Dazzled by Salvation’s Splendor

Let us be careful how we use a weighty word in the Christian vocabulary.

Healing_of_a_bleeding_women_Marcellinus-Peter-Catacomb - Version 2

I don’t like to bash Evangelical Protestants. They are my family heritage. But there’s one way Evangelicals talk that bugs me a lot.

It is their habit of talking about salvation. When they ask, Are you saved?, they generally mean, Are you going to heaven when you die? For many of them, salvation is chiefly a form of eternal fire insurance.

Such an understanding of salvation is not necessarily false. It’s just that, from my study of the New Testament, I find this way of characterizing salvation constrained and spiritually anemic.

First of all, it is highly egocentric. The focus is on my own personal fate in the hereafter. Certainly the gospel offers a promise to each of us as individuals, but my fate is not the central concern of God’s saving action. God’s salvation is concerned with the completion of God’s creative work, a work that embraces the whole cosmos.

The completion of that work is the uniting of the whole cosmos in Christ. Here I give central importance to what the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 1:9-10:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Each one of us has our unique place and significance in God’s plan. We are not, however, the center of that plan.

Message in a Healing Miracle

Second, that Evangelical way of talking strikes me as constrained, because it grounds its evangelism in fear, a fear of what will happen to us when we die. In this respect it drains its evangelism of the rich and broad ways the New Testament talks about salvation.

As a case in point, let me call attention to the story found in Mark 5:24-34. This story tells of a woman who has suffered from a blood hemorrhage for 12 years. No doctor has been able to cure her.

When Jesus visits her town, she creeps up behind him and touches the hem of his garment. She is instantly healed. Jesus senses power has gone out of him. He stops abruptly and asks, Who touched my garments? The terrified woman confesses that she has done so.

Jesus does not rebuke her. Instead he responds, Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease. [Revised Standard Version]

The Greek verb that the RSV translates as made well is the word sozo. Sozo can certainly mean to make well, but it can also be translated to save. The sentence can be rightly rendered your faith has saved you.

In this story, salvation is understood as healing, as being made whole physically. But we must always recognize that the gospel writers often use words with more than one reference. In the context of the whole New Testament, the sentence points to an extended meaning of salvation, which is the experience of being healed or made whole spiritually.

Salvation as Wholeness

This leads me to ponder the meaning of salvation as wholeness. As I do, I remind myself that being made whole has many dimensions:

  • Physical wholeness: Our bodies function healthily. Everything works as it is intended to do. We suffer no disorder from disease or injury. Physical healing is one dimension of salvation.
  • Psychological wholeness: Our disordered and fragmented emotional lives are brought into harmony and integration. We do not suppress our desires, but we know how to govern them.
  • Social wholeness: Our broken and troubled relationships with other people are brought into harmony and integration, both in our personal relationships and in the wider spheres of the economy, politics, culture, and international relations. Races, classes, and ethnic groups respect each other and live without violence towards each other.
  • Ecological wholeness: We live in a harmonious relationship with other creatures in the world and with its natural processes. We forego exploitation of the earth in ways that destroy it as a home not only for human beings, but also for all living creatures.
  • Spiritual wholeness: Our broken and troubled relationship with God is healed through a process of forgiveness, reconciliation, and transforming union. The battle between flesh and spirit comes to an end.
  • Cosmic wholeness: The great hope of the Christian gospel is our looking ahead to a time when the fullness of God’s purpose is realized in that cosmic transformation alluded to in Ephesians 1:8-10. In that day, the whole cosmos will realize its divine destiny. Death is banished forever.

The Book of Revelation sees that day as a time when the promise of God’s incarnation in Jesus becomes a reality for the whole cosmos (see Revelation 21-22). God will dwell with us. Heaven and earth will be united. The ancient church fathers summarized this state of salvation in the statement: God became a human being in order that human beings might become divine.

A Multi-Colored Coat

Each of these dimensions of wholeness form a part of the total package that is the New Testament understanding of salvation. This is the glorious cake the Christian gospel offers. The belief in a life after death is only the icing.

This vision of salvation excites and inspires me. It makes me want to sign on with the work force in the world who seek to work with God in realizing God’s vision. It also evokes a sense of awe. I want to join my voice with those of the heavenly choirs who laud and praise this God of grace and expansive love.

Wholeness is not the whole understanding of salvation that the New Testament offers. We also find in its pages an understanding of salvation as liberation, as transformation, and as the gift of shalom (Hebrew for peace). We need to be aware that in the Christian vocabulary the word salvation is a very weighty word. Like the multi-colored coat Jacob gives his beloved son Joseph, the concept has many dimensions. And those dimensions allure us not by activating our fears, but by dazzling us with their splendor.

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The image of Jesus healing the woman with a hemorrhage comes from an early Christian catacomb in Rome.

The Secret Code to the Kingdom of God

We find the key to understanding the Kingdom of God in an unexpected place.

Jesus was a great teacher. That is one of his salient characteristics that the New Testament gospels portray for us. We are told his teaching astounded his audiences, in part by its wisdom and in part by the authority with which he taught. It still does for us today.

His teaching also puzzled people. He said peculiar things, things that were not common sense. And he taught many times by telling short stories. We call them parables. What did these parables mean? Sometimes they struck his audience–and us today–as riddles. They must be told in a secret code. What is the key that unlocks that code?

That’s the first impression we may get when we read Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching in chapter 4 of his gospel. Mark begins his account by telling one parable that Jesus spoke to the listening crowd.

It told about a farmer planting seed. The seed fell upon various kinds of soil. On three of the soils the seed did not thrive. Only on the fourth did the seed sprout, grow, and produce a rich harvest. Jesus ends with the admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

His disciples don’t understand the parable; they ask Jesus to explain it. He gives his parable an allegorical interpretation. The seed is the word of the gospel. And the four soils are different kinds of people who receive this gospel word. Only one group really absorbs the word and lets it transform their lives.

Must We Have a Secret Code to Understand Jesus’ Teaching?

This interpretation seems to hint that there is indeed a secret code to understanding Jesus’ parables. Our fears are confirmed, we think, when we hear what Jesus says just before he launches into his interpretation:

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ [Mark 4:11-12]

Jesus seems to be asserting that there is indeed a secret code to understanding his parables. And it is secret so people will not understand his teaching, but remain trapped in their sinful ways.

This statement has troubled almost everyone who reads Mark’s gospel. It seems the exact opposite to what we think is the motivation of Jesus in teaching. Jesus comes across as a mischievous teacher, not one concerned with clear communication.

It also seems as if Jesus constitutes his disciples into an elite group who alone understand the true meaning of his teaching. Ancient Gnosticism made hay out of this. When they taught that Jesus was a savior, they had in mind that Jesus taught a secret esoteric knowledge that only the spiritually enlightened understood. Everyone else was left with distracting and ultimately useless religious practices.

Decoding the Secret

There has been much scholarly ink spilled on Jesus’ phrase “the secret of the kingdom of God.” What is it? I would like to offer my personal answer.

I propose that “the secret of the kingdom of God” is not some elitist, esoteric knowledge, but is something much simpler. The secret is the person of Jesus himself.

Jesus–his life, his actions, his death, his resurrection–is in fact the secret that opens up our understanding of what the kingdom of God is. His teaching plays an important role in that, but not the most important role. It is his life and character that offer the secret key to our understanding.

As we read further into Mark’s gospel, we discover that for Jesus, the kingdom of God [and his mission in it] is not about fear or coercion or even awe-inspiring spectacle. It is not about domination. It is about doing the will of God and about compassionate service.

If Jesus gives us one secret key to understanding the kingdom of God, then I find it in chapter 10 of Mark. There his disciples James and John come to him asking that they can sit on his right hand and left when Jesus comes in his glory.

Jesus responds that they do not know what they are asking. Because when he comes in his glory, he will not be a king like those rulers among the Gentiles that they see all around them in the ancient world. His kingship is about service. And he ends with these weighty words: For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:45]

These words are the key to understanding Jesus’ understanding of his mission…and his understanding of the kingdom of God. They are the key to the code.

They are also the interpretative key to understanding Jesus’ life. For in the end what reveals the kingdom of God is not primarily Jesus’ teaching. It is the life he lives and the death he accepts. What the resurrection does is to provide divine confirmation that this pattern of living truly reveals what the kingdom of God is. Understanding this pattern becomes the true enlightenment.

The Hard Work of Achieving Enlightenment

But this enlightenment does not come quickly for most of us. It requires a serious engagement with the gospel. As we persist in seeking to understand the kingdom of God, then over time we will grow in our enlightened understanding.

This, I suggest, is the import of another strange thing Jesus says later in chapter 4 of Mark. He says: Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [Mark 4:24-25]

If we continue to struggle with the gospel, if we persist in our meditation upon its words, turning them over in our minds and seeking to open them up, then insight will come. But if we have no time for this serious work, then we are in danger. The insight we already have may slip away and be lost.

When Jacob confronts and wrestles with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32), his persistence in not letting go finally leads to his blessing. In a similar way, I contend, our commitment to the hard work of listening and wrestling with the gospel becomes the key that opens the door into spiritual insight.

When we reach that enlightenment, we discover that the kingdom of God is truly not about being served, about garnering domination and honor, but about extending our lives out into compassionate service to others. That is the secret that the pattern of Jesus’ life and death reveals to us.

Blessed Are They Who Change Their Minds

Reading the gospel in Greek helps redefine the meaning of repentance.

Mary Magdalene by the 17th century French painter Georges de la Tour
Mary Magdalene by the 17th century French painter Georges de la Tour

Have you ever noticed what are the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark? In his first chapter, Mark gives a summation of Jesus’ preaching in Galilee. It goes like this:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:14-15]

This is Jesus’ preaching in a sound bite version. It is one sentence. It is, however, a weighty sentence. Let me unpack it.

First, Jesus makes a theological assertion. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The Greek word translated time is the word kairos. This Greek word denotes an appointed time, a deadline or a meeting date we might enter into an appointment calendar.

To understand what Jesus is saying we must also cast an eye back to the Old Testament. This time is the time of which the Hebrew prophets often spoke. It is the long-anticipated but also long-delayed time when God would come to deliver his people, to establish justice in the earth, to make unchallenged his sovereignty over the whole earth, and, finally, to usher in an era of universal peace and healing.

That time, Jesus says, has arrived at last. The kingship of God is about to be established fully. Its arrival is right on our doorstep. This would have been astoundingly good news (gospel) to the oppressed people of Galilee… as it continues to be for believers today.

But make no mistake about it. It is a theological claim, whether we believe it or not.

Ethics Follow the Theology

Then Jesus draws the implications for behavior that grow out of this claim. Repent, and believe the good news. Behavior follows upon the theology. (This, by the way, is the same pattern we find in the apostle Paul’s letters, where the first portion of his letters lays out Paul’s theology. In the second portion he draws out the implications of that theology for how Christians are to live. His Letter to the Romans is a classic example.)

Now here’s where knowing a little Greek starts to make things interesting. The Greek word translated repent is the Greek verb metanoeite. Most Bible translators translate it as repent, but I am not sure our common English understanding of repentance does justice to the Greek verb.

We today have this idea that repentance means primarily feeling remorse or contrition for our sins and failures and then resolving to change. Our classic image of repentance is one favored by Renaissance painters. It shows a disheveled Mary Magdalene weeping in front of a burning candle. Repentance for us, therefore, has a very strong emotional cast to it.

The root of metanoeite, however, does not have this strong emotional cast. More literally, it means to change one’s mind. It, therefore, has a more mental rather than emotional flavoring. What it refers to might be more accurately described as changing a mindset, or revising a particular way of looking at things.

What we are being asked to change is those customary ways we approach life, those deep-seated assumptions and convictions that govern our behavior. These assumptions and convictions may be deeply embedded in our psyche. They often come from childhood interpretations of our experiences. They become a part of our emotional make-up. But they are not ephemeral feelings in themselves. They are settled assumptions from which we approach life, react in our relationships, and determine how we will behave.

The Power of Mindsets

Repentance then is discarding or at least revising these settled assumptions in the light of the good news that the kingdom of God has come near. If we really believe this to be good news, it will shake up and transform how we see life and how we behave. We will come to look at life differently, to feel differently, and then to act differently.

In this respect, repentance may involve us in a dramatic change of direction in our life. That change may have strong emotional resonances. But it all begins with that change of mindset.

If this sounds unfamiliar, let me provide an example to clarify what I mean. In a segment of the British TV comedy Faulty Towers, Basil, the hotel owner, learns that a representative of the hotel industry will be visiting his hotel secretly and rating it.

Basil is consumed with frantic anxiety about this upcoming visit. He is determined that this secret inspector will be given a royal treatment while he is staying at the hotel. When a particular guest registers, Basil is convinced that he is the secret inspector. And so he fawns all over this guest, trying to anticipate his every need and whim and satisfying it. In the process Basil makes a fool of himself.

Of course this guest is not the secret inspector. Another guest is, but Basil brushes this other guest off and treats him rudely. Only at the end of the segment does Basil learn his mistake.

It makes for uproarious laughter, but the segment also shows the power of how our beliefs shape our behavior. Basil might have saved the day if he had been willing to question his basic assumptions about who was the inspector and who was not. If he had, his behavior might have dramatically changed, too.

If we believe life is a dog-eat-dog world, then we will live a life based upon one-up-man-ship, keeping a close eye on every opportunity to upend or do in our competitors. If we believe life is structured to beat us down, then we will approach most relationships with suspicion and fear. If, on the other hand, we believe that a loving God is our constant companion throughout our days, then we will approach life with far greater resilience.

Our mindset does indeed shape how we feel and how we act. And if we really believe the Christian gospel message that the kingdom of God has entered into our world through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, then we may need to engage in some serious change in our fundamental assumptions, convictions, and mindsets. That is repentance.

This insight gives rise to a new beatitude: Blessed are they who change their minds.

An Added Note:

Do not take what I have just written as my assuming such a transformation of our mindsets is an instantaneous experience for most of us. It is not. For most of us, it is a journey, a life-long journey. But that is the subject for another blog posting someday.

The Mysterious Grounds for Faith

When reality seems to deny any confidence we have in God, how can faith persist?

We do not get very far into reading the Gospel of Mark before Mark starts to recount stories of Jesus’ miracles. We have three accounts already in chapter 1, with allusions to several others. These three accounts report healing miracles. They are short and largely unembellished.

Chapter 2 begins with another, more colorful, account (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus is in the Galilean town of Capernaum. He is teaching in a house. A large crowd has gathered to hear him.

While he is teaching, several men bring a paralyzed man to him to heal. The crowd is so dense around Jesus that they cannot get close to him in the house. So the men climb onto the house roof, open a hole in the roof, and lower their friend to Jesus on a pallet.

Presented with this disabled man, Jesus first forgives his sins (an action that scandalizes the religious scholars in the audience) and then commands the man to rise and walk. The paralyzed man does just that, carrying his pallet out of the house.

The Centrality of Faith to the Healing

What I find fascinating about this story is the reason Mark gives for Jesus performing this healing. Mark says that Jesus does this when he sees the faith of the friends who bring this paralyzed man to him. It is not the man’s own faith that leads to his healing. It is the faith of his companions.

I found myself dwelling on that detail. Just exactly what was the faith these companions were expressing? It was not a recitation of beliefs. Jesus does not ask them to recite a creed before he heals. They do not acknowledge his Messiahship or his divinity. So what did constitute their act of faith?

When the companions bring their friend to Jesus and open up the roof to let him down into Jesus’ presence, they do so out of a confidence that Jesus will indeed heal their friend. They have a confidence in Jesus’ desire and power to do the healing.

It is that trust in Jesus’ good will and power that constitute their faith. They trust that Jesus will not turn them away when they approach him and that he will in fact have the power to heal their friend.

The Most Potent Existential Challenge to Faith

What I find curious about this story is how it reflects a more universal reality about a life of faith.

I am convinced that the most deadly existential objection (as opposed to an intellectual objection) to Judeo-Christian monotheism is the existence of evil in the world, especially as evil affects the lives of innocent people. The greatest example of that challenge is the Holocaust of World War II. But it is far from the only one. The deadly cancer that kills a toddler is just as much a challenge in its own way.

Judeo-Christian monotheism has traditionally taught that God is morally good, loving, and all powerful. The reality of persistent evil seems to challenge fatally this assertion. It suggests that 1) God is not good, or 2) God is not loving, or 3) God is not all powerful, or 4) all three.

Many have abandoned trust in God because of the experience of evil and its challenge to traditional theology. How do we defend the character of God in the face of evil? This is the issue traditional theology calls theodicy. It is the fundamental problem that the characters in the Book of Job are struggling with.

If I read the Bible right, the Old Testament grounds its confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the Exodus. The New Testament grounds it confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. If God has proved faithful in the past, especially in response to injustice, God will prove faithful in the future, too.

The full confirmation of faith, however, will come only in the future, at the time that theologians call the Eschaton, that time when history comes to an end and God’s creative and redemptive plan will be fulfilled in all its depth and glory.

In the meantime, we can offer no ultimately convincing rational answer to the challenge. It persists as an intellectual challenge to the fundamental assumptions of the Bible and any religious faith based upon the Bible.

The Answer from the Whirlwind

 Interesting to me, the answer given in the Book of Job is not in the end a rational answer. It is simply an experience of the transcendental presence of God. God never explains to Job why Job has suffered the horrors he has. Instead God addresses Job out of a whirlwind. God simply presents himself to Job in his transcendental power and presence. It proves enough for Job. He repents of his obsession with finding an answer.

Now the men who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus do so out of a trust in Jesus’ good will and power. This is their faith, and it is their existential response to the problem of theodicy in their friend’s concrete situation. Their faith in the good will and power of Jesus is confirmed by the reality of the healing that follows.

Mark says that when the paralyzed man stood up and walked out of the house, the crowd was astounded. I find myself, on the other hand, astounded at the faith of the friends. Where did such faith come from?

In the end, where does the faith of any of us come from, if not from some inner intuitive experience of the reality of God, an experience that conveys in itself a confidence in the character of the God we trust? Our faith is neither grounded in reason nor in emotion, but in an ineffable experience that is beyond understanding.

This will never be satisfying to a rationalist, but it does acknowledge that there is a mystery about this thing we call life, a mystery that ultimately cannot be comprehended, but it can be trusted.

If you, my readers, have any thoughts on this issue, I welcome your responses.

The Authoritative Voice of Jesus

What must it have been like to hear Jesus speak?

Recently I began re-reading the gospel of Mark. We don’t get far into the gospel before Mark recounts Jesus calling his first disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John.

Mark’s account (Mark 1:16-20) is terse. Jesus encounters both sets of brothers along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. All are fishermen. Jesus calls them to follow him, saying “I will make you become fishers of men.” In both cases, Mark says, the brothers leave their nets (and James and John their father) and start to follow Jesus.

Mark says they do this immediately. That detail is likely to arouse curiosity for most readers. Why would these four men abandon everything to follow Jesus upon their first encounter with Jesus–and do so immediately? Had they had some prior contact with Jesus? (The gospel of John suggests that Andrew may have had.)

Mark gives no explanation. He seems unconcerned with the question. His purpose in telling the story is to set it up as a paradigm for Christian discipleship. Here is the essence of discipleship. But Mark may give a subtle answer to our question if we are careful to read between his lines.

Manifesting Authority

In the story that immediately follows (Mark 1:21-28), Mark tells of Jesus’ first healing miracle. In a synagogue in Capernaum, he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. The spirit challenges Jesus. Jesus casts it out to the amazement of the congregation. They comment to themselves, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

As a prelude to the miracle, Mark says that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. The congregation is astonished with his teaching, because “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Mark bookends the miracle with public comments about the authority with which Jesus speaks and acts. This places great emphasis on the sense of authority that people perceive when they are around Jesus.

The fact that these allusions to the authoritative impact of Jesus’ voice and presence follow immediately upon the story of the disciples’ call may suggest an answer to why Simon, Andrew, James, and John respond immediately. When Jesus issues his call, he does so with an authority that leaves the four men no other option but to respond immediately.

If that is the case, then hearing the voice of Jesus directly addressing them must have been a profoundly moving experience. Which triggers my curiosity. What was it about Jesus’ voice that conveyed that sense of authority, an authority that commanded a life-changing response? Was there a special quality to the sound of Jesus’ voice?

Mark does not satisfy my curiosity, nor does any other gospel writer. Yet they bear witness to that sense of authority that Jesus conveyed to those he taught and those he called. It seems to have left an imprint on everyone he met, even his enemies. They castigated him for not staying within the lines of accepted religious discourse as hallowed by scribal tradition. He seemed to take a stance authoritatively above it.

The Sources of Jesus’ Sense of Authority

Where did that quality of authority come from? If we stay within the confines of Mark’s gospel alone, Mark must have seen it coming from Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9-11). We cannot know what that experience was like for Jesus. But it must have been a deeply transforming experience, comparable to the transforming experience of enlightenment that the Buddha experienced under the Bodhi tree. In both cases, Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama were never the same.

One source of Jesus’ authority therefore must be that profoundly transforming spiritual experience (as it was for the Buddha as well). For those of us who have never experienced such a profoundly soul-shaking experience, we can never fully appreciate how utterly transforming such experiences must be. The apostle Paul would be able to, as would also the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. But for the rest of us, most of us know the reality and power of such experiences by the effect it has on people’s lives afterwards.

This experience of Jesus at his baptism must have also transformed Jesus by solidifying his resolve and commitment to seek first the kingship of God above all other things. His life therefore became a perfect realization of what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “But seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus could live fully in the present moment because he trusted in the loving kingship of his Father.

That fact about Jesus must also have contributed to the sense of authority that people sensed when they heard Jesus teach. He lived what he preached. There was no inconsistency between what he said and what he did. The authority of his teaching therefore drew some of its power from the integrity of the life he lived. That integrity was sealed by his death.

Talk about authority is generally distasteful for many Americans today. The spirit of our age is anti-authoritarian. We are suspicious of authority, and for good reason. When authority is misused and abused, we have good reason for distrusting it. But if we are to understand the mindset of the New Testament, we must come to re-appreciate the legitimate role of authority. The earliest Christian confession is Jesus is Lord. The one we revere is more than a persuasive teacher. He is also one who authoritatively calls: Follow me.

Mr. Aristotle, Meet Francis of Assisi

How odd the values espoused by Jesus must have appeared to a cultivated Greco-Roman sensibility.

Recently I was reading an author who wrote very appreciatively of Aristotle’s ethics. I had no clue what he was praising. So I pulled down a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics* from my bookshelf. I had read a portion in a college philosophy class, but had not opened it since. I have no idea why I have not contributed it to a used book sale a long time ago.

Reading it has been a fascinating experience. Aristotle locates virtues at the mean between two extremes, extremes of excess and extremes of deficiency.

Courage, for example, is the virtue, he says, that stands in the mean between excessive rashness and extreme fearfulness. The coward has too much fear and too little courage, the rash man too much courage and too little fear. It is the brave man who has the right attitude, for he has the right disposition, enabling him to observe the mean.**

He spends several chapters analyzing various virtues that many cultivated ancient Greeks presumably admired. Aristotle certainly did. It is not always easy to find the right equivalent in English for the Greek words, but these virtues include (in the translation I read) liberality, temperance, magnanimity, proper ambition, good temper, and sincerity of speech and demeanor.

Delineating the Character of a Gentleman

What struck me as I was reading these chapters was how Aristotle’s virtues so fit the qualities that Western civilization has come to associate with the concept of the refined gentleman. That sense of balance that comes by living in the mean seems to describe well the kind of character that we so admire in a cultivated person. Such a person seems to know how to live a disciplined life without becoming either a kill-joy or a debauchee.

Many of Aristotle’s virtues have seeped deeply into the Western consciousness. Maybe that is why I found myself reading these chapters with such pleasure.

But at one point Aristotle called me up short. He is describing the proper disposition of a good man when he has a reason to be angry. On the side of excess Aristotle places irascibility, a tendency to fly off the handle with every provocation. On the side of deficiency, he places what he calls a ‘tameness of spirit,’ a ‘submissiveness,’ or a ‘meekness’ that is an improper response when one has a reason for getting angry and does not.

Such a disposition, Aristotle says, looks like insensibility or want of proper spirit. For if he never gets angry, how can he take his own part? So people think that to swallow an affront, or to let our relatives be insulted, is no conduct for a gentleman.

He then goes on to say in an aside: …people mostly regard a man of this type as going too far in the direction of meekness because of his tendency to forgive an injury rather than seek to redress it.***

The Contrast with Jesus

 When I read this, I thought how different is Aristotle’s viewpoint from Jesus’. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:5). And when his disciples ask how often they should forgive their brother who sins against them, Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22)

No one has exemplified that childlike meekness that Jesus lifts up quite like Francis of Assisi. But one has the sense that Aristotle would have found Francis an odd and strange character. He might well have found the life Francis lived incomprehensible, especially Francis’ renunciation of all wealth and his passionate attachment to the life of poverty.

What this does is show for us how strange and odd Christianity must have appeared to the ancient pagan Greeks and Romans that encountered it in the very first Christians. Though some of them certainly admired how Christians cared for one another, they also found the attachment that Christians had to values like meekness, humility, forgiveness, and self-denial inexplicable. These values were so out of step with the values good cultivated Greeks and Romans admired that many of them would have regarded these Christian values as unmanly and unnatural.

The mindset of Western civilization since those early centuries has come to blend the high virtues of pagan culture with the values espoused by Christianity into a synthesis that we tend to think as quite reasonable. We regard this synthesis as so matter-of-fact that we seldom question it as a Christian ethic. But then we read someone like Aristotle in his own words. When we do, I think we begin to sense how odd Christian values appear to someone who has not been infused with those values through long centuries of Christian-influenced education.

As Christianity recedes from the commanding position it has occupied in Western culture in the past, we may become much more conscious of how the two world views sharply contrast with each other. The synthesis may not endure.

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* Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle, translated by J.A.K. Thomson, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955.

** Ibid., page 97.

*** Ibid., page 128.

The Insult of Second Best

We take God’s name in vain when we offer God anything less than our very best.

I am nearing the end of my journey through the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. I’ve started the last of the 12, the prophet Malachi.

In the first chapter Malachi denounces those who bring lame, deformed, and diseased animals to the Jerusalem Temple to sacrifice to God. Malachi calls this practice a way they pollute the altar of the Lord.

…you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? (Malachi 1:7-8)

They are offering to God something less than their very best. They keep the best of their flocks for themselves.

Would they engage in such behavior, he asks, if they were making a gift to their prince or the governor of the land? Would not the prince feel insulted? So how do they think they can get away with offering God–their creator, redeemer, and the ground of their being–something less than the very best?

When they do not offer their best, they despise God’s name, the prophet says. That implies to me that their behavior is a way they violate the third commandment. They employ the name of God in vain.

What is striking about this passage is the prophet’s conviction that God deserves from us our very best, not our second or third best or worse. This is, I believe, one of the logical conclusions we must draw if we take seriously the Shema, the great declaration of faith of Judaism:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

I also think the prophet expresses a fundamental principle of the spiritual life. If we are offering something up to God, we cannot cut corners. We need to make it the very best we can give. That applies not only to material gifts, but also to our creative endeavors, our work, and our relationships within the faith community.

Now what is our very best varies from person to person, from condition to condition, depending upon the gifts we have been given, whether that is material possessions, talents, or social privileges. What represents the very best for a person of modest gifts and means may be something very different from what it means for an affluent, highly educated, and privileged person. That is the point of Jesus’s comment on the gift of the poor widow in the story recorded in Mark 12:41-44: …she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.

A Saddening Deception

Let me tell a story that illustrates how giving a deceptive gift to God or to anyone is an insult to the recipient’s dignity and honor. It is a story told me by an Episcopal priest who once ministered in a church in mid-town Manhattan.

His church was an attractive church and therefore became an often requested site for weddings. He had a busy ministry marrying people, at all times during the week. A man asked him to perform his wedding, and the priest gladly consented.

When the ceremony was over, the groom handed the priest an envelope as a token payment for the service the priest had performed. The priest handed the envelope to the bride saying, “I never receive payment for the weddings I perform. When I am given gifts like this, I like to hand it back to the couple I have just married as a small financial investment in their new life together. So I am giving this gift to your bride.”

The bride opened the envelope and found it contained nothing but a folded blank piece of paper.

Though the act did indeed involve an insult to his role as priest , he was not so much offended, he said, as saddened for the bride. She had just said her vows, but she was discovering her marriage starting out on a deceptive note.

If this is how we feel when people try to deceive us in their dealings with us, how much more does God feel saddened by our effort to deceive him? The prophet calls this a way we sniff at God.

“What a weariness this is,” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations. (Malachi 1:13-14)

The application of this prophetic principle to our life today has multiple implications, if we just think about it.

The Social Message of the Hebrew Prophets

Societies have a responsibility for justice and for their poor and marginalized.

I’ve continued my reading through the Minor Prophets. I’ve been working my way through Zechariah, when I came upon the following passage in Zechariah 7:8-10:

The word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

 I stopped when I read it. It perfectly sums up of the social message we find in all the Hebrew prophets…and the Jewish Torah as well. The Lord calls his people to do justice, practice compassion, to respect the lives and dignity of the poor and the socially marginalized, and to nurture love towards all their neighbors.

There is a bit of a clichéd tone to this summation, because it is the essence of the social message of the prophets repeated by prophet after prophet, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah, et al. It is given classic expression in the words of Amos.

Especially clichéd is the expression “do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.” All of these terms name segments in Hebrew society that were generally vulnerable and defenseless for they were largely powerless within the patriarchal structure of society.

As we read through the Torah and the prophets, we find these segments of society hold particular concern for God. As some Biblical scholars like to express it, God shows a preference for these vulnerable people in society.

God holds Hebrew society accountable for how they treat these segments. Both Israel and Judah fall under God’s judgment in part because of their record of ignoring the widow, the orphan, the foreign resident, and the poor. (For the prophets, the other great sin of Israel is its unfaithfulness to God, manifested in its pursuit of other gods.)

When I say God holds Israel and Judah accountable, I don’t mean that God just holds individuals in both kingdoms accountable. He does, especially the kings, the nobility, and the merchants. But God also holds these kingdoms accountable as societies. How societies handle their responsibilities for justice and the welfare of all has a determining influence on whether they survive as societies.

Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets

Jesus is consistent with this viewpoint. When we encounter his description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, the coming Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats on what basis? On the basis of how they have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the imprisoned or not.

I, like most Christians, have traditionally read this passage as a description of Christ’s judgment on individuals. But if we read carefully, we find that the judgment is a judgment “of the nations” (in Greek, ta ethne). This is an ambiguous term. The plural can refer to a collection of individuals, but it also can refer to a society. And that is how I think we need to hear it. This is both a judgment of individuals and a judgment of societies as societies.

The standard for judgment is how these societies have treated the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the powerless of their societies. This is a judgment consistent with the word of the Lord spoken through the prophets.

I don’t hear the Bible specifying how a society must address the needs of its poor and vulnerable. Should we do this through government programs, through private philanthropy, or through changes to economic and social systems? Or through all three? Portions of the Bible seem to advocate each of the three in different contexts.

What I don’t find consistent with the spirit of the Bible is the libertarian stance (favored by many Americans) that society should operate on a basis where every individual must be free to manage his or her own affairs in a live-and-let-live economy. The idea that morals have no applicability to the Market would be anathema to these Hebrew prophets and to Jesus. That should be a sobering message for Americans who lay claim to being Biblical Christians.

If Jesus Can Change His Mind, Why Can’t We?

If we take the incarnation seriously, we must let Jesus grow in his understanding

Sometimes a gospel story about Jesus blows my mind. For example, the story recounted in Matthew 15:21-28.

Jesus and his disciples are traveling outside Galilee, into the region around the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. There they encounter a Gentile woman, whose daughter has a severe mental disorder. She desperately wants Jesus’ help.

Jesus first responds to her with silence. When she continues to nag, he rejects her request, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus apparently does not see his mission as bringing healing and salvation to non-Jews. He intensifies the rejection by adding, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

In ancient Israel, dogs were regarded as unclean animals. You did not keep them as pets. Many Jews at that time considered Gentiles as the religious equivalent of dirty dogs. They were religiously unclean and had no place within God’s people.

Matthew reflects this ancient prejudice. The Gospel of Mark [see Mark 7:24-30] tells us the woman was Syro-Phoenician, indicating her ethnic identity. But Matthew calls her a Canaanite, referring back to the name this ethnic group had in the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament, the Canaanites represented a wicked people whom God displaced so Israelites could occupy the land of Palestine. The prophets denounce them for their idolatry, immorality, and violence. Calling the woman a Canaanite would raise all these negative associations in a Jewish audience.

The woman is a complex character. She may be a pagan, but she is a sassy pagan. When Jesus implies she is a dog, she responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

This woman does not accept her rejection quietly and passively. She has a mouth, and talks back. Jesus recognizes in her brazenness an expression of faith. And he immediately grants her request.

Why Does Matthew Tell This Story?

Well, as I said, this story raises many questions. In Sunday school I was taught that Jesus was meek and mild. In this story, however, Jesus comes across as somewhat narrow minded and rude. How can this story be the true Jesus?

First, a suggestion as to why Matthew tells it. Matthew is writing his gospel at a time when Gentiles are entering the church in droves. In another 100 years Christians will almost always be Gentiles.

Matthew may see in this story a hint of the future development of Christianity. The early disciples never expected to convert Gentiles. But when God started drawing Gentiles into the church, Christianity was forever changed. It became much more inclusive than anyone had ever anticipated.

Maybe Matthew wants his listeners to recognize that this strange transformation of Christianity was always a potential in the ministry of Jesus. He sees this story as evidence.

Taking the Incarnation Seriously

Still I are troubled by Jesus’ words and actions. Here’s how I have come to terms with it.

When we confess that God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, we Christians confess that Jesus was a real and complete human being, not some phantom man. God entered into the full dimension of what it means to be a human being.

One of the amazing things about human beings is how long it takes for us to become mature. We are born as helpless babies. We are like the acorn. A full-grown tree lies in the seed of the acorn, but it takes years for that seed to mature into the tree.

So it is with human beings. We are not physically mature until we are about 25. It often takes many people even longer to reach emotional maturity.

Furthermore, as we like to say, it takes a village to raise a child. Our families, our neighbors, our teachers, our church friends all have a share in our upbringing. As a result, we unconsciously absorb the customs, manners, the values, and the language accents of our native culture. Likewise we unconsciously absorb its assumptions and prejudices.

Acquiring those prejudices is not a sin, in my opinion. Sin arises when we come to understand that a particular prejudice is against God’s creative will and we then choose to affirm it and live with it instead of changing our minds and our behavior. Sin arises when we come to know the truth, but refuse to live by the truth.

None of us is born understanding God’s perfect will. We grow into that understanding as we grow ever deeper in our relationship with God through a life lived in faith. The challenge to grow in our thinking and in our attitudes never ends. There is always more to learn about God and his will than we have learned so far.

I see Jesus as no different from us in this respect. He was born into a Jewish family and grew up in a Galilean village. As a child, I suspect he absorbed many of the attitudes—and even prejudices—of Jewish life in his time, as we do in our own communities.

He may have begun his ministry believing God was calling him to revive faith among only the straying sheep of Israel. He may not yet have come to appreciate how God was calling him to a mission that would ultimately embrace the whole world.

But Jesus also had an amazing ability to grow. We see how different were his attitudes towards tax collectors, prostitutes, and the Samaritans from the attitudes common among his people. As he grew in his understanding of his heavenly Father’s character, he came to understand God’s love for them as well.

When he met the Canaanite woman, he confronted the genuine need of a Gentile family and the genuine faith that was there in that family. His mind saw how God’s work was bigger than he imagined.

He saw the wrongness of the prejudice he had grown up with. He changed his mind and his behavior into something more inclusive than before. He confers healing on the woman’s daughter.

God’s Circle is Wide Indeed

If Jesus can change his mind, if Jesus can grow beyond the attitudes and prejudices of his own culture, why can’t we? That is the question this story poses for me.

Over and over again, life confronts us Christians with that question, as we confront needs and faith outside our own church community. Over and over again we are challenged to broaden and deepen our understanding of what God is up to in the world. Especially as to whom God is calling to belong to his people. We discover that God’s family circle is far larger than we assume.

Something like this has happened for many Christians in the last century through the ecumenical movement within Christianity. When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, I remember well being taught in my church that only Baptists were real New Testament Christians. Only we had a full understanding of the Bible.

All other Christians were somewhat suspect. They might be Christians in name, but if they were true New Testament Christians, they would be Baptists.

This is why I grew up just a little bit suspicious of Christians from other denominations, especially if they baptized babies. The Baptists of my upbringing were not alone in holding to a prejudice that they and only they understood the Bible. Many Roman Catholics also believed that they were the only true church and Protestants would be going to Hell.

And even some Presbyterians (the denomination I now belong to) believed that Christ did not die for everyone, but only for that select few (who by the way were largely Presbyterian) that God had predestined to salvation.

But as we look at the Christian world today, we find a broad recognition of one another as fellow Christians. Catholics talk of us Protestants as brothers and sisters in Christ, even if separated ones. A year or so ago the Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Church signed an agreement to recognize the validity of each other’s baptisms.

Christians recognize as never before that God’s family is a wide family. God’s family includes people as diverse as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Mennonites, Copts, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. All this is, I believe, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, at work especially in the ecumenical movement of the last 100 years.

Recognizing Faith Wherever It Occurs

Now in our increasing world of religious pluralism, we Christians are facing the even deeper question of how we affirm the real faith we may discover in the religious lives of people who adhere to other religions than Christianity.

How do we respect such faith without denying the distinctive beliefs that set us Christians apart from other religions?

For me that is a profound challenge. I am a Christian to the core of my being. I confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior not only for me, but for the whole world. I do not believe that it makes no difference at all what religion we practice.

The various world religions hold some very different understandings of God and his ways in the world. Those differences have profound practical consequences. So I believe the search for the truth is of supreme importance.

But like Jesus in our gospel story today, when I encounter genuine faith in people of other religions, I now ask how can I affirm such faith without compromising my own?

This brings us to, what in my opinion, is one of the deepest challenges Christians are going to face in the 21st century. How do we hold firm to our own beliefs and practices without denying to others the freedom to practice their faith in the way their conscience dictates?

This is becoming an important struggle in America. In some cases, we hear Americans declaring that America has always been and must remain a Christian nation. Such a stance compromises, I believe, our American commitment to religious freedom.

In other cases, we hear secularists declaring all religions are dangers to the human spirit. They argue that all religion should be banished from public life. This, too, in my opinion, compromises religious freedom. It banishes religion to the realm of private opinion and denies it can have any voice in public affairs.

In this story from Matthew 15, Jesus speaks and acts like the first-century Galilean Jew that he was. He is as faithful to his understanding of his heavenly Father and his will as Jesus could be as a human being. In his faithfulness I believe that Jesus was perfectly sinless, as Christianity has traditionally affirmed.

Yet when confronted with the sassy Canaanite woman’s own peculiar expression of faith, he broadens his perspective and affirms faith wherever he finds it.

Jesus was able to change his mind, his attitudes, and his behavior. My question is: Why can’t we?