Does faith in the personal God of Scripture make sense if we acknowledge that we do not have free will? This blog presupposes that we don’t have free will, but argues that far from being a source of anxiety or even a death sentence for faith, our lack of free will may actually be the central point of Scripture and essential to our inherent human dignity.
this account I am suffering these things;
but I am not ashamed,
for I know him in whom I have believed
and am confident that he is able to guard
what has been entrusted to me until that day.
Letter to Timothy 1:11-12
cousin, John the Baptist, is executed on a whim. As Jesus is celebrating a last supper with
his friends, he warns them that they too will be tortured and killed. The first
deacon appointed by the apostles, St. Stephen, is promptly stoned to death. Throughout Scripture, bad things happen to
today’s passage, Paul is writing from prison in Rome, anticipating his
execution. He asserts that he is not embarrassed
by this. He does not expect God to
rescue him from misfortune. That is not
part of his faith.
religion believes that God or Karma rewards good behavior with good fortune and
punishes bad behavior misfortune. This reciprocity
appeals to us on a deep level. Abrahamic
religion says the opposite – your behavior is irrelevant to God.
Then he leased it to tenant farmers and
left on a journey.
At the proper time he sent a servant to
to obtain from them some of the produce
of the vineyard.
But they seized him, beat him,
and sent him away empty-handed.
Again he sent them another servant.
And that one they beat over the head and
He sent yet another whom they killed.
So, too, many others; some they beat,
others they killed.
He had one other to send, a beloved son.
The theme that God’s message will be
rejected occurs throughout Scripture. It is almost comic how often the
Israelites demand to be returned to Egypt as Moses leads them to freedom.
Jesus is in constant conflict with the religious figures of his day.
Today’s reading is a parable Jesus addresses to them to point out that
every prophet is persecuted by his people. The Pharisees were the
liberals of their day – accepting a loose, permissive interpretation of
Scripture. Their populist message resonated and they were successful
evangelicals, making converts throughout the Roman Empire. The Sadducees were
more conservative and insisted on strict compliance with Scripture even if it
required a harsh outcome. (They died out with the destruction of the Temple
in 70 AD.) Jesus was despised by both groups. What the Pharisees and
Sadducees had in common was a conviction that God punished sin with poverty,
sickness and social ostracism, and rewarded good conduct with wealth, health
and popularity. Jesus disagreed. He said the poor, the sick and the
outcast had not been cursed, but enjoyed the most sympathy and attention from
God. The rich, healthy and popular are not blessed; they're just lucky.
That made Jesus’s contemporaries really mad and it doesn’t sit well with us
either. We tend to believe God loves us more when we behave well.
The opposite appears to be true.
the men numbered about five thousand. Then he said to his disciples,
them sit down in groups of about fifty."
did so and made them all sit down.
taking the five loaves and the two fish,
looking up to heaven,
said the blessing over them, broke them,
gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. They all ate and were
when the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker
It may seem that this passage is either about magic or morality.
Either it is intended to show Jesus was capable of incredible miracles, or it
is intended to be a powerful moral lesson about sharing. (E.g.: moved by
Jesus’ good example, the crowd added bread and fish to the communal basket as
it was passed around). In fact, it was likely a literary device
deliberately imitating the story in 2 Kings 4 where Elisha multiplies four
barley loaves to feed one hundred men. How likely is it that the message of the
great prophet Elisha was that we need to share more? Did the Creator of
the Universe become Incarnate to encourage more sharing? I think both
stories were meant to convey the abundance of God's loving concern for us.
We don't have to fight over God's attention like it is a scarce resource.
The fact that God loves you doesn't mean there is less for me. Faith can
be open, welcoming, and totally accepting. It seems so simple and yet we prefer
to use this story to divide each other into people who share and are acceptable
to God and people who don't share and are less acceptable.
came to Jerusalem,
and on entering the temple area
he began to drive out those selling and buying there.
He overturned the tables of the money changers
and the seats of those who were selling doves.
He did not permit anyone to carry anything through the temple
Then he taught them saying, “Is it not written:
My house shall be called a house of
prayer for all peoples?
But you have made it a den of thieves.”
The chief priests and the scribes came to hear of it
and were seeking a way to put him to death,
yet they feared him because the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching.
his 2013 book, Zealot, Reza Alsan uses
this passage as the primary evidence for his claim that Jesus was a political agitator
intent on overthrowing Roman rule rather than a religious figure. For many others, it is an odd moment where the
usually serene Jesus loses his cool. In all likelihood, however, this passage
was intended to identify Jesus as a messiah whose arrival and suffering were prophesied
in the Old Testament. The Temple scene
occurs in all four Gospels. In the
Gospel of John, the apostles remember that it is written in Psalm 69:9 of the
messianic figure that, “zeal for thy house will consume me.” In the same Psalm, the messiah complains, “In
my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink”, which foretells the moment in the
Gospel of John in which Jesus is given vinegar as he hangs dying on the Cross. John’s accounts are likely intended to be a literary
device rather than a historical account, but his meaning is clear. Jesus is more than a moral teacher or
magician. He is the fulfillment of an
said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?”
The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.”
Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”
Immediately he received his sight
and followed him on the way.
did not cultivate the image of wonder-worker or sorcerer that we often impose
on him. Time after time, he credits the
recipient of the miracle with the saving power.
This point is made even more obvious in the story of the hemorrhaging
woman, who is healed simply by touching Jesus while he is walking by. Clearly, Scripture does not intend that we think
of God as picking people out for miraculous intervention while neglecting
others. Rather, what faith offers is
open to all. The benefits of faith are
not conferred by God, but are simply claimed by us. If we want to see, we will.
gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly,
and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you
at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Like obedient children,
do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance
but, as he who called you is holy,
be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct,
for it is written, Be holy because I
1 Peter 1:13-16
God does not command, reward or punish, why be good? If God does not require anything of us to
love us, why should we act in anything but self-interest? The closing line of
Peter’s letter provides the answer. Virtue
is not virtue if it is coerced. Love is
not love if it is required. But maybe we
can be inspired to virtuous and loving in allegiance to the divine. God does not say, “be holy or else”. St. Augustine said, "Dilige et quod vis fac", which I understand means, "if you but love God you may do as you are inclined."
“Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
“Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God.”
I admire the apostles’ reaction to Jesus. They don’t assume that Jesus is condemning
only the 'one percent' or the tax bracket immediately above them. Even as itinerant
preachers they are more wealthy, healthy and socially accepted than the widows,
lepers and Canaanites they are encountering on their way.
But Jesus’s reference to the “eye of the needle”
reveals his meaning. It is likely a
reference to an ancient Jewish midrash or commentary on The Song of Songs. In the biblical text of The Song of Songs,
God speaks to us as a heart-sick lover:
“I sleep but my heart waketh, it is the
voice of my beloved that knocketh: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove.”
(Song of Solomon 5:2)
This was interpreted and expanded upon in Jewish
commentaries that may well have been oral tradition at the time of Jesus: “The
voice of my beloved, the Holy One, Blessed be He, is calling: Open to Me an
opening no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will open to thee the
supernal gates.” (Abraham Heschel, God in
Search of Man, p. 146 Quoting Midrash Rabba, The Song of Songs 5:2 and
Zohar, vol. III, p.95a)
This is finally not a story about money at all. It is an affirmation that no one can earn God's love, but God gives it freely. He exploits any excuse, however small, to do so. That is grace.
have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
whom we have gained access by faith
this grace in which we stand,
we boast in hope of the glory of God.
are two competing concepts of God in Christianity: God as unconditionally
loving and forgiving, and God as commanding us to love one another. The
uncomfortable fact is that these concepts are in conflict with one another –
they cannot both be true. Here St. Paul pronounces the first view
as definitively correct, that we are “justified” – loved by God – through
faith. In Galatians 2:16 he is even clearer: “a man is not justified by
works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”. Some
interpretations of this passage declare it is the faith of Jesus, not
faith in Jesus, that justifies us. In other words, we don’t
have to do or even believe anything to be loved by God.
are naturally uncomfortable with this. We like personal accountability,
command, reward and punishment. We want Christianity to be socially
responsible. We want faith to confirm our liberal or conservative points
of view. But Christianity is not intended to make us comfortable in our natural
predispositions. Christianity is a rebellion against those things.
Come now, you who say,
“Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town,
spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”–
you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.
You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then
is one of those remarkable passages that is unmistakably parallel to the teachings of the Buddha (or St. Josaphat as he's known in Christianity). Other
passages, like Luke 12:27-28 (and Matthew 6:28) have the same message, but we
tend to focus on the apparent promise of divine intervention: “Consider the
lilies, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin; yet I tell you,
even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if
this is how God clothes the grass in the field, which today exists, and
tomorrow is cast into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of
little faith?” God does not promise to magically intervene to dress
us. But faith does invite us to keep
things in perspective. In the context of
the sacred and the eternal, the anxieties of today vanish.
a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”
would be easy to conflate this story with the Parable of the Sheep and the
Goats in Matthew (25:31-46) in which a figure, who we presume is God, walks the
Earth in disguise to see who will serve Him and who will not, and then condemns
those who fail the test to eternal torture.
More on that later. But this is a
very different story. We are not told
the child is poor, or sick, or in need of anything. We are not told to feed, heal, educate or
otherwise help the child. We are only to
“receive” the child. Jesus does not promise reward if we receive the child or
punishment if we fail. The only message
is that when we receive this child, we receive Jesus and receive God. This is not a description of how to be moral –
it is a description of God’s morality. By
becoming one of us, God has granted divine dignity to all of us - even a child
who has had no opportunity to earn it.
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Martin Buber’s watershed
1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), sought to describe the mystical communion
between individuals, and between human individuals and God. For Buber, this is not an encounter that
conveys practical, real-world, measurable benefits. The I/Thou encounter does not reduce stress,
or make one a better, more moral person.
Ironically, the I/Thou encounter is impossible without being in
communion with someone else but nonetheless reveals the true self. It changes each participant – both God and
human being – and brings them closer to the most radiant expression of their
personality. Faith and religion, at
their best, seek this communion. There
is a pervasive movement today that seeks spirituality in solitude – the ‘nones’
wish to keep their altruism pure and unsullied by the compromise that
inevitably follows from participation in a faith community. But there is nothing particularly progressive
or broadminded in the refusal to explore the Big Questions with others or the blanket rejection of all the world's wisdom traditions.
was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
faith is not a faith of ghostly spirits that evaporate at the lightest touch.
The authors of the Gospels took pains to convey that, after the resurrection,
Jesus was flesh, blood and bone. He appeared to them and was
hungry. He ate broiled fish. He let Doubting Thomas place his
fingers in his wounds. In this passage, Jesus ascends bodily into
heaven. There is no separation between humanity and God – no gulf between
heaven and earth. God dwells among His people.
I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
is Jesus’s farewell address, spoken to his apostles as he celebrates Passover
with them on the eve of his torture and death.
What peace does he offer them under these circumstances? He will go on, in this speech, to prophesy
their own horrific deaths. But “not as
the world gives” does he give them peace.
This is something more than a promise that they’ll avoid hardship, pain,
and suffering. This is a peace that surpasses all understanding, as Paul will
say to the Philippians (4:7). God does
not promise us good luck, health, prosperity, or even guidance. Yes, bad things happen to good people and
vice versa. That is what Jesus is
affirming. What God promises is that He
will suffer it with us. Elizabeth Kübler
Ross, the pioneer of palliative care, said that sometimes when we’re in pain we
want to say “don’t just do something, stand there.” That is what God offers. The Creator of the Universe, the Alpha and
the Omega, He Who placed the world on its foundations, suffers with us. That is extraordinary.