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Should the Church Repent for Not Calling America to Repent?


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Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

–Matthew 22:21

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Certainly, one of Jesus’ most well-known sayings – besides “love your enemies”! – is “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (NASB)

This story in our Gospel reading this morning immediately gets our attention because in it we see how Jesus deftly thwarts the trap the Jewish religious leaders set for him.

But there are much deeper levels to this too!

Did you know, for example, that Jesus said this in an Empire ruled by someone who claimed to be the Divine Son of God? That someone being Caesar? And that Caesar claimed to bring “Good News,” that is, “Gospel,” to the world?

Instead of supporting Caesar then, it does sounds like Jesus is actually being a bit of a revolutionary, doesn’t it?

Indeed, unlike the religions of Islam and Judaism–and basically every religion in world history for that matter–Christianity is utterly unique in the highly consequential distinction it makes between God’s government and man’s government.

At the same time, a lot has happened since Jesus re-oriented the world with these words…

Have you heard of “Christendom”?

What is that? Well, I checked the oracle that goes by the name of Google, and this is what I was told:

The term Christendom refers to the impact of Christianity on the world. … Christendom is the impact of Christianity on the Roman Empire, moving through western Europe and on into areas of Scandinavia.

Also, and this is key…:

“The word “Christendom” [can be] used… to frame true Christianity [– the whole of the “body of Christ”.] A more secular meaning [though] can denote the fact that the term Christendom refers to Christians as a group, the ‘political Christian world’, as an informal cultural hegemony that Christianity has traditionally enjoyed in the West.”

Now, first of all, don’t be thrown by the use of the word “secular” here.

Even as today this word often seems to mean “anti-God,” historically it has simply meant, “of, or pertaining to, the world”.

In other words, it distinguishes the spiritual realm and the matter of men’s souls – that which is unseen – from more earthly, temporal, and bodily matters – those things which are seen.

The main point here is that “Christendom” is a term that has historically meant quite a lot in the Western world, the lands of Europe, and the English speaking nations, of which ours is but one example.

“Christendom” is the secular influence of Christianity…

Let me tell you a story from the beginnings of Christendom… about St. Ambrose, the author of the Christmas hymn “Savior of the Nations Come”.

St. Ambrose was a bishop in the Christian church in the fourth century, right when Christianity was beginning to gain great influence in the Roman Empire following the life of the first Christian Emperor in Rome, Constantine.

About the later years of his life we learn that he refused to turn one of his city’s[i] churches over to the Arian Empress and Emperor, her teenage son Valentinian II, even when threatened with capital punishment.

“I cannot think of abandoning the Church, for I fear the Lord of the Universe more than any earthly Emperor. If the Emperor acts as sovereigns are wont to act, I am prepared to suffer what bishops are wont to suffer!”

The Emperor surrounded Ambrose’s church with Arian soldiers. The people sang hymns while under this siege.

The rulers gave in and called off the soldiers.

Here is another story about Ambrose related to our topic for the day:

“St. Ambrose, through his influence on emperors, was also instrumental in overthrowing (by then still widespread) paganism and having Christianity replace it as the official religion of the Empire.

One of the most famous scenes of St. Ambrose’s life is his confrontation with Emperor Theodosius when the latter’s command ended in a massacre of 7000 people in Thessalonica. Ambrose openly threatened the Emperor (whose faith and loyalty to the Church were not in doubt) with excommunication and forbade him to receive Holy Communion until he had done sufficient public penance. Only after several months of penance did Ambrose let Theodosius receive the Sacrament. This event – the monarch humbly submitting to a Church authority he publicly acknowledged to be higher than his own – marked the start of a new relationship between the Church and State.”

Now all of this is rather dramatic, but more simply, how does Christendom, or at least a “Christian political influence,” happen?

Those who might be tempted to think or even assert that this was all about earthly power plays – even if without a sword like the one Mohammad wielded – certainly do not have an accurate picture.

And even as only the Lord is ultimately in control, I don’t think that God would take offense at me saying: “we can definitively answer this question and a major clue is in our Epistle reading!”

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians this morning, we read:

You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.

What are the implications of this? Well, it is like this: God Himself has taken the punishment for our sins on the cross. He did it to be just and the justifier of the wicked person who has faith…And so when it comes to us… the implication is that we, regardless of our cultural and political context, have – and increasingly create – spaces and places where this message can be heard, believed and lived.

This means that a Christian people will create a Christian culture…

Now yes… it is true that at times Christendom relied on earthly force.[ii] And yet, the faith did not get its start that way, nor did it gain its early influence in that way.

Instead, Christianity – the Kingdom of God ushered in through Jesus Christ – was a revolution of divine love… as opposed to a revolution of earthly power…

And it all happened just like Jesus said!

The yeast working slowly through the dough… The birds building nests in the trees…

And, for our own personal context, the cultural writer Matt Cochran put it this way: The positive forms of secularism and religious liberty that [have] been enjoyed in America grew out of the specifics of Christianity.”[iii]

This is in line with what the as the well-known and highly respected Roman Catholic priest, the late Richard John Neuhaus, said as well: “Culture is the root of politics, and religion is the root of culture.”

Now we as Christians know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ – salvation not ultimately from men but from our sin, the curse of death, and the devil and his demons! – is what God’s people should ultimately be about…

And yet, at the same time… should we be relatively unconcerned about matters of this world? …its cultural practices, and the political structures that arise from them?

Not at all. It would seem this all goes hand in hand with loving our neighbors after all! So, we all will inevitably need to think about the church’s relationship to politics…

But just how should we do this?

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Well, what do we already know?

Is Christianity “all in,” for example, when it comes to democracy?

Is American government God’s favorite kind of earthly government?

Well, I like democracy, or at least the idea of democracy, as much as the next American…

Few of us, I’d venture, really like the idea of a King! In fact, it’s been said that in America “the people” are King!

Well, here, I submit, is the key: In spite of the fact that people often use the Bible to support their favorite ideas about earthly government, we really must admit that God’s priorities often seem different from ours….

For example, not long ago, on social media (Twitter), I saw that one of the men I follow recommended the book: “Discovering Biblical Equality- Complimentarity without Hierarchy.”

I know what a book like this is getting at. The Economist [Milton] Friedman for example, “[made] the commonsense observation that ‘coordination without coercion’ is preferable to principles of social organization that require coercion.” (R.R. Reno)

Still, I sometimes have a habit of poking hornet’s nests, and asking disconcerting questions, and so I said to this man:

“[H]ow do you feel about hierarchy overall [though]? [It] seems to me there are even kinds of hierarchy in heaven… If we imitate the life of our Rabbi whose love for all was not in doubt, for whom the dignity of all was not in doubt, is not hierarchy a great thing?”

He replied: “Who did the rabbi say would be at the top of the hierarchy?”

Now, I suspected I knew what this man was thinking. Perhaps he thought I had shown myself to be a backwards rube of sorts, with my questions seemingly defending any notion of hierarchy!…

Hadn’t Jesus said, after all, that the disciples were all brothers?

That the church’s rulers would not be like those of the world who lorded it over their subjects?

Hadn’t Jesus emphatically pointed out that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”?

Indeed, Yet, here is what I said to him:

“Who did the rabbi say would be at the top of the hierarchy?” With the disciples, Peter. With the heavenly courts, the 24 elders sitting on their thrones. With the ones to whom he gave the minas, the ones who had gained more with them. Am I doing alright? : )

Then, I said this:

I’ll be dead honest. I simply have a hard time trusting people who downplay hierarchy at best or disparage it at worst. Hierarchy is an amazing gift from God. I personally love being under [good and] competent men. [Yes,] I get it can be abused more than most things too…

So, I get what that man was saying. I too, believe that Jesus in some sense upends the systems of the world. The “orders” of this present age. Jesus’ own mother after all, Mary, sang the following in Elizabeth’s presence:

50His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

52He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

53He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.”

When we Lutherans confess that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings forgiveness, life, and salvation, we are right to put the accent on those things.

And it does us good to remember there that the “life” we speak of, while being the “eternal life” which culminates in heaven, ultimately starts right now. Ways of the Kingdom of God among us start now….

And, we also remember that while we are not “of this world” we are “in it”. We do indeed pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread…” As Luther put it, this has to do with “everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body…”

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But – and here is an extremely interesting question related to our topic – who should be giving us our daily bread? The things economic that we need in this world?

Americans have traditionally thought that that really should not be our rulers, the higher forms of government. Government should provide some protection, but not necessarily provision – the government in the family, the government of the family, should take care of that!

And even if we think that, ideally, Kings and Governors and Presidents are really there for our protection, that doesn’t mean in each and every earthly circumstance submission is called for.

For example, in regard to the recent looting, a friend recently wrote:

“Romans 13 does not require Christian men to cower inertly and hope it all passes by just because that’s the course chosen by the governing authorities. On the contrary, their vocations require them to find the best way they can to protect their households and livelihoods. It’s entirely possible that picking up your rifle to defend your neighborhood may be the right call sometimes.”

In any case, back to the matter of providing, provision…

America is no doubt changing here, and I don’t think that should really surprise us given world history. In Luther’s times, for example, but also after that — it was not uncommon in the “German lands”[iv] for the coat of the arms of the rulers, of the nobles, to contain an image of bread… An image of bread.

The reason for this was because that was seen by all as an important function of the ruler. Their rulers would, much like our own fathers might, look to provide not only protection but provision for their people….

And, of course, in Rome, they spoke about how the good ruler provided not only “bread” but circuses” to keep the people, the “masses” or “hoi polloi,” content and happy…

And finally, with all of this focus on what the rulers must do, can do, for us… this can lead to some rather dark pictures of what can go wrong…

Some for example, speaking about the dangers of Totalitarian rulers, have painted a frightening picture of the people being crushed by their power-hungry rulers, under the foot of a forceful jackboot and mind control. This was the picture pained by George Orwell in his class book 1984.

Others envisioned a different kind of Totalitarianism. In his book Brave New World, written a few years before George Orwell’s, Aldous Huxley imagined a world where the physical needs and desires for personal pleasure of all were increasingly met by the elites of society.

People would not have to be forced to comply, but would gladly comply….

Lost in the process, of course, would be notions of personal responsibility and agency. With their most basic needs and more met, men and women would no longer struggle to survive. And a decrease in religious belief would be a natural result….

This reminds me of some of Jesus’ harrowing words about the Last Days: “the love of many will grow cold, but he who endures to the end will be saved,” and “when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?”

The Christian author and cultural guru Rod Dreher, in his most recent book “Live Not By Lies” warns about a kind of “Woke Totalitarianism” that he says is arising in our country.[v]

He points out how not only politicians, but big businesses so quickly adopt the moral and social trends and popular causes of the world, and do so not under any political pressure, but because they believe, at worst, that the world is right in its way, namely, its pressing for a nebulous and in the end deceptive “equality” or “equity” in all things…

At best, perhaps, they must go with the flow, to keep up with the currents of what is happening in the world.

And hence, by careful tracking of our internet habits and more – as it is happening in China right now – more and more subtle influence can be exercised on the population, applying pressure on us by limiting our opportunities to attain particular kinds of work and status if we resist…

Convincing us that we too should be on the “right side of history,” should change…. lest we be left behind in the dust…

Stronger measures, like those used by the Totalitarian regimes of the past, would only be necessary for the few holdouts that remain…

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Is that what is happening now?

Perhaps we in America, arch-individualists all, are particularly susceptible to the world’s currents, as the Apostle John put it: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life…”

Sure, we like to hear the story of Ambrose!

We like to hear that through him and others, the world was impacted… transformed… in a positive way by the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!

At the same time though, we don’t we definitely don’t like what the Roman Catholic Church was doing 700 years ago…when they claimed veto power over all earthly rulers even as corruption claimed them….[vi]

Really, because of this, we are still quite skeptical of nearly all authority in the church today…. We might have trusted the leadership of the Apostles, but those who followed them?

This comes out strongly in the 20th century German theologian Werner Elert’s words here, from 1953:

“The medieval church… laid claim not only to the position of religious mediator between God and men. She is, in her intention and in her structure, a creation resembling the state with a central authority (head) — the prototype of a totalitarian and authoritarian imperialism. She is authoritarian, because she tries to direct all the areas of life — political events, the entire social and economic order, and the family even on down to its most intimate transactions. She lays claim to compulsory power over all who want to be Christians, and she puts this into practice against all those who oppose her. She lays claim to a cultural monopoly and to a great extent she has it. Her goal is to rule the world. The Reformation was unsuccessful in completely setting aside this system, but it did succeed in cracking it open and making it null for a broad portion of Christianity (1953 Elert essay in Seminarian: https://crossings.org/lutheranism-and-world-history/)

For Elert, the only good church, it seems, was a very weak one. But there is also a problem with this…

What is that problem? Well, even as we know it makes sense in one regard to talk about the church as hidden or invisible, it also is true that the church is indeed visible. It too is an earthly institution established by Christ among us.

And being an institution of our Lord on earth, it is critical that the church embodies the will of its Master. That His voice might be ours. That we might be ambassadors of His will.

That we must call people to repent, to trust in the Lord Jesus, and to walk in His ways…indeed, down to our most intimate transactions…

But there is the rub. Nobody wants to be told what to do such that they actually have to do it. Nobody wants to be “managed,” much less controlled…

We don’t like it with our friends. We don’t like it with our spouses. We don’t like it with our government!

And, here’s the key… frankly, we don’t like it with our God… Maybe this is why even a theologian like Elert contradicted Martin Luther, saying of the 10 commandments that they offered us no real practical guidance about how to live….[vii]

And when the church doesn’t hold the line, when the church cowers before the opinion-makers of the world, this will, of course, have implications…

In fact, as Rod Dreher, that Live Not By Lies guy,  recently put it

“[T]here is a significant element in progressive Christianity in America that in years to come will be leading the charge to punish traditional churches and individual believers, to prove their loyalty to the [Woke] regime and its ideology.”[viii]

And so, this kind of thing leads that friend I mentioned to say:

“American Christians: Be wise. Be vigilant. Be prepared. Pray for God’s guidance. Remember the ones for whom you are responsible. The time will come when you’ll need to make a hard choice. Make the best choice you can according to the wisdom given to you, and lean on Christ’s forgiveness for the rest.” (Cochran)

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Can one still believe that America is still, in some way, a Christian nation or should be a Christian nation?

The naysayers will come at you fast and furious:

“Don’t worry about the nation, focus on the church’s wrongs!”

Well, yes. We always should start in the church, get our own house in order first!

So… if you get connected with a pastor who will never confront you, not take a stand on the word of God, not say “no” to you…not actively and lovingly work to change the direction you or your loved one is going in…

Then you won’t have much of a pastor…

I’m not talking about tying heavy burdens on peoples’ backs such that they are not able to stand up. I am talking about brothers in the faith who will take seriously the call to “Carry each other’s burdens… in this way…[fulfilling] the law of Christ…” (Gal. 6:4)

So with that out of the way, know that the naysayers will continue to come at you…

  • “There is freedom of religion in America, which is a pluralistic nation.”
  • “[The] right to free exercise of religion should end when one crosses from private life into the public sphere!”
  • Jesus Christ is not mentioned in our founding documents. It is in God we trust!”
  • “Christianity does not work for politics. It won’t work.”
  • “Friend, we are not in medieval times any more…”

I’d content that these objections, spoken or unspoken, don’t ultimately matter.

You can still believe that America is a Christian nation or should be a Christian nation[ix] – and, for example, vote accordingly.

Certainly, to say the very least, our nation’s founding documents and laws would not have been possible, thinkable, conceivable, without the influence of Christianity!

In order to respect the notion of the “separation of church and state”, this doesn’t mean that you:

  • Must condemn the preference for one religion over another
  • Or express the irrelevancy of religion for civic standing
  • Or contend for all manner of religious neutrality in American civic life…[x]

Not at all – you should trust, in fact, that only the One True God can make us all live in peace with one another…[xi]

And you can pray accordingly for, hope for, work for, Christian faith to continue to be a part of—and hopefully a stronger part of—our nation’s heritage, customs, and laws…

We will never be able to fully avoid suffering in this world — and really, this should never be our goal. Rather the point here is that it is indeed a good thing – it is in fact a great thing! – to have a desire to see the way of the Lord honored among one’s own people and all nations!

And of course, God’s good gifts to all people – not worldly successes, but the very real blessings of things like family, a home, and the love that can be found therein, for instance, are things that we should want all people to be able to experience….

And yet, again: that is not even the main thing.

The main thing is that the message that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all, and gives forgiveness, life, and salvation to all – it the message that we must make known and make known increasingly…

And keep this in mind as well: If we lived in a nation that explicitly called itself a Christian nation in its official documents and official ceremonies, we would still not be without problems.

England and Sweden, after all, are both explicitly Christian in their founding documents, and yet today, in those lands, few hold to the Word of God, still believing that it endures forever.

Again, even if a country like America had a government which explicitly acknowledged its Christian heritage… Even if it defended it and perhaps embraced it… Acts 5:29 would *still* apply to each individual believer.

Until the end comes, all of us must always say “We must obey God rather than men.”

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Christian men and women: have you not seen? Have you not heard?

The Lord’s Apostle and good Ambassador Paul, formerly called Saul, says this:

“If we endure, we will also reign with him.”

Again,

“If we endure, we will also reign with him.”

And also:

“Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world?”

Again,

“Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world?”

Do you understand what he is saying here? Do you get what this means? Yeah, it’s kind of offensive to the world…

It means that when Jesus Christ comes again, descending from the clouds to judge the nations of the earth…[xii] that we too, His sheep, will be by His side doing so in some capacity.

We will pronounce judgment upon this world.

Again, we must obey God rather than men.

Which means that we must call America to repent and turn not just to God in general[xiii], in some God whom we trust, but the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.[xiv]

I get that this is not what is on everyone’s – even Christians’ – minds these days. We have an election coming up after all!

Still, if you have a chance to talk to someone about who to vote for[xv], that is much less important than talking to them about Jesus Christ….

And again, not only just individuals but whole nations as well!

As the Psalmist says:

“Be warned, you rulers of the earth.

Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.”

“Kiss the Son, lest He be angry.”

Part of being a Christian is calling your nation, and the nations, to repentance and faith in His Name.

What kinds of politics might result from that – or perhaps what political consequences might result from that – we can’t necessarily know.[xvi]

But again, this is emphatically true:

All nations – whether they be those who value freedom of religion, speech, and assembly or not – must kiss the Son lest He be angry.

He is not just our King, but the King of All.

And so, I don’t know about you, but here, I have had to repent about not telling America to, yes, “Come to Jesus…”

And, by God’s grace, I will continue to repent.

Long live King Jesus!

…the Only One who freely gives forgiveness, life, and salvation to all.

Amen

Notes:

[i] Milan.

[ii] Rulers of tribes used to convert, and the whole of their tribe, or nation, would convert as well…

Sometimes this was forced by external threat, other times the pressure was only cultural ; or perhaps in some cases the influence was seemingly without any pressure – and most all were happy to follow in their ruler’s train in their newfound Christian faith…

One pastor I respect has said:

“In order for lives to change, hearts must change and with this change must come the willingness to suffer for the sake of doctrine and practice of the faith. The heart does not have to change if behavior is enforced by fear of punishment.  So the path of Puritanism ended up with laws ruling but hearts still filled with wrong desire.”

I’d suggest that, as I put it in a past blog post responding to this pastor,

“All of us need to recognize that people in the 16th century were more right then we are about how politics and religion should go together. Leaders of the earth should indeed be challenged to kiss the Son, lest He be angry.

…Before the Gospel can take root, the Law must do its work. And does not the Law speak of the worst punishment of all? And to bring up the Puritans as a foil is also to set one’s self up to fall off the other side of the horse. None of this is to say that I support things like Charlamagne’s forced baptisms, but I also am not going to say that the practice of people following their nation’s leaders in Christian conversion was unfortunate, or less than Christian. While ultimately only God knows the hearts of each, both individuals and peoples, tribes and nations can convert to God. If you disagree with that, speak with the prophet Jonah.”

[iii] More from Matthew Cochran:

“It’s not some stroke of blind chance that lead to religious freedom in the Christian West—it was, in fact, due to our Christian faith… our religious liberty never proceeded from attempts at religious neutrality. It came precisely from the privileged position that Christianity has historically held in America and in the West….”

[iv] Germany as a nation, meaning a modern “state,” did not yet exist.

[v] Interestingly, even though Christians know that external compliance is ultimately not all that God wants – He wants people’s hearts – it seems that Christian rulers, often ruling in what we would call an “authoritarian” manner, knew they could not force people to believe things they did not want to believe.

Today’s main players however, are not merely authoritarians however, modeling Christian authoritarians of the past – they are soft totalitarians….This is something new. What you believe, think, is now a political issue…

Why is that the case? It is because in many ways this soft totalitarianism is a Satanic mimic of Christianity. No, God is not a soft totalitarian, but it is easy to see why a Satanic mimic of godly rule would think that he is…think that He is a hard man, as the Gospel put it. He does, after all, not only care about what people do outwardly, externally…. He cares about what you think and believe… In some circumstances to us Christians even, that doesn’t strike us as good news!

Hence the “Woke Menace” with their “Woke Church” and “Woke Capitalist” friends are going to make sure you don’t only act a certain way, and do not speak out against what they are doing…. you must fully conform in thought and desire as well…

Perhaps Christopher Hitchens was right. Only a Christian culture could have made a Marx, Lenin, and Stalin… Maye, we should just cut to the chase? In a sense, are Christians are kind of like “soft totalitarians” as well?

Well, as I like to say, we are all, in fact, idealogues, it just depends on what kind of idealogue you are…

Are we also all just soft totalitarians down deep? And that it just depends on what kind of soft totalitarian you are?

Even God, after all, does not just demand your external conformity. He demands your heart. He wants not just your actions and words, but your thoughts and desires to be in total conformance to your will. Don’t Christians want this for others as well, even as they want it not to crush others, to destroy them, but so that all might, in fact, know the love of God?

And so, pastors, knowing personally how good this God is, are His ambassadors, His emissaries, His deputies… (like a sheriff? An enforcer? Well, a deputy simply means someone who is authorized to proclaim and carry out the will of another…)

In any case, God, it turns out, is really loving. And patient. Even tolerant…. One can’t not think about tolerance and patience here, which we all need.

*Who* are we patient with?

[vi] In the 1530 Augsburg Confession the Lutherans confessed:

“[E]cclesiastical and civil power are not to be confused. The power of the church has its own commission to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. Let it not invade the other’s function, nor transfer the kingdoms of the world, nor abrogate the laws of civil rules, nor abolish lawful obedience, nor interfere with judgements concerning any civil ordinances or contracts, nor prescribe to civil rulers laws about the forms of government that should be established. Christ says, “My kingdom is not of this world” [Jn. 18:36] and again, “Who made me a judge or divider over you?” [Lk. 12:14]. Paul also wrote in Phil. 3:20, “Our commonwealth is in heaven,” and in II Cor. 10:4,5, “The weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy arguments,” etc.

In this way our teachers distinguish the functions of the two powers, and they command that both be held in honor and acknowledged as gifts and blessings of God (see Tappert, p. 83, The Book of Concord, bold mine).

The duties of Christian clergy and secular rulers were certainly very distinct (note that secular here means “of the world” or “of the earth,” not “opposed to God”).

In many ways, this description of the two kingdoms sounds a lot like the modern American concept of “separation of church and state,” but there are significant differences.

[vii] “…even if we could elicit from the Decalogue the desired information on all the practical questions of our life, the practical conclusions which we would draw form them would still be human conclusions, burdened with the same dubious character as all human decisions.”

[viii] The Roman Catholic writer Anthony Esolen rhetorically asks, in response to a Facebook post:

“Which party is dead set to persecute the church?

Which party is committed to the evil un-definition of marriage?

Which party is full of people who will ruin your life if you say, “Marriage can only be between a man and a woman?”

Which party is full of people who want to criminalize the expression of a wide range of opinions?

Which party wants to keep enshrined in constitutional law the “right” to dismember your unborn child?

Those things are enormous. What weighs in the favor of that party? Their rather lackadaisical immigration policy? The endless wars for no clear objective? The ceding of national sovereignty to international ideologues and bureaucrats? The nationalization of medical care? What is in their FAVOR? They have long ceased to be the party of farmers and tradesmen….”

For another respective (or perhaps not?) see the article: “Why Voting for Biden Isn’t Necessarily a Sin—And Why That Matters.”

[ix] Do we think that this kind of commentary is out of place or unhelpful? Well, before you assert that too strongly, please also consider how persons looked at this kind of thing in the past, particularly those whose nations had adopted Christianity, like the nations in the Middle East (before Muhammad begin to change that around the 7th c. A.D.) Rome, and many European nations as well…

Particularly interesting here are the views of the Christian theologian Martin Chemnitz, who, many years after the rise of Christianity in general and Lutheranism in particular in his native Germany, wrote the following in his Loci Theologici (late 16th century) regarding the fourth commandment, “honor your father and your mother”.

It is fascinating reading from a day gone by….

Regarding “the duties of government officials”, Chemnitz says of them:

  • Their first concern must be for the religion of the people: they should make sure their people can “live in godliness,”
  • They should make sure that “the true doctrine…be taught to the people and they may be instructed in the true worship” ; also “kept from outward blasphemies and godless forms of worship and whatever else is a detriment to piety.”
  • it is the duty of government officials to be supportive of churches and schools, to provide for them and protect them, cf. Ps. 2:11-12; 47:9….”
  • “let him rule according to the Decalog” and “let him rule according to the ordinance of men,” that is, in keeping with laws which are favorable and which are keeping with the law of nature.”
  • “defend the bodies and properties of their subjects against the violence and injustice and thus protect the peace” ;
  • the ruler is to “execute wrath upon evildoers,” ; “…he is to execute judgement.”

For Chemnitz, who lived in a Christian nation, these kinds of commands by rulers were not only critical for Christians but non-Christians as well….

“[N]o person should be encouraged to sin and it is a sin to ignore discipline in the unregenerate.”

“[T]he doctrine of the Word of God cannot be taught when crime rules. …outward discipline instructs us to find out where righteousness comes from…”

One is taken aback with how much religious duties – nay particularly Christian responsibilities – fall on the shoulders of the secular ruler.

And he is only following Luther, who said that the If a pastor says to kings and princes…. ‘Consider and fear God and keep his commandments’ he is not meddling in the affairs of secular authorities, and also that “God intends the secular Regiment to be a model of… the kingdom of heaven”.

As I said in a past blog post:

“The Western world at large, and America in particular, honestly need to come to grips with its Christian heritage in some way, shape, or form,[vii] and to give thanks to God–to Jesus Christ–for its true blessings (no, “Judeo-Christian values” will not cut it).

Obviously, this is going to be more difficult to do–and yes, perhaps it is impossible to do–when Christian influence and true faith has waned as much as it has…”

[x] References from Matthew Cochran’s article in the Federalist about Christian nationalism: https://thefederalist.com/2019/08/13/need-christian-nationalism-religious-neutrality-failed/

[xi] I am reading the book by the black American sociologist George Yancey, Transcending Racial Barriers: Toward a Mutual Obligations Approach, and one of the things that he points out is the importance of any functioning nation having a “cultural core”. There can be differences between groups, he says, but there must also be this cultural core. He asks what it is though, suggesting, on the basis of serious sociological studies he has done, the notion of freedom… while also pointing out the way that this idea is understood varies widely…. (for more on that hear this podcast: https://newbooksnetwork.com/annelien-de-dijn-freedom-an-unruly-history-harvard-up-2020/)

In another book I read the authors emphasize those things found in the Constititution’s “Bill of Rights”: freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly ; the right to bear arms and not be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure… How convinced are most Americans, much less those who immigrate here, that these are definitive to being an American today?

And of the United States Constitution, George Washington said: “The Constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People is sacredly obligatory upon all.” Most of us are aware of the statements made by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made for a religious people ; it is wholly inadequate for any other…”

What unites us, can unite us today?

The late Aaron Wolf stated the following:

“In Federalist 2, John Jay argues for the ratification of the Constitution on the basis of nationalism: ‘Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people.’ He did not imagine that the ‘people’ were united under an idea, or around a Constitution. For Jay and the Federalists, the Americans were ‘a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs… and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. This country and this people seem to have been made for each other… and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.’

This was their case against the Antifederalists. The idea was that, being one people of blood and custom, they must have a strong central government to preserve the people’s liberties against the threat of foreign invasion. So the debate was ‘whether it would conduce more to the interest of the people of America that they should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one federal government,… or that they should divide themselves into separate confederacies, and give to the head of each the same kind of powers which they are advised to place in one national government.’ Clearly with regard to Jay’s list of criteria that makes ‘one united people,’ the ship has sailed. We can debate whether Publius was right to suggest that national interests were more vital than local and regional ones. (Well, not really: Even that debate is poisoned by cries of ‘Neo-Confederate!’ and ‘racist!’ whenever the Antifederalist side is defended.)

But anyone looking honestly at the original debate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists would have to admit that neither side would recognize the United States as she currently exists. On what basis, then, does one argue for American nationalism today? We can hardly say that the ‘nation’ is ‘descended from the same ancestors’; professes ‘the same religion’; is ‘attached to the same principles of government’; or is ‘very similar in their manners and customs.’ As for ‘speaking the same language’—se habla español.”

Matt Cochran, though, says America is, and can continue to be seen as a Christian nation:

“…until ‘Christian nationalism’ coalesces into something more definitive, in my experience the phrase best describes something much simpler:  a rejection of the religious neutrality of the late 20th century in favor of 1) a recognition that Christianity has had a unique and privileged influence on our American heritage that overshadows the influences of other faith traditions, 2) a conviction that a Christian understanding of the world should predominate over other worldviews in American civic life, and 3) an understanding that a nation that successfully excised or sufficiently diluted this influence could no longer be called ‘American’ in the same sense as before. Although more general than what the statement condemns, this understanding would actually encompass many Americans, whether they accept the label or not.”

Again, John Adams said that our Constitution was made for a religious people and that it was wholly inadequate for any other…

And of course, most all the other founding fathers of this country, even a man like Thomas Jefferson who believed not in the Christian God, but a more impersonal God who nevertheless would judge men and nations, agreed…

So what then, really unites us? Can unite us?

Should not God come into the mix? And Jesus Christ specifically?

[xii] There will be nations in the plural, even if that is not what all want to see in the future, as they press or larger “nations” en route to Utopian visions of “one nation”: “The EU has a flag, an anthem, its own currency and bank, laws, taxes, a vast governmental bureaucracy, and power over even the local laws of the member states.  On January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the Union (“Brexit”) became effective, as the UK became the first (and still only) state to withdraw from the Union.” (Larry Beane)

[xiii] And is saying something like that compatible with a recent article at Public Discourse reviewing David VanDrunen’s Politics After Christendom. Here is the end of the article, titled “Conservative Liberalism” after Christendom :

“Because VanDrunen sees the administration of justice as government’s sole responsibility authorized by the Noahic covenant, he advances an especially limited vision of the role of government. He suggests, for instance, the privatization of roads, and the potential exclusion of government from education and healthcare, and he also questions the validity of state-funded aid to the poor. Each of these may be scrutinized as to whether their existence is a matter of “justice.” But a critical element seems to be missing from VanDrunen’s entire discussion of such matters.

For any government to function, even in a limited capacity, any administrative efforts to promote or uphold justice necessarily entail the function of “ordering” the common life of the people within its jurisdiction. And whether government acts to recognize and codify or to establish new norms to regulate the activities of citizens, the task of ordering common life among the people is not only fundamental to the project of government but will likely exceed the narrow conception of administering “justice” put forward by VanDrunen. While it is true that governments naturally seek to increase the bounds of their authority, it is also true that any meaningful attempt to order the common life of a political community will require more substantive activity than the mere punishment of the wicked. It seems unnecessary, therefore, to argue for the privatization of roads or to question the validity of a social safety net in order to affirm the modest nature of a Noahic political ethic as the proper foundation for political life. In fact, further discussion of how a limited, justice-oriented vision of government rightfully goes about the work of ordering life in the polis would prove beneficial.

Apart from his defense of the Noahic covenant and natural law as foundational for political theology, the real strength of VanDrunen’s project is its utility for contemporary political engagement. The work presents a robust framework for politics after Christendom. And for VanDrunen, this is because Christendom itself was essentially a mistake. “Christians do not need a new and special kind of political theology for life after Christendom,” VanDrunen writes at the book’s opening, because Scripture “never hints that Christians ought to seek the kind of integrated Christian society that Christendom represented.”

VanDrunen recognizes the reality of pluralism not just as a matter of sociology, but of theology itself—beginning with the “common” nature of the Noahic covenant. No meaningful society enjoys uniformity in terms of religious identity and beliefs. And there is no need to pretend otherwise or to use the state to coerce specific beliefs. Instead, as VanDrunen argues, what is needed is an approach to government that recognizes the built-in moral fabric of the universe, yet refrains from exercising too much ambition in telling people how they must live their lives.” (emphasis mine).

Would VanDrunen say that Christianity has not been the privileged religion in America, even if other faiths have been tolerated (perhaps Christianity has something to do with the particular kinds of toleration we have seen in America)? Would he say that we should not hope that Christianity would be the privileged religion in America?

[xiv] Even though it might sound crazy, I think this will likely be interpreted as “White Supremacy.”

No, faithfulness to the will of God as revealed in the Bible, particularly in things like the 10 commandments and especially the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not white supremacy.

I am tempted to say that if that is white supremacy, so be it!

That however, would be to fall into their game… Seeing anything cultural and political through the lens of race is, I believe, the height of foolishness.

Another question: In hoping for something like a “Christian nationalism” are we just trying to avoid suffering? After all, as one pastor put it:

“If we have a society in which common values and goals are shared between church and state, then it is less likely we may be asked to give up anything for the sake of faithfulness or sacrifice anything for the sake of a larger good.  But a culture in which ‘Christianity’ dominates through force and majority rule may not be one of great virtue but merely a reflection of the ordinary truth that the strong rule the weak.”

Again, it seems to me in saying something like this, we are just one step away from saying that we are trying to prop up “white supremacy”. The pastor would most likely not go there, but the world certainly will….

Why not suggest that a majority, i.e. the strong, ruling, is not bad in itself, but rather say that it behooves a majority to rule well? Regardless of what “color” this or that group is? Here, I am speaking of calling the Christians in a nation to really be Christians, that is, to love and honor the Word of God. To represent Him well by always thinking about just what it means to be in, but not of, the world…

Even if the avoidance of suffering is “in part, the reason why we seek a ‘Christian’ society or nation in which morality has the force of law,” what about the desire to see the way of the Lord honored – and the blessings of love and family, for instance, that He really does mean for His people to know?

And of course, even if Christianity was more a part of our government and its externals more respected by our leaders this doesn’t mean Christians would not be persecuted. The life experience of Old Testament believers living in an honest-to-God theocracy also show us that we’ll probably always be persecuted for upholding the Word of God – either externally, from other nations, or internally, from within.

[xv] And, in the event that it does not look like a peaceful transfer of power can happen, these words from Matthew Cochran are important to keep in mind:

“Even in times of chaotic transition, there is always a higher authority which we can be absolutely certain is there: the father’s authority over his household. We know it’s there because it’s explicitly established by God in the 4th Commandment. As I’ve pointed out before:

In Luther’s analysis of the Fourth Commandment, all temporal authority penultimately proceeds from parents by way of God’s explicit command to honor our fathers and mothers. And, of course, though we loathe to think of it in our feminist culture, that parental authority is most properly paternal authority—for God has explicitly established the husband as head of the wife and instructs the wife to be submissive to her husband. So in sum, whatever governing institutions we may be under, they exist because somewhere along the line, our forefathers delegated their own authority over their households to others in order to assist them with specific tasks.”

[xvi] To the nations, to their governments, we can say this:

The point is that the church has a responsibility to proclaim the Gospel to all — and this includes, perhaps especially, you. And when you convert, it is your responsibility to protect the church and not interfere in its doctrine even as you also should be supportive of the Word of the Lord in whatever ways you can. If you want to protect other religions too, all well and good, though here harmony and order are no doubt a concern (like when multiple languages cause issues) and no doubt should be for any nation… (Maybe we need more nations? More fences?)”

But should we coerce others then?

When Dr. Gregory Seltz of the LC-MS says “The problem doesn’t lie with Christians in the public square forcing their view of marriage or sexual practice on others” that is, clearly, not the full story. The secular world is right to think that Christians believe that all cultures must honor marriage and that this really, is not something that any society can fail to do and avoid consequences and God’s judgment. Perhaps they better understand the significance of things that we like to suppress. In fact, I am quite sure they do know better. This being the case, they also are quite intentional about what they are doing (even if they “know not what they do”), which is why they must lose this war.

Marriage should be upheld by Christians among the peoples that they inhabit and be urged on them – even to the point of establishing these things in law when the opportunity presents itself to do so. We should then, in a sense coerce. We should try to do this in ways that are kind, “soft,” but we should nevertheless try….

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

My MTS Treatise: The Holistic Relationship Between Apologetics and Evangelism

Paul on Mars Hill: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” — Acts 17:30

 

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In the past on this blog, I had mentioned my MTS Treatise written for Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary at St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada in 2002.

As a “Metadata Librarian,” of course I appreciate the catalog record…

 

I recently was able to get a PDF copy of it (the librarian there had asked me if they could make a scan of it for a student and also passed on the scan to me).

It’s 76 pages, and might give you an idea of how much I have mellowed over the years. : ) Here is a quote from it that I put in a blog post a few years ago:

“The idea that “it is wrong, always and everywhere, for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence” or to say that “Christian belief is unwarranted in the absence of supporting argumentation” would be characteristics of rationalism (Kelly Clark and William Craig, in Cowan 268, 174). Therefore, although a Christian has their trust in the true Person of Jesus Christ, it does not necessarily follow that “there is a requirement for people to understand and assent to theistic proofs or evidence of the resurrection before they can be rational in holding their Christian beliefs” (Kelly Clark in Cowan 364). At the same time, most would undoubtedly agree that religious terrorists, for example, rely too much on passion and do not sufficiently consider their beliefs and ways. Discernment is called for here.” (me, The Holistic Relationship Between Apologetics and Evangelism, pp 11-12)

Enjoy!:

Rinne, Nathan, The Holistic Relationship Between Apologetics and Evangelism, MTS, 2002

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I have also written a number of other posts on this blog specifically about Christian apologetics. What follows are some of those posts (the first one in the list helps explain the topic of my Master’s treatise):

FIN
 
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Posted by on October 14, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

What More Could I Have Done for My Lutherans?

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“What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?” – Isaiah 5:4

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So, this parable in Isaiah about the vineyard… what to say?

Well, if we pay attention, we see that God talks like this elsewhere in the Old Testament as well. In Jeremiah, he says…..

21 I had planted you like a choice vine
    of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
    into a corrupt, wild vine?

And here I’ll just note at this time that, being someone who was always really interested in the hard sciences – and being a college instructor for beginning Christianity classes – I have met quite a few atheists in my day…

And I have noticed that when passages like these come up, their cynicism and unbelief really starts to show…

Oh, God is talking again about how He creates everything good, huh?

Well, what about that forbidden fruit in the Garden?

And of course Adam and Eve sinned… what, did he set them up? Was he running a scientific experiment with them?

And by the way, Christians say there won’t be the possibility of sin in heaven, so why did the possibility have to exist in Eden? Huh?…

Why did God even allow any temptation at all?

What was the point of letting that snake in there?

Oh, he’s Satan, huh? And Satan fell too, I guess. Sure seems like these good creations aren’t so good.

Why did God allow Satan to fall? Why allow for that possibility?

At the very least, couldn’t God have given them a bit more help?

Sent them an angel or something?

Is this “God” you worship really good? Pilate said what is truth and I’m not saying that, but I am saying “Where’s the proof?”

Why don’t you prove it!? Why doesn’t your God prove it?

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Well, truth be told, if you really know your Lutheran theology, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to suspect some of those questions might have occurred to you too…

And so maybe, there have been times in your life, you have prayed:

“You say you did enough for your vineyard God? You say you planted ‘a choice vine of sound and reliable stock’”?

God, how can you say that you did everything if man is “dead in sin” If sinners cannot do anything of true spiritual value? If they cannot, by their own power, even begin to fear, love, and trust in God?

I’m only saying what your word says God! Does not your word, after all, say:

  • That which is born of the flesh is flesh (John 3:6a).
  • I was sinful from birth ; in sin my mother conceived me (Psalm 51)

Does not your word say that:

  • All of us [Christians] also lived among [the unbelievers] at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath (Eph. 2:3).

And also that…

  • No one understands; no one seeks for God (Rom. 3:11).

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These things are indeed true.

And it is true that because the Bible says things like this, many will make a number of excuses:

“What do you expect from me, God?”  

“If you made me this way, and there’s nothing I can do, isn’t it all on you? Make the first move and prove yourself then!”

“You seem to me like a hard master, reaping where you have not sown…”

Again, it is not only those who are not Christians who might say this, but some Christians as well… particularly when we start to think our lives have taken a bad turn, our fortunes decreasing….

“Maybe if you had done more for us God… made us love you more! Made us more filled with passion and spontaneity… things wouldn’t have turned out this way…”

Interestingly though, even as someone like Martin Luther believed all of these things about original sin – about the absolute incapacity of any sinner to do any good for the right reasons — He still didn’t view matters this way.

When he read those passages, he didn’t find reasons in them for making excuses….

He viewed matters primarily in terms of God’s original creation…. In fact, in his day, he said this about those who insisted that God’s commands were impossible to do:

“It is said improperly, that is, not rightly and not fittingly, that we are obliged to do what is impossible by the law. When Adam was first created, the law was for him not only something possible, but even something enjoyable….”

The significance of this kind of thing should not be lost on us. Adam and Eve were not created “halfway there” ; they were not created to earn their place with God. They were created to be with God from the beginning, and to live from a place of total peace with him…

And what about that tree of knowledge of good and evil by which they fell?

Well, they were meant, with the help of God who gave them strength, to conquer that problem, no problem….

And thereby, continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God….

Adam, in the Garden, just needed to recognize that God was love, loved him, and desired him to follow His commandment for that very reason. This would be for his and Eve’s own good…

As Luther put it, the issue of the tree, the struggle around the tree… was meant to help increase Adam’s knowledge about God’s loving will… A will, that, in truth, is so amazingly good and beyond anything that our wildest dreams could imagine…

If only our sinful nature would know its place and get out of the way…

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It really is a big problem… and one with massive consequences…

Many Lutherans today – even many who are relatively serious about their faith — do not follow Luther here….

One truth the 16th century Reformation got right was that man could not save himself. Man could not earn his salvation. Man could not rely on or put confidence in His own works to get him to heaven…

In essence, it is true, to do this is to declare war on God.

You, without Him, have absolutely nothing to offer Him.

And even with Him, what you have to offer is a gift from Him alone, and never to be offered with the intent of earning your place in heaven!

For the Christian is one who works from a place of salvation, who does the good works he does because of a place of peace with God….

Thank God for the Reformation!

And yet, this is all often misunderstood. The truth that works cannot save us is turned into the idea that if we think we could do more and better works… or if we think that we should attempt to please God by the actions we consciously take… then we are necessarily trying to be saved!

So, you might even hear this kind of thing from some respected Lutheran pastors and leaders:

  • You don’t have to try to do good works–they flow naturally from faith.
  • If you’re making an effort at being good, you’re enslaving yourself to the Law; let the Gospel set you free from this burden.
  • Let yourself be nourished by Word and Sacrament and good works will just take care of themselves.
  • Our attempts to ‘follow God’s commands’ do not result in us doing the loving thing.
  • Actually trying to be Christ-like leads to self-righteousness and should be avoided.[i]

This, to say the least, is messed up…

Now it is true that if we are not a Christian — or even if we are a very misinformed and/or very weak Christian who is just hanging on by a thread[ii] — what these people insist will happen here may well be the case:

….that is, we might, if we examine ourselves truthfully, find that we are, even if only at certain times, trying to earn our place in heaven….

All that said, none of this is a reason to allow for traditional Lutheran theology to fall by the wayside, and to insist that pastors today, for example, should not basically sound like the Apostle Paul in his epistles, or even Martin Luther, for example, in his sermons…

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So, with that important bunny trail out of the way, back to Isaiah – what is really going on in this passage?

Well, interestingly, the whole vineyard idea is mentioned already in chapter 3, and there Isaiah makes clear that Israel’s leaders have ruined it by plundering the poor and grinding their faces!

Again, and again, in these early chapters He makes their oppression of the poor clear…[iii]

Is this the key then?: We Christians, particularly we Christian leaders, should help the contemporary equivalents of the “fatherless and the widow” more, and not rely on our works and never think of earning anything… Maybe God will then be merciful. And then maybe we can make it…?

Not at all!  May it never be!

First of all, remember what I said before. God really does desire for you to know you have peace with God in Jesus Christ. If you confess your sin, calling it “sin”, and call His grace “grace”, you can be assured of His favor through Jesus Christ.

Anyone who gives you the opposite impression is in fact preaching another Gospel to you.

Second, this statement is also not true because there is more to say from the book Isaiah than the bits about the poor and oppressed.

It is critical that we understand exactly what is going on here, to hear the full message God wants us to hear….

The Lord promises that while He is going to judge His people a smaller group, a faithful remnant, will be spared…

And initially, from the passages above from the first several chapters of Isaiah we might get the impression that that remnant is more or less the same as, synonymous with, the poor, the innocent victims… the righteous ones…

And then you have those with means who are the wicked and the oppressors…. It is really they who are the sinners here….

Well, you might think that, but you need to notice what is also said in chapter 4….

…those of high rank will die of hunger
    and the common people will be parched with thirst.14 Therefore Death expands its jaws,
    opening wide its mouth;
into it will descend their nobles and masses
    with all their brawlers and revelers.

Or, especially, this in chapter 9:

Those who guide this people mislead them,
    and those who are guided are led astray.17 Therefore the Lord will take no pleasure in the young men,
    nor will he pity the fatherless and widows,for everyone is ungodly and wicked,
    every mouth speaks folly.

So, in sum, it looks like no one gets out of this situation unscathed….

This, then, appears to be the key….  God is saying that judgment will indeed occur, is going to come upon them… because “those who guide this people mislead them…”

Might something like this be happening in our day as well?[iv]

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All of this also brings to my mind a critical passage from Hosea 4:6:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.”

This is what true prophets like Hosea had to say to God’s people.[v]

Not only had the self-appointed “sent ones” – the “prophets”, failed…  God’s appointed priests had failed as well, as they also failed in the day of Jesus.

It is not like this ever changes. It is not like the “remnant” theology we find throughout the Old Testament has no relevance for today.

Have Christian teachers and pastors in our places and spaces really presented the word of God to their people faithfully?

Have they preached God’s law and His gospel, and dealt with the hard truths of the Scriptures… tried their best to sound like the prophets and apostles do? 

Or have other priorities been foremost on their minds? Crowds, numbers, health and wealth…?

Have they preached from the Scriptures, expounded on them, urged their people to dwell in them?

Have they called them, urged them, to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ, to pursue the better and higher things… at the expense of even good things, much less things that are base and purile?

And, when they might fail, do you pick up the slack or do you “go with the [world’s] flow”?

I would also point out that we laymen should not think that we are not accountable as well….

James says that the teachers of the church… those who lead in the church…. will be held more accountable.

He doesn’t say the laymen will not be accountable….

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Again, God rhetorically asks:

“What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?” – Isaiah 5:4

God is “appea[ing] to [us]” given “the circumstances of the case,” “to determine that he had done all that could be done.”[vi]

And yet, perhaps you might still want to ask: How is this fair? 

How are we supposed to have this knowledge… to live and grow in this knowledge… if we have had bad teachers, bad guides….?

Again, God makes it very clear they are going to held to an even stricter standard of judgment. And yet, we laymen, even those who do not publicly teach! — should not think that we will not be held accountable as well….

How can I be so sure? Well, God even expects the unbelievers, as dead in sin as they are, to seek Him!

Even as in one place the Apostle Paul quotes the Psalm insisting that no one seeks God, he elsewhere encourages even non-Christians to seek God. When preaching to the philosopher-types in Athens Greece he says:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Is Paul contradicting himself here? No. The real point is this: unbelievers do seek wrongly, but even seeking for the wrong reasons can be beneficial when it leads to Christians… to good churches… to hearing God’s Word which transforms us!

And so, here is the kind of question we should think of:

Is attending a worship service, for example, where the Scriptures are read and preached, better than not attending at all?

The answer to this question is definitely yes!

Seek the Lord while He may yet be found! Strive to enter God’s Kingdom by the narrow gate – with all your wrong reasons in tow!

And so unbelievers might seek God, in a church for example, for a number of reasons that are off, to greater or less degrees:

  • To please a family member
  • To get connected with the Big Sugar Daddy in the clouds
  • To get on the Big Man’s good side.
  • To make connections, maybe business connections, with those in a community…
  • To join in acts of social justice with others from a community
  • Simple curiosity!
  • To be a better person than my neighbor
  • Because one likes to listen to the preacher, like Herod did John the Baptist, or St. Augustine did St. Ambrose[vii]

Christians might come for a lot of those wrong reasons too, by the way.

After all, we are still sinners, and we do still have an old Adam who often will want us to, and will lead us to, do right things for wrong reasons.

In sum, fallen man, our old Adam who remains, is spiritually dead indeed. He will indeed come to church for all the wrong reasons. And yet, what if a person comes especially for reasons like these?:

  • The idea that one ought to do something like this in order to be a good person
  • Guilt, underlying fear of judgment and punishment
  • Terror of the possibility of the God who just might judge the world, as evidenced from His raising Jesus from the dead (see Acts 17:30-31)

Would those reasons for coming be even better than the other reasons we mentioned?

Yes. Because if a person is an unbeliever, reasons like these really can help make something clear:

There is only one thing a person can do in regards to God internally that is “salutary”… beneficial (its only “good” though in a fallen world…)…

Be terrified.

Indeed, better reasons for seeking God in church do in fact exist, and might very well result in better listening…

The commentator Barnes nailed it when, discussing this passage from Isaiah, he said:

“[What more could I have done for my vineyard?]…the same appeal may now be made to sinners everywhere; and it may be asked, what God “could” have done for their salvation more than has been done? “Could” he have given them a purer law? “Could” he present higher considerations than have been drawn from the hope of an “eternal” heaven, and the fear of an “eternal” hell? Could he have furnished a more full atonement than has been made by the blood of his own Son?”

Our friend Martin Luther put things a bit more delicately when he[viii] said this…:

“God… uses the law to show us the disease, not to kill us, not that we pine away under the law, not to cause disease, but so that we, having recognized the disease and in humility, would learn to seek the word of grace….”

+++

Again, those who have failed to teach the Word will all be held accountable. And yet again, even without good teachers, we will still be held accountable.

It like I insisted on last week:

“God really does expect you to overcome the circumstances that you are born into, and to resist what is wrong in the world you are born into…. The world you know…”

And don’t doubt that God is just!

“What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?”

What more could God have done?

Nothing.

Not for Israel back then, not for the world today…

Our Lord is not, as one accused Him of being in a parable, “a hard master, reaping where he had not sown…” (Matthew 25:24)

No, God was right then, and He is right now… This is the truth ; and God has supplied the proof…[ix]

Christianity is true and sure and proven.

It is made sure in the hearts of men by God creating faith in them through the loving power of His forgiveness-life-and-salvation-bringing, history-telling-and-making words, making plain and testifying in particular to the One who was to come – and has come….  

This is what distinguishes the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit from other religions’ claims of self-authenticating truth.   

While all men, including Christians, struggle with doubts, no one can claim that God has not proved this message to them, particularly because of the relentless fact of Jesus’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

Given the presence of miracle claims that are said to authenticate the teachings of other religions, God has lifted up biblical prophecy and prophecy-fulfilling miracles in particular as those things that demand most forcefully that His messengers be paid attention to….

…even as persons are still culpable before God when they have not witnessed or heard of these kinds of things – or for that matter, any miracles or Christian preaching….

As passages like Romans 1 says, even the person who is fully without God is said to know there is a God…

There is such a thing as a “famine of the word”. That is, “the removal of his gospel from places which have long been a reproach to it.”[x]

We pray that this would not be the case for places like our own nation.

Or our own church body.

Our own congregation.

Our own families.

I, myself….

And so, as the Scriptures say, to us who have the Spirit, and to all: listen attentively, and seek the Lord while He may be found!

Today! And always!

Look no further than the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever!

For Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!

Good News.

Amen

 


[i] Most of these examples are pulled from Matt Cochran’s post here: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=227

[ii] “For by nature I am thus minded as also I was accustomed in the papacy, that I would gladly do good works to pay for my sins….”

Luther, however, realized this was to declare war on God, as it, in effect, would not trust God’s faithfulness or His righteousness.  In other words, to not trust His very real promises to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

[iii] Excised beginning of sermon:

“Rirst, let’s tackle this:

What is the context for the text I chose this morning? At first, looking at verse 7…:

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress

…I wondered if I that was a clue as to what it  was all about.

That hunch was right. As a matter of fact, the first time Isaiah mentions the idea of the vineyard is in chapter 3 of his book, and he says the following:

The Lord enters into judgment
    against the elders and leaders of his people:
It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
    the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
15 What do you mean by crushing my people
    and grinding the faces of the poor?”
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.

Then one sees that in the first several chapters of Isaiah, this is a major theme…

Right away, chapter 1 of the book announces that the Lord is entering into judgement against His people:

Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
    children given to corruption!

They have forsaken the Lord;
    they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
    and turned their backs on him….

Shortly thereafter, he goes on:

Your hands are full of blood!

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

And things proceed like this…. We learn about how Israel’s rulers are rebels… partners with thieves who all love bribes and chase after gifts.

Their land is full of silver and gold; “there is no end to their treasures,” and they all participate in idolatry in their gardens by the “sacred oaks”.  

And so, they have become fully corrupt.

Like locusts, they “add house to house and join field to field till no space is left” and “[they] live alone in the land…” Later he states they “make widows their spoil and plunder the fatherless…”

Oppressors all, they “do not defend the cause of the fatherless” and “the widow’s case does not [even] come before them….” In fact, they even “acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.”

They do all this, feathering their own nests through their injustice…. simply because they can.[iii]

They have, Isaiah insists, rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel…

And so, among other things, he cries out:

Stop trusting in mere humans,
    who have but a breath in their nostrils.
    Why hold them in esteem?”

[iv] I, by the way, want to make something clear: I am not a pastor. I am a vicar sure, but I am also a librarian.

And in truth, I am not sure I want to be a pastor, and not only because I wonder how I could support my large family on a pastor’s salary…. 

Pastors also have to watch what they say, so that they do not upset powerful people in their congregations and communities. Pastors have a lot of responsibility, and not an easy responsibility. 

For that reason, I am glad to be a laymen…  No one has called me. No one has ordained me.

Maybe that is best….

James 3:1 says:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly….”

[v] Comp. 2 Kings 17:13 and 2 Chronicles 36:15, where God is shown to have done all that was possible to reclaim his people: “Yet the Lord testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to the Law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets;” “And the Lord God of their fathers sent unto them by his messengers, rising up early, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling-place: but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, until there was no remedy.” From https://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/isaiah/5.htm

[vi] https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/isaiah/5.htm

[vii] Bigger list:

  • To please a family member
  • Because you live in “Christendom,” and that is what the baptized citizen does (oops – wrong century!)
  • To be seen as a person who upholds traditional values (wrong century again?)
  • To get connected with the Big Sugar Daddy in the clouds
  • To get on the Big Man’s good side.
  • Assuming “knowledge is power,” to become a more well-informed and intelligent person
  • To make connections with those in a community
  • To join in acts of social justice with others from a community
  • To learn more about the topic ; to get information (for whatever reason)
  • Simple curiosity!
  • To confirm one’s biases against the faith and its followers
  • That one may boast of one’s extensive knowledge of the Scriptures ; to satisfy one’s own pride
  • To be a better person than my neighbor
  • To find support for one’s sectarian or heretical opinions
  • Because one likes to listen to the preacher, like Herod did John the Baptist, or St. Augustine did St. Ambrose
  • To find meaning, direction, and growth in life

[viii] https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/isaiah/5.htm

[ix] From an old post: “I do not think that we can start being “neutral” towards Christian claims upon hearing them.  They demand to be taken seriously and demand our full attention and engagement.  Why these claims over the claims of any other world religion?  Why should Christianity and the truths it purports to preach get our attention?  Well, does any other religion claim to vindicate its founder – who incidently, claimed to be God, via a resurrection from the dead? (not to mention all the miracles leading up to that final, crowning miracle – ponder, for example, Mark 2:9-11 here).  Does any other world religion claim to offer proof, assurance, “faith” – that we can know who it is who will in the future judge the world? (see Acts 17).  None.  Therefore, anyone who does not take these things seriously – is, by definition, not being rational.  Would most philosophers agree with me?  I don’t think so.  And even if some found it to be an intriguing argument, perhaps they may say, after looking at things, that there is “insufficient evidence” for what Christianity claims.  Then what?  Well, do they get to decide what sufficient evidence is?  Might they be under any obligation to reconsider and look again?  Who charges them to do so?  How deeply did they look into it?  Did they do so prayerfully?  At this point however, they might say “it sounds to me like you are saying I need to ‘let go’ and become a believer in order to do this process correctly!”

[x] https://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/isaiah/5.htm

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

How to Think Straight When God is Punishing Your People

Perhaps you did help make him, and yet….

“18 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:

“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?”

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel….

 The one who sins is the one who will die.” – Ezekiel 18:1-3

+++

I remember years ago working at a church and having an interesting discussion with a colleague about a movie she’d seen.

She shared how much she’d appreciated the theatrical remake of the Dr. Seuss story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” starring, at the time, the popular actor Jim Carey.

I don’t remember many details about the conversation but one thing still stands out in my memory:

She was very impressed with the compassion and understanding the movie showed for the Grinch.

Sure he was a nasty, greedy, selfish character – no doubt about it.

At the same time, I was told that the movie was thoughtful in that it helped the viewer understand why the Grinch was the way he was.

It gave some of his “backstory” as some like to say today, showing that he had indeed had a very hard life, a life full of abuse and suffering, and so it only made sense to recognize that he was a monster, yes – but an understandable monster.

Others had created him.

We have the same kinds of discussions today don’t we? Perhaps in these increasingly difficult days, more and more so…

As a matter of fact, these kinds of thoughts are now increasingly dominating our world.

When others do bad things, when they covet, commit adultery, steal, kill… we should realize that we helped make them who they are. In some very real way, we, too, are responsible…

Sinning against them, we made them.

Not too long ago, I had a discussion with a friend about these kinds of things as well. We were talking about rates of violent crime being higher among certain groups of people….

My very intelligent friend this:

“Some people choose to steal. What leads them to it? Thrill seeking, peer pressure, and/or economic necessity among other things. Can anything be done to reduce thefts by thrill seeking people? Maybe but probably not. However, there are things that can be done to reduce economic insecurity by societies, communities, organizations, or individuals. Taking action in this way does not reduce the agency of an individual as (s)he could still choose to steal but people’s choices are both constrained and colored by their circumstances and past experiences.”

In other words, it doesn’t only matter that someone else is stealing… You, also, are the man!

Long live the Grinch re-make, right?

I jest a bit here, but is there not truth in what my friend says?

While we shouldn’t ever let such things become our identity, must we not admit that we, each and every one of us, are both victims and victimizers?

This is why I told my friend:

“Your view, I’d argue, is really the only sensible way of looking at the issue. The difference, of course, will often lie in the details of any proposed solutions, as people who genuinely want to make things better will come to have different emphases based on views of human nature, history, and such…”

+++

Now, what am I saying?

Am I encouraging all of you, even indirectly… subtly… to embrace the arguments in the popular new book In Defense of Looting?

Not at all!

May it never be! : )

No, what I really looking to say is this:

While we would be fools to think that we will not be held accountable for the ways that we have caused others to sin, or even been complicit… involved… entangled, in how the society we live in has caused others to sin, this is also often something that only God can sort out, and will.

The fact of the matter is that we do not always understand the real, underlying causes about why people do bad things.

We do not even understand why we ourselves desire, think, say, do the evil things we do.

We do know, however, that sin is in all of us….

And God means for each and every human being not to focus on locating the problems and sins we have outside of ourselves but to keep on asking: How have I displeased the Lord? In what ways am I responsible here?

For ultimately, when it comes to the matters of living this life on earth, every person must blame no others for their sins but embrace full accountability for their own thoughts, words, and deeds…

And this is also a sign for us about how that accountability – and that real corresponding guilt – holds true before God as well.

That is what our text makes very clear this morning:

Each of us must stand naked before God, with all our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds…

Without excuse.

As David put it in a prayer, kindly aiding us today:

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge….”

+++

Now before we get into our text from Ezekiel more, let’s talk about its surrounding context.

If you read the first 18 chapters leading up to this, for example, you will see that God does not begin by addressing each individual person.

Rather, we see that there is definitely something we might call corporate sin…

This, in fact, early on, seems to be largely what the book of Ezekiel is about… They, as a people, a communal group, have “not walked in my statutes or obeyed my rules…”

They have gone whoring after other gods.

Now, let’s remember: the Israelites that Ezekiel is pummeling here had been through a lot!

First, they had been surrounded by their neighbors, the Canaanites, who worshipped false gods, going so far as practicing temple prostitution and offering their own children as sacrifices.

Second, Israel had been invaded by these neighbors time and again, and had experienced much abuse, hardship, and suffering… The ones Ezekiel is talking to in fact had been taken as slaves, carried off into exile in Babylon…

Therefore, many in this time had concluded that God had abandoned them – or that He had no power – and so turned to their neighbor’s false gods and goddesses for relief…

Now one might think, especially if we are living in America today, that all of this might be somewhat understandable, much like my colleague thought the Grinch had been shown to be “understandable”…

After all, hadn’t their neighbors—the nations around them—been at least one of the reasons why they fell into sin… they fell so dramatically way from the Lord?

Well, strictly speaking, the Bible doesn’t deny the nations around Israel are a part of this story.

And yet, as the same time, that doesn’t mean that Israel’s sin, to God, was in any way “understandable”… (air quotes)

God, in fact, would seem to have very little patience for such a sentiment, for He addresses the matter of their fear head on:

“…you have feared the sword, and I will bring the sword upon you”, the Lord says…

In chapter 7, for example, we read this:

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘Disaster! Unheard-of[a] disaster!
See, it comes!
The end has come!
The end has come!
It has roused itself against you.
See, it comes!
Doom has come upon you,
upon you who dwell in the land.
The time has come! The day is near!
There is panic, not joy, on the mountains.
I am about to pour out my wrath on you
and spend my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.

I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
I will repay you for your conduct
and for the detestable practices among you.

“‘Then you will know that it is I the Lord who strikes you.” (Ezek. 7:5-9) (see also 7:26)

While God makes it clear in the preceding chapters that He desires “that they may be my people and that I may be their God,” it also clear that punishment must come…

“Though they escape from the fire, fire shall yet consume them…” (Ezek. 15).

He also repeats three times that even if Noah, Daniel, and Job themselves were in the city of Jerusalem, “they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness”.

If it were the case, that these three righteous men were in the city, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. [Noah, Daniel, and Job] alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate” as “sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence” came (Ezek. 14).

As we hear the rhetorical question elsewhere, “can [one] break the covenant and yet escape?”[i]

And yet, at the same time, the book is not without hope.

Also in these chapters, there are great promises to God’s people as a whole – not just those who have been faithful, practicing daily repentance.

In spite of all the fierce judgment that is coming – and I have given you only a taste of what is in the book… – the Lord will “atone for all that you have done” and, He says:

19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezek. 11)

+++

And now, these verses:

“18 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:

“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?”

This proverbial saying was evidently quite popular in Israel at this time. Also quoted in the book of Jeremiah, it meant just this:

The children are experiencing trouble or discomfort for something their fathers had done.

So what is going on here with this question?

Well, the question from God is rhetorical of course.

This means that “Ezekiel is not asking for a direct answer,” rather he is “challenging his audience to defend their shallow attempt to deny their [own] guilt.” (Lutheran Study Bible)

You really think you can blame your parents for what the disaster that is coming upon you now?

No way.

In the book of Jeremiah, when that prophet speaks of the restoration of God’s favor, we are told that those redeemed by the Lord will no longer quote this saying or “shrug of personal responsibility for their misdeeds” (Lutheran Study Bible).

In other words, locating problems and faults outside of themselves might be as natural as gasping for breath when oxygen is taken away, but they will nevertheless come to realize that I, and I alone, “am the man.”

So it is by God’s rejection of this common saying or proverb, in both the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, that we get to the matter of each individual person.

Each one who must, taking account of their own sin, stand before God alone.

+++

Again though… at the same time though…on the other hand though… books like Jeremiah and Ezekiel also force us to recognize that we may indeed be parts of larger groups that are enmeshed in all manner of sin and sinful habits.

…and that this deeply matters to God and should to us as well.

In fact, it is critical for us to recognize that those who stand up against the world and His ways – who resist its allure and influence – are a critical part of God’s plan!

This is why, for example, when the Apostle Paul is encouraging spouses involved in marriages, he says this:

“And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”

+++

And so… we see again that while each individual must stand before God alone[ii], the corporate aspect, “the collective,” the community, the group, “the people” – matters.

….and particularly when it comes to things like marriages and families. And this, of course, should raise another question:

“If we today are being punished by God… if we are experiencing His wrath in our lives….

Does this mean that it is not because of the sins of our ancestors, but because of the sins of the present group of people of whom we are a part?”

Does this mean that the past—other than the sin of Adam and Eve which we know got the ball rolling—doesn’t matter?

+++

Well, not exactly, for here we must speak of a distinction between “generational guilt and generational corruption…”

Generational guilt, or as some might call it, “transgenerational accountability,” (Block, 558-559), would mean that God holds you responsible for the sins of your ancestors, and punishes you on earth accordingly for those sins.

But generational guilt does not exist.

God is even irritated with those who would suggest it does exist by uttering that proverb about the sour grapes…

And yet, insofar as you do not renounce and avoid, the sins of your ancestors… the sins of your parents… you are indeed guilty of generational corruption.

After all, in our text today we see that it is not generational guilt that Israel is being punished for.

It is their present corruption. They have continued in… they have been permitted by God to continue in… the corruption of their parents.

This is what the Lord means when He continuously talks about how He “visit[s] the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…”

When God said this in the book of Exodus and later on, it was meant as a “warning to adults to guard their conduct because of the implications for their children” (Block, 55). It is not about generational guilt.

We can see this elsewhere in the Penteteuch, for example, the first five books of the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy, for example, Israel’s civil law says this:

“Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” (24:16)

And later on, Jeremiah helps us see what is going on more clearly when he says:

“We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,

and the iniquity of our fathers,

jfor we have sinned against you.” (14:20)

Or, as Ezekiel quite simply puts the whole matter, “like mother, like daughter…”

“The apple doesn’t far from the tree…” we might think.

And yet again, we see that while this might “make sense,” it doesn’t render things “understandable” (air quotes).

For in our text, God is essentially saying:

“Stop blaming your parents for the disaster that is coming upon you now!”

So… as unfair as all of this may seem to us, God really does expect you to overcome the circumstances that you are born into, and to resist what is wrong in the world you are born into…. The world you know….

So what is wrong in your world?

+++

That brings us to today then, doesn’t it?

Now.

Our time.

What can we, do we, know about our sin, about the sins of our group, or the groups we are a part of?

We know that we have the very clear word of God. God has told us clearly in His Word the kinds of things that merit His punishment. We also know from Jesus (in Luke 13:1-5) that whenever evil men or calamity strike, it is a reminder for all people to repent.

We also know from Scripture what sins God held against Israel in the days of Ezekiel:

“He eats at the mountain shrines.
He defiles his neighbor’s wife.
12 He oppresses the poor and needy.
He commits robbery.
He does not return what he took in pledge.
He looks to the idols.
He does detestable things.
13 He lends at interest and takes a profit.”

We also know that today we do not have a clear word from God about when a specific people is being punished for specific sins.

That said, this is not to say that many of us might not come to a rather solid conclusion, have some real confidence… that we, as a people, we as a church, we as a nation, are experiencing punishment from God…[iii]

What sins do you think we have committed which anger God?

Can you know which sins we have committed which anger God?

What about all of the things people in the world, those in the media, are complaining about now?

  • is it because cops tend to pull over black people disproportionately we are being punished?
  • is it because of what some are calling the “scourage of police violence”? (Breonna Taylor is on the minds of many…)
  • is it because of the overly harsh “war on drugs”?
  • is it because white people have not acknowledged, or not sufficiently acknowledged, their guilt over race-based chattel slavery, colonialism, and Jim Crowe?
  • is it just because those with riches have not taken adequate account and care of those without them?
  • is it because of cuts in welfare or health care programs?
  • is it because of a disrespect and disregard for the environment?
  • is it just because of institutional forces that have a negative impact on minority groups — even if bad intentions are not present?[iv]

Now, in mentioning all of these things I do not mean to suggest that exploring and understanding these topics is not worth our time.

I think responsible and reasonable people should try to do what is best as regards each one of them. They all matter.

At the same time, many of these are highly complicated issues… and few of them seem to offer obvious answers.

People will often disagree – and disagree strongly – about matters such as these.

Perhaps, not even all devout Christians will be able to come to a consensus about which sins in America today are angering God the most…

For my own part, I personally take to heart the words of a friend, who said this to me….

“There is a real tough preaching about the Christian Hope not being in this world, but in the coming fullness of the Kingdom. One can lawfully seek address of grievances, but the second your hope moves to this world (Liberation Theology, Social Gospel) you’ve lost the gospel…The Christian case for reparations is really the one for a Jubilee. Debts forgiven, land returned. It will never happen. But even that just points to what is missing, the true judge who would render true judgements…  “The real problem is the loss of the eschatological vision and [help]. This world is a both our Father’s good creation and veil of tears. It owes us nothing. But the Kingdom is near. When that collapses to just this world ‘Grab what you can by any means necessary becomes the rule.’”

I believe with all my heart my friend is wise.

I also believe that even if others don’t think he is wise, there are other things we can know, namely:

God means for us not to focus on our rights, but our responsibilities.

Wherever we are in life, He means for us not to point the fingers at others first, but to self-examine…

Also, I would suggest taking a much more serious look at the basics, the 10 commandments – and judging our current worlds’ circumstances according to these….

Why should this not always be the place we start?

Now, I realize that for many today, even these basics – taught to us from the times we were little imbibing Martin Luther’s Small Catechism – have been thrown into confusion, but that is precisely why they are so important right now.

There is also another thing that we who believe in Jesus Christ can be very, very sure about…

Things can be even more basic.

Have no other gods before him? St. Augustine even said that this commandment, this first commandments, was the key to all commandments. “Love God and do what you will….!”, he said.

Luther agreed, noting that all of our other sins against God’s commandments come from a failure to keep the first. As he put it in the Large Catechism:

“…where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is observed, all the others follow.”

This is why, for example, in the book of Revelation, God calls the church back to its First Love.

Don’t let the flame go out, your love grow cold…

+++

Again, in a way, the Grinch movie was right.

We help make others. And we are responsible for all the sins that we have committed against others. For all the ways that we have caused them to sin.

No one, really, could have put it more forcibly than Jesus:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!”

And yet, note this also: the kinds of evils that we are to be accused of are not always going to be the ones that the world might pick, call evil.

Does the world still agree that child and sex trafficking are evil? It seems so…. It seems like most can all get behind a fight this – for the time being, at least….

But what about the sin that God says Ezekiel will be guilty of if he does not take courage in the Lord and get over his fear over the mad crowds?[v]

What about the church’s call to tell the world to repent… to turn to the One True God in faith? As Luther said, what about “picking a fight with the world”?

The world doesn’t want to be told it is wrong. Many Christians do not want to tell the world it is wrong….

But take courage and stand, lest you not stand at all!

And so, as the opportunities approach you, don’t hesitate.

We can’t hesitate.

Because people, deep down, know they are wrong, even as some more violently suppress the truth than others….

And keep in mind this too: Satan—even as he delights to lead men into selfish pleasures—doesn’t just do that.

He will even at times proclaim God’s law Himself. Though with the intent of destroying men’s souls.

How so? By endlessly accusing us of failing to be good Christians… or even of failing to be good humans… Until he drives us to despair, guilt, and death.

No forgiveness or relief at all… he wants a world without such things.

Such is the god of this world!

Only our God, who alone is both strong and good, is different!

Provides and is, in fact, the Way.

God, again, is the One who desires that none should, enmeshed in sinful families and neighbors, perish but eternal life….

Again, as God puts it in Ezekiel:

“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord… For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!”

And so hear the Apostle Paul again, this as he encourages his young charge, Pastor Timothy…!:

Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. 23Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

As the 16th century Lutheran pastor Martin Chemnitz put it:

“In Christ a person does not bear the iniquity of the father, because it has been taken away…”

And so again, I say to you:

“In the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for His sake God forgives you all your sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.”

FIN

Notes:

[i] God is not saying that these three men were sinless. He is saying that they were righteous by faith, and that they lived by faith. Repentance was indeed something that characterized their faith…

[ii] “….when many of the old bonds of family, community, and so on disintegrated, the environment of ‘every man for himself”…. (speaking of the Exile, Diaspora) – Hummel, 533

[iii] And here, when it comes to very earthly concerns, these questions naturally arise:

Who do we think are our people?

Who should we think are our people?

Nationally, if we do not think we are really one people, what do we do?

[iv] An idea not worthy of consideration, to be sure: https://twitter.com/WokePreacherTV/status/1306604750188818432 I used to respect Tim Keller a lot but things like this have changed that.

[v] From Ezekiel 3: “I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself…”

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

A Critical Review of John Pless’ “Handling the Word of Truth”

 

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We all expect our most respected professors to be very well-read individuals and fluent in their disciplines. The Fort Wayne theology professor John Pless, however, goes beyond even this expectation and has a reputation for encouraging his students to read some of the most creative and unconventional minds in academic theology, particularly Lutheran academic theology. And how many professors do you know who can admit to having a Facebook group dedicated to them like “Would would Pless read”? (you know, playfully imitating the “WWJD” fad of the early 2000s). And this, to be sure, has its merits…. For example, even though I have not read Oswald Bayer’s book Promissio (I think it is only in German now), as best I understand it, his thesis about confession and absolution being the heart of the Reformation[i] is essentially correct even if it is not wholly in line with the traditional story that has been told…

Long live the Reformation!

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That said, my reaction to the book I’m reviewing in this article is pretty much the opposite. And, interestingly, although this was not the intention (this was written weeks ago), the criticisms made of Dr. Pless’ book below can also basically be applied across the board to the latest Thinking Fellows podcast, entitled, “The Telos of the Law”.

Luther says that the law’s accusation ceases and that Christ
is the end of the law for righteousness.

 

Of course, it is not possible that John Pless’ 2004 book Handling the Word of Truth – making the effort as it does to sum up C.F.W. Walther’s greatest work – could be all bad. Indeed, there is much in this book that I found edifying (more of this at the end of the review). Nevertheless, in reading it I also came across a number of things which concerned me at best and caused me to cringe at worst.

For instance, we learn that the law cannot be presented as good news in preaching (21, 47) and, it seems, offers no hope or sweetness in any context (35, 36). In spite of Walther himself (“We do not by any means reject cooperation on the part of man after his regeneration; we rather urge it upon him lest he die again and incur the danger of being lost forever…”) — the man whose great work this book is summarizing — cooperation in sanctification also dare not be talked about without damaging Christian proclamation (50).

And while it is true that the law must sometimes be abandoned completely (23), Dr. Pless’ explanations fall short of Luther’s full understanding of this. As Luther makes abundantly clear in the Antinomian Disputations, the law must be abandoned completely when the Christian’s conscience is under vicious attack from the law of God as wielded by Satan, who does this specifically in order destroy our souls. In addition, the good Dr. never talks about the kinds of attacks weak and poorly-formed consciences might undergo from popular man-made expectations that are contrary to God’s law (is this because, as Radical Lutherans like to imply or assert, no one person or people, at bottom, is an antinomian?[ii]). In fact – in statements which carry particular weight in the dark days we are experiencing today – Pless insists that the Bible teaches that knowledge of the Ten Commandments would only make things worse for public morality, not better (15, though see 29 as well). “Why though,” one might ask, “say this if ‘without the true God, man will always attempt to create a substitute deity’”? (31) Is it because, in spite of the fact that “virtues may be praiseworthy and beneficial when it comes to life in human community,” (76) God has no desire for the nations to deeply study, understand, and learn His law? (also, does the specific public religion make any difference when it comes to how a people lives? One is left wondering…)

The book also talks about just how very different the Law and Gospel are: the “clash” between Law and Gospel “puts faith itself on trial,” causing us to wonder if there is something we must do if we are to have peace with God (24). At the same time, just because the uses of Law and Gospel by some might put Christian faith on trial in this particular way (hint: see above paragraph), does this mean that this is God’s intent for the doctrines (Pless himself also gets close to saying that this is not God’s intent, but does not quite get there — see page 23)? In the end, for the author of this book, the only change the law can work in us is death. If Christ is not the end of the law – not the end of the law for righteousness, as Luther taught – the law will lead either to a pride or despair focused on external works – the “Turk’s faith”… (8, see also 38-39).

In Handling the Word of Truth one gets the impression that the law’s only function is, in Sartre-esque fashion, to “post[] a ‘No Exit’ sign over every doorway we go through to try and meet God on our own terms” (32). And so what then would be the theological implication of the things we have spoken about above when it comes to preaching? It seems that the only way a Christian can learn from the law is that he is to die or must, somehow, learn to die… Even if Luther and Walther might have spoken of times where it is appropriate to attenuate the law for believers or even encourage them to do God’s commandments, the author repeatedly states, in a number of ways, the following: “[u]nrelenting in its demand, the Law can only make sin manifest for what it is and crush the sinner with its death sentence” (40). Faith in the Gospel, however, frees us from the ongoing death that is our own self-justification (48)….

In sum then, one is left with the distinct impression that if the Christian is ever being told to do something it is necessarily because he is a self-justifying sinner (perhaps I, holding the contrary view, am addicted to “lawfulness” [16]!) and he needs to be put to death (he can’t, after all, no matter how good he is, do anything perfectly). To complicate these matters all the more, we are not only given the impression that the law merely “imposes itself ‘out of the conditions of creaturely life’” as James Nestingen says (37), but also that the moral teachings of all non-Christian religions are essentially the same (see 12-13 ; see 54 as well though). Of course this is hardly true, for it is clear that the law was given Israel to proclaim the identity of the only true God whom all men are called to worship.

Speaking of matters of identity, it is good and necessary to know the Christian Gospel in its narrow sense, where Christ’s death and resurrection frees us from sin, death, and the devil and “gives… rest in Christ” (33). At the same time, the Formula of Concord also speaks about the Gospel in the wider sense, and here it no doubt helps us to understand ever more deeply whose we are and what we are called to do as children of the household of God (see FC SD V:5 and the Small Catechism: “That I may be his own…”). So there is a real connection here with the law: the first table of the Law commands us to do something of the first importance… fear, love, and trust the one true God. One cannot help but think about the implications of this vis a vis Pless’ assertion on page 69 that faith can never be described as “our commitment, duty, decision…”. Why, specifically? Would that perhaps introduce the sin of people “motivated by the Gospel” (35) and a “theology of glory” (76)? For the author, “[w]hat law requires is freedom from the law” (quoting Leif Grane approvingly, 40). And yet, if freedom is “found only in the Law-free Gospel of Jesus Christ” (40), how are we to also ponder God’s law as “the perfect law of liberty”? (see the book of James).

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I should add at this point that one of the consequences of the author’s approach seems to be one of the very things he warns about happening actually happening: “When antinomians ancient or modern try to make the Law go away by theological quackery, they only succeed in relocating the Law. They end up inserting it into the Gospel” (44-45, see also 74). I see this among many of those who appreciate and follow Dr. Pless. For example, it is thought by some that the new law Christ gives — “love one another as I have loved you” — really does differ from what the 10 commandments mean to get at in some very significant ways!

Not long ago, I heard a highly intelligent pastor (this is Pastor John Drosendahl, who told me to feel free to use his name here) who appreciates the good doctor say: “…if my member according to their new self desires good works, I’ll direct them to ask [‘Is this the loving/caring thing to do?’] so that they will realize that the Gospel alone produces good works.” First of all, this is better than the response I once heard from another highly intelligent Pless-following Confessional Lutheran pastor, basically “If someone is wanting help from me to become a better father or husband, for example, I know I am dealing with someone who is trying to save himself.” Second, my response to the pastor’s claim that this will make the member realize the Gospel alone produces good works is “Why would helping them to say ‘Is this the loving/caring thing to do?’ necessarily cause them to realize this?” I cannot understand why this distinction – this different way of saying what is in fact the same thing (Luther’s explanation of the commandments in the Small Catechism!) – is somehow the thing that pastors should be doing. What I think this pastor does not see is that this could be just as much a word of condemning law as simply urging someone to do their duty (the loving thing) by saying “God commands this [because he loves you and them].” The pastor says “…our attempts to ‘follow God’s commands’ do not result in doing the loving thing,” but that just is not necessarily the case. For instance Adam, in the Garden, didn’t need to ask himself the question about the “loving/caring” thing. Adam just needed to recognize that God was love, loved him, and desired him to follow His commandment for his and Eve’s own good for that very reason. And, as Luther says, the Tree was meant to increase Adam’s knowledge about God’s loving will.

Regarding this confusion about Jesus’ new commandment, my pastor talked to me about this years ago:

“Jesus said that He was giving the disciples a new commandment. First of all, why would they need a commandment? Secondly, is the new commandment for them to love? Well, if it is to love, than how is it new? Certainly the 10 commandments requires such love, as Jesus Himself taught. So it just must be that the love the disciples were to express had been modeled by Jesus, and so what was new, was that the love they were to express would be expressed by imitating Jesus.

So: Jesus fulfilled the law; the disciples imitated Jesus. In other words, the law was fulfilled by imitating Jesus who fulfilled the law.

But if there is no third use [of the law], then love must somehow be juxtaposed over against the law. So: either follow the commandments (the law) OR be loving…”

In other words, if there is no third use — or the third use is just the first or second use applied to the Christian — then the door is open for love to somehow be juxtaposed over against the law (because law which forces compliance might serve a salutary function in keeping order and peace without true justice which goes hand in hand with love)… Perhaps, in the end Jesus is *justly accused* as a violator of God’s own law so that all sinners may have assurance of eternal life? (Forde) In violating the law, for example, Jesus Christ is actually being faithful to his Father’s mission to save the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 10:6) and those from the other sheep pen? Think, for example, how Jesus *presumably* breaks the Law by, for example, dining with sinners! See what is happening here? Or, at least, how the door is opened up for this to happen?

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What to make of all this? I’ll give you my own view. Many of the men whom John Pless touts like Bayer, Paulson, Forde, and Elert — and who it appears he has at times publicly touted without any warning or reservation – also reject the 3rd use of the law. For folks like me – who believe that a denial of the true definition and intention of any use of the law is a denial of the whole law – this is serious business.

Dr. Pless, as best I can tell, basically agrees with the substance of the critique of these men, which appears to be what he means when he talks about the “so-called third use of the law.” It is unclear, in my mind, for example, how his position would differ substantially from that of John Hoyum, who, I believe is more or less defending the Confessional Lutheran status quo when he states:

“Confessional Lutherans more positively disposed to the Formula of Concord (FC) than [Gerhard] Forde was might be more inclined to retain the category of the law’s third use. Even so, Forde’s rejection of the third use need not be especially upsetting at this point, since he affirmed that the law is used with regard to the old creature still captive to sin. In no way did he deny that the Ten Commandments are normative for the conduct of the Christian….while Forde rejects the FC’s designation of a third use, he upholds the position of the concordists and Luther’s antinomian disputations in specifying that the law must be applied to Christians who struggle against the old nature that remains bound in sin. Even while Forde disagrees with the decision to identify––in a titular sense––a third use of the law, it would be hard to demonstrate that Forde’s teachings on the law contradict the actual doctrinal content of FC VI. Forde’s criticisms of the development of the lex aeterna in later Lutheranism are fair game, and remain a convincing indictment of much orthodox Lutheranism and how it went on to deploy the doctrine of the law after the period of reform––regardless of how else that episode of Lutheran history might be rightly admired…”

I know I can’t be the only one who finds this kind of thinking to be both confusing and tragic. What if someone in the Confessional Lutheran house spoke about the “so-called doctrine of justification” — you could bet that every head would turn!

To me, it seems as if many among us are incapable of reading Paul’s epistles and Luther’s sermons at face value, even as they look askance at those who would attempt to sound like them today! I can’t emphasize how important I think this kind of shift really is, and Hoyum, at least, tips his hand about what he thinks this means vis a vis the LCMS: “[with Forde] a refreshing alternative to a fundamentalist construal of inerrancy comes into view…”[iii]

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One final issue to address directly here: a common complaint is that Confessional Lutherans like me say people should not read teachers who speak error. That is really an unfair accusation, and strikes me as more of a rhetorical move which ignores the truth of the matter. I will again assert that there is much in Pless that is interesting, good and edifying (most all the stuff that is not in this blog post, especially all the quotes from the Bible, Luther, Walther, the Confessions, and Bo Giertz that I am not sharing…) – and he is far more careful in the way he talks about Law and Gospel as it relates to the content of the Bible as a whole than men like Forde and Paulson (see 19-20). I especially appreciate and take seriously the warning of Craig Parton that he quotes on page 56 about how the Christian continues to need to hear the narrowly preached Gospel (forgiveness, life and salvation in Jesus Christ for you!) his entire life. This is indeed the great treasure that Luther and those following in his train preserved and delivered more clearly than ever before in the church’s history! (chapter 6, by the way, along with the appendix [one of Luther’s sermons] is the best and most edifying part of the book).

That said, I find the book to be severely deficient on several fronts. If it is not clear from what has already been written above, consider the following: First, as Walther says, “’What he said was the truth,’ and yet you do not feel satisfied” (quoted on 21): the problem is often not what is said, but what is left unsaid (for example, how did Luther treat passages like Romans 5:20 about the law causing sin to abound? – see 72 ; didn’t Walther also talk about the “true visible church”? – see 88). And this brings me to my second reason. As a friend recently put it in a conversation we were having:

“If the Lutheran Confessions are the apex of Luther, and Lutheranism is the apex of Scripture, then what else do we judge the Confessions on but Scripture? If we must read the Confessions in the light of Luther, and Luther in the light of Scripture, then we must read the Confessions in the light of Scripture as the source of Truth.”

And if that is true for the Confessions – and it is (though how many in the Confessional Lutheran world today could even articulate this?) – how much more so for teachers like John Pless!

Finally, upon finishing this review, I came to realize that the book I was reviewing was not the most up-to-date version. The book was revised in 2015, and so I look forward to seeing if any improvements were made in that edition. I promise, God willing, to post on it too.

FIN

 

Update: An earlier version of this post had a caption under the picture of the book. That quote did not belong there, as it was from a previous post that made use of the quote in a different context.

Update 2: A sentence in the above review has been changed above to increase clarity. From “which, interestingly, Pless gets close to saying given his comments on page 23” to, instead: “Pless himself also gets close to saying that this is not God’s intent, but does not quite get there — see page 23”

[i] Steve Paulson also notes this in the interest of promoting his own work and ideas. See the Outlaw God podcast as well as my own critiques of Paulson’s theology.

[ii] Note, for example, what John Hoyum says about American culture and ask what this necessarily has to do with God’s law: “I myself am highly skeptical that the ideology of modern, western liberalism is especially antinomian. Indeed, it represents a ruthlessly legalistic construal of human life in terms economic performance, the security of the self against death in a technologically reshaped world, and the chaotic embrace of alternative sexual moralities (not the rejection of sexual morality altogether).” https://thejaggedword.com/2020/07/23/on-radical-lutheranism/

[iii] https://thejaggedword.com/2020/07/23/on-radical-lutheranism/

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Is Forgiveness Required of Christians?

 

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” – Matthew 18:35

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Many years ago, after I left for college, my parents welcomed some foreign exchange students into their home.

Now, one of these students had absolutely no trouble “making himself at home.” It soon became obvious how if there were special snacks or treats in the cupboards or refrigerator, those snacks would disproportionately end up in his stomach at a remarkable speed…

In short, the student would not be shy about taking what he wanted when he wanted it. He wasn’t asking anyone for any favors – he was creating a “new normal” for the year.

Again, this was all very much out in the open…

And it drove my brothers, of similar age to the student, just a bit crazy. What they perceived as his sense of entitlement got to them….

It is an interesting question, isn’t it?

What, do we think, should we expect from others?

Perhaps, more specifically, what do we think we are owed? What do we think we deserve from others?

Should we perhaps think that we, being poor and miserable sinners, are not really owed anything by anyone?

I mean, after all, this is the meaning of mercy and grace right? Mercy is not getting what we deserve and grace is getting what we don’t deserve.

And yet, because God is so surprisingly good, we get God’s grace, sometimes understood as the acronym, G.R.A.C.E. – God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense……

My family’s foreign exchange student aside… and the truth about our being undeserving of God’s grace aside… these questions, really, are not an unreasonable thing for us to ask….

In last week’s Epistle readings, for example, we learned that earthly rulers who know the Bible might come to expect, for example, that Christians will endeavor to be those who obey government authorities…

Part of what God says to Christians in the book of Romans, after all, is this:

6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor….

And although the first part of this passage is about how to treat governing authorities, Paul goes on to talk about something with even broader implications, the debt of love:

8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” a and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” b 10Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Here we see that Christians should see themselves as having a metaphorical debt of sorts. Their duty…responsibility, obligation before God is to love their neighbor!

Since their only “debt” is to love as Christ has loved, they aim to do just this – this is what God desires and how Christians glorify Him, that is, by loving their neighbor in word and deed!

So again, generally speaking, in light of all of this, what do we think we should come to expect from others? And again, perhaps, what are we owed? What do we think we deserve from others?[i]

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That passage from Romans 13 can help us begin to answer this question: we should expect Christians – and really all people, frankly, to live in accordance with the 10 commandments….

That said, in the Bible, there are matters having to do with the way believers treat one another which are, to say the least, a bit more nuanced…

For example, in our passage from Romans 14 this week, we also hear the following:

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

What Paul is saying here is this: the 10 commandments, while covering a vast array of the situations that we will find ourselves in on earth, are not all we need to be aware of…

We also need to realize that, in some cases, there are indeed situations that can go either way…. Where there is, as we have often heard: “More than one way to skin a cat…”

Dishonoring your father and mother is always a sin. Murder, Adultery, Robbery, False Testimony, and Coveting what is not yours is always a sin, but the same doesn’t hold for every situation in life in which we might find ourselves disagreeing….

And here, in this passage, as Paul helps the Roman Christians to understand how to live in light of social and cultural differences, he zeroes in on the importance of faith…

So while Martha slaves away in the kitchen, Mary chooses the better thing.

So while Frank gets married, George, who has the gift of celibacy, chooses to forego marriage and decides to basically devote His life to the mission of Christ’s church wherever the Lord might chose to send him…

So while Jane’s husband cheats on her and she, devastated by his infidelity, divorces him, Miriam finds the strength to forgive her wayward spouse, even as both he and she know he deserves no such thing….

Again, note that even if a choice that you might make in this or that particular circumstance is better, the other choice might not be evil but simply not as good.

And here, Paul counsels patience, as both the weak and the strong in faith patiently try to come to a common solution in love….

One might look at the matter this in this simple way. There is nothing wrong with a man regularly going to a pub after work to enjoy the company of his friends. At the same time, once that man is married, once he is in a very different kind of relationship than he was previously… he will no doubt want to think about the amount of time and money he spends there in relation to his wife and family.

And….when it comes to how Christians should live – 10 commandments, the weak and strong… matters can become more nuanced still…

For example, think about what the Paul does in 2 Cor. 9. There, he is collecting money to help the struggling Christians in Jerusalem. Now, Paul certainly wants the Jerusalem congregation to be on the receiving end of much generosity.

As he says, he wants a kind of equality where, specifically, “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little…”

And note how he makes his appeal to the Corinthian Christians. He appeals to the idea of charity:

“….whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully[d] will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency[e] in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work….”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.

Now, even here… not all of our Christian giving is produced in the same way, on the same basis.

In the book of James for example, we are warned — perhaps with things like the Old Testament gleaning laws in mind – not to tell our concrete brothers and sisters in Christ to keep warm without providing a jacket for them.

Be that as it may, we must also recognize that the New Testament also appeals to people on the basis of “charity” as Paul does here, in this passage.[ii]

And at this point we can also get to the real challenge that we have been building up to… Let’s speak about how all of the things we have been talking about relate to the topic of forgiveness…

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We know that we are called to forgive.

Also, we know that we cannot live without forgiveness…

And yet, is forgiveness the kind of thing we should think we are owed?

That we should think we can demand?

One of my favorite Christian commentators recently said very something interesting about forgiveness….

“I don’t think we can require forgiveness, as in the church that accepted back a philandering husband because he said he was sorry, while excommunicating the aggrieved wife because she would not forgive him. Forgiveness is always a free gift… [and] the grace to forgive someone is a beautiful thing to behold and is the one way forward.”[iii]

Let’s unpack this a bit…. Frankly, I think this commentator is dealing with a bunch of difficult issues and tangling them all up in a not-so-helpful way… but I really want to focus on these statements in particular…

“Forgiveness is always a free gift…” and “I don’t think we can require forgiveness…”

On the one hand, if we say that forgiveness is not something that we are owed, that we deserve… I think he is on to something.

At the same time, it also raises the questions:

Is forgiveness from others then something to be appealed for much like charity?

Should we encourage people to be forgiving on the basis of charity?

Perhaps, like charity, one should forgive as much to the extent their heart is telling them to forgive?

Can we say this?

Now… we do need to acknowledge that sometimes forgiveness is extremely difficult.

And pastors, in dealing with certain sins of their people, talk about the critical difference between a person defiantly saying “I won’t do this…” vs. desperately saying “I can’t do this…”

I think that is all well and good.

The Scriptures, after all, speak again and again about the patience and forbearance of God… In fact, even in the parable which we heard this morning, the King has shown great forbearance when it comes to the debt of his servants…

All that said, there are also times when passages like Matthew 18 – and the words about not forgiving that immediately follow the Lord’s prayer in Matthew chapter 6 for example – must be looked at straight in the eye and addressed… dealt with… taken seriously.

Is not God here requiring actual forgiveness on our part? That we actually forgive?

Perhaps a certain kind of Lutheran then replies though…: “Isn’t this justification by works?”

No, it’s not – even if some theologians get confused here.

To cut to the chase: if you think you can be justified by what you can do before God, you have actually declared war on God….[iv]

Let’s look at what we really see in Matthew 18 again….

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When Peter asks his questions at the beginning of the Gospel reading here about how many times we should be willing to forgive…

He is following up on what Jesus says in verse 15 about going to one’s brother who sins against you.

And if, as in Jesus’ telling, you go to your brother with the hope of being at peace with him, with the hope not of winning but of “winning him”… what that means is that the matter of forgiveness is not an issue with you.

You have, so to speak, already released your fingers from their throat and desire reconciliation….

Again, in Jesus’ telling, the hesitancy is not on your part.

We can also see this in how our text for today closes. There we learn that the forgiveness of sins that is expected from us is not only some formal, external act that we are to go through – but is something that will come from our heart… (Lenski: no pretense is satisfactory! ; 725)

Any hesitancy… any question about this reconciliation… comes in whether or not the brother recognizes that you have basically already forgiven him once he hears about, and understands, that he has in fact sinned…

No, even if the brother who is approached does not see his sin, the one who approaches him does so not to confront him in hot anger, but with a different attitude.

(of course, none of that means hot anger at ones’ being wronged has not occurred, but that, at the time we go to the brother, we do so wanting to win him back…)

For the one who is righteous ultimately does not desire condemnation… even if condemnation is deserved… One instead aims to be like the God who has been merciful to them… for whom “mercy triumphs over judgement….” (James)

And does God want this forgiveness not to be forced but to come about without pressure and threats?

Of course – and here we might well think about how the Apostle Paul appeals to charity. How he tries to encourage believers to be generous in their gifts for the Jerusalem church… “[everyone] should give in one’s heart that which one feels one should give….”

And yet, there is a critical difference here to be sure!

In attempting to encourage persons to be generous, God has the Apostle Paul appeal like this. On the other hand, when it comes to promoting forgiveness among His people, God responds to Peter’s question about how much we must forgive precisely as He does….

As one commentator puts it about Jesus’ purpose here:

“Every time Peter has any doubts regarding the number of times he is to forgive, let him think of this parable and the king it pictures, and all his doubts and hesitations will disappear…” (Lenski, 710)

Cue nervous laughter right?…

No doubt about it…. With this heavy parable – perhaps, you say, this heavy-handed-parable! – the critical point is driven home in an unmistakably clear way that the Christian will forgive….

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And thank God!

For even if we are the kind of person who cannot imagine doing an act which is so horrible that it would be condemned by all of our brothers and sisters in Christ…

Would we not, nevertheless, desire forgiveness, reconciliation and “a new lease on life” from others if we did do such a thing?

…Even as we were convinced that no one should forgive us?

So… is something like this parable not as simple as the Golden Rule?

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…

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The servant is said to have a wicked and unforgiving heart…

The 10,000 talents he was forgiven – the debt that was “remitted” or “dismissed and sent it away” – was a crazy sum….[v]

And when this servant than in turn withholds mercy from his own servant, the 100 denarii are a trifling amount.

The difference of unpayable vs easily payable? It evidently doesn’t matter. He grabs him by the throat, and choking him, yells “pay up!”

And God says this: “Wicked servant”.

As the commentator Lenski says “…our many sins deserve hell and, when these include the sins committed against divine grace, they deserve the worst penalties of hell.”

And think about this: the servant does not just show He is unmerciful, ungracious… The servant also shows that he is unjust.

How so? He does not live in accordance with the love and compassion that the law itself points to and demands.

Even the Christian judge (that is a Christian who is a judge), who, in accordance with the law of God, sentences a murderer to the death penalty… to the death penalty…

…that judge nevertheless will be pleased when the murderer repents and, through the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, has the promise of eternal life before him…

This however, is not the way that most human beings are thinking about forgiveness.

No. Sadly, if we do forgive, we are often far more self-centered in the way we see and go about this….

If we do venture to talk about forgiving our neighbors – even those we should love the most – we might see it from a purely selfish perspective:

“I did it for my sake; psychologically, it helped me.”[vi]

No, there is no virtue whatsoever in realizing the truth that unforgiveness, resentment, and a thirst for revenge will destroy us.

…If we think that we deserve some credit for coming to this realization that by itself is fully and completely damnable. 

There is nothing noble in such a self-centered-focus… devoid of any real concern for what forgiveness means for one’s neighbor…

There are more problems with our forgiveness. Often, if we do look outside ourselves to others here, it is because we want to show patience towards, and bring comfort, to the persons who we find pleasing, or continue to find pleasing….

Genuine and authentic? Sure. Christian? No.

And, to top all of this off, even if by His grace He would help us to see and live the wisdom of the Golden Rule in a more fulsome sense, without the clear word that Christ is our Life – who indeed forgives all our sins – we may very well even be prideful of this knowledge and life we “possess”

…to take at least some very real credit for our goodness.

At the very least, we are proud of being humble. Or we are proud of realizing we are proud of being humble, etc. etc.

At bottom, we know ourselves to be good persons with good hearts. There are perhaps some truly bad persons, but we are not among them…

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Is it not clear that man perpetually underestimates the depth and seriousness of the sin within him that leads to all manner of actual sins?

Is it not clear that a “Great Divorce” on His part would actually be just!?  In spite of the fact that this thought does not seem to occur for many modern persons claiming Christ?

We sophisticated modern persons often seem to think we are more loving and forgiving than God himself!

No one deserves mercy, but if we could speak that way surely God – who does not need the Golden Rule – would be more than just in withholding it from us.

And before any accuse Him of not following His own Golden Rule here (!) let us realize that He does not need our mercy and forgiveness.

No, He is the Perfect One and the creator of and enforcer of the Golden Rule.

Again, if we were the murderer, shattered by our sins, would we not long for mercy? What this means is that the law — especially understood in terms of the Golden Rule – is born out in this very parable today.

But… just like the end of Romans 1 says, in our heart of hearts, we reveal ourselves to be persons “without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful” (Romans 1:31, NASB).

And, as those who show ourselves to be violators of the Golden Rule, here “the anger or wrath of God is the reaction of his holiness, righteousness, and justice against all sin and above all against obdurate and unyielding sin” (Lenski, 722)

In spite of the fact that we are all one in Adam, we deny that we are our brother’s keeper.

In the realm in which we live, we must not avoid – and cannot avoid – making judgments about what is right and wrong.  That said, only sinless ones are entitled to cast the first stone – that judgment that seals the final cutoff and great divorce, or eternal separation.

But look what even the only Sinless One does instead!

He is merciful.  He takes the harsh blows meant for us!

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!

I hope you can join with me in saying to this Lamb: “Lord have mercy!  Hosannah! (that is “save now”)”

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So here, in today’s Gospel lesson, we see that God’s law means to shatter us again.

As believers in Christ, we are now truly capable of grasping the “weightier matters of the law” – true mercy, justice and faithfulness (Matt 23)  – and it demands we forgive as one has been forgiven…  

To be sure, this is not like Paul trying to encourage us to be charitable….

And yet, at the same time, just like no one has a “right” to demand “charity” from another person, no one who needs forgiveness has a right to demand it from another either….

So how does this work?

Well, even as we assert that no one who needs forgiveness has a right to demand it from another, we must simultaneously insist that, in general, all Christians must urge their brothers and sisters to live as God’s forgiven children and to forgive!

We often, struggle to make all of these things work together. We, wrongly, demand forgiveness from others when we, personally, have sinned against them.

….a pastor tells a woman that she can’t divorce her adulterous husband because to do that would necessarily mean that she wasn’t forgiving him.

No… forgiveness does not mean that justice completely disappears or that the consequences of our sins will cease to exist in this earthly life…

Our ancestors Adam and Eve broke this world, and, now wholly imperfect, it continues to disintegrate under our watch. In trying to deal with all of these matters practically, our wisdom… and our strength… often fails….

You say you can’t forgive? It is too hard – it involves too much pain, and suffering…your blood, sweat and tears?

In a sense, you are right. You can’t.

You see, only Jesus can ultimately make this work.

And only He has, and gladly so….

For He is the One who both does not desire the death of the wicked and yet enacts the death of the wicked. Only He, you see, perfectly just.

And as the prophet Hosea tells us, in being as compassionate and as faithful as He is, He is this precisely because He is God and not man…

And so only He is able to perfectly sum up our issues here in His own body on the cross… As the book of Romans puts it, “He is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus Christ….”

And that, my friends, is what He does for us. What He has done for us again, even in this very morning…

The One who died for our sins while we were yet sinners, while we were yet enemies of God, forgives us all of our sins.

On the cross, in fact, the Apostle Paul tells, us, He was taking our sin on Himself, become a sin offering for us… that we might become the righteousness of God….

The hesitancy is not on His part.

The hesitancy is never on His part!

So let us be like the servant in the parable who sees His great debt!

Let us all be reconciled with God!

And to go in peace….

And, unlike the servant, let us listen and take to heart to the tender and heartfelt appeal our Father in Heaven makes to us through His Apostle Paul:

Forgive one another….

Just as Jesus Christ has forgiven you….

FIN

 

Notes:

[i] Consider also what we read in I Cor. 7 about the marital duties husbands and wives have towards one another:

“….since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

A few observations: first, it is clear that Paul does expect fallen human beings in marriages to take his advice. Why “advice”? Well, we note the differences in this passage: here Paul explicitly says that what he says here is a concession and not a command per se. Furthermore, note that later on in I Cor. 7, he goes on to say: “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” Luther handles the passage this way:

“Christians should treasure that eternal blessing which is theirs in the faith, despising this life so that they do not sink too deeply into it either with love and desire or suffering and boredom, but should rather behave like guests on earth, using everything for a short time because of need and not for pleasure. This would mean having a wife as though I did not have one, when in my heart I would rather remain unmarried but in order to avoid sin have found it necessary to have one. But he who seeks not necessity but also desire, he does not have a wife but is himself possessed by a wife. A Christian should hold to this principle also in all other things. He should only serve necessity and not be a slave to his lust and nurture his old Adam.”

In any case we know, questions like these in families, churches, and jobs – regarding this or that context – are often the source of conflict and difficulty….

For the fact of the matter is that often we know we should be treated by someone in one way, but they treat us in another. Examples:

…My boss should pay me more. He knows that we have three small children and really can’t support a family with the wages I’m being paid. And I certainly am not doing the kind of job a high school student might be expected to do!

…She really shouldn’t talk to me like that, show disrespect to me like that… especially in front of the children… Just a little bit of appreciation would be nice…

….I’ve tried to please him in most every way. I’ve cooked the meals he enjoys the most… I haven’t deprived him of intimacy. I’ve spent years of my life raising our children. And yet, he’s going to divorce me.

…James says “If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” I’ve been a member of this church a long time and I sometimes often get the sense that people around here, in spite of their “niceness” and support of missions in Africa, don’t really understand at all the struggles people like me have…

[ii] So, let’s ask the question again.

In light of all of this, what do we think we should expect from others?

Or again: what do we think we are owed? What do we think we deserve from other Christians?

Perhaps at this point some of you have become quite aware of something.

You have noticed that so far in this message, I have been framing things in a certain way… Even though in all of these passages Paul is writing to Christians and telling them how it is they should live, I have been talking it terms about what we think we should be able to expect from Christians…. (note the Bible also speaks vs. bribes, false scales, and exploitation — not paying people enough and things like this – for example. And here especially we note that sometimes, it is not hard to determine what is good, and what is equitable… fair and reasonable…. and other times it is much more difficult.)

And I am certainly not saying that there is not a time and a place for this kind of discussion. At the same time, it does us well to note that, generally speaking, the Bible talks more in terms of responsibilities than it does rights

And not only this but the Bible, if we let it, will often shock and offend us in the way it works. For example, while slavery was not in Eden, God permitted slavery not only in the Old but the New Testament!

Therefore, when Christians freed slaves in the ancient church, they didn’t encourage any to rise up like a demanding Spartacus, but rather did so by buying slaves from their masters –yes, by compensating the slavemasters who had the power of life and death over them! – and then setting them free….

Was this the move of people who were weak in faith – or perhaps strong? And what about the Christians Paul wrote to who owned slaves? Don’t answer too quickly….

Does anyone’s neighbor, for example, have the “right” – should they think that before man and God they have the right – to all the things they feel they “need” which have not been granted to them due to “inequitable distribution”?

I submit that one cannot maintain that the Bible says “yes”.

Perhaps, instead, like in the Old Testament, God is calling someone to lend to them without interest, or even to take them on as their own long-term worker….

(On the other hand, “charity” is always encouraged in Scripture… and it is always good to be more and not less generous… (appealed for much like how Paul does in 2 Cor. 8 when taking up a collection for the Jerusalem church).

In like fashion, it does us well to note that as regards these responsibilities, these go beyond “not doing harm” to one’s neighbor. God did not just rely on what we might desire in our heart to give in charity, but He also established, for example, gleaning laws, lending laws (vs. usury) and other laws protecting the weak and poor…

Some of these things we can do too… in line with passages like Romans 14 in particular, we can agree together that this or that thing based on this or that biblical principle it is a good thing to do…  But stuff like this as regards the particulars can never really be a “thus saith the Lord”…. Even as, if things are imposed on us that we think are grossly unfair, we may or perhaps should still be willing to put up with quite a bit… (not calling this or that Christian socialist or democratic socialist a communist for example!))

We should think long and hard… be quite prayerful… about just what it means for Christians to be “salt and light…” for Christian yeast to work dependably, yet perhaps slowly, through the dough of this fallen world…

We remember that we are first and foremost those who appeal for mercy, not what we are owed… In fact, when the Bible speaks in terms of us “holding God accountable” – it is to His promises.

Promises of His to show us compassion and mercy, not promises to give us what we deserve…

And so we beg, we plead, we implore… Not demand.

Even as, yes, we also pray for Him to vindicate us and save us from those who treat us — and Him and His word — wrongly…

Even here though, this desire is to be tempered with Christian compassion… God does not want us to ever be full of resentment for the way that others have treated us, but to be full of the love of God

(Again, the fact of the matter is that even as we demand nothing from God, we know God does expect us as Christians to treat each other in love as our conscience dictates, and also – importantly – to do so while also upholding as binding on all things like the 10 commandments….)

Ideally though, it would be nice if we didn’t have to harp on about our own individual “rights” so much….but if all of us could instead learn to be those who would advocate for others on their behalf….

As they, in turn, would advocate for us…

How willing are you to *help* in that way… even if it isn’t always seen as help?… On behalf of your neighbor….

So, for example (following up footnote 1):

…I think you should perhaps pay him more. You know he has three small children and really can’t support the family with the wages he’s being paid. He does very good work for you doesn’t he? He is certainly not doing the kind of job a high school student might be expected to do!

…It disturbs me that you talk to your husband like that, show him disrespect like that… especially in front of others, including your children… I don’t imagine you want to give the impression to others you take him for granted?

….Well, you have admitted that, in spite of her flaws, she’s tried very hard to please you in most every way: cooking meals you enjoy the most… not depriving you of intimacy, spending years of her life raising your children. Divorce? How could you do such a wicked thing and sin against God?

I know this all sounds like it might be beyond reach. That is might invite more, not less conflict….

But I am convinced that this kind of thing – a love for others that desires what is good for them, that desires what is best for them… is exactly what the Lord calls us to….)

… where we are eager to love, to forgive, and, in our humble and simple circumstances, to help make things right as we can….

[iii] Full quote from Gene Veith:

“I don’t think we can require forgiveness, as in the church that accepted back a philandering husband because he said he was sorry, while excommunicating the aggrieved wife because she would not forgive him.  Forgiveness is always a free gift.  So I’m not saying that the Black Lives Matter protesters should forgive the slave owners and racists.  I’m just saying that the grace to forgive someone is a beautiful thing to behold and is the one way forward.

See Mark Tooley’s account, reflecting on this article, of the arch-segregationist George Wallace seeking and receiving forgiveness from the late Civil Rights activist John Lewis.”

[iv] Sometimes I get the impression contemporary Lutheran theologians – even the more conservative ones! – think they know how to properly divide law and gospel better than Jesus and the Apostle Paul (and Martin Luther too, for that matter).

Re: this passage, here is what Luther says (quoted in Lenski): “For by nature I am thus minded as also I was accustomed in the papacy, that I would gladly do good works to pay for my sins….”

Luther, however, realized this was to declare war on God, as it, in effect, would not trust God’s faithfulness or His righteousness.  In other words, to not trust His very real promises to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

What part of not by works do we not understand? What part of His heart – which certainly itself forgives 70 x 7 and more, releasing us from the guilt we incur because of our sins before God and man – do we not understand?

[v] Lenski: verb indicates “he remitted” (afeken) the debt, literally, “dismissed and sent it away.” (noun is the sending away) (afesis)

[vi] In the end, maybe it is all about us making the subtitle of the book “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus our God” our god, that is, “how to get what you want out of relationships”.

 

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Should Christians Push Back Against the Idea of “Institutional Racism”?

Recent Unbelievable? shows.

 

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I will admit that I continue to be surprised about what I hear on the topic of “systemic” or “institutional racism”. While this term was unknown to many of us even a few years ago, today we are increasingly hearing about the topic in more and more spaces and places.

Recently, I found it very interesting to listen the past two programs of the British Christian podcast Unbelievable?. Discussing racism in both shows, all five of the guests discussed the topic of systemic or institutional racism. Clearly, each of the guests simply assumed that because of “white culture” and “whiteness” systemic or institutional racism was a given – it didn’t matter that the two guests in the first show were American and the three guests in the final show were British. For them, the topic was certainly not something to be carefully laid out and explained, nor was it something to be questioned. Or, for that matter, even carefully defined.

 

All stuff unique to “white culture”? (not a white supremacist graphic)

 

While I suspect that I will find out in coming weeks that the viewpoints of these five evangelical Christians are held quite widely – and that that posts like the one I am writing here are simply “beyond the pale” for many – I nevertheless want to take the time to ask the question in the title of this blog post:

Should Christians Push Back Against the Idea of ‘Institutional Racism’”?

Despite the impression given in the Unbelievable? podcasts, I think the answer to that question is a definite “yes”! Furthermore that not only Christians should be doing this!

I will try to explain myself more in this post by taking the time to thoughtfully respond to one of the guests from the first program about racism in America, Dr. George Yancey.

Dr. Yancey is one of the editors of the 2004 book United by Faith, which followed up on the well-known 2001 book by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith addressing the issue of racism in the church, Divided by Faith. He is also the author of the books Transcending Racial Barriers and Beyond Racial Gridlock (both which I plan to read in the coming weeks). Finally, following his Unbelievable? appearance, he recently wrote two articles “Why we cannot ignore Institutional Racism” (published at his own Patheos blog “Shattering Paradigms”) and “White Fragility: The Order of Unity” (published at Christianity Today’s site).

What does this mean? “[It has come to my attention that… t]here are those who deny the reality of institutional racism.” – George Yancey

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Before we go on, you might be asking: “What are your qualifications to speak on this issue?” or perhaps “Why should I read this post?” All, I can say is that I am a theologian – I believe a good one – who believes that the discipline of theology has relevance for every area of our life. That is my perspective which you can learn more about by exploring an article that I wrote for the journal Lutheran Mission Matters, titled “Effective Christian Outreach to Minority Communities: What Does it Take?” (an article I took a long time to research and which research largely informs the response which follows below). Much to my surprise, this article was actually promoted, even if indirectly, by the Witness, the Black Christian Collective. This is the tweet of mine that they re-tweeted:

In sum, I am writing this current article because I think we cannot ignore the topic of institutional racism. More specifically, I believe that in order for there to be any possibility of fruitful dialogue, there needs to be the ability to question claims about what really constitutes the presence of institutional racism.  

Preston Sprinkle, thanks for the show with Tyler Burns of The Witness black Christian collective, but why so little pushback?

 

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Of all the guests on the Unbelievable? show mentioned above, I found Dr. Yancey to be the most helpful in his approach. This is largely because he not only has strong and informed convictions about the topic of systemic racism, but it is also clear that he wanted to be very careful about how to go about bringing up and discussing the topic with others, others who did not necessarily share or even understand his views. For example, in his Christianity Today article, he says the following about Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism:

“White Fragility, falls apart in several ways for Christians. It is theologically flawed, only recognizing human depravity among whites and not among people of color. It is empirically flawed as research indicates that such browbeating does not product positive results. It prioritizes capitulation over a unified front to confront contemporary racism. I appreciate the attention it has brought to institutional racism; however, this does not compensate for its many flaws. As such my recommendation is that Christians seek out ways to lead by having the type of collaborative dialogue necessary in our racialized fallen world rather than using the flawed model found within White Fragility.”[i]

White Fragility the book? Dr. Yancey is not a fan.

 

Dr. Yancey is also the only participant on the Unbelievable podcasts who tells us how he defines “institutional racism,” which is always helpful in promoting helpful discussions. In his Christianity Today article, he says “I define institutional racism as institutional forces that have a negative impact on racial minorities regardless of the personal intentions connected to the shaping of those institutions.” In his Patheos article, he even more succinctly states that institutional racism is “…mechanisms that lead to racial inequality regardless of whether there was an intent to have racial inequality.”

How helpful are these definitions? Let’s take a close look at the second one. Right away you might notice that although a definition has been given, you still need to think pretty hard about what is going on. When Yancey talks about “mechanisms” what does he mean? Can he give some practical examples? Also, when he speaks about how these mechanisms lead to racial inequality is he thinking more along the lines of inequalities of opportunity or inequalities of outcome? Would, he, for example, agree with the understanding of racism and inequalities that is increasingly common among secular academics?:

This is an understanding being pushed — more than anyone else, I think — by the personally winsome scholar Ibram X. Kendi, who is even attempting to popularize his ideas through board books for young children:

Should you teach your baby Kendi’s “antiracism”?

 

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It is hard to say just how Yancey’s beliefs compare with Kendi’s. Yancey does speak about “unfair racial outcomes in our society,” how Kendi’s “antiracism has been the dominant approach among cultural elites,” and how this “heavy-handed antiracism method does not work” (italics mine). Still, it is not clear from Yancey’s definitions whether or not he basically agrees with Kendi’s understanding of institutional racism.

Yes? “[Kendi’s] book[ is] useful for clear communication about justice among believers.” — Mere Orthodoxy’s antiracist Bill Melone

.

Nevertheless, at the same time, we can get an idea of what Yancey means when he talks about those “mechanisms”. Right after saying that “I define institutional racism as mechanisms that lead to racial inequality regardless of whether there was an intent to have racial inequality,” he elaborates:

“To be sure one can argue that some of these mechanisms are justified. Since African-Americans are more likely, even after controls for individual characteristics, to commit murder, then one can argue that laws against murder are examples of institutional racism. For obvious reasons we should not rid ourselves of those laws. What we would lose from getting rid of those laws far outweigh any benefit we get from ending this racial disparity.”

Think about what Yancey is saying here. While he does not doubt the violent crime statistics which indicate that black Americans commit a disproportionate amount of murders[ii], he also goes on to say “one can argue that laws against murder are examples of institutional racism”. More specifically, what Yancey seems to be saying is this: For the time being, the laws against murder, sadly, need to be racist. That is, until other cultural practices and political policies can be developed to get the black community in a better place such that the laws, when equally applied, will no longer end up giving us a racist result….

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: Racist power creates policies that cause racial inequities.

 

Again, it seems Yancey himself is arguing that the laws are racist but we should nevertheless keep them. Notice how this kind of reasoning turns everything on its head: shouldn’t we be doing our utmost to systemically root out all racist laws? Would that not be the truly anti-racist thing to do? But keep in mind that the reasoning makes perfect sense if you are thinking along the lines of Dr. Yancey’s definition of what racism is (and Kendi’s too, by the way).

I do not doubt for a second Dr. Yancey’s desire to be careful about how we speak with the goal of making real progress when it comes to race relations. Nevertheless, I think that many an American Christian, particularly one who has not drunk the Kool-Aid at our universities, will really want to ask questions like:

  • How really, is it helpful to seriously argue that the laws against murder are examples of institutional racism?
  • Just because of the disparities we see in prison populations because black people tend to commit more murders? Really?
  • Just how are the “institutional forces” here, in this case the laws against murder, “hav[ing] a negative impact on racial minorities”?
  • Are they not rather countering negative things coming out of communities?

So right away, with these definitions it seems like there is potential for a massive breakdown in communication! Common understandings about laws and justice are being re-framed and even, it seems, re-defined. To say the least, this introduces all kinds of confusion which seems completely unnecessary to many of us.

The definitions they are a-changin’.

 

For example, what is particularly sad about this is that the things that Yancey goes on to talk about really are things I think many folks of goodwill would want to deal with. For example, right after the strange argument about how racist laws might sometimes be necessary, he goes on to say the following:

“But we must make that calculation on other policies disproportionately impacting people of color that are harder to justify as being worth the differences in racial disparity. For example, although it is better, we still have a serious sentencing disparity for those who use crack and those who use powder cocaine. Since African -Americans, relative to European-Americans, who abuse drugs are more likely to use crack instead of powder cocaine, this disparity is one of many factors why blacks serve longer sentences than whites. It does not matter whether there was a racist intent in the disparity of the laws. The results are unfair outcomes for people of color.”

And I think: “Of course! It seems altogether reasonable to suggest that there should be similar sentencing for those who use crack or powder cocaine, as well as those who sell either kind…” Even as I’d be interested in watching a debate about this very issue – trying hard to understand the original reasoning for the laws – my guess is that most persons would think that this is only sensible and fair.

After all, my generation at least (I am 46 years old) grew up learning that racism was never something that could be justified, and as best I could tell, all my classmates agreed. In Appleton, Wisconsin in the early 1980s my elementary school class was shocked to hear about things like black people not being allowed to stay overnight in local hotels as late as the 60’s. Why would they exclude Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Gary Coleman and Walter Payton? So I “resonate,” as folks say today, with Freddie Gray writing in the Spectator, who said the following:

“…western society isn’t systemically racist. If anything, it is systemically woke. Our political institutions, our schools and colleges, our corporations are all geared towards destroying racism. Students in schools and universities aren’t brainwashed into thinking that racism isn’t a problem. On the contrary, almost everybody who has been educated since the 1970s has been relentlessly taught to abhor racial prejudice. Our workplaces are run along politically correct lines. Our language is policed, in case it might incite racial hatred. The machine, or what those Sixties radicals would have called ‘the Man’, is anti-racist.”

Nevertheless, we are now learning that this kind of education that I received was insufficient. “[C]olorblindness as the route to racial harmony” does not work because it is an insufficient concept for dealing with our problems, as Yancey assumes. Right now I would simply point out that even if it is true that “colorblindness” was only the first step in overcoming racism (i.e. making it so that laws were truly equal so that they could not explicitly discriminate on the basis of skin color differences), it appears that we are very far from common definitions and understandings of racism that one could find among scholars even around 15 years ago.[iii]

“Free your mind… be colorblind…” No. Now, change your mind…

 

+++

In spite of the problem of this re-defining of the term “racism,” for the time being let’s push on and ask, “What does Yancey think are some of the strongest examples that show systemic racism, as he understands it, exists?” In the Christianity Today article, he is most helpful in providing a brief list:

“…we know that there has not been any real decrease of racial discrimination in hiring over the past 25 years. There is statistical support for “driving while black” fears. Residential segregation still impacts people of color. Finally, there is evidence of racism in the beliefs and practices of medical heathcare providers.”[iv]

Yancey goes on to say that “[t]hose who deny the existence of institutional racism are either ignorant of the evidence or do not want to know if institutional racism exists.” At least he is, presumably, ready to have patience with a person like me who says…

I don’t question what people say about their particular experiences when it comes to being made to feel racially inferior or unfairly discriminated against. The only thing I question – and question all the time as a matter of course – are people’s interpretations of their experiences. For example, in my marriage I may sometimes feel slighted by my wife and then realize later on that I misinterpreted what she was saying or doing. I didn’t put – or for some reason was, at that particular moment in time, perhaps not even able to put – the “best construction” on what she did. And I admit that sometimes I feel she does the same thing with me (I say feel here because so often, when emotions run high, it is hard to know if I am really thinking clearly). So, having had experiences like these with the persons I know best and knowing in particular my own weaknesses… when it comes to many of the matters above, I really do look to hear both sides of the issue… different explanations of the evidence and other possible interpretations of what people say about their experiences. What do these experiences really mean? Right now, given what I know, I would say that I am unable to believe what more and more people in our society tell me I should believe all the time. So, when it comes to this stuff, please have patience….

Guessing they won’t be reading Booker T. Washington, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell…

 

I don’t see why Dr. Yancey and I, both being Christians who take the Bible very seriously, can’t see eye to eye on the same basic core values. It is just that I don’t really comprehend here the direction that he is pushing in…

Let me illustrate by giving a couple examples, based on his list above. Yancey says:

“…sometimes businesses hire by word of mouth. That is, when they need to find someone for a position, they ask their employees if they know someone who needs a job and is a good worker. If their employees tend to be white, then chances are their social network is pretty white as well. So in this way whites can gain jobs that people of color never even knew were open. The employer may well have had no intention of being racist. Indeed, this could be a good strategy to find a hard worker since current employees are unlikely to irritate the employer by sending the job announcement to a lazy uncle. But the result is still an unfair advantage that whites are given over people of color.”

Should we say this particular employer is being racist even if he has no intention of doing so? For the life of me, I do not understand, given the history of the term, how it would ever be a good idea to call a person like this a racist.

Is that what we should call it? And then get the board book?

 

Let us concede for the sake of the argument that in the example above, black candidates who are equally or more qualified for these jobs are being passed over. Nevertheless, instead of talking about systemic racism here why not consider parsing matters more broadly, speaking perhaps about the implications of “systemic in-group preference”? And perhaps, in particular, “systemic in-group preference” when it comes to the dominant group (and maybe, more specifically, of those exercising leadership roles in the dominant group)?

While I do not doubt that systemic racism is likely a reality in this or that locale (it certainly was in America very broadly for a very long time and must to some extent remain a reality!), and that such situations would be similar to Yancey’s example when it comes to the issue of practical effects on black people, these situations would nevertheless be quite distinct. In the way I am looking at this matter, real examples of systemic racism — where base hatreds of the other and/or beliefs about racial superiority or inferiority are endemic — would just be one sub-species of this larger category of “systemic dominant in-group preference.”

…What really, is necessarily wrong with “social systems giving our social groups an advantage” (Yancey)? Is it wrong, for example, for Americans to recognize specific rights of citizenship for Americans?

 

Yancey also talks about how “[r]esidential segregation still impacts people of color…” Not too long ago, I listened a show from Reveal News that alleged something similar: “Today, a new epidemic of modern-day redlining has crept quietly across America. The gap in homeownership between African Americans and whites is now wider than it was during the Jim Crow era.”

The show was interesting, and I think did the best job that it could to make the case that systemic racism was responsible for this. And yet, as I listened a few things came to mind that did not seem to be on the radar of the reporters. From the data set that the reporters discuss, can we determine any distinctions between the blacks who got loans and those who didn’t? (there did not seem to be much curiosity when it came to examining this data). Also, they say “having a home helps create wealth,” and while I do not doubt that that can be true, surely it is more important to emphasize that “having wealth leads to home ownership”. And here, sad to say, the fact that white families typically have fifteen times the wealth (not income) of black families as well as the critical nature of having co-signers occurred to me.

What is the real story?

 

I do not want to discount the work done by the reporters or to deny that what they put forth does seem to indicate that the congressional investigations their work has spurred on are necessary. This sounds to me like a good idea. At the same time, I think about all the posts that I have read from Rod Dreher over the years that talk about the complexities of gentrification, for example (see, e.g., here and here).

And I will also admit that like one of the men interviewed in the program, I simply have a hard time understanding why lenders would not want to make money off of black people with stable financial situations as well. Would lenders not, generally speaking, be more concerned about issues of class than race?

What to do to really help?: “Often there are not very many grocery stores or places to work in [lower-class minority] neighborhoods… within black neighborhoods there is a concentration of individuals who are jobless, potential criminals, pregnant teens and other factors that we find more with the poor than with the wealthy.” – George Yancey

 

+++

Back to the significance of Yancey’s definition of institutional racism.

As already pointed out above, the definition is confusing, and yet, given what it concedes, it is helpful and important for us nonetheless. Even as we might never be inclined to say, with Yancey, that “racist laws are necessary,” we can appreciate the fact that the issue of systemic or institutional racism is a little bit more complicated than many in academia today are ready to admit.

And, given the way that claims about specific instances of racism can be rendered problematic by something as simple as the empirical data that Yancey allows, one might wonder, as I just did in the last section, what other claims concerning specific instances of racism could similarly be called into question, or, as they say in academia today, “problematized.”

Excuse me, I’d like to ask some questions…

 

Now, at this point some might be getting irritated because I have clearly taken advantage of something that Yancey has said to put forth my own perspective. One might claim that I took an honest admission and begin to, in a way, use it as a wedge in order to re-frame the discussion.

Exactly right. Still, is an attempt to do that an “illegitimate power play” of some sort? Why?

Let’s cut to the chase on the issue of violent crime by blacks for example. If you look at the explanations for black violent crime on the extremes, the answers boil down to pretty simple things. Many “race realists” think that violence among black people has to do with their genetics. In other words, who they are by nature. The other extreme looks to ideas like those of Karl Marx, contending that capitalism naturally leads to oppression of the disadvantaged and that this in turn leads to crime among the disadvantaged whose situation goes from bad to worse.

““The [black man] dimly personifies in the white man all his ills and misfortunes…” — antineomarxist [?] W.E.B. Dubois

.

I think most all of us recognize that explanations such as these really work towards destroying notions of personal agency and responsibility, which is always a critical aspect of our humanity! Not only this, but they loudly proclaim that what is really critical when it comes to this issue is not only what white people are doing but what white people think. Why? Because both of these kinds of statements, whether they are uttered as propositions, theories, or proclamations, have, historically, been put forth almost exclusively by white people who been heavily dependent on anti-Christian notions, theories, and argumentation.

Overall, the kinds of evidence explored and the amount of people involved in the conversation needs to be made broader – those who are skeptical of the current prevailing narrative must not be seen as being “beyond the pale”. And we also must not allow complicated people like W.E.B. DuBois to be used by people with more Marxist leanings. In his article “The Head Start Myth: What We Get Wrong About the Racial Wealth Gap,” J. Edward Britton writes:

In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, shortly after describing the abhorrent treatment of black laborers by white landowners in the late 1800s, W. E. B. DuBois comments: “The [black man] dimly personifies in the white man all his ills and misfortunes; if he is poor, it is because the white man seizes the fruit of his toil … if any misfortune happens to him, it is because of some hidden machinations of ‘white folks.’”

This controversial statement was written in the same book in which DuBois documents the woes of black American life in the early post-Civil War South. Many chapters cover the brutality endured by black workers in everyday life and the grim, complex reality of racial segregation and the feelings of subjugation it aroused. Yet none of this stops DuBois from vehemently opposing racial victimhood. His hesitancy to correlate black anguish with white prosperity should serve as a reminder that America’s conversation about privilege, power and oppression has strayed far from the original understanding of how social justice ought to operate.

There is no way to truly know the effects past injustices have had on modern wealth inequalities. To deny the fact that slavery, Jim Crow and voter disenfranchisement played a role in creating the racial wealth gap would be absurd. It is equally absurd, however, to point exclusively to past injustices when explaining the racial wealth gap.

Is this not sensible?

Yancey states that “…residential segregation makes it harder for people of color to remove themselves from such neighborhoods since people of color tend to make less money than whites.” And yet, what to make of this? See most recent stats here.

 

In the end, I certainly agree with George Yancey when he says:

“What we need, and what we are not going to get from White Fragility, is the ability to enter collaborative conversation with each other. Those sorts of conversations can help us to work together, to be held accountable for our own biases, and to find solutions that we can live with. These are the conversations that get results.”

So, jumping off of this, my humble proposition is to ditch the Kendian understandings of what constitutes racism and to start with the older and more common definition. And, then, to patiently deal with those who are keen to look at the evidence for real racism with the goal of offering resistance against it wherever it might be found. I don’t know if that will be meaningful to everyone — I get that many are tired — but I pray it will with many.

Finally, I would contend that it is not only Christians but many Americans of good will who are genuinely interested in not only not unfairly discriminating against others, but also seeing increased and even proportional representation from different ethnic groups in most every context.

At the same time, it also does us all well to remember, for example, that domains like the National Basketball Association may indeed look much the same many years into the future, no matter what kinds of steps and actions are taken to make it just as if not more excellent while also making it more diverse!

FIN

 

Notes:

[i] Regarding capitulation Yancey says in that article: “Our inability to see the effects of that depravity can create in us a confidence that we are almost always right. So it is natural to think that unity only comes when others capitulate to us. This is where White Fragility can feed into the worst impulses of some people of color.”

[ii] The summary of the scholarly article he links to begins: “African-Americans are six times as likely as white Americans to die at the hands of a murderer, and roughly seven times as likely to murder someone. Young black men are 15 times as likely to be murdered as young white men. This disparity is historic and pervasive, and cannot be accounted for by individual characteristics.”

[iii] See my article in Lutheran Mission Matters, mentioned above, for more information about definitions of racism.

[iv] See also the list provided by Bradly Mason in this post I did about him: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2019/12/06/tweets-to-about-bradly-mason-and-his-dangerous-ideas/

Note: Revised the original post as it contained information about co-signing which was incorrect. It does not substantially change the arguments above.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 26, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Short Statement Regarding My Being Banned from a Lutheran Facebook Group

I have now been banned from three Lutheran Facebook groups.

Strike one.

Strike two.

Strike three:

“After numerous violations of the group’s rules of conduct, and constant complaints from the participants here, Nathan Rinne has been removed from the group. I don’t want this to devolve into gossip, so that is my only comment on the matter.”

I guess I’m out!

I just want to make a short statement about my this most recent banning.

Like I’ve said before, I have my honor.

Let’s start with the most obvious question: “Should the fact that you have been banned from three groups now perhaps cause you to consider the problem might be with you?” Answer: Yes, I have considered that. In each case, however, I will maintain complete innocence.

Regarding this most recent banning the claim that I have “numerous violations of the group’s rules of conduct” is completely false. I have read through the rules of conduct again today, and I think that most everyone in the group will tell you that I have never been guilty of insulting, name-calling or even showing disrespect to anyone.

That is all I want to say. Thanks.

FIN

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

How to Be a Good Dog Like the Canaanite Woman

 

Note: Can be read right after this post from yesterday. And, if you find this message helpful, you might also like the last one I did: “Paul and love for one’s own race….”

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“…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table…” “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

–Matthew 15: 27

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You thought you knew how controversial Jesus was? Think again.

As my pastor likes to playfully say, “Folks, just mark it out of your Bibles….”

In all seriousness, some Christians have been deeply disturbed by this account from the Gospels today.

And not just some Christians today. Even the 5th c. church father Chrysostom said: “the more the woman urged her petition, the more [Jesus] strengthened His denial…”

So he bluntly states that Christ acts “backward[s]” here (Aquinas)!

Others, in spite of the fact that the text gives no outward impression of this, say that Jesus was somehow testing the woman’s faith, perhaps with a “wink and a nod”.

Or using her to test the faith of his disciples… or to help them counter their own chauvinism, prejudices, or even racism.

Perhaps? “God, help us save Jesus’ reputation here!….”

Again, however, the text – to the dismay of many – says absolutely nothing about this (maybe one might want to argue it is saying she deserved free health care as well?)

In fact, given the way it reads as it does, some have even insinuated that the Son of God Himself learns a lesson from the woman about his own racism or racial prejudice.

And awaaaaaaaaaay we go!

Of course we know that today being concerned about the multitude of ways we have been wrongly discriminating against others that we may not have been previously aware of is all the rage.

Do you think it is “OK to be white”?

That is your racism and white supremacy talking!

Does the young man prefer, all things being equal, to marry a debt-free virgin without tattoos?

He’s a total jerk filled with toxic masculinity!

Do you think Islam is right about women?

Well, in this case, you really might be a misogynist…

(Oh wait, I can’t really say that can I? — perhaps I should be clarifying that I mean not just any woman but “people who menstruate” or “individuals with a cervix”…?).

The fact of the matter is that some kinds of “discrimination” are just normal parts of life and other kinds are even very good. “Discriminate,” after all, can just mean where we differentiate or make a distinction…

So here, we can clearly assert that Jesus is not committing the sin of showing favoritism or worse.

Rather, we see here in the Gospel how what He and the Apostle Paul teach and practice go hand in hand…

Namely:

“…anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever…” (I Tim. 5:9)

Also:

“…as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal. 6:10)

And even this, from Paul’s letter to the pastor Titus, who was stationed in Crete:

One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons’…. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:12-13b)

What?!

Yes. It does us early 21st c. Americans well to remember that, as a friend put it, “Manners are not moral absolutes.” (Cochran).

I also note with interest that right before this passage about this  Canaanite woman, Jesus has just ripped into the Pharisees for their obsession with their own cultural rules — “teachings” which “are merely human rules…”, He says….

Instead of being concerned about the kind of character that pleases God.

Are you going to tell me that the words of the Apostle Paul – who acts as God’s ambassador and urges us to “imitate him” – are not pleasing to God here?

That he, “guilty of prejudicial[, bigoted] and tactless racial stereotypification,” (Thiselton, 222) is not showing “cultural humility” because he arrogantly and incorrectly thought he could understand Cretan culture with help from his favorite “token Cretan”?[i]

Are you going to say this?:

“This man Paul, an outsider to the Cretan culture who doesn’t really know them because – newsflash, he’s not a Cretan! – in making his “objective pronouncements” on Cretans, clearly doesn’t want them to know gentle and compassionate Jesus Christ, does he?!”

Well.

Maybe… just maybe…. we should just stick with explaining what the text says, and not speculating on what it doesn’t say….

+++

In 2010 the commentator Juan Williams was fired from his position at National Public Radio when he confessed to feeling nervous when seeing people in Muslim garb boarding his plane.

Williams was not even admitting that his “emotional response to a cultural signal”[ii] was OK: he was just being honest that this was the case.

Is Williams a racist or bigot? Acting in a racist or bigoted fashion? Even if he was, who among us would say that we too have not, at times, not only felt but argued that we at least had good reasons for acting in similar ways?

As a general rule, in early 21st century politically-correct America, we have lost the ability to speak hard truths and so what Jesus says here is likely to seem very demeaning to present sensibilities,” as one commentator put it.

Nevertheless, before we talk more about Jesus, let’s go back to that jarring statement from Paul about the Cretans.

Is Paul, perhaps, committing the sin of favoritism or partiality that the book of James mentions?

Well, we carefully note that in Romans 2:11 Paul says, “For there is no favoritism with God” and then he repeats himself in Eph. 6:9: “There is no favoritism with him” (Eph. 6:9 ; see also I Tim. 5:21)….

And this same Paul then also says what he says about Cretans!

So again, has Paul, in this blast against the Cretans, momentarily forgotten what he said about favoritism?

Not at all.

We can nail this down as Paul also says this, from Colossians 3:25:

Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.”

So what exactly is happening here?

Paul, unlike what many modern commentators might imagine, is not showing partiality or favoritism or evil prejudice.

He is not, like the men mentioned in the book of James, making judgments about people on the basis of their outward appearance… namely about how attractive and rich they look…how successful or impressive they are in the eyes of the world … 

Rather, when he says what he says about Cretans in general – even seemingly implicating individual Cretans in particular – he is not making judgments about them on the basis of their outward appearance, but rather the proven content of their character vis a vis the objective Law of God.

And this too, as hard as it might be for us to face up to, seems to be why Jesus is talking about dogs….

+++

In the ancient world, as today, to be called a dog was not a complement.

For example, the cynic philosophers, because of their “shameless rejection of conventional manners, and their decision to live on the streets,” (Wikipedia) were given their name precisely because of this (and they, by the way, often reveled in their role).

And, as regards the Jews, one commentator has noted:

“References to dogs in biblical literature are overwhelmingly negative, and when the term is used metaphorically for human beings it is abusive and derogatory… Keener’s survey of attitudes to dogs in Greco-Roman culture… confirms the negative implications of the term in those cultures too…” (595, France)

The Old Testament refers to the unbelieving as dogs.

Paul calls the legalistic Jewish Christians who required circumcision for people to be sure that they were Christians dogs.[iii]

And the book of Revelation says that the dogs will be among those thrown into the Lake of Fire.[iv]

Both the Cretans and the Canaanites really did have some issues, and so, it is only right to call a spade a spade…

In America, we love the individual who claws and scrapes and fights and achieves and overcomes – and so, we will gravitate towards the exceptions to the rules – but nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with using generalities and even stereotypes….

No offense, but it’s true!

Distinct people groups, ethnicities, cultures, nationalities tend to have certain characteristics. They have strengths, which in most cases we tend to celebrate!… and they have weaknesses, which in most cases we tend to not talk about…

And people – good and honest people – have been recognizing these for a very long time…

You might think that the content of your character is better than the rest when you refuse in each and every situation and circumstance to attribute negative characteristics to this or that ethnic or national group or religious group….

But when you do that and insist that everyone else does the same, are you also going to insist that no one attribute any positive characteristics to them either?

That, to say the least, is a rather bland and colorless way of looking at the world – not to mention a foolish one I’d say – is it not?

Don’t misunderstand: in saying all of this, we are not necessarily saying that all of these characteristics are entirely genetic or something that can never be helped.

The guilt of original sin is always with us – even as it is forgiven in baptism – but progress can certainly be made fighting against particular sins.

And we are certainly not saying that any collection of characteristics a group possesses should make us think they are naturally superior… inherently or intrinsically superior to others…

So when Jesus is focused on His people and His mission here, He is not, as I recently heard someone say “committing a racism”.[v]

Furthermore, again, He is not showing partiality in the way it is talked about in the book of James for example, where favor is shown to the rich, the attractive, the powerful and successful.

Jesus Christ is, after all, sinless…

Finally, we also have no indication that this is a situation where Jesus is learning to be more sensitive to how people apply laws like “honor your father and mother” in the world while also not sinning, which we really do have the impression occurred when He was twelve years old in the temple.

No, no, and no!

Rather, our Lord and Savior comes not to save us Gentiles first, but rather for “the lost sheep that are the house of Israel” (Gibbs, 787).

As the commentator Lenski puts it, as regards his calling his own people “sheep, all his love and kindness toward his nation is revealed. He thus also denominates himself as their true Shepherd” (597).[vi]

Another puts it this way (Fraanzman):

“Quite simply, [the statement “the lost sheep that are the house of Israel”] makes it abundantly plain that the biblical doctrine of Israel’s election must be taken seriously.”

+++

“Wait though,” you might be thinking… “Even if one is not believing that one’s group is intrinsically and inherently superior to others, this has implications…

Aren’t you suggesting that Jesus would tell us not to hire someone on the basis of their skin color?

Aren’t you saying that because Jesus knew what generally characterized the Canaanites He assumed the worst about the Canaanite woman?

Aren’t you saying that it is impossible for real racism, odious to God, to be one of the contributing causes to the material inequality that we see exists in our nation?

Again, “No, no, and no….”

Sad to say, many modern people living in America, like many modern biblical scholars, are very good about making assumptions about the character and attitudes of others based on the flimsiest of evidence.

If I say, “I live by the rule that sometimes there are exceptions to rules and that these exceptions matter…”

…that doesn’t mean I am hiding my evil hatreds at worst and my politically incorrect prejudices at best.

I am just stating this: The text does not say that Jesus intended to do anything here other than to simply assert the priority of those who God chose…. therefore making them Jesus’ own precious flesh and blood…

His own beloved if not wayward people Israel…

And – do you see it?

This is beautiful! Strong! Admirable!

Jesus is even better than the Marvel movie Super-Hero Black Panther, who dearly loves His nation Wakanda!

And the woman marvels at such singlemindedness, such devotion to one’s mission… to one’s people…

And she is no doubt attracted to such love – a love for one’s own that does not necessarily equal a lack of love, or an “unlove” for the “other”.

And so, she, as one commentator puts it, is the only person we know of who could “beat Jesus in a debate”!

She beats Jesus in a debate – and so He praises her to High Heaven!

+++

How could she have known what was deep inside the heart of Christ?

She, was, after all, one of those awful Canaanites!

Well, speculating can be dangerous, but in this case I am going to suggest it can be done quite responsibly.

In Matthew 8, after all, following the Roman centurion’s giving us another example of amazing Gentile faith, Jesus says:

“….I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And just two chapters before in Matthew 12:19-21, Jesus tells us of the salvation He is bringing to the Gentiles:

[God’s servant] will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations[, that is the Gentiles,] will put their hope.

Maybe the news had spread! Or maybe – just maybe – she was aware of the book of Isaiah Jesus was in the process of fulfilling and believed that?

Whatever the case, however it happened, this is basically the opposite of His disciple’s faith, which Jesus had earlier called “little”…

The woman’s brilliant faith absolutely amazes Jesus….[vii] …and the story makes it into the Bible. : )

How does she do it? The late 5th/early 6th century commentator Epiphanus the Latin says: “The woman agreed, saying to the Savior, ‘Yes, Lord.’ That is to say, I know Lord, that the Gentile people are dogs in worshipping idols and barking at God…”

Another excellent modern commentator (Schaeffer) sums up things by saying her faith is a

“…happy combination of all the essential features of true faith,” including “clear views on Christ’s character, or a certain amount of religious knowledge (respecting His power, grace, etc.), entire, unquestioning and humble submission to the Lord’s will (thankful even for crumbs),” and a confident reliance in the face of discouragement as well” (373, italics his).

But, but, but….

He was saying she was dog!

Yet she did not hear “Go away.”

And she did not just hear, like she might have heard from us: “Just wait, I want to get to you…”

She heard: “Wait, I will get to you!”[viii]

…and she thought she’d try her hand at a little bit more!

Isn’t this Jesus Christ after all?[ix]

Our friend Martin Luther also said something very intriguing about this story. He suggested that in not directly calling the woman a dog, Jesus is “leaving it undecided whether she is a dog or not” (Luther’s Church Postil Gospels. Vol. 11, 152).

Contrary to Luther, some commentators argue that Jesus was just calling the woman “a little puppy” here. Probably not.[x] On the other hand, even back then, “little pet dogs” did have owners who kept them in the house and fed them…

Therefore, the man Lenski who I mentioned before suggests that the Gentiles who “lived among the Jews or came into contact with them… could thus in a way obtain some of their blessings….” (Lenski, 598).

So: maybe the question to ask is this: What kind of dog was this Gentile… this Canaanite woman?

And what kind of Gentile dog are you?

+++

So with this my friends, I hope I have persuaded you that this is a beautiful, beautiful story….

What Jesus says is not full of evil prejudice or something worse, but something marvelous and wonderful – and a sight to behold!

And likewise with this most excellent Canaanite woman! Like a good mother would, she cried out to Jesus on behalf of her daughter.

We can learn from her example of great faith. For whom do we cry out to Him for His healing? Are we first like this woman and the Apostle Paul, crying out for our own family or people (Rom. 9:1-3)…. even as our affections and concern are also not so limited – and so can and will extend ever more broadly?

What is wrong with American Christianity today?

Even among those who I thought would know better, economic disparities between racial and ethnic groups in our nation are taken as prima facie evidence of systemic racism by white people.

Again, never mind that disparities between racial or ethnic groups exist everywhere, and have from since the Fall, since Cain and Abel, since the tower of Babel…

Never mind that the average earned income of “white people” is far, far down the list, behind Asians, Nigerian immigrants, and many more![xi]

And so here… in our text for today… a perfect man on a mission of love seems to clearly indicate to someone that they are not His first priority or responsibility…

…and many in the church go to absolute pieces, wringing their hands, clutching their pearls, and running to the corner for their coloring books and teddy bears.

Again, do we think the sins of nations, “the ethnos”acting like dogs with their worship of idols and their barking at the one true God – are no big deal?

What a contrast this woman is… In today’s Gospel reading I would say we see one of the greatest examples in the Bible of faith from a non-Jew: a Gentile!

Why does all of this not cause of to marvel at the love and plan of God, and to cry out, like the Roman centurion – another Roman Centurion! – at the foot of the cross:

“Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Why does not all of this cause us to have admiration for His mission, His devotion?

And why, in addition to this Canaanite women, do so many of these Roman centurions in the Bible “get it”?

It was after seeing the faith of yet another Roman centurion [!] that Peter confessed: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism…” (Acts 10:34).

I think it probably has to do with their having at least a passing acquaintance with the Scriptures, but there is something else as well.

In Matthew 8, the centurion says to Jesus:

“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

This man understands authority – and He gets that when it comes to His judgment according to His Law, the Lord, unlike many leaders among men, is no respecter of persons…

…in His desire to show mercy and grace as well…

What greater authority could any of us be under?

Where, I ask – other than your works of fantasy and science fiction which steal from the Gospel story anyways – are those who have it better?

Really…

What greater Master could we serve?

Words from the cross come to mind. Words for me, words for you, words for all of us:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…”

FIN

 

Notes:

[i] https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/cultural-humility-wokeness-at-baylor/

[ii] https://areomagazine.com/2018/09/24/race-culture-and-the-dynamics-of-prejudice/

Also from the article:

“On a more essential level, however, the acrimonies that exist between groups today reflect less the recent history of racism in the West and more the perennial condition of inter-cultural discord that has shaped human conflict throughout recorded history.”

“Much of what sounds like racist condemnation of African-Americans and Latino immigrants in the States, or of Arab and African immigrants in central and western Europe, is, in fact, concerns over what are perceived to be the cultural ailments of certain portions of these groups of people. Conservatives in America (most, but not all, of whom are white) are generally not anti-black. Yet they see part of black culture as lending itself to the vices of family dissolution and criminality. (Black conservatives, and many black liberals for that matter, feel this way too.) They are not anti-Latino, but see many Latino immigrants as bringing with them a tolerance of socialist authoritarianism that conflicts with traditional American civic values. Latino conservatives feel this way too. Similarly, opposition to unchecked immigration into Europe from the Arab world has far less to do with any social presuppositions made on a genetic basis, but rather on an understanding of Islamic culture that sees it as embracing illiberal attitudes towards personal freedom, and imbued with too great a willingness to tolerate political and religious violence. Most of these cultural critiques come from white Europeans, but by no means all. They are echoed by some Muslims and ethnic Arabs living in Europe as well….”

[iii] A late 5th/early 6th century commentator by the name of Epiphanus the Latin argues that the Jews themselves, in their unbelief, were reduced to just these kinds of dogs: “[T]he unreceptive Jews were made into loathsome dogs out of children, as the Lord himself said in his Passion through the prophet: ‘Many dogs surround me; a company of evildoers encircle me.’” (Sionetti, 29)

[iv] Theophylact of Antioch (8th c.) bluntly says that “Christ speaks of her as a dog, because the Gentiles led an unclean life and were involved with the meat sacrificed to idols, while the Jews He speaks of as children” (133).

[v] Case-Winters, for example, talks about how Jesus’ humanness is on display here, as he is “caught with His compassion down,” but that the woman “teaches Jesus about a wider divine embrace” (202).

[vi] Lenski perhaps overstates his own case a bit when he says that because Jesus really was focused on his mission to Israel (“I was not commissioned save to the sheep that have been lost of Israel’s house”), we need to give up the idea, which is also “so offensive to moral feeling,” that Jesus “pretended to be hard and tortured the woman with uncertainty for the purpose of testing her faith in order then to praise her” (596, italics mine).

[vii] Gibbs: “She is, like the Magi and centurion before her, an unlikely candidate for such faith. That, however, is the way of God, to hide things from the wise and understanding and to reveal them to babies (11:25-27).”

[viii] Hillary of Poitiers writes “Not that salvation was not to be imparted also to the Gentiles, but the Lord had come to his own and among his own, awaiting the first fruits of faith from those people he took his roots from. The others subsequently had to be saved by the preaching of the Apostles.”

[ix] Christ, of course, only “oversteps the limitations” of His earthly mission. For, again, as can be seen in earlier passages in the book of Matthew, God’s light coming to the Gentiles for their salvation was always in view, in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies hearkening of the Messianic Age to Come

[x] For more on exegesis on this passage throughout church history, see here: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/is-jesus-christ-the-anti-social-justice-warrior-social-justice-warrior/

[xi] Thomas Sowell also asks a pointed question: “If you cannot achieve equality of performance among people born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, how realistic is it to expect to achieve it across broader and deeper social divisions?”

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

What Does the Bible Say about Showing Favoritism or Partiality?

“Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.” — I Peter 1:17

 

I thought my sermon was too long for tomorrow, so cutting out the first third of it and putting it here….

+++

“[W]e shouldn’t show partiality or favoritism to anyone…

Do you agree with that?” [i]

Well, we had better agree, right? We are, after all, commanded in God’s Word to not show favoritism…

Let’s start by reading an extended portion of the book of James, from chapter 2 there:

“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”[a] you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,”[b] also said, “You shall not murder.”[c] If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Now, there is no doubt that when James writes all of this about favoritism, he is particularly thinking of the temptation we have to favor those who have the things the world desires and finds attractive.

And so, at the very beginning of his Epistle, he warns them about these impulses. He even says “the rich should take pride in their humiliation[!]—since they will pass away like a wild flower”!

And then, near the end of his letter he directly addresses some of the rich in this congregation: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you… You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you….”[ii]

And this seems to go hand-in-hand with another main theme of the book, which, alternatively, is a word meant for everyone: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble…”

+++

And… speaking of that, the Bible seems to be pretty full of surprising people who, in humility, often “get” what God wants far better than God’s very own chosen people….

You know, the ones who, again, Paul is talking about in Romans 9-11: the “people of Israel”.

The ones who, loved on account of their patriarchs, received God’s irrevocable promise and calling…

(remember that it is they who are the “root”, the “cultivated olive tree”[iii] that supports the “wild” Gentile branches, contrary to the olive tree’s nature, which are grafted in… )

No… God’s chosen people largely missed the boat. One doesn’t have to look too far in the Gospels to see Jesus talking about the “the tax collectors and the prostitutes…entering the kingdom of God ahead of you….” “You” being the Pharisees, leaders of the Jews who He even states “sit in Moses’s seat”…

So we too are among those Gentiles also commanded to have humble faith, and in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 15:21-28) we see this in spades.

How does this story relate to the issue of favoritism?

 

In fact, I would say that this story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman is one of the three greatest examples in the Bible of faith from a non-Jew: a Gentile!

We note that even among the 12 disciples whom Jesus chose, their “little faith” (see Matthew 14:31) is often contrasted with the great faith of these Gentile believers….

Here in Matthew, just a few verses after chastising Peter for being of “little faith,” Jesus exclaims of this Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman: “Woman, you have great faith!”

And reacting to a Roman centurion a bit earlier in chapter 8 of Matthew Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”[iv]

In yet another story in the book of Acts, Peter is wowed by the faith of another Roman centurion and confesses to his own epiphany:

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

+++

Let’s talk real quickly about a thing that is right…

The Apostle Paul talks about how “we brought nothing into the world, so we cannot carry anything out of it. 8But if we have food and raiment (or covering)[v]” – meaning, I believe, both clothing and shelter – “we will be content with these.” (I Tim 6:8).

The people James was talking about earlier would have no concern about something like this though, preferring to overwork and/or underpay the poor just because they could….

“’Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?’ Hmmmm… Is this really relevant in this particular case, I wonder?… Maybe what really matters here is only what seems right… or I can get people to think seems right…”

No…

In what we read above earlier from James, we saw that the rich were exploiting the poor and dragging them into court.[vi]

They were abusing the power and privilege that they had. And because of that, they were treated better!

This is one way favoritism happens…. Are they attractive? Are they adorned with all the glorious things that wealth can attain?

YAS!

We fallen human beings tend to form judgments based on selfish, personal criteria, valuing the rich more than we value the poor…

God is different, however. Very different. Favoritism is inconsistent with God’s character…. One thinks, for instance, of this from the book of I Samuel:

“The LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider [Saul’s] appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’

A well-known pastor sums it up well:

“We tend to put everyone in some kind of stratified category, higher or lower than other people. It has to do with their looks. It has to do with their wardrobe. It has to do with the kind of car they drive, the kind of house they live in; sometimes it has to do with their race, sometimes with their social status, sometimes outward characteristics of personality. All of those things with God are non-issues. They are of no significance at all. They mean absolutely nothing to Him.[vii]

That’s right. Again, as I Samuel puts it: “The Lord looks at the heart.”

So when the Bible says….

  • “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God, showing no partiality and taking no bribe” (Deut. 10:17).
  • “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.” (I Peter 1:17)
  • “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.” (Col. 3:25)

….we see that not showing favoritism is all about the law.

It is all God’s law and God’s judgment: He ultimately is the Only Judge That Matters.

His Right, not Ours….

And God applies His law equally to people, and holds everyone to the same standard. As regards His own demanding, punishing, rewarding, etc. He insists, quite firmly and repeatedly, that He doesn’t “play favorites” (see Acts 10:34-35, Rom. 2:9-11, I Pet. 1:17, Eph. 6:8-9, Col. 3:25).[viii]

What is important is not

  • what one looks like…
  • where one comes from….
  • or one’s privileges in the world…

Which is why Peter says about that Roman centurion in the book of Acts…: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism” (Acts 10:34).[ix]

And, we need to be honest: American demands here, frankly, are not always the same as what the Bible demands…

For example, does not showing favoritism necessarily mean that:

  • ….everyone must get paid the same (“equal pay for equal work?”)?
  • ….those joining in the work at the end of the day must get less?
  • ….or prices must always be the same for everyone?

Not at all.

One may indeed, for example, make a sacrifice on behalf of those with less means, like the violin teacher we know who provides lessons to poorer students by using a sliding scale…

Even if there is no doubt that things can’t go the opposite way!

+++

Now… back to our three believing Gentile folks mentioned above.

All of these recognized a few critical things about Jesus, and one of those things they seem to have understood was that God does not show favoritism.

Still, we might be wondering, is that really true?

The modern Merriam-Webster dictionary, after all, says favoritism is “the unfair practice of treating some people better than others.”

I mean – come on! Wasn’t Jesus treating the people of Israel better than the Canaanite woman?

Wasn’t that favoritism?

Or, maybe not…maybe Merriam-Webster is wrong – or, at least, not completely right….

To be continued…

FIN

 

[i] Found on the blog of Samuel Sey, “Slow to Write,” in the questions he offers for reflection on the matter of racism:

“1. The Biblical definition of racism is partiality. Do you agree with that?
2. The Bible says we shouldn’t show partiality or favouritism to anyone—including black people or white people, black people or police officers. Do you agree with that?
3. Do you think it’s sinful for white people to assume the worst of black people?
4. Do you think it’s sinful for black people to assume the worst of white people?
5. Since racism is partiality—systemic racism is systemic partiality—so what laws or policies in our nations’ system today show partiality against black people?
6. Do you agree disparities are not independently evidence of systemic oppression?
7. If racial disparities are evidence for systemic racism—and since racial disparities exist in every nation—do you believe every nation is systemically racist?
8. If racial disparities are evidence of racism, then would you agree that any nation or system that doesn’t seek to eliminate racial disparities is systemically racist?
9. If any system that doesn’t seek to eliminate racial disparities is systemically racist, wouldn’t that make the Mosaic law—God’s law—systemically racist?
10. If racial parity or equality of outcome is evidence of a racially just system, what policies or laws need to be implemented to establish that?”

[ii] This passage is also interesting to think about in the context of this content about the rich: “You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.”

[iii] They are the “natural family” selected by God (see, e.g. Is 1:2, Ex. 4:22, Hos. 11:1) And “Christ has become a servant of the Jews[a] on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed” (Romans 15:8).

[iv] “The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

[v] And having food and raiment,…. “Food” includes all things necessary to be ate and drank, of which there is a great variety, and is here expressed in the plural number; and “raiment” every necessary covering, as the word used signifies, and includes an habitation, which is a cover and shelter from the inclementencies of the weather. And now having all these comforts and necessaries of life, food to eat, and drink to extinguish thirst and refresh, raiment to put on, and a house to dwell in…

Covering….

…and the Syriac version, “food and raiment are sufficient for us”; and so the apostle sets himself, and others, as examples of contentment to be imitated and followed…

“σκεπάσματα: may include clothes and shelter, covering (R.V.), tegumentum ([297]), quibus tegamur, as the Vulg. well puts it; but the word is used of clothing only in Josephus (B. J. ii. 8. 5; Ant. xv. 9, 2). So A.V., raiment, [298], vestitum (so Chrys.).

[vi] Leviticus 19:15: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Note also Exodus 23:3 : “Do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.”

[vii] Jon MacArthur, found in this context:

“…is it not because these believers valued the rich more than they valued the poor? They would rather have the rich attend their church than the poor, and their treatment of the rich and of the poor reflected their values

James reminded his readers that their values were not God’s values: “Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? Yet you have dishonored the poor” (2:5-6). They were acting in a way that was contrary to God’s values.

In a message on the evil of favoritism in the church, John MacArthur said: ‘We tend to put everyone in some kind of stratified category, higher or lower than other people. It has to do with their looks. It has to do with their wardrobe. It has to do with the kind of car they drive, the kind of house they live in; sometimes it has to do with their race, sometimes with their social status, sometimes outward characteristics of personality. All of those things with God are non-issues. They are of no significance at all. They mean absolutely nothing to Him.’”

[viii] Like a few authors from the classical world, everything God says here alludes to “equality under the law” — His law, of course.

[ix] From a site: “…it is difficult to avoid showing favoritism. Even Christ’s closest followers struggled with bias against people different from them. When the apostle Peter was first called to minister to non-Jewish people, he was reluctant. He later admitted, ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right’ (Acts 10:34). The fact that James specifically addresses the sin of favoritism implies that this was a common problem within the early church.”

 

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2020 in Uncategorized