October 29, 2017 - Love

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

Matthew 22:34-40

What does it mean to love God?

We often assume that the second greatest commandment is really the explanation of the first: to love one another is to love God.  But is that true?

We also often assume that to act as though we love each other - doing nice things for one another - is the moral equivalent of genuinely loving - falling in love - with each other.  But is that true?

Can one be commanded to genuinely love another?  Or is this something other than a command?

October 22, 2017 - Is God Liberal or Conservative?

The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
"Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion,
for you do not regard a person's status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax."
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?"
They replied, "Caesar's."
At that he said to them,
"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God."

Matthew 22:15-21

Jesus did not comment on political issues.  Even the most urgent and egregious political issue of his day – the occupation of Israel by the Romans -  never even seemed to get his attention. 

Was Jesus liberal or conservative?  The answer is, in all likelihood, neither.  Contrary to almost all commentary on him, Jesus did not describe how we should act to be moral.  Rather, Jesus described how God acts and the nature of God’s morality.  It turns out, God is unconditionally loving and isn’t in the blame game at all.  Jesus didn’t reveal this so we can imitate the divine morality and thereby receive reward or avoid punishment.  He revealed it simply as good news.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.  He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, 'Tell those invited: "Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast."' Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.  The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.  The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  Then he said to his servants, 'The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come.  Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.' The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. 

But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.  The king said to him, 'My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?' But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, 'Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.' Many are invited, but few are chosen."

Matthew 22:1-14

This blog begins with the presumption that human beings do not have free will and therefore God cannot possibly judge us or even distinguish among us on the basis of our moral behavior.

The first part of this parable seems to confirm that presumption.  God invites all to feast - “the good and the bad alike.” It is reminiscent of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The prodigal son was a pretty immoral guy.  At the very least he compared unfavorably to his older brother who is obedient and attentive to his father.  Yet it is the prodigal son who receives the attention of the father, much to the dismay of the older brother.

But the second part of the parable seems harsh and flies in the face of the idea that God does not judge between us.  God finds someone who didn’t dress properly and tells his attendants to “cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

Scripture scholars agree that these were originally two separate remembrances combined into a single parable.([i])  In fact, the first part appears in Luke but the second part is entirely absent, indicating that Luke treated these as independent, and disregarded the wedding garment portion altogether. ([ii]) In putting together material, probably from Q (as the parable does not appear in Mark), the author of Matthew has converted a message of unconditional love into the transactional: while God’s love is unconditional, you must act appropriately to keep God’s love.([iii])  Without changing a word, but simply combining some text, he has made the story about judgment. 

Of course, if this second part of the parable was a genuine remembrance of something Jesus said, then even if it is not a part of the wedding feast parable, it appears God does impose punishment and mete out reward for moral behavior.  How can we make sense of that? 

The incidences of the imagery of gnashing of teeth included in the story are rare elsewhere.  They all occur in Matthew and Luke, and most often within material that appears to be added by an editor of the text.  In Luke, Jesus utters it as he is telling the Israelites that men from the east and west and from north and south will enter the kingdom more surely than the chosen people.([iv]) In Matthew, it is used in the explanation of the wheat and weeds parable, and a similar parable right after it about dividing good fish from bad fish. ([v]) It is used in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where a king figure – almost universally falsely assumed to be God -  divides humanity up and consigns one part of it to eternal damnation.  It is used one more time in a short parable about servants being attentive for the arrival of their masters.([vi])   Only in two places is the phrase accompanied by being thrown into the outer darkness -  here, in the second part of the wedding feast parable, and in Matthew 8:12 when Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith and declares that the Gentiles will be welcomed into the kingdom while many of the chosen people will not be given entry.

In my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation, I argue that these instances where God is imagined flying into rages and giving up on humanity are actually images of the world, intent on extracting productivity from its members and rejecting the real message of faith. 

Image: Tim Daniels, www.lapseoftheshutter.com

[i] James L. Mays, Gen. Ed., Harpers Bible Commentary, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1988) 975; See also R. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 196.
[ii] Matthew 22:13; Only the first (generous) part of this parable of the wedding feast exists in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (Saying 64).
[iii] The king’s decision to kill those who declined the invitation was probably intended to indicate that refusing the invitation has worse consequences than just missing a good time.  The invitation to the wedding is a call to wholeness, like the prohibition against eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Declining the invitation feels like a death. 
[iv] Luke 13:27
[v] Matthew 13:42, 50
[vi] Matthew 24:51


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep and God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw the light, and saw that it was good. God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light “day”, and the darkness he called “night”. There was evening and there was morning, the first day.

God said, “Let there be an expanse in the middle of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” God made the expanse, and divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse “sky”. There was evening and there was morning, a second day.

God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear;” and it was so. God called the dry land “earth”, and the gathering together of the waters he called “seas”. God saw that it was good. God said, “Let the earth yield grass, herbs yielding seeds, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with their seeds in it, on the earth;” and it was so. The earth yielded grass, herbs yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with their seeds in it, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a third day.

God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs to mark seasons, days, and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth;” and it was so. God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light to the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. God saw that it was good.  There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

God said, “Let the waters abound with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky.” God created the large sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind. God saw that it was good.  God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures after their kind, livestock, creeping things, and animals of the earth after their kind;” and it was so.  God made the animals of the earth after their kind, and the livestock after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind. God saw that it was good.

God said, “Let’s make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them.  God blessed them. God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 

God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree, which bears fruit yielding seed. It will be your food.  To every animal of the earth, and to every bird of the sky, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food;” and it was so.

God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. There was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

The heavens, the earth, and all their vast array were finished.  On the seventh day God finished his work which he had done; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.  God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy, because he rested in it from all his work of creation which he had done.

Genesis 1;2:1-3

Some extraordinary themes reveal themselves in the first Creation story:

God brings order from Chaos, represented by the distinguishing of things from one another and, even more evocatively, the watery Deep.  In a few chapters, God will teach Noah how to survive the return of Chaos when floodwaters engulf the world, and carefully lock the door of the ark behind him. Moses will command the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape the Egyptians, pursuing them to return them to slavery.  Elijah will divide the Jordan river as he faces the chaos of the end of his earthly life and his apprentice, Elisha, will divide it again to begin his own ministry.  Jesus will calm turbulent waters, walk on them, and teach Peter that he can walk on them too.  

The earth and everything that emerges from it is Good, and God blesses it.

God is ancient and sovereign.  He created an abundant, nurturing universe heartrending in its beauty, mystery and majesty.  

God made us in His image.  From the very beginning, He intended us to be His children – a message he would underline with earthquakes, thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai and again in Bethlehem and on Calvary.

And He must rest, as we must, to reflect on the enormous Beauty of it all with purposeful purposelessness

Image: Earthrise