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.

Jesus and Divorce

How do we come to terms with one of Jesus’ difficult teachings?


Dispute between Jesus and Pharisees, by French artist Gustav Doré, 19th century

 Every now and then I read a gospel passage where I wish Jesus had kept his mouth shut. His words are hard to take. They’re even harder to explain if you are a preacher.

A prime example is Jesus’ teaching on divorce, as recorded in Mark 10:2-11 (with a parallel in Matthew 19:3-9). On a superficial reading, Jesus comes across as stern, even legalistic like so many of his opponents. Certainly many Christians through the centuries have taken Jesus’ words as sanction for being stern and legalistic in their own attitudes, causing great pastoral harm.

So when faced with a tough passage like that, I turn to my primary tool in interpreting Scripture: a close reading of the text. Here I focus on exactly what is said, not what I presume it says. When I do this with the Mark passage, a couple of details pop out that seem to point me to how to understand and apply what Jesus is saying.

An Effort to Entrap Jesus

The first detail is what Mark says provoked the whole discussion. He says the Pharisees came to him in order to test him. In Mark the word test usually has a negative association. It is the same word in the Greek that Mark uses when he says the devil came to tempt (test) Jesus in the desert after his baptism.

In this case, the motivation of the Pharisees is to entrap Jesus. They want to entrap him into saying something that will get him into hot water. A current polarizing debate in the Jewish community on the proper grounds for divorce offered just the right pretext.

Mosaic law permitted divorce. The key text was Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There Moses says: If a man marries a wife, and then she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her, he may give her a bill of divorce and send her out of his house.

The grounds for divorce are that the husband has found some uncleanness in his wife. But what does the word uncleanness refer to? That was the focus of the debate.

The Jewish rabbi Shammai and his school said it meant adultery. Only adultery was a legitimate reason for divorce. The Jewish rabbi Hillel and his school said that uncleanness could refer to any reason why a wife lost favor with her husband. It could be her cantankerous temper, the fact that she talked to a stranger in the street, or that she burned his bread.

The Pharisees may have wanted to put Jesus right in the middle of this debate when they asked their question? Whichever side he took on the issue of the legality of divorce or the grounds for divorce, he would make new enemies.

The question was not an invitation to an honest theological discussion. It was a game of gotcha. We are terribly familiar with such games as we listen to a lot of political rhetoric today.

Jesus avoids the horns of this dilemma by avoiding the whole question of whether divorce was permissible or not. The law of Moses said that it was. On that question, I hear Jesus accepting the law of Moses.

Refocusing the Discussion

What he does instead is address the deeper pastoral issue raised by divorce. And here a close reading of the text proves fruitful. Jesus says that the law of Moses permits divorce because of your hardness of heart. Now that is not what I anticipate coming out of Jesus’ mouth. But I think the words are critical in how we come to apply the words of Jesus in pastoral situations.

Hardness of heart is a Biblical phrase that refers to a stubbornness of our will, a callousness of feeling, a stone-like fixation on our own self-concern at the expense of God and the other person. It is the prime feature of Pharaoh’s character in his struggle with Moses over release of the Israelite slaves.

Hard-heartedness stands in contrast to warm-heartedness, expressed in gentleness, humility, compassion, openness and flexibility. A warm-hearted person feels with other people, feels their joy and their hurts, instead of closing them out of his or her emotions.

Here, it seems to me, Jesus pinpoints the real reason why many marriages end in divorce. The deep emotional reason is the inflexibility, the intransigence, the insistence of having things one’s own way in the relationship that leads ultimately to irreconcilable conflict. The two partners in the marriage become so entrenched in their own hurts, anger, and demands that they find it impossible to work out their problems in a way that keeps them together.

Every marriage will have its problems and conflicts. The question is: How do we handle them? How do we negotiate through them to a resolution? Can we reach a resolution that both partners can live with? Sometimes one partner wants to work out the problem, but the other partner refuses. Sometimes both partners are locked into combativeness and inflexibility. Both say to the other: It’s my way or no way.

If a resolution proves impossible, then the marriage will split apart. Or one partner will cave in and the marriage becomes lopsided in its power arrangements. Love drains away through the emotional cracks.

Jesus Plays One Scripture Off Against Another

As a pastor, Jesus directs attention away from the legality of divorce to the deeper question: What is God’s intention for marriage. Here he plays Scripture off against Scripture.

In response to Deuteronomy, Jesus directs the Pharisees’ attention back to the story of creation in Genesis, chapter 2, where God creates Adam and Eve. In that story, when Adam meets Eve for the first time, he cries out in ecstasy This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. And then the Biblical author comments: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Jesus reads this passage as expressing God’s intention for marriage. That intention is first and foremost to create a union so deep between the spouses that the couple becomes as one living being. This is talking about the creation of a deep, loving intimacy—a sexual, an emotional, a spiritual intimacy—between the two partners.

For Jesus, the pastoral issue in marriage is the quality of the intimacy between the two spouses that God intends their marriage relationship to foster.

In a healthy relationship as God intends it, giving and receiving are mutual. Both partners become more fully alive, more fully themselves within their marriage. Marriage is meant to nurture life, not smother it. This is the divine call and ideal.

None of our marriages fulfill this ideal perfectly. We fulfill it to various degrees. Some marriages achieve such a depth of love and intimacy that when one partner dies, the other feels as if his or her life has been ripped apart.

In other marriages the partners may be sexually faithful to each other, but maintain an emotional and spiritual distance between them. They live parallel lives that only reach out to each other occasionally.

And in others alienation replaces love and intimacy. This alienation may result from a one-time act of betrayal. Or it may result from the corrosive acids of small, repeated negativities like constant nagging, fault-finding, and petty obsessions. The alienation results in a marriage that feels like a zombie existence. One or both partners live as if they are the walking dead.

In that last situation divorce may become the healthier alternative to continuing to live together. But even so, the divorce can create an immense pain as the union is separated apart.

When we marry, we vow to be faithful to our spouse until death do us part. When we divorce, we break that promise by the sheer act of separation. And when we remarry we carry that broken promise with us.

That is what I think Jesus is getting at when he says that when a divorced person remarries, he or she commits adultery against the first spouse. We enter the second marriage with the broken promise in the first.

Second Chances in Marriage?

So is Jesus closing the door on second chances in marriage? I don’t think so. If Jesus were, he would be out of step with the rest of Scripture. For the Bible is full of stories of God giving people second chances, whether it be Israel returning from exile in Babylon or the apostle Peter after his denial of Jesus.

If Jesus is denying the opportunity for second chances in life, then we are all doomed, not only in our married life, but in our family, business, and community relationships.

I hear the good news of the gospel as a message that God gives us second chances over and over again. But we always enter into our second chances as flawed human beings. Repentance acknowledges that fact.

As I listen to this passage, I hear Jesus’ chief concern not being over the issue of whether divorce is permissible or not. This is largely a legal question. Nowhere in the gospels do we find the spirit of Jesus to be legalistic.

His focus is a pastoral one. When it comes to marriage, his chief pastoral concern is the quality of intimacy that a husband and wife are nurturing in their relationship. That, I contend, should be our chief concern too when we seek to apply this passage to contemporary marriages.

Author’s Note:

I write this posting in an effort to make some pastoral sense out of a difficult passage. But I also write from the perspective of a married man who has never undergone a divorce. Those of you who have may want to challenge what I say. I welcome your feedback.



King David the Odd

The Bible’s story of King David has unexpected surprises.


A medieval Greek image of King David in the robes of a Byzantine emperor.

In the Biblical tradition, King David is a pre-eminent hero. He is presented as Israel’s greatest king. As expected with such a hero, the Bible tells many tales of David’s prowess as a warrior, conqueror, and political leader. It lauds him as a great poet. And it celebrates his magnanimity, as in his compassion to Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth.

I say “expected” about these tales because they fall into the genre for royal propaganda in the ancient world. Kings regularly expected their scribes to trumpet their exploits to the world. Pharaohs carved them in hieroglyphics on temple walls. Assyrian kings engraved them into the sculptured walls of their palaces. King Darius of Persia surpassed them all. He had an account of his accomplishments inscribed on the towering side of a mountain.

One thing is usually missing in all these ancient annals of the kings. We rarely find any acknowledgement of a king’s flaws, defeats, and abuses of power. If we find them at all, we find them in the insults hurled at them by their enemies.

Acknowledging an Abuse of Power

So that is what is so odd about the Biblical accounts of King David. Amid all the wonderful tales of his exploits, we find the scribes including 2 Samuel 11-12–a shocking account of David’s abuse of power.

This segment of David’s story tells of how he seduced and committed adultery with Bathsheba while her husband is off fighting David’s war. Bathsheba becomes pregnant. To cover up the scandal, David arranges that her husband gets killed in battle. Though the death is meant to appear accidental, it is really arranged murder.

Here is an account of sexual abuse that could hold its own in any news accounts coming out of the #MeToo movement. David has used his superior power not only to seduce a woman, but also to murder one of his own loyal troops. If we had accurate accounts of life in other royal courts throughout the ancient Near East, such behavior might be excused as the normal risks of living within royal circles. David would not be unique.

But the cover-up does not work. The prophet Nathan confronts the king with his abuse of his power and pronounces God’s judgment on his behavior. This is the first thing that is odd about the Biblical story. In ancient courts, prophets were expected to provide divine blessing on royal desires, not condemnation. Nathan is clearly outside the boundaries.*

The Marvel of a Repentant King

When confronted with his sin, David does the next odd thing. He acknowledges the wrong he has done and expresses deep remorse. We would expect any ancient king to do otherwise. It would have entailed a serious loss of face.

He might have expelled Nathan from court for lèse majesty or even executed him. He might have denied he did any wrong, singled out others for blame, or created a diversion to deflect attention away from his sin. Or he might have asserted that as king he is above the moral law.

Instead he admits his sin. How extraordinary of a king! He shows real humility in the face of the wrong he has done. And when Nathan announces that the child conceived with Bathsheba will die, David beseeches God in fervent prayer and fasting to spare the life of the innocent child.

Yet, despite David’s remorse, the child does die. David does not escape the consequences of his sin. This death is just the beginning of his troubles. Nathan also announces that David’s abusive behavior will unleash further devastation in his family, including rape, murder, and rebellion.**

Audacious Scribes

This leaves us the readers in awe of the authors/editors who composed the account of King David. They, most likely royal scribes, are fully aware of his greatness–and of their duty to magnify that greatness. Yet great as King David is, he remains in their tale a human being, with his own share of serious flaws, character defects, and atrocious moral lapses.

The same can be said of the stories they tell about the magnificent Solomon and all the other kings that follow him both in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Grand as the trappings of monarchy may be, the Biblical authors never let themselves be blinded by that grandeur. Kings remain human beings accountable to God just as does any laborer in the fields or beggar in the city streets.

That’s why the Bible remains a double-sided resource when we turn to it for guidance about our dealing with political power. On the one hand, we have the apostle Paul admonishing Christians to submit to the authorities in power because the existing institutions of state are ordained by God (see Romans 13:1-6).

And yet on the other hand, we have the whole Old Testament witness with its deep suspicion of power, especially as exercised by kings.*** That witness models for us how to challenge abuses of power.

Maybe this is why the Bible can never provide us a simple and unvarying blueprint for dealing with power. The pages of the Bible are as mixed and complicated as the political situations each of us deals with every day.


* For more on Nathan the prophet, see my previous blog posting Prophets and Power.

** In this respect the literary work that comes closest to the pathos of the Biblical story is the cycle of stories about King Oedipus in the tradition of Greek tragedy.

*** That suspicion of royal power begins early in the Old Testament with the great confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.


What Is Eternal Life?

Beware of defining it quantitatively.


If we believe that eternal life means solely living on forever without an end, then the curmudgeonly Jonathan Swift pops our balloon.

In his novel Gulliver’s Travels, Swift recounts how Gulliver visits an island kingdom named Luggnagg. There among his adventures, he meets a resident who tells him about a special category of people on the island, named Struldbrugs. The Struldbrugs are born with the rare gift of immortality.  But as Gulliver hears more about their story, we come to question whether it can rightly be called a blessing.

It is true that the Struldbrugs cannot die, but with the gift of immortality they are not given the gift of perpetual youth.  Instead each year they grow older and older … becoming ever more wrinkled, feeble, and disagreeable with each passing year. In the end their lives become so miserable that families on Luggnagg regard the birth of a Struldbrug as a curse on the family.

I think we need to recall this story whenever we are inclined … thoughtlessly … to define eternal life quantitatively … as everlasting longevity. Swift is saying to us, “If that is what you hope for, beware of what you ask.”

Eternal Life in the Gospel of John

This is not eternal life as the author of the Gospel of John proclaims it. Eternal life is an important concept for John, but it is certainly something more than longevity.

We get at John’s understanding in the prayer that Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples at the end of the Last Supper. In that prayer Jesus says:

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. [John 17:3]

That statement by Jesus has always stopped me in my tracks. Jesus says nothing about the longevity of eternal life. Rather he focuses entirely on its purpose.

There is a peculiar twist in the syntax of that verse in the original Greek. The first part of the verse sounds as if Jesus is going to give us a standard definition—This is eternal life…

 But immediately after this phrase in Greek comes the word hina. Hina is a conjunction that points to purpose. The NRSV translates it that. It would be more accurate to translate it so that, or for the purpose of.

This strange twist in the grammar suggests that Jesus (and John) knows that eternal life does involve immortality, but he does not want the accent to be on that quality. He wants to emphasize that what most constitutes eternal life is not longevity and agelessness but its purpose. And that purpose is that we may know God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

The Semitic Understanding of Knowing

To understand the significance of this knowing, we must read the verb know in a Semitic way, not in a Greek way. For the ancient Greeks, to know meant to perceive intellectually. They wanted to understand the world and human beings factually. Their goal was to express their perceptions in abstract, philosophical principles.

In this Greek usage, if you knew a person, you could recount facts about his or her life. You could tell something about who they are or what they do.

The Semitic understanding of knowing, however, was very different. For the Hebrew used in the Old Testament, knowing was more practical, experiential, and emotional. To know a person did not mean you could talk about a person, but that you had some kind of relationship with that person. It had a connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.

The Hebrew understanding of knowing a person is captured in several different places in Genesis where to know is used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The classic text is Genesis 4:1, where Adam is said to know his wife Eve and she conceives a son. Knowing is an experience that leads to a form of union in relationship.

British Biblical scholar E.C. Blackman captured this special Semitic flavor when he said that for the Old Testament, …knowledge of God meant not thought about an eternal Being or Principle transcending man and the world, but recognition of, and obedience to, one who acted purposefully in the world.*

American Biblical scholar Raymond Brown agreed with Blackman. He commented on the use of know in this verse: For John, of course, knowing God is not a purely intellectual matter but involves a life of obedience to God’s commandments and of loving communion with fellow Christians…This is in agreement with Hebrew use of the verb ‘to know’ with its connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.**

The apostle Paul also holds to this experiential dimension of knowing. We see that caught in Philippians 3:10: …that I may know him [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings…. Paul is clearly implying that he seeks to know by experience, rather than by abstract thought.

Although the verb to know would mean something to both a Greek and a Jew, I think it is absolutely essential that we understand that Jesus–and the gospel writer–are thinking like Jews, not like Greeks. The Semitic understanding of knowing can issue in intellectual understanding. But intellectual understanding is its fruit, not its defining characteristic.

Semitic Knowing and Christian Faith Today

I think this Semitic understanding of knowing is essential as we try to present the Christian faith to both believers and unbelievers today. There is a prevalent idea out there in our churches and in the broader culture that Christian faith is all about believing certain intellectual doctrines. Such faith turns into something dry and unemotional.

I suspect we owe that understanding of the Christian faith to the scholastic theologians in the late 16th and the 17th centuries who followed in the wake of the Reformation.  For the Reformers like Luther and Calvin the experiential dimension of the Christian faith was preeminent. It was what fired their preaching and writing. But their scholastic heirs turned the Reformers’ ardent faith into an intellectual affair. Faith was believing the doctrines, not a personal trust in God.

Intellectual knowing, however, seldom transforms a person. Rather it tends to make a person, especially scholars, arrogant and conceited. It is the personal relationship –with God and with other Christians–that changes minds and behavior. That has been proven time after time in the stories of the great conversions in Christian history.***


* Entry on “Know, Knowledge” in Alan Richardson, editor. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950. Page 121.

** Raymond E. Brown, S.S. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel of John (xiii-xxi). New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970. Page 752.

*** As a great resource for reading about these conversions, I recommend John M. Mulder, editor, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.


A Case of Religious Amnesia?

Our citing of Biblical authority can sometimes be truly selective.

Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833 (oil on canvas)

“The Slave Trade,” by Auguste François Biard, 1840

On a recent Sunday, I was sitting in church waiting for the service to begin. To kill time, I picked up a pew Bible. I opened to the book of 1 Timothy and began reading.

You don’t get far into Timothy before you run into these words:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:8-11 NRSV)

 In this passage, the author (ostensibly Paul) lists examples of those who are lawless, godless, and sinful. They include the ones we usually expect: murderers, fornicators, liars, and perjurers. He also includes sodomites. This makes this verse then one that opponents of homosexuality customarily cite as Scriptural authority against this practice.

But what captured my attention this time was the inclusion of two words I had never noticed before: slave traders. They hit me like a new revelation. I was perplexed. How could I have missed them ever before?

I decided to check out a couple of other translations. The King James Bible reads menstealers. The Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible (two translations I often use) read kidnappers.

I was curious what the Greek word was behind these English translations. It is andrapodistes. Curious what this word meant, I checked my Greek-English dictionary. The first meaning listed was slave traders, the second kidnappers. The same was true with other dictionaries I checked. So it appears that the primary meaning is slave traders.

Those two words have a different connotation for most modern people than does the word kidnappers. In our society, we tend to think of kidnappers as seizing people to hold for ransom or for blackmail. We do not think of them seizing people to sell into slavery, because Western society has abolished slavery.

But in the ancient world, the chief reason for kidnapping was to capture human beings to sell in the slave trade. Pirates on the Mediterranean were particularly notorious in this respect. They made sea travel in the Greco-Roman world particularly hazardous until Roman power was able to greatly reduce the danger during the Pax Romana.

Puzzled by a Lack of Citation

 Now I was fascinated that the author of 1 Timothy would include slave traders in his list of notorious sinners. Early Christianity had generally taken a somewhat accommodating stance towards slavery, as we see in references to slavery in the New Testament. The Christian movement welcomed slaves into the church, but raised no public protest against the practice of slavery.

Slavery was accepted as part of the social structure which may be ultimately passing away, but in the meantime, Christians had to live with it. This is reflected in the frequent New Testament counsel to slaves to be obedient to their masters.

But here in 1 Timothy I find a discordant note. The author may not deplore slavery itself, but he certainly deplores the slave trade in the strongest possible terms by including slave traders in his list of notorious sinners. I find it a singular and most unexpected voice to find in the New Testament.

Given all the brouhaha that Christians have given to the fact that the author includes sodomites in his list, I found myself asking why I have never heard anyone in the many classes I have taken on the Bible call attention to the fact that slave traders are also included in the list.

Christian history has certainly never shown much anxiety about this verse when it has come to Christians engaging in the slave trade. Christians just as much as pagan pirates have seemed to practice the trade with no great pangs of conscience. This contrasts so dramatically with Christian obsession about what 1 Timothy says about homosexuality.

I am not familiar with the literature of the Abolitionists in antebellum America. But I wonder if they ever cited this verse in their polemics against slavery, and in particular the business of slave trading. Last summer I read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time. It is a fierce denunciation of the evil of slave trading, but nowhere in the novel do I remember Stowe or any of her characters citing this verse.

I am puzzled by why such silence has tended to follow this mention of slave trading in the New Testament. It raises for me the question: Are we dealing with a case of deliberate and selective religious amnesia?


The Mystery of the Transfiguration

A gospel story that challenges my reductionist assumptions.

icon of transfiguration

An Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration

When I read the gospel stories of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36), I have lots of questions. The stories describe something so out of ordinary human experience that I don’t know what to make of it.

Is this story a case of the gospel writers engaging in a form of myth-making to create a numinous aura around Jesus? Or did this event really happen in Jesus’ ministry?

If the story is real, what are we to make of the brilliant light? Should we understand it as a supernatural breakthrough into ordinary material reality? The natural world possesses no such divine light, but for one bright moment, God works a supernatural miracle.

Or is it the case that the natural world already possesses–and has always possessed–this divine glory, but our natural organs of perception cannot perceive it? To explain what I mean, let me draw upon the analogy of radio waves. Radio waves have always existed, but humans could not perceive them and exploit them until we invented radio receivers. In the transfiguration, were Peter, James, and John for one short moment given the spiritual organs to perceive the divine glory that permeates all creation?

Finally, was the transfiguration of Jesus a completely unique event that has happened to no one else in history? Or is it an experience that can be potentially, if not often, repeated in the experience of other humans?

These questions will suggest that I take the story of the transfiguration quite seriously. I do indeed. One reason is my extensive reading in Eastern Orthodox theology. The Orthodox give prominence to this story, especially in their spirituality.

My Dialogue with Orthodoxy

As Orthodox writers understand it, when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain top, he shone with the brilliant, uncreated light of divinity. The three disciples–Peter, James, and John–are given the privilege of perceiving that light, something human beings cannot normally do.

What they perceive is the glory that is to come when God’s creative/redemptive plan is complete. All humanity will shine in this divine light.

It will be the fulfillment of that great hope which the apostle Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5. There he says he knows that death will strip us of mortal bodies (which he describes as tents). But we will not be left as naked spirits. Rather we will be re-clothed. We will receive new bodies, but superior bodies that he refers to in the metaphor of “heavenly dwellings.”

Orthodox theology refers to this transformation as theosis or divinization. And a part of that transformation will include our new bodies shining with the same light that the disciples saw at Jesus’ transfiguration.

The Book of Revelation does not limit this transformation to human beings. It will envelope all creation:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and  its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:22-23)

The Testimony of Saint Seraphim of Sarov

Clearly then what Jesus and the three disciples experienced on the mountain was a foretaste of life in the Eschaton when the kingdom of God will come in its fullness. But was the one foretaste of the eschaton a one and only one-time event? Orthodox spirituality says no. Other Christians may occasionally—even though rarely—experience it, too.


Seraphim of Sarov

The most accessible account of such an experience is the one told about Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833) by the Russian writer Nicholas Motovilov (1809-1879). Seraphim was a starets, a monk who lived in seclusion in a hut in a forest. His sanctity was so renowned that many sought him out for spiritual direction. Motovilov was one of those.

One winter day, the two of them were walking in the forest and talking about the Holy Spirit. Seraphim was talking about the need of acquiring the Holy Spirit. In response, Motovilov asked, “How can a man be sure of ‘being in the Spirit of God.’

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”

I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”

Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”

Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: “Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid! The Lord is with us!”

After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!

“How do you feel now?” Father Seraphim asked me.

“Extraordinarily well,” I said.

“But in what way? How exactly do you feel well?”

I answered: “I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it.”

“This, your Godliness,” said Father Seraphim, “is that peace of which the Lord said to His disciples: My peace I give unto you; not as the world gives, give I unto you (Jn. 14:21). If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn. 15:19). But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). And to those people whom this world hates but who are chosen by the Lord, the Lord gives that peace which you now feel within you, the peace which, in the words of the Apostle, passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7)…What else do you feel?” Father Seraphim asked me.

“An extraordinary sweetness,” I replied.

And he continued: “This is that sweetness of which it is said in Holy Scripture: They will be inebriated with the fatness of Thy house; and Thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy delight (Ps. 35:8). And now this sweetness is flooding our hearts and coursing through our veins with unutterable delight. From this sweetness our hearts melt as it were, and both of us are filled with such happiness as tongue cannot tell. What else do you feel?”

“An extraordinary joy in all my heart.”

And Father Seraphim continued: “When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His inspiration, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches.* 

 A Story Bearing Cautions

When I first read this conversation when I was in college, I was astounded by it. I did not know what to make of it then nor now, just as I don’t know what to make of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration.

Both stories challenge me, however, not to lock myself into reductionist assumptions about God or our relationship with God. There are mysteries to what God can do in the world, mysteries that we may not be able to understand but that we also dare not exclude from human experience. All this confirms for me the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God,

            It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…**

Quite literally so, I have come to believe, more than most of us are ready to concede.

Yet the transfiguration accounts caution us not to become obsessed with such extraordinary experiences or even to seek them out. They are, as Seraphim says, gifts of God’s grace when they come, but always rare and extraordinary gifts.

Peter in the stories represents those who would seek out and try to possess these experiences. He wants to build three booths to commemorate them. But the voice from heaven deflects him from this desire. Instead it says, This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him. (Mark 9:6)

We are not to be bedazzled by the experiences, but to listen to and live by the word Jesus speaks. And it is no accident, I believe, that in its context, the words that Jesus speaks immediately before the transfiguration are the words:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:36-38)

Here is the wisdom—and the light–Jesus confers. And it is accessible to anyone who truly and intently listens.


* You can access a complete transcript of the conversation between Nicholas Motovilov and Seraphim at the Orthodox Christian Information Center site.

** These are the opening lines of his sonnet “God’s Grandeur.”


A God Who Questions

More than giving answers, the God of the Bible asks questions.

A striking feature of the way the Bible presents God is God’s proclivity for engaging in dialogue with individual human beings. We might expect that in this dialogue human beings are the ones asking questions of God and God giving answers.

But in fact the reverse is more often the case. God asks the questions. Human beings are expected to give the answers.

First Example: God with Adam and Eve

A good example is found in the dialogue God holds with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden right after the two have eaten the forbidden fruit and discovered they are naked (Genesis 3). The two humans hide. God comes seeking them out. And the first words he speaks are a question: Where are you?

That question can be understood on several different levels. It is much more than a question about the physical location of the two humans in the garden. It is ultimately a question about the humans’ spiritual condition. Where are they existentially? The dialogue continues as God asks more questions, peeling off more layers of the spiritual onion.

Second Example: God with Cain

We also meet this God asking questions in the very next chapter of Genesis (Genesis 4:1-16). Here we hear the story of the first murder. Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy. When God confronts Cain about the murder, the first words he speaks are again a question: Where is your brother Abel?

After countering with a denial that he knows anything, Cain challenges God with a question: Am I my brother’s keeper? This triggers more questioning from God that ultimately leads to exile for Cain.

Third Example: God with Jonah

There are many examples of God asking questions throughout the Old Testament. Let me offer up just two more. When the people of Nineveh repent and God does not destroy their city, the prophet Jonah is incensed. He sits outside the city and pouts (Jonah 3-4).

God comes to him. He challenges Jonah’s petulance by asking him questions. The story finishes on an unanswered question: Was God right to be merciful to the residents of Nineveh or not? Jonah is placed in the position of being judge over God.

Fourth Example: God with Job

Probably the weightiest dialogue of divine questioning comes in the conclusion of the book of Job (Job 38-42). Job has suffered a series of tragedies and can find no answer why. His three comforting friends suggest that they have been brought on by his sin. But Job responds that he is not conscious of any such sin that would have brought these tragedies in consequence. He looks to God for answers.

He receives no answers from God. Instead God comes to him in a whirlwind. God launches into a stream of questions directed at Job. This stream begins with these potent words:

Who is this that darkens counsel by

                        words without knowledge?

            Gird up your loins like a man,

                        I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

And then the questions flow out like a gush of flood waters for the next four chapters. Job is reduced basically to speechlessness, but also to a consciousness of the human condition before the mystery of God.

Fifth Example: Jesus with the Lawyer

This divine pattern of asking questions gets repeated in the ministry of Jesus. Again one notable example. When Jesus counsels a lawyer to love his neighbor as himself, the lawyer asks Jesus the question: Who is my neighbor? Jesus responds by telling the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Jesus finishes his tale by then turning to the lawyer and asking: Which of these three, do you think, was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? Jesus does not give the answer. He awaits the lawyer’s answer, an answer in which the lawyer will answer his own original question.

Why Does God Ask Questions?

When I confront these many examples in Scripture of God asking questions of human beings, I ask why is this God’s habit. One answer can be discarded quickly. God does not have a gap in his knowledge that he is trying to fill. He is not seeking information that he does not have. If God is omniscient, there is no information out there that he does not already know.

So there must another reason, or other reasons, why God asks questions. I think there are. And they profoundly affect how we understand God and ourselves.

Questions as the High Road to Self-Knowledge

One reason, I believe, is that God wants us to know ourselves. The great adage of Greek culture was the phrase inscribed above the door to Apollo’s temple at Delphi: Know yourself. It was a guiding star for Socrates as he strolled around Athens asking questions.

But how do we come to know ourselves? One way may be through self-reflection and meditation on ourselves. But we all have blind spots and inner defenses that keep us from being in touch with our full inner selves. We have to batter through those defenses. And one of the best ways is through others posing questions to us. It is a technique psychotherapists use all the time.

When we are asked questions, especially existentialist questions about our own lives, we must respond by drawing upon our own inner self. In the process we begin to learn what we really do think or believe or value.

I once read a literary author (I’ve forgotten his name) who wrote that he did not really know what he thought until he had to sit down and write out his thoughts. I think that is also true for all of us.

One of the most revealing questions that anyone can ask us is the question: What is it that you really desire in the deepest point of your heart? If we are truly honest in answering the question, we will learn a lot about what really motivates our behavior rather than what we delude ourselves that motivates us. I believe desires drive our action. And if we are to change our actions, that requires our getting to know our real desires.

Questions Nurture Personal Relationship

But there is a deeper spiritual reason why I believe God asks questions. It is that what God desires from us is a relationship of love, not a relationship of manipulation. This is what I think it means to have a personal relationship with God or with other people.


Martin Buber, 1878-1965

One thinker who has helped me understand this is Martin Buber, the German Jewish philosopher of the early 20th century. He wrote an important book titled I and Thou. In it he contrasts the relationship of I with God or others seen as an It with the relationship of I with God or others seen as a You or Thou.

In an I-It relationship, I relate to God or others as an impersonal It. That allows me to try both to comprehend and to manipulate the other. It easily degenerates into a desire to dominate. That I believe drives a lot of science in the world today.

In an I-You relationship, however, the other never becomes truly impersonal. The relationship therefore retains a sense of mutuality. It also retains some sense of mystery and freedom. We never fully comprehend and therefore can never fully dominate the other, whether that be God or another human being. It involves a constant exchange and adaptation if the relationship is to thrive, as any married person knows who has remained married for a long time.

Becoming an I through Meeting

 At the heart of this relationship is a meeting. And in that meeting I come to know about myself in ways that I can never do by solo reflection. Which leads Buber to say that all real living is meeting.*

The God of the Bible is not one who is satisfied with a relationship with us in which we regard God as an It. God wants a relationship with us in which we relate to him in mutuality, in a shared initiative and response. He wants us to be persons in the fullest sense of that word. And one of the best ways to come to that goal is for God to ask us questions where we have to become real persons in giving a response. We are compelled to stand up for who we are, speak our insight or belief, and then accept accountability for who we are.

In that respect defiance can be a truly personal response just as much as compassion and love. And sometimes our journey in our relationship with God must involve defiance before it can move into trust and love.

The God of the Bible is not one who wants people to lose and dissolve their identity in union with him. That is the desired goal of a lot of Eastern mysticism. Rather God wants us to find our unique I in our relationship with him. Again to quote Buber, Through the Thou, a man becomes I.**

So if we would grow in our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves, we can expect to encounter great questions in our lives, questions that challenge us to the core of our being. For it is in the questions and our attempts to answer them that we emerge from out of the mysterious clouds of unconsciousness into the conscious light of personhood and love.


* Martin Buber, I and Thou, New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1958. Page 11. Although Buber does not mention it, I find it striking that in its Exodus wanderings, Israel’s tabernacle shrine bore the name the Tent of Meeting (see Exodus 33:7-11 and Exodus 40). It was given that name because it was the place where Moses (and through Moses all Israel) met with God. Whether it was through the word Moses received from God or through the sacrifices Israel raised up to God, it was the place of encounter between Israel and the divine, the encounter that gave Israel its very being.

** Buber, I and Thou, Page 28.


The Riskiest Strategy for Living

Playing it safe may be exactly the wrong way to live.


A woodcut illustration of the parable of the talents, 1712.

When I’m listening to a familiar passage of Scripture read out in church, I find it easy to gloss over details that I’ve heard many times before. Then one day one of those details jumps out at me and grabs my attention like a serpent who leaps out of nowhere and bites its victim.

That happened recently when the gospel reading in church was Matthew 25:14-30. This is the familiar parable of the talents. Jesus tells it as part of his instruction on how his disciples are to live as they await the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.

The parable tells of a rich man deciding to go on a long journey. Before he leaves, he summons three slaves and entrusts each of them with differing amounts of money to manage while he is gone. One receives 10 talents, one five talents, and the last one one talent.

The rich man must have been the equivalent of a billionaire today. In the ancient world, one talent represented 6,000 denarii. One denarius was typically a day’s wage. So one talent would equal a day laborer’s earnings for 16 years.  The slave receiving five talents was receiving 80 years’ worth of normal wages. That would represent several million dollars today.

The rich man must have had great confidence in these three slaves to entrust such enormous sums to them. He gives them no instructions on what they are to do with the money.

Two of them invest the money in trading ventures, with spectacular results.  When the master returns and demands an accounting of the money, the slave with five talents reports that he has earned five more. The one receiving two talents reports earning another two. In both cases that represents a 100% return. Spectacular investing by any standard!

The last slave, however, buries his talent. When his master returns, he digs it up and returns it. He must have thought he had done well. He was returning the money safe and sound, without loss.

The first two slaves receive lavish commendations from their master. But the third slave receives a ferocious denunciation. The slave is deprived of his money and cast out into the outer darkness. His strategy of keeping the money safe backfires badly.

A fatal misperception

What grabbed my attention when I heard this parable read in church was the motivation this poor slave gives for his action. He tells his master he knew that he was a demanding master. So he says he was afraid. That’s why he hid the money rather than using it.

“I was afraid.” That’s what drove the slave. He was so afraid of losing what he had that he would not take any risk to do anything with it. He would play it safe. So he hid his talent. But in the end this proves the riskiest strategy of all that he could have adopted.

What feeds his fear? It is a flawed understanding of his master’s character. He knows his master is exacting. From that awareness he draws the mistaken conclusion that his master hates losers. He will punish losers regardless of whether their loss came from well-intentioned efforts or from laziness and squander. He will make no distinctions. In drawing that conclusion about his master, the slave makes a fatal misperception of his master.

I have often wondered as I’ve read this parable what would in fact have been the master’s reaction if the slave had made a whole-hearted effort to invest his one talent and then through mistakes or through bad luck had lost the whole amount. The parable suggests that the master would not have cast the slave into outer darkness.

My speculation is that the master’s reaction might have resembled that of a business executive I once heard of who summoned a young employee to his office to account for an astounding loss the young man had sustained through a business transaction that went wrong.

The young man entered with fear and trepidation. He was prepared to submit his resignation. He was convinced that that was what the executive would demand. He so expressed himself to his boss. The executive, however, responded, “Why would we want to fire you? We have just spent thousands of dollars on your education. You’ve learned a hard lesson, so get back to work.”

Surprising guidance from Jesus

Jesus tells his parable to guide his disciples on how they are to live in the time of delay before the arrival of the Kingdom is its fullness. Jesus seems to be saying that we should not be afraid to take chances in investing our talents.

The traditional interpretation of those talents in the parable is that they stand for our abilities and skills that are given us by God. In fact, the modern English word for talent comes from this parable. We are to invest those skills and abilities in service to others,* taking appropriate risks as situations call for them.

But I recently heard an alternate interpretation of those talents. The talents represent the gift that is Jesus Christ himself. We are then called upon to bring Christ to a hurting world in creative ways, ways that may involve great risk of failure.

However, we understand the symbolism of the talents, Jesus seems to be suggesting that we not live and invest ourselves in life in constant fear of divine reprimand and punishment. It is not our mistakes that anger God. It is our efforts to play it safe at life, to live life complacently.**

I do not hear this parable as a call to live life imprudently. That would go against the whole wisdom tradition of the Bible. But as disciples of Christ, we are not to live life timidly. Imitate Christ. Live and serve our God boldly.


* I say “in service to others” because of the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) that follows immediately in context. There the issue at stake in the trial before Son of Man is whether individuals (or nations) have acted compassionately towards those in need.

** Interestingly, when Revelation 21:8 lists those who will be excluded from the heavenly city of New Jerusalem, the cowardly lead the parade of those marching into the lake of fire.