Friday, December 31, 2010

What We Owe the Poor

I came across the subject article in the December 2010 Christianity Today and was struck by Keller's comment that “...we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away” (Dec 2010 CT, p.69; emphasis mine). This quote makes me feel uncomfortable; I especially don't like the underlined word "possibly" -- how about "comfortably" or "easily" or "conveniently"??

This brings to mind things I read 30 years ago in William MacDonald's book TRUE DISCIPLESHIP (Kansas City, KS: Walterick, 1975), particularly this excerpt from pp.8-9:

“So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). This is perhaps the most unpopular of all Christ's terms of discipleship, and may well prove to be the most unpopular verse in the Bible. Clever theologians can give you a thousand reasons why it does not mean what it says, but simple disciples drink it down eagerly, assuming that the Lord Jesus knew what he was saying. What is meant by forsaking all? It means an abandonment of all one's material possessions that are not absolutely essential and that could be used in the spread of the gospel. The man who forsakes all does not become a shiftless loafer; he works hard to provide for the current necessities of his family and himself. But since the passion of his life is to advance the cause of Christ, he invests everything above current needs in the work of the Lord and leaves the future with God.
It's easy to say MacDonald wasn't "mainstream" (whatever virtue attaches, or doesn't, to that) but Keller is not in any sense on the fringe of Christianity.

They aren't saying exactly the same thing, but they're pretty close. If we help feed the poor, is that spreading the gospel? Yes, according to Matthew 11:3-5. You may remember this incident; John isn't sure if Jesus is "the one who was to come"; he sends his disciples to ask Jesus. Jesus alludes to Isaiah 61:1 ("the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor") in his answer to John, ending with the words "καὶ πτωχοὶ εὐαγγελίζονται" (and the poor are evangelized) -- yes, the same word is used for "the gospel."

So where does this leave you and me? Well, 30 years on, maybe I have plausible deniability for MacDonald, but then came Keller. And then this modern theologian, Stephen Colbert, who says Jesus is a liberal Democrat; I'll write more about that another day. Seriously though, how do you and I live? Do we give as much as we possibly can to the poor? Or, to lean more toward MacDonald, to spreading the gospel?

True confession: I don't. Here's a thought experiment: suppose my annual income were to suddenly drop 20% -- to what it was some years ago. What would change in my life? Would I have enough to eat, to pay the mortgage, to send my kids to college, to have dinner out occasionally, to enjoy vacations? Yes I would. Some of you would, too.

So "as much as I could possibly give" means that I could give away 20% of my gross income in addition to what we're currently giving to relief and development and evangelism, etc. So why don't I? For those of you who could live on 20% less but aren't giving away that 20%, why don't you?

More on this later.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Who Is Jesus? according to Matthew 1

(I'm indebted to pastor Kevin Kim for much of the content here. Any mistakes are mine. This isn't a scholarly paper -- just the opposite! Please see a ministry professional for competent exegetical or hermeneutical advice.)

The very first line of the New Testament, in Matthew 1:1, tells us who Jesus is: "A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham" -- which says Jesus is the Christ, "Christ" being the Greek word for "Messiah," or "anointed one."

"Anointed" means somebody got oil (or ointment), as a sign of being set apart for some particular purpose. From the two-word phrase, "Jesus Christ," any reader of Matthew would immediately understand what Matthew was saying about Jesus, and the next few words would give them lots of information that most of us would miss.

By calling Jesus "the son of David," Matthew means more than just that Jesus was descended from David; he also means that Jesus is a successor to David, who was king over Israel's golden age. So not only has Jesus been anointed; he's been anointed to ascend David's throne. Since Matthew's earliest readers would have been Jews living under Roman occupation, this reference to David would likely have been provocative.

The reference to Abraham I'm thinking was likely a reminder of the covenant: from the burning bush (Exodus 3) God introduces himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; as Jerusalem is about to be sacked (Jeremiah 33), he refers to the Israelites as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I'll further guess that for those discouraged by living under occupation, the reference to Abraham would have been an encouragement, because God's covenant with Abraham dates from over a thousand years before Jesus, and over 400 years before Moses delivered them from their Egyptian oppressors.

Then, starting in verse 2, we have an interesting list -- all focused on the question of "Who is this Jesus we're talking about?" A genealogy was like a person's calling card; it still is today in the mideast. Therefore, if you were listing your ancestors, you'd mention the ones you'd want a hearer to remember when they thought about you. The ancestors named were almost always men, so it's unusual that four women are mentioned here:

  1. "Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar" (Matthew 1:3)

    Judah was Tamar's father-in-law, and two of Judah's sons (successive husbands to Tamar) had died. Tamar dressed up as a prostitute, Judah had sex with her, and she bore a pair of twin boys. (Genesis 38).

  2. "Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab" (Matthew 1:5)

    Rahab was a prostitute living in Jericho while the Israelites wandered in the desert (Joshua 2); she sheltered the Israelite spies and was saved along with her household when the city fell.

  3. "Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth" (Matthew 1:5)

    Ruth was from Moab, and immigrated to Israel with Naomi her mother-in-law (Ruth 1).

  4. "David the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife" (Matthew 1:6)

    For some reason Matthew does not mention the name "Bathsheba," but that's the person in question (2 Samuel 11). She had been bathing somewhere visible from the palace. David had sex with her, she became pregnant, and David had her husband killed.

    Why doesn't Matthew write "Bathsheba"? Two reasons come to mind: first, mentioning Uriah (Matthew's readers would automatically fill in "...the Hittite") establishes her as a foreigner's wife without naming her husband's background (Matthew doesn't write "Ruth the Moabitess" either); second, Uriah was one of David's Thirty mighty men (2 Samuel 23), which makes David's betrayal that much more despicable.

I find this list astonishing in view of what a genealogy is usually for; Matthew is introducing Jesus, anointed to David's throne, as a descendant of foreigners, prostitutes (well, Tamar only acted like one), a woman who bathed in view of the palace, a man who betrayed his friend with adultery and murder.

But it gets even more interesting: verse 16 has, "...Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ." Wait -- we have "the father of... the father of..." and then at the end Joseph is the husband of Mary, not "the father of Jesus." Wha...? Hold that thought for a moment, because Matthew gives us one more oddity:

In verse 17, Matthew says, "Thus there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile...." What's so odd here? To Matthew's first readers, steeped in the history of the kings of Judah, the omissions in David's line (1 Chronicles 1) would stand out: "Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham" (Matthew 1:8-9)? No, no, no! 1 Chronicles 1:11-12 reads (note the names highlighted in yellow): "Jehoram his son, Ahaziah his son, Joash his son, Amaziah his son, Azariah his son, Jotham his son" -- Uzziah and Azariah being names for the same person.

What's this about? Matthew wasn't working from some different manuscript that lacked those names; Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah reigned a total of 70 years, as described in 2 Kings 8:24-14:18. No, Matthew didn't forget those other kings; he included some people and omitted others in order to present Jesus as the beginning of the 7th set of 7 generations from Abraham. Right? 14 from Abraham to David -- that's two 7s; 14 from David to the exile (the 3rd and 4th 7s), 14 from the exile to the Christ (the 5th and 6th 7s). Programmers and math majors may notice that when counting 14 generations, the beginning and the ending are counted twice. Don't sweat it; the point is, beginning with the migration to the land we call Israel, the first set of 14 generations established the kingdom of Israel, the second set was the duration of the kingdom (of Judah anyway) as a kingdom, the third set was the exile to the start of something new. In other words, Matthew is signaling here that Jesus inaugurates the 7th set of 7 for Jews living in the land of promise.

Back to "Joseph is the husband..." rather than "the father of": Matthew explains it starting in verse 18:
18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us." 24When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew 1:18-21
Let me unpack verse 19 a bit. Joseph hasn't had any union with Mary (cf. verse 25), yet Mary is somehow pregnant. He's within his rights to accuse her of unfaithfulness, but he doesn't want to disgrace her. He doesn't want someone else's child, though, and "divorcing her quietly" seems like a reasonable way out. So he was willing to let everyone think him somewhat of a deserter (i.e., for leaving Mary with their child), rather than accusing her to vindicate himself. I really like this guy.

But he has a dream, and obeying it, does not divorce her. (By the way, "pledged to be married" (verse 18) had more meaning in those days than what we think of as engagement. Dissolving it wasn't a matter of just calling the whole thing off.) I have often thought that we don't pay as much attention to Joseph as he deserves. Anyway, he names the baby boy Jesus.

What does it mean "give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (1:21, emphasis added)? For many of us today, a name is only an identifier, a word to disambiguate "that person" or "you there." But even a casual reading of Israel's history shows that names meant a lot more in the ancient world; consider Moses, so named because "I drew him out of the water" (Exodus 2:10) -- or how God changes Abram's name to Abraham (Genesis 17:5-6) or Jacob's name to Israel (Genesis 32:28).

Joseph was told to name the boy "Y'shua", like "Joshua" in the Old Testament. If these names are pronounced like "Y'shua", then why are they spelled "Joshua" and "Jesus" in English? Probably for the same reason the German word "ja" (meaning "yes", pronounced "ya") is spelled like it is. English is Germanic; it's not a Romance language.

And why do "Joshua" and "Jesus" differ so much? Well, I'm not too sure about that first vowel, but I believe that the Hebrew Bible was written without vowels. How did the NIV editors decide to put "Joshua" for the 6th book of the Bible but "Jeshua" in Ezra and Nehemiah? I don't know. Regarding "sh" vs "s" -- Greek doesn't have an "sh" sound and can't represent it. About the different endings -- as mentioned earlier, the New Testament is written in Greek; names are inflected in Greek, unlike in English. Thus when Matthew writes "the book of the genealogy of Jesus", his name is written as "Ἰησοῦ" (i.e., "Iesou"); in 1:16 "of whom was born Jesus", his name is written as "Ἰησοῦς" (Iesous); in 1:21 "give him the name Jesus", it's rendered "Ἰησοῦν" (Iesoun). Editors of English New Testaments have chosen the spelling "Jesus" for some time now; they had to choose one, and I guess they took the nominative.

So not only is Jesus the anointed successor to David's throne and part of a more-than-millennial covenant and a descendant of foreigners and prostitutes, he's also going to save his people from their sins.

But here's the most astonishing part: Jesus Christ had no human father, in fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah 7:14. Exactly how did this happen? I'll tell you: I don't know. But Matthew states it simply, just as he states the other events: they were pledged to be married, she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, he was going to divorce her, he had a dream and didn't divorce her, they had no sex until after the baby was born.

This isn't the most important part of the good news of Jesus Christ (Mark doesn't mention it at all in his gospel; neither does John), but it is a fact that Matthew and Luke considered important enough to describe in some detail. I suppose that by calling attention to the supernatural beginning of his life, they prepare the reader for what will come later.

So to this occupied nation, the once sovereign nation of Israel, comes someone with a unique and supernatural origin, to save them from their sins. That's Matthew's introduction to the question, "Who is Jesus?" I'll say that's good news for a troubled world -- in that age or this.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Love is...

True or false? "Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth." (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled)

I hate to disagree with the late Dr. Peck -- a brilliant writer by the way -- but his definition doesn't really suffice. Two decades earlier, Merton had this correction: " implies an efficacious will not only to do good to others exteriorly but also to find some good in them to which we can respond." (No Man Is an Island, p.170) You probably guessed this, but I believe Merton was really on to something here.

I mean, think of it. Boy meets girl, and after some time has passed, he declares his love for her. Candlelight, roses, wine, and then this: "Sweetheart, I'm willing to extend myself to further your spiritual growth."

She takes his hand, gazes into his eyes, and replies: "I love you too, dearest."

Yeah, right. Even outside the realm of romance, "I love you" usually means more than "I'm committed to your growth." We mean more than that when we say it, and we want it to mean more than that when we hear it. I mean really, how affirming is it to hear "I'm committed to your growth"? When I tell the lovely Carol, "I love you," I mean a number of things:

  • Yes, I'm willing to extend myself to further her growth, but also that:
  • I want the best for her and
  • I want to be with her, because
  • there's a lot I admire and respect about her and also because
  • she is, as one speaker put it, so cute and fine.
I think I'll stop there.


One benefit of an imperfect memory is the frequent joy of re-discovery. I wrote the above in August—i.e., about 16 months ago. Last night, I picked up Merton's No Man Is an Island and found that passage on page 170. I thought it brilliant and wanted to write about it this morning—having forgotten that I'd already referred to the exact same page in this post. The passage begins on p.169 with this brilliant observation:

6. We are obliged to love one another. We are not strictly bound to “like” one another. Love governs the will: “liking” is a matter of sense and sensibility. Nevertheless, if we really love others it will not be too hard to like them also.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Computing is fun again...

Before I start on the article, I need to tell you that from time to time I'm astonished by how fortunate I am to be born in the US in the latter half of the 20th century to the parents I have, to have benefited from terrific opportunities in life, to have found Jesus (or be found by him), to be married to a woman with a heart for ministry and spiritual growth, to see my kids turning into awesome young women, to be gainfully employed with great colleagues and a terrific supervisor. I'm aware of all that, but sometimes I whine anyway, as you're about to find out....

Long-time readers may have noted my frustration in the past with printing or with firefox not starting, not to mention unpredictable crashes (and sometimes getting REALLY annoying messages when firefox does eventually come back up).

Well, as I mentioned earlier, we bought a Mac Mini®, which now serves the lovely Carol, and I took her IBM lease return. This is an Intel Pentium4, 3.2 GHz with hyperthreading -- I guess it's a few years old. I loaded it up with openSUSE 11.3, which I like for a number of reasons:

  • SuSE Linux was my second Linux distribution; I started with Red Hat on a Toshiba Satellite 460? in 1998 but switched to "office 99" which had the SuSE Linux 5.3 distribution plus Applix Office. The Toshiba had a whopping 32MB RAM and the Pentium II processor ran at a blazing 133 MHz or thereabouts. I subsequently ran 6.0, 7.0, 8.0, 9.1, 9.3, and 10.2 at least on a half-dozen boxen, at home and work. In other words, I'm accustomed to it.
  • fvwm2 (at one time Linus's favourite -- whoa, Donald Knuth's too!) is on it, and I don't have to do a lot of tweaking in .fvwm2rc &c;
  • This was more important when I bought boxed sets, but Novell were the good guys in the whole SCO boondoggle.
Happily it works great on this old IBM lease return. It's stable, it boots and shuts down quickly, it has "cnf" (for "command not found") -- package management really has gotten better over the years! And on that last I'm happy to report yast2 is just as easy to use as I remember it, but it does more.

I'll add a screen shot and make a few comments; you can click on the image for more detail. You can see Thunderbird email and Emacs windows, an xterm window with some Python code, etc.

The background is a photo I took of the Yosemite Valley; xosview is in the upper right corner, and the fvwm2 pager in the upper left. As the documentation says, "many shy away from it due to the lack of GUI configuration tools." To each his own, I guess, but to me this is like saying people shy away from vi because it doesn't have GUI configuration tools; could I recommend Neal Stephenson's masterful essay, In the Beginning Was the Command Line to you?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Is the Gospel About the Kingdom, or About Justification?

In a provocatively titled piece, “Jesus vs. Paul”, Scot McKnight notes that Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God and not much about justification by faith. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, talked a lot about justification and very little about the Kingdom.

So: What is the gospel really about? Is Jesus's gospel different from Paul's? Can they be harmonized? You really should read the whole article for yourself, but the impatient may mouse over the blue words below:

What the gospel is really all about


Saturday, December 04, 2010

How Christianity (Judaism too) Is Like a Bad Marriage

I've been thinking on and off about this since we heard Kevin Kim's great sermon (download mp3) last weekend.

The straightforward answer comes from the experience of Hosea (found in Protestant Bibles in the sequence Ezekiel Daniel Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah toward the end of the Old Testament; in Hebrew Bibles he's one of The Twelve) marries a promiscuous woman, Gomer daughter of Diblaim (no connection to the medical slang). As Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea, so the land of Israel in Hosea's day (and the Church of Jesus Christ in ours) is unfaithful to God.

We find in Hosea's case that Gomer has left him, and like lost son Jesus described, hit bottom. The son, you may recall, squandered his share of the inheritance in wild living and took on a degrading and humiliating job -- a nice Jewish boy feeding swine!

But unlike the lost son of the parable, Gomer wasn't free to return to her husband to ask forgiveness. We read in Hosea 3 that Hosea redeemed her at the then-current price for a slave, which suggests that she had fallen into the hands of slave-traders. Perhaps her debt was too large to pay off? In any case, it was humiliating to say the least -- apparently slaves at market were presented naked, so that bruises and cuts could not be hidden. There she stood, and her husband bought her back.

This is how God loves the Israelites and this is how he loves you and me.

And another thing

A bad marriage is still a marriage. Though Gomer deserted him, and she was "loved by another man," Hosea still wanted her. I cannot imagine the heartbreak this must have been for Hosea, and I cannot imagine the heartbreak I am to God.

But I actually wanted to make one more point: nothing worthwhile is easy. Rilke wrote that in his Letters to a Young Poet -- I can't remember the exact reference, as it's been over 30 years.

In particular, any community will have struggles, whether due to external events (e.g., illness, accident, natural disaster, unemployment) or sin or growth (when for example a group grows to twenty and becomes two smaller groups). These things are difficult to say the least, but a community of faith is worthwhile -- no, I'll say community is essential to faith, and I say that as an introvert. But since nothing worthwhile is easy, we shouldn't be surprised when these things hit us. Come to think of it, didn't Peter tell us not to... yes he did.

So I guess my point is, we're to be Hosea to one another, and as the writer to the Hebrews told us, "Let us not forsake our own assembling together" (from Hebrews 10:24-25). And that this won't be easy.

I'm glad Hosea didn't give up on Gomer, and I'm glad God doesn't give up on us, and I'm glad that my brothers and sisters haven't given up on me. So I suppose it's also incumbent upon me not to give up... h'm...