Showing posts with label #Parables. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Parables. Show all posts

11 September 2023

The Dives and Lazarus Story.

Luke 16.19-31.

This story is often called the Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, or Lazarus and the Rich Man, depending on who oughta come first. Since it’s actually not about Lazarus, stands to reason the rich man should come first. Traditionally this man’s been called Dives (usually pronounced 'daɪ.viz instead of like the verb) ’cause that’s what he’s called in verse 19 in the Vulgate; dives is Latin for “rich.” So I’m gonna call him Dives; it saves time.

Every once in a while some literalist insists this story is not a parable. This is the only story where Jesus refers to someone by name—so they figure this must mean something, and claim Jesus is straight-up talking about a real-life guy named Lazarus, who lived in first-century Israel. Some of ’em even claim the Lazarus of this story is Lazarus of Bethany, Jesus’s personal friend whom he later raised from the dead, Jn 11.1-44 and this is how Lazarus died. Which makes no sense, because Lazarus’s family asked Jesus to come cure him; they didn’t just dump Lazarus at Dives’s door, hoping this idle rich guy might uncharacteristically do something charitable.

On the other extreme, we have people who insist this story is pure fiction. Primarily because they have very different beliefs about afterlife. Jesus, they insist, is not accurately describing what happens when people die. We go to heaven. Or hell. Some insist we’re immediately resurrected and live in New Jerusalem from now on; others claim we live in some glorified spiritual form while we await the Resurrection. Hindus and Buddhists believe we get reincarnated, and of course pagans and Mormons believe we become angels.

In some cases, the Christians who insist Jesus isn’t accurately describing afterlife are dispensationalists who believe this used to be the way afterlife worked—maybe—but not anymore. There’s a popular Christian myth called “the harrowing of hell,” which says before Jesus died to atone for our sins, God saved nobody by his grace—therefore nobody but the most saintly people ever, like Job or Abraham (and here, Lazarus), could make it to paradise. Nobody had the karma! So they were forced to wait in hell till Jesus died. Once he died, Jesus went to hell, same as them… but with keys! He unlocked the gates, stepped on gatekeeper devil Belial’s neck, freed all the Old Testament saints, and took ’em with him to heaven. And now, nobody experiences anything like Jesus describes in this story. Christians go to heaven.

Considering that God isn’t limited by time whatsoever, it makes no sense that he can’t apply Jesus’s then-future atonement to the sins of the people who existed before Jesus. In fact there’s every indication he did: Their sins, which were many, never hindered him with instigating relationships with them!

Nah, both the literalists and the myth-believers have it wrong. This story is a parable. Lazarus isn’t a literal guy. But this is, loosely, what the afterlife looks like. Then, and now. And it’s meant as a warning to those of us who are wealthy, but don’t bother to use our wealth to further God’s kingdom. If all we care about is our own comfort, we may not experience any such comfort in the afterlife. Billionaires beware.

Luke 16.19-31 KWL
19 “Somebody is wealthy.
He’s wearing purple and white linen, partying daily, in luxury.
20 Some pauper named Lazarus was thrown out by the plutocrat’s gate,
covered in open sores,
21 desiring to be fed with whatever fell from the plutocrat’s table,
but the dogs which came are licking his sores.
22 The pauper comes to die,
to be carried off by the angels to Abraham’s fold.
The plutocrat also dies and is entombed.
23 In the afterlife, the plutocrat lifts up his eyes—
he’s getting tortured in the pit—
and sees Abraham far away,
and Lazarus in his folds.
24 Calling out, the plutocrat says, ‘Father Abraham!
Have mercy on me and send Lazarus,
so he might dip his fingertip in water, and might cool my tongue,
because I suffer great pain in these flames!’
25 Abraham says, ‘Child, remember:
You received your good things in your life,
and Lazarus likewise received evil.
Now, here, he is assisted—
and you suffer.
26 In all this space between us and you, a large gap was fixed
so those who want to come to you from here, can’t.
Nor can they pass from there to us.’
27 The plutocrat says, ‘Then I ask you, father,
might you send Lazarus to my father’s house?
28 For I have five siblings—so Lazarus might urge them,
lest they also come to this place in the pit.’
29 Abraham says, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. Heed them.’
30 The plutocrat says, ‘No, father Abraham!
But if anyone comes back from the dead to them, they’ll repent!’
31 Abraham tells him, ‘If they don’t heed Moses and the Prophets,
neither will they be convinced when someone rises from the dead.’ ”

16 July 2023

The Prodigal Son Story, part 3.

Luke 15.25-31.

There are three natural parts to the Prodigal Son Story:

  1. The son leaving and squandering his inheritance.
  2. The son returning and his father rejoicing.
  3. The elder son objecting to the celebration out of jealous bitterness.

By consensus Christians have always interpreted this story to be about someone who repents of their excessive living and turns to God, with the father as God’s stand-in.

And by consensus Christians have always interpreted ourselves as the elder son. And… we kinda don’t like comparing ourselves with this irritated man. So we insist he’s typical of other Christians. Less gracious ones. But not us.

’Cause we know better, right? We know Christianity is all about proclaiming God’s grace. And God forgives everyone! Any repentant sinner, anyone who tells God, “I can’t save myself, so you’ll have to do it,” anyone who says the sinner’s prayer and makes Jesus the Lord of their lives.

So to be like this elder brother, and say, “Oh, those dirty sinners coming to Jesus to save them—those people can’t be saved. Those people aren’t worthy of salvation”—that’s just nuts. Were we unsavable, or worthy of salvation, when we came to Jesus? Of course not, but Jesus died for our sins anyway, and we too can be saved. Anyone can.

Hence every single Christian reads the Prodigal Son Story, reads about the elder son’s bad attitude, and reacts pretty much the same way: “What a dick. Doesn’t he get it? His brother repented! He’s come to Jesus! Shouldn’t we rejoice if our wayward family members repent and come to Jesus? Rejoice!”

Here, watch him be a dick:

Luke 15.25-31 KWL
25 At this time, the elder son is in the field,
and as he comes near the house,
he hears music and dancing.
26 Calling one of the boys,
he’s asking himself, ‘Whatever ought this be?’
27 The boy tells him this:
‘Your brother is come!
Your father sacrificed the well-fed calf,
because he he got him back safe and sound.’
28 The elder son is enraged
and doesn’t want to enter the feast.
His father comes out to comfort him.
29 In reply the elder son tells the father, ‘Look!
I slaved for you so many years!
I never pushed against your commands,
and you never gave me a goat
so I might celebrate with my friends.
30 While this son of yours,
who devours your life’s work with loose women,
you sacrifice the well-fed calf for him!’
31 The father tells him, ‘Child,
you’re always with me,
and everything of mine is yours.
32 We have to celebrate and rejoice,
because this brother of yours is dead and lives,
and having been lost, is found.’ ”

Okay. Now here’s how the rest of us Christians have missed the whole point of this story, and missed how we actually are like the elder son. The younger son, who left his father and family and frittered away the father’s “life’s work with loose women”? Lk 15.30 Jesus isn’t describing a pagan who doesn’t know any better. He’s describing a Jew. A co-religionist. Someone who grew up under the Law of Moses, who was educated by Pharisees, who fully knew what God’s expectations are for his chosen people, who was raised better than this. Who left his family, left the promised land, to do as he pleased. To party.

Jesus is talking about an apostate.

And what does your average Christian teach about fellow Christians who quit Jesus? That they’re going to hell. That because they saw salvation, yet rejected it, they’re no longer receiving it; they’ve committed an unforgivable sin; they’ve doomed themselves. Some’ll insist they were never saved in the first place. They’re gone. They’re damned.

Some will even cut off all communication with them, lest they get all their apostasy-cooties all over ’em.

18 June 2023

The Prodigal Son Story, part 2.

Luke 15.20B-24.

I split up the Prodigal Son Story, Jesus’s parable about a son who squanders his wealth and returns, tail between his legs, to a forgiving father. Whoops, spoiled the ending. Oh well; you had the past 20 centuries to hear of it.

Part 1 dealt with the popular Christian myth that asking for one’s inheritance before your dad died was a grave insult; it was an acceptable practice first-century Jewish sons did when they moved to other parts of the Roman Empire for whatever reason. I also brought up the evil, underhanded attitudes people project upon the prodigal son, when Jesus tells of no such things. He did lose his inheritance on excessive living, but let’s not leap to the conclusion he’s irredeemable.

I borrowed some names from a really lousy movie about the parable, so the son is Micah, his dad is Eli, and his brother is Joram. Hope the names don’t confuse you.

So we’re at the part where Micah realizes he’s starving unnecessarily, ’cause he could go back home and beg a job off his dad. And that’s what he does.

Luke 15.20-25 KWL
20 “And getting up, he goes to his father.
“While he’s still far away, his father sees him coming,
and feels sympathetic.
Running to him, the father throws his arms round his neck,
and kisses him.
21 The son tells him, ‘Father, I sinned against heaven and before you.
I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 The father tells his servants,
‘Quick, bring out the best robe and clothe him.
Put a signet ring on his hand,
and sandals on his feet.
23 Bring out the well-fed calf. Kill it.
We who feast on it should celebrate!
24 For this, my son, is dead and alive again!
Had been lost, and is found!’
And they begin to celebrate.”

Part 3 is obviously about the other son. Jesus didn’t leave him out. There’s a lot to say to Christians about him and his attitude. But meanwhile let’s look at the father and his attitude. It’s meant to reflect God’s attitude, obviously. It should likewise reflect our attitude when the lost are found.

11 June 2023

The Prodigal Son Story, part 1.

Luke 15.11-20A.

Our English word prodigal means “wasteful.” But over time—after generations of average people never bothering to look up “prodigal” in a dictionary—people presumed prodigal has to do with the son in this story leaving his family. Hence prodigal has taken on a second definition, “a person who leaves home with the intent to be dissolute.” A prodigal son isn’t just a trust fund baby who recklessly wastes money; he’s fleeing his family so he can go to the big city and sin himself raw. Because that’s kinda what the prodigal son in Jesus’s story did.

But no, it’s not precisely what he did.

I’m gonna analyze half the story now, and the other half later. Lots of Christians have unpacked this story, and mostly (and rightly) just focused on the moral of the story: The father is overjoyed that his son came home, and welcomes him unconditionally, as will our heavenly Father when we repent. And sometimes they focus on the elder son’s bad attitude. And sometimes they spend way too much time speculating on what the prodigal’s various big-city sins were… kinda like the elder son. Funny how a lot of those sins have nothing to do with the text of Jesus’s parable; they’re pure speculation based on pure projection. They say an awful lot about what the preacher might do with a big pile of cash.

Well anyway. Off to the story. Which is usually called “the Prodigal Son,” or by people who wanna avoid the ambiguity of what prodigal means, either “the Wasteful Son” or “the Lost Son.” Or if they wanna focus on the happy ending, “the Loving Father” or “the Forgiving Father”—or if the focus is on the disgruntled brother, “the Two Brothers” or “the Prodigal Son and the Unforgiving Brother.” Clearly I don’t have a problem with the original popular title.

Luke 15.11-20 KWL
11 Jesus says, “A certain person has two sons,
12 and the younger of them tells his father,
‘Father, give me the part of the property coming to me.’
So the father divides his living between them.
13 After not many days, gathering everything,
the younger son journeys to a distant land,
and there he squanders his property in excessive living.
14 Once he’s spent everything, a severe recession hits that land,
and he begins to be in need.
15 Going to stay with a citizen of that land,
the citizen sends him into his fields to feed swine.
16 He longs to gorge himself on the husks the swine eat,
and no one gives him anything.
17 “Coming to his senses, he says,
‘How many of my father’s employees abound in bread
while I’m being destroyed by this recession?
18 I will get up and go to my father.
I will tell him, ‘Father, I sinned against heaven and before you.
19 I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.
Make me like one of your employees.’
20A And getting up, he goes to his father.”

24 July 2022

The Satan Versus Satan Story.

Mark 3.23-26, Matthew 12.24-30, Luke 11.17-18.

Jesus was in the habit of ignoring Pharisee customs. In part because they aren’t biblical and therefore aren’t necessary (and aren’t sin when you break ’em). In part because too many Pharisees pointed to their customs as proof they were devout… and hoped the customs distracted people from the fact they were breaking the Law just as much as any gentile. It was all hypocrisy—the one thing which really pisses Jesus off.

Pharisees who legitimately tried to follow God, easily recognized Jesus is from God. Pharisees who were only interested in looking devout had the darnedest time trying to prove Jesus isn’t from God: It’s kinda impossible to make such a case when Jesus so obviously has God’s power to cure the sick and throw evil spirits out of people. When Pharisees tried to cure people and do exorcisms, they had such a low success rate, lots of Jews turned to witch doctors instead. In comparison, Jesus looks like he put hardly any effort into it. Sometimes he had to pray real hard, or lay hands on someone more than once, or had to give up because people were so faithless. But most of the time he’d say, “You’re cured,” and they were; or “Get out,” and the critters would scream and flee. He had the Holy Spirit without limit, Jn 3.34 and this almightiness showed.

So Pharisees had nothing. But it looks like the Galilean Pharisees decided to pick the brains of Judean Pharisees, who came up with the explanation, “He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils.” Mk 3.22 I explained the backstory of “Beelzebub,” properly Baal Zevúl, in another article. It’s pretty much a euphemism for Satan. Like many a cessationist nowadays, these Judeans claimed Jesus did his thing through the power of the devil. ’Cause God would never work through such people.

In response, Jesus told this parable.

Mark 3.23-26 KWL
23 Jesus, summoning them,
is telling them in parables,
“How can Satan throw out Satan?
24 When a kingdom is divided against itself,
that kingdom can’t stand.
25 When a house is divided against itself,
that house can’t stand.
26 And if Satan rises up against itself and is divided,
it can’t stand. Instead it’s the End.”

17 July 2022

The Lost Sheep Story.

Matthew 18.12-14.

Since I was already discussing parables where Jesus compares his followers to sheep, and portrays himself as the good shepherd, I figured I’d do the Lost Sheep Story. I kinda did already, but I bunched Luke’s version together with the Lost Coin Story, and focused on God seeking and saving the lost. Matthew’s version is a bit different, ’cause it has a different punchline.

Jesus begins this parable with a question which is typically translated like the KJV’s, “What think ye?” Except the verb is singular and third-person, not plural and second-person: Ye is not the subject, but the Greek word τί/ti is. It can be translated “what” or “who,” so that’s what I went with. He’s not really asking for his audience’s thoughts; he wants to see who among them has the sense to realize what he means. If Jesus were only fishing for consensus, his parables wouldn’t mean anything. He’s got a point to them—now see if you can spot it.

Even if he already totally spells out his own point. Hey, sometimes the crowd is just that dense—as you’ll see in a moment.

Matthew 18.12-14 KWL
12 “Who among you thinks?
When a hundred sheep belong to a certain person,
and one of them might wander off,
won’t the person leave the 99 on the hills,
and go to seek the wanderer?
13 When he happens to find it,
amen, I promise you, he rejoices over it—
more so than the 99 who hadn’t wandered.
14 Likewise it’s not the will
laid out by your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be destroyed.”

In Jesus’s day, people didn’t keep their wealth in money, which was harder to come by; but in land and livestock. So how wealthy does that make a person with 100 sheep? Well… not poor. Certainly not rich. Think of an individual lamb like 100 dollars. That’d make his flock worth 10,000 dollars. It’s a decent pile, but it’s not disposable income: You can’t just trade all your sheep for luxuries and comforts. You need to keep those sheep, and keep ’em well-fed and in good health so they’ll make more sheep, and produce good milk and good wool, and you can sell that… if you’re patient and work hard.

And with only 100 sheep, you can’t really afford to lose a lamb or two. A rich person could lose a lamb here and there easily. This guy was gonna have to go look for it himself.

10 July 2022

The Good Shepherd Story.

John 10.11-21.

In the previous bit, Jesus says he’s the sheepfold gate. In this bit, Jesus says he’s the good shepherd.

These passages don’t confuse a lot of people, because most of us have plenty enough brainpower to keep up with the idea of Jesus switching metaphors. “I’m the gate; you don’t go in around me. And I’m the shepherd—a good shepherd, who defends his sheep, unlike people who only start up a church for the power and money and fame, and the instant things get serious or rough, they bail on their church in Seattle, Washington and move to Scottsdale, Arizona, and con another flock into following them.”

…Okay yeah, I’m sounding a tad specific there, like I have a particular guy in mind. Maybe I do. But you could swap in any two cities in the United States—or the planet—and you’ll probably find a bad shepherd fleeing from town to town, hoping to evade accountability so he can get away with yet more evil. There have been bad shepherds throughout history. The people of Jesus’s day no doubt knew a few; maybe some rabbi who stole all his synagogue’s money, or one who slept around, or one who touched the children. Human nature doesn’t change, and ravenous wolves still try to feast on the faithful. So these things still happen.

But Jesus is the good shepherd. Kinda like the LORD is in Psalm 23… and since Jesus is the LORD, it’s totally okay to apply that psalm to him. But let’s deal with today’s passage first.

John 10.11-21 KWL
11 “I’m the good shepherd.
The good shepherd puts down his soul for the sheep.
12 The hireling, being no shepherd—
who isn’t the sheep’s own shepherd
he sees the wolf coming,
and he abandons the sheep and flees.
The wolf snatches and scatters them.
13 Because he’s a hireling!
He doesn’t care about anything about the sheep.
14 “I’m the good shepherd.
I know who’s mine,
and who’s mine know me.
15 Just as the Father knows me,
and I know the Father.
16 I have other sheep,
which aren’t from this sheepfold.
It’s necessary for me to lead them as well:
They’ll hear my voice,
and they’ll become one flock, one shepherd.
17 “This is why the Father loves me:
I put down my soul,
so I can pick it up again.
18 No one takes it away from me;
instead I put it down by myself.
I have the power to put it down,
and I have the power to pick it up again.
I receive this command from my Father.”
19 Again, there became a split among the Judeans
about these words.
20 Many were saying about him, “He has a demon,”
and “He’s raving mad; do you hear him?”
21 Others were saying, “These sayings aren’t demonic;
a demon isn’t able to open blind eyes!”

Jesus says a lot of profound things here, and of course the Judeans’ response was to either say, “Well of course he’s the good shepherd,” or if you’re a bit more closed-minded, “Oh he’s just babbling complete nonsense. Who does he think he is, God or something?”

As you might remember, parables tend to go right over the heads of the closed-minded—not necessarily because they can’t follow what Jesus means by them, but because they have no faith in Jesus. They might totally agree with the metaphor of Jesus’s followers being sheep—but they’re gonna dismiss and ignore the rest. It’s childish rubbish, meant for weak-minded sheeple.

03 July 2022

The Sheepfold Gate Story.

John 10.1-10.

A lot of reference materials claim Jesus only shares parables in the synoptic gospels, and that there are no parables in the gospel of John. Seriously, a lot of them. I grew up hearing it all my life. And it turns out it’s rubbish, because John straight-up states,

John 10.6 KJV
This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them.

It’s not a mistranslation either. True, John didn’t use the word παραβολή/paravolí, the word from which we literally get our word “parable.” He used παροιμίαν/parimían, which literally means “nearly like it.” But that’s what a parable is: It’s an analogy. A comparison. Something which is nearly like something else, so you can slip people some wisdom in a memorable format.

Other bibles have rendered parimían as “figure of speech” (ESV, NASB, NIV, NRSV) or “illustration” (NKJV, NLT). But again: Parables are figures of speech and illustrations. This is a parable. I suspect the translators were hesitant to use “parable” because it’s so widely believed and taught that John contains no parables. I still call rubbish. This is obviously a parable, and you gotta go through some weird logical gymnastics in order to claim it’s not.

It comes up in John 10, right after Jesus cured a blind man in John 9—whereupon the local Pharisees put the newly-cured guy on trial for heresy and excommunicate him. Jesus calls ’em blind. That’s a figure of speech; this next bit is a parable.

John 10.1-10 KWL
1 “Amen amen! I promise you,
one who won’t enter through the sheepfold gate,
but goes over it some other way:
That one is a thief, a looter.
2 One who enters through the gate is the sheep’s shepherd.
3 The gatekeeper opens up for this shepherd.
The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice.
He calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out.
4 Whenever the shepherd drives out his own sheep,
they go in front of him, and the sheep follow him,
because they’ve known his voice.
5 The sheep won’t follow a stranger,
but will flee from him:
They’ve not known the stranger’s voice.”
6 Jesus tells them this parable,
and they don’t know what he’s telling them,
7 so again Jesus says, “Amen amen! I promise you,
I’m the sheepfold gate.
8 Everybody who goes over me is a thief and looter.
But the sheep don’t heed them.
9 I’m the gate. When anyone goes through me, they’ll be saved.
They’ll enter and exit, and they’ll find pasture.
10 A thief won’t come in—
unless it’s to steal, murder, and destroy.
I come so they might have life,
and might have superabundance.”

So. At the end of chapter 9 he was speaking of blindness; now he speaks of sheep? But it’s not a total non-sequitur. Blind or not, people oughta be able to identify their master by voice. The sheep don’t need to identify their shepherd by sight: They can hear. And strangers aren’t gonna sound right.

And yeah, Jesus is also the shepherd, and a good shepherd. But that’s actually another analogy, in the next few verses. We’ll get to it; it’s another of the parables in John. Yep, there are a few of ’em. I’ll get to them all. Meanwhile, in today’s passage, Jesus is the sheepfold gate.

26 June 2022

The Pharisee and Taxman Story.

Luke 18.9-14.

Immediately after the Persistent Widow Story, Jesus tells this one. It likewise touches upon prayer… but it’s more about people who consider themselves devout, yet are jerks.

Luke 18.9-14 KWL
9 Jesus also says to certain hearers
who trust in themselves that they’re righteous
—and despise everyone else—this parable:
10 “Two people go up to temple to pray.
One’s a Pharisee, and the other a taxman.
11 The Pharisee, standing off by himself, is praying this:
‘God, thank you that I’m not like every other person!
those greedy, unjust fornicators!
Or even like this taxman!
12 I fast twice a week.
I tithe whatever I get.’
13 The taxman, who’d been standing way back,
didn’t even want to raise his eyes to heaven,
but beat his chest, saying,
‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 I tell you this taxman comes down from temple,
made righteous in his house, along with the other man.
For everyone who raises themselves will be lowered.
And those who lower themselves will be raised.”

Sometimes this is called the Pharisee and Publican story, ’cause “publican” is how the KJV translates τελώνης/telónis, “collector of tolls, customs, or taxes.” But “publican” is an anachronism at this point in history. Yep, it’s history lesson time, kids. Gather round and I’ll tell a story.

Before the Caesars took over, Rome was a republic. Not a democracy; it had democratic parts to it, but it was mostly an oligarchy run by patricians, the Roman nobility. At some uncertain point in their past, the patricians overthrew their king and ran Rome collectively. Every year, patricians elected two consuls to run things; the consuls picked senators, and these senators ruled for life. But senators weren’t permitted to collect taxes, so they hired lower-rank patricians to do it for ’em. These tax-gatherers were from the publicani rank, and over time, publicani became synonymous with taxmen.

The publicans practiced tax farming: Different companies applied for the job of collecting taxes in a certain town or county, by offering the government an advance—say, 𐆖10,000. (The 𐆖 stands for denarii; it’s like our dollar sign.) If they outbid everyone they got the contract—and had to pay the government the 𐆖10,000 advance. Now they had to make it back: Collect rent, charge tolls, demand a percentage of merchants’ profits. They shook everybody down to make back that 𐆖10,000.

And everything they made beyond that 𐆖10,000, they got to keep. So the more unscrupulous the publican, the higher taxes would be, and the richer they got.

Richer, and corrupt. They’d bribe government officials to get their contracts, bribe their way out of trouble if they were charged with over-taxing, and bribe their way out of trouble for any other crimes. When Augustus Caesar took over the senate in 30BC, he tried to eliminate tax farming, figuring it’d lower taxes and reduce bribery. He took it away from the publicans, who switched careers and got into banking and money-lending. He put government officials in charge… but lazy officials who didn’t want this job, simply hired other tax farmers to collect for them.

Since you no longer had to be of publicani rank to be a taxman, any wealthy person could bid for the job, and get it. And that’s what happened in first-century Israel: Rich Jews became tax farmers, and did the Romans’ dirty work for them. Their fellow Jews saw them as traitors—as greedy, exploitative sellouts. Which, to be fair, they totally were.

19 June 2022

The Persistent Widow Story.

Luke 18.1-8.

Last time I wrote about parables, I brought up the Midnight Friend Story. Well… same gospel, same idea, but whole different story. Comes in chapter 18 instead of 11. It’s also called the Unjust Judge, the Importunate Widow, the Persistent Woman, and the Unjust Judge and the Widow. All depends on which of them you wanna emphasize, but since the widow is meant to be our role model, I think the story oughta be named for her.

Luke 18.1-8 KWL
1 Jesus is speaking parabolically to his students
on the necessity of them always praying
and not becoming discouraged,
2 saying, “There’s some judge in some city
with no respect for God, no regard for people.
3 There’s a widow in that city;
she’s coming to him, saying,
‘Prosecute my opponent for me!’
4 For a time, he doesn’t want to.
Afterward, he said to himself,
‘Though I don’t respect God, nor have regard for the people,
5 because this widow keeps bugging me,
I’ll prosecute her opponent for her.
In the end, she may come give me a black eye!’ ”
6 The Master says, “Listen to what this unjust judge says.
7 Might God not prosecute on behalf of his elect,
who cry out to him day and night,
and have patience with them?
8 I tell you he will prosecute for them, quickly.
But at the Son of Man’s coming,
will he then find any faith on the earth?”

Some notes about my translation. The term the widow is using is ἐκδίκησόν με/ekdíkisón me, which the KJV translates “Avenge me.” That’s perhaps too literal of a translation. Ekdikéo means to carry out a punishment, and the word isn’t particular about whether it’s a judge sentencing a criminal, a vigilante murdering a criminal, or someone with a grudge taking out petty revenge upon a neighbor. Since Jesus is talking about a judge, he is talking about some level of due process.

Problem is, Jesus isn’t talking about a righteous judge. In his culture there were two kinds of judges:

  • Jewish judges followed and interpreted the Law, the commands the LORD handed down in the 15th century BC.
  • Roman judges followed and interpreted the laws decreed by the senate and people of Rome.

So when Jesus describes this judge as caring neither about God nor people, he describes a person who ignores the standards for both Jewish and Roman judges. He doesn’t base his rulings on law and legal precedent; he follows his conscience. He’s what we’d call an “activist judge”—the kind of judge people love when he shares their politics, ’cause he’ll rule their way, no matter what the law says! But they soon discover a lawless judge creates a lot of instability in society, no matter how moral these judges might imagine they are.

12 June 2022

The Midnight Friend Story.

Luke 11.5-8.

Right after teaching his students the Lord’s prayer, Jesus told the Midnight Friend Story. Yeah, he meant it in context of prayer. Yeah, it’s an odd little story. Odd because the protagonist is so annoying—yet Jesus presents this as if it’s a good thing.

Luke 11.5-8 KWL
5 Jesus tells them, “Who among you has a friend like this?
He’ll go to another friend at midnight,
and might tell him, ‘Friend! Lend me three loaves!
6 Because a friend of mine comes off the road to visit me,
and I have nothing I’ll give him to eat.’
7 From within, this person may say in reply, ‘Don’t put your trouble on me!
The door was already shut, and my children are with me in bed.
I can’t get up to give you a thing.’
8 But I tell you, if he’ll not get up and give it
for the sake of being his friend,
he will indeed get up and give it
because of his rudeness,
and will give him as much as he needs.”

And this is why he tells us to ask, seek, and knock. That part comes immediately afterward.

This parable is phrased a little awkwardly, ’cause Jesus introduces it with “Who among you has a friend?”—and then proceeds to talk about two other guys. It’s not about you and your friend; it’s about two entirely different guys. It’s an awkward transition, and for this reason a number of translators try to insert “you” into the story. Like the NET starting, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight…” Lk 11.5 NET or the NIV’s ending, “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.” Lk 11.8 NIV But Jesus actually stops talking about “you” as soon as his one-liner introduction is over. This is why I inserted the words “like this”: He’s talking about the hypothetical friend. Not you. Don’t take it personally—the lesson is for you.

Jesus’s audience knew all about unexpected guests at night. Unlike our culture, it wasn’t at all easy to send word ahead: No phones, texts, emails, telegrams, nor postal service. Yep, no postal service: The way Paul sent letters all over the Roman Empire was to send someone with the letter, to deliver it personally. That person might be the one to unexpectedly show up at your house at 2AM… and need a place to sleep, and probably food.

22 November 2021

The Lost Sheep and Lost Coin Story.

Luke 15.1-10.

Jesus loves sinners. Not just because he loves everybody without discrimination, because God is love, but because he knows the most effective way of getting a sinner to repent is by loving ’em. Show them grace, and they respond with gratitude. Unless of course they’re entitled jerks who think of course they deserve God’s kingdom… like we see in a lot of Christians nowadays, and like we see in the scriptures whenever Pharisees have a problem with Jesus being too liberal with people who deserve hate, scorn, and explusion.

In the gospels, two groups tend to be singled out for Pharisee ire: Taxmen, who were natives of the Galilee and Judea who worked for and with the occupying Romans, and were considered sellouts and traitors and unclean apostates; and “sinners,” by which Pharisees meant irreligious people.

For some reason people tend to naïvely assume everybody in ancient or medieval times was religious. Every Egyptian believed in the Egyptian gods, or every Israelite believed in either the LORD or one of the Baals, or every Roman believed in the Greco-Roman gods, or every medieval European was Catholic or Pagan or, later, Protestant. Nope. Same as now, lots of people consider religion to be unimportant or irrelevant, or were even nontheist—but kept these feelings to themselves, ’cause it’d get ’em in trouble with the religious majority. Even in countries with freedom of religion, people who believe in nothing try to stay under the radar. Just look at all the hypocrites in the Bible Belt, who claim they’re good Christians but vote like racists and social Darwinists and greedy Mammonists.

So when Jesus hung out with taxmen and sinners, it really triggered ’em. “What’s the rabbi doing with pagans? Why’s he going to their homes? Why’s he eating with them? You know they don’t follow our exacting standards for ritual cleanliness; he could be eating bacon for all we know! In fact I’ve never seen him wash his hands…” And so on.

For them, Jesus had two parables. Same punchline, ’cause they’re about the same thing. I don’t know whether in real life he actually told them one right after the other like this, or whether Luke just bunched ’em together in his gospel for convenience. Only literalists think it matters; it does not.

Luke 15.1-10 KWL
1 All the taxmen and sinners were coming near Jesus to hear him,
2 and some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling, saying this:
“This one befriends sinners. And eats with them.”
3 Jesus told them this parable, saying,
4 “Any person among you have 100 sheep,
and upon losing one of them,
don’t leave the 99 in the middle of nowhere,
and go after the lost one till you find it?
5 One places the found sheep on one’s shoulders, rejoicing,
6 coming into the house together with friends and neighbors,
telling them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I found my lost sheep!’
7 I tell you this is like the joy in the heavens over one repentant sinner,
rather than over 99 righteous people who didn’t have any need of repentance.
8 “Or some woman who has 10 drachmas, when she loses one drachma.
Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house,
and carefully seek till she finds it?
9 On finding it, she gathers her friends and neighbors,
saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I found my lost drachma!’
10 I tell you this is like the joy found among God’s angels
over one repentant sinner.”

15 November 2021

The Wedding Party Story.

Matthew 22.1-14.

This parable has a lot in common with Jesus’s Dinner Party Story in Luke. So much so, many Christians consider them the same story, and teach on them at the same time. They might primarily present it as the Wedding Party Story, and quote some bits of Luke to add some depth; or as the Dinner Party Story, and quote bits of Matthew. Or they’ll say, “Well in Matthew it’s a wedding and in Luke it’s a dinner party… but it’s all the same thing, right? A wedding is just a dinner party to celebrate a wedding. So the differences don’t matter.”

But they do. Because in the Wedding Party Story it’s not just any wedding. The person throwing the party isn’t the groom, as was the custom in first-century middle eastern weddings; in this case it was his father. Who’s the king. And not just a king like our democracies have, who’s really just a rich noble with an extra-fancy title who gets to be on the money and has a few ceremonial government duties. This guy actually rules his country, like a dictator. Like Salman ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud of Arabia. Imagine he threw a wedding party for his son Muhammad… and people behaved this way towards him. Heads would roll. As they do in this story.

Matthew 22.1-14 KWL
1 In reply Jesus again spoke to them parabolically, saying,
2 “Heaven’s kingdom is like a person, a king,
who makes a wedding feast for his son.
3 He sends his slaves to call the called to the wedding feast,
and they’re not willing to come.
4 The king sends other slaves again,
telling them, ‘Tell the called, “Look, my banquet was prepared!
My oxen, and well-fed sacrificial meats, and everything is ready!
Come to the wedding feast now!” ’
5 But the dismissive invitees go away.
One goes to his field, one to his business.
6 The rest seize the king’s slaves, abuse, and kill them.
7 The king is angry. Sending his army,
he destroys those murderers and fires their cities.
8 Then the king tells his slaves, ‘The wedding feast is ready.
The called weren’t worthy.
9 So go to the crossroads and call as many as you find to the wedding feast.
10 Going out, those slaves gather everyone they find on the roads, both evil and good,
and the wedding feast fills with people reclining at table.
11 The king, entering and seeing those reclining at table,
sees a person there not wearing wedding clothing.
12 The king tells him, ‘Fellow, how’d you get in here not wearing wedding clothing?’
The person was struck silent.
13 Then the king told his servants, ‘Bind him feet and hands.
Throw him into the darkness outside.
Weeping and teeth-grinding will be there.’
14 For many are called, and few chosen.”

Christians get confused by this story. In part because Christians who don’t live under monarchies, and especially those who don’t live in the ancient near east, really don’t understand the cultural context. Nor do they understand much of the capricious-sounding behavior of the king, ’cause they presume the king in this story is God. And the son is Jesus, and the wedding banquet is the end of time, and the dismissive invitees and the guy without the wedding clothes are sinners who deserve what they’re getting… and so forth.

Especially do they not understand Jesus’s moral of his story: “For many are called, but few [are] chosen.” Mt 22.14 KJV Wait, how does God call you, yet not choose you? Shouldn’t those be the same thing? Determinists are entirely sure they are, and other scriptures kinda make it sound like they’re one and the same:

Romans 8.29 LEB
29 Because those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers; 30 and those whom He predestined, He also called; and those whom He called, He also justified; and those whom He justified, He also glorified.

They assume all these things are a package deal. If you’re elect, you’re

  • foreknown
  • called
  • justified
  • glorified

and you can’t be one without all the others. Called means chosen.

So what’s going on here? Glad you asked. Let’s get to it.

The king, the kingdom, and God.

Heaven’s kingdom (or God’s kingdom; same thing) is like this king. Jesus says so upfront. He doesn’t say the king represents God; we read that into the story because the king has a son, so we presume these are two persons of the trinity. We read of a wedding feast, and read all the Revelation imagery of the Lamb’s bride Rv 21-22 into it. Basically we add a lot to the text which isn’t actually in it. But the king represents the kingdom. Not God. “Heaven’s kingdom is like a person,” Jesus starts. Got that?

Further, Jesus is the king of God’s kingdom. So don’t go figuring, as many Christians will, “If the king isn’t God, I guess the king would be Jesus, right?” What son of Jesus’s would he be throwing a wedding feast for? Stop trying to find a one-to-one matchup between the fictional characters of the parable, and real-life people. Jesus is talking about an idea here. Let’s let him get to his idea.

This king has a son, who will probably be his successor, the next king. His marriage was a big deal, ’cause such unions were expected to produce children, ensuring the next king would have his own successor. So this marriage feast is about the king’s dynasty; it’s a celebration of the king’s power. It’s a big deal if you attend.

It’s equally a big deal if you don’t attend. It means you defy the king and don’t recognize his power. Maybe you have another king. Maybe you wanna be king. These invited guests who ignored the king, or who murdered the king’s slaves: They were making a political statement, much like this line from Jesus’s New King Story:

Luke 19.14 KJV
But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us.

That new king’s response?

Luke 19.27 KJV
But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

Don’t confuse that guy with Jesus either. Jesus was describing the sort of kings his audience was familiar with, not the sort of king he is. The kings of the earth are paranoid and murdery, same as Herod 1, who tried to kill baby Jesus. Our Lord isn’t like that, so don’t confound him with the bad behavior of the kings in his stories.

Like an easily-provoked dictator who freaks out at any hint of disrespect, this king was enraged at these invitees. Yeah, the open rebellion and the death of his slaves was an outrage, but he didn’t just kill the invitees; he fired their cities. He burned everyone in their hometowns to death over the insult. Does God kill the innocent along with the guilty? Abraham knew he absolutely doesn’t, Ge 18.23-25 and you’d think we Christians would know this too. Yet too many Christians nonetheless insist the king in this story represents God, and that he’s pretty darned wrathful… instead of love. Revealing, of course, they don’t know God as well as they claim. Nor Jesus, who reveals God as he truly is.

So if the king’s not God, but he is the kingdom, what’s the parallel here? Is it that God’s kingdom is angry and vengeful and only seeks power? Well… certainly the civic idolaters in Christendom do. But no, the point Jesus is trying to make is in his moral at the end. The rest of the stuff in his story is not gonna have an exact correlation between the activities of God’s kingdom, nor certainly God’s people.

But I will say those people who were invited to the wedding feast, who defied the king and his servants, do have some similarities to antichrists who want nothing to do with Jesus, his teachings, his kingdom, his followers, his God, anything. They still abuse and kill Jesus’s servants in nations where Christianity is a minority. They will receive judgment for it eventually. Meanwhile Jesus still offers ’em chances, much like the king sending his slaves to call ’em to the wedding feast yet again. Food’s ready! You’re still invited.

Open to all… but you gotta be prepared.

Most Christians don’t know how to deal with the underdressed guest at the end, who gets thrown out of the party and into darkness, weeping, and teeth-grinding. Those last three adjectives are commonly used by Christians to describe hell. So this is apparently someone who got into heaven, and shouldn’t have. But he’s been found out, so out he goes.

If you wanna take this parable literally… well, here’s the part where Christians put a pause on literalness and deliberately overlook the implications. Because somebody snuck past God. Somebody got around the heavenly security guards, got into the wedding feast, and was there getting his unbeliever stank all over the banqueting table. Y’know they ate with their hands back then; so here he is getting his dirty unwashed pagan fingers two knuckles deep into the hummus. Probably double-dipping too. So does this mean people could potentially get into heaven who need to get found out and tossed out? What if—yikes—you’re one of those people?

First, relax. Second let’s back up a few verses. In verse 8 the king points out his chosen guests weren’t worthy; in verse 9 he orders his slaves to go get anybody and bring ’em to the feast. Verse 10, they do so, and “gather everyone they find on the roads, both evil and good.” Jesus deliberately said πονηρούς τε καὶ ἀγαθούς/ponirús te ke agathús, “evil—and also good” to point out the slaves definitely brought evil people to this feast. Not necessarily deliberately, but to make the point they weren’t being particular. At all. Everybody was welcome. No prejudice, no discrimination, not even commonsense: Everybody.

Because everybody is welcome in God’s kingdom. Because we don’t get in on goodness. We don’t merit our way in, earn our way in, rack up enough points to get in; we don’t have to be born into the right tribe, caste, class, or country; we don’t have to first get ritually circumcised. Jesus died to save the world, so the world can come in. That’s the point of this, and the Dinner Party Story, opening up their respective celebrations to everybody who will come.


’Cause yeah, there’s a but. One which Christians tend to skip, because we’re so fixated on the awesome message of grace, and how we’re saved by it. And Jesus does teach we’re saved by grace; absolutely everybody is invited to these banquets, remember?

But Jesus does expect that once we’re in—once we’ve become the recipients and beneficiaries of God’s grace, once we’ve been included in his inheritance and are granted God’s kingdom—we live holy lives befitting our new status. We don’t take God’s grace for granted and remain the same dirty sinners we were before. We get fruity. We obey our Lord’s instructions and put on his lifestyle… kinda like putting on your good clothes to attend a wedding.

Years ago some Christian interpreter found out an ancient middle eastern king gave clothes to his people so they could dress more appropriately for a celebration. Hence a number of commentaries claim this was what the king meant by “Fellow, how’d you get in here not wearing wedding clothing?”—as if all middle eastern kings did this. But we’ve no evidence any king but the one did this; it’s a fluke, not a common custom. More likely the guest knew, as everyone knew, you wear your best to a royal function—and he didn’t. He had better, cleaner clothing. As was proven by the fact he “was struck silent”: He didn’t speak up and say, “But master, I’m dirt poor and have no other clothes”—he did, and didn’t wear them. He had no excuse. So out he goes.

When we stand before Jesus at judgment, the Lambs and Kids Story makes it sound like he’s not gonna bother to ask us to explain ourselves, much as we might really want to at that time. (I’m particularly amused by the pathetic excuses Keith Green offered in his song “The Sheep and the Goats”—“Oh Lord, that wasn’t our ministry Lord; we just didn’t feel led, y’know?”) He’s already decided which group we’re in. And if we really accepted his offer of salvation, really trusted him to save us, really acknowledged him as Lord, we’re gonna have tried. Christians who don’t even try, and don’t see why they even should try, aren’t legitimately Christian.

They’re the people who are gonna want to complain to Jesus after he returns—they wanna know why they didn’t get raptured along the rest of the Christians. (Assuming they even acknowledge he’s really Jesus. ’Cause if they didn’t get raptured, they’re gonna presume it couldn’t really be the rapture.) They’re gonna make such a stink, he’ll kinda have to have them cuffed, feet and hands, and thrown outside—where it’s dark, and where they’ll rage at him because they think he owes them something. Based on what? Their own prideful egos. Nothing more.

Matthew regularly points out, in both the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s parables, Jesus expects a lot of his followers. He’s saved us so that we needn’t worry about sin and death, and can solely concentrate on following him, without worrying we might slip up and lose our salvation. We’re not gonna lose it; apostasy means you deliberately quit, not unintentionally do something which cancels out God’s grace. But if we never even begin to follow Jesus, never develop any sort of relationship with him, never heed the Spirit… you’re not yet Christian. You never even got started putting together your wedding-appropriate clothes. It’s gonna make you stand out at the wedding like a man in a dog costume at a dog show.

So repent!

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08 November 2021

The Murderous Vineyard Workers Story.

Mark 12.1-11, Matthew 21.33-46, Luke 20.9-19.

Most Christians think of Pharisees as the bad guys in the gospels, ’cause of how often Pharisees objected to Jesus, Jesus objected to them right back, and how Pharisees conspired with others to get Jesus killed.

Thing is, that’s only some Pharisees. Just like how the gospel of John showed Jesus getting opposed by “the Judeans” (KJV “the Jews”) —it wasn’t all Judeans, but some Judeans. He got along just fine with Nicodemus, Lazarus and his sisters, the guy who lent him the room for Passover, and lots of other Judeans; and he got just as much pushback from his fellow Galileans! Likewise not all Pharisees objected to Jesus. Ever notice how Jesus frequently taught in synagogue? Synagogues were a Pharisee thing; nobody but Pharisees had synagogues. Those Pharisees accepted Jesus. Likewise all the Pharisees who followed him (though sometimes poorly) after he was raptured, and became the Christians of the early church.

And the Pharisees weren’t the only bad guys. There were the Sadducees, Judea’s ruling class. In the Galilee there were the Herodians, the people who were perfectly happy to keep the Herod family in power, usually because it benefited them personally. And of course there were the Romans, who eventually killed Jesus.

When Jesus tells this story, it’s not just to Pharisees. It’s to members of the Judean senate: “The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” Mk 11.27 who ran Jerusalem and Judea under the Romans’ occupation, whose job was to keep the peace lest the Romans kill them all. They considered Jesus a disruption, and Jesus considered them… well, what he calls them in this story.

He compares ’em to vineyard farmers who are utterly rebelling against their boss. Because the vineyard, they figured, was theirs. And the fruit was theirs. And the boss was never gonna return to deal with them, so they were free to run things however they liked, with no consequences. You know, pretty much like our elected officials run things now, despite the people who elect ’em.

Mark 12.1-11 KWL
1 Jesus began to tell the Pharisees parabolically,
“A person plants a vineyard, puts a wall round it,
digs out a winepress trough, builds a watchtower,
gives it to farmers, and goes abroad.
2 In time he sends a slave to the farmers,
so he might get fruit from the vineyard from the farmers.
3 Taking the slave, the farmers beat him,
and send him away with nothing.
4 Again, the master sends another slave to them;
they punch that slave in the head and insult him.
5 The master sends another; that one they kill.
He sends many others; some they beat, some they kill.
6 The master has one beloved son, and sends him to them last,
saying this: ‘The farmers will respect my son.’
7 These farmers tell themselves this: ‘This is the heir!
Come! If we kill him, we’ll be the heirs!’
8 Taking the son, they kill him
and throw him out of the vineyard.
9 So what will the master do with the vineyard?
He’ll come and wipe out the farmers, and give the vineyard to others.
10 Didn’t you read this writing?—
‘A stone which the housebuilders reject:
This is made into the cornerstone.
11 This is made by the Lord,
and to our eyes, this is amazing.’ ” Ps 118.22-23
12 The senators were looking to have Jesus stopped,
yet were afraid of the crowd.
For they knew the parable he told is about them.
Abandoning him, they left.

In all three synoptic gospels, the story comes right after the senators challenge Jesus in temple by asking him who sent him, and Jesus challenges ’em right back by asking them whether John the baptist came from God. Mk 11.27-33, Mk 21.23-27, Lk 20.1-8 They pretend to not know the answer; Jesus knows they totally do, ’cause they’re dirty hypocrites. They’re the same sort of hypocrites who killed the prophets, and in five days they were gonna sentence Jesus to death too, and have the Romans crucify him—thus fulfilling that part of the parable. The rest, where the boss wiped out the farmers, would be fulfilled in 37 years.

01 November 2021

The Watchful Slaves Story.

Luke 12.35-40, Matthew 24.42-44.

This is another parable about Jesus’s second coming, sometimes called the parable of the watchful servants. Frequently it gets mixed up with Jesus’s Wise and Stupid Slaves Story in Matthew, or the Watchful Doorman Story (found in all the synoptic gospels, and actually comes next in Luke), because some of the ideas and verses overlap. Other times people chop off verses 39-40 because they’d rather make a separate story of them.

Unlike the other gospels, this one includes the idea—consistent with Jesus’s character, as demonstrated when he washed his students’ feet—that in God’s kingdom, the master serves the students.

Jesus tells his students this right after he tells ’em to save up treasure in heaven.

Luke 12.35-40 KWL
35 “Be people dressed for work, with your lanterns burning.
36 Like you’re people waiting for your master once he leaves the wedding feast,
so when he arrives and knocks, they can immediately open the door for him.
37 Those slaves are awesome: The master will find them staying up for him.
Amen, I promise you the master will dress himself for work,
and he’ll sit them down, and help serve them.
38 If he comes in the second or third watch [9PM-3AM]
and finds them up, they’re awesome.
39 Realize this: If the homeowner knew what hour the thief shows up,
he’d never be able to break into his house.
40 Be ready!
For the Son of Man comes at the hour you don’t expect.”

25 October 2021

The Five Stupid Teenagers Story.

Matthew 25.1-13.

The Five Stupid Teenagers Story is also called the parable of the virgins, of the maidens, of the bridesmaids; of the wise and foolish virgins, or of the 10 virgins. Usually they’re called virgins ’cause that’s traditionally how people have translated παρθένοις/parthénis: A girl, or unmarried woman, and women back then used to marry mighty young. Like as soon as they attained legal adulthood, so 13 years old. Since they were unmarried, the usual assumption is in that culture they’d be virgins, which is a reasonable assumption. But parthénos was sometimes used in Greek literature to describe young women who weren’t virgins, like in the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes.

Maiden is alternately used to describe them, but maiden historically means the same thing as virgin. And in either case I’m not sure Jesus’s point had anything to do with their virginity nor marital status. More like with their youth. You know how some kids can be wise and clever, and some kinda dense and foolish? And how some kids can sometimes be one and sometimes the other? So, that.

So my translation focuses on their age as well: These are young teenagers, old enough to be responsible for themselves, but not all of ’em were necessarily mature enough. Kinda like Jesus’s own students. Kinda like newbie Christians.

Like all Jesus’s parables, this story’s about his kingdom, and since it’s part of his Olivet Discourse he’s talking about his second coming. Unlike dark Christian interpretations which are all about doom, tribulation, death, and hellfire, Jesus’s parables are about encouragement: He’s not returning to destroy the world, but save it. Get ready to join his entourage! Otherwise you’ll miss out on the fun parts.

We don’t know when Jesus is returning, and he instructs his kids more than once to stay awake and be prepared. This is one of those times. Dark Christians insist it’s about missing the rapture and going to hell. But the stakes are nowhere near that high in Jesus’s story.

Matthew 25.1-13 KWL
1 “Then heaven’s kingdom will be like 10 teenagers
who come out to meet the husband, bringing their own lamps.
2 Five of them are morons, and five wise,
3 for the morons who bring their lamps don’t bring oil with them.
4 The wise teens bring oil in flasks, with their lamps.
5 During the husband’s delay, all the teens fall asleep, and sleep.
6 In the middle of the night, a loud voice came:
‘Look, the husband! Come to meet him!’
7 Then all those teenagers rise and get their own lamps ready—
8 and the morons tell the wise teens, ‘Give us some of your oil,
because our lamps are out.’
9 In reply the wise teens were saying, ‘Likely there’s not enough for us and you.
Instead go to the oil-sellers and buy your own!’
10 And as they went away to buy, the husband comes,
and those who were ready, enter the marriage feast with him.
He closes the door.
11 Later, the remaining teenagers also come to the door,
saying, ‘Sir, sir, open it for us.’
12 In reply the husband says, ‘Amen, I promise you, I don’t know you.’
13 So be awake—because you don’t know the day nor the hour.”

11 October 2021

The Shrewd Butler Story. And mammon.

Luke 16.1-9.

As you know, Jesus said you can’t be a slave to both God and Mammon, Mt 6.24 and as a result people tend to think of Mammon as a person. It’s not really. Whenever Jesus and the Pharisees spoke about mammon, they meant money, and they were speaking of it negatively. Exactly like we do whenever we describe money as “lucre.” Nobody ever talks about clean lucre; it’s always filthy lucre; it’s always money used wrong, used for evil.

Same deal with mammon, which is why I translated τῷ ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ/to adíko mamoná (KJV “the unrighteous mammon”) as “filthy lucre.” You come across lucre in this story, it means mammon. Got it? Good.

Jesus tells this story right after the Prodigal Son Story, Lk 15.11-32 if that context helps: A man squandered all his money, and when he came home his father threw him an expensive party; and his brother objected to the wastefulness (or to use old-timey English, the prodigality) of both the wasteful man and his extravagant father. And since we’re on the topic of wastefulness…

Luke 16.1-9 KWL
1 Jesus also told his students, “There’s a certain plutocrat who had a butler.
This plutocrat accused him of wasting his possessions.
2 Calling the butler, the plutocrat told him, ‘Why do I hear this about you?
Turn over your books, for you can’t run the house.’
3 The butler told himself, ‘What can I do?—my boss is taking the house-running from me.
I’m not strong enough to dig; I’m ashamed to beg.
4 I know what I’ll do—so when I’m fired from being butler,
other plutocrats will take me into their houses.’
5 Calling each one of his boss’s debtors, the butler told the first, ‘How much do you owe my boss?’
6 The debtor said, ‘A hundred jars olive oil.’
The butler told him, ‘Take the receipt, sit, and quickly write fifty.’
7 Then the butler told another, ‘And you: How much do you owe?’
The debtor said, ‘A hundred cors [37,000 liters] grain.’
The butler said, ‘Take the receipt and write eighty.’
8 The butler’s boss praised the impropriety, for the butler acted shrewdly,
for the children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light of the same generation.
9 I tell you, make yourselves friends with your filthy lucre,
so when it runs out, they might take you into their great houses.”

This story really weirds out Christians, because most of us cannot for the life of us understand how Jesus could make the butler the hero of this story, and point to his example as one to follow. Didn’t the guy just totally rip off his boss? He was gonna get fired for squandering money; he turns right around and squanders more money in order to suck up to his boss’s creditors; and his boss is actually pleased with this behavior. What the what?

It makes more sense once it finally sinks in Jesus isn’t a Mammonist… and we largely kinda are.

What’s the proper place of money?

What’s money for? Duh; it’s so you can buy things. Money can be traded for goods and services. This isn’t just Economics 101; kids learn this as soon as they watch their parents buy stuff. “So that’s what those shiny discs are for; no wonder Mom gets upset when I swallow ’em.”

Money’s a resource. Need stuff? Money helps you buy it. Need food, clothes, shelter, transportation, electricity, internet? Money. Does the government need to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare? Money; your money, ’cause the rich always seem to create loopholes so it’s never their money. Everything runs on money.

So we need money. How much? Enough to cover the bills, really. A little extra so we can afford to be generous and help the needy, and a little extra to sock away in case of unexpected problems.

But that’s not a mindset our culture encourages. We’re told we oughta have enough money so we can afford anything we want. So we can buy anything our hearts desire. So we can live in comfort, if not luxury. So we need never work for money again. We’re told we ought to want to be rich… and if we don’t want that, there’s gotta be something dangerously wrong with us. If you don’t wanna be rich, you must be a Marxist or something.

Why this sudden pivot to a fearful extreme? Duh; spiritual warfare. Tempters don’t want you to think. They want you to freak out at anything which threatens their grip on you. Right now they got us by our desires for wealth, comfort, and power. Take those desires away, and they got nothing.

Hence Paul’s warning about the love of money. 1Ti 6.10 The worship of money, materialism and Mammonism, gets people to lose all sense of money’s proper place. It becomes their meaning of life: Get money, and get more. Then blow most of it on luxuries—at the expense of your bills, your emergency funds, and especially the needy. Heck, the needy should be earning their own money. How dare they ask for mine?

Does God’s kingdom run on money? Nope; that’d be grace. Although you’d never know it to hear some churches, ’cause they’re constantly begging for money. But either that’s because their members aren’t generous, or because their leaders are greedy. In other words, they’ve been infested with Mammonism. It’s when money takes priority over grace.

And our interpretations of the bible likewise get infested with Mammonism. It’s why people read this story and don’t understand what Jesus is teaching. So they skip it, and teach on his other stories. Or they tackle it, and come up with gobbledygook.

We gotta begin by understanding the proper place of money in Jesus’s mind. It’s a resource. Is it the only resource we have? Of course not; we have the Holy Spirit’s power, which is how Jesus could make bread out of nothing. Having him cure you is way cheaper than American healthcare. Money is finite, but God’s power is infinite; it’s the dynamo of the universe. He wants us to depend on that, on the Spirit, not money. If anything money’s a workaround; a way to respond to the Spirit’s “No” with “Fine; I’ll buy it myself.”

Gotta wonder how many churches are following the money instead of the Spirit… but I expect that’d take another article.

Nope, this isn’t embezzlement.

When a πλούσιος/plúsios (plutocrat; KJV “rich man”) put an οἰκονόμος/ikonómos (house-runner, or butler; KJV “steward”) in charge of his estate, the butler really was in charge of the estate. He didn’t have to run anything past his boss; he effectively was the boss. He had the boss’s signet ring. He could order anything in his boss’s name. His boss’s money was his money; his boss’s property was his property; they were totally interchangeable.

Well, so long that the boss was pleased with his administration. At the top of this story, the boss had decided to fire his butler, ’cause he felt his estate had been squandered. Jesus doesn’t say why and how, and we needn’t speculate because it doesn’t matter. What matters is how the butler decided to act.

While the butler was still in charge, before he handed over the paperwork, he quickly had his boss’s debtors come over, and he forgave part of their debts. Many interpreters claim this was theft or embezzlement on the butler’s part; how dare he change the receipts? But the butler had the authority to do exactly as he did: He was in charge of his boss’s money, and he was authorized to forgive debts if he so chose. Really he could’ve forgiven the entire debt if he wanted… and if he had, maybe Mammonists wouldn’t struggle so much with this story. “Why, he forgave debts like God forgives debts. How generous.” Instead he only forgave the debtors in part… so people now get hung up on the financial loss.

Why’d the butler do this? He said it himself: “Other plutocrats will take me into their houses.” Lk 16.4 He did this to set himself up for a future job. He expected other wealthy families to hear of this, and hire him because he lowered the debtors’ bills. Hire him knowing he might do this with their money too.

If you’re fixated on money, this story makes less and less sense as we go. Forgiving his debtors pleased his boss? Forgiving debtors might please future bosses? Aren’t these plutocrats trying to make money?—how on earth is this butler of any value to them? How would this behavior curry favor? Why is the boss pleased with his behavior?

I’ve heard one interpretation which claimed the debtors couldn’t afford to pay that much oil and grain at that time, so the butler lowered the bills till they could pay it—and now the boss had oil and grain, whereas if the amounts remained as high as they were, the boss would never get paid back. Kinda like when banks forgive the interest on certain debts so they can get something instead of nothing. Yeah, that’s a clever spin on the idea, but if that were so, Jesus would’ve said so. He didn’t.

The reality is the boss was impressed with something more valuable than money: His butler’s shrewdness.

To Mammonists, nothing’s more valuable than money. If it’s not gonna make ’em money right away, or in the long run, it’s not a worthwhile investment. But the plutocrat in this story isn’t a Mammonist, and Jesus isn’t a Mammonist. They recognize wisdom’s more important than money—and no, not just because wisdom can make you money. Wisdom’s not just a means to an end.

But money is. The butler used money to make the debtors appreciate him. Wise plutocrats, who were used to the Roman Empire’s tendency to use money to grease the wheels of leaders, judges, officials, taxmen, everyone, would immediately realize here’s a man who knows when to make money, and when to buy favor. In an empire where there’s really no such thing as civil rights, favor make all the difference between life and death.

“The children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light of the same generation,” Jesus pointed out. Lk 16.8 Worldly people know how to work the system. Less-worldly people get so hung up on their principles, they sometimes lose sight of what’s really important. Like favor with others. If people like you, they’re less likely to line you up against the wall and shoot you when the revolution comes. If you have favor with pagans, it’s way easier to share Jesus with them.

Whereas if you’re a jerk about it, or prioritize your mammon over everything else… well, so much for God’s kingdom.

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04 October 2021

The Bigger Barns Story.

Luke 12.13-21.

People wanna be rich.

Which I get. I’ve never been rich. My parents are retired and comfortable, but that’s only because their investments paid off: They didn’t have that kind of money while I was growing up. So I experienced food stamps, school lunch subsidies, thrift stores, buses, and free-clinic healthcare. I’ve been poor as an adult too. Not homeless; I nearly got that far. But I definitely learned how to get by on $5 a month. If that.

Poverty sucks. And not just because, in a thousand little ways, American society is no help at getting people out of poverty. Really, you can only save money when you have money—when you can afford to buy in bulk, or get the higher-level plan which happens to offer deep discounts, or afford the $100 shoes which last two years instead of the $10 shoes which last a month. (Well, three months with duct tape.)

Our culture’s popular myth is “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” but y’notice most of the people who say that, don’t have boots and have no idea this is an ironic saying. Tell them your financial woes and they just shrug, “Work harder.” Or “Work smarter, not harder.” As if that bit of advice solves all our problems. When I was poor, my problem was if I worked smarter, I’d’ve figured out how to finish my work in half the time… so my boss would’ve cut my hours. Yep, that’s why most people and businesses don’t work smarter: No incentive!

Anyway, between being poor, and not being poor, I absolutely prefer not being poor. It’s nice to be able to look at one’s checking account and be pleasantly surprised. It’s nice to be able to give to charity out of one’s abundance.

But too many people don’t wanna merely be comfortable; they wanna be rich.

They wanna have so much money, they can afford anything their hearts covet. And they covet a lot of ridiculously expensive things. Stuff I look at and go, “Seriously?”—but yeah, they seriously want that. I don’t get it… but then again if they saw how many books are on my Kindle, they’d probably look at me funny too. To each their own, I suppose.

In some cases it’s not even about the stuff they covet. They just want the wealth. They want the power to do whatever they please. They’ll figure out later what it is they please; they’ll waste a lot of money trying to find it. But the point of all the wealth is they can afford to waste money.

And not work. Or at least not work hard. They wanna stumble into tons of money by doing something easy. The older folks I know keep trying to play the lottery, or hope to get lucky at the casino. The younger folks largely realize that’s foolish… so they’re trying really hard to become YouTube celebrities and Instagram influencers. Hey, some folks make millions of dollars doing that, and it doesn’t look all that hard to do. It certainly seems easier than serving unruly customers or cleaning bathrooms.

Again, I get it. Coveting wealth is a pretty common phenomenon. Especially in a culture which doesn’t believe status is a fixed thing—where you’re born into a caste, and can’t help but stay in it forever. We know too many examples of people who were born poor and became rich. (And vice versa.) The potential exists—even though it’s mighty hard to stumble into the thing which makes one rich.

But Jesus warns us against coveting wealth like that.

For many reasons… though you’ll quickly notice today’s parable actually doesn’t get into Jesus’s reasons. It’s really just his reminder that life is more important than wealth. Here y’go.

Luke 12.13-21 KWL
13 Someone in the crowd tells Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!”
14 Jesus tells him, “Mister, who appointed me to be judge or arbiter over you two?”
15 Jesus tells the crowd, “Watch and guard yourselves from every obsession with wealth:
One’s life doesn’t ‘begin’ once they have a superabundance.”
16 Jesus tells a parable to the crowd, saying,
“Some rich person’s land was very productive,
17 and he was musing to himself, saying, ‘What could I do?—
I don’t have anywhere to collect my produce.’
18 He says, ‘I’ll do this. I’ll tear down my silos, and build bigger.
I’ll gather all the grain there, and my goods.
19 I’ll tell my soul, “Soul, you have many goods stored up for many years.
Retire! Eat! Drink! Rejoice!” ’
20 God tells him, ‘Look dumbass, this night they’re demanding your soul from you!
What happens to what you prepare?’
21 This is the way of those who store up treasure for themselves,
and aren’t wealthy in God.”