The Widow’s Mite

The gospel writer makes connections by the placement of his stories.

widow's mite

The widow making her temple contribution, by the French illustrator Gustave Doré, 19th century

I never assume that the gospel writers compiled their gospels thoughtlessly. We may think that they just joined one story to another as a jeweler might string a strand of beads. However, that’s not the case. How they place individual stories or sayings in their broader gospel narrative often reveals connections they want us to make between the stories they recount.

A good example is the story Mark tells that we often label the tale of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44). It recounts an incident in Jesus’ life, which Mark places in the events of Holy Week.

Jesus is sitting in the Jerusalem temple, watching the crowds who enter. Many drop a money gift into the temple’s cash box. Those who are affluent drop sizeable amounts. Then a widow makes her donation. It is a tiny sum: just two small coins that are valued what our translations call a penny. (It is hard to know how to value this sum in today’s currency. But think of it as a miniscule value, like two dollar bills.)

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus comments that she has given the most of all. The rich have given large sums, but those sums amount to no great sacrifice for them. The widow, however, has given everything she has, in fact, everything she has to live on.

The text calls us to admire her for her extreme generosity…or her sincere religious devotion. That is what most preachers focus on when they preach this text. But I contend there is much more going on by Mark placing this story where he does.

In the verses preceding (Mark 12:38-40), Jesus has been criticizing the religious elite who make a great display of their religiosity. They expect public esteem. But while the community honors them, they are behind the scenes devouring the property of widows, reducing them to poverty. One is left to wonder if it is one of those very scribes who has in fact reduced this particular widow to her poverty.

In the story that follows the poor widow (Mark 13:1-4) Jesus foresees the destruction of the temple, the very institution the elite are so lavishly supporting. He has already driven the merchants and money changers out of the temple’s courts. Now he foresees the collapse of the whole institution, which has lived off the temple tax and contributions given by people like the widow in our story. Like the barren fig tree, the temple culture has not produced the spiritual fruit God expects from it, despite the lavish sums invested in it.

Mark lays before us this stark contrast between the pious who exploit the poor and the poor who live out a genuine piety. This richness of meaning comes as we read the three stories together and recognize hidden connections between them.

Connections with Other Scripture

The contrast that Mark develops reminds me of the same contrast that the gospel writer Luke develops in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). There Jesus tells of a Pharisee who goes to the temple to pray. He lays out before God all the right and pious things he has done, unlike the sinful tax collector standing nearby. Presumably this entitles him to a special divine blessing.

The tax collector, however, sees himself truly, with all his flaws and failures to live up to God’s standards. As a result, he prays, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” In no way does he presume he is entitled to any blessing.  Yet, Jesus says, he is the one who returns home in right relationship with God.

We see the same striking contrast between the religious elite and the despised and marginalized ones of society. Both stories make the same point. It is a point that we find constantly repeated in the Old Testament prophets.* Lavish religious piety (and I might add moral scrupulosity) counts for little when that piety and scrupulosity are contradicted by the practice of social injustice. Yet, despite the frequency of this point in Scripture, we Christians, just as much as the ancient Jews, find it hard to root this insight into our core consciousness.

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* The classic text is Amos 5:21-24. But Amos is not alone in his message.

 

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Jesus on Paying Taxes

Jesus eludes an entrapment by turning the tables on his opponents.

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A Roman denarius with the image of the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

In Mark 12:13-17, the evangelist Mark tells the story of an attempt by the Jewish temple authorities to entrap Jesus. They seek to lead him into saying something that will put him in jeopardy. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not.

It seems a perfect trap. If Jesus says it is lawful, then they can charge him with compromising his obligation to honor God. They can use that to damage his reputation with the people who hang on his every word. If Jesus says it is not lawful, they have grounds to report him to the Roman authorities, with dire consequences for Jesus. It seems a perfect question for their purposes. Jesus cannot dodge the question. He must make a choice.

Yet Jesus proves cleverer. He recognizes their question is not a legitimate search for insight, but an effort to entrap him. Holding up a Roman coin, he gives an answer they did not anticipate: Render to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.  

Many Christians have regarded this answer as a nugget of wisdom for the ages. In a sense it is. We might say that it delineates the proper relation between religion and the state.

But we also easily overlook something important about Jesus’ answer. He does not define exactly what are those things that belong to Caesar, and what are the things that belong to God. He throws that task back to his opponents…and in a sense, to each of us.

They/we have to decide what it is that belongs to Caesar and what things belong to God. And we run the risk if our answers offend the authorities in our lives. In trying to entrap Jesus, his opponents put themselves in jeopardy…if they attempt to clarify Jesus’ answer. Jesus has turned the tables on his opponents. Clever Jesus indeed!

Jesus lays down the fundamental principle that should govern the relations between church and state. But as we see, this principle remains inherently fluid. And so Christians have answered the question of what things belong to Caesar and what things belong to God in various ways. Sometimes their answers have had corrupting influences on the church. Sometimes their answers have instead had grave consequences.

Jesus lays down the timeless principle. Its implementation, however, rests on us. Jesus will not relieve us of our own proper responsibility to think for ourselves.

Jesus and Divorce

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

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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.

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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.

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* 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.

 

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?

 

Men in Crisis

Another mass shooting raises questions about how we understand masculinity.

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“The Vitruvian Man,” a pen-and-ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci showing what he regarded as the ideal proportions of a male body. ca. 1490.

Oh, my God! Another mass shooting. In a Baptist church in Texas. I can’t be surprised anymore. Mass shootings have become too much a part of normal American public life.

This one, too, was perpetrated by another troubled young man, 26 years old. I note this, because we should be noting that the vast majority of those who commit our mass shootings are men in their late teens, 20s, and 30s.

Women are seldom the ones who engage in mass shootings. Likewise it is usually not old men, although the shooter in the Las Vegas shooting is a notable exception. Instead it is young men who over and over again express their anger, their despair, or whatever their motivating emotion in shooting innocent people.

It is also young men who predominate in the terrorist attacks by young Muslims, who march in the alt-right and white supremacist rallies, and populate violent street gangs in our cities. This is not to say that women and old people do not engage in violence. They do. But they are not creating the headlines in most cases.

As we deal with public violence, we talk most often about issues of gun control, mental health, and economic and social disparities. They are all factors. They need our attention. But I find myself more and more asking why so many young men are drawn to violence. What’s triggering them?

The Modern Crisis in Masculinity

I also find myself wondering if part of the reason is that modern life has sparked a crisis in how we define masculinity. Modern life increasingly espouses the ideal of gender equality. We believe that men and women should engage with each other as equal partners, not only in marriage and family life, but also in all aspects of public life, including business and government. We feel less tolerance for sexual harassment than did previous generations.

But for such equality to work we must come up with a new understanding of what it means to be a man. That means changing an ideal that has prevailed through most of human history, for millennia in fact.

One part of that traditional definition has been the ideal of the warrior hero. We see expressions of it in Homer’s heroic battlefield champions, in the medieval romance of the jousting knight, in the lone, rifle-toting cowboy, in the Star Wars jedi wielding his light saber, and in the helmet-clad football player plowing through the defense.

Men have traditionally gained honor, respect, and renown by victory in individual combat. We encounter this reality even in the Bible. Take, for example, the story of the duel between David and Goliath. In that combat David first makes a name for himself and is launched in his road to kingship.

This ideal has also assumed that men exercised superiority over women. Women were often the prize for victory in combat. The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles which lies at the heart of The Illiad began over a disagreement as to whom a woman won as war booty belonged to. For the medieval knight, the greatly desired prize for winning a jousting victory was receiving the torn sleeve of his lady.

We find this ideal of masculinity has roots in most cultures and goes back several thousand years. Which means it is well entrenched in the masculine psyche. So deeply entrenched is it that a social scientist like Brené Brown says that her research has shown that for most American men today, their understanding of normal masculinity includes these five factors:

  • Emotional stoicism (big boys don’t cry),
  • The primacy of work in life,
  • Pursuit of status through violence,
  • Control of women, and
  • Outward disdain for homosexuality. *

This traditional ideal, however, does not sit well with the new, modern demand that men and women relate to each other as equals. Such a relationship requires different attitudes, different skills, and different ideals.

The Transition Crisis

Here’s where the crisis arises. The old traditional ideal is well understood, both by men and women. It is pervasive in the raising of young boys. But a new ideal of masculinity that is compatible with a new understanding of the relationship between genders has not yet fully emerged. We are in an era of transition.

We do not know how to articulate the new ideal. We do not see it clearly yet. We sense that it cannot involve a feminization of masculine identity. That would be to substitute a form of matriarchy over patriarchy, which would simply substitute another form of gender superiority for the old one. Nature has created a gender difference. I don’t think most human beings will be happy with an erasure of that difference in a universal unisex.

How do we affirm the unique characteristics of masculinity while at the same time affirming the unique characteristics of femininity? In fact, what are those unique characteristics of both sexes? How do we affirm them without sinking into various forms of supremacy?

Furthermore, which characteristics are rooted in nature and which are products of culture? That is, I think, at the heart of many Christian debates over what is the proper role of men and women in the family, in society, and the in the church. When Christians argue over gender roles by appealing to proof texts in the Bible, they are, I believe, just trying to wrap what they regard as nature in the trappings of divinity. But how much of those roles are truly grounded in nature/God and how much in culture? The distinctions are not quite as clear cut, in my opinion, as some Christians believe.

We are living through so much confusion on these issues at the present time that I believe young men, in particular, have been psychologically set adrift. We do not know what it means to be a man today. The anxiety is intense. And as Brené Brown points out, when men are afraid, the old masculine ideal says that they are not allowed to be afraid. So they turn their fear into rage. Is this possibly at least one fundamental reason why so many young men are perpetrators of the mass shootings and terrorism we experience today?

Furthermore, this is not just an American dilemma. It is a world-wide phenomenon. When we explore some of the reasons for the anger of Islamic radicals, one theme comes up over and over again. That is the threat they feel to traditional gender relations by the Western ideal of gender equality.

I confess that I experience this confusion just as much as other men today. I do not have a clearly drawn alternate understanding for masculinity to offer for the old traditional one. However, whatever the new understanding that emerges turns out to be, I am firmly convinced it must be one that gives dignity and value to being a man just as it also gives dignity and value to being a woman. We cannot revert to a new form of gender supremacy.

What Help Might We Expect from the Bible?

As a Christian, I must ask what guidance in this contentious discussion can we expect from the Bible. I do not think we can just simply appeal to various proof texts alone. Too often such proof texting simply kills discussion. Here is the proof text. Discussion closed.

Instead I would want to begin the discussion by a taking a careful look at the figure of Jesus. How does the person he was and the life he lived expressed his masculinity? He certainly did not exemplify the heroic warrior ideal, unless, of course, you want to totally spiritualize that ideal. Nor does he come across as spineless. There is strength, but there is also the ability to surrender strength for the sake of love.

If you, my readers, have any thoughts on how Jesus might serve as a model for what it means to be a man, I would like to hear from you.

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* I am indebted for this insight to Brené Brown’s two-CD lecture series Men, Women, & Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough, Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2012. I found the two CDs an amazingly rich and engaging discussion on how differently men and women experience shame. She also gives very helpful insight into how we can build shame resilience.

 

 

Cowardly Power

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

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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.