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June 2007 Archives

June 4, 2007

Judaeo-Christian Religion in a Nutshell

Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)

Exodus 20:1-17
Leviticus 19:18
Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Deuteronomy 7:6-11
Deuteronomy 10:12-13
Deuteronomy 16:20
Psalm 15:1-5
Proverbs 6:16-19
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
Isaiah 58:6-9
Amos 5:14-15
Micah 6:8

New Testament

Matthew 5:1-12
Matthew 22:34-40
Matthew 28:18-20
John 13:34-35
Acts 5:30-32
Acts 10:34-43
Romans 8:1-14
Romans 12:9-21
Galatians 5:13-14, 22-24
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
2 Corinthians 5:17-19
Philippians 2:3-11
James 1:26-27
1 Timothy 6:6-10
1 John 5:3

June 5, 2007

Compassion: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-35)

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a highly developed sense of justice and a thoroughly atrophied sense of compassion. Search as you may in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, or Seneca you will not find compassion mentioned as a virtue. Indeed, they seem to have considered compassion, mercy, forgiveness, humility, and self-sacrificial love as signs of moral weakness rather than moral strength.

Not so in the Bible. Compassion and mercy, two synonyms, play a major role in both Old and New Testaments. The God of the Old Testament is portrayed far more often as a God of mercy than as a God of wrath. The references are too numerous to list (for example, Psalm 86:15; 111:3-5; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:19, 27, 28, 31). Likewise Jesus was a man of compassion (Matthew 15:32; 20:34; Luke 7:13) who repeatedly reminded his audience that God preferred mercy to sacrifice (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; 23:23).

The lawyer (that is, a scribe or an expert in the law of Moses) who asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" was apparently embarrassed by the elegant simplicity of Jesus' answer. Eager to prove that his question was profounder than the answer acknowledged, he adopts the Socratic method and asks a follow-up question, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replies this time with a parable that shifts the focus of the question.

It is certainly tempting to allegorize the parable of the Good Samaritan. One could say that the priest who made the temple sacrifices represents ritualistic yet emotionally empty religion and that the Levite who assisted the priests represents those who would substitute "church work" like cleaning the building for good works like ministering to the poor. It both cases, the point would be an attack on superficiality versus substance.

These are valid lessons, no doubt, because parables have multiple layers of meaning. But once you start to allegorize, it is difficult to know where to stop. What does the innkeeper represent? What do the two coins represent? What does the donkey represent? When you starting assigning a significance to each and every detail, it becomes difficult to isolate what Jesus really intended the main point of the parable to be.

In this story, Jesus teaches above all that loving our neighbor as ourselves requires us to show active compassion. The religious leaders who passed by may well have felt sorry for the man, but they did nothing. That is the point. Ironically, the despised Samaritan who put his compassion to work was the one who proved to be a true neighbor.

The lawyer had asked a passive question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus responds with a dynamic question, "Who became a neighbor to the man in need?" Jesus shifts the focus from who should be the object of our love (which implies "What are the limits of my responsibility to love?") to how we ourselves should approach showing love ("How can I help? Who needs me?").

Christians need to show more kindness and compassion without neglecting to engage in corporate worship and clean the church building (Matthew 23:23). Jesus isn't saying compassion and ritual/routine are mutually exclusive activities, only that the former has greater priority than the latter. Compassion is faith in action (James 2:8-18), something one does as opposed to something one merely feels. As such, God expects Christians to show compassion to their husbands, wives, and children as well as to the poor and oppressed. To compartmentalize compassion and apply it only to those (often rare) occasions when we deal with someone in need outside the family or church is to miss the point of the parable by applying it too literally and narrowly. Nowhere is compassion more necessary than in our most intimate relationships.

As Portia says in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, "The quality of mercy . . . droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven" because "it is an attribute to God himself" (IV.1.185,195). We show compassion because we want to be like God, not simply as a way to curry favor with him or to obey his law. The lawyer wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. The answer is simple yet profound, "Love God and show compassion."


1.Was the good Samaritan a great man of God or simply a warmhearted, generous person? What do you think is the difference? Compassion is often expressed by acts of generosity. What is the difference between compassion and generosity?

2.Is the Parable of the Good Samaritan a parable about the evils of racism and prejudice? Why did Jesus choose the Samaritan as his main character? Was Jesus telling the lawyer to look upon the Samaritan as his neighbor?

3.How would you rewrite this parable today? Who would be the priest, who the Levite, and who the Samaritan?

4.What are the most notable acts of compassion you personally have seen (as opposed to having heard of or read about)? Do you see yourself as compassionate?

5."Compassion," one writer said, "is Christianity in overalls." Do you agree that this is an adequate image? How would you describe Christian compassion?

6.How specifically can Christians show compassion on a regular basis (and not just at Thanksgiving or Christmas)? Do you think it is easier to get involved in "church work" than to do acts of compassion?

June 6, 2007

Anti-Materialism: The Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)

In the novel Don Quixote, Sancho Panza quotes an old Spanish proverb that says, "A man is worth as much as he has and has as much as he is worth." In other words, money and the possessions money can buy are the common standard of value. Money is the mark of worth and the symbol of success. No wonder that someone has said, "Our society believes in life, liberty, and the purchase of happiness."

A man in the crowd surrounding Jesus appeals for justice; Jesus responds with a parable against materialism. Why is this 2000-year-old parable so applicable to modern American society? For one thing, materialism never goes out of style. We need not believe that materialism came along with the age of industry and technology. All societies have been materialistic because human society revolves primarily around materialistic purposes and pursuits. Materialism, in its most basic sense, is unavoidable.

Materialism in this parable, however, represents a preoccupation with possessions that eventually manifests itself in greed, covetousness, selfishness, pride, and presumption. It is no accident that God refers to the rich man as a "fool" (verse 20) because Psalm 14:1 says "The fool says in his heart there is no God." Psalm 14:1 and its parallel Psalm 53:1 are not condemning atheism. Rather, they refer to those fools who, in their arrogant presumption, believe that God will not punish their folly.

In Colossians 3:5, Paul calls greed (aka materialism) "idolatry" because greed substitutes things for God. The materialist trusts in money to provide protection and security—hence our talk about "financial independence" and "social security." But scripture says, "Trust in God" (Proverbs 3:5-6; 11:28). There is a fine line between financial responsibility, which the Bible commands (1 Timothy 5:8), and financial idolatry, which it condemns (1 Timothy 6:17; Luke 16:13).

Jesus tells the parable in such a way that God's condemnation of the rich man’s materialism at the end really comes as a surprise. At first glance the man seems eminently reasonable and provident. He has a problem: too large a harvest, and he has a solution: build bigger barns. What could be wrong with that? The critical moment comes in verse 19 as he concludes his monologue with the self-admonition, "relax, eat, drink, and be merry." The use of wealth, not its existence or manner of storage, determines the main point of the parable.

Actually, the rich man makes his fatal miscalculation in verse 18 where he talks about "my" grain and "my" goods. In Psalm 50:10, God says "the cattle on a thousand hills" are his. People are presumptuous to assume that their wealth is their own to spend on pleasures or on personal security. The only real rich people are those who are rich toward God, who have treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Paul explains that being "rich toward God" means being rich in good deeds, that is, “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

Can Christians lead lives that are outwardly lavish yet inwardly rich toward God? Many would like to think that material success is a direct blessing from God and a sign of God's favor. They preach the gospel of health and wealth. Make a donation to the church, and God will give it back to you a hundred times over. But in this parable, Jesus takes the position that riches are more deceitful than delightful. The fragility of life should make Christians focus on the eternal. People die; wealth will be dispersed. Only those who are rich in good deeds will please God.


1.When the Roman soldiers asked John the Baptist, "What should we do?," he told them, "Be content with your wages" (Luke 3:14). The writer of Hebrews says, "Be content with what you have" (Hebrews 13:5). Is it wrong for Christians to ask for pay increases or to belong to unions or associations that lobby for pay increases?

2.There is a saying, "Enough is as good as a feast." Should Christians drive expensive cars or buy houses far larger than necessary to lodge their families? Are such practices a misuse of God's gifts?

3.There are many more scriptures on the topic of materialism than on the topic of abortion. Why do Christian groups tend to focus on certain issues to the exclusion of others? Can you cite other examples?

4.A preacher once said, "Our goal as Christians is to live on less and less and to give more and more. Our goal is to see all we possess as belonging to God and not to us." Do you think he was stating biblical truth? What are the implications of such a philosophy for you?

5.An old Quaker once said, "If thou ever have need of anything, come to me and I will teach thee how to live without it." Where is the line between asceticism and materialism, between conspicuously doing without on the one hand and conspicuous consumption and consumerism on the other?

6.Give some examples from your experience of people who have been rich in good deeds, generous, and sharing. A generous rich man who lost his fortune once said, "The only things I have left are those I have given away." Do you know of anyone who has ever suffered as a result of his or her generosity?

June 7, 2007

Mercy: The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

The parables of Jesus often violate our expectations. In a sense, Jesus designed them to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." The parables contain unlikely heroes (the unjust steward) or unanticipated outcomes (the two sons who do the opposite of what they say). As God said to Isaiah, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways" (Isaiah 55:8). To the extent that the parables reveal the mind of God, they have the capacity to perplex, and one of God's riddles is that "the last will be first and the first last."

Peter occasioned this parable by asking the selfish question, "What's in it for us?" (Matthew 19:27). He wanted to know what the apostles' payoff would be for following Jesus so faithfully. While confirming that his disciples would have their reward, Jesus told a parable to temper their pride and self-righteousness.

In the first century, most people worked long, twelve-hour days for meager wages. The owner of the vineyard goes out at dawn to hire workers for a denarius a day. Whatever the coin might have been worth, one coin a day wasn't much, but the laborers seem to have agreed it was the going rate. The landowner keeps on hiring workers, at 9 a.m., then 12 noon, then 3 p.m., and finally 5 p.m.--the eleventh hour counting from 6 a.m. and just one hour before quitting time. "Doing something at the eleventh hour" comes from this parable.

The surprise hits in verse nine: Those who worked only one hour are paid just as much as those who worked twelve. The protests begin. No injustice has been done because those who have worked all day are receiving the agreed-upon wage. The basic issue is indignation at the landowner's largesse. The early workers resent the good fortune of those who came late. Those who had worked long and hard for their wages begrudged those who had not, but they also resented the landowner's inexplicable generosity. Generosity isn't fair unless everyone gets an equal share of it.

What if the owner had given the late workers a denarius and the early workers nothing? What if he had given the late workers two coins and the early only one? In either case, he would have been doing something other than he said he would do. By giving everyone exactly the same wage, the landowner shows himself to be both just (a man of his word) and merciful (a generous man who gives people more than they deserve).

The point of the parable is not that God can do anything he wants or that salvation is by grace alone. After all, everyone worked at least part of the time. The point is that the disciples should not be asking "What's in it for me?" because in God's eyes we all are worthy of the same grace and unworthy of any special treatment that might cause pride or arrogance. The first shall be last.

Jesus goes on to make the same point later in the same chapter. When the mother of James and John asks that her sons be given special seats around Christ's heavenly throne, Jesus reminds them that "whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant" (Matthew 20:26).

The Pharisees especially needed this parable about mercy. They looked down upon the masses of country folk who were ignorant of the law and the ritual purity regulations. They looked down even further at sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes. They looked down the furthest at those who were not Jews at all. Jesus is reminding them that God's mercy is extended to every stripe of human being. You cannot look at God and tell him what to do with his grace. You cannot tell God who can and who can't be saved. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matthew 5:7).


1.Does this parable teach that some people earn their salvation by works (the early workers), some by a combination of works and grace, and a few by grace alone (the eleventh hour workers)?

2.Many believers in Christ think other believers should not be saved for various reasons. For example, some conservative Christians might think a Catholic like Mother Teresa has not met the doctrinal requirements for salvation. Are there any sincere believers in Christ you think should be damned? Would you be disappointed in God if he saved someone like Mother Teresa?

3.In this parable, justice and mercy complement each other. In other situations, justice and mercy often conflict. For example, a teacher may fail a student who has worked hard because, despite the expenditure of effort, the student simply did not pass the tests. How should Christians resolve conflicts between justice and mercy?

4.Like the early workers in this parable, people will often react by saying "That's not fair!" when what they really mean is "That doesn't help me any!" Have you seen other examples of misplaced righteous indignation? When is fair truly fair?

5.The doctrine of the sovereignty of God says God can do anything he wants. In this parable, Jesus compares the landowner (who is both just and generous) to God. But could God in his sovereignty act in a way that was generous but unjust? In other words, is God bound by the concept of justice?

6.How would you define mercy? When is mercy appropriate and when is it inappropriate?

June 8, 2007

Obedience: The Wise And Foolish Builders (Matthew 7:24-27)

We send dogs to obedience school. Why can't we send our children? The answer seems to be that we would be better off using the money to buy lottery tickets. People with conscious free will cannot be trained like dogs. People can be lectured on the importance of obedience or taught what they should obey, but people can also choose whether or not they will act in accordance with that teaching. Human obedience is ultimately voluntary--a matter of the will.

The conflict between obedience and disobedience plays a central role in biblical literature. Adam and Eve did not obey the command to abstain from the fruit of one tree. Noah obeyed God's command to build an ark. Abram listened when God told him to go into a far country. Lot's wife ignored the angels command not to look back. Abraham obeyed the order to sacrifice Isaac. Virtually every story involves a critical moment when people must chose either to harken or to harden. Pharaoh asks the archetypal question in Exodus 5:2, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?"

When Moses brought the people into the Promised Land, he left them with two basic admonitions: Love and obey (Deuteronomy 11:1). He set before them a blessing and a curse, a blessing if they obeyed God's commandments and a curse if they disobeyed (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). Alternating periods of obedience and disobedience structure the remainder of the Old Testament period. Samuel made the classic statement when he confronted King Saul at Gilgal: "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22).

King Saul was a model of superficial obedience. He thought he had obeyed the gist of God's command (1 Samuel 15:20), but in reality his "obedience" amounted only to self-indulgent, self-deluding disobedience. Why do people disobey God? Sometimes, as in Saul's case, because God's commands strike them as illogical or impractical. They simply disagree with God. Sometimes it is because they don't care, or because they have other priorities, or because they, like Milton's Satan, just want to be free to do as they please. Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven (Paradise Lost, I. 263).

In this brief parable at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes the point that talk is cheap. His sermon will mean nothing unless his disciples obey him and put it into practice. A tree is judged by its fruit (Matthew 12:33), so people are judged by their deeds and not merely by their knowledge or good intentions. Jesus sets up a clear contrast: those who obey versus those who disobey. One builds his house on the rock, another on the sand.

This dualism of Jesus is what most separates him from the post-modern thought of contemporary America. Jesus did not see a lot of gray area. He saw mostly either/or. In Matthew 7:13, he says there are two gates, one wide that leads to destruction and one narrow that leads to life. In John 8:42-44, he implies we can have only two spiritual fathers--God or the Devil. You cannot serve God and money (Luke 16:13) because a person cannot have two masters.

All of this seems quaint at best to modern thought. But Jesus uses dualism to call people to decision and to action. Jesus has no truck with the "paralysis of analysis." You're either in or you're out; which shall it be? He refuses to agonize over complexities and contradictions, but calls his disciples to start building a life on the rock of his teachings.


1.Do you remember a time you deliberately disobeyed your parents? What did you do and why?

2.Not putting into practice the lessons we learn from scripture constitutes one form of disobedience. Can you think of others?

3.One form of labor unrest is "working to rule," whereby an employee does his or her job perfunctorily, "according to the book," but without any creativity, initiative, or enthusiasm. Give an example of someone who "obeys" God externally without doing it from the heart. Is that always bad? Does it matter why one obeys?

4.Are you troubled by the dualism (either/or) of Jesus? Does his teaching seem overly simplistic? What do you think of the charge that Jesus was too inflexible?

5.Can Christians be trained to obey God? What does it take to encourage human obedience? Is disobedience an inevitability for many?

6.To what extent does attitude substitute for action? Despite disobeying God's commands, David was called "a man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). What was it about David that compensated for his disobedience?

June 9, 2007

Forgiveness: The Unforgiving Debtor (Matthew 18:21-35)

A sign in a church parking lot located in a busy downtown area read as follows: "We forgive those who trespass against us, but we also tow them." Nothing is more difficult than sincere forgiveness; nothing is more common than prolonged resentment and unwillingness to forgive.

Whenever we see civil wars or so-called religious conflicts, we are seeing the incapacity to forgive played out in all-too-human acts of inhumanity. Yet how can one forgive if the offender never asks for forgiveness or, worse still, if the offender unrepentantly continues to offend? What are the limits of a Christian’s willlingness and ability to forgive?

This was the question Peter asked: "Lord, how often am I to forgive my brother if he goes on wronging me? As many as seven times?" Jesus answers Peter with a riddle: "I do not say seven times but seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22, NIV). Nothing Jesus taught could be more radical than this, so he tells a parable to help his disciples make sense of it all.

In the "Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor," Jesus uses exaggeration for ironic effect. First, he tells about a king who has forgiven his vassal an enormously large sum. According to the Antiquities of the Jewish historian Josephus, the total tax revenue for Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Galilee, and Perea for one year amounted to 800 talents. The sum forgiven was 10,000 talents.

Secondly, Jesus exaggerates the mercilessness of this unforgiving man compared with the kindness of the king (10,000 talents was 600,000 times more than the 100 denarii debt). Whereas the king totally cancels this monumental debt, asking no repayment whatsoever, his pitiless vassal seizes his own debtor by the throat to demand repayment. Not only does he refuse to pardon the paltry debt, but he throws the man in prison (cf. towing the car) to be tortured until he comes up with the money.

The point of this parable has nothing to do with the borrowing and lending practices Christians are to follow. It has everything to do with seeing our human affairs from God's perspective. Forgiveness relates directly to mercy. We forgive others because God took pity on us. And if we need more incentive to forgive than following the example of God, Jesus reminds us on more than one occasion that only to the extent we forgive others will we ourselves be forgiven (Matthew 6:12-15; 18:35; Luke 6:37).

Does this parable teach that forgiveness is only for those who ask forgiveness? After all, both debtors begin by asking for time to pay. And didn't the apostle John write that IF we confess, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9)? It is certainly easier to forgive someone who admits to wrongdoing than to pardon someone who brazenly continues to behave in the same unkind, unjust, or unreasonable manner without any hint of remorse.

Scripture should never be used to accommodate our own human agenda. Although we as resentful people want to believe that forgiveness has its limits, what shall we do with the example of Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:34) or of Stephen as he was stoned to death (Acts 7:60)? Certainly, the executioners of Jesus never asked for forgiveness or showed any regret for their behavior. When Jesus commands non-retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42), he does not set conditions. Instead he concludes by saying, as the Revised English Bible translates, "There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds" (Matthew 5:48). Forgiveness, Jesus says, like mercy, can have no preordained limits.


1.What is the most difficult situation you have been called upon to forgive? How did you feel and do you still feel about trying to forgive that offense against you?

2.In Romans 12:21, Paul says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Do you know of an instance where someone overcame evil with good?

3.This parable seems to link an unforgiving spirit with ingratitude. What connection, if any, is there between forgiveness and gratitude?

4.Peter's question concerns a "brother." Must we forgive a non-Christian enemy or is our obligation to forgive limited to fellow Christians? Does forgiveness mean you don't sue someone who wrongs you or press charges against someone who assaults you?

5.Are Christians to forgive and forget? If you forgive someone, can you nevertheless remain cool and distant? Can you limit your contact with that other person for fear they may hurt you again?

6.Sometimes it is said that a person is "too proud" to forgive. What relationship do you find between pride and the unwillingness to forgive?

June 10, 2007

Unselfishness: The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

An editorial cartoon once featured the picture of a great stone monument with four levels:


Around this idol scores of people were worshipping, and the cartoon's caption read: "Speaking of American cults. . . ." Christianity in America has rarely if ever been as popular as the cult of selfishness. Fathers who spend their limited income to buy fancy mud flaps for their pickups instead of formula for their babies serve at the altar of selfishness. Newspapers tell the stories of parents, addicted to selfishness, who leave their children alone while they shop, party, or even vacation. Someone has rightly said that we live in a post-Christian era whose God is Self.

The Bible, however, never uses the words "selfish" and "selfishness" per se, perhaps because the radical individualism that has come to dominate the Western psyche since the Enlightenment was not characteristic of ancient thought. The modern preoccupation with inalienable individual rights, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization did not exist in its current form. Much more emphasis was placed on responsibility to community and submission to God.

Whether or not there was a word for it, selfishness clearly existed in ancient times. The tenth commandment was "You shall not covet" (Exodus 20:17). Covetousness was the sin of Achan (Joshua 7:19-21) who put the whole people of Israel at risk because of his own selfishness. David acted selfishly in his affair with Bathsheba, and the parable of Nathan underscores God's indignation (2 Samuel 12:1-10). Ahab and Jezebel selfishly appropriated Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16). Whether the overt crime was theft, adultery, or murder, the root cause in each case was nothing but selfishness.

The “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” stands alone among Jesus' story parables in that it names one of the characters. This has caused some to believe that the parable is non-fiction. But because the name "Lazarus" means "God helps," most commentators think Jesus created a fictional character to symbolize the poor and oppressed who depend solely on the mercy of God (see, for example, Luke 1:52-53; 4:18-19).

This parable never states what it was that doomed the rich man to Hades. Was being rich the chief sin that sent him to hell and poverty the chief virtue that sent Lazarus to heaven? Does God, like Robin Hood, take pleasure in simply turning the tables on people? If not, what is the lesson of the parable and why didn't Jesus specify a particular vice? In the context of Luke 16, Jesus clearly focuses on the dangers of loving and misusing money. The unspoken sin of the rich man is clearly selfishness. He used his wealth to dress and eat sumptuously, never paying the slightest attention to anyone but himself.

Paul says that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross should teach us to be unselfish (Philippians 2:3-11). He seems to be alluding particularly to those who preach the gospel out of impure motives, including rivalry, ambition, and a desire for personal influence or profit (Philippians 1:17).

Selfishness has a much broader scope than materialism. We may be selfish in demanding our own way as well as in seeking to use our possessions solely for our own benefit. To be inconsiderate, rude, headstrong, and willful is basically to be selfish. Jesus set us an example for living that may be summed up in words of Paul: "Love is never selfish" (1 Corinthians 13:5, REB).


1.What are some of the most common forms of selfishness you encounter on a daily basis?

2. Are men more selfish than women? What are some ways marriage partners can show Christ-like unselfishness?

3.Would you be more inclined to be unselfish if someone returned from the dead to warn you? Do you agree with Abraham that selfish people would pay no more heed to one risen from the dead than to scripture?

4.Do you think division in the church is often a manifestation of selfishness? What various disguises does selfishness take?

5.Selfish people are jerks--they thoughtlessly take advantage of others yet typically feel resentful when any sacrifice is asked of them. What are some practical ways we can teach our children not to be jerks?

6.Do you identify more with the rich man or with Lazarus? How specifically are we rich Americans to avoid the rich man's fate?

June 11, 2007

Repentance: The Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-31)

An old proverb says, "No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back." Males have a reputation for stubbornly refusing to turn back when it appears to females they are lost on the road. They drive on and on in hope of finding that familiar landmark. Yet men are not alone. Most people believe it is important to stick to their decisions. Once they have a set a course or taken a stand, they despise appearing weak or indecisive by flip-flopping to another position. Politicians will hold on fiercely to discredited platform planks simply because it seems more statesmanlike not to waver in one's convictions. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure that you are indeed on the wrong road.

Changing your mind is not easy, especially if you have publicly staked your credibility or your ego on a particular opinion. Teenagers, in particular, find it galling to admit their parents might be right. A young man would rather turn blue from cold than admit openly he should have worn a jacket as Mother suggested. A young woman will go to great lengths to avoid confessing she made an error in choosing a friend. As someone has said, "Everyone complains of having a bad memory, but no one complains of having bad judgment."

Jesus admired those who had the capacity to change their minds and lives for the good, those who recognized they were wrong and who did something about it. He called that openness to change repentance, and repentance was the first message Jesus ever preached (Matthew 4:17). Repentance is a radical change of mind and outlook, not a one-time act of obedience. Northrop Frye calls repentance a "spiritual metamorphosis."

The power of this parable lies in its simplicity. Two sons say one thing, yet do another. What is the difference between the two? Are both examples of repentance? Change, of course, does not have to be for the good. One can be traveling down the right road and turn back as well.

The difference lies in the psychological tension. By refusing his father's command, the first son creates suspense in the listener. Why does he refuse? How will the father respond to his disobedience? The first son puts himself at risk, and the conflict cries out for resolution. Something dramatic is about to happen if he follows through on his bold refusal.

The second son risks little by making an empty promise. There is no open defiance. Even if he doesn't go to work, he can always make some excuse to placate his father. Perhaps he fell ill or forgot or was called to an emergency. He has hidden his intention to disobey under the cover of polite hypocrisy.

As in the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” or the “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders” or the “Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor,” the emphasis is on what one actually does. Jesus asks, "Which of the two did what his father wanted?" (verse 31). It is hard to read minds, easy to read actions. True repentance has tangible, measurable results.

When I feel selfish, stubborn, and willful, I think about this parable and it brings me back to my senses. Am I going to do God's will or my own? As one has said, "Most people are either repenting or rationalizing." Christians need a heart of repentance. Indeed, the first four beatitudes seem to describe the penitent attitude God desires (Matthew 5:1-6). It may well be that David was a man after God's own heart primarily because he had the capacity to repent.

Just as the father in this parable gives his son time to reconsider and repent, the kindness and patience of God spares us when we rebel against what we know is right. God gives us space to have second thoughts, but only we can adopt the attitude of being open to them. Repentance is a life to be lived, not a doctrine to be learned.


1.Can you tell a story from your own life where you have made an “about-face,” a 180 degree turn?

2.Writing to a group of Christians, Paul seems to imply it is easier to persuade people to be baptized than to convince them to repent (2 Corinthians 12:21). Would you agree? Why?

3.Whenever the two words "repent" and "believe" are used together in the New Testament, repentance precedes faith (Mark 1:15; Matthew 21:32; Hebrews 6:1). How would you explain this order? How is it that one must repent in order to believe?

4.Repentance is often associated with sorrow and remorse. Ancient Jews repented in sackcloth and ashes (Matthew 11:21). Why? Can repentance exist without regret?

5.There is a saying, "It takes a big man to admit he was wrong." "Big" in what sense?

6.Josh Billings once said, "It is much easier to repent of sins that we have committed than to repent of those we intend to commit." Do you agree that repentance is a permanent change of outlook and not just a one-time act? Can you give examples of people who rationalize rather than repent?

June 12, 2007

Accountablilty: The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)

The sign posted by the staff of the photocopy center read as follows: "The lack of good planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." This cold truth affords little comfort to the procrastinator who needs to meet a deadline. When we find ourselves in a fix, all we want to think about is how to get out of the fix. Dwelling on our past improvidence or imprudence seems somehow irrelevant and unproductive.

Few Americans like to be held accountable for the past. As a people, we have traditionally looked to the future, believing it will be better and brighter than the past. Consequently, it does no good "to cry over spilt milk." What is important is "to cut your losses and let your profits run," "to get on with your life." This think-positive attitude has much to say for it, provided one can indeed admit the mistakes of the past, deal with their consequences, and accept responsibility for improving the future.

Procrastinators are among the most optimistic of people. They blithely assume no last-minute snags, illnesses, or emergencies will occur to ruin their good intentions to get things done just in time. The five girls in this parable who brought no extra oil for their lamps never imagined the bridegroom would be so late or that their friends would be so unwilling to share or that extra oil would be so difficult to buy. They optimistically assumed their good intentions to attend the wedding banquet would suffice.

Unfortunately, circumstances force these casual optimists to take responsibility for their lack of preparation. Their companions refuse to give them oil, and the bridegroom takes no compassion on them when they return later with lighted lamps. He leaves them out in the cold with nary so much as an "I'm sorry." Paul says, "Behold the goodness and the severity of God" (Romans 11:22). This parable deals with the severity of God toward those who are unprepared to meet their Maker.

Prudence was one of the four cardinal virtues of Antiquity, but the word "prudence" in modern English seems slightly quaint and passé. It is no longer a word we commonly use. Perhaps we could substitute "common sense" for "prudence," but that kind of sense is not so common. Neither do we like to use the words "sensible" or "wise" in everyday speech. They somehow suggest a stuffy righteousness that makes us uncomfortable.

The “Parable of the Ten Virgins,” which appears only in Matthew, comes late in the gospel, just two chapters before the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Chapters 24 and 25 are full of warnings about the end of time, about making good use of one's talents, about the differences between sheep and goats, about the need for vigilance, wisdom, and prudence.

After two thousand years of waiting for the Bridegroom, many Christians have become complacent and some have fallen asleep. Lamps are not shining brightly. Often, they are no longer even lit. We pursue our religious activities perfunctorily, showing little zeal for God and little anticipation of the Second Coming. We identify all too well with the church at Laodicea to whom Christ says, "You are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were either cold or hot! Because you are neither one nor the other, but just lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16).

Jesus says, "Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour" (Matthew 25 13). Be alert, be prepared, be wise, be prudent. When the Devil is a roaring lion, he may keep you awake, but when he lulls you into complacency or indifference, you become most vulnerable. God holds Christians accountable, not only for their present behavior but also for their duty to anticipate.


1.In the Bible, there exists a constant tension between God's free gift of grace and mankind's responsibility to respond to that grace by living right. How is it possible to depend on God for salvation, yet still be filled with zeal for good works?

2.Lack of preparation is only one form of spiritual foolishness. What other kinds can you think of? What exactly does it mean to be an imprudent Christian?

3.The doctrine about the end of time is called eschatology. Do you think the Christians you know are concerned or unconcerned about the return of Jesus? To what extent do you yourself have an eschatological outlook in that you think often about Christ's return and being prepared for his coming?

4.If you knew for sure that Jesus was coming again exactly four years from now, how would it affect your life and your daily activities?

5.How would you describe a person who is fully prepared to meet God? Have you known such people? What specifically does it mean to “prepare to meet your God”?

6.Do you believe Christians are less zealous today than in the distant past? What is it about Christianity that Christians are still willing to die for? What is it that Christians in general seem no longer willing to live or die for?

June 13, 2007

Tolerance: The Wheat and the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30)

The problem of evil challenges the Christian faith. When the innocent suffer, the good die young, and the evil prosper, it is hard to come up with satisfactory explanations. Perhaps the best and only answer is to echo the sentiments of the farmer in verse 28: "An enemy did this."

Evil in the world is a given, an inescapable reality. No one knows precisely how or why the devil came to have this power to do evil. No one knows how long his evil doing will continue. How to react to pervasive evil poses a dilemma for Christians. Should we be fatalistic about it and accept it submissively or should we fight against it with all our powers, even if, admittedly, we don't have any earthly chance of winning? How do you deal with the effects of enemy activities?

One simple approach to combating evil is refusing to add to it. Some people who proclaim Christ are ready to kill doctors who perform abortions; others engage in civil war against other believers in Christ (Orthodox Serbs against Catholic Croats, Protestant Irish against Catholic Irish); still others bitterly fight and quarrel within the confines of their own Christian fellowship. Whether the enemy is without or within, some feel the misguided obligation to pull and burn weeds. Unfortunately, history has always shown that "a crime in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion."

Jesus did not believe that one bad apple would spoil the whole barrel. He believed not in the power of rotten apples to corrupt, but in the power of God to preserve. Therefore, he takes a curiously relaxed position about the presence of evil in the world. He implies in this parable that we should tolerate evil men until God in his own good time decides to punish them in his own just way.

To tolerate evil is not to condone it. It is merely to recognize that more harm can be done to Christian character by trying to fight fire with fire or evil with evil than by patiently allowing God to repay (Romans 12:17-19). As T. R. Glover once wrote, "The Christians of the second century out-lived, out-thought, and out-died the pagan." It is entirely possible that out-living our enemies is more important to God than out-fighting them.

Both in the world and in the church, good and bad are mingled. The weeds in this parable, an annual known to scientists as darnel or lolium temulentum, resemble the wheat so closely that only when the two come into ear can they be distinguished. The owner of the field commands that the weeds be left to grow because their roots have intertwined with those of the true wheat. They cannot be forcibly separated before the harvest of the grain.

Tolerance means a peaceful coexistence that neither approves of evil nor denies the ability to distinguish good from evil. Rather, peaceful coexistence testifies to faith in and dependence upon the power of God. Christians must not "play God" by attempting to punish others. They must remain faithful and trust in God to right all wrongs, as indeed he will at the Day of Doom (1 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 14:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11-15).

What place is there then for Christian activism? Christians always enjoy the freedom to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). We may freely give food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, shelter to the homeless. We may comfort and care for the sick (Matthew 25:34-40). Christians can educate the ignorant and counsel the distressed. Within our local church family we may rebuke with humility and exhort with gentleness (Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 4:2). Without violence or harm to anyone, we can speak the truth we believe and yet be tolerant and gracious in spirit.


1.Do you agree that Jesus believed in non-violence and non-retaliation? How does his teaching in Matthew 5:38-48 relate to this parable? What about the famous exception of his cleansing the temple (John 2:13-16; Matthew 21:12-13)? Does that action effectively negate his teaching about non-violence?

2.Jonathan Swift once wrote, "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another." From your personal experience, do you know of any examples that would support or contradict this observation?

3.Jesus begins this parable by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field." Does the field represent the kingdom of heaven, the world, or something else? On what do you base your judgment?

4.André Suarès has said, "There are no heresies in a dead religion." How can Christians escape the danger that tolerance may lead to indifference or neglect?

5.Christian tolerance implies a respect for the right of others to accept responsibility for their convictions and actions. Do you agree that people have a right to be wrong? To what extent can Christians fellowship those believers who, whether for lack of knowledge, spiritual maturity, or good judgment, believe or practice what is wrong?

6.Which forms of Christian political activism are legitimate and which are not? Should Christians separate themselves from politics or fight for justice through the political process? Can you justify your answer from the New Testament?

June 14, 2007

Humility: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

Being a Christian does not confer the social advantage it once did. There was a time in America when membership in a prominent church could bring a businessman respectability in the community and valuable contacts. But in this essentially post-Christian age, the term "Christian gentleman" has a slightly archaic ring to it. One's religious affiliation has become a private matter of little interest to the general public, and there remains but little prestige in belonging to the "right" church.

No matter how much one may regret the declining influence of church membership on American social life, this loss of clout has had the healthy effect of reducing religious hypocrisy and pride. Because it no longer pays socially or financially to be a Christian, church pews hold fewer people who merely pretend to be Christian and fewer still who see Christianity as a means of upward social mobility. In this sense, ironically, Christianity has actually benefited from its decline in popularity.

Obviously, it has not always been so. In the time of Jesus, religious leaders such as the scribes and Pharisees enjoyed moral authority and social standing. But the religious pride of the Pharisees had not so much to do with their social, economic, or political status as it did with their legalism. They felt superior to others because they kept the rules and regulations of the law more scrupulously than the worldly Sadducees, the ignorant hoi polloi, and the ungodly sinners. Their religious pride flowed more from self-satisfaction than from social status.

The Pharisee in this parable is clearly self-absorbed. A preposition in verse 11 is difficult to translate. Some take it that he prayed "to" himself, that is, silently. Other translators believe the context demands "about" himself. Whatever the case, he definitely had a list of religious reasons that declared him righteous both by omission and commission. As was the case with Job of old, nothing was wrong with his righteousness, and everything was wrong with his attitude.

How ironic that pride, the greatest sin, is neither something you do nor something you fail to do. The greatest sin is a bad attitude, an unholy state of mind. Someone has said that "pride is an attempt to maintain a favorable image of oneself that differs from reality." Differs from what reality? Nothing indicates this Pharisee was a hypocrite. He undoubtedly did give liberally and fast regularly. He probably was honest in business and faithful to his wife. Pride's favorable image does not run counter to everyday reality. Instead, it contradicts the reality of God's perspective that we human beings are but humble servants who deserve no special credit for doing our duty (Luke 17:7-10).

The tax collector seems to realize that "today's peacock is tomorrow's feather duster." To paraphrase Shakespeare's Macbeth, all human vanity, arrogance, and pride merely light the way to dusty death. They represent knowledge without wisdom, competence without compassion, and learning without love. The tax collector, a self-confessed sinner, throws himself upon the mercy of God, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).

Worldly pride tells us we are respected by other people. Spiritual pride tells us we have earned God's favor. Whether worldly or spiritual, the more we think we know or have achieved, the greater the temptation to attribute that knowledge or success to our own effort and to look down upon those who know or who have achieved less. Jesus implies that we are what we are by the grace of God. From this vantage point, we realize that Zacchaeus, another tax collector, was saved not simply because of the good deeds he pledged to do but because he was a "son of Abraham," a man who trusted in God (Luke 19:9).


1.What signs of worldly pride, if any, do you see in the Christianity today?

2.What signs of spiritual pride, if any, do you see? Is division within the church sometimes caused by spiritual pride?

3.Do you agree or disagree that church membership is no longer a social or economic advantage in American society? Have you known of Christians who tried to use Christianity for personal advancement?

4.Law is God's revelation of what is right and wrong. Why, then, is legalism dangerous? Do you know any specific examples of misguided legalism?

5.We are saved by the atonement of Christ, not the attainment of man. How can one best cultivate an attitude of humility before God? What are some concrete, practical methods?

6.The Pharisee had his list to convince God of his righteousness. What do you think most Christians would put on their lists? Are tithing and fasting prominent on the Christian lists? If not, why not?

June 15, 2007

Steadfast Love: The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

My son, Zane Williams, has written a song called Hurry Home about the unwavering love of a father for his daughter. This song touches a lot of hearts and over the years has won him several prizes, including a $20,000 award as the Maxell Song of the Year in 2006. Part of Hurry Home’s appeal is that it echoes Jesus’ “Parable of the Lost Boy.”

People are sentimental about "unconditional" love and deeply desire it, but what is it really? What exactly is love without any conditions? Does it mean, “I will always love, accept, and support you no matter what you do?” Is it saying, “Abuse me, reject me, steal from me, lie to me, curse me, ignore me—whatever—I will always love you and provide you a home”? I guess that would make unconditional love the ultimate expression of enabling and co-dependence.

The “Parable of the Prodigal (or Foolishly Extravagant) Son” is not really about unconditional love. The parable works on several levels. In the context of Luke 15, it is about the joy of angels over human repentance, about the solicitude of God for lost souls, and about the dangers of whining, mean-spirited “elder-brother” religion as practiced by the begrudging Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

All this notwithstanding, people typically respond to the parable these days as an illustration of God’s strong and persistent love for humanity. What is interesting, too, is how they extrapolate the lesson to mean that human beings as individuals should imitate God by demonstrating unconditional love to other individuals, whatever they may do, however they may act.

Granted, the father in this parable orders the fatted calf to be killed and runs to meet his younger son without ever knowing for sure if he is a changed man or not. But we as readers of the story know the son is repentant, and perhaps we are expected to infer that the father, representing an omniscient God, knows that as well. This doesn’t detract from the father’s joyous reception, generous forgiveness, and loving spirit, but it does provide perspective.

As the poet Maxine Kumin notes, God in the Bible is loving but has “a nasty temper when provoked.” Can one reconcile the “unconditional” love of the parable with the nasty temper? In her book, God is No Fool, Lois Cheney aptly remarks, “Christ showed us a new side of God, and it is truly wonderful. But he didn’t change God. God remains forever and ever, and that God is no fool.”

However we have self-indulgently redefined it, God's love from a biblical perspective is covenant love. As a result of his covenant with Abraham, for example, God pledged to always seek the best interests of Abraham’s descendants. Through Jesus, Abraham’s seed, that pledge has been extended to include everyone (John 3:16-17). But just as God lost patience with Israel and scattered the lost tribes, just as he lost patience with Judah and sent the nation into Babylonian Captivity, so God’s love can be severe if covenant is broken by the human party. It is steadfast not in the sense that it never corrects, punishes, or rejects but in the sense that it never goes away.

Parents always have a place in their heart for a child, no matter how wayward. They grieve for rebellious children as David grieved for Absalom (2 Samuel 18:31-33), as the father in the parable no doubt grieved for his lost boy. But to love steadfastly is not to love foolishly; it is to love deeply and well.


1.Why do people long for "unconditional love"? Is it the desire to get something for nothing or something more than that?

2.Jesus says in Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, I repent, you must forgive him.” Is this a brief description of unconditional love?

3.To what extent can Christians play God? If we can play God by being loving and generous, can we play God by killing people who provoke or disobey us? Is our imitation of God restricted to his good side or is it unrestricted?

4.The term “unconditional love” does not appear in the Bible. Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7? Does it have limitations or conditions?

5. How exactly is the elder brother in this parable at fault? Is it his resentment? His unforgiving spirit? His pettiness? His legalism?

6.Unpack the comment, “God is no fool.” In what biblical sense is this true and what does it imply?

June 17, 2007

Commitment: Treasures (Matthew 13:44-46)

You have to be careful about pressing the details of a parable. Jesus does not always illustrate his points with admirable characters. The unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) and the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-9) are not role models to be followed but simply life-like characters whose stories teach a lesson. The same goes for the protagonist in his “Parable of the Hidden Treasure.” This fellow definitely is ignoring the Golden Rule when he enriches himself by exploiting a landowner's ignorance. But so what? Jesus is not talking about the moral way to conduct business. Rather, he is focusing on the kind of passionate commitment required to enter the kingdom of God. To miss the focus is to miss the point.

Commitment to the kingdom of God has always been a rare and precious commodity. In fact, commitment to anything outside oneself and one's self-interest seems contrary to the self-absorbed individualism of contemporary America. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett once attended a modern wedding where the bride and groom pledged in their wedding vows to remain together "as long as love shall last." "I sent paper plates as my wedding gift," Bennett remarked.

Someone has observed that truth is not necessarily the most powerful thing in the world. Sacrifice and commitment count for more than truth, however eloquently expressed, because people will generally follow example over advice. Albert Schweitzer, the musicologist, theologian, and physician who won a Nobel Peace Prize for devoting his life to serving the poor in Africa, wrote that "Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing."

The two treasure parables that Jesus tells are not really about the search for truth or enlightenment per se. While the discovery of the precious pearl resullts from purposeful effort, the treasure hidden in the field is an accidental bonanza. These parables focus mainly on how the lucky finders react once they discover the treasures, not on how they happen to find them. And how they react is a reflection of both their character and their commitment.

Some, like the pious young man (aka the Rich Young Ruler) in Matthew 19:16-24 and Luke 18:18-30, blanch at the prospect of gung-ho commitment if it implies losing financial security. But there doesn’t seem to be a pragmatic bone in Jesus’s body. Those who would possess the kingdom of God must be ready to sell or risk everything because they believe in the transcendent value of the other world to come.

What should such total commitment imply for the typical American Christian? In his The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce sardonically defines a Christian as “one who follows the teachings of Christ so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.” But what sort of commitment does Jesus expect of his followers today? A life of commitment so far as it is not inconsistent with a comfortable retirement? With a home on a golf course? With an epicurean lifestyle?

The parables of the treasures relate to laying up treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The danger facing the complacent modern church is that it has become "the bland leading the bland." For Jesus, entering the kingdom of God required a passionate commitment demonstrated by radical anti-materialism and selfless generosity. The challenge is how to maintain such a zeal over the decades of life without its becoming destructive of family and, ultimately, of self. The eschatological ethic of Jesus haunts us because of its call for a total commitment we cannot clearly conceive.


1.The American composer William Schuman, asked how he had managed to compose so much despite his other professional responsibilities, replied that commitment could be defined as 600-1000 hours a year devoted to a specific activity. If a Christian devoted 10 percent of his or her income and 10 hours a week to Christian service, would that amount to total commitment? Would you include corporate worship and fellowship in that 10 hours?

2.An old joke says that the difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. Do you think a Christian can be involved in church work without being truly committed to the kingdom? If so, how?

3.In the Bible, the internal is never separated from the external. Those who offer their heart and life to God, like the Rich Young Ruler, are typically asked to prove their sincerity by giving up many material things. Is it possible to be both committed to the kingdom and committed to financial success?

4.Have you personally taken any deliberate risks as a Christian? What did you learn from the experience?

5.If every Christian were a missionary or a Mother Teresa, who then would provide the financial support for such missions? Some have decided instead to become vocational missionaries who, like Paul, support themselves by "tent making." Do you consider yourself a vocational missionary?

6.Describe a Christian you know who is truly committed. What characterizes that person? Is this person an exception to the rule?

June 20, 2007

Bible Trivia Quiz

True or False

According to the Bible, . . .

1.God created the world in seven days.

2.Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins.

3.Along with seven family members, Noah took only two of every kind of animal on the Ark.

4.Jonah was swallowed by a whale and was vomited out three days later.

5.Wise men from the east presented gifts to the baby Jesus as he lay in the manger.

6.The last book of the New Testament is known as “Revelations.”

7.The Ten Commandments are numbered differently in the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

8.One or more of the gospels quotes Jesus as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

9.Eve disobeyed God by eating an apple, then tempting Adam to eat from it as well.

10.Jesus was born in Bethlehem on December 25th.

The answers are below.

1.False: God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:1-3).

2.False: The New Testament does not specify their relationship. Luke 1:36 says their mothers were related, but does not say how.

3.False: He took two of each unclean animal and seven of each clean animal (Genesis 7:2)

4.False: Jonah 1:17 says it was a “big fish” that swallowed up Jonah.

5.False: Matthew 2:11 says Jesus was in a house. Matthew 2:16 suggests that the wise men arrived a considerable time after Jesus was born since Herod orders all the male children in Bethlehem who are two years and under to be killed.

6.False: The New Testament itself doesn’t assign names to its books, but the last book has traditionally been called Revelation, without an –s, or the Apocalypse, which is a transliteration of the Greek word for revelation.

7.False: Jews, Catholics, and Protestants do number the Ten Commandments differently, but their Bibles all read the same and do not actually contain literal numbers. The precise wording of the ten depends on how you break them out of the text in a list. Nevertheless, since the complete text is the same, the commandments are the same for everyone, depending, of course, on how the commands are spun by different commentators.

8.False: None of the gospels records this saying. The author of Acts (thought to be Luke, a colleague of Paul) quotes Paul as saying Jesus said it (Acts 20:35).

9.False: The Bible does not specify what kind of fruit it was (Genesis 3:12), but given the climate of Iraq, it probably wasn’t an apple.

10.False: The New Testament does not say in what month Jesus was born, much less on what day. Since shepherds were in the field overnight (Luke 2:8), it might have been spring, but no one knows.

Misperceptions of the Bible abound in popular culture. Some, like these, are factual. Others are theological. The Bible, it seems, is not an easy book to get straight.

June 21, 2007

Grammar Tips for Preachers: Seven Deadly Sins

I think preachers should work to eliminate grammatical errors insofar as possible. While they probably will not annoy the uneducated by using correct grammar, they definitely will alienate the educated by not using good grammar.

“Slips in grammar can only distract your reader [or listener] from what you are saying, and start him thinking, unflatteringly, about you.” --Sheridan Baker, The Complete Stylist, 1966

Here are seven deadly grammar sins to avoid.

1.Failure to use a pronoun in the objective case after prepositions and transitive verbs

Wrong: Satan is crushed when Jesus is precious to you and I.
God chose to save you and I.
What you tell me in confidence is between you and I.

Correct: Satan is crushed when Jesus is precious to you and me.
God chose to save you and me.
What you tell me in confidence is between you and me.

Comment: Using only one pronoun makes it clear: God saves me.

2.Failure to make subjects and verbs agree

Wrong: There’s two reasons why I think that’s obvious.
You see some scriptures on the screen. I'll tell you what each one of them are.

Correct: There are two reasons I think that’s obvious.
I'll tell you what each one of them is.

Comment: There is not a subject. It is an introductory adverb.
"Each one" is the subject. "Them," referring to the scriptures, is not.

3.Failure to use the subjunctive in contrary-to-fact clauses

Wrong: If I was in heaven, I’d be singing God’s praises.

Correct: If I were in heaven, I’d be singing God’s praises.

Comment: Use the subjunctive were when the clause indicates a situation that is not actually the case: "If I were you" or "If my uncle were a woman."

4.Failure to distinguish between the verbs “lie” (intransitive) and “lay” (transitive)

Wrong: When the Samaritan arrived, the man was laying in the road.

Correct: When the Samaritan arrived, the man was lying in the road.

Comment: Lay requires a direct object. Don't lay an egg by misusing these verbs.

5.Failure to use a pronoun in the subjective case as the subject of a sentence.

Wrong: Me and Bill made some hospital visits last night.

Correct: Bill and I made some hospital visits last night.

Comment: In a compound subject, be humble and put yourself in second place. Remember, "The first shall be last." Once again, using a single pronoun makes it clear: "I made a hospital visit."

6. Failure to distinguish between “may” (a yet existing possibility) and “might” (a possibility that existed in the past but did not materialize).

Wrong: The apostle Paul may have journeyed as far as Spain.

Correct: The apostle Paul might have journeyed as far as Spain.

Comment: “May” is present tense, “might” is past tense.

7.Failure to use apostrophes correctly.

Wrong: You must understand a scripture in it’s context.
Our care group will meet at the Smith’s.

Correct: You must understand a scripture in its context.
Our care group will meet at the Smiths’.

Comment: Possessive pronouns don't have apostrophes: Hi's is obviously wrong. The possessive of nouns can be singular or plural. Since the Smiths are a family, their house belongs to all of them, not just one.

June 22, 2007

Flavors of Christianity

The variety of human beings never ceases to amaze me. Despite all our commonalities, we differ so much from each other in subtle ways. The food we like, the music, the books, the movies, the hobbies, the pet peeves, the sly preferences—all these and many more mark us as individuals.

So it is, too, with our Christianity. Reading the same New Testament, we see different areas to emphasize and to identify as the essence of the Christian faith. Listed below are “flavors” of Christianity I have observed. Most Christians, of course, are “Neapolitan” in the sense that they combine two or more flavors in varying proportions. If you are a Christian, which flavor or flavors are you?

1.Propositional Christianity—Christianity is knowing, understanding, and believing a certain set of doctrinal propositions. To be a Christian is to know and accept the truth.

2.Spirit-filled Christianity—Christianity is feeling the comfort, guidance, power, and presence of the Holy Spirit in your life.

3.Service Christianity—Christianity is living an authentic life of sacrificial service to something outside yourself.

4.Character Christianity—Christianity is living a holy life that pleases God and honors the name of Christ. It is a faithful life of moral and spiritual integrity that follows the example of Jesus.

5.Ascetic Christianity—Christianity is the imitation of Christ, including his suffering and sacrifice. To be a genuine Christian is to live simply as Jesus did and to crucify the flesh with all its passions and desires.

6.Mystical Christianity—Christianity is to experience oneness with God through contemplation. It is to lose one’s individuality in the sea of God, to catch a vision of eternity, to sense the divinity within, and to feel the divine bliss of heaven.

7.Liturgical Christianity—Christianity is experiencing the beauty and holiness of God through the avenue of formal worship. To be a Christian is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

June 25, 2007

The Wisdom of the New Testament

In an earlier entry, I briefly described my philosophy of life. The third principle of that philosophy was to follow the wisdom of the New Testament.

I want to unpack what I mean by that statement. In the tradition of late-night television, I have put together a top-ten list of wise advice taken from the pages of the New Testament. This list, of course, is representative but not comprehensive.

10.Owe no one anything except love (Romans 13:8)

I remember being startled as a teenager at the realization my parents were not obeying this direct biblical command. They owed money for many things. In fact, I think most American Christians are in debt. Debt is what has made America great, right?

Well, Paul’s advice is still good. Stay out of debt. Don’t borrow money for anything that does not appreciate in value. That way, you will escape a myriad of temptations and the distinct possibility of financial bondage.

9.Remember that bad friends corrupt good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33)

Choose your friends carefully. The people you associate with will shape your character and your behavior. In a real sense, over time, you are only as good as the company you keep.

In the context, Paul is advising Christians to avoid the “eat, drink, and be merry” crowd. Their definition of substance abuse as fun is shallow and self-destructive. Find friends who have a more serious purpose in life, and they will help you find genuine happiness.

8.Don’t let the sun go down on your anger (Ephesians 4:26-27)

Don’t let your feelings fester. Don’t harbor resentment. Advice columnists often encourage married couples to kiss and make up before they go to sleep at night. This advice, I believe, comes indirectly from this passage, and it has been one principle on which many successful marriages have been founded.

James says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Avoid letting anger gain a foothold in your life.

7.Look out for the interests of others and not just your own (Philippians 2:4).

Deuteronomy 16:20 records Moses are saying to the people of Israel, “Justice and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land.” The point is this: Never exploit or manipulate other people. Act in their best interest even when it is not always in your own.

To the extent that a nation’s foreign policy is guided only by self-interest and not by justice, that nation is not Christian.

6.Never take vengeance (Romans 12:19).

Vengeance is destructive whether it takes place on a personal, national, or international scale. The current war in Iraq is, in some sense, an act of vengeance for the 9-11 bombing. World War II resulted, to a large extent, because the victorious powers in World War I took vengeance on their enemies and imposed burdens too heavy to bear.

Good Christians do not seek vengeance and neither do Christian nations.

5.Examine yourself carefully before you criticize others (Matthew 7:1-5)

It is absolutely essential to judge others in order to choose good friends or a good marriage partner. The context of this passage makes it clear that Jesus is talking about self-awareness and self-examination, not about some absolute refusal to make judgments.

The wisdom of ancient Greece is sometimes summed up in the phrase “Know thyself.” Jesus is saying we should assess our own lives lucidly before we attempt to criticize or correct others. The wisdom of the New Testament says, “Keep your own doorstep clean.”

4.Seek peace and pursue it (Hebrews 12:14).

Jesus is not known as the Prince of Peace for nothing. The theme of peace pervades Christianity: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

One scripture I have committed to memory is James 3:17-18. The wisdom from above is first pure then peaceable, and a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. In Romans 12:18, Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Those who want to live happy lives and promote the common welfare should make peace a priority.

3.Do honest work so you may have something to give (Ephesians 4:28).

Honest work is a good thing. Its purpose is not fame and fortune but the ability to support yourself, your family, and your generosity to others in need. The so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” is not so much Protestant as biblical. As Max Weber noted, its original intent was not to create a capitalistic economy but to do the right thing, that is, to help others.

2.Overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21)

Life is a struggle. For some, it is more of a struggle than for others. Although evil can gain the upper hand, history also shows that evil can be overcome by good. Doing right is always right, and doing wrong is always wrong. If we consistently try to do the right thing, the Bible says we will find strength to endure the troubles of life and often strength to overcome them.

1.Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33)

Living a good life is about setting priorities. Sacrifice to set the right priorities and, in the long run, you will never regret it. Money will not seem important on your death bed. Being surrounded by loved ones who love you and looking back on a life well-lived will allow you to die in peace. Follow the wisdom of the New Testament and, in all likelihood, you will die at peace amid the praise of those who follow after.

June 26, 2007

How to Explain Away the Bible

1.Explain that the passage is to be taken figuratively, not literally.

Obvious: “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matthew 18:9)

Less Obvious: “If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)

2.Explain that the passage is to be taken in a relative sense, not an absolute sense. We should relate the passage to our own times without taking it exactly as it is written.

Obvious: “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but. . . with good works.” (1 Timothy 2:9-10)

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart.” (1 Peter 3:3)

Less Obvious: “Train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands.” (Titus 2:4-5)

3.Explain that the passage applies to a first-century historical situation rather than for all time.

Obvious: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:27)

“Abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols.” (Acts 15:29)

Less Obvious: “The women should keep silent in the churches. . . For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 11:34-35)

4.Explain that the passage pertains to the old covenant at Sinai rather than to the new covenant at Calvary.

Obvious: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths.” (Deuteronomy 16:16)

“You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” (Deuteronomy 21:12)

Less Obvious: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

“Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord.” (Leviticus 27:30)

5.Explain that the passage pertains to one individual or group rather than to everyone for all time.

Obvious: “Use a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” (1 Timothy 5:23)

“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” (Luke 10:19)

Less Obvious: “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:22)

6.Explain that the passage applies to individuals but not to societies or to governments.

Obvious: “I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.” (Matthew 5:39)

Less obvious: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (Romans 12:20)

7.Explain that what is commanded has been superceded by another command or principle.

Obvious: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans.” (Matthew 10:5)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ. . .” (Ephesians 6:5)

Less Obvious: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is head of the church. . .” (Ephesians 5:22)

8.Explain that what is referred to is a miraculous gift no longer available to Christians today.

Obvious: “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them.” (Mark 16:18)

Less Obvious: “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28)

“The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. . . . Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:15-16)

9.Explain that the command is an ideal to be taken seriously but not a firm obligation to be taken literally.

Obvious: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)

“Give to whomever begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)

“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.” (Luke 12:33)

Less Obvious: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other. . .” (Romans 13:8)

10.Explain that the passage reflects the cultural standards and practices of the ancient Jewish or Roman world and therefore does not specifically apply to our culture today.

Obvious: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Romans 16:16)

“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14)

“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered, dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven.” (1 Corinthians 11:5)

Less Obvious: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

Conclusion: One basic reason there are so many divisions in Christianity is that some religious groups explain away more scriptures than others do. Furthermore, even within certain churches, some members are willing to explain away the “obvious” but not the “less obvious.”

As the church historian Everett Ferguson has written, explaining away scripture “leaves our theology or our interpretation as the authority, not the words of scripture.” He further warns that, “The text itself is our authority, not our reconstruction of the context” (Women in the Church. Yeomen Press, 2003, pp. 39-40).

Unfortunately, it is impossible to understand the meaning of many texts without choosing either a literal or figurative reading. Our task is to read the scriptures as intelligently as possible using logic, reason, knowledge, and understanding. Sometimes this amounts to “reconstructing” the text using linguistic, literary, cultural, and historical insights in order to clarify what the text actually meant to its original readers.

Beyond that, however, lies the question of what significance certain biblical texts have for us today. Sometimes it is difficult to obey commands that seem arbitrary or anachronistic. Are we to live and worship exactly as Christians did in the first century or do we have some latitude? What we choose to ignore or retain about first-century Christian faith and practice will have profound implications for our Christianity.

Whatever the case, whenever we study the Bible, we would be wise to begin by reading each text literally, as if for the very first time, so that we feel the full force of its words. Only after meditating on the literal meaning of a text should we ever proceed to explain it away, domesticate it, discount it, or allow it to lose the power to amaze, disturb, and convict us.

June 30, 2007


Although arrogance, murder, stealing, lying, and oppressing the poor are all great sins in the Old Testament, idolatry ranks number one. The story of Israel is a story of idolatry virtually from beginning to end. Abraham's ancestors worshipped idols (Joshua 24:2), and the descendants of Abraham worshipped idols in Egypt (Joshua 24:14). Even before the children of Israel reached the Promise Land, many had already begun to worship Baal, the god of Canaan (Numbers 25:1-5). King Solomon himself became an idolater (1 Kings 11:4-8), as did Jeroboam, the first king of the northern state (1 Kings 12:25-30). Eventually, persistent idolatry brought about both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities (2 Kings 17:6-18; Ezekiel 7:1-9; 8:5-18; Jeremiah 2:20-25).

As the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) once noted, only intelligent beings are superstitious. Animals worship no gods and make no images to bow down before. Something in human consciousness draws us to believe in powers that are beyond our ken. Although idolatry may seem a curious relic of the past, one need only observe the prevalence of astrological forecasts in the newspapers or the new age crystals dangling from rear view mirrors to realize that belief in supernatural forces is alive and well.

In ancient times, idolatry was a form of nationalistic superstition that claimed the sovereignty of local gods over human affairs such as agriculture, war, and personal success. In one wryly amusing passage (1 Kings 20:23-30), the counselors of Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, tell him the reason they are losing battles to the Israelites is that the Israelites have a mountain god. If they fight in the valley, they reason, their army will win the victory. In 2 Kings 5:15-18, Naaman, healed of his leprosy by God, requests two mule loads of Israeli dirt. Even though he believes in the true God, he still thinks he must stand upon the physical ground of Canaan in order to worship. The distinctive idea of the Bible is that one righteous God rules over all the earth (Exodus 19:5).

This monotheism, as articulated in Deuteronomy 5-6, forms the foundation of biblical religion. What Moses taught in the wilderness of Sinai, Paul was still proclaiming in Athens well over a thousand years later (Acts 17:22-31). God, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made with human hands. He cannot be tied down, pigeon-holed, or domesticated. He is not the product of a self-serving, superstitious imagination. Instead, he has revealed himself through the history and experience of a people whom he has chosen. His incredible deeds on behalf of this people constitute the proof of his existence.

Monotheism contains important ethical implications. First is the brotherhood of mankind. Since we have all been created in the image of one God, we all have similar worth. Second, because God is holy, righteous, and good, all ethical values derive from his revealed nature and character. Third, because God is the sovereign Lord, to place our confidence and trust in other values or forces constitutes sheer folly. In other words, racism, relativism, and rugged individualism are all sins against monotheism.

To love God means to be sure you are serving the right God (Deuteronomy 30:15-17; 13:1-5). Although few people in modern industrialized countries ever bow down before idols to pray for a good harvest or a good job, many bow the knee to the capitalistic "god" of economics whose prophet is Adam Smith. They truly believe that economic laws set irresistible boundaries to human conduct. In reality, something doesn't have to have an altar or a temple to become a false god; you simply have to trust it and obey it by letting it determine your behavior and values. The first commandment is plain, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3).

About June 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in June 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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