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07 May 2019

Loopholes.

When we think we’ve found exceptions to Jesus’s expectations.

Popular culture, especially popular Christian culture, uses the word Pharisee as a synonym for legalist. That’s what we presume the Pharisees’ problem was: They overdid it on God’s commands. They had all these additional rules they insisted people follow, and it meant they not only missed the point of all the commands they meant to uphold, but all the grace.

Thing is, Jesus calls them hypocrites.

Legalists are many things. Like graceless, unloving, impatient, unkind, dispassionate towards people ’cause all their passion is for their doctrines. But hypocrite means someone who’s pretending to be what they’re not. And for the most part, legalists truly are legalistic. They’re not faking anything: They really do nitpick commands all the way down to the most unreasonable details. They really do judge people harshly on these details. And even though many can rightly be accused of holding people to standards they themselves don’t follow, many of ’em do follow their own standards: “I don’t have any trouble memorizing an entire bible chapter a day. So what’s your problem? Looks to me like rebelliousness.” I mean, yeah they’re quick to judge and kinda heartless, but often they do have integrity—which ain’t hypocrisy.

So why did Jesus call Pharisees hypocrites? Because some Pharisees were legalists. And the rest—the majority—were not. But they pretended to be. They actually were hypocrites.

We assume Pharisees were legalist because they had a ton of customs and rules they added to the bible. We still have most of them; they were collected into the Mishna, which is the core of the Talmud, one of the two main books of rabbinic Judaism. (The other’s the Tanakh, which we call the Old Testament.) But if you actually read the Mishna, you discover… a lot of these customs and rules are actually loopholes. No foolin’.

Take this ruling in the Mishna. The topic is ritual sacrifices. Some you ate; some you burned entirely. And sometimes the ancient Judeans wanted to know if they could just burn part of an animal, and have that count… and eat the rest. It’s like the half-caff version of a sin offering.

Temurah 1.3 KWL
Don’t substitute a leg for a fetus, nor fetuses for limbs.
Don’t substitute a leg nor fetus for a whole animal, nor whole animals for them.
Yet R. Yoseh says a leg can be substituted for a whole animal—but not whole animals for legs.
R. Yoseh says, “Isn’t it the rule for sacred animals
that when one says, ‘This leg is for burnt offering,’ the whole animal is a burnt offering?
Likewise if one says, ‘This leg instead of that leg,’ all of it is a substitution in its place.”

So, according to Yoseh, it totally counts. Why “waste” an entire sin offering on God anyway?

See, some Pharisees were looking for ways to follow the Law better, more devoutly, in order to grow closer to God. Like Nicodemus; like Paul, who overzealously went the wrong way till Jesus redirected him the right way. But the rest of the Pharisees were looking for ways to make the Law far less work on them. Less duty. Less charity. Less obedience… but they could point to the bare-minimum effort they exerted, and claim, “But I am obedient. I’m doing as the rabbis taught.”

Looked like religion; actually was irreligion. So Jesus called it hypocrisy, because that’s exactly what it is.

And of course we Christians do the very same thing. We likewise look for loopholes in the bible, in God’s laws, in Jesus’s instructions, in the apostles’ teachings. We’re pretty sure we found plenty: Huge swaths of the bible, we claim, don’t apply to us. The Old Testament doesn’t count ’cause we’re under the New Testament. Or we’re in a different dispensation; we’re under grace not Law. We have freedom in Christ and following any guidelines is legalism and slavery. Whatever excuse helps us get out of our obligation to be good and faithful servants of our Master, and be good as God defines goodness.

06 May 2019

A gospels synopsis.

You wanna compare the same story in different gospels? You need a synopsis. Here ya go.

Our word “synopsis” usually means a brief summary or overview, but when we get into biblical studies a synopsis is a comparison of two different parts of the bible which overlap. Like Psalms 14 and 53. Or David and the census in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. Or the story of Ahab and Micaiah in 1 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 18. Or Hezekiah and the sundial in 1 Kings 20 and Isaiah 38.

Or, naturally, to compare the gospels.

Christians have been comparing ’em ever since they were first written. Sometimes to see if we can fit them all together, like Tatian of Assyria did with his Diatessaron, or A.T. Robertson’s Harmony of the Gospels. Thing is, when you combine then into one narrative, you gotta remove parts of the other gospels—and change their order, their structure, and various things which their authors deliberately put in there. You also lose a bit of the three-dimensional picture of Jesus they provide.

It’s why I prefer a gospel synopsis: We compare the stories, but don’t remove anything. We look at what each of ’em have, and compare. We deal with the difficulties they might produce. But we get a better, fuller picture of Jesus. That’s the point.

Obviously in my posts on Christ Jesus, I’ve been comparing similar texts. It’s sort of my own gospel synopsis. You can follow it if you want, but today I’m actually providing someone else’s. Basically it’s the table of contents from bible scholar Kurt Aland’s Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum (called Synopsis of the Four Gospels in the English edition). His synopsis compares the texts line by line from his Greek New Testament, 26th edition (the current edition is the 28th), or from the RSV in the English edition. But if you prefer another translation, the links below will take you to Bible Gateway, where you can read ’em in any translation they have. Sound good?

03 May 2019

Churches, “the Church,” and God’s kingdom.

Sorting out what I (and we) mean by “church.”

Whenever people say church they either mean a building where religious activity happens, or the hierarchy which runs the religion.

Which is way different than what I mean by it. Or what Jesus and the bible mean by it. When Jesus says ἐκκλησία/ekklisía he means a flock of Christians; a group, assembly, crowd, congregation, collection, bunch, congress, whatever term you wanna use for many of us. People like to take apart that Greek word, and note its word-root is καλέω/kaléo, “to call”—and then analyze the significance of Jesus calling Christians to meet together. Yeah, whatever: By the time people used the word in Jesus’s day, it just meant a gathering. And that’s still what it means.

Still, even Christians tend to use it to mean a church building, or the church leadership. Which is why we tend to forget we are the church. Church isn’t a separate thing from us; it is us. It’s us collectively; it’s why I can’t say “I am the church,” because I all by myself am definitely not the church: Other Christians have to be in it. At least two or three. Mt 18.20 The more the better.

Typically “church” refers to a local group. But sometimes we use the word to refer to every Christian, everywhere: The universal church. The catholic church (as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, which is only one church within the universal church, although frequently they forget this). Every human who has a connection with Christ Jesus and is part of his body. It’s hardly limited to one sect or denomination; Orthodox Christians are not the only Christians on the planet. Neither are Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Calvinists, charismatics, Fundamentalists, Emergent Christians, nor Purpose-Driven™ Christians. (Though sometimes we certainly act like it.) We aren’t saved by our affiliations or theology; we’re saved by God through Christ Jesus, and we’re in his kingdom because God adopted us and recognizes a valid, living relationship with us.

Of course, since many Christians are under the delusion we determine who’s a “real Christian” and who isn’t, we tend to limit the universal church to our definitions. If we’re pretty sure real Christians only vote the way we do, every Christian in the opposition party isn’t a real Christian, so they don‘t count as part of Jesus’s universal church. If we’ve got certain doctrines we feel every real Christian holds to, we figure everyone who believes otherwise is heretic, and by definition heretics can’t be in the true church. And so forth. Various Christians like to refer to the visible church, the 2 billion people worldwide who publicly claim allegiance to Jesus, and the invisible church, the unknown number of people whom Jesus really recognizes as his. Depending on how optimistic or pessimistic they are, either the visible church is way bigger than the invisible, or vice-versa.

Meh. I’ve no idea how many people Jesus actually intends to let into his kingdom. I’m an optimist, so I figure God’s way more gracious than we are, and is gonna save way more people than we expect. Not everybody; not that he doesn’t want to; he warned us there are gonna be holdouts. But he doesn’t limit his kingdom like we do. So I expect there’s significant overlap between the visible and invisible churches; and when I say “kingdom” I typically mean his invisible church, which is represented by the 2 billion professing Christians.

01 May 2019

Discernment: Actual deductive reasoning.

God gives us wisdom. Use it to detect when people are leading us astray.

I’ve written briefly on the supernatural kind of discernment—one of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives us to minister to others, But today I get to the stuff we totally realize on our own. Good old-fashioned brain-powered discernment. The ability to judge stuff.

There are two kinds of discernment. There’s the supernatural stuff, one of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives us so we can minister to others, which enables us to realize stuff we’d never realize on our own. And there’s the natural stuff, the ability to figure stuff out on our own. Today I’m writing about the natural stuff.

Unfortunately there are Christians who don’t realize there are two kinds. Either they think it’s all supernatural, and that every person with a knack for deductive reasoning must be some sort of prophet (and no they’re not); or they think none of it’s supernatural, including cases where the available evidence can’t possibly have shown you to your conclusions.

I get why people might think all discernment is supernatural: It’s because they themselves don’t know how to discern stuff. They leap to conclusions. They confuse their unthinking, knee-jerk prejudices with insight: When they’re not comfortable with a new thing, they presume it’s evil. (Same as those old-timers in the 1950s and ’60s who presumed rock ’n roll was evil; same as those folks in the present day who presume Harry Potter is evil. “It’s about magic? Must be evil.”) They apply connect-the-dots reasoning to things, come to wacky conclusions, and because others can’t follow their illogic, imagine God gave ’em the ability to see stuff others can’t. Nope; ’twasn’t God; that’s all them. And that’s not discernment either.

Actual, regular, non-supernatural discernment means we gotta think. We gotta figure things out. We gotta look at people’s motives. We gotta look for the things the scriptures instruct us to: Fruit of the Spirit, or works of the flesh. Good or bad character. Motives. Self-sacrificing or self-serving deeds. There’s a difference, and we gotta detect these differences.

Discernment is a form of wisdom, and the Old Testament frequently uses wisdom as a synonym for practicing discernment. Dt 32.29, 1Ki 3.12, Pr 16.21, Is 44.18 Wisdom is knowing what we oughta do, and doing it. Likewise knowing what we ought not do, and not doing that. We gotta recognize the difference between good and evil before we do what’s good. Otherwise we’ll get tricked into evil: We’ll do what looks wise, but it’s self-deception, the product of shallow thinking, or frauds invented by evil people.

Give you an example. Lots of people assume “natural” is always good, and “artificial” is always bad. In food, in fabric, in cleaning products, in building materials, in personality traits—doesn’t matter; what comes “natural” is good. If nature made it, eat plenty. If humans made it in a lab, avoid.

And here’s where that rationale falls apart: Tobacco is natural, but it’s awful for you. Pasteurized milk, processed in a lab, is way safer to drink than untreated raw milk. There are plenty of cases where “natural” is dangerous, and “artificial” is best. But you try telling that to some stay-at-home mom who read four websites and is now convinced vaccines are deadly.

Yep, most people don’t bother with any kind of discernment. Christians included.

It’s why we Christians are suckers for every “natural” fad. Why we spread Christian-sounding sayings around, yet never double-check ’em against the scriptures. Why we embrace interesting pop-culture wisdom, but never ask “Is that from God?” Whatever makes us feel good, affirmed, righteous, excited, inspired, clever, positive—if we’re happy and we know it, we shout Amen.

As if the devil doesn’t know how to manufacture happiness.

No, it won’t be lasting happiness. The devil can’t actually do joy. But the fake joy only has to last long enough to lead us astray, exploit us, or use us to mislead others. When we’re fools enough, we’ll get ensnared in other schemes long before we realize errors of that first scheme. So this is precisely why we gotta learn discernment: We gotta extricate ourselves from our current mess, and learn to stay out of future messes.

30 April 2019

Formal prayer: How to get distant with God.

You think you’re being respectful. You’re really just keeping God at arm’s length.

Let’s get right to it: The purpose of formality is distance. It’s to measure off a “proper,” unapproachable space between you and the person you’re being solemn with. Because decorum considers closeness and informality to be inappropriate.

I know; a lot of people insist that’s not at all why they’re formal with God. They do it out of respect. Like the way you respect your boss, a judge, an important official, royalty, or even your parents: You show your respect by treating ’em formally.

Well that’s rubbish. And parents are a perfect example of why it’s rubbish. I respect my mom—and I don’t treat her formally at all. If I did, she’d think I was angry with her for some reason. Because again: Formality is about distance. People who treat their parents formally are not close with them. And parents who raise their kids to treat them formally, who demand decorum from them because they feel it means respect, always wind up with emotionally distant kids. Sometimes they wonder why they aren’t close, and can’t figure out why their relationship is so dysfunctional. Well duh.

So if you’re formal with God, but you can’t fathom why you’re not as close with God as other Christians: Well duh.

I respect God. Of course. But we’re not formal. We were never meant to be. God went out of his way to deliberately bridge every gap which might exist between himself and humanity. Sin?—defeated and forgiven. Death?—getting undone. Distance?—he’s everywhere! Karmic debt?—he doesn’t even do karma.

So why do Christians treat God formally? Either because, like kids whose parents foolishly raised them to be distant, it’s what we were taught. Our churches are led by dysfunctional Christians who are distant from God, and they’re getting us to repeat their behavior, and likewise be distant from God.

Or worse: They like being distant from God. A present God is uncomfortable. They feel unworthy, or convicted of sin, or judged. (Whether these feelings are legitimate is another discussion.) They prefer there be some space between them and the Almighty. Formality is the perfect way to maintain the illusion: He’s a holy, holy God, far removed from his sinful creatures… and so he leaves ’em alone.

So if you wanna be distant from God, formality’s the way to go. And I would hope you’re as repulsed by the very idea as I am.