Modern Reformation contributor and street evangelist veteran Leon Brown sat down with us to discuss his article “Common Objections” – need some practical advice from an old hand? Look no further!
Will God allow murderers to get off scot-free? If so, what does it say about God himself? How can he do this kind of thing and still remain holy? Scripture actually condemns those who justify the wicked (Proverbs 17:15, Isaiah 5:23), so how in the world can we be justified? Only by recognizing the radical lostness of the human condition does the scandal of grace come into full focus. Recorded before a live audience at the Liberate Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the hosts, along with the help of special guest Tullian Tchividjian, interact with the logic of Romans chapters 1-4 and unpack the scandal of grace.
Ed. Glomsrud and Horton
“When [Jesus] came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”
A recent article in USA Today by Cathy Lynn Grossman cites examples of the growing tendency in churches to treat the Internet as a genuine ministry-provider. It’s not just about having websites and email contacts, but about assuming that digital contact is actual ministry. [Cathy Lynn Grossman, "Church Outreach Takes on a New Technical Touch," Wednesday, April 18, 2012.] According to the report, for example, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association offers a page for visitors to sign on the sinner’s prayer and “turn up in a real-time scroll of latest ‘decisions’ at www.SearchforJesus.net…” Grossman writes, “Technology should ultimately be an enhancement, not a replacement, for gathering in person for worship, discussion, debate and service to others, Drew Goodmanson says. Goodmanson is chief executive officer of Monk Development, which helps churches use the Internet to fulfill their missions. He appreciates that ‘you can have a digital Bible in the palm of your hand or connect with others in prayer any time anywhere.’ Nevertheless, Goodmanson says, ‘Jesus would not have a Facebook page. He wouldn’t be stopping in an Internet café to update his status.’” Thank God.
Responding to the USA Today article, Al Mohler helpfully points out some of the costs and benefits. It’s a great benefit that we can read lots of content on-line to which he had limited access before. Yet, he observes, “A digital preacher will not preach your funeral. The deep limitations of digital technologies become evident where the church is most needed. Don’t allow the Internet to become your congregation. YouTube is a horrible place to go to church.”
The episode I cited at the beginning, reported in Matthew 8:1-3, just wouldn’t have tweeted well.
First, it can’t be abstracted from its historical context. Under the old covenant, leprosy was a sign of sin’s guilt and corruption. Its victims were not just contagious, but ceremonially “unclean,” polluting the camp of Israel; they had to be quarantined from the covenant community (see Leviticus 13-15; Num 5:1-4). Which is what makes Jesus’s action all the more provocative.
Second, the healing can’t be abstracted from bodily contact. In most instances, Jesus spoke the word and people were healed, but in this rare case, he “stretched out his hand and touched him…” It would be a compassionate stroke by itself. On those rare foreys into public, sufferers from leprosy would have to yell, “Leper!”, as crowds parted nervously to avoid contact. Jesus reached out and touched the man. Yet this also meant something far more daring: he was making contact with someone who was ceremonially untouchable. Matthew adds the healing of another outcast: a Roman centurion’s son, in verses 5-13, commending the centurion’s faith: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And then he promises that people will come from all parts of the globe to “recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” The servant’s son “was healed at that very moment.”
Clearly the point in both episodes, as well as thee other healings, including a demon-possessed man in verses 28-34 and the paralyzed man in 9:1-8, are signs confirming the truth of Jesus’s announcement about the kingdom.
Jesus touched people who shouldn’t have been touched, dined with people who shouldn’t even be in the neighborhood, enjoyed fellowship with people whose exclusion from the community was thought to be the condition for the Messiah’s arrival and re-institution of the national theocracy. Instead, the “unclean” are cleansed and fed the richest fare with Abraham, while those who were the most ceremonially santized are “unclean,” cast into outer darkness.
Jesus still bathes, feeds, and looks after sinners. But you can’t reduce this story to something “tweetable.” Jesus did not love people anonymously, but said to them, “Your sins are forgiven.” People came to him in faith, sat on the margins, or plotted his death—but they all did so in his presence.
Even after the resurrection, Jesus is made known to the disciples as the risen Lord through the Word that he expounded and the breaking of the bread (Luke 24). “As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’ but they were startled and frightened and thoughty they saw a spirit. And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk 24:36-29).
What about today, after Jesus has been raised bodily and ascended to the Father’s right hand?
Paul tells us that we do not have to climb into heaven or descend into the depths to find him; he’s as near as the gospel that is preached. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” This is why we need preachers and they need to be sent (Rom 10:5-17). The Spirit works ordinarily through the common lips of fallible and sinful ministers.
The apostles also teach that the Spirit works through the most ordinary elements in creation, sanctifying them for his holy use. United to Christ visibly in baptism with water and the Word, they are fed at the table with Abraham and all of the saints seated with Christ. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).
Jesus doesn’t have a Facebook page. He doesn’t “friend” and “unfriend” at the click of a botton. He doesn’t offer anonymous advice. Although of him it could be uniquely said that he is unique, he does is not obsessed with expressing his uniqueness but delights in forming a fellowship of forgiven sinners around his hard-won victory.
So the apostolic community was embodied. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” They even shared their material treasures freely with each other according to abundance and lack. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Ac 2:42-47).
The gospel is not just information. It is high-touch in a hi-tech age. Christ’s gathering of sinners in these last days is an official diplomatic mission, not from any earthly capitol but from heaven. Understanding God’s Word—being swept into the story—is not something that can happen in an instant; you can’t Google it. We have to be touched by Jesus Christ, as he speaks, baptizes, and delivers himself to our fleshy hands through ordinary stuff he has made. The leper may have been able to post the astounding announcement on his personal page, “I’ve been cleansed—Jesus just touched me and said, ‘You are cleansed’!” Yet the significance of the sign required context. Furthermore, for others to be touched, they need Jesus to touch them.
There are a lot of things we can do now in terms of distributing content, starting conversations, and networking with others. Yet no more than the fruit of Guttenberg’s printing press—mass-distributed books—can the Internet proclaim a new creation into being. No one exploited the printing press more than Luther, but he cautioned, “The church is a mouth-house, not a pen-house.” Even today, Christ is forming an assembly of guests for his wedding feast by his Word and Spirit.
Like all common gifts, technology requires wisdom and discernment. There is a time and place for everything. We don’t pretend that we are really present at Thanksgiving if we’re “joining” by Skype or video-conference. Children don’t grow up (or shouldn’t, at least) in digital homes, but real ones, where people have to wait in line for bathrooms. Why do people think that we can “grow up into Christ” without the joys and frustrations of living with other sinners?
Digitial deliverance from that now-ubiquitous fear of being disconnected, out of the loop or out of date distracts us from the real deliverance from the reign of sin and death. Are the uses to which digital technology are being put today advancing Christ’s mission or do they represent actually the avoidance of the kind of kingdom that Christ has inaugurated in the world—in fact, a way of conforming the kingdom of Christ into just another kingdom of this passing age?
Contrary to the propaganda of the techno-evangelists, the Internet cannot bring people together, bodily, to make them a communion of saints. It can deliver data, even crucial information about God’s Worrd, but it cannot deliver Christ with all of his benefits. For that, you just have to show up. You have to hear it to believe it, to be washed into its cleansing surf, and to be made into part of his “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” by tasting the morsels of that greater feast to come.
You can follow Anthony Parisi at https://twitter.com/#!/anthonyparisi.
Legendary film director Orson Welles once said that “there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.” Portraying the complexity of our spiritual lives in a visual medium like film is a daunting task. Most stay away from dealing with religion at all while others try and fail. While we’ve been blessed with some incredible exceptions (think Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick), many sub-par, exclusively message-driven efforts by evangelicals dominate the attention of the American public.
Enter Blue Like Jazz, the newly released film adaptation of Don Miller’s popular book. Longtime musician Steve Taylor directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Miller and Ben Pearson. Their goal is not to offer gospel proclamation or heroic moral triumph but tell an honest story about the conflict of faith in the modern world. The book’s autobiographical introspection has been condensed into a simpler, coming-of-age narrative.
The story begins with young Don in his Texan Southern Baptist church. A smarmy youth pastor leads a prayer circle that quickly devolves into bowling watermelons and group games. Don is warned to avoid brainwashing by the “liberals” at college. In the next scene his deadbeat, hippie dad inversely laments the loss of his mind to the church. Later, a cross-shaped piñata showers communion cups on disappointed kids as a gospel illustration. These scenes culminate with a revelation that the (very married) youth pastor has been sleeping with mom, something the trivial atmosphere of the church hasn’t equipped Don to handle. He quickly snaps and flees to his dad’s alma mater, the famously liberal, agnostic Reed College. Here he begins to openly mock his faith as he considers leaving it all behind.
Amidst the fun, anarchic campus life Don encounters a diverse array of new friends. There’s a lovesick lesbian, a militant atheist in full Papal garb, and a (sometimes naïve) activist with a heart for humanitarian issues. Even though the satire is heightened, there’s enough nuance to stomach the clichés and uneven filmmaking. Self-aware of caricature, the film even invites discussion on archetypes and stereotypes as students debate the definitions in literature class. At the Q&A session following a screening in Irvine, Miller actually pointed out that some of the most suspect extremes (Reed’s mocking ceremony that crowns a campus Pope, a girl using the co-ed urinal, an atheist purging dorm room of religious books) were all from real life.
The filmmakers have a clear affection for each character. No one is unfairly demonized and everyone is given a voice at the table. This is a very rare quality. We meet hypocritical Christians and gracious, faithful ones. Churchgoing Penny fights for social causes but later admits to abandoning her suffering mom in an hour of greatest need. Agnostics air their jabs at religion but aren’t given a free pass either. On campus we see the champions of “tolerance” being anything but. As Don’s dad mocks the church he’s reminded that the congregation paid for groceries when he ditched the family. Taylor juxtaposes banal Christian bumper stickers “Are you following Jesus this close?” with their mirror image, “Abstinence makes the heart grow fondlers.” I can’t think of another movie that has captured just how sloganeering and prejudicial current talk about religion is. Moving past the hysterical put-downs, we’re shown how personal experience and emotion is often more formative than a reasonable argument.
Steve Taylor’s comedic sensibilities help steer the story away from melodrama. The personality that characterizes his songwriting is also felt here. At times the humor falls flat or grows tedious (like a sequence where a bear-costumed thief destroys Don’s bike) but the consistent energy enables Taylor to portray an inner, spiritual struggle in a strong and unique way. Knowing where Don has really come from and what he’s wrestling with gives the college wackiness a striking dissonance. All the fun, partying, and prank “activism” are colored by the lingering question: what will he do with God? The contrast of the upbeat soundtrack echoes how our externally happy lives often distract from or mask underlying turmoil.
The second half of the film grows somewhat disappointing, which is a real shame given all it has going for it. It’s often hard to believe that Don (who months ago was happily serving his church) would go to the extremes that he does. He gets increasingly mixed up with the Pope and his anti-religious antics, even helping place a giant condom balloon on top of the local Episcopal church. When he begins to realize how his behavior is beginning to hurt Penny and affect others, we’re never quite clear why Christianity remains existentially powerful enough to keep him on the fence.
A theism debate hints at our need for truth, love, and meaning that the strict materialist can’t account for. Penny’s passion for social justice inspires him. But we don’t see what’s specifically Christian about any of it. Don’s voice-over tells us that “sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” Unfortunately, this is what we’re not quite shown. The best Penny can express is that she “likes Jesus” but we don’t really hear who he is or why she should. If Jesus is just one more guy who wants us to love each other, then what’s the big deal? Why not a thousand other prophets or self-help gurus, religious or secular, telling us the same thing?
In the end we hear Don describe how he tried to ditch God but can’t because “it’s like he’s following me around.” But some of the vagueness of Don’s wrestling with God undercuts the story. While it’s great that the movie doesn’t suddenly switch into sermon mode, a fear of being preachy or judgmental seems to hold it back from providing a more penetrating vision of Don’s journey or Christ himself. In interviews about the film, Taylor and Miller frequently talk about their intention to not be that kind of Christian movie. While I’m grateful they succeeded, I think this self-conscious defensiveness prevents the movie from rising to its full potential.
There also seems to be something of a generation gap going on. Younger generations are coming from a postmodern, pluralist context more than a fundamentalist one. At the evangelical college I attended, the common issue wasn’t judgmental ferocity but spiritual apathy and feeling-based mushiness. Throwing off the previous generation’s legalism sometimes led to biblical illiteracy and lack of serious discipleship. It was all “deeds not creeds” and “relationship not religion” but baby Jesus often got thrown out with the bathwater. After visiting a friend’s church where we took off our shoes and sang Coldplay for worship … I knew something had gone very wrong. Because of the changing landscape of evangelicalism, I feel Blue Like Jazz appeals to my generation but may do little to challenge it.
Still, it’s fantastic to watch a film about Christianity that’s characterized by grace and humility. The reverse confessional scene at the conclusion of the story is the film’s best. After a wild night where Don is crowned the new campus Pope, he finally stops wavering and comes out of the closet. Instead of hearing the student’s ironic confessions of sin, Don decides to apologize for himself and the ways fellow Christians have failed to be faithful witnesses for God. He takes the former Pope into the booth and admits to him that he believes in God, Jesus, “the whole deal.” He explains, “I came here to escape it because I was ashamed of it. But it turns out that I’m not just ashamed of my strange church or its political views or all the hypocrites. I’m ashamed of Jesus. I’m ashamed of Jesus because I want you to like me.”
Taylor delicately directs the scene and both Marshall Allman and Justin Welborn give vulnerable performances. I was struck by how moving it was. You can feel that here is the heart of Don Miller and the moment rings with authenticity. Like many of us, his criticism of the church can often go hand in hand with trying to be relevant, likeable, and fit in. Here we see that the movie isn’t a cheap shot at conservatives or secularists or hypocrites. It’s a personal confession.
In the book, Miller writes of a moment where we stop “blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority” and start to face ourselves. He admits, “I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” Here is our age-old struggle to confess with the apostle Paul that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of who I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
As someone who doesn’t much care for the book or Miller’s writings, I expected to be unimpressed by this movie. Instead, I found a decently entertaining two hours at the multiplex. Even with its flaws and hang-ups there’s a lot to appreciate. In a pop culture world filled with cynicism and bitterness, Blue Like Jazz manages to express humility and open an inviting space for conversation. It’s a rare and welcome sight to see.
Jesus tells his disciples that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life…” Is Jesus teaching a kind of salvation by works? And when Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom,” is he saying that we need to add good works to our confession in order to qualify for heaven? On this edition of White Horse Inn recorded during our recent listener cruise, the hosts discuss these issues as they conclude their series through Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
When I was nineteen, my former pastor’s wife gave me a book called Blue Like Jazz. I had heard enough about it to be suspicious, but I went home, closed myself up in my library, and read it. I was completely confused. The Christian faith he was talking about bore enough of a resemblance to what I had grown up with to know that he wasn’t a heretic (not that I knew what a heretic was), but it also sounded suspiciously like the emotional, nebulous platitudes that liberal theologians loved to pass off as poetic insight.
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to the trailer for the Blue Like Jazz movie. I was mildly disgusted, since my last interaction with Miller hadn’t been exactly incandescent, but I’ve learned to read since my university days, so I figured I’d try it again. Something I’d neglected to do when I’d first read it was attend to the subtitle: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I had approached the book expecting a resounding affirmation of the solid Christian doctrine I didn’t have and didn’t understand, and instead got a story about someone who didn’t know what solid Christian doctrine was and had grown disenchanted with the Christian culture he had been taught was doctrine.
The book isn’t intended as a theological treatise, but as a reflection on the existential journey of a man with a genuine desire to love Christ, and who’s been disillusioned with the brand of Christianity he’s grown up in. He talks about his friends and housemates, his youth, the early days of his career, his life in the woods and in the suburbs of Houston with wit, verve, and charm, articulating the same doubts and fears we all have and illustrating the same foibles, vices and pettiness that characterize us. I was grateful for his humor, because it was still rather frustrating – although it’s true that Miller didn’t write it in order to expound a theological point, he did write it to talk about his understanding of who he is in relation to God, and it’s pretty hard to do that without bringing theology into the discussion.
It’s clear from the outset that Miller’s angst wasn’t with Christ himself, but with the brand of Christianity that so many of us are familiar with – the (here it comes) Christless Christianity that’s manifested by moralistic-therapeutic deism and the health-‘n-wealth gospel. He grew up thinking that God had a political and social agenda, and that if he (Miller) didn’t do his utmost to promote it through his own obedience to the cultural law, he wasn’t a true Christian. The ensuing culture shock following his matriculation at Reed College served as the catalyst for the exploration of what he believed about God and what he knew about himself as a creature made in God’s image.
Some of the things he comes to understand about God sound surprisingly similar to classical articulations of certain elements of Christian doctrine – original sin is a theme consistently woven throughout his interactions with his family and housemates (his resentment of his housemates’ existence intruding on the unfolding drama of his own life); there’s a hint of election when his friends Penny and Laura describe their conversion (they tearfully spoke of God ‘being after’ them); and the need for grace is beautifully illustrated in both his own attempts at keeping the law and in relating to his former girlfriend (he realizes his need for God’s charity in his failed efforts at hard-core piety, and the fact that he can’t accept his girlfriend’s love because he hasn’t accepted God’s). [i] It’s not explicit, but it’s there in an inchoate form.
Some of the conclusions he arrives at are decidedly problematic – his articulation of the gospel made salvation dependent upon man, and had little do with Christ’s propitiatory work on the cross.[ii] Another distressing moment came when he wrote that he realized that “[…] there was something inside me that caused Him to love me.”[iii] The idea of man’s nature being morally repugnant to God and yet possessive of something that compels his love is as popular as it is theologically unsound, so Miller’s adoption of it is perhaps less to be wondered at.
Miller is open in his dislike of institutions and the church, and considering his background, that’s not surprising. However, I got the sense that he couldn’t dissociate the one from the other, as if the church were little more than a Machiavellian machine, rather than a sinful, rebellious bride being redeemed by her bridegroom. This may be why the book garners such harsh criticism from some circles – while he acknowledges the presence of loving ‘conservative’ churches, he appears to dismiss them on personal rather than principled grounds. One doesn’t like to disregard the very real pain that those hurt by the church suffer, but neither is it wise to separate oneself from Christ’s visible body and the stewards of his oracles because of a few offending members.
Miller has since written other books, none of which I’ve read, so it’s entirely possible that his understanding of the gospel and the church have changed – Blue Like Jazz is a chronicle of a chapter in his life; not a profession of faith, and it ought to be interpreted as such. While we may (and ought) to read it thoughtfully and critically, with an eye to the theology inherent in the story, it behooves us to read charitably, being mindful of the fact that it’s still a story about a man’s search for God and his place within the greater drama of redemptive history.
Raise your hand if you’re offended by politicians and church leaders using the Bible like a wax nose. On the left bank, there is the well-worn battery of references to Jesus and the rich young ruler, the command to “render unto Caesar,” and the last judgment where the sheep and goats are separated. As the Washington Post poses the question: “Jesus said, ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ In a time of economic turmoil and record poverty levels, are tax cuts for the wealthy moral?” Regular “On Faith” columnist and former seminary president Susan Brooks Thistlewaite is ready with an answer—and verses to back it up. Jesus told the rich young ruler, “‘Sell all that you own and distribute the money.’ But the young man, ‘who was very rich,’ turned away. Jesus’ comment? ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Luke 18: 21-25).” “All too true,” Ms. Thistlewaite sighs with all the self-satisfaction of someone who thinks she’s not the rich young ruler. “It’s also easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a bill with the rich paying their fair share of taxes to get through Congress. Not gonna happen.”
Meanwhile, back on the right bank, NPR reported yesterday the latest use of the Bible for small government. The report quotes Richard Land (head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) as saying that “the Bible tells us that socialism and neosocialism never worked. Confiscatory tax rates never work.” Really, the Bible tells us so? As it turns out, not in so many words. However, the Bible does tell us that because we are by nature sinful and selfish, “people aren’t going to work very hard and very productively unless they get to keep a substantial portion of that which they make for them and for their families.” (Is implies ought? Aren’t good laws supposed to guard the weak against the selfish ambitions of the powerful? Why couldn’t someone use the same logic to argue that out-of-wedlock teens shouldn’t have to carry their babies to term, since they’re not as likely to be ready to love and care for them?)
The report also cites the appeal to our Lord’s parable of the vineyard by WallBuilders’ David Barton. As the NPR piece puts it (better than Mr. Barton), in the biblical parable “the owner pays the worker he hires at the end of the day the same wage as he pays the one who begins work in the morning. Many theologians have long interpreted this as God’s grace being available right up to the last minute, but Barton sees the parable as a bar to collective bargaining. ‘Where were unions in all this? The contract is between an employer and an employee. It’s not between a group,’ Barton said. ‘He went out and hired individually the guys he wanted to work.’”
At least Congressman Paul Ryan (cited in the same report) has centuries of robust Catholic social thought to draw upon, including the idea of “subsidiarity” (similar to Abraham Kuyper’s concept of “sphere-sovereignty,” where the state isn’t the only charity in town). Like Rick Santorum, Mr. Ryan has been subjected to criticism by Roman Catholic scholars for his interpretation of subsidiary, but at least there is a broader tradition of reflection to draw upon than trading Bible verses that have absolutely no bearing on the subject at hand.
Sheep and goats (Matthew 25)
The sheep are commended: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” The righteous wonder when they did all these things. “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Mat 25:35-40). A group of more politically liberal evangelicals calling itself Matthew 25 contributed significantly to President Obama’s first campaign. Former Republican senator John Danforth added, “I think Matthew 25 is a very good place to start” (Lisa Miller, “Heaven Help Him: Religious Centrists Bail on Obama,” Newsweek, Feb. 8, 2010, 18).
These verses are part of a single sermon that begins in Matthew 24:1: Jesus prophesies the destruction of the Temple (which occurred in 70 AD) and the signs of the end of the age, with a focus on a long period of the church’s tribulation until the gospel is preached to the ends of the earth. The emphasis in the sermon is on preparing his hearers for imminent persecution. The sermon concludes with the statements above about the final judgment, with the separation of the sheep and the goats. What’s intriguing is that the “goats”—those condemned—are clearly professing followers of Jesus. After all, they protest their loyalty to Jesus. The difference is that the sheep cared for each other. Earlier in the sermon, Jesus warned his followers that they would be hungry, thrown out of their homes by their own family members who would even turn them in to the authorities, imprisoned, and abandoned. The sheep are those who cared for their brothers and sisters—even total strangers—in the face of persecution, even at the cost of their own safety.
In other words, Matthew 25 is not a generic call to care for the oppressed. There are many other passages one could go to for that. Matthew 25 is a specific statement about how the Shepherd looks after his sheep and expects the sheep to do the same. So closely identified with his church is Christ that he could demand of Saul in Acts 9:4, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” We are to look upon fellow-Christians as we would Christ. Christians who, for fear of their own lives, refused to show solidarity with fellow saints—”these my brothers” (v 40), were in effect denying Christ himself.
Rich young ruler
The story of the rich young ruler (Mat 19:16-22) also has a context that is somewhat different from the issues related to the US tax structure. The man asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The question itself provides a clue as to the point of Jesus’ strategy. The Mosaic covenant was based on reciprocity: fulfill the law and you will live long in the land. It never held out eternal life; the conditions of the covenant that Israel swore at Mount Sinai pertained exclusively to the temporary geo-political nation of Israel.
Yet the question the young man asks is how to have eternal life: what’s the missing work. The law hasn’t changed, Jesus replies: “‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’” “Which ones?”, the man asks. After Jesus restates the obvious (namely, the Ten Commandments), the man replies, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Talk about setting himself up! The man’s concern is not for God or for his neighbor, but for himself and the one good deed that will put him over the top. Alms-giving was part of the routine, too, so giving to the poor wouldn’t have been foreign to the man. However, “‘If you would be perfect,’” Jesus tells him, “‘go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’”
It’s a bit cynical to suggest that the only thing Jesus was up to here was to convince the rich young ruler that he was not righteous. The kingdom that Jesus brings is defined by the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It isn’t a check-list for feathering one’s own nest. The man’s problem was not only that he was self-righteous, but that he was also so bound up in his identity with his wealth that he couldn’t even recognize his neighbor. The love that Jesus himself demonstrates in his self-offering is far more reckless than that love that he demands of us. Jesus doesn’t merely tell his disciples that the take-away is that it’s hard for the self-righteous to enter the kingdom, but, “‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Someone asked Nelson Rockefeller how much money it takes to be happy and he reportedly replied, “A little more.” From the earliest days of the apostolic era wealthy believers contributed significantly to the mission and welfare of the church as well as wider society. And yet, where there is more wealth, there is a greater opportunity to lodge one’s treasure in this age rather than in the age to come.
The bottom line is that the rich young man left sad, because he had many possessions. He had lodged his identity in both his moral and financial net worth and Jesus wouldn’t lower the bar. The man thought he had kept the law, but he really hadn’t kept it. The Pharisees might have made him chairman of the board, but Jesus told him the truth.
The tragic fact of this story is that those who invoke it against Republicans miss the point as badly as the rich young ruler. In fact, we show ourselves to be uncomfortably like the rich young ruler when we deflect the point to others—The Rich—and imagine that Jesus is suggesting that the Roman government should redistribute their income. The truth is, we are the rich young ruler and if we’re looking for “the one thing” we supposedly haven’t done to possess one more possession (eternal life), the command is for us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. Have the invokers of this story done that? If they haven’t, then they don’t have a right to use the story against the “bad guys.”
Parable of the vineyard
Like all of the parables, this one is about the kingdom that Christ brings, as indicated by the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”. As with the others, the focus is on the division in the house of Israel that Jesus precipitates. Outsiders become insiders and insiders become outsiders. Here, in Matthew 20, the master hires laborers. Israel is often called the Lord’s vineyard (Is 5:1-7; Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1). But in this case, the workers who had been there all day begrudge those who arrived near the close of the workday. Jesus says that the master replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last” (Mat 20:15-16).
The religious leaders had devoted their lives to hard work in the Lord’s vineyard. They multiplied rules for piety. And they begrudged God’s generosity in making room at the table, right next to Abraham, for sinners and Samaritans, much less unclean Gentiles.
Sadly, even the disciples get in on the act. Matthew places this parable right before the narrative of Jesus’ announcement of his crucifixion and resurrection as the disciples jockey for positions of prominence and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. “‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Mat 20:17-28).
It’s not surprising that Mr. Barton doesn’t find labor unions in this passage, since they didn’t exist in first-century Palestine and the parable doesn’t have the 2012 election in view.
Small government vs. socialism
It’s not just that Bible doesn’t give us enough data on small government versus socialism; it’s not written to a society that would have known what these economic arrangements were in the first place. It’s completely anachronistic to expect the Bible to address economic systems that would evolve through centuries of Western history.
There are plenty of laws in the Torah that would make a Tea Partier think twice before inviting theonomists to join them on the campaign trail. In fact, God’s indictment in the prophets against Israel’s thorough breach of covenant frequently turns on the nation’s mistreatment of the poor. In any case, if you’re looking for small government, these texts will probably disappoint. So far in the political debates I haven’t heard anyone try to apply Leviticus 25:29 to the housing crisis: “If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption.” Every detail of social and civic life was included in God’s law—not as universal applications of God’s moral law, but as pieces of a puzzle that distinguished Israel as God’s holy nation.
You can’t pick and choose which of Israel’s civil laws to invoke and apply to modern nation states. As the Westminster Confession explains (chapter 19), although the moral law remains binding upon all, the ceremonial laws given specially to Israel to lead them to Christ are “now abrogated under the new testament.” “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
That is precisely why Reformed social thought, in conversation with—and sometimes opposed to—Roman Catholic social thought has brought theologically-informed wisdom to bear on broader ethical questions that are not determined explicitly or even implicitly from Scripture. Even Christians who share the same biblical and theological convictions will differ on a host of specific applications and must be given the charity and liberty to do so.
According to a recent Pew Study, Americans think that there has been too much about religion in the political campaign. And no wonder. It’s no time for Christians to back away from concern for the common good, bringing their deepest convictions to bear just as others do. However, the trading of Bible verses ripped from their covenantal context and intention is a sure way to trivialize God’s Word in our society, in our churches, and in our own lives.
“Seek and you will find?” Doesn’t Paul say that “no one seeks God?” (Rom 3:11). On this edition of White Horse Inn recorded before a live audience during our recent listener cruise, the hosts discuss Matthew 7:1-12 as they begin to wrap up their survey of the Sermon on the Mount.
Brian W. Thomas
Jonathan Dodson posted a piece on The Gospel Coalition’s blog on Monday concerning how the “missional church” can easily turn its focus on consumerism instead of the history of redemption and God’s role in the advancement of his church. Here is an excerpt:
…Even with the resurgence of missional ecclesiology, we fail in sharing and showing the gospel in our own cultures. Clearly, the missional church is not enough, not only in its scope of mission, but also in its motivation for mission. When the motivation of the church is mission, we are destined to retreat, tire out, and fail. What, then, should we do? Throw up our arms in surrender and blend fully into our cultures with the hope of missional memory loss?
We need a greater, more captivating motivation than “missional church.” When the motivation for mission is mission, people will revert to consumerism. However, if our missional endeavors are motivated by something greater, more certain, than our oscillating passion for the advance of the gospel, then there is hope. If the history of redemption will not come to a close until God’s glory has been completed, then the assurance of mission starts and ends, not with the church, but with God! God’s commitment to his own glorious expansion throughout space and time is the hope of the world. The hope of mission is not the church; it is Jesus committed to ushering his full, redemptive reign over all space and time, including every people.
As we bring missional failure and success to the feet of Jesus, we will be increasingly motivated for mission by his mercy and his might. We need to be increasingly captivated by the expanding glory and beauty of Christ among the nations. Missional church is not enough. We need Jesus’ insistence on the spread of his redemption throughout history for his glory. We need his commitment to his complete glory breaking into history to complete the display of the riches of his grace.
Read the rest of “Why the Missional Church Isn’t Enough.”
How are we to understand forgiveness? Does God forgive us only on the condition that we forgive others? What does Jesus mean when he calls us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God”? On this special edition of White Horse Inn recorded before a live audience in Miami, Florida, the hosts will discuss these questions and more as they interact with Matthew 6:14-35 in their continuing series through the Sermon on the Mount.