About The Christian Scribe

I have been reading, studying, and teaching the Bible for over 50 years. In the process its language and thought has sunk deep into my soul. That's why I like to say that the Bible is in my blood. I bring to my study a bachelor's degree from Wheaton College and an M.Div. degree from Yale Divinity School, supplemented with a year of theological study at Oxford University. I have been teaching the Bible to lay people since 1975.

Cowardly Power

There can be tragic consequences when powerful figures try to save face.

Lucas_Cranach_d.Ä._-_Gastmahl_des_Herodes_(Wadsworth_Atheneum)

The banquet of King Herod Antipas, by the German artist Lucas Cranach, 1531.

Recently I was re-reading the Gospel of Mark’s account of the death of John the Baptist. This time I found myself dwelling upon the motivation of King Herod Antipas in ordering John’s execution.

The execution results from a raucous banquet the king holds for his courtiers and allied nobles. As dinner entertainment, the king’s daughter or step-daughter (the textual history is not clear) gives a dance performance. Popular culture assumes that the dance was lascivious. The text does not say so. But whatever its character it delighted the king.

The king promises to give her anything she wants as a reward, even half of his kingdom. Such a rash promise makes no sense unless the king was intoxicated. The promise of half of his kingdom shows how out of control the king was in his rational thinking when he makes the promise.

The girl does not know what to ask for, so she consults with her mother Herodias. Herodias is sober enough to realize her husband has given her the opportunity she has long craved. John the Baptist has criticized her marriage to Herod. She was after all not only the king’s niece, but also his brother’s ex-wife. She has been harboring a grudge against John for his criticism. She instructs her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter.

When the girl makes her request, we can imagine that Herod sobered up real fast. He is forced to confront the rashness of his promise. He now faces a decision. Does he live by his promise or does he uphold justice?

Though the king has imprisoned John, the text also indicates that the king protects him. Herod regards John as a holy man. And so he refrains from killing John. In this respect Herod comes across as a man with some modicum of morality.

His rash promise in the setting of the banquet, however, presents the king with a dilemma. He can uphold justice by denying the request, even if that means breaking his promise. Or he can live up to his rash promise even if that means taking the life of an annoying yet nonetheless innocent man.

Herod chooses to live up to his promise. The text indicates his reason is that he is afraid of what not honoring his promise will do to his reputation among his courtiers and allies. He chooses to save face. He is more concerned with his personal reputation and standing than he is with the cause of justice.

One thinks immediately of Pontus Pilate. The gospels make clear that Pilate thought Jesus was innocent of the charges made against him. Yet he colludes with the Jewish priests in condemning Jesus to death.

When we ask why, the Gospel of John suggests his motivation. The priests blackmail Pilate, claiming that if he does not agree to the death of Jesus, then Pilate is no friend of Caesar (see John 19:12). Ultimately Pilate seems to be more concerned with his standing with the emperor than he is with the justice of an innocent and powerless man.

One wonders how differently history might have treated both men if they had chosen not to save face, but to honor the demands of justice. The irony is that neither ultimately saved face in the judgment of history. Instead both come across as exemplars of cowardly power.

I say exemplars because history is full of examples of people in power who have made the same choice. And the consequences have been tragic for thousands, if not millions, of people. There is no greater example than the story of the Great War, World War I, a war in which rash statesmen stumbled into an abyss in an effort to save national face.

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The Garden City

In the symbolism of Revelation, we glimpse Christianity’s ultimate aspiration.

Italian-Renaissance-garden_design

An Italian renaissance garden.

I find Revelation 21-22 attracts me back over and over again just as a burning light bulb allures the flying moth at night. As evidence, you my readers may notice that I’ve written about these two chapters twice before in this blog (see my two postings Heaven’s Not My Home and Jerusalem–Icon of Unity).

The appeal of Revelation 21-22 is not that I take them as a literal description of what heaven will look like. I don’t take any of Revelation as a literal blueprint of God’s plans for the future, as the dispensationalists do.

Instead I read Revelation’s imagery as I do imagery in poetry. Some of the images serve a symbolic function. Others are loaded with literary associations, usually looking back to the Old Testament. All seek to convey a deeply Christian vision of life and of God’s work in the world—past, present, and future.

In Revelation 21-22, the seer John gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead after the end of history. That is, what lies ahead after what Christian theology calls the Eschaton, the End. This brings the end of the universe as we presently know it. It ends God’s creative and redemptive work, which has been the grand story of Scripture.

At the Eschaton, the universe dies. Here John’s vision agrees with modern cosmology, which says that some billions upon billions of years ahead from now the universe will die either from extreme expansion or extreme contraction.

What comes after this death is the great promise of the Christian gospel: resurrection. Revelation 21-22 foresees a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. We are in a new creation, but it is not discontinuous with the previous creation. Rather it is a transformed creation, just as are the resurrected bodies that the apostle Paul looks for in 1 Corinthians 15.

The Crown Jewel of the New Creation

In John’s vision, the crown jewel of this new creation is the new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven to the earth. The fact that it descends from heaven is John’s way of bearing witness that it is ultimately the gift of God, not the capstone of human creativity through the ages. John has no time for any utopian human agendas.

It is a city of stunning beauty, for it is as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2). It is also the place where God dwells:

 ‘See, the home [Greek: tabernacle] of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

They will be his peoples,

And God himself will be with them….’ (Revelation 21:3)

In this vision the incarnation of God in his creation has expanded beyond just the man Jesus to embrace the whole of humanity. The whole community of humanity (symbolized by the city) now composes the tabernacle or dwelling place of God.*

This is a breath-taking vision. It is why the Eastern Orthodox tradition is not blasphemous when it proclaims that God became a human being in order that human beings might become divine.** The Orthodox have grasped far better the full meaning of salvation than have most Protestants.

Revelation 21 then goes on to describe this city in glowing imagery. It has golden streets. Its gates are made from precious jewels. It radiates light. There is no night.

The Garden of Eden Redux

Revelation 22 continues John’s description of the city. From the heart of the city flows a river of the water of life. On each side of the river grows the tree of life, which bears fruit non-stop. Its leaves convey healing.

These verses clearly allude to the Garden of Eden described in Genesis 2. From the center of Eden also flows a river, which then divides into four branches. And in the midst of the Garden grows the tree of life.

In John’s vision of the Eschaton the Garden of Eden has not been discarded. It has been preserved or rather resurrected, but now abides as part of a city. The rural and the urban no longer form the two sides of a human conflict that has afflicted human history. Nor do primitive nature and highly evolved human culture. They have been united into one.

What strikes me so much in this Christian aspiration for the future is how it contrasts so dramatically with the aspiration for the future that we find in ancient Greek culture, especially its philosophy.

Greek culture tended to assume that human life was grounded in a deadly dualism. The material side of life and the spiritual/intellectual side of life were always in conflict. This dualism was the cause of human suffering. Salvation was escaping it. (The classic expression of this viewpoint is found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo.)

So life in the human body and in all the material side of life constituted a prison for the spirit and mind of human beings. The great longing was to set that mind/spirit free. This in turn fed a strong ascetical spirit in Greek philosophy. That spirit would later provide one of the springs of Christian asceticism.

God’s Home

But in John’s vision in Revelation, the material side of nature and the bodily life of human beings are not banished. Rather they come to be indwelt by divinity. God chooses to dwell in the new material creation. But this time the creation is truly in-Spirited. The material universe reaches its ultimate destiny–to be the tabernacle of God.

What we see in John’s vision is the ultimate working out of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. God’s incarnation was not to end with the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. Rather God’s incarnation makes its first entrance into the world in that birth, but does not end until I believe the whole of creation is home to God’s Spirit. Talk about a big, big story!

The implications of this understanding of the Christian aspiration are immense for Christian understandings of ministry and ethics. They provide, I contend, the foundation for the Christian sacraments and for Christian ministries of healing, of feeding the hungry, of social service, of Christian engagement in politics and in ecology, of Christian respect for sexuality and the arts, and even of Christian attitudes towards what constitutes healthy Christian asceticism.***

Why do John’s visions in Revelation make my spirit soar? Let the implications of John’s symbolism sink in and you may begin to see why.

____________

* As I noted above, the Greek word that the NRSV translators translate as home in Revelation 21:3 is the literal word tabernacle. This is a weighty Biblical word. It alludes back to the tabernacle in the Old Testament’s Exodus story. There God instructs Moses to construct a portable tent sanctuary that could function as the meeting place between God and Israel during its 40-year journey through the Sinai desert. In John’s vision the transient place of meeting between God and Israel has now been replaced with a permanent meeting place.

But the word tabernacle also carries us back to the opening of John’s gospel. There in John 1:14 the gospel writer summarizes the Christmas gospel in the sentence, And the Word became flesh, and lived [Greek: tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory…. When we read John in Revelation, we must carry with us these two previous uses of the word.

** They call this the doctrine of theosis.

*** One of my favorite modern Christian writers who I believed has plumbed the depths of meaning in the Christian doctrine of incarnation is the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. His view of Christian spirituality is quite distinctive in his emphasis on matter being raised to participate fully in spirit rather than in matter being abandoned in an effort to give the spirit freedom to flourish.

 

Guilt vs. Shame

Because they are not the same, they call for different responses.

Jesus and adulterous woman

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery

Recently I was talking with a friend with professional training in psychology. We were discussing guilt and shame. My friend pointed out to me that although guilt can slide into shame, they are not the same thing. It is important to our well-being that we stay aware of the distinction.

One of the best expressions of the distinction is found in a book by Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason, titled Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. They write: While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.*  My friend put it more succinctly for me. He said: Guilt is feeling bad about something I have done; shame is feeling bad about who I am.

I find this distinction very illuminating. I have been one who has tended to confuse guilt and shame by assuming they were variations of the same emotion.

When we feel guilty, my friend went on, we feel that in our behavior we have violated a value that we ought to have respected. That value may have been set by our society and culture. Or the violation may have been against our own internal values. But the key point is our violation comes through our behavior.

As an example, let us say we tell a lie. We feel bad about our doing so. We believe we should honor the truth, but we have violated that value by telling a lie. We feel guilty.

In shame, however, we feel bad about what we are or who we are. We feel bad about our very being. I am bad, not just in my actions, but in the very core of my being. As a result, we can feel our very right to exist or to belong is called into question.

To continue my example of telling a lie, shame tells us that when we told our lie, we became a liar. That defines who we are. We are wicked in our very being. We are no longer worthy of being loved, accepted, or belonging.

Shame’s Bitter Fruit

The emotional consequences are, therefore, often much more substantial. On the one hand, shame can trigger low self-esteem that moves into acute depression. On the other, it can trigger violent rage, especially when the shame has been induced by a real or perceived act of humiliation.

Recently I was reading a news feature in a Sunday edition of The Washington Post.** It told the stories of six angry men who had participated in the white supremacist march on Charlottesville on August 12. It explored the long roads they had traveled in developing the hate they now espouse.

Each man’s story—and his road into hate—was different. But I noticed that they all shared one factor in common. All felt alienated from the wider society. And often that feeling of alienation had come to a head through experiences when they felt they had been bullied, sneered at, or humiliated.

In humiliation, someone in effect tells us that we are so bad we cannot be loved. That violation of our sense of goodness then bears toxic fruit: anger and rage. I know from my  own experiences of being humiliated by others. If, however, we believe their negative assessment of our value, the violation can trigger deep depression. We are trapped in shame.

The Shamed Person’s Greatest Need

It seems to me then that if guilt and shame are very different, they may require different responses, especially if you are as I am a Christian pastor ministering to parishioners.

When dealing with guilt, I think we have an effective tool in the hallowed Christian practice of confession and absolution.  A person acknowledges how he or she has violated a norm by his or her behavior. As a pastor, counselor, or friend provides some form of absolution, the penitent is set free to go back to daily life, freed from the emotional burden guilt brings.

The penitent may fall into the same negative behavior again, but the absolution assures the penitent that he or she can seek to do better the next time they are tempted to engage in the same negative behavior.

But I am not sure that the traditional tool of confession and absolution is the best response for healing shame. For shame is about more than just what one has done. It is about one’s very being. One feels contempt about one’s very being alive. That contempt may have been imposed by someone else or by one’s own self. And because we are not good in our being, we believe that we can never do anything better when we confront the same temptation to engage in negative behavior.

In dealing with shame, we have to assure someone that it is OK to be who they are, to be the unique creation of God that they are. We have to convey to them that they are of value; in short, that they are loved. They may have done wrong, but that does not mean they are rubbish just because they exist. Conveying that healing message may not be an instantaneous thing. It may require slow and patient work.

Jesus, Guilt, and Shame

Because of the insight that my friend gave me into the difference between guilt and shame, I find myself looking at several gospel stories in a new light.

In Mark 2:1-12, for example, we read the story of Jesus preaching in a house in Capernaum. Because of the large crowd surrounding Jesus, a group of men cannot bring their paralyzed friend close enough to Jesus for him to heal him. So they remove the roof above him and lower their friend on a stretcher.

Jesus heals the man, but before releasing the paralysis, he forgives the man of his sins. The story suggests that the paralysis is in some way tied to a sense of guilt that the man has because of some wrong he has done. Absolution of his wrong behavior sets the man free. As a result he regains his mobility. I see this story as one purely about guilt and its effective release. We encounter no sense that shaming has played any role in the paralyzed man’s plight.

It’s another matter, however, in the story we find in John 7:53-8-11. Here we have again a story about someone who has done wrong, in this case, a woman caught in adultery. Some scribes and Pharisees drag her out in public and place her before Jesus, demanding what Jesus thinks should be done with the woman. Should she be stoned to death as the Law of Moses requires?

Their actions are a public act of shaming for the woman, presumably in front of a crowd consisting only of men. She may not have been literally naked, but she must have felt emotionally as if she were. She would then not only have been terrified for her life, but also feeling deeply shamed.

Such acts of public shaming have often happened in the history of the church. It was a common practice in the early church for notorious sinners to be brought before the bishop and condemned publicly in front of the assembled congregation.

They would then be barred from participation in the Eucharist for a specified period of time. They might also be required to follow a particular program of penances. But whatever the specific requirements, the effect was to bring them into shame in front of the community.

The Catholic practice of private confession was introduced in the early Middle Ages in an effort to provide a more compassionate way of dealing with sin. It made the confession of sin and absolution a private affair between the penitent and the priest, not in front of the whole assembled congregation.***

In effect, Jesus forgives the act of sin when he tells the woman to “go, and do not sin again.” But what is going on in this story is a more powerful response on the part of Jesus to the public shaming of the woman. When he tells the crowd, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he addresses their shaming ploy head on.

It works. Each man in the crowd slinks away, so that Jesus is left alone with the woman. He then says to her, “Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.” The woman’s dignity as a human being has been affirmed. She is set free again to be, to be who she is as a child of God.

The Father’s Response to the Prodigal Son’s Shame

Finally, it seems to me that we watch an amazing example of the healing of shame as we read the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Here a man’s younger son demands his inheritance which he then squanders in a foreign land. He is reduced to poverty, but also disgraced by his circumstances. He as a Jew is reduced to feeding pigs.

It induces a profound sense of shame. As a result, he resolves to return home, but not to request to be re-installed in the family. Just to be enlisted among his father’s hired servants. He feels he no longer deserves to be regarded as a son. Instead he deserves to be an outsider to the family, and so he confesses as he meets his father.

But amazingly the father does not condemn his son for his failures nor consign him to servanthood. Instead, full of compassion, he runs to his son, embraces him, and kisses him. He dresses him in fine garments, and throws a banquet for him. The son is re-installed as a son.

The rationale the father gives is: …let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

The response of the father to the son’s profound sense of shame is to communicate as strongly as he can that his son is loved. He is still his son, and always has been, despite his disgraceful behavior. What is most important to the father is not the forgiving of his son’s guilt, but the healing of his son’s shame.

I find these gospel stories so powerful because they suggest that expressions of forgiveness alone may not be enough when we are dealing with deep-seated shame. Healing shame requires something more. We need to know that we are loved.

This adds a whole new layer of meaning for me to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8: …God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. God loves us even before we repent of any wrong we have done. That, I believe, is the key to the healing power of the gospel.

Footnotes:

* Fossum, Merle A and Mason, Marilyn J. Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. W.W. Norton, 1986. I actually encountered this quotation in the article on Shame in Wikipedia.

** McCoy, Terrence, Six angry men and their long roads to hate, The Washington Post, August 20, 2017. Front page.

*** Historians attribute the introduction of private confession into the church to the influence of Celtic Christians and their practice of anamchara (soul friendship), a practice in which spiritual friends mutually confessed their sins to each other and received absolution.

 

The Year of Liberty

A utopian law to address a social reality.

Shofar_for_the_Sabbath_from_the_Matson_Collection,_ca._1934-39_(LOC)

The year of jubilee got its name from the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, at the beginning of the year.

Among all the provisions the Torah prescribes for organizing Israelite life, one of the most curious is the provision regulating the year of jubilee (sometimes translated as the year of liberty). The provisions are found in Leviticus 25 and 27.

The provisions specify that the Israelites are to let their agricultural land lie fallow every seventh year. This cycle is to be repeated seven times. After completing 49 years the Israelites are to proclaim a year of jubilee. From the biblical text it is not quite clear whether the 49th year is the year of jubilee, or the 50th year. Scholars disagree.

Regardless of the precise dating, some important things are to happen in the year of liberty. They include:

  • The agricultural land is to remain fallow once again. If the year of jubilee falls in the 50th year, then the land lies fallow for two years in a row.
  • If an Israelite has sold some of his ancestral land to another Israelite, the buyer is to restore ownership of that land to the original seller or his heirs.
  • If an Israelite has sold his house in his village to another Israelite or lost his house in payment of a debt, the buyer or the creditor is to return the house to the original owner or his heirs.
  • If an Israelite has sold his own person or a member of his family to another Israelite into indentured service, the man or his family member is to be released from that service in the year of jubilee and restored to full freedom.
  • The price a buyer pays for a piece of land or for the service of an indentured servant is calculated on the number of years yet remaining until the next year of jubilee. If some land is sold, for example, while there are yet 44 years to go before the next jubilee, then the price for the land will be higher than the price for a piece of land that is sold 12 years before the next jubilee.

A common economic problem

This legislation was designed to deal with a common economic problem. Due to the uncontrollable vicissitudes of life or to careless planning and management, people can fall into financial distress. To deal with that distress, they borrow funds to get by. But sometimes they get trapped in their debt and cannot break free again.

As a result, lands and property can begin to accumulate into the hands of a small, wealthy elite, while the poor get poorer as they lose more and more of the assets they possess. The poor find themselves in financial or service bondage to the rich. As this situation advances, a greater and greater disparity can begin to open up between society’s rich and its poor.

The provisions for the year of jubilee seek to address this disparity. They seek to restore some sense of economic fairness within the society. Those who have acquired greater property at the expense of those who have been financially distressed are forced to redistribute some of their wealth with the disadvantaged. Those bearing the burdens of service have their burdens lifted so that they can return to being free members of society.

The provisions are predicated upon the belief that God is the ultimate owner of the land (Leviticus 25:23). Israelites do not own their land. They possess it as a gift from God. They are called to be tenant/stewards of the land on God’s behalf.

Furthermore, the Israelites are to remember always that God freed them from their bondage to the Egyptians (Leviticus 25:38, 42). They are not to engage then in the same behavior, binding their brothers in bondage, as the Egyptians did them. They are not to recreate Egypt in the land of Israel.*

The prophetic context for a utopian law

No one knows for sure whether this legislation was ever implemented in ancient Israelite practice. Many scholars consider it a utopian law, an economic ideal that no one put into real effect.

If that is the case, then why did the ancient scholars who compiled the Torah include such a utopian law within its provisions? I wonder if the provisions for the year of jubilee are not a testimony that some sensitive souls in ancient Israel recognized the de-stabilizing power of vast disparities in wealth and income in a society. When great gaps open up between the rich and the poor, tensions are created that can undermine the stability and security of a society, just as underground rivers can erode the rock and create the vacuums into which sink holes collapse.

The Old Testament prophets had an acute sensitivity to the economic injustice involved in the rich living in great luxury at the expense of the poor. (One thinks immediately of the prophet Amos and his denunciations of the soft elite of Samaria.) I think their message can be summarized in the succinct phrase: Where there is no economic justice, there is no peace.

Whether the legislation for the year of jubilee preceded the prophets or emerged from the message of the prophets, the Old Testament shows an amazing sensitivity to the economic foundations of social stability.

I think that modern believers need to remain sensitive to that same Old Testament sensitivity. The ancient insights can be far more relevant to our own society than many Christians may be willing to admit. We see all around us in the world today the ways in which economic injustice fuels social and political instability as well as great migrations of people. This instability is exacerbated by a libertarian attitude towards capitalism, an attitude that unregulated markets should supremely rule the economy.

We need to ask whether there is not a wisdom built into the Torah’s regulations for the year of jubilee. It may be a wisdom that we need to pay heed to.


* The Leviticus legislation may not be perfect by our standards today. Israelites can own chattel slaves if the slaves come not from among their fellow Israelites, but from foreign peoples. The sense of the moral evil of slavery per se has not yet dawned within the biblical consciousness.

 

Why I Read and Study the Bible

Engagement with the Bible is a priority for me for one important reason.

Easter Bible

I have been writing this blog for five years. Sometimes the pressure of coming up with yet another new posting makes me anxious. Yet I continue to write because I continue to find myself captivated by the Bible. You may wonder why, so let me offer an answer.

It is not because I regard the Bible as a simple collection of ready answers to every spiritual problem or need. If I am feeling fear, then I turn to…. If that were the case, then the Bible would be just another volume of magic spells comparable to something Harry Potter might find in the library of Hogwarts.

I certainly have favorite passages of the Bible that I turn to in distressing times. But that’s not why I continue to invest my time and energies in reading and studying this book.

Nor do I read the Bible because I expect there to find infallible answers to every question I bring to it. To be honest, I give no credibility to any doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, although that was certainly the teaching in the religious tradition I grew up in. I am fully prepared to acknowledge that there may be errors of fact and viewpoint in some of what I read in the Bible.

I hold this position because I do not believe that human beings are given the gift of infallibility, infallibility of any kind whether we locate it in reason, the Pope, general church councils, or the Bible. Only one is infallible. That is God. And human beings do not share that divine characteristic. To be human is to be capable of erring, and we all do, including I believe the authors of the Bible.

The very human process by which the Bible came to us

My study of how the Bible was written, edited, and compiled has shown me how thoroughly human was the process by which we received the Bible. No angel dictated the words of the Bible to its authors (as Muslims believe Gabriel did with the words of the Quran). The process that brought us the Bible is full of all the historical contingencies that accompany any human endeavor.

Furthermore, that process means we find different voices and viewpoints expressed in the Bible as a whole. The books of the Bible do not speak with one unified voice.

I offer one example. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah and the book of Ruth offer contradictory viewpoints on the legitimacy and value of Israelite men marrying foreign wives. Yet all three books are included in the Bible. And for that reason I must hear and take seriously what each of them says in their contradictory viewpoints. I cannot pick and choose to accept only one. The canon of the Bible means I must hear each voice with equal seriousness, for given different historical situations, one voice may speak a message that I need to hear at that time over the others.

 The divine mystery that is the Bible

So skeptics may say to me with some astonishment, “Why do you continue to read and study the Bible? Isn’t it a vast waste of time?” Some might even say a detrimental waste of time. Look, they say, at all the pain and hurt people quoting the Bible have brought into human history.

Their question reminds me of a scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, where Zorba asks his scholarly English companion Basil why anyone dies. Basil says that he does not know. Zorba responds, “What the use of all your damned books if they can’t answer that?” Basil responds: “They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.”

In an analogous way, I continue to read and study the Bible for one important reason. It may not answer all my questions, but tells me of the privilege and challenge of being called to be a child of God, of living in the divine mystery that lies around, beneath, above, and inside me. It feeds my spirit, nurtures my faith, shapes my mindset, guides my behavior, forms my character, and inspires my hope like no other book.

Because of all that I can affirm with full conviction what the Pauline author says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 

 I would ask you to notice about this sentence (so often quoted as proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration) that its primary focus is not on the use of the Bible to proof text doctrine, but to shape the way we live and behave. The author is most concerned in the power of the Bible to form us as believers so we can live lives of Christian service.

I truly believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but not because the Bible claims to be so inspired or a church authority declares it so, but because of the mysterious power it has continually to nurture me in my life of faith. I do not understand the nature of that power, anymore than I understand the mysterious way the Spirit of God guided the contingent process of bringing the Bible into being.

Exactly how God has inspired the Bible is a mystery to me. Yet I continue to believe that God has done so because of the power the Bible has played in my life. I first became captivated by the Bible as a teen-ager. And through all the up’s and the down’s of my tumultuous spiritual journey I have been able to turn to the Bible as a steadying force in my life.

The dual pillars of my spiritual life

I said my spiritual journey has been tumultuous. I mean that. And through all the twists and turns of my spiritual and emotional life, two things have proved my anchor. One is my engagement with the Bible; the other is my regular participation in the Eucharist. They have been my personal Jachin and Boaz, those foundational pillars that stood at the entrance of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 3:15-17).

Together, the Bible and the Eucharist have grounded me spiritually. And I note that they also form the two foci—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament—that have formed the historic Sunday liturgy of the church. That liturgy, too, has a mysterious divine power. It feeds me spiritually. It heals my emotions. It challenges my passivity. It shapes my character.

So why do I continue to read, study, and wrestle with the Bible? Why do I try to share something of the fruit of that engagement in my blog postings? Because here I touch the mystery of God and God’s ways and purposes in the world. Hear I touch the mysteries, the challenges, and privileges of being a human being.

And here too I gain insight into the nature of this cosmos in which we live. The Bible tells me this cosmos is not meaningless, despite all our experiences that suggest otherwise. Instead the Bible calls me to trust in the hidden ways God is guiding this cosmos to its mysterious, but glorious destiny.

 

 

 

Prophets and Power

The complex role of prophets in the halls of power.

Eugène_Siberdt_-_The_Prophet_Nathan_rebukes_King_David

The prophet Nathan rebukes King David, by the 19th century Belgian artist Eugène Sieberdt.

Last November, in my posting “Thus Saith the Lord,” I wrote about the story of Micaiah (1 Kings 22). Micaiah was a prophet attached to the court of King Ahab. He was out of royal favor because his prophecies never favored the king’s desires and policies. In fact, he predicted the king’s death in battle. His story, however, gives us an insight into how the Hebrew prophets understood their role.

Prophets were common in the royal courts of the ancient Near East, including ancient Israel. Micaiah is not, in fact, the most prominent court prophet that we encounter in the pages of the Old Testament. That honor belongs to Nathan, prophet to the great King David. His story reveals the complex challenges and temptations that come when religious officials align themselves with the halls of power.

The Prophet Endorsing Power

 We meet Nathan at several different points in David’s career. Our first encounter comes in 2 Samuel 7. David has solidified his power. He resides in his new capital, Jerusalem, where he builds himself a palace. Like many royal builders of other eras, he wants to honor the divine power that put him into power. He proposes to build a temple for God.

Nathan, his court prophet, endorses the idea. He tells the king, Go, do what is in your heart. The Lord is with you. (2 Samuel 7:3) It was the kind of divine endorsement of a royal action that court prophets would have routinely been expected to give. It must have seemed a no-brainer. What god would not be flattered by a temple built in his honor.

Nathan, however, has remained spiritually sensitive enough that he can still hear an alternate word from God when it comes to him in a dream. God does not want David to build the temple. That task will fall to his successor.

Nathan delivers that message to David, a message that David was not likely wanting to hear. But David’s disappointment is assuaged by the divine promise Nathan also delivers to David. His family line will rule Israel forever: …your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever (2 Samuel 7:16).

It is an extravagant promise coming out of the mouth of God’s spokesman. David is overwhelmed and immediately breaks into praise for God. It is also the first expression of that line of thought in the Hebrew Bible that emerges eventually into the belief in a Messiah, a belief with enormous consequences for both Judaism and Christianity.

Here we have a court prophet performing a duty that every monarch in the ancient world would have gladly welcomed. But it is a duty that needs to be performed with modesty. For Nathan learns in the process that what he thinks accords with God’s will may not represent God’s will at all.

The Prophet Challenging Power

 The next time we encounter Nathan (2 Samuel 12) he performs a duty that no king would have welcomed nor most likely even tolerated. But it was a duty that a court prophet had to perform if he was to be true to his calling as a spokesman for God.

David abuses his powers as king. He uses his position to seduce and commit adultery with Bathsheba. He then arranges the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to cover up his sin. It is not the first time that a government official has taken advantage of his power to gratify his own sexual lusts.

God summons Nathan, however, to confront David with his sin. He does so by first telling David a story of a rich man stealing a poor man’s only lamb to feed a guest. David is outraged by the injustice. At this point, Nathan directly confronts David: You are the man! (2 Samuel 12:7)

I find it amazing that Nathan had the courage to directly name his abuse of power to the king directly. It was a courageous thing to do. Nathan was fortunate that David had some sense of conscience and did not order Nathan’s execution on the spot. Instead David admits his sin in remorse.

In this case the court prophet had to speak truth to power. It was probably not a common service that court prophets did. Micaiah also did and it won him banishment for court. But it is a necessary task if power is to be kept accountable.

The Prophet Complicit with Power

The last time we encounter Nathan in the historical record we learn of his participation in the plot to place Solomon on the throne after David’s death (1Kings 1-2). As David lies dying, his son Adonijah tries to pre-empt the succession by getting himself crowned king in advance.

Nathan is the one who comes and informs David of what Adonijah is trying to do. David, however, has other plans. He wants Solomon, son of Bathsheba and Adonijah’s half-brother, to succeed him. He summons the queen, Zadok the high priest, Benaiah commander of the king’s troops along with Nathan, to set in motion a kind of counter coup d’état to ensure the succession of Solomon.

It works. Solomon is acclaimed king and Adonijah loses his life. Nathan has played a critical role in this intrigue from the very start.

This story shows how a court prophet could not remain above or separate from the intrigues that go on in any royal court. Life in the court presented its temptations. And in my viewpoint Nathan succumbed in this case.

The Prophet as Morality Tale

The story of Nathan, it seems to me, is more than an interesting incident in the history of the Davidic monarchy. It is a morality tale about the challenges and temptations religious leaders face when they choose to become aligned with political power.

• Such religious leaders can be seduced into providing religious endorsement of what the political power wants to do, regardless of whether that represents the will of the Lord or not. If they are to maintain their spiritual integrity, they must take care to cultivate constantly their spiritual sensitivity to the God they serve.

• Such religious leaders can provide a necessary function in speaking truth to power if they have the courage to do so. It runs a risk, of course, but it is a needed function if we are to keep political power honest.

• And finally the alignment with political power can work its subtle corrupting influences on such leaders that they become entangled in the intrigues that swirl around such power. Religious leaders are not immune from that lesson from history that Lord Acton summarized in his aphorism: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If religion is to have any impact on the wider society, its leaders cannot remain divorced from power. That is the great mistake, in my opinion, of all those who interpret the American tradition of separation of church and state as meaning that churches and their leaders should stay strictly out of politics. Christianity is not a faith just for individuals. It has immense consequences for all of our communal life, and religious leaders have a duty to speak of those.

Yet when churches and their leaders venture into the political realm–necessarily though it may be–they also run the risk of being co-opted and corrupted by their engagement. They should walk the halls of power with fear and trembling, knowing the great perils they face. That is the continuing relevance of the story of Nathan, court prophet.

 

Jesus, Human Being

In a boyhood story we glimpse something of Jesus’ humanity.

William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_Finding_of_the_Saviour_in_the_Temple

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, by William Holman Hunt, 1860.

The story of Jesus in the New Testament gospels has one big omission. It tells us almost nothing about those 30 years between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his Galilean ministry.

That omission has always troubled Christians, even in the early church. To remedy it, an anonymous Christian writer in the 2nd century wrote the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It provides both charming and alarming stories about Jesus as a growing boy learning with some difficulty how to control his miraculous powers. The Infancy Gospel of James from the same era tries to satisfy our curiosity about the early life of the Virgin Mary.

The canonical gospels in the New Testament remain silent about those obscure 30 years… with one exception. Luke tells a story about a pilgrimage visit Jesus and his parents make to Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years old (Luke 2:41-52). It gives us one fleeting, but revealing glimpse into the early development of Jesus.

The Jesus we meet in it comes across to me as a very normal, though precocious adolescent. Like every adolescent, he is beginning to assert his own independence from his parents. It may be too extreme to label it rebellion, but Jesus certainly shows some indifference to his parents’ feelings by his decision to remain behind in Jerusalem without informing them.

When his parents finally find him in the temple (after a three-day search), I think we can assume they were quite annoyed at their son. We can speculate that there were likely some harsh words said. Raising Jesus may have had its trials, as raising any child does.

Like most adolescents, too, Jesus seems to be exploring his own identity. He already manifests some awareness of a special relationship with God. He refers to God as his Father. He may not fully understand yet what his identity is and means. That’s why he is in the temple engaged in inquiry with the religious scholars.

Luke makes a point of telling us that Jesus was not lecturing the scholars. He was no know-it-all kid. Instead he is asking questions and listening to the scholars’ answers. I take special note of that detail. He does not have all the answers. He is seeking possibly to understand this special relationship with God that he is already experiencing. What does it mean? What does it require of him?

There is at the same time in the story a sense of Jesus as a precocious teen-ager. Luke tells us that the scholars are astonished at his questions and answers. He must have been manifesting a depth of thought and insight that struck them as highly unusual for a young person of his age.

A Real Human Boy

What strikes me about this story in Luke is the sense of Jesus as a real human being, a real human boy. He certainly may be spiritually precocious for his age. Yet he is still acting like a normal adolescent. He is not some superboy astonishing people with his powers (as is the boy described in the infancy gospels). Instead he is experiencing the typical developmental challenges that go along with his age.

The orthodox confession of the Christian church is that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human in an indivisible union. That is the official doctrine. But I am not sure we always realize the implications of what we are confessing.

If Jesus is fully human, as we confess, then Jesus experiences the same limitations that we do as human beings. He has a body with its demands. The baby who lies in the manger of Bethlehem is a real baby who needs his mother’s milk and messes in his diapers. He would at times have been a fussy baby. As an adolescent, he would have experienced all the confusing developments in his body as puberty set in.

I think confessing Jesus as truly human means Jesus, too, had to meet the many challenges of growing up. That meant not only learning how to walk and talk, but how to outgrow the instinctual egocentrism that goes with being a toddler.

He had to learn Hebrew like the other boys in the synagogue. He had to learn how to use the tools in his father’s carpenter shop. And learning meant making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.

In Luke’s story we see Jesus as a normal adolescent passing through some of the normal challenges of growing up to be himself and to own his own calling. He does not have the gift of omniscience. No human being does. So he must ask questions and learn from his elders.

Saying all this does not mean I deny his divinity. I say what I say, however, because I am more and more convinced that when we overemphasize Jesus’ divinity, we end up disbelieving in his humanity. When we do that, Jesus becomes a demi-god walking on earth, not one of us. And if he is not one of us, then he cannot be an example for us to emulate. Nor can he save us, for he has not truly lived out the life of faithfulness within the same limitations and weaknesses of human nature that the rest of us do.