the current boundary markers for Christians is the biological doctrine of evolution by (we think) natural selection. Some Christians think that others aren’t Christians if they believe it happened. Some Christians think other people are idiots for not thinking it happened.

I suggest a three step algorithm similar to my thoughts on Christianity and politics.

  1. Recall what it is specifically that makes a Christian, Christian.
    It is not an interpretation of this or that Old Testament passage (Romans 14), it is not perfect moral behavior (1 John 1:8-2:2), it is not strict accuracy concerning theological ideas (1 Corinthians 13). Rather, it is “the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5).”
  2. Look into why you accept a theory or interpretation of Scripture
    Many Christians do not have time to A) master the literary/historical background to Genesis or B) master the state of the field in modern biology. Thus they are at the mercy of either their church’s confession of faith or what experts say. The problem with experts in either of these two fields is that they are often not writing for the normal person. But nevertheless, a human being is obligated not to trust experts, but to go with what they think is true. An expert can help you get to the truth, but in general, I would think that the average Christian will find the question to be ultimately indifferent and simply go with what sounds true based on their other beliefs of the level of trust to which they hold experts. The Christian who is a biologist or an Old Testament scholar will end up having wildly different views from the average Christian just as a physicist or engineer understands the world in ways that are opaque to the average person outside of these fields.
  3. Remember your own predilections when it comes to fields outside of your realm of expertise 
    Based on your own interest in science (not the method, nor the practice thereof, but the expressed consensus of the field) you’ll either talk to be about your point of view or not. Many people, because they don’t know that the word science has three senses (the method, the actual work in the lab, and the body of knowledge produced), think that because they know some of the body of knowledge, that they are good at science. In reality, science can involve writing boring computer programs, counting seeds, or watching the same instruments measure the same things for 12 hours a day. Thus they talk about “science” in a sort of tiresome droning about how dumb people are who do not accept this or that theory. On the other hand, many people are perhaps overly skeptical of all science because they find a particular body of knowledge (think: Evo Psych) objectionable and thus think that all such science talk is anti-Christian or anti-God. I would challenge somebody in either of these two groups to take some actual science classes and determine the differences between hard sciences and social sciences, models and data, experimentation and result, and method and practice. Either way though, if Christians would go back to step one of the algorithm, they would remember that being a Christian is not a matter of science, but a matter of commitment to the risen Christ.

In conclusion,  I would challenge Christians who do not buy into evolution (whether for religious or scientific reasons) to look into whether or not the Bible says that this or that scientific theory makes it impossible to be justified by faith in Christ (see Romans 10:8-13). For Christians who do buy into evolution, I would challenge you to think through whether or not accepting this or that scientific theory makes somebody more scientifically minded with respect to the scientific method (remember, accepting a theory on authority, even good authority, is not the scientific method). In other words, does accepting evolution disqualify anybody from Paul’s doctrine of justification or does rejecting (or not knowing about or caring about) evolution have some special capacity to take away somebody’s logical abilities?

For any non-biologist who says, “But we need people to believe in science,” I challenge you to think of one tangible benefit besides social acceptance with very limited crowds that accepting any evolution by natural selection has achieved for you. Btw, it hasn’t helped me in any engineering, physics, or programming class I’ve taken.

Wisdom Wednesday: The Song of Solomon in 3 Layers

One of the most confusing books in the Bible is the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs or Canticle of Canticles). People have trouble with it for several reasons:

  1. It doesn’t seem very spiritual with all its talk of breasts, muscly abs, and midnight visits.
  2. It doesn’t seem like an ode to proper courting with all its talk of not being married, yet.
  3. It doesn’t seem very allegorical (if the allegory is of God and Israel) with all of its use of sexually charged analogies.

So, what do we do with this book? When I was about 21, I read through Song of Solomon right after reading the Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. What I noticed was that that in 1-2 Kings there is a real skepticism about the good that was being accomplished through the kings who came after David (troublingly, David is spoken of way more highly in 1 Kings than in 1-2 Samuel, I think the authors are the same so this might be some intentional sour grapes irony…we have a king and look how bad they all are compare to our best, and he was soooo good).

Anyhow, Song of Solomon struck me as having very little to do with what I had heard from evangelical interpreters in my then brief stint as a Bible reader.  I had heard that it was certainly not an allegory, but it was a chaste example of godly romance within the bounds of marriage. But the two lovebirds don’t live together and the persistent refrain for times when they are apart is “do not awaken love before its time” (2:7, 3:5, and 8:4). But, what did strike me was that the female lead in the story was apparently a member of Solomon’s harem and that her lover was an Israelite man who was very dashing and of good repute (in 1 Kings, by the time Solomon has a harem, his reputation has gone to pot). So, I concluded that the point of the book was that Solomon’s kingship had put Israel back in bondage to Egypt and false gods and that Israel needed to repent of Solomon’s legacy and return to the true picture of Israel outlined by David’s rule or idealized in the Torah.

This interpretation has the advantage of not having to force Solomon to be the woman’s lover (she doesn’t speak highly of him, he’s more like a distant force), of making sense of the scene when the city guards beat her up (5:7), and of allowing the song to still be a sexy love poem. As a work of literature it is like the Iliad or the Odyssey. The love story is the driver of the narrative, but it is not the point. This allows for some layers and nuance to reading it:

  1. It really is about God’s relationship to Israel, or rather Israel’s need to relate to God aright by abandoning the culture created by Solomon.
  2. It really is a super sexy love poem right in the middle of the Bible.
  3. It really does contain advice about flirting/romance just like any love poem or work of romance written by a successful flirt (like Ovid’s Art of Love, Shakespeare’s Sonnets or The Book of the Courtier).

Anyway, those were my thoughts. I’ve since found most scholarship on the Song of Solomon to focus on saying something like:

  1. See, the Bible is all for sex.
  2. See, the Bible is pro-gender stereotypes
  3. See, this is so racy, it can only be an allegory.

I recently read Iain Provan’s NIV Application Commentary on the Song of Solomon. He sees the book almost exactly as I do. This verisimilitude made me think, “Oh neat, maybe I’m right.” But I suppose that it could also be the case that we’re both way way off.

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:27-30

27 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. 28 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ. 29 εἰ δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ὁ δεξιὸς σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελε αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου βληθῇ εἰς γέενναν. 30 καὶ εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου εἰς γέενναν ἀπέλθῃ.[1]

You heard that it was said, “You will not commit adultery.” 28 But I am telling you that everyone who looks at a woman for the purpose of lusting after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 Now, if your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and toss it from you; for it is better for you that one body part of yours be destroyed and not to have your whole body tossed into the Valley of Hinnom. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and toss it from you; for it is better for you that one body part of yours be destroyed and not to have your whole body go away into the Valley of Hinnom.

Most interpret this passage to be Jesus’ using hyperbole to say, “Do whatever it takes not to sin.” I think it’s more of a metaphor. The eye and the hand are representative of favorite bodily actions or mental dispositions of thought/emotion. The reason this seems less clear to us is probably because we don’t read the Old Testament enough. The right hand/arm of a person is commonly representative of their strength/capabilities/accomplishments. Similarly, the eye is related to somebody’s intentions, internal disposition, and so-on. So, Jesus’ point here is not merely to use hyperbole to help us see how bad sin is, it is to use metaphor to show how much better it is to do without sin than to keep it.

In this case, the sins are dispositional sins regarding sexuality. The wrong way to take this is to think that, “I’ve already lusted, so I might as well have sex with a stranger.” The right way to think of it is, “I don’t get brownie points with God for being lascivious in my thoughts just because I’m too shy or scared to be evil in my actions.” Jesus’ rhetorical goal appears to be rooting out a warped view of other human beings that lurks behind the apparently chaste glances of the people who want to be a part of God’s kingdom.

Another important approach to this passage is that Jesus says that men (and indirectly, women) are responsible for their own lust. In the ancient world, it seems, women were commonly treated as blameworthy for men’s dispositions toward them. Jesus says that in God’s kingdom this is not how it should go. I would add that everybody, to some degree, knows that their actions will elicit certain behaviors from others but when somebody lusts after another, Jesus says that ultimately the luster is culpable, not the lustee. This is important for today because when Christians teach about modesty, I often hear them teach it from the perspective of “people might lust” rather than from the perspective of Scripture itself. For instance, Paul taught that modesty is connected with self-control, frugality, and good works (1 Timothy 2:8-10). Now, just because Jesus, in Matthew 5, primarily addresses men, does not mean that the teaching cannot likewise be applied to women.

Finally, this passage is intentionally limited to a particular aspect of human sexuality that the Bible deals with elsewhere. There is “looking in order to lust,” probably at somebody who is unavailable for marriage to you since the word adultery is used. But then there is looking with desire (same Greek word) because you’re single and they are too. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 7, it’s also all over Proverbs, and Song of Solomon. There is a fine line here, but somebody who is sexually attractive to you could easily become your spouse. It’s not wrong to think, “I must have the attention of this person.” Jesus isn’t talking about that here. He’s talking about something that is a corollary to adultery: looking at a woman solely in order to fantasize about her (or a man). It’s clearly not about the motivation to get married because the whole unit of teaching is connected to a command against ruining marriages. In other words, single folks should not feel evil for thinking that somebody looks good. They also should either ask them out on a date or move on in order to avoid going into full blown pedestal/fantasy/lust mode over them.

Translation Comments:
A great many translations translate, “πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν” as “look with lust.” Προς or εις plus the articular infinitive take the meaning of “in order to” or “with the result that” so often, that translating it as “with” just blows my mind. I’ve never found that translation defended, I’ve only ever found it used. I think that the NIV translation of this passage (from conversations since my teenage years with Christians who read the NIV) makes a lot of people think that normal sexual desire is repudiated by Jesus. This simply is not so. Jesus commends married people and is clear that only some citizens of the kingdom of God will find it advantageous not to be married.

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:27–30.

Christian Mentoring: Priorities and Processes

I’ve been a Sunday school teacher for a long time and now I find myself in several interesting mentoring roles in my life. When I was younger I thought of my role in very robotic terms. I give knowledge, people absorb it, and then they base their own thoughts on that knowledge. Then I move on.

In reality the process is almost nothing like that. There are so many things to take into account when it comes to mentoring other Christians. Here are some chunks of Scripture and my thoughts on their application to the mentoring process:

Colossians 1:27-28  To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  (28)  Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.

Here, Paul’s thought is that since God is using the gospel message to bring non-Israelite people into God’s family, he proclaims the Messiah who makes that possible. In this Paul warns (the word could be translated instruct with seriousness and that makes sense here) and instructs everybody with all wisdom (prudence or skill) so that he and the other apostles might present people mature in Christ. If we would stop a moment and think about what this means, we would be more careful in how we communicate the gospel to the others. The purpose, for instance, is not being right, not maintaining prestige, not being liked, nor some other thing, but to present the person mature in Christ. So, when hard conversations come up what I am called to do is consider (this is hard for me) what this or that person needs to hear or say to come to maturity in Christ.

Matthew 18:20  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Matthew 28:18-20  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (19)  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20)  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In the verses from Matthew above, one finds that Jesus promises to be present with his people. This is either true or isn’t. If he is present, then any conflict in the church, any disagreement, any struggle, trial, or temptation in the life of a believer is an opportunity for Christ to do something in that person’s life. For instance, if somebody is tempted to have a bad temper, though they need self-control they may have been gifted with a strong sense of justice. If somebody is cynical and negative all the time, though they need to learn to rejoice, they may have a logical mind that is skilled at problem seeking that they can use for problem solving. If somebody steals to feed themselves, then they are probably quick witted and hard-working and can work hard with their hands to provide for themselves and the poor (see Ephesians 4). Christ is with his people, particularly when they’re gathered in order to make disciples. And mentoring circumstance opens up several opportunities of this sort.

Proverbs 24:5-6 A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might, (6) for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Another important piece of the puzzle is that anybody you are mentoring has a war/struggle/goal. If this person is a Christian, the goal is probably fundamentally good even if it is poorly aimed, sinfully approached, or ridiculous on the surface. But such persons are not merely cogs in the wheel of whatever project you or I are working on (church growth strategy, music team, flourishing college ministry, and so-on). The battle they have is the church’s battle (Ephesians 6:10-20), but in another way it is their own. When people come to an older Christian for advice, help, or encouragement they need help for their present struggle (and more importantly, help the points them directly to Christ). But making such discussions about anything other than the person’s battle and the appropriate steps toward victory in Christ seems to be off topic. As a college minister (not professionally), the temptation is to try to get students wrapped up in a million projects that I think would be cool. But really, their calling is always and ever to honor their parents, their professors, and the Lord by making the highest grades they can. So the idea must always be to steer college students toward victory in the spiritual struggles and personal struggles they face, not toward this or that idea that would be helpful to this or that ministry. This does not mean there isn’t a place to ask somebody to be in this or that thing, but never at the expense of their calling.

2 Corinthians 5:14-17  For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died;  (15)  and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.  (16)  From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.  (17)  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Finally, there is always hope. This is hard for me. I can become very cynical about people very quickly. But, if the good news of Jesus Christ is true, there is always hope. If I judge according to the flesh (purely human standards which do not take God’s work as possible or according to sinful desires of my own), then everybody but the best and brightest are lost causes. But if I instead allow myself to be compelled by the love of Christ, then no matter what, there is hope that an individual could turn from this or that sin, folly, or escape from a crisis and bear fruit of repentance, good works, and joy in God. This kind of regular reference to the hope we have for somebody does not mean a boundary-less life, but it does mean that even people you can no longer spend time with because they are too negative, abusive, or unsafe can change. If it is true that God’s kingdom has drawn near in Christ, then any number of factors could be at work in this or that person’s life to transform them into a new creation.

I hope those thoughts are helpful to anybody who is a Christian in a mentoring position.

Thoughts on being a nerd and being well liked

When I was younger, I was a nerd. I played too many video games, my favorite class was computer programming, I couldn’t figure out social interactions, and felt resentful of people who could make friends well. Now, I’m happy to say that I figured it out from reading the Bible after my conversion. I have friends from a wide variety of walks of life.

I had bought into the Disney myth: just be yourself and the right people will like you for who you are.

There is a piece of truth in this: do the right thing and pursue your own excellence no matter what haters say.

But, there is some serious silliness (heh, get it) in the notion as well. If people do not respond positively to your social interactions then, even though they might be evil and exclusive, you also might actually be uninteresting or unpleasant to be around.

I was rereading the Song of Solomon last week and noticed this line:

Song of Solomon ESV 1:2-3 She: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine; (3) your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins love you.

The woman wants kisses from this guy because his romantic overtures make her dizzy, he smells good, and people talk about him positively. But in all of that, she notices that the young maidens/virgins all love him. In other words, he wasn’t some complete doofus who put his foot in his mouth, screwed up all of his jobs with laziness, and ruined his relationships with unchecked eccentricity or rudeness. He was well liked (Jesus was well liked for most of his like, btw).

Though not the point of the passage, what I observed is how often younger nerds won’t look around and ask, “What do people like about each other?” And the thing is that back then all the other young nerds resented not being accepted, but very few of us hit the gym, studied Proverbs, or engrossed ourselves in planning for our future. We mostly played video games.

If somebody isn’t accepted by others because they’re legitimately doing well for themselves, living righteously and wisely, and he/she gets hated on any way, that’s one thing. If somebody isn’t accepted by others because they don’t take the time to figure out how to make friends, but they still resent everybody, that’s a failure of observation.

Theology Thursday: Karl Barth and Christian mindset.

Several years ago, I read a few volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. During that period of my life I wasn’t sleeping much and I probably read too quickly. Anyhow, I’m trying to just read 10 pages a day now. I’ll eventually finish, or maybe I won’t. Reading the Bible and doing what Jesus says is better, but Barth is useful for preachers because he helps build the habit of comparing the church’s preaching back to Jesus. In other words, he reminds pastors to go back to Jesus and stay on task.

And without further ado:

The criterion of past, future and therefore present Christian utterance is thus the being of the Church, namely, Jesus Christ, God in His gracious revealing and reconciling address to man. Does Christian utterance derive from Him? Does it lead to Him? Is it conformable to Him? None of these questions can be put apart, but each is to be put independently and with all possible force. Hence theology as biblical theology is the question of the basis, as practical theology the question of the goal and as dogmatic theology the question of the content of the distinctive utterance of the Church.
Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, vol. 1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 4–5.

Barth’s main point here is that the standard for theology is “the being of the Church.” People could easily read that and think, “What the heck?” But he explains himself: Jesus is the being of the church. Thus, the standard for theology is (not immediately) “is it true?” This is because one might have a definition of truth that is false or silly! Instead the standard is, “Is it comformable to, based on, and directed toward Jesus Christ?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think truth matters for theology. But Barth is making the point that if by “truth” somebody means, “that which is laboratory tested, that which makes me feel good, that which conforms to my worldview” then this question will do no good for theology (but I would add: yet).

Why does this matter? Well, last week I wrote about having Christian mindset. I think that Barth’s writings can help us in this matter. The following questions can help us return to Scripture not merely to be right and not merely to learn right decisions but to learn the right approach to ideas and decisions:

  1. Is my mindset conformable to Jesus Christ
  2. Is my mindset based on Jesus Christ?
  3. Is my mindset directed toward him?

These questions can lead one to a rather ruthless form of repentance from all sorts of idolatries, cowardices, and hardnesses of the heart. So, once again, while speculative theology and practical theology have their place in the Christian life and while the Bible certainly has its place in those things, do not forget to read it in order to have the wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Wisdom Wednesday: The Wisdom of Solomon 8:7

One of the most interesting pieces of ancient literature (in my mind) is the Wisdom of Solomon. If you’re Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, it will appear in your Bible. If you’re Protestant some Bibles include it, some do not. It represents an attempt to express Jewish wisdom in relationship to Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism. I find the book to be intriguing and in many ways compelling. One of my favorite parts is where the author, using the voice of Solomon says this of wisdom:

I loved her and sought her from my youth,

and I desired to take her for my bride,

and I became enamored of her beauty. She glorifies her noble birth by living with God,

and the Lord of all loves her. For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God,

and an associate in his works. If riches are a desirable possession in life,

what is richer than wisdom who effects all things? And if understanding is effective,

who more than she is fashioner of what exists? And if any one loves righteousness,

her labors are virtues;

for she teaches self-control and prudence,

justice and courage;

nothing in life is more profitable for men than these. And if any one longs for wide experience,

she knows the things of old, and infers the things to come;

she understands turns of speech and the solutions of riddles;

she has foreknowledge of signs and wonders

and of the outcome of seasons and times. 9 [1]

Note the bolded text. If anybody loves righteousness/justice, then wisdom will teach that person self-control, prudence, justice (righteousness), and courage. If one is truly concerned with being right with God and man, then wisdom (no longer merely a word for skill or cunning in this book) will provide its adherent with all of the other virtues.

Why does this matter?

  1. New Testament Interpretation
    I think that the presence of the four cardinal virtues in this book is important to the modern Christian because in 2 Peter 1:3-11, Peter refers to virtue as a trait of Jesus that attracts us to the gospel and as a trait that brings us into conformity to his will. So, Jesus excellence (perhaps in terms of these four traits) is part of what makes the gospel appealing and is part and parcel of Christian character (as Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.” One might rephrase it thus, “If we cannot manage the pagan virtues like courage and cleverness, the Christian ones like innocence and meekness will be of little avail.”
  2. Old Testament Interpretation
    An ancient Jewish interpreter of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Solomon, and of the whole Old Testament found that wisdom as a way of life ultimately taught what was best in paganism. In other words, an ancient Jewish Bible scholar thought that self-control, prudence, justice, and courage were important virtues exemplified or shown by counter example in the Old Testament.
  3. Christian Life
    If we use the four cardinal virtues as lens (not the only or the main one) for reading the Bible, they can help us learn which Biblical characters should be treated as exemplars and which would be shameful to emulate. And if we treat the Bible as a legitimate repository of wisdom that is part of the pathway to a life of fully orbed character and joy in God and his creation, then I suspect it will help us on that path. Indeed, Paul says that the Old Testament is inspired for training in righteousness in a passage where he says that it also makes us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:14-17). The connection between righteousness, wisdom, and virtue is very important in our Bibles, far more than certain reductive readings of our Bible have led us to believe.

[1] The Revised Standard Version (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1971), Wis 8:2–9.

Wisdom Wednesday: Faithfulness to Good Routines

Don’t You Hate It When
I’m a routine guy. I love routines. Routines, in my mind, are exactly what makes spontaneity pleasant. Now, interestingly, if you love routines, spontaneity can also become a no-go. But that isn’t the topic. The topic is veering off from routine for no good reason.

Most mornings I wake up, do some reading, work on some writing, do my exercises, and get ready for my day.  This morning I woke up and decided I would send an email, first thing. When I checked, I had an email from my boss which he wouldn’t have expected to receive a response to for days. But, many of the questions contained in the email were interesting and pertained to something I’d been thinking about for a few months. So, I spent about an hour writing him back. Basically, what happened is that I missed my routine almost entirely. I am writing my Wisdom Wednesday post where I reflect on the Bible’s wisdom literature, but most of my routine was missed.

A Topical Proverb
I had a different post in mind that maybe I’ll write tonight (broken routine), but I was reminded of this Proverb:

Proverbs 20:9 ESV  Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”

The easy way to respond to breaking one’s routine is to give up on it for any number of reasons:

  1. Too hard
  2. It got boring
  3. Too easily distracted
  4. I missed it a few times so it wasn’t right for me

But this Proverb reminded me that people do wrong things on a much more important scale (the moral one). We plan for evil, we fail to plan for good, we give up on our good plans, we pursue the good with evil intent, we pursue the good with bad methods, and so-on. So, the Proverb asks all of us, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?’ To whom is the question addressed?

  1. The self-righteous and judgmental fellow
  2. The person on a permanent diet from sin who has a cheat day every day of the week
  3. The Christian who still struggles with anger/lust/laziness/idolatry after decades of discipleship
  4. The person who thinks that God owes him/her

Now the wrong response to the Proverb is, “Screw it, who can stop sinning? Not this guy!” Instead the idea is to be gracious with oneself and others and get immediately back on the right path. Our routines (for basic self-discipline or for following Christ) are always going to be human and therefore puny. The human will is so wussy (try moving something with your will but not your body). The earth in its circuit is difficult to move out of routine. A human being can be moved off of the path by an email. But, like a parenting tactic I learned from a friend, “You put the kid back in bed until he’s too tired to fight it and goes to sleep.” This process is similar to routines: “You break it Monday, you do it again Tuesday through Friday” until it becomes easier (or it doesn’t, what’s wrong with hard?). Then you can adapt it to your needs. If you fall of the wagon every other day, keep the routine every other day (better than no days). If the routine break involves falling (or running excitedly) into sin, do the same. Quitting some sinful habit every other day is better than doing it every day.

I suppose it is important to remember this as well:

Ecclesiastes 7:20 “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”

Translation Tuesday: Matthew 5:21-26

NA 28
Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐ φονεύσεις· ὃς δʼ ἂν φονεύσῃ, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει. 22 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει· ὃς δʼ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ· ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ· ὃς δʼ ἂν εἴπῃ· μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός. 23 ἐὰν οὖν προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον κἀκεῖ μνησθῇς ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ, 24 ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου καὶ ὕπαγε πρῶτον διαλλάγηθι τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου, καὶ τότε ἐλθὼν πρόσφερε τὸ δῶρόν σου. 25 ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχύ, ἕως ὅτου εἶ μετʼ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, μήποτέ σε παραδῷ ὁ ἀντίδικος τῷ κριτῇ καὶ ὁ κριτὴς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ καὶ εἰς φυλακὴν βληθήσῃ· 26 ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃς ἐκεῖθεν, ἕως ἂν ἀποδῷς τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην.[1]

Rough Translation
You heard that it was said to the ancients, “You will not murder. Indeed, if anybody should murder, the same will be liable to judgement.” 22 But I am telling you that everybody who is raging against his brother will be liable to judgement. Indeed, if any should say to his brother, ‘You doofus!’ the same will be liable to the council. If any should say, “You idiot!” the same will be liable to the fiery valley of Hinnom. 23 Therefore, if you offer your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has anything against you, 24 leave your gift before the altar and go first to be reconciled to your brother, and then go offer your gift. 25 Become friendly with your accuser quickly, while you are yet on the way with him to court, lest the accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the guard, and the guard throw you into prison. 26 Amen, I am telling you that you cannot come out, until you repay the last cent.

Glen Stassen argues persuasively that the best way to see the units in the Sermon on the Mount is by triad.[2] Here is how his outline would apply in Matthew 5:21-26[3]:

  1. Traditional Righteousness: Do not murder.
  2. Cycle of judgment: If you hold grudges against or insult your brother you’re still liable.
  3. Transforming Initiative: Be reconciled to your brother and be friendly with those who would take you to court.

The normal interpretation of this segment of teaching sounds like this, “You think murder is bad, you ought to meet my friend Jesus, He thinks even feeling angry will send you to hell.” But if we break things up into three parts, we see that the emphasis is on the way out of the cycle of judgment. Jesus doesn’t just say, “It’s really bad to insult and feel angry, folks.” He says, “Anger and insult will lead to judgment, therefore reconcile with your brother even before you worship and make friends with people who try to shame you in the courts.” His teaching here is, on this reading, not a guilt trip but a way out of anger and insult for the family of God.

It is also worth noting that there is some dispute about whether or not verses 25 and 26 are literal (Jesus giving advice about lawsuits) or figurative (Jesus talking about purgatory or hell). In light of the cycle of judgment, it makes sense to see the advice as neither. It is, rather, exemplary advice. There are not only two ways out of anger (reconciling before church and becoming friendly during lawsuits). Those are examples. So while the examples are literal, they are not literally the only option. Instead, their rhetorical purpose appears to be similar to somebody giving priorities by means of illustration. The priority is: be first to reconcile when you commit an offense.

Another, lesser explored, angle here is that Jesus seems to be giving advice that would improve the quality of life of those who put it into practice. When somebody wants to take you to court befriend them and offer to make amends before it goes that far. It may not work, but on lesser offenses it may. The thought behind it is, “pay for any damages you cause willingly, don’t let it even go to court.”

So, what can you do when you find that your actions lead to anger amongst others? While there are limits to how far this goes (Jesus didn’t care when the right thing upset the right people), most of us can think of the sorts of things meant here. Think of the remarks made out of anger or with the intention to cause harm rather than building up. Or, think about making somebody want to sue you. So I ask again: What can you do when you find that your actions lead to anger and offense amongst others?

I translated τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός as “the fiery valley of Hinnom” because in my mind that’s the immediate referent. If you want background on that, read Jeremiah and think of Jesus’ hearers as people awaiting God’s rescue from national exile. Jesus says that little things like not being kind to one another can instead lead to the results and judgments of Jeremiah’s preaching.

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:21–26.

[2] Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–7:12),” ed. Gail R. O’Day, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 268.

[3] Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–7:12),” ed. Gail R. O’Day, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 270.

Music Monday: mewithoutYou

mewithoutYou is a band that I’ve liked since my senior year of high school when I came across one of their songs on a compilation CD that was given to me at a concert. Their sound has evolved tremendously since then. Their first album is one I very rarely listen to anymore. But their newest album Pale Horses, is very good. One song that really grabs me is Birnam Wood.

My favorite line in the song is this:

I struck firm the hollow your thigh
Withheld my name, yet from determined hold I could not fly
Though every tendon came undone

It’s a beautiful retelling of the Jacob story in Genesis 32 from the perspective of the man who captured Jacob and renamed him. What is so interesting about the story and about the song is that after the man destroys Jacob’s hip, Jacob still won’t let go of the man. Still more bizarre in the tale is that the man turns out to be divine or a divine representative who could not escape the mortal Jacob’s grasp.

All dark effects I’d long withstood
Upon my room advanced
The moving shade of Birnam Wood
Disguised by broken branch

I struck firm the hollow your thigh
Withheld my name, yet from determined hold I could not fly
Though every tendon came undone

Would you take a bound-up Isaac’s place?
“Is he a God and shall your grace
Grow weary of your saints?” (– I. Watts)
Or prefer the father’s dreadful fate?
Are you a God, and shall your grace
Grow weary of your saints?
(Though every tendon came undone
Safe in the arms of the kingdom come)

Floodwater filled your formless birth
A column cloud descends
‘Your cause of sorrow must not be measured by his worth
For then it hath no end’ (– Macbeth)
Yet may my heart in tune be found
In four-shape notes from underground
And can we not call it “a nervous breakdown”
My nervous system breaking down?

Would you take a bound-up Isaac’s place?
Are you a God, and shall your grace
Grow weary of your saints?
Steady a knife held sure by faith
Are you a God? And shall your grace
Grow weary of your saints?
Riding in a westbound railcar
They’ll dump you in the Highgate Graveyard
[Poison-in-the-teacup-graveyard alpha-radiation-graveyard]

Come untie your little son
Before the angel comes