Aquinas on Free Will

Aquinas distinguished between two kinds of volition. First, there is the inevitable attraction to those things that you deem perfectly good or desirable. You always will choose what you perceive as perfectly fair, for instance.  Aquinas would say you are not truly “free” to choose otherwise.

Second, there are those things that are deemed partially good or partially desirable.  In those cases, human beings have the capacity to evaluate the pros and cons of each – to deliberate. It is in the weighing of those pros and cons that humanity exerts something akin to freedom.  Of course, we each deliberate as best we can with the facts at our disposal, subconsciously applying our preconceptions and biases.  Although we make a "choice", it is not "free" in a manner for which we can be held morally responsible. 

“Aquinas did not talk about “free will”; the term libera voluntas is found only twice in all his works, and then only in a nontechnical usage.  Rather he spoke of free choice or decision (liberum arbitrium).”[1]

If we do not have free will, and if God is aware of this fact and is reasonably fair-minded, then universal salvation is a reality.  If it is heretical to think so, then St. Aquinas's position is too.    

[1] Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 8, p. 108

October 21, 2018 - Be Humble or God Won't Love You

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?"  They answered him, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can." Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Mark 10

This overarching theme of this blog is that God is unconditionally loving; in other words, He will love us regardless of what we do or don’t do.  This sounds like the ordinary Christian position, but it is more uncompromising:  God requires nothing – no behavior, no contrition, and no belief – in order to love us. The result is universal salvation and it is almost universally rejected.  God knows we don’t like universal salvation and so innumerable stories and parables criticize us - those who demand that God judge and condemn.  Remember the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story? Remember Jonah and the Ninevites? Remember the lost sheep and the lost coin?  Remember the vineyard workers who started work earliest? Remember the multiplication of the loaves?  All these stories speak of a God whose love is so abundant that it can feed everyone with more leftover, and the people who don’t like that. Yet we always read these stories as requiring something from us: usually altruism.

In this case we read the story to mean that God requires humility.  And certainly this Sunday’s Gospel and last Sunday’s Gospel can be read as instructions to clergy to live an ascetic, simple life and not to organize themselves into hierarchies.  They can also be read as instructions to the laity to give generously to charity (although the story seems to call for something more extreme) and to be humble. And maybe Jesus became incarnate to encourage these traits in us – but it makes Jesus seem a little prosaic. More importantly, that view requires that God is not unconditionally loving; He imposes conditions. It is an inviting interpretation because it allows us to tsk tsk at unpleasant arrogant people, or to critique the Church.  And that’s easy and fun.

What is the true meaning?

It is hidden in plain sight.  Two millennia after the life of Jesus we have become numb to the extraordinary message of the Gospel. God became incarnate! Whether this is true in every respect or true just in the most important ways, this is an extraordinary thing.  And He didn’t become incarnate to establish dominion over humanity.  Scholars say the Jewish innovation was monotheism.  I believe the Jewish innovation was divine regard and love for humanity. Before Abraham’s encounter with God in which God tells Abraham he must not sacrifice his son, the divine was either wholly disinterested in human affairs, or imposed a transactional relationship: you do this for me, and I’ll send rain, or fertility, or let the sun come up again. Today, we hear something extraordinarily different:

For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Think about that.  Or think about how good it is to be humble.

October 14, 2018 - Christianity in a Nutshell

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good? 
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother." 
He replied and said to him,
"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, 
"How hard it is for those who have wealth 
to enter the kingdom of God!" 
The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply,
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 
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 human beings it is impossible, but not for God. 
All things are possible for God." 
Peter began to say to him,
"We have given up everything and followed you." 
Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come."

Mark 10

Several interesting things are happening in Sunday’s Gospel.

In the first paragraph, Jesus encounters a man who wishes to know how he can inherit eternal life. He asserts that he has followed the law impeccably. Jesus suggests he needs to do two more things.  The first is to give away all that he has to the poor.  The second is to follow Jesus.

A transactional or dualist approach to faith makes quick work of this passage: God requires that you follow the commandments, give to the poor to improve their economic circumstances, and finally follow Jesus’ example of going around doing kindnesses and being humble.

Alistair McIntyre turned moral philosophy on its head in his 1981 book, After Virtue, by pointing out that while modern moral philosophy is almost always about making the right moral decision in hard cases, in Aristotle’s time, moral philosophy was about cultivating good moral habits and becoming a habitually good person.  Aristotle was not particularly interested in the moral quandaries modern moral philosophers pose for themselves.  Aristotle wanted to know how to be a good, virtuous person.

We can be reasonably sure Jesus followed the Aristotelian model. When Jesus tells anyone to give their money to the poor, it is never to change the economic circumstances of the poor.  Judas thought the opposite and, after the episode with the nard, he was so scandalized by Jesus’ refusal to connect faith to altruism he betrayed him to his executioners.  Jesus is advising the man how to be a whole person. Part of being a whole person is to keep material possessions in perspective and, for the truly committed, to cast them off entirely.    

What does it mean to follow Jesus in this context?  Almost certainly Jesus meant that this man should drop everything and literally follow Jesus in an ascetic life.  This is a uniform prerequisite for the most dedicated spiritual pursuits in every tradition.  The Buddha, for example, named his newborn son “Tether” and abandoned him and his wife forever in order to lead an ascetic life.  Elsewhere, Jesus and Elijah tell prospective disciples to leave their families, leave their livelihoods, and even leave the dead unburied to follow them.  It is not a life for everyone.  It is not a morally responsible choice for everyone.

Then Jesus offers his famous “camel through an eye of a needle” metaphor.  We must never fail to read this passage to the end. Jesus recognizes that no one is good, no one is without sin, no one has successfully ransomed his own life or been worthy of the divine sacrifice represented by Jesus’ incarnation and death.  This is not a threat of hell.  As usual, it is a promise of salvation for every single human being that has ever lived and an invitation to us to rejoice in that rather than to begrudge it being given to those  who we feel might not deserve it.  None of us deserves it.  Our human desire to commodify God’s love and deeply resent its non-exclusivity is the point of a raft of parables and stories:  the multiplication of loaves, the workers in the vineyard, the prodigal son, Jonah, Job, the man blind from birth, the wedding feast, and the Beatitudes to name just a few[1].  Read Luke 4:14-30 carefully: what causes Jesus to be nearly thrown off a cliff in his hometown is not that he declared himself the messiah; it is that he declared that people other than Jews would receive salvation! But we will always skew the interpretations to make God’s love conditional and limited again.  I believe it is that human instinct that got Jesus crucified. Are we really Christians before we come to terms with this?

[1] This is the subject-matter of my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation.

September 30, 2018 - Heck

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'

Mark 9

What did Jesus mean here by ‘sin’?

Most would reflexively answer that he meant an egregious failure to be altruistic – to engage in murder or assault for instance, or to be insensible of the dire needs of others. For this, some of us might agree (on a really bad day), eternal damnation is justifiable and proportionate.

But in Jesus’s time, the concept of sin had not yet been narrowed to ‘being a nice person’. Sin principally meant a violation of one of the 600+ rules of Torah. Those rules certainly included a prohibition against murder and a prescription for altruism (“care for the widow and orphan”) but also included a great many rules we would consider arbitrary and that we violate without hesitation today: keeping kosher and keeping the Sabbath, for instance.  

We might be inclined to take this passage at face value: that some of us are going to hell (undoubtedly assuming we will find a loophole for ourselves).  Some of us will dismiss this passage (and perhaps all of faith) altogether for its apparent harshness. We should look deeper.

So, if not a stern warning to follow Torah impeccably, what might this passage mean?

In the last line, Jesus is quoting the very last line of Chapter 66 of Isaiah. In fact, it is the second-to-last line of the entire Book**.  That part of Isaiah is actually written by an author that biblical scholars call ‘Trito-Isaiah’ – one of three authors of the Book of Isaiah. Almost all of Chapter 66 is an extraordinary, poetic message of hope for the exiled Israelites.  They will return to Jerusalem and they, together with all Gentiles, will enjoy prosperity and peace in this kingdom of God.  According to Trito-Isiah, it is the nasty Canaanites, with their sacrifices to Ba’al, the god of fertility, that will be disgraced - burned outside the city gates in Gehenna, where (ironically) Canaanites traditionally had sacrificed their firstborn to Ba’al on pyres. They have no faith in the one true God.

Another hint appears in the first line of the Gospel passage.  Jesus is warning those who make those “who believe him” to sin.

In the last line (which did not make the Lectionary version), Jesus says if salt loses its taste, you cannot restore it with seasoning.  In other words, there is no substitute for salt. 

We reflexively assume Jesus is warning everyone to be altruistic or suffer terrible consequences at the hands of an angry god. More likely, he is exhorting us to take our faith seriously.   Failure won’t literally land you in Sheol, Hades or Gehenna, but the consequences are nonetheless severe.  Faith should be the most important thing in our lives.  We should not allow anything to get in our way.  There is no substitute for faith once lost.

** interestingly, Jesus is misquoting.  Where Trito-Isaiah says, “their fire”, Jesus says, “the fire”.  

September 23, 2018 - One

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it.  He was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.  Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking 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 me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

Mark 9

The second part of this Sunday’s Gospel invites a commentary of pious drivel.  

Did humanity need Jesus to tell us to be humble or to be kind to children or to each other?  As a firm believer in the inspired nature of Scripture and in the truth of the Incarnation, this is simply unbelievable to me.  

Every major religion comes to the same principal conclusion:  All of creation, including humanity, emerges from the same Source and returns to the same Source. We have a divine inheritance. In Eastern religions, this is usually expressed as full-blown identification: humanity is part of the divine. The self is just part of the great Self in the Hindu Upanishads.  The recognition that the ego is illusion is a major goal in Buddhism.   In Western religions, the divine remains distinct from us, but there is a tight connection: God made us in His image, God declared us His own at Mount Sinai and that He would dwell with and within us, His Son became incarnate – both human and divine, Jacob’s ladder formed a bridge between earth and heaven, and at Jesus’s death the veil between the Holly of Holies and the rest of the world would tear in two.   

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus declares that he will die and rise again. He returns to the Source and emerges from It effortlessly and the implication is that we will too.  This is immediately followed by an exhortation to understand that any sort of dualism is simply wrong: there is no greatest or least, blessed or cursed, there is not even a distinction in the mind of God between sinner and saint.  How would we live if we understood this in our bones?  We would be compassionate - not because it is commanded by a demanding god ready to punish us for failure; and not because it will benefit us in an afterlife, but because we are all one and one with God.  When we receive a child, we receive ourselves, we receive each other, and we receive God. 

September 2, 2018 - Why Liturgy?

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.  For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds. So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, "Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?"  He responded, "Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition." He summoned the crowd again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand.  Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.

"From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile."

Mark 7

At first glance, Jesus seems to diminish – even outright reject – ritual. This is not the only instance of it either.  In similar circumstances, he recited the mantra (circulating among Jewish theologians of the time) that, “the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

But elsewhere, Jesus will overturn the tables of the money-changers in the Temple to protect its sanctity. He clearly participated in liturgy in synagogues and took great personal risk to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.  His celebration of Passover provided the prelude for his execution. It is a deeply ritualized meal structured around the blessing bread and wine, recited remembrance and incantation. Its Christian successor, the Eucharist, is similarly ritualized

We think of Jesus as being the great teacher of human morality, but I believe this is incorrect.  Jesus was overwhelmingly concerned with telling us about the moral code God follows rather than the moral code we should follow.  In Jesus’s time, both popular culture and theologians believed that God rewarded and punished based on behavior.  Many of us still do – although we hedge it a little.  Time and time again, Jesus said emphatically, “no”: God loves the sinner. Sickness is not a sign of God’s disfavor – God has a special place in His heart for the sick, the meek, the poor and the poor in spirit.  The man blind from birth is not cursed; he is loved. God’s morality is mercy. He tells us this not because we are supposed to emulate God (although it would be nice), but so that we understand and fully appreciate the profound depth and radical nature of God’s love of us.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are implying that God will look unfavorably on those who do not follow ritual – that they are rendering themselves impure. Jesus is not rejecting ritual. His commitment to ritual elsewhere is too strong. I think Jesus is insisting ritual must be followed for the right reasons: not to receive divine reward or avoid divine punishment, but because it is how we approach God in community, because it makes us more resiliently happy, as an expression of a sense of gratitude or creatureliness (as Rudolph Otto would say), or humility. The Pharisees in the story are not wrong to follow ritual – they are “hypocrites” - they follow ritual for the wrong reasons.  

Belief in God remains extremely high in the United States. Rates of daily and weekly prayer are actually increasing.  But participation in liturgy is collapsing at a rate of about1% per year – which is catastrophic. Perhaps we have decided God doesn’t ‘require’ ritual as long as we are altruistic (as long as, “I am a good person”).  The challenge is to wonder if there is another reason to go.

The Glory

Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man.  It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning down toward dynamite.  It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms.  The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet.  Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes.  A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and the trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale.  And then - the glory - so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished.  And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories.  It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world.  It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from other men.     

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

August 26, 2018 - To whom shall we go?

Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?" Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."

John 6

Why attend Mass?  Does it make sense to stop attending Mass in response to institutional scandal?

Certainly, part of the reason many attend Mass is to hear an educated voice interpret the Scriptures and challenge us to live the well-lived, whole, abundant life informed by a lifetime of serious commitment to spiritual thought and discipline.  Faith that the Church is effectively identifying and developing such voices has certainly been damaged.  To be blunt, although it has done a better job of weeding out predators among its ranks in the last decade, that is a ridiculously low bar.

On the other hand, as I argued in my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation, there is much, much more going on at Mass than a lecture.

Presumably we attend Mass because we believe it is good for us – an integral part of living the well-lived life.  Presumably we attend Mass because we believe something is done there that connects us to the divine in a way that we are humble enough to know we can’t accomplish on our own. Spirituality and community are not separable.  In today’s Gospel the apostles stay – not because they are commanded to, nor out of loyalty – but out of self-interest.

What is the fundamental problem and how can it be resolved?

The Church’s commitment to celibacy is often cited as the root of the problem.  Celibacy among the clergy is not a command from God. Nor does it come from antiquated notions of purity. (And, no, it’s not a ploy to keep priests from dividing up Church property among heirs.  It is, after all, Church property.)  It is one of several disciplines almost universally observed by clergy across religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism. Historical Judaism had the Nazarite vow. Confucianism requires celibacy while mourning. Only Protestantism and Islam have no tradition of it. It is one of several disciplines uniformly observed those who dedicate themselves, either temporarily or permanently, to a completely focused religious life.  It inevitably goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to other expressions of asceticism: eating sparingly and fasting periodically, avoiding alcohol, living as simply and gently as possible, living communally, relying on alms, avoiding excessive engagement with the world, etc..  For thousands of years and across virtually every culture, it has been asserted that asceticism leads to spiritual insight worth sharing. 

Another virtually universally accepted principle is that asceticism must be practiced consistently and programmatically.  Only then does it have a chance to become second nature, effortless and spontaneous.  Only then does the adherent find spiritual wisdom, and only then can he or she speak with authority. To be celibate but eat without restraint hardly makes sense.

The root of the problem is this: the Church has demanded adherence to some of these as a price of admission, but they cannot be cherrypicked, and they must be motivated by more than mere obedience.  The idea that the Church must dispense with the asceticism altogether is clearly a mistake.

The Church is addressing the symptoms of an exceptionally serious problem.  In the long term, however, I hope the Church rededicates itself to identifying and developing clergy who are committed to the full palette of spiritual disciplines and for the right reasons. 

August 5, 2018 - Abundance

So, they said to him, "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?"
Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent." 

John 6:28-29

This small excerpt from this Sunday’s Gospel is extraordinary.

Last week, we heard about the abundance of God.  The multiplication of loaves and fishes could not be more obvious: God gives a trophy to every child.  We hate that, but He does it. It’s good – truly – to be the best you can be – but don’t expect God to reward you more than he who fails.

The excerpt I’ve chosen from this Sunday’s Gospel reading really says the same thing.  How do you accomplish the works of God?  With simple belief.  Ah ha! So, you have to believe in correct dogma!  Or believe in the Incarnation! Or believe in the existence of God!

No.  You cannot believe something by sheer force of will, or to receive reward or avoid punishment.  More importantly, no loving God would require it.  What Jesus is saying is existential: You cannot accomplish the works of God.  Or better yet – they have been accomplished for you.

It is good news. 

Photo: Cathedral Rock, Arizona

July 29, 2018 - Feeding the Multitude

Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near.  When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, "Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?"  He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little."  One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?"  Jesus said, "Have the people recline."  Now there was a great deal of grass in that place.  So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.  Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.  When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, "Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted."  So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat.  When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, "This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world."  Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

John 6:1-15;  See also Luke 9:15-17

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.  Several  respected theologians have asserted that this story is about how, 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 (the fact that the loaves are barley in both stories is a clue) 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. God's love is abundant and there is even love left over.  This is a radical, counter-cultural message about the nature of God that few can accept because it makes God's love truly unconditional, which we naturally don't like.  Instead, we prefer to use this story to make what is finally a utterly uncontroversial, bland statement about the benefits of altruism.  

John the Baptist

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John." But they answered her, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name." So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, "What, then, will this child be?" For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Luke 1:57-66,80

I heard a remarkable exegesis on John the Baptist this morning. John is the only saint whose feast day (today) celebrates his nativity -  his birth - rather than his death.  His solemnity falls roughly around the summer solstice, as the hours of daylight begin to decrease (June 21). Of course, we celebrate Jesus’s nativity at Christmas – around the time of the winter solstice, as the hours of daylight begin to increase (December 21).  John, famously said of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease so that he may increase.”

It is interesting to reflect on how different John and Jesus were. John was ascetic, living on locusts and honey and wearing a camelhair robe.  Jesus was criticized for feasting and drinking so much he was considered a drunkard.  (Of the two of them, I’m glad Jesus, rather than John, is the ultimate Christian example!)  Yet they were cousins, both were given their names before their birth by angels (although only John's stuck), both were radical itinerant teachers with a band of disciples, and both would eventually be executed by the state.

It is also interesting to note that John was very interested in virtue, self-improvement, and holiness.  He shared this with St. Paul.  I have argued here and in my book that although we assume Jesus was principally focused on the same thing (to which we apply a lot of confirmation bias), that is not the case.  Was Jesus a repudiation of John? I don't think so.  But they were describing entirely different things: John described the well-lived life, while Jesus described the nature of God's relationship to us.  Both are, of course, of immeasurable importance.

Image: Herodias, by Juan de Flandes

June 17, 2018 - Be Still

Jesus said to the crowds: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”

Mark 4

Christians often talk about their obligation to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.  In this reading, however, Jesus seems to be saying we can relax and let it take care of itself.  This may seem like inexcusable sloth and the result of learned helplessness in the face of an enormous task.  What ever happened to lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness?  

I believe this supports one of the primary ideas of this blog (and my book): The Gospels and the Old Testaments are principally concerned with describing God’s morality, not commanding our morality.  In this passage, God is describing what He will do and expressly inviting us to stand down, not to get in the way, to avoid causing collateral damage (as in the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat), and that we need do nothing but be still (to quote Exodus).   

This is only the first half of the Gospel reading for this week.  I explored the second half, the Parable of the Mustard Seed – but as told by Matthew, in my July 20, 2017 post.  That post is quickly becoming the most popular in the three-year history of this blog, threatening to overtake even provocatively entitled blogs like “Predestination” (July 25, 2017) and “Proof of God’s Existence” (April 21, 2017).

Image: The Jordan River

June 10, 2018 - May Truth Be Spoken Though The Mountains May Fall

Jesus came home with his disciples. Again, the crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat. When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, "He is out of his mind." The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said, "He is possessed by Beelzebul," and "By the prince of demons he drives out demons."

Summoning them, he began to speak to them in parables, "How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand; that is the end of him. But no one can enter a strong man's house to plunder his property unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder the house. Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness but is guilty of an everlasting sin." For they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

His mother and his brothers arrived. Standing outside they sent word to him and called him. A crowd seated around him told him, "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you." But he said to them in reply, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Mark 3:20-35

I invite you to ignore the second of the three paragraphs of this week’s Gospel reading, which I have italicized.

Maybe it’s not a big deal, but that omission reveals something I, for one, have never noticed before. In the passages before this week’s Gospel, Jesus had to flee by boat to avoid being crushed by the adoring crowd. In the first paragraph of today’s Gospel, the crowd had found him again in his home (this is the only reference I am aware of that implies Jesus has a home) and is closing in so closely, he can hardly find room to eat.

His family (his family!) has an interesting opposite reaction: they decide he has lost his mind!  The lawyers agree. They set out for Jesus’ house.

In the paragraph I have asked you to ignore, Jesus tries to convince his disciples that he is not crazy. 

Finally, in the third paragraph, Jesus is told his family has arrived and that they are calling for him.   Remember, his relatives set out to confront him – to do an intervention - to stop him from his crazy preaching.  Every time I have read this paragraph previously, I have thought Jesus was being oblique, somewhat cold-hearted and a little over-zealous. But it now appears to me Jesus was simply dismissing his family's authority to silence him and strongly affirming his teaching in the face of their rejection.  He personifies the term Kierkegaard used to describe Abraham: a Knight of Faith.

June 3, 2018 - Freedom

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,
Jesus’ disciples said to him,
"Where do you want us to go
and prepare for you to eat the Passover?"
He sent two of his disciples and said to them,
"Go into the city and a man will meet you,
carrying a jar of water.
Follow him.
Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house,
'The Teacher says, "Where is my guest room
where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?"'
Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready.
Make the preparations for us there."
The disciples then went off, entered the city,
and found it just as he had told them;
and they prepared the Passover.

Mark 14

This is only the beginning of this week’s Gospel. It is followed by Jesus’s consecration of the bread and wine which rightfully usually gets most of the attention.  But note that the Gospel of John leaves that part out entirely.  There is profound importance in just the timing of the Passion story: Jesus is celebrating Passover the night before he is arrested, tried and executed.  In some ways the Passover story is very different from the Passion.  Passover commemorates when God freed the Israelites from slavery “with a strong arm,” symbolized by the presence of a shank bone on the Seder table. The Passion commemorates when God allowed His Son to be executed as a criminal in the most horrendous way. No strong arm was evident. In some ways, the two holy days are parallel: Christians assert that the Passion marks the moment when God freed us from slavery again.

From what slavery are we freed? Some would say it is was our slavery to some inherited guilt – and gloss over that the concept of inherited guilt seems profoundly unfair. Shall not the judge of the earth do justice?  Jesus himself pointedly rejects any notion of inherited sin in John 9:1-12, to the anger of the Pharisees.

The principle challenge of Judeo-Christianity is to understand what God accomplished on Mount Sinai and Calvary.

Consolation Series - Part 88: The Movable God: End of the Consolation Series

When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping,
he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said,
"Where have you laid him?"
They said to him, "Sir, come and see."
And Jesus wept.
So the Jews said, "See how he loved him."

John 11:33-36

The Jesus of the Gospels is, honestly, not a particularly warm figure.  If he expresses emotion, it is typically anger and frustration.  But for the most part, he is stoic, controlled, and demanding.  I suspect there was real warmth in his relationship with the apostles, disciples and those they encountered along the way – there must have been for him to attract such a devoted following – but it is rarely indicated in what is written about him.

We do well to reflect on the crying, sobbing Jesus of today’s Gospel.  The sight of his old friend, Mary (always the more sensitive of the two sisters) crying at the tomb of her brother Lazarus, together with Martha and all of Lazarus’s friends, moves him to tears.  John’s staccato rendering of the moment produces one of the shortest line in all of Scripture: “And Jesus wept.” (The shortest is 1 Thessalonians 5:16, which is, ironically, “Rejoice evermore.”) Obviously, he is utterly overcome, as those standing around him remark at the depth of his emotion.  

Why did John break the custom of depicting Jesus as stoic at this moment? It doesn’t even make a lot of sense given that he fully knew, according to John, that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead.  I suspect the moment survived into the written Gospel because it was genuine, heartfelt and probably disturbing to those around him.  The memory of Jesus crushed and overwrought simply could not be glossed over.

I am fairly certain we have a God Who is not stoic, Who has no expectation that we can handle it, Who is not closing one door to open another, but Who suffers it all with us, in all its intensity, not assuaged by anything He may do for us in the future, so that we never suffer alone. 


So ends the Consolation Series.  I hope you found peace in it.  Thanks for following along!