Letty Russell and Joachim Jeremias on God as Father

[Original post from 2013 when I was a research assistant and read as much of the academic feminist literature as was possible]

“The title Father for God is placed in the mouth of Jesus in three other passages of Mark (8:38; 11:25; 13:32) and in six passages from Q, including the model *prayer known as the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9 // Luke 11:2). It is much more frequent in the letters and in Matthew, John, and Luke. It also occurs in rabbinic literature and the Jewish *liturgy. Jesus and/or his companions may have used the title Father for God in some form, but it cannot be shown with certainty that they did so. If they did, it was because the title resonated deeply with their Jewish hearers, perhaps to express resistance to the imperial title pater patriae: “God’s reign (not the emperor’s) is near”; “God (not the emperor) is our father.”- Letty Russel, Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 1.

In the early parts of the entry she deals with the view commonly ascribed to Joachim Jeremias’, that αββα (Father) was a term of childlike intimacy. She notes:,

“This idea is based primarily on analyses of *gospel materials by Joachim Jeremias (1967, 11–65). It has been used to privilege Father as a divine title and to reject feminist critiques of exclusively masculine language and imagery for God and of the problematic character of parental language for God. Jeremias’s case, which has been modified very little by his followers, relies on a series of interrelated claims: (1) that the word abba represents a special use by Jesus that was central to his teaching; (2) that for Jesus it expressed a special kind of intimacy and tenderness, deriving from its supposed origin in baby talk; (3) that Jesus’ practice was distinct from the practices of both the early church and Judaism. These claims were formulated under the influence of the patently anti-Jewish article in the TDNT by the Nazi scholar Gerhard Kittel.”

I will say this: Jesus definitely used Father language to address God.

It’s also funny to see a feminist scholar using the genetic fallacy with the ‘Nazi accusations will work’ fallacy. Those antics have been used, it seems, from the beginning. 

Father language most likely had very little to do with emotional intimacy but rather with patriarchal reverence which indicated that Jesus saw himself as the go-between for God and his people (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus is the broker between the ultimate Patron and his loyal clients. Calling God, “Father” or “Abba” was Jesus’ way of saying that God is supreme to other patrons and apparently Jesus’ way of showing that this apparently distant figure was accessible to Jesus’ followers. (see William Herzog, Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2005), 12, 22-24.

To address her three points:

  1. “Father” does represent a special intimacy, but the intimacy of patron-client relationships. (See Jerome H. Neyrey,“God, Benefactor and Patron: The Major Cultural Model for Interpreting the Deity in Greco-Roman Antiquity” S.J. University of Notre Dame) This is the representation in the gospels themselves, “Nobody knows the Father, except the Son…”
  2. The use of Father was not a context independent term of intimacy and tenderness. Jeremias did not stick to his claims about the intimacy of the word nor make them central to his arguments. He changed his mind by the time he published his New Testament Theology, (see page 62-67). He noted that “It is necessary to issue a warning…the fact that abba was initially a child’s exclamatory word has led to the mistaken assumption that Jesus adopted the language of a tiny child when he addressed God as ‘Father’; even I myself believed this earlier (pp 67).” Everybody thinks this is the case these days. Sentimentality is a powerful argument. 
  3. Jesus’ practice was distinct from early Judaism, he simply called God, “Father” more often and claimed the right to bestow that option upon others. Incidentally, Jesus’ practice was not distinct from early Christianity, the early Christians say themselves imitating Jesus when they did it (see Romans 8:14-17).

Abba Joseph, Beetle Kings, and Jesus

This little piece from the desert Fathers helpfully illustrates Matthew 5:14-16:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else am I to do?” “What else,” Abba Lot says, “can I do?” Then the old man stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Jesus, in the passage mentioned, challenges his disciples to be the light of the world. Abba Joseph above tells Abba Lot, “If you will [desire to be a light], you can become all flame.”

But to will the destruction of our most cherished unnatural impulses can be hard.

I want comfort. I want my way. I want my space to myself, my time to myself, my feelings to myself, my whatever.

But Jesus is already the light of the world. So, why not become all flame? Aaron Weiss from mewithoutYou asks that question in his song, “The King Beetle on the Coconut Estate.

Love Your Neighbor and Marus Aurelius

In the passage below, the word “as” can mean ‘as though’ or ‘while.’ This is so in the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17-18)

Most interpreters take the word ‘as’ to mean ‘as though.’ So ‘love your neighbor as though he were yourself.’ But it might be a useful thought experiment to think of it this way, ‘love [seek the well-being of] your neighbor as you love [seek the well-being] of yourself.’ I’m not saying that’s what the passage means. I’m just saying that it’s suggestive. Below is a paragraph from Marcus Aurelius about doing good by others in such a way that it benefits more than just them:

This will be clearer to you if you remind yourself: I am a single limb (melos) of a larger body— a rational one. Or you could say “a part” (meros)— only a letter’s difference. But then you’re not really embracing other people. Helping them isn’t yet its own reward. You’re still seeing it only as The Right Thing To Do. You don’t yet realize who you’re really helping. 

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 1657-1661). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

And so such a thought experiment might go: as I do what is best for myself, how might I do it in such a fashion that it is a blessing to others? Or, to put it the other way, how might I do what it best for others in a way that is good for myself and my family as well?

Jung and God

In Man and His Symbols, Jung attempts to tackle the topic of religious experience:

Christians often ask why God does not speak to them, as he is believed to have done in former days. When I hear such questions, it always makes me think of the rabbi who was asked how it could be that God often showed himself to people in the olden days while nowadays nobody ever sees him. The rabbi replied: “Nowadays there is no longer anybody who can bow low enough.”

This answer hits the nail on the head. We are so captivated by and entangled in our subjective consciousness that we have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions. The Buddhist discards the world of unconscious fantasies as useless illusions; the Christian puts his Church and his Bible between himself and his unconscious; and the rational intellectual does not yet know that his consciousness is not his total psyche. This ignorance persists today in spite of the fact that for more than 70 years the unconscious has been a basic scientific concept that is indispensable to any serious psychological investigation. (92) 

As interesting as Jung’s interpretation of the rabbi’s quote is, I find the quote itself more interesting. Why don’t we have direct experiences of God? There is no longer anybody who can bow low enough

The New Testament says this:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6b)

And, interestingly, so does the Old:

And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
(Numbers 12:6-8)

But Moses’ experiences with God are not even mediated through dreams and riddles, but through a direct conversational experience that the Bible says is unparalleled (Exodus 33:11)

But the nature of our experience of God is not what concerns me (we cannot decide how God will communicate with us). What concerns me is the mode by which we receive communication from God, and the rabbi said to humble ourselves. And over all, I think that this is right.

Now, of course, we’ve got to humble ourselves before God in the way in which God has revealed himself, but the facts of God’s revelation (Scripture, the resurrection of Jesus, the church in history, etc) are not self-evident to all. But I would suggest that whether you’re a Christian or just somebody who really wants to understand the core of reality, the first personal step is to humble yourself

Note

Jung is right. Christians can use the Bible as a barrier between themselves and God. Jesus warned the Pharisees of this exact danger:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
(John 5:39-40)

You can rely so thoroughly on the faith experience of the characters and writers of Scripture that you never place your faith in God or practice the teachings of Christ. 

But he’s not totally right. Scripture does provide truths about God which register on the moral, logical, and mythological levels and it is meant to do this. The Bible itself is clear that God doesn’t need the Bible to communicate to us. But history has shown that when the Bible is interpreted as a witness to Jesus Christ, it provides a sure guide to God. 

 

Loving your enemies does not mean neglecting to love your friends.

This is a repost from my old blog

Jesus put love pretty high up in his list of priorities for human flourishing. The biggest problem for modern romantics who prefer to rhapsodize about love is that he said to actually do it. Look how one of his closest friends summarized his message:

1 John 3:18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

John, is talking about love for other Christians, which is easy to snarkily ignore.* This is super relevant in light of certain habits of talking in Christian circles. A lot of Christians will mock other Christians who disagree with them politically or philosophically in the name of fitting in with the non-Christian group they are closest too in temperament. Btw, I do not merely mean that some Christians clearly bested others in careful argument and through in a rhetorically powerful jab. I mean, they literally make fun of each other.

I could give examples, but for the time being I would rather not draw extra attention to a behavior that makes us look bad.

Mike Cernovich, as far as I know, does not claim to he a Christian. He certainly is not known for being nice to his enemies, but he does shame many Christians in his relationship to his friends:

Your life is the sum total of your activities and the people in your life. Be useful to other people. Find ways to meet market demands. Be good to your friends.

When is the last time you emailed a friend to say, “How can I help you?”

His question points to an important aspect of Jesus’ command to love our enemies. Jesus asks, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”(Matthew 5:37). Many Christians seem to take this as a sign that Christian virtue does not include love for the Christian in-group. But Jesus elsewhere intensifies the love Christians are to have for one another, “…just as I have loved you, so you are to love one another” (John 13:34). So, while Christians are to love even their enemies, Jesus takes the time in John’s gospel to intensify the level of love Christians show to one another. In other words, Jesus isn’t denigrating love for family or other Christians in Matthew, he is instead showing that it is a starting point for becoming like God in his concern for human well being. In fact, our love for enemies is, in a real way, less than, our love for other Christians in Jesus’ moral system.

So, what are you doing for other Christians? Have you emailed somebody just to ask them how you can help them meet a need, become more successful, or overcome a challenge? Have you called your pastor and asked how you can pray for him or her? Have you looked at the budget report for your church and tried to shore up weaknesses? How about cleaning the parking lot? While such gestures are not the sum total of Christian morality, according to Jesus, they are the litmus test, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34).

Seek first the Kingdom of God…how?

A lot of Christian advice boils down to platitudes with neither moral nor practical content. Sadly, our tendency to speak in airy nothings to one another as a time saving mechanism as stripped many of Jesus’ central ideals of meaning and practical content. An example is, “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” People will rattle off this advice in a well-meaning fashion in order to overcome the difficulties of telling other Christians, “You’ve gotta get out of debt, apologize to your spouse, discipline your kids, or organize your life.” What does this command mean?

Right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd of potential disciples listening that the trappings of the good life, clothes and food, are not the keys to happiness (remember how Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount offering the blessed or happy life to those who hear). Instead Jesus says to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its (his) righteousness and these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

But what does this mean? Is it a mystical promise that God will do miracles to see to the provision of disciples who literally never seek food, clothing, or money?

I think not.

To understand this commandment, we need to determine what the phrase, “kingdom of God” means.

In my mind, Scot McKnight’s observations are the most enlightening:

Kingdom is-almost always, with varying degrees of emphasis- a complex of king, rule, people, land, and law. Church is also a complex: a king (Christ), a rule (Christ rules over the body of Christ), a people (the church), a land (expanding Israel into the diaspora), and a law (the law of Christ, life in the Spirit) …Slight differences aside, the evidence I have presented in this book leads me to the conclusion that we should see them as synonyms.”[1]

Kingdom of God, in the New Testament is referring to the church under the authority of God.

What does it mean to “seek the kingdom of God”?

This has larger implications, but for now, we’re answering this question:

What does seek first the kingdom of God and its (his) righteousness mean?

If McKnight is right,[2] then seeking the kingdom and righteousness takes on a clearer meaning.

To seek the kingdom of God is to seek:

  1. The well-being of the church family
  2. To use the proper means to spread the word of the kingdom (see the parable of the Sower)
  3. To pray to our heavenly Father (see Matthew 6:9-13)
  4. To be a part of the kingdom’s work of worship (See Hebrews 10:24-25, this is one of the most neglected passages in modern Christendom)

What does it mean to “seek the righteousness of the kingdom of God”?

To seek the righteousness of God (of God’s kingdom) requires a little more context to fully understand[3], but even without the extra explanation seeking the righteousness of which Jesus speaks means:

  1. Seek the character traits about which he had been teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20)
  2. Be willing to do deeds of righteousness solely because they are right and to please God (Matthew 6:1-18)
  3. Extend kindness to those outside the kingdom and even those who are opposed to it (Matthew 5:41-47)
  4. Be like God (Matthew 5:48)
  5. Learn to treat others as you wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12)
  6. Base your character, as far as you can and as you understand it, on the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 7:13-28).

What does it mean to seek “kingdom” and “righteousness” first?

The word first probably can be taken metaphorically: seek them as the main priority:

  1. Try to make the church successful, not merely yourself. The financial principle for success known as “pay yourself first” should be “pay the church first” or “pay the Lord first.” In Scripture, this might mean anything from showing hospitality, to feeding the poor, and paying pastors.
  2. When a choice comes between doing the right thing and gaining some other good, choose to be righteous rather than receive good.  [4]
  3. This might be too literal, but start your day off with prayer.
  4. Jesus may also couple kingdom with righteousness here to remind us that the kingdom should only be pursued “righteously.” The ends don’t justify evil means in God’s kingdom.[5]
  5. It means to seek the other things, “not as the gentiles do,” in other words seek clothes, but not obsessively. Seek money, but like Proverbs says, “know when to desist” (Proverbs 23:4). Get property, but use it to bless others (see Proverbs 31).

What does “all these things will be added to you” mean?

In the ancient world, there were competing theories of what caused true human happiness or “the good life.”

For instance, Aristotle thought that we needed good of the body, external goods, and goods of the soul to have true happiness. The Old Testament has a similar picture in that the good life consists in health, family, honor, land, righteousness, and relatedness to God.[6]

The Stoics, on the other hand, thought that the good life/happiness consisted solely in having virtuous character.

Jesus appears to agree with the Old Testament version of the good life here because he uses the bodily and material blessings as motivation for putting righteousness and the kingdom first. Life is more than food and clothes, but it isn’t less than food and clothes.

While one can have true happiness without possessions, health, and so-on, Jesus acknowledges that these things are often necessary for life and important for happiness. Thus, he shows that one can have them without making them your main priority in life.[7] Elsewhere, Jesus makes this claim: “And all who leave houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). In Mark’s gospel, two things are added: “persecutions” and “in this life and the life to come” (Mark 10:28-29).

The point seems to be that loyalty to the kingdom of God and participation in the church (a group of people who are trying to care for one another the way Jesus loves us) even when things get hard, will lead to being taken care of. There’s not some mystical hope for magic provisions here (though the Lord can do that). There’s also not a woefully disregarded or infinitely deferred promise to make people happy. Instead, Jesus is saying that the fact of the matter is that kingdom people will take care of each other and virtue often leads to provision, and those facts are part of what makes the gospel good news.

Conclusion

Seeking first the kingdom and righteousness is not just “woo-woo” speech or meaningless Christianese for “being spiritual.”

It is a practical command that has real world application and is meant to be put into practice in our relationship to the church family of which we are a part and to the sort of habits and character traits we acquire for ourselves.

Also, the command is related directly to the human pursuit of happiness by dislodging external and bodily goods from the center of happiness while still giving them due place in the taxonomy of goods that make us happy.

References

[1] Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, 2014, 205-206

[2] He is right and if you request it I’ll catalog his evidence and add some of my own.

[3] Virtues like justice/righteousness in the ancient world were understood to be in relationship to one’s citizenship. Jesus means, “The righteousness appropriate or proper” for a citizen of God’s kingdom. It’s not just “universal righteousness,” but righteousness that can only make sense in the context of living in the kingdom of God now.

[4] Don’t buy into the lie that doing the right thing always has a negative result. That is a whiny mindset that will give you a defeatist attitude and it simply isn’t always true. Goodness is not always a tragic sacrifice.

[5] There are exceptions to this in Scripture, wherein the Lord will use evil people to accomplish good, but when the Bible tells us to imitate God is always about his mercy, holiness, or love. It is never with respect to God’s manipulation of specific historical events.

[6] Perhaps the best book on the nature of happiness in the Bible is R. N Whybray, The Good Life in the Old Testament (London: T & T Clark, 2002). Every chapter is filled with sound interpretive wisdom.

[7] Observe that making food and clothes one’s main priority can jeopardize one’s eternal happiness. The value tradeoff makes no sense.

 

Jordan Peterson and the Psychology of Redemption

Psychology of God Belief

In his excellent talk on the psychology of redemption in Christianity, Dr. Jordan Peterson explains how the Christian vision of God creates balance in the people’s minds. It does do by allowing for them to pursue an ideal without treating their own personal interpretations or reductions of that ideal as absolute in themselves. How? Because God is beyond our understanding, except as the highest possible good.

A New Testament Theological Take

What Peterson’s take might mean for the Christian is that our vision of God provides an ideal to pursue. But what idea? Primarily, it is that of the virtue revealed in Jesus and his teachings. Secondly, it is the Old Testament, interpreted through Christ. Finally, the virtue evident through the study of nature. But, since God and even the highest human character possible are ultimately incomprehensible, conversations with truth-telling as the goal must occur so that we can make the course corrections necessary to attain to the ideal. This is why Paul can say that he presses onward toward the goal, but also that he does not think he has attained to the goal of perfect participation in God or in the character of Jesus Christ.

The Jordan Peterson Video:

Here’s my own take on that concept:

Here are some of the relevant passages of Scripture:

Matthew 6:25-34 ESV “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (26) Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (27) And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (28) And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, (29) yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (30) But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (31) Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ (32) For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (34) “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

 

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (3) If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (4) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant (5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; (6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (8) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (9) For we know in part and we prophesy in part, (10) but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (11) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (12) For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13) So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

 

Hebrews 1:1-4 ESV Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, (2) but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (3) He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (4) having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

 

Philippians 3:12-14 ESV Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (13) Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Jesus and Matthew 6:33

Matthew 6:33 Now, see first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and these things will be added to you.[1]

Introduction

Everybody wants to be happy and every good wandering philosopher tries to tell them how to do it. Matthew 5-7 is Jesus’ summary treatise on human happiness or how to live an honorable life.[2]

Like all teachers on human happiness, Jesus tackles the relationship between possessions, necessities, and human happiness. He counsels people to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness as a first priority in order to cure the anxiety one might have over the future acquisition of food or clothing.

Jesus neither trivializes these needs, as he says to pray for them later in the sermon, nor does he make them absolute sources of happiness or honor as many did in his era. Instead, he says that seeking God’s kingdom and its righteousness will suffice for happiness as well as for the acquisition of the goods of the body.

How can this be so?

Psychologically

On the psychological level, what Jesus is doing is telling people that if they focus upon what they can definitely change, they will not worry. Why is this? Jesus knew one of the great insights of the human mind. You can generally only focus on one thing at a time. If one is focused upon the purposes of God and gaining righteous character, then anxiety (the constant churning of unhelpful and negative thoughts) will slowly cease to be a persistent reality in the human mind.

The other psychological aspect Jesus exploits here is that he tells people to focus upon what they can do. The kingdom of God, in the sense used here, appears to mean “the people of God and his purposes for them.” So for Jesus to say to seek the kingdom of God means for people to be busy about accomplishing the commands of God, particularly, the commands which pertain to the wellbeing of other Christians. The second thing Jesus says to seek first is ‘its righteousness.’ That means that character that befits a citizen of God’s kingdom. In other words, seek to become the kind of person who is disposed and poised to act righteously. One has no control over the weather, the crops, the clothing market, etc. But one does have control over their character. By putting people’s minds on the things which they can accomplish (with God’s help, of course), Jesus is helping people to gain an internal locus of control. To have an internal locus of control is to live with a sense that you choose how you handle the world around you and are not by necessity merely the outcome of the events around you. The research is clear that people with an internal locus of control struggle less with anxiety.

Materially

Jesus observes that for those who seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness “all these things” will be added. Here he clearly means the goods of the body (clothing, food, human resources in general). But how will they be added? Are we to believe that Jesus is making a promise of miraculous intervention for all do are good enough? I don’t think so. Jesus was aware of the martyrs, Job, and Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Instead, I think Jesus is making a general claim about the nature of virtue. If you have a good relationship with God’s people and possess righteousness, you’ll generally get what you need. Jesus knew there were exceptions, the Old Testament speaks of them. He also never taught people to expect routine divine protection from harm, he even taught that often, the righteous may have to die for righteousness’ sake. So it appears that here he speaks of the general results of having virtuous habits. Here are the components of “righteousness” according to the book of the Wisdom of Solomon (a Jewish work which approximates Jesus’ thought world quite nicely):

And if any one loves righteousness,

Her [lady wisdom] labors are virtues;

for she teaches temperance and prudence,

justice and courage;

nothing in life is more profitable for men than these. [3]

 

For those who love righteousness as taught in the Hebrew Bible, wisdom works in them even the four virtues of pagan morality: justice, courage, temperance, and prudence. And while the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven is colored by Jesus’ specific teachings, there is really no reason to suppose that it was no longer seen as an all-encompassing virtue by Jesus or the gospel authors. And besides, “nothing in life is more profitable for men than these” is quite similar to what Jesus was saying.

So the point I wish to make is that if somebody have the righteousness of the kingdom, they essentially are growing in the virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and prudence and they can find ways to acquire their needs, stay out of trouble, avoid over indulgence, and take appropriate risks for the good. Such people are able to manage their lives in the world contently and without compromising with evil.

Not least, as I hinted at above, people who seek first the kingdom of God, will find themselves in a community of people who will help them through their trials.

Theologically

Theologically, it’s important to note that Proverbs teaches that:

Riches profit not in the day of wrath: but righteousness delivereth from death.[4]

And for Jesus, no need of mankind was more desperate than the need to know God. And so the central aspect of human happiness here is that those who enter into the kingdom of God and receive righteousness from Jesus Christ will survive the day of wrath.

Final Thoughts

To seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness first, in my mind, implies that it should be a first priority and driving motivation for our actions but also a temporal one. In our day we should begin with prayer for God’s kingdom to come, forgiveness from sins, and help to do his will. This is why the Christian practice of beginning the day with Scripture reading, meditation, and prayer is so crucial for Christians today. Without this discipline, we’re so likely to rush off into the day and seek anything but God’s kingdom or his righteousness.

References


[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 6:33, “ζητεῖτε δὲ πρῶτον τὴν ⸂βασιλείαν [τοῦ θεοῦ]* καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην⸃ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ταῦτα πάντα προστεθήσεται ὑμῖν.”

[2] The word in Matthew 5:3-10 translated ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ carries with the connotation of ‘those who are in this state are honorable.’ Matthew 5:3 could be translated, “How honorable are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

[3] The Revised Standard Version (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1971), Wis 8:7.

[4] The Holy Bible: King James Version., electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. (Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995), Pr 11:4.

What did Jesus write in the sand?

When I was in high school, my buddy Steven and I went to a concert a couple of hours out of town. We skipped school to do it. I don’t remember if we had had permission from our parents or not. We must have, because we got home at like 2 am. Either way, the band Denison Marrs played there and this song had me entranced:

Around 3:13-3:16 in the song, the singer asks of Jesus, “what was it that you wrote in the sand?”

I’ve wondered that off and on for years. The Biblical passage in question, of course, is this:

[[They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
(John 7:53-8:11 ESV)

Of course, it is disputed whether this passage belongs in John’s gospel and whether the events described therein occurred. But either way, the author meant for the event to be understood. So what could an early Christian author with an understanding of the Torah and a desire to portray Jesus as a Torah expert have meant hearers and readers to understand by this cryptic event? My thought is that Jesus would have been understood to be writing this excerpt from Deuteronomy 19:

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
(Deuteronomy 19:15-21 ESV)

Deuteronomy would indicate that perhaps every single person present, if they were witnesses of the adultery, would deserve the death penalty because they maliciously brought the woman and not the man. Or every one of them perhaps committed adultery with her (shades of the woman at the well?) and therefore were malicious witnesses. Or only one of them witnessed the crime and were therefore bringing her before Jesus. Incidentally, the entire scene is a miscarriage of justice because nobody was brought before judges or priests. Incidentally, the tabernacle, which would be the necessary ingredient for such a dispute, was missing. So to bring the dispute before the Lord was impossible, but the men did bring the dispute before the Lord unknowingly. This, with John’s theology of Jesus’ presence might work as an argument for the story’s inclusion in John’s gospel. But the story does completely interrupt the narrative where it stands and so it’s hard to imagine where it belongs other than as an appendix.

Jesus, Rhetoric, and Dialectic

In the past I’ve written pretty extensively about the difference between rhetoric and dialectic. The distinction between the two, I think, can be quite important for understanding Scripture. Here’s a short review:

  1. Dialectic is the art of using logic and facts in order to find what is true. In reference to discourse (written or spoken) it is essentially the posture of either science or exposition. It’s purpose is chiefly truth.
  2. Rhetoric is the art of determining what is persuasive use well as using it. It’s purpose is chiefly feeling.

Dialectic can be used rhetorically and rhetoric can be made to sound like dialectic to put on an air of intelligence. In one sense, dialectic is a form of rhetoric, as it invites careful attention, dispute, and acceptance of its claims once they are determined to be based on true evidence and valid argumentation. The combinations are as variable as are human motivations.

When reading the gospels (themselves a form of rhetoric) one of the places where Jesus is pretty clear about what makes for a morally whole and upright existence is his endorsement of honoring your parents by caring for them financially:

Mar 7:9-13 ESV  And he [Jesus] said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! (10)  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ (11)  But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)– (12)  then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, (13)  thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Elsewhere, Jesus is fundamentally opposed to hating even enemies. Yet, when trying to snap people out of an insensibility of what is required of his disciples he says:

Luk 14:26 ESV  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Yet, one of the prime assumptions of Jesus’ ministry is that you will follow the ten commandments (Luke 18:20), love your neighbor, and that you desire to avoid eternal death by seeking eternal life. So when Jesus tells us to hate even our lives, is he telling us to have no joy, no pleasure, and no sense of self-preservation or self-love? Or is he proposing an outrageous overstatement to get us to consider the facts of the case, that you might not be up to the task of going to preach with him?

By the way, right after Jesus says this, he says that to be his disciple (at least to be his disciple in the sense of travelling with him) requires a careful consideration of the costs just as any war or building project requires.

One of the things I always hate (literally) about election season is the predilection of pundits to pile up a series of claims meant to arouse anger, love, or sympathy with how bad said pundit feels about this or that candidate and therefore you should vote and believe accordingly with no support other than appeal to emotions. The problem is that the rhetoric is not based on a solid foundation. “I feel really bad about [insert politician here], therefore s/he is unacceptable!” People mistake rhetoric (arousing emotions) for fact and argument (dialectic).

A similar mistake can be made with Jesus. Because we use sarcasm and “snark” so frequently, we often or maybe always seem to mistake it for argument. Not only are we handicapped because of our own sense of humor, but it’s not always easy to distinguish Jesus’ cues, because we aren’t with him and cannot hear his tone. To add to those two problems, it also feels unusual to think of the Bible as a book of humor.

It would seem that the best  practice is to compare Jesus’ apparently outrageous statements with his apparently literal ones as in the case mentioned above. Similar tactics could be used to understand Jesus’ apparent disdain for the syrophonecian woman. Jesus has taught that God would call people from east and west while the Israelites would miss out on the kingdom. So his apparently harsh attitude is rhetoric, suited for a purpose which was apparently achieved (the woman’s daughter was healed).

Can you think of other examples of the rhetoric dialectic distinction being helpful for understanding the gospels?