Pharisees and Faithfulness

One of the popular activities on social media has been the “who are you” quizzes. Answer a set of questions and find out which character from a famous movie, book or television series you are most like.  I took one the other day and found out that I am Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, the idealistic, impetuous young hero of the first trilogy.  As flattering as that may sound, I see myself more like the old Obi-wan Kenobi played by Sir Alec Guinness – crusty, but wise, with a hint of a mysterious past.  Of course, I could never pull off those really cool Jedi mind tricks.  “These are not the droids you are looking for….”  (On second thought, that might be a great way to get out of some particularly awkward committee work.)  I took another quiz and found out that I am a combination of Scotty and Dr. McCoy from the original Star Trek.  (“I’m a doctor, not an engineer!  No wait! Maybe I am an engineer!”)

Anyway, I got to thinking, what if there were quizzes to determine who you were most like in the New Testament?  It could have examples of apostles, key players like Apollos, Barnabas, Cornelius, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, not to mention some of the bad influences like the scribes and Pharisees, Ananias and Sapphira, Demetrius the silversmith, Diotrephes, Hymenaeus, Philetus…the list could go on.

Or maybe there could be a Jeff Foxworthy style catalog of descriptors: “You might be a Pharisee if….”  Or maybe a game where you answer questions about biblical laws and their interpretations.  You could call it “Who Wants to Be a Pharisee?”  Or back to Foxworthy, maybe something like “Are You Smarter than a Pharisee?”  Sure, that might sound humorous on the surface, but the serious reality is far from humorous. 

To be a Pharisee has a rather negative connotation owing to the comments gleaned from the New Testament.  The practice of Pharisaism arose during the intertestamental period, as one of at least three lines of Jewish thought: the elitist, paradoxically spiritually conservative but socially liberal Sadducees, the ascetic Essenes, and the Pharisees, who clung to a tradition of oral and written Torah.  Pharisees, whose designation was derived from a Hebrew word meaning separate or set apart, believed that God had supplied them with both the written record, the Torah, and the wisdom to expound upon it in an “oral” Torah, as provided by the accomplished rabbis.  By the second century A.D., the oral Torah had become the foundation for the Talmud, the codified commentary amounting to an expansion of the Mosaic Law.  The existing branches of rabbinical Judaism today can trace their ancestry back to the Pharisees of the second temple period.  

While these three lines of Judaism may seem to be essentially denominational divisions, they apparently functioned largely as political parties, struggling for civil control over the Jewish nation.  Unlike today’s splintered denominational Christianity, the various brands of ancient Judaism all worshipped in the same Temple.  Some writers have observed that the masses of the Jewish people were probably non-sectarian.

In the New Testament, especially in the gospels, the Pharisees were both the instigators of unrest toward Jesus and the adherents to his new movement, and the objects of Jesus’ most pointed rebukes.  The Pharisees were not only people of the Law, but also people of the rules, regulations, and interpretations that were added by the rabbis on top of the Law.

If we could reconstruct how Pharisaism began, it very likely started with a noble ideal.  If human nature holds true, it is probable that the founders of Pharisaism just wanted to get things right.  Getting things right likely meant exploring every possible angle from which a law could be approached, then adding a layer of interpretation on top of that law.  In seeking not to go beyond the Law, they wound up adding more on top of the existing directives.  However, adding more law is just a way of going beyond in a different direction.

Isn’t that the same sort of thing we see today among many very religious people?  They earnestly want to get things right.  They look for the rules and laws hidden among little comments and biblical histories, and interpolate, infer, and interject interpretations of events to comply with a perceived underlying command that must have necessitated the specific action, comment or statement.  They infer a rationale to explain what they see, and that inference becomes the standard by which they live, and measure all others. 

The desire to get things right, to seek approval of our parents, our teachers, and especially our God is a noble and deeply ingrained drive within us.  In seeking approval of those we love, respect and honor, it is logical to conclude that an absence of any evidence of the condemnation of a specific action affirms the approval of that action.  This is used commonly in the establishing of authority for specific religious practices (e.g., partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the First Day of the Week). 

However, in the absence of specific instruction, command or prohibition, it is not logical to assume that the approval of one expression must necessarily negate all others.

In fact, the adoption of a rigidly specific formula for a practice may lead to a loss of connection with the meaning of the practice itself.  Consider the memorial Jesus instituted on the night that he was betrayed to his enemies.  In the Stone Campbell Movement and numerous others such as the Lutheran tradition, the Lord’s Supper is observed weekly.  The Roman Catholic tradition offers daily masses, including and encouraging the observance of communion.  Greek Orthodox believers partake of the communion at least two or three times a year, but would benefit from greater frequency, according to one Orthodox leader.  Eastern Orthodoxy offers communion weekly and on special feast days, and even daily, although the latter occurs mostly in monasteries.  Southern Baptists vary in their observance with some congregations partaking weekly, others monthly, and still others quarterly.  Apparently, the frequency of observance is also variable among branches of the Methodist denomination, however there has recently been an encouragement to weekly observance, in addition to recognized holy days. I have heard that some of the faith traditions that partake with lower frequency suggest that greater frequency may reduce or cheapen the experience. It is interesting to note that in some traditions such as Russian Orthodoxy, partaking of the communion requires fasting, meditation and confession as preparation.

While a comparative study of the communion is not the main focus of this discussion, I was interested to see how different groups approached the subject in order to pose a question:  Is the less frequent observance by a genuinely pious Russian Orthodox believer of less value than the regular observance by a casual adherent to the Stone Campbell tradition?  It would seem that one who consciously and conscientiously prepared himself spiritually to engage in the experience would do so to greater effect and benefit than one who may have timed his arrival at the church of Christ service to coincide with the passing of the bread and cup, apparently considering the physical act of consuming a crumb of matzo and a sip of Welch’s finest Concord grape juice of greater significance than the self-examination and grateful reflection encouraged by Paul in I Corinthians 11.  Obviously some would find fault in both.  But there are those who would praise the weekly, yet half-hearted observance, even though it was not in any way of genuine spiritual benefit to the “participant.” “Faithfulness” is too often defined as the visible participation in ritual, not the deeper exercise of the spiritual.  What so many people do is simply go through the motions, check off the boxes for the “five acts of worship” and leave with full (self-) assurance of having done their religious duty for the week.

“Tick boxes” and visible expressions were hallmarks of the Pharisee.   Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ comparative parable in Luke 18.

“9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

A great danger of Pharisaism, then, whether ancient or modern, is in the sense of superiority that it engenders.  The cure for that particular malady is in what Jesus emphasized: humility.  James echoed that idea where he said, in chapter 4.6 of his general epistle,  “…but he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Then, he reiterates the need for humility in verse 10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

In a very real sense, the religious practices and observances that constitute our worship are not for God’s benefit.  Does Jesus gain physical or spiritual benefit from our adoration and praise?  Remember what he said regarding the Sabbath?    Did pious observance of every Sabbath law make God stronger or give him more glory?  “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.27b)  The Sabbath rest was for man’s benefit.  Worship is much the same: we draw closer to God as we commune with each other and edify each other in faith.  Worship should focus our hearts and minds on God to our mutual benefit as worshippers, not just require us to dwell on the script as mindless drones. 

When the practice of religion becomes more steeped in rules and law-keeping than with the internalized experience and actualization of practical principles—principles and precepts designed to make us better people in order to make a better world—its value is lost.  When we are more concerned with form than function, we have lost our way.  The method then becomes the message, and the focus turns from genuinely honoring God with our very lives to congratulating ourselves for dotting all of the i’s and crossing all of the t’s just so.

When we can fall down before God with genuine thanksgiving and truly ask for his continued mercy, love and grace more deeply and sincerely than we commend our worship process to him, perhaps we will begin to know the blessing Jesus pronounced on the penitent tax collector.  Perhaps we can begin to crack the shell of Pharisaism, and move toward experiencing the joy of God in worship and not just the dread of making a mistake in its performance. 

The Sabbath was made for man.  Use it well.     


The Irony of Jesus

I suppose that of all the literary devices, I may be fondest of irony.  Irony may be funny, or it may be thought-provoking, or it may be both.  When I consider the literary value of the Bible, I see many examples of irony.  But no one used irony as much as the God-Man who actually embodied it. 

Imagine a king born in a stable.  Imagine this king surrounded by a court of common laborers, fishermen, and despised tax collectors, and being anointed by a sinful woman.  Imagine this king who tied a towel around his waist and humbly washed the feet of his disciples.   Imagine this king being heralded and lauded as he made his final entry into the holy city of Jerusalem, riding on an unbroken donkey’s colt.  Imagine this king, the greatest man ever to walk the earth, being nailed to a wooden cross to suffer as a spectacle, and to die as a common criminal. 

Jesus was irony.

But not only did he live in irony, he used it masterfully.  Remember the scene early in Jesus’ ministry when he was assembling his team? 

“Mark 2.14  And as he passed by, he saw Levi [most of us know him as Matthew, dlr] the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

“15  And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16  And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

“17  And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

A king among commoners. A Savior among sinners.  But the greatest irony here is that every single one of those “righteous” Pharisees was “sick,” and needed a physician. 

How many times did he perform a miracle and tell his followers or the recipient of that grace NOT to tell anyone?  He pointedly taught that those who wished to be first would be last, and the last first.  He elevated the lowly with praise and brought low the (self-)righteous with scathing condemnation. 

One of the most ironic scenes I can recall is that fateful scene in Matthew 25, where Jesus is describing the parting of the true disciples from the false ones.  The sheep would be marked by meekly doing as Jesus would do.  The goats would have likely been gloating over their meticulous observance of every point of law, but failed to live and serve as their Master had shown them.  These would be the ones whom Jesus had mentioned in Matthew 7.21-23:  

“21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  23  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ 

You would think that if they had accomplished all of these big visible feats, they would surely have an express ticket for Heaven.  But Jesus said that while they may have indeed done those things, they neglected the real will of God. 

So if doing big things in front of a lot of people in Jesus’ name won’t get you to Heaven, what will?  Well, that’s not something I am completely qualified to answer.  Really, it’s not my call.  But I do know this: that doing the will of God is not just religion for show.  God wants his children to take care of each other.  To do justice.  To love and to live mercy.  To embody love and reflect that love to the benefit of others.  To be the purest light, the real image of God in a hopelessly sin-darkened world.  Religion for show won’t get you to Heaven.

And there is another point of irony: so often the people using Matthew 7.21 the most are the ones who themselves take the most pride in their show of religion.  They get it all right – the acts of worship, the structure and organization of the church as they consider “right”—but lose sight of what it is we’re supposed to be doing in the first place: loving God, and loving each other. 

Now, they will say that getting the precise form of worship and the exact congregational organization right is showing love for God.  They will cite Jesus’ observation that if we love him, we will keep his commandments.  And that is true.  But we can’t pick and choose which commandments are more important than others.  When we quibble over who we can help with a donation from the church treasury, are we really showing love for our brothers and sisters or for Jesus?  When a preacher declares in an admittedly extreme game of “what if?” that it would be more acceptable for a homeless baby to starve to death rather than use money from the church treasury to feed it, do we really understand the love of God, and that it doesn’t matter where the money comes from, if it’s all God’s money anyway, whether in the church treasury (is that Corban?) or my wallet?  When we elevate men—some of questionable motive and dubious qualification— to positions of leadership yet fail to recognize, let alone celebrate the service, contribution and wisdom of women, are we showing love for Jesus, who respected women and counted them among his closest friends, even allowing women to be the first bearers of the news of his resurrection?  When we build entire doctrinal formulas from single phrases, even single words, doctrines that divide brother from brother, yet ignore examples and observations that do not conform to our specific traditions, are we living and exhibiting what Paul said matters most: faith working through love (Galatians 5.6)?  Or is that conformity working through coercion?

Oh, irony abounds among us humans, too.  Nowhere is it more apparent than where we talk about liberty yet do not hesitate to bind inferred laws on everyone.  The thing about human irony is that we don’t do it nearly as well or remotely as effectively as Jesus.  Where his irony underscored his humble majesty, our ironies more often than not underscore our foibles, frailties and failings.  Jesus said we might strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.  We judge the one with a speck in his eye, but fail to see the plank impairing our own vision.  Such irony is classic Jesus, the God-Man, the Servant-King, who taught that the way to abundance is through denial, but more importantly, the way to life is through death.  And that may be the greatest irony of all.   

Of Gravity and Grace

Sometimes, the weight of life seems to disobey the laws of gravity.  Between moments of lighter than air joy and the steady burden of daily living, there are moments when life seems so heavy that you nearly buckle under its weight.  Everyone probably experiences that, especially if your own burden is a little different from average.  Parents of special needs children know exactly what I am talking about.

Sometimes, the simplest thing becomes a massive chore.  Most people look forward to an outing—a trip to the mall, a park, the zoo—but if your child is on the autism spectrum, it may mean meltdowns, running away and getting lost without warning, and a general loss of any semblance of a pleasant day because you must act more as a guard than as a companion.  Of course, every child is like this to some extent. But when you add an autism spectrum disorder, you multiply the downside several fold.  And among the worst aspects of it all are the constant stares and glares from people who think you’re just a bad parent and your child is just an evil brat.

Admittedly, there are times when I think, to my shame and to my son’s hurt, that he is indeed just an unpleasant person who will only get worse with age.

But that is such wrong thinking that I become ashamed even more.  I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet.  I cannot see the future nor do I speak for the Almighty. 

In reality, sometimes I cannot even see the present.

So when people of my own faith heritage begin pontificating on things they have seen in the world at large, sometimes those observations—no, make that “condemnations”—hit a little too close to home.  I have heard and read broad, sweeping comments that are more about judgmental superiority than about compassion, mercy and understanding.  At some point in my life, I probably did the same.  But I cannot view situations any more as I once did.  My perspective has changed with being on the receiving end of those remarks.

There are many times after a particularly hard day, I sit down and think, as so many do in my situation and probably much, much worse cases, “Why me?  What did I do to deserve this?  God, please make it all go away and give me a normal life!”

And then it hits me: I haven’t really asked for anything for my son who knows nothing but his daily experience of autism, or my wife who has bravely soldiered on from the earliest sign of his condition, or my dear, beautiful daughter who all too often gets lost in the autism tempest, a victim en passant.

I have only been focusing on myself, and praying to make my life easier.  And I become even more ashamed.

But I shouldn’t be ashamed.  Not because my son is autistic: that is beyond my control.  Not for his public displays: in most cases, they are beyond his control, because he has been over-stimulated by his surroundings and can’t process the incoming data in an effective way.

No, I should remember what Paul was told when he petitioned the Christ that his weakness, his “thorn in the flesh” that served as an ever-present reminder of weakness, the “messenger of Satan” to constantly harass him, be taken away.  Jesus pointedly reminded him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (I Corinthians 12.9)

I am by no means suggesting I am the equal of the apostle.  My charge in life is not to be an ambassador in chains for the gospel.  It is to be a husband and father, a teacher of science and a student of life.

While Paul’s context deals with the temptation to succumb to worldly displays and carnal actions, his principle is broadly applicable where he reminds the Corinthians that, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”  (I Corinthians 10.13)

The challenge to anyone facing any temptation or trial is to relinquish the focus on the particular trying issue and open ourselves to seeing the “way of escape.”  And while that way may seem impassable, remembering Jesus’ words to Paul may ease the passage: “My grace is sufficient for you….”

When life becomes a burden, grace can lift it, and make it bearable.  Remember the words of John Newton: “T’is grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”  The usual view of “home” is Heaven.  But home is safety, and warmth, and love, regardless of circumstance, whether here on earth or there in Heaven.  Maybe we should be content in the knowledge that wherever grace is, we are as good as home, wrapped in the love and comfort of a loving Father.  By receiving that grace, we can take courage and strength and give that same quality of grace to others—especially to those whose lives have defined ours in such dramatic and sweeping ways.

Facts about Truth, Truth about Facts (II)

Truth is a complicated matter.  When we are considering truth with respect to faith, we are confronted with a set of facts, and through an exercise of that faith, we must assemble and evaluate those facts to realize the greater truth.  Jesus proclaimed to his disciples that he was indeed “the way, the truth and the life.”  That he is the truth is the linchpin of all the Christian faith, for if he is not the truth, then his assertions that he is the way and the life are meaningless.  I believe that his claim is valid based on the evidence presented.  I accept that Jesus is indeed the truth.  And by knowing that truth, greater knowledge and deeper truths become evident.

John’s record says Jesus declared himself the truth, and that by knowing him, his followers would know God.  In I John, John reveals more of the nature of God.  Most notably, I John 1.5 tells us that God is light, in whom no darkness is found.  Then, I John 4.8 says that God is love.  These comments are stated as fact, on which the truth of the nature of God may be built.

Now, returning to John 14, Jesus said that by knowing him, his followers would know God.  By the symmetric property of equality (since Jesus said that he was in God and God was in him), if as John tells us God is love and God is light, then Jesus is the embodiment of that light and love, as well.  That conclusion is a truth built on the facts as presented in the writings of John.

Jesus promised that once he had departed, he would send his disciples “another helper”, a “comforter”, the “Spirit of truth”— the Holy Spirit, who would guide them to the knowledge they needed to succeed with the spread of the kingdom, and indeed with the continuation of their lives as followers.  In I John 4.6, John notes that converse to the Spirit of truth, there is also a “spirit of error” that urges onto people those things that are untrue; in that case, the untruth was the denial of the Incarnation.

While facts are by definition true, and truth is grounded in facts, truth may also be subjective in that truth may be accepted or rejected.  But when considered as Jesus presented it, that truth would bring liberty—freedom from sin, freedom from the restraints of the Law of Moses—why would anyone reject truth?  Maybe because being enslaved to something gets too comfortable.  Being enslaved to a law, whether the Mosaic Law or the laws we have interpolated and formulated for our religious communities of today, is comfortable because it takes the guesswork out of life.  But that assumes that everything we ever encounter will be laid out for us in black and white and fit the specific scenario foreseen by a law or regulation.  The problem with that is that life is rarely that simple.  But if we live in truth by the principles of love and light—the attributes of God as John tells us— we should be able to deal with any situation that may arise.

Indeed, we are responsible for living up to the truth that is available to us.  Paul says in Philippians 3.12-16 regarding the attainment of perfection:

“12 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. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”

For all his knowledge and abilities, even Paul had not attained all truth, for to have done so would be to have achieved perfection.  To posit that we have attained all truth is to say that we have achieved a mastery of all possible facts.  But that simply cannot be an accurate statement.  We continue to learn, to grow in knowledge.  New knowledge may lead to new truths being discovered.  Remaining open to that learning is essential to growth, and Paul said God would reveal things to us as we achieve greater maturity. Similarly, we must not discount the truth that is known in deference to a truth yet to be revealed.  But we must hold true to what we have attained, showing respect for the truth that is known.

It seems then, that even as Paul, we must not denigrate those who have apprehended less truth than we have.  But by the same spirit, we must also not be complacent with the truth that we have attained.  We must continue to search, grow, learn and know.  We must press onward, never content with incomplete knowledge, but always searching for more truth, because that leads us to greater understanding of Jesus.

After all, he is the truth.

And if you ask any believer, that’s a fact.

Facts about Truth, Truth about Facts (I)

I was doing some reading and revising of a lecture for my freshman biology class and I was thinking about the scientific process.  I stress that science has a goal of uncovering facts, which is different from discovering truth.  I started thinking about the differences between fact and truth, how they are intertwined.  Now it is not my intention to muddy the waters, but for years, I have struggled with these concepts in matters of religion and faith.  I think that I may have started to come to a greater understanding of what truth is, and I hope that my exploration may give you a place to begin your own examination of truth.

As a general rule, I find that it is usually good to start with what is known, and move from simple ideas to those that are more complex.  Using that as a guide, it appears that the simpler of the two ideas is that of the fact.  A fact is an objective, indisputable reality.  It simply exists.  So, a fact is in and of itself true.  Water is wet.  Rocks are hard.  These are facts.  One can only dispute a fact so long as one remains in ignorance.  When confronted with a body of facts, a reasonable person accepts them.

Philosophers debate the meaning of truth.  As I have said before, I am no philosopher, nor am I a theologian.  I am a teacher who is trained as a scientist.  But I am also a Christian with an active, inquisitive mind.  I am a seeker of truth.  I question all things to determine if they are indeed based on facts, on reality.  I have examined the facts that have been presented and I have accepted the truth of Jesus, who, himself, declared that he was indeed the truth.

So, what is truth?  I know, Pontius Pilate asked that question of Jesus at his hearing, right before he went out and told the people he found no fault in Jesus.  We could discuss the sincerity of that question from Pilate, but not from me, since I am here to affirm that I am genuinely seeking an answer.

From my explorations, it appears that truth is perhaps a more elusive concept.  Truth is built on fact, and apparently requires a judgment regarding the conclusions reached based on the facts presented.  One writer said that the perceptions that make up truth allow the facts on which the truth is built to “soar.”

If truth is built on fact, and facts are irrefutably true, then can one reject a truth?  Obviously it is possible, and possible for a number of reasons: if the evaluator does not see the connection between the facts, the truth may not appear to be logically supported.  If a person is lacking one or more key facts, the greater truth may seem insupportable.  The honest seeker will seek to rectify this, however, rather than remain in ignorance.  Truth is far too important to squander for want of attainable evidence.

Of all the New Testament writers, none said more about truth than John.  What is interesting about this is that John’s gospel had more of a philosophical, even mystical flavor to it than the “just the facts” accounts of the other three.  From the outset of his gospel, John declares, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1.14)  Later, he announces, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1.17)  It is interesting that “grace” and “truth” are so auspiciously linked, and reasonably so: grace must be received, as must truth.  As long as one rejects truth, he remains in ignorance.  As long as one rejects grace, he remains outside of fellowship with the family of God.

In John 8.32, Jesus announces that, “…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  The disciples rankled a bit at that, saying they had never been enslaved to anyone, so how could they be set free? Jesus said that those who participate in sin were slaves to it, thus they were given a way to achieve freedom from that hard master.  Some commentators suggest that this could also mean that Jesus had provided a way for his Jewish brethren to be freed from the bondage of rabbinical excess, the complex heaping on of rules on top of God-given Law.  Either way, the promise of release from bondage should have been appealing.

One of the most important records of Jesus’ discussion of truth is in John 14.  There, he is comforting his disciples after telling them (in chapter 13) that he would soon be leaving them.

“14 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.”

“5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

“6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

The way to God is through Jesus.  The truth of God is Jesus.  Eternal life is in Jesus.

…continued in Part II

Toward a Better Understanding of the Bible (II): Textual Infidelity and the Dangers of Proof-Texting

In Part I of this article, we considered the need to ask the right questions in understanding the Bible.  For most of us, that begins with the classic set of literary inference queries: who, what, when, where, why, and how.  By focusing on such simple questions, we can begin to get a better understanding of what we are reading.  Full understanding may take more in the way of deep study, including language usage, archaeological and historical information regarding the setting and players, and numerous other things that may shed light on the topic at hand.

Another danger that threatens our reasonable understanding of the Bible comes in the form of a practice known as proof-texting, which frequently involves lifting a single verse or phrase from its context in order to support a specific teaching or regulation or requirement.

With that in mind, this second example falls under that type of what I think of as “textual infidelity.”  I submit for your consideration the use of James 2 in supporting the necessity of “works” like baptism for salvation.  Now make no mistake, I am not in any way suggesting that baptism is not of vital importance.  However, to use James 2 as a proof text for that is a misuse of the scripture. 

Read James 2 and ask yourself the pertinent questions.  Consider who the audience was:  Christians who were already baptized believers.  They needed no convincing of the importance of baptism.

In James 1.27, the author establishes the foundation for “pure religion,” which deals with moral purity along with loving and caring for others.  In chapter 2, he focuses more on that theme of loving our neighbors, in fact quoting the “royal law” in verse 8.  Partiality is a failure to extend mercy, and that will only reap for us a verdict of justice without mercy if we fail to be merciful. 

James then continues with a discussion of the tandem nature of real faith and the “works” that demonstrate that faith.  He cites Abraham, who, in faith, was prepared to sacrifice his son.  He also commends Rahab the Harlot of Jericho who helped the Israelite spies to escape.  These were actions that demonstrated faith and not just lip service. 

Remember that James is addressing Christians.  He is trying to show them that partiality or failure to render assistance to a brother or sister in need is a failure to demonstrate the faith that we may profess to possess.  By saying that faith without works is dead, he is not specifically trying to demonstrate that baptism is essential to salvation.  Attempting to do so takes the verse from its context and violates that principle of being faithful to the word itself.  He is saying that if we talk the talk, we must also walk the walk–let our actions testify louder to our faith than mere words.

I take no great pleasure in pointing out these kinds of issues.  I really wish that I didn’t have to.  But when I see people doing the very thing they condemn in others, I cannot sit by and let it continue without comment.  Maybe one of the worst inventions ever conceived was the Biblical concordance.  A person can become fixated on a particular word, and then exhaust its corresponding entries in that reference book.  In so doing, he is more likely than not to take a reference out of context.  This is probably one way that the practice of proof-texting was born.  How do I know?  I’ve heard enough examples over the years, and I’ve even done it myself.  But knowing that I have erred is the first step in correcting my mistakes.  I believe in fidelity to the text and to its literary, social and historical context.  And while it is a time-honored practice that is deeply ingrained in various religious groups—especially the one to which I belong–proof-texting may result in a failure to respect the truth and context of the Word we claim to hold in reverence.  It’s better to let the Word say what the Word means, and not twist the scriptures to suit our desires or pet doctrines.

Toward a Better Understanding of the Bible (I): Asking the Right Questions

Understanding the Bible is something that many people think is beyond them.  Not long after the establishment of the church, it appears that a professional clergy developed, which took it upon itself to do the understanding for the people.  This priesthood concept was nothing new, and traced its origins to Jewish and pagan practices.  It was only natural, though perhaps unfortunate, that such an institution arose.  Throughout the history of the church in all of its forms and brands, in almost all denominations, there is a clerical caste that acts as teacher and interpreter of scripture for the collective members.   Again, this is somewhat unfortunate, in that it takes the responsibility for study and understanding off of the rank and file and places it in the hands of a few, usually self-selected experts, who may or may not rightly divide the word of truth. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about understanding the Bible lately, and why there is so much misunderstanding.  I cannot help but think that part of that is due to the fact that we have fallible humans—humans that may have agendas—teaching and preaching. 

I have to admit, the Bible is a difficult read in places.  From the difficult to pronounce names of places to the difficult to pronounce names of people, to the difficult to reconstruct lineages, to political intrigue, plots, and affairs, the message sometimes gets lost in the details.  Yet the details are present to testify to the truth of the message.

I am no trained theologian, although the field fascinates me.  I never took a course in hermeneutics, or ancient languages, or translation principles.  I have picked up a few pointers here and there over the years, and I have learned to compare and contrast differing views on the meaning of a passage of scripture to try and come up with a reasonable understanding.  As a scientist by training, I respect the process.

As I pondered the process of Biblical interpretation, I decided to do a quick search for “rules” to guide the process, or as I think about it, to simply reach an understanding.  One site listed five rules, another, eight, and still another, 16.  Some of the points overlapped.  All stressed showing reverence for the text and letting the text speak.  One specifically mentioned searching for the Author’s Intended Message (AIM), which I thought was a nice way to remember what we are trying to do.

But as I thought about this process, every one of us who has ever been to grade school in the last few decades already has much of the training we need to begin to understand any passage of scripture.  Really?  Yes, really.  Do you remember “The Five W’s and the H?”  Of course you do: they stand for “who, what, when, where, why, and how.”  Of course, the professionals have ways of making what they do sound far more complex, and in some respects it may be.  But fundamentally, they are really only using the Five W’s and the H to get at the meaning of the Bible.

Whether or not you accept as literal the Genesis account of creation, most of the information needed to understand the significance of the message, indeed from start to finish, is found in Genesis 1.  In fact, much is found in the first 10 words of the Bible:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Who? God.

What? Created the heavens and the earth.

Where?  The obvious inference is “here.”

When?  In the beginning.

Later, we see how:  “And God said…”

The “why”, though, is perhaps more elusive.  Perhaps it was to show God’s supreme excellence: “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” (Genesis 1.31).  Or maybe the reason is found in that often quoted passage, John 3.16, “For God so loved the world….”  Or perhaps the reason comes much later in the canon, in the book of Revelation, where in 21.3, it is recorded, “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.”  Maybe God created everything to love and be loved, to dwell among his children. 

Of course all of this talk of the “why” of it all is purely speculation.  But I am not the first to ask it, nor will I be the last. In Psalm 8.4, and echoed in 144.3, the Psalmist muses, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

Of course, great volumes could be written on these topics.  But I wish to spend a few words considering the concept of textual and contextual fidelity in our understanding of scripture.  How many times have you been sitting in the audience as a preacher talks about the importance of keeping comments and verses in context, but within the next or a few breaths, violently breaks that principle in the application of a disjointed proof-text?  Either we believe in maintaining context or we don’t.  We cannot have it both ways.  We cannot condemn others for doing the very thing we have built entire doctrines on.

To show what I mean, I wish to present two examples, although there are many more than could be explored.  First, Jesus’ lesson on the Rich Man and Lazarus has been used to describe what happens after death.  Please read Luke chapter 16 carefully and ask the Five W’s and the H. 

Contextually, Jesus is talking about the dangers of riches, in short, materialism.  In verse 14, Jesus’ arch- detractors make their appearance, and upon hearing his teaching, “derided him.”  He tells them in verse 15 that their hearts were not right, that they attempted to justify themselves before men.  But what men hold in high esteem, God finds to be an abomination. 

In verse 19, the actual story begins.  Based on the context, to whom was it addressed?  The Pharisees.  What happens?  You know the story: the Rich Man lives sumptuously, while Lazarus (from the Hebrew name, Eliezar, “God helps”), is a poor diseased beggar.  They both die and the result is a reversal of fortunes: Lazarus is comforted in the “Bosom of Abraham,” while the Rich Man is in torment.  The Rich Man, who has never paid any attention to Lazarus before, at least in any positive way, now wants to use him, exploit him one more time, to comfort his tortured existence, and then to offer warning to his living brothers to change their ways to avoid his fate.   Abraham says the brothers have as much instruction as they need, Moses and the Prophets, and yet they would not change their ways even if someone were to rise from the dead.

Now, various commentators have suggested that the Rich Man represents the Pharisees, or broader still, the Jewish people, who were rich in their knowledge of God, and failed to share that blessing with their Gentile neighbors.  Others see the story as a morality play warning of the dangers of riches and the failure to concern one’s self with the plight of the poor, whom God had championed throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible, and through those pages, still does today.

While these interpretations are both possible, the take-home message that some people get is not in the players or the action, but in the setting:  the Rich Man’s torment must be indicative of eternal conscious torment in hell.  Or, they may say it is merely the anteroom to what the wicked will face in the real hell. 

But the story is not about hell at all.  How can we know?  If the Rich Man is in Hell, then some important things were left out, like the Resurrection and Judgment.  The physical torment that might be alleviated by a single drop of water on the physical tongue belies the description of the resurrection body as noted by Paul in I Corinthians 15, which contends that body will be as different from the present one as a wheat plant is to the grain of wheat from which it grew.  The story is told to Jews from a Jewish perspective by a Jew.  Some say that Jesus co-opted a common story of the day to use as his setting.  That is debatable.  But if it is true, it could account for the variance we see with other end-time discussions. 

The real message of the story, however, may be that life is the time to do what is right, help the poor, use your wealth as a resource for good rather than hoard it to no real use.  The Pharisees loved wealth, remember, which gives us an answer to “Why?”  After we die, we cannot change things that we did or didn’t do while living.  The die will have been cast at the point, and one’s fate will be sealed.

So “How” can one escape the fate of the Rich Man? Contextually, this story has little if anything to do with specific teaching about Heaven and hell, and more with how we live and treat each other.  Listen to Moses and the Prophets, and especially to the one who would be raised from the dead.

Continued in Part II