What Is Sin?

It’s two a.m. and I can’t sleep tonight.

I can’t sleep because I’ve latched onto a question that absolutely, positively must be answered.

My blogging buddy Kinney Mabry asked it in his recent post “Sin,” and he is not the first and will not be the last. It’s the first question in his post. There are lots more that go with it. Kinney is full of good questions.

Every living person wrestles with this question and the ones that accompany it at one point or another in our lives, I’m convinced. When we shrug it off as inconsequential, that says something about our character (or lack thereof). Because I’m also convinced that God has placed within each of us a rudimentary, genetically-encoded moral compass; that’s part of what Romans 1 is communicating as well as our predeliction for ignoring it.

So I’m going to take a stab at defining sin, and then I’ll let y’all whale away at it:

Sin is what we think, say and/or do (or fail to say/do) which exalts self at the expense of God (and often, others).

It is what we think because that’s where it gets started. It’s what we say and do because that’s how it comes out.

It’s what exalts self at the expense of God because we buy into the lie — just as Adam and Eve did — that we know better than God. We know what’s best for our sweet selves, and He’s trying to keep us from it.

It comes at the expense of God because it cost Him the life of His Son.

It often comes at the expense of others because they have to bear the consequences of our selfishness, too.

It includes “fail to say/do” because we can know to do good and not do it – and leave others suffering.

And a fat lot we care about it.

There, I’ve said it. Obviously I’ve thought it. Perhaps not so obviously, I’ve lived it out in what I’ve said and done. Over and over and over again. So have you. So has everyone else.

We all stand between the two trees in the garden east of Eden, folks. We could choose Life, or the knowledge of good and evil. But the only way to know what good and evil are is to experience the difference between them, and that means disobeying what God has told us right down in the deepest place of our hearts. Life sounds pretty good, but we already have it, and He gave it to us and that must mean that He can’t be telling the truth when He says we’ll die if we eat from the other tree because He planted that garden and He loves us and He wants us to have life.

Yup, we’ve got it all reasoned out. We know better than God. We know what we want. We know what He wants. And He just doesn’t want us to have something that must be really good because He’s keeping it all for Himself and denying it to us.

So we betray each other out of what we profess to be love for each other, but at the root it’s the completely selfish fear that if the other one eats, he/she will have what I want and I won’t and we’ll be different. And we take the bite. And then we know.

We know what God didn’t want us to know that way. We know what He would have taught us out of love if we had trusted Him. But we don’t trust Him. We judge Him. We judge each other.

Yes, sin is rebellion against God and falling short of the mark and all of those other Sunday-school terms that we heard and pretended to understand but really didn’t because they don’t begin to get to the root of what sin is.

Sin is what we think, say and/or do (or fail to say/do) which exalts self at the expense of God (and often, others).

The other tree is Life, which is who Jesus was, is and will be … and what He came to give and to give more abundantly and what He gives through His Spirit and what God gives us in the first place. He does this because He loves us; it is not just His nature but His identity: God is love.

And if we love, we do not judge Him or others. We give up self for Him, and them.

That, I believe, is the long and the short of it. I think it’s staring us in the face and has been all of our lives and it could not be any simpler than if it were tattooed on the backs of our hands and wired into the compass of our feet that would always keep us pointed toward Him.

But then we would realize that our path in life leads to a cross where sin pinioned His hands and feet.

It was on a tree in Eden that death hung disguised as the fruit of knowledge, and on a crosstree of death that Life bore the fruit of love.

Pick one.

Now there’s a thought that isn’t going to help me get to sleep at all.

What God Wants/Doesn’t Want For Us

Those of us who believe in God often believe ourselves into one of two categories of faith: that God is perpetually angry and predominantly just or that God is constantly loving and always mercifully forgiving everything.

God number one just gives us laws, and if we don’t deduce them correctly and obey every one of them to the letter, we are eternally-conscious ash on the funeral pyre of hell. He expresses what He wants from us; what He wants for us to do.

God number two wants everyone to be saved, so no matter what we do and how heinous it is He will just mushy-hug us all into His heavenly home anyway. He expresses preferences for us rather than commands, and in the end it doesn’t matter whether we’ve lived up to them or not.

These naive extremes result from the logical fallacy that since these concepts of God seem oppositional to us, only one can be true. Nuh-uh. They could both be false. They could both have roots in truth. They might not be oppositional at all – and they aren’t.

I believe God is both merciful and just — and I’ve blogged about the reasons and the scriptures enough that I’m not going back over than road again here. I believe that what He expresses toward us are not merely commands or preferences … but the loving instructions and promises of what He wants for us.

What He tells us to be and do is what is ultimately best for us, and He tells us because He is righteous (it’s simply the right thing for a parent to do!) and because He loves us.

Angi and I have raised our kids well into teen-age now. If we’ve done our treasured job well, Matt and Laura will continue to make wise decisions that build their future and their relationships with others. The time for mere commandments is over; those were necessary when they were little and unable to make wise decisions yet for lack of experience. We rewarded obedience; we punished disobedience. Now that is becoming unnecessary; as they increasingly shoulder the responsibilities of life, life itself applies discipline. We do not intervene to remove the consequences of their choices because we love them and want them to grow in the directions that they choose.

Let’s pretend.

Let’s pretend that Angi and I had also been the parents of an older child and she had been our first. This child had helped us care for and nurture and teach the younger two, loved them as surely as we did, and in an unfortunate incident whose portent the younger children could not fully understand — a dare, perhaps — she had rescued the two of them from certain death … yet lost her own life in the effort.

What would we want for our remaining children from then on?

I think I’d want them to remember their older sister fondly. I’d want them to understand and appreciate how much she had loved them and was willing to give up for them. I want them to know that I still loved them as dearly as ever; that I did not blame them for her death.

I would want for them to live their own lives reflecting a growing love toward others, love that gives and never looks back. I would want them to be willing to tell stories about her to others; repeat stories that she had told them when they played school and she was their teacher.

I would want them to get to know her friends better and spend some time with them so they would know more about her; to sing her favorite songs when they got together to remember her. I’d want them to know everything I believe about where she is now and how and why.

I would still want them to grow up, find a mate for life they can love, bless, and be blessed by as much as I have and have been with their mom. It’d be great if they had their own kids, too!

There are all kinds of things that I would not want for them; things that would warp and distort and could yet destroy their lives, even after being rescued once before. Every parent knows what those things are.

And, of course, I would want / not want these things for them because I believe they are the things God wants and does not want for His children. He expresses His relationship to us as “Father,” and He did so through His Son. The comparison between the perfectly merciful and just God and the fatally-flawed person that is me is infinitely distant, I know.

But as I have confessed many times, I am an unabashedly simple-minded person. And an analogy like this “let’s pretend” helps me understand a little better His nature, His love, His righteousness, His justice, His mercy.

It helps me understand who He is, and what He wants – and doesn’t want – for me.

Leaven

This evening at sundown begins Passover, the fifteenth of the month of Nisan. By that time, all leaven / yeast is to be removed from the house of the Jewish families which will celebrate the week of the feast.

For believers in Christ, it’s as good a time as any to remember the warning of Jesus about certain kinds of leaven, the leaven of the Pharisees, Sadducees and of Herod.

It is the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees that is proscribed in Matthew 16, right after He fed four thousand and both parties conspired to test Him by asking Him to show them a sign from heaven. (Were they not paying attention? He had just fed thousands of people!)

Mark 8 recalls the same incident, but remembers only the Pharisees present and the warning Jesus gave as about the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod, and it’s likely that Mark recounts what Peter told him.

In both accounts, the disciples to whom Jesus spoke were confused, thinking that He was scolding them because they forgot to bring bread across the lake on the boat after that sumptuous dinner the night before. Jesus reminds them that He had fed 5,000 and 4,000 men (plus women and children) – and they seem to understand that the nourishment came in settings of teaching – deducing that “yeast” in His metaphor meant the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:12).

So, what was the teaching of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herod?

For simplicity’s sake, I tend to think of it in three words:

Hypocrisy

This would be the Pharisees’ particular brand of leaven. Luke 12 reports Jesus revealing that after pronouncing woe after woe on them in the previous chapter. They had made the law so detailed by their doctrines that it was no longer possible to follow. They bound these heavy burdens of legalism on others, unwilling to lift a finger to help them – but were unwilling to bear their own burden; to practice what they preached.

Hyper-rationality

The Sadducees’ leaven was their own vaulted intellect; they had reasoned out the impossibility of miracles and angels and spiritual beings and life beyond death. Like deists of a couple centuries past, they had de-spiritualized the word of God – completely failing to understand what Jesus told a woman at a well in Samaria: that God is Spirit, and must be worshiped in spirit and truth.

Hubris

I’d have to say that Herod’s leaven was taught not so much verbally as by example. He was the king and he could do whatever he wanted, and that was the law because God had seen fit for him to be anointed. Never mind how he had actually come to the throne or how he kept it; he could do as he pleased. He’d just execute anyone who was inconveniently standing against his royal privilege. Whatever he said and believed was what God wanted him to say and believe.

There’s good leaven: the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:21). And there’s bad leaven (1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9).

As we prepare for the week recognizing the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, it’d be a great time to snoop around and root out these kinds that start with “H.”

There should be no place for them in our houses.

‘Except Through Me’

I am not a universalist. I do not believe that God will save everyone. He would have liked that (2 Peter 3:9), but that same verse makes it obvious that “not perish” is conditional upon “repentance.”

However, I am not fully convinced that when Jesus says ….

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” ~ John 14:6

… that He means “If you have not heard of me and therefore have not believed and done all the other things that a church tells you to do to express your belief in Me, you are forever lost and condemned to eternal punishment.”

What if He means by “no one comes to the Father except through Me” is that He is the one who decides who’s in and who’s out?

Romans 2:16 and 2 Timothy 4:1 strongly imply that both God the Father and Christ the Son are involved in judgment at a day yet to come. Acts 17:31 agrees. While “the Lord” could refer to either of them a few verses down in 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul specifies which Lord, the Lord who will be appearing: Christ Jesus. And in 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul speaks of the “judgment throne of Christ.” Without doubt, Matthew 25 puts Jesus on that throne – in His own words.

In fact, the whole of Romans 2 deals with the subject of people judging each other and how unwise that is in view of the fact that God’s judgment through Christ awaits us all. He will judge based on truth (v. 2) – and we know that Jesus is the Word, the Truth (John 1:14; 17:17; and 14:6 above).

He is also life itself, and like God, gives it and renews it to whom He wishes (John 5:21). (In fact, read the whole of John 6 for a fuller picture. Add to that reading list John 10:28 and John 17:2 and Romans 8 for more about by Whom and how that life is given. And throw in 1 John 5 for good measure.)

Is it possible that when Jesus says “no one comes to the Father except through Me,” He is talking about Who He is, what authority and influence and power He has … rather than something that is required of people in response to a truth they perhaps have not even heard, or maybe just haven’t fully understood?

Man Says / Christ Says

Man says, “You have to choose whether you’re a Calvinist or an Arminian … Unitarian or Trinitarian … Baptist or Anabaptist … Traditional or Non-traditional worshiper … Sunday worshiper only or worshiper on other days … weekly Eucharist observer or non-weekly Eucharist celebrant … transsubstantiaton or consubstantiation subscriber … indwelling Holy Spirit or Holy Spirit through the scriptures only vessel … literal six-day creation believer or figurative six-day creation believer … Pre-millenialist, Post-millenialist or Amillenialist advocate … Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican or Protestant Christian …” and on and on and on.

Christ says, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

Man says, “You have to have all the right answers, know all the right answers, and believe all the right answers.”

Christ says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” ~ John 11:25-26

Man says, “God’s unknowable nature is completely knowable – His unfathomable justice and mercy are comprehensible – because He has revealed them completely in the scriptures and given us reasoning powers to decrypt it there and if we all would just read the same Bible and learn Greek and Hebrew and think straight, we’d understand everything exactly right – you know; the way I think.”

Christ says, “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does.” ~ John 10:37

Man says, “Choose my way of thinking.”

Christ says, “Choose to do, not just think. Choose to live, not just believe. Choose God’s way. Choose Me.”

O.T. God / N.T. God

I admit it. When I was younger, I thought of God in those terms: Old Testament God and New Testament God.

Old Testament God was strict, unyielding, law-giving, vengeful, righteous and just.

New Testament God was loving, understanding, grace-lending, forgiving, faithful and merciful.

At first, I thought He had changed. You know, as if something unrecorded happened to His nature in those intertestamental times. Or that maybe having a Son softened His outlook toward us. He got nicer. Sweeter. More lovable. Less fearable and ferocious.

Then I thought that it was we who had changed. We grew up as a race, mankind did, because He gave us law, and we figured out how to act mature and maybe even be mature, so He didn’t have to treat us like vicious children.

Whatta buncha bunk.

God does not change (Malachi 3:6). And – like Father like Son – Jesus is the same, yesterday today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). And so are we, the same ornery human critters we have always been. (Ecclesiastes 9:3).

God has always been both loving and strict, unyielding and understanding, law-giving and grace-lending, vengeful and forgiving, righteous and faithful, merciful and just.

I just didn’t read scripture closely enough to see it before.

HE IS WHO HE IS (Exodus 3:14).

He explained that quite clearly to Moses:

“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” ~ Exodus 34:5-7

He didn’t obliterate Adam and Eve when they sinned; nor their son Cain (but showed mercy and put a mark of protection on him); nor Abram when he lied (twice!) about Sarai being only his sister; nor Aaron when he lied and said the calf sprang out of the fire; nor Aaron’s sons Eleazar and Ithamar when they disobediently did not eat an offering after their brothers disobeyed God with their offering by fire and were incinerated; nor Moses when he struck the rock … and on and on and on.

And if I got the notion that the just nature of God somehow disappeared before the star of Bethlehem shone, it certainly wasn’t from anything Jesus said:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” ~ Matthew 25:41, 46

Not even sins of omission – failing to care for the poor and hungry and incarcerated – are too small to escape God’s wrath.

And I certainly didn’t get my goofy perception from John, to whom it was revealed:

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” ~ Revelation 20:11-15

Now it would be very convenient for me to be able to compartmentalize God and be done with the part of His nature that I don’t want to deal with; to have a huggy-cuddly-snuggly god who looks the other way when I do what I want to, even if it hurts him or others or even myself. Because then I could go cry to him and he would just say, “Oh, there, there. I know you didn’t mean it. Let me make that boo-boo go away” and he would undo all the laws of causality just for me and make it as if I had never done anything bad.

And I would never, ever learn anything worthwhile at all.

I could do it all my way.

How convenient for me.

Because who needs a god who gets angry and who cares about all of his created children and wants them to be good all the time and not hurt themselves or each other and doesn’t let them have their own way?

God is no capricious, arbitrary, maturing nor schizophrenic god like the creations of Greek and Roman philosophy (and many, many other religious cultures who created “god” in their own image).

He is always the same because we are the same, just as we have always been: selfish, rebellious, deceitful, ornery, violent, murderous.

He is the same because we need a constant in the chaos we have created for ourselves through the gift of choice He gives us: to be like Him, or to be like us.

What changed was that the time came for Him to make good on all the promises He had made us; to send us an example of his just-and-merciful nature in the person of His Son that we could see and imitate and choose wisely; to send us someOne who could measure up to the perfect standard that none of us could possibly approach.

And then die, to remind us that all our self and sin leads to death.

And then to live again, to prove to us that He has the power to forgive and give life to us again after sin has reduced us to dust and ashes.

That same God, manifesting a mastery of both aspects of the nature we simply cannot achieve, is One (Deuteronomy 6:4); One holy God (Leviticus 11:45); whose ways are loving and faithful for those who keep His covenant (Psalm 25:10); but who destroys the wicked (Psalm 145:20). He is stern to those who fall and kind to those who continue in His kindness (Romans 11:22), which He has expressed to us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).

So there are two covenants. But there is one testament; a testament to One divine, perfect, unchanging nature reaching out to every flawed, selfish, human nature – each one of us – created with the ability and purpose of changing, maturing, growing better, growing God-wise and God-ward through faith in Jesus Christ. One God, over all the nations, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

He lets us choose.

And He lets us bear the consequences.

Because He loves us: this singular, unimpeachable, incomprehensible, inconvenient God.

Once Upon a Faith

Once upon a faith
there was a man who walked around doing good.
He really did; he walked around and hardly ever rode.
Walking put him among people … among whom he could do the most good.
So he did lots of good.
He never took any credit for it; hardly ever talked about himself; just talked about God.
He told them how much God loved them
and how much God wanted them to stop hurting
themselves
and each other
and him,
and repent.
He healed sick people, where people recognized what he was doing as from God.
He fed hungry people because he had compassion on them.
He thrashed evil from their lives and lovingly told them that they needed to repent.
He raised dead people to life and promised life without end to those who would live their faith in God.
He did not have a manager,
a handler,
a public relations and advertising firm,
a security detail,
a driver,
a transport and setup team,
a makeup artist,
a costumer,
a technical staff,
a caterer
or a personal assistant.
He did not take up collections,
and he did not promise results for belief
which should be expressed in generous giving to his ministry.
He did not dabble much in politics or religion,
except when the work and teachings he shared were opposed.
And when those people who thought they stood the most to lose from his words
finally sprang the one big “gotcha”
from which they thought he could not escape
there were no angels who rescued him
no legions who fought for him
no followers who stood faithful at his side
and he died
because the miracles had never been for him, but for them.
Then he escaped anyway.
And he shared the gifts of helping and healing
among the followers who repented
and were willing and walking
and did good for others
and who never took any credit for it
and who hardly ever talked about themselves
and who talked about God.
When their time came, they died too
because the miracles had never been for themselves, but for others
and they died believing
that they and many others would live again, forever,
because God sent a man walking
once upon a faith.

Repost: Of Course We Christians Love Christmas

Who wouldn’t love a sweet, innocent little baby born in a barn, cradled in a food trough for animals, worshiped by angels, sought by wise men and targeted for death by despot?

So all of us Christians really want to emphasize this part of our Lord’s Story to charm and beguile those who haven’t heard it all into wanting to hear more.

The problem is, there comes a point where He grows up and he’s no longer just sweet and charming.

He scares his folks to the edge of panic by staying behind in Jerusalem while they’ve gone on toward home after the Feast. And asks them simply, “Shouldn’t I be about my Father’s business?”

He abandons Joseph’s business to pursue a career as an itinerant preacher.

He seeks out his weird, wacked-out cousin in the wild and seems to join his baptismal cult, fasts forty days, has an encounter with the devil, and starts preaching with John the gospel of “Repent! God’s kingdom is almost here!” with a few “… you brood of vipers!” thrown in for good measure.

This is not your typical, nice Jewish boy.

Oh, sure, He’ll impress the winesteward at a poorly-catered wedding, heal some people, feed a lot of people, and preach that people ought to love and respect each other because God loves all of them. But He’ll also thrash a few demons from time to time, fraternize with tax collectors and centurions, and generally antagonize the entire religious establishment, whether Pharisee or Sadducee. Not to mention putting one of the tax collectors in his entourage, along with a potential insurrectionist, a hot-tempered fisherman or two and a few other ne’er-do-wells (including a suspected thief).

Yet He does all these things – by the implication He encourages – because He wants people to accept that He is the Son of God?

What is His deal?

Why couldn’t He just settle for being a peculiar prophet with wise teachings about relationships between people and God; pick up a few seminary students, or pluck the best synagogues, or even schmooze a few Levites? Maybe even a priest?

It’s like there’s no compromise with Him. It’s either His way, or the highway – the broad, broad highway that leads to destruction, in His words.

And it’s not like He’s talking flowery beds of ease for His followers, either. He expects for them to suffer, and especially after He’s murdered. Yes, that’s right. He starts talking about being arrested and tried and crucified.

Then it happens.

He puts up no fight, responds to no accusation, retorts to no insult, curses at no torment, reviles no lash, evaporates no nail hammered into His hands and feet, calls down no angelic army to obliterate His captors, breathes no supernatural breath to hold asphyxiation forever at bay.

He dies while lifted up on that cross.

And draws all men unto Him. Not just a few shepherds. Not just some oriental astrologers. Not even just a dozen or so close friends. All men. We have to pause at the foot of that cross and gawk upward, and wonder …

Who is this Jesus?

What happened to that marvelous Christmas Christ? The King given gold instead of a crown of thorns? The One gifted with myrrh who ends up buried with it? The Child who received frankincense, but became the Man whose innocence was sacrificed as a sweet-smelling savor to God?

Then we discover the tidings of comfort and joy don’t come until three days later … the swaddling cloths are found folded neatly in His empty tomb. It can’t hold Him.

Now it can’t hold us.

That’s what we Christians love about Christmas. It doesn’t end at Easter. It goes on and on and on, as long as life shall last, and then on and on and on.

It’s not just a sweet Story for gullible children; it’s not even a Story for every rational adult.

It’s for those who are willing to suspend incredulity, to truly and deeply believe its irrationality and passion, and who will live that belief from cradle to grave … and then some.

(from 2007)

The Most Important Thing

I spend way too much time reading blogs.

One of the themes that keeps recurring as I spend way too much time reading blogs is some variation of the question, “What’s the most important thing?”

While discussions that follow in the posts and the comments are interesting – usually spawning a variety of answers and logic and texts to support them – I always come away with a nagging feeling of discontent. The issue of “the most important thing” is hardly ever resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

It makes me wonder if there is no single “most important thing.”

What is most important for me may be of little importance to you. That may be true because of our heritage, our opinions, our outlook on life, our way of viewing scripture, our perception of God, our age, our maturity, our circumstances in life and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. (That is an obscure term, probably Yiddish in origin, used by scholars to denote a precise and genuine meaning of which no one is exactly certain.)

Maybe what’s most important for Mike Cope is to reach the difficult-to-reach through a really challenging new ministry. Maybe what’s most important for Larry James is to help marginalized people help themselves. Maybe what’s most important for Charles Kiser is to teach a variety of people about God’s love from a tiny but growing church plant.

Maybe God has given us all different gifts – and different blends of gifts – through the same Spirit for the common good of the body. (1 Corinthians 12)

For the folks in Corinth, “Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” (1 Corinthians 7:19)

For the folks spread across Galatia, “… what counts is a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)

In both cases, circumcision or uncircumcision counts for nothing.

For the folks Paul wrote in Rome, Abraham was justified by faith not works – because they were struggling with the idea that they had to earn justification (Romans 4).

For the folks James wrote, Abraham was justified by faith through works – because they were struggling with indolence and a misconception that mental assent justified them (James 2).

In both cases, active acceptance of God’s work in one’s life is absolutely crucial.

So for some, the most important thing is to call on God once they’ve heard; for others, it’s to preach; for still others, it’s to send those who will preach (Romans 10:14-15). And perhaps, as time goes on, those priorities will change according to the blend of gifts God sends them.

For the rich young ruler, the most important thing was to sell all his stuff so he could follow Jesus. (Matthew 19:21)

For one disciple, it was to follow right then without burying his father first. (Matthew 8:21)

I think, down deep, each one of us has a solid, reliable intuition about what is most important in this life. So perhaps when we ask the question, it should be “What’s the most important thing for me right now within God’s will?”

Maybe I’m just rationalizing in frustration. I gotta tell you, though …

This possibility that “the most important thing may be different for people that God made different” is of some comfort to me.

Except for the overwhelming conviction that I spend way too much mind-preoccupying, opportunity-squandering, butt-numbing time reading and writing blogs about the most important thing.

… when I should be out, going and preaching and baptizing and making disciples and teaching and doing good like Jesus did.

Hey!

Maybe that’s the most ….

Nah.

The Jesus Hermeneutic

I’m adapting and expanding below a comment that I made in response to a post at Jay Guin’s insightful blog post: CENI: A Better Way – The Gospels because, on reflection, I didn’t say all that I wanted to say:

Are all of the imperatives in the New Testament to be interpreted as commands? instructions? suggestions? Which ones are which? Just the ones from Jesus? Just the ones from Paul? Peter? John?

The basic premise of conservative thought, I believe, is “We don’t know (but we don’t want to admit it), so to be safe, let’s just say that all of them are commands.” I can kind of respect that as a “safe” proposition, but the underlying assumption seems to be that God will always incinerate us with fire from above like Nadab and Abihu for any supposed infraction of unexpressed commands. I can’t buy that. That’s not consistent with the nature of the God who gave His Son as a sacrifice for our sins and is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9.

Are we really called to try to be safe sinners in the hands of an always-angry God? Or to be, at least in some measure, risk-takers with our hearts filled with His instructions (which speak of His love for us and His desire for us to have the best kind of lives)?

The old law said stone the Sabbath-breaker (Numbers 15:32-36).

Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man, not vice-versa (Mark 2:27) and He was Lord of it (v. 28). That’s not stated as law (though it certainly put Him at risk!).

To me, the question is: Do we have be on the edge of our seats in such fear of God’s wrath that we must regard every imperative, every example in New Testament scripture as (potential? binding?) command … or should we trust God and trust also in Jesus? Did He come to make it more difficult to have a relationship with God (Matthew 5:48) or to point out that no one can be perfect, so He served as our atonement to establish that relationship (Romans 3:21-26)?

I tend toward the latter – and I know that makes me a damnable heretic to a good number of my brothers and sisters in Christ – but my sense of His teaching is that we’re here to trust the Master, take some risks in order to do His will and help earn Him some results , and if we don’t do that, we are indeed in danger of being cast into the outer darkness.

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

” ‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'” ~ Matthew 25:14-30

Please body-block me if I’m wrong about this. But isn’t Jesus, in this story, condemning the cowardly servant because he only feared and distrusted his master, leading to his very fiscally conservative – but unproductive – actions?

In fact, if there was ever a more clear story in scripture about violating God’s unexpressed expectations, isn’t this it – far beyond the story of Nadab and Abihu? I realize that this story is not expressly about gathered worship and therefore does not serve the purpose of some who would otherwise cite it to prove their point, but in this story the master never once tells the servants to invest his money. He entrusts it to them according to their ability, but never says, “Make it grow!”

Sandwiched right there between the parable of the unprepared and prepared virgins and the metaphor of the sheep and the goats, here is this convicting parable that essentially says, What do you not understand about why God has entrusted you with all the good things in your life – especially the Story of His Son, Jesus? Do you think it’s all just for YOU?

The servants who had worked for the master in the parable knew he wanted results (just look at the lazy servant’s estimation of him). And it’s the same with us; we know from Jesus’ ministry, His message, the sending of twelve and seventy(-two), the Great Commission … we know He wants results! He doesn’t have to tell us in this story – He’s emphasizing it by its conspicuous absence, just as the story of Esther emphasizes God’s care and intervention only implicitly.

I asked some questions in the first couple of paragraphs about which imperatives should be regarded as commands. This story is not an imperative. It is not strictly an example. It’s really stretching the definition to call this an inference, necessary or not. It’s a parable. It’s the way Jesus chose to teach a good part of the time, for His own reasons (Matthew 13:10-17). Yet, I consider it just as binding on us any other teaching Jesus shared. The tone of His words is teaching, instruction – though this is deep and profound and hard teaching, near the close of His mortal days and ministry in His own flesh. And so were the instructions of the Holy Spirit through Paul, Peter, John and the other writers of New Testament scripture. If we can’t see the epistles through the lens of the gospels rather than the telescope of the old law, our focus is off and our hermeneutic is fatally flawed.

God did the “law” covenant with a maturing human race. It served its purpose as tutor, instructor, guardian. At the fullness of time, we needed a new and better covenant (Hebrews 7:22; 8:6; 12:24): not a law that no one could keep, but an agreement of grace offered and accepted; a contract of debt paid in full; a perfect Example and Pattern of self-sacrifice that would tug our hearts outward toward Him and others, rather than inward and self-ward; a teaching so full of abundant life that it was spoken and lived and murdered and yet could not be kept dead.

This is the Jesus hermeneutic.

It’s seeing scripture pointing forward to, directly at, or back toward Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Savior, Redeemer, Master, Teacher.

I said a few paragraphs ago that the parable of the talents is not about gathered worship, and strictly speaking, it isn’t. But it is about worship, the life of worship (Romans 12:1) to which God calls us, and wants for us to have, and wants to use in order to work His will through us and yield a great return: more souls who know Him, more souls who love Him, more souls who will share His love and His Story.