A Different Angle (Luke 7:36-50)

Yesterday I posted a fairly egg-heady look at Luke 7:36-50. That is pretty easy for me to do – I’m basically an egg-heady kind of guy. But, today I want to look at the same passage through a different lens, a different angle. Today I want to look at the story through the eyes of the woman.

Have you ever wept uncontrollably? I don’t mean just the run of the mill sniffles that you get at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t even mean the tears that flow at a funeral for someone you really love. I mean the uncontrollable, rib-wracking, heart crushing weeping that makes breathing difficult if not impossible.

I think I have had that experience just once, and I’ll not bore you with the details here. Suffice it to say that once in a lifetime is enough. I cannot describe the pain, the uncertainty of if, not just when, it was going to stop.

The backstory of the woman in Luke 7 intrigues me. For what, exactly, was she grieving? What drove her to Jesus’s feet? How did she manage to get through the phalanx of (primarily male, I would assume) dinner guests to get so close to Jesus? Luke simply identifies her situation as being a “sinner,” but what did that entail? Was she a prostitute? If so, had she been forced into selling her body because of a financial ruin? Was she a widow with no other means of support? Was there some other sin that she was sold to that made her a pariah?

Interestingly enough, Luke – ever the historian and careful observer of human emotions, fails to tell us anything more. Simply that the woman came to Jesus with what we would assume to be a very expensive flask of ointment (Luke does not comment that detail, either.) So, her visit to Jesus was not “spur of the moment.” It was planned. And, at the moment she arrives and is able to gain admittance to Jesus, she begins to weep, and by Luke’s description, I would add the word “uncontrollably.”

It is one thing to weep to the point tears run down our face. It is something else entirely when tears are so profuse that they could actually wet the feet of someone reclining in front of us. This is no ordinary grief. This is profound, all-encompassing grief. To use a word common in our culture today, this was epic grieving.

Once again I ask – for what? What was it in her life that drove her to such sorrow? For how many mistakes and how many failures and how many sins was she repenting? How many years of wasted life was she recounting? What losses were in her life’s ledger?

We can look at this story through many lenses, from many angles. The gospel in this story is that Jesus does not focus on her past, does not force her to recount her failures. He recognizes her love and forgives her sins. How many times do we stare at the sin, and refuse the love?

We can learn many things from this anonymous woman. We can see the change of heart her plan to go to Jesus indicated. We can see the cost of true repentance in the selfless manner in which she used her “alabaster flask of ointment” to rub on Jesus’s feet. We can see the emotional cost of serving Jesus in the description of her tears wetting the feet of Jesus. And, lest we overlook the words of Jesus, we can see her unbridled love for Jesus that all of these actions indicate.

This story grips me, intrigues me, challenges me. How often I want to think that Christianity is simply and solely a rational venture. How often I fall back on my reason and my intellect to convince me that I am right. This story in Luke 7 is not about reason or rationality or intellect. It is all about love, and sorrow, and repentance, and selfless worship. It is a picture of the Christian walk that confounds me in many ways, because all too often I brace myself against this kind of emotion.

Egg-heady guys like me need to read this story, hear this story, meditate on this story, immerse ourselves in this story. Otherwise, I fear we will end up far more like Simon the Pharisee than we want to be.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

A Rather Depressing Reality

I had a rather depressing realization this past week as I was contemplating the message of Luke 7:36-50. It might take a little to unpack, but I’ll try to be brief.

For quite some time now I have been arguing – at least with myself – that the only way that our culture can be redeemed is if there is what will amount to a “third great awakening,” led by the Holy Spirit and resulting in a reversal of so many recent immoral developments in this culture. I am in the fold of Barton W. Stone who, in disagreement with Alexander Campbell,  believed we as human beings could never do anything to usher in the working of the Holy Spirit. So, it was not that I was advocating that we need to elect this person or pass that law (in fact, quite the opposite – I deplore the idea that we can pull ourselves up out of this moral morass by our own bootstraps). If you ever want to seem me grit my teeth, just suggest that one political party or one law (or even one hundred laws) will ever do anything to change the moral compass of our nation. What I have been advocating, very much in line with Stone, is that we must be receptive to the power of the Spirit, and pray for the supernatural working of the Spirit to regenerate and to recalibrate our national moral direction.

But, as I said again, in reading Luke 7:36-50 I was struck by a sobering thought – not to limit the power of God to do anything beyond what we can even imagine – but there is the issue of whether the country is even capable of embracing a “third great awakening.” Both the first “Great Awakening” (early 1700’s) and the second “Great Awakening” (late 1700’s into the early 1800’s) had a common denominator – the awareness of the masses that they were sinful people and needed be saved. Granted, there were significant differences between the two – in the first awakening the focal point was the preaching of the great Calvinist preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield. Salvation would be by the awesome hand of God, and there could be no reversal of that decree. But – the entire point of Edwards’ and Whitfield’s preaching was to draw men to God. One of the great ironies of Calvinist preaching is that there is nothing a man can do to save himself, and yet most of the greatest revivalist preachers have all been Calvinist in theology (think Billy Graham). In the second awakening, there was much less emphasis on God’s holy decree to salvation or damnation, but the emphasis on the Holy Spirit was profound. Stone himself was witness to the great revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, where hundreds, if not thousands, were so overcome by the Holy Spirit that there were widespread instances of shaking, barking, and other “Holy Spirit” manifestations. While it might not have been as overtly Calvinist as the first awakening, the second awakening was shot full of the power of God and the utter sinfulness of mankind.

So, what is it in my estimation that makes it impossible (or virtually impossible) for yet a “third Great Awakening”? Just that acceptance of the sinfulness of mankind.

You see, even as church attendance craters, and as more and more people (at least in the western world) describe themselves as “nones” (in relation to their chosen form of religious affiliation), it is fairly obvious that there is a great degree of spirituality, at least in the United States. We are a deeply religious people, just not a very Christian people. Just check out the books on spirituality and even alternate forms of religion (omitting Christianity, Judaism and Islam). So basically what that means is we want to believe in something beyond ourselves, but we really, really do not want to believe there is anything wrong with ourselves.

While there are vast differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one similarity (however slight) is that humanity is basically sinful. In each of these world-wide faiths the only solution to that human sin problem is the power of God. The huge, undeniable, and overwhelming difference is that in Christianity the solution is the very human and the very divine God-man, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Both Judaism and Islam fail to provide either an adequate explanation or a solution to the problem of sin. However, it must be admitted that all three world religions admit, and even highlight, the utter sinfulness of mankind.

Postmodernism has eliminated the concept of sin from the modern consciousness. God has been functionally eliminated from the picture not because of the success of atheism, but simply because of the removal of the idea of sin. If there is no sin, then there really is no need for a god, except in the sense that maybe a god might be useful in the idea of an “otherness” that lifts our eyes out of the muck and mire of our daily existence. God becomes not a fellow struggler or a savior/redeemer, he is just a meme to instill optimism and good feelings. In a sense, postmodernism has done what thoroughly “modern” atheism could not – it has removed God on a foundational level, not by attacking God as much as just eliminating the idea of sin.

So, getting back to my realization. What is the entire point of Jesus’s conversation with Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7? In this pericope, a woman has (somehow?) evaded the phalanx of socially elite meal guests and has started to weep over Jesus and to anoint his feet with expensive ointment. This action caused no small matter of consternation among the guests, even to the point that Jesus was rebuked, silently if not overtly, for not stopping the display and chastising the woman. In response, Jesus asks a poignant question – if there are two debtors who both receive complete forgiveness, one who owes a small amount and one who owes a great amount, which will be the most thankful? Duh. Obviously the one who had the greater forgiveness.

Jesus’s point is crystal clear. The Pharisee, and presumably the rest of his dinner guests, did not consider themselves to be sinners. If not sinners, then not in need of forgiveness. The woman DID consider herself to be a sinner, and so was searching for and receptive to that which could forgive her. She found her forgiveness in Jesus. The Pharisee and guests lost out, not because of their sinlessness, but because of their refusal to accept their sinfulness.

Now, I am not even going to suggest God cannot do something – Paul says that he can do far and above anything that we can even ask or imagine. But in my understanding, one thing God refuses to do is to force his creation to accept something it is unwilling to accept. This is why I think a “Third Great Awakening” is unlikely, if not outright impossible, at this particular period of history. We as Americans in the 21st century simply do not have the requisite understanding of sin to be able to recognize, nor to accept, the power of the Holy Spirit. The one ingredient that allowed the first and second great awakenings to reform the culture of those two time periods is utterly missing today.

Nobody sins today, and no-one is guilty of sin. We are all victims – if not overtly then simply by association. If I violate a rule, then the rule is racist, sexist, or some other “ist,” or I simply cannot be held accountable because of my upbringing or some accident of sociality that exempts me from any repercussions. The absolute worst sin anyone can commit today is to suggest that someone can be guilty of a sin.

But if there is no sin, there is no need for a savior. If there is no sickness, there is no need for any medicine. If there are no moral absolutes, there is no need for absolution.

I am just too much of a Barton W. “Stoner” to think that we as mere mortals can effect the kind of change that so many people are calling for. I am an apocalypticist by conversion, and am convinced that it will only be by the power of God through the acting of the Holy Spirit that anything resembling  a cultural change will occur. However, that being said, perhaps the one thing that God is waiting for before he sends his Spirit once again to draw men back to himself is this –

God is waiting for us to confess our sin and to express our desire for his Spirit to heal us.

Stated another way – until we really admit we are sick, God is not going to send the medicine.

Well, so much for being brief. If you read the whole article, thank you very much!

Two Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me (Or, That I Wish I Had Listened to When They Did)

I has occurred to me in the past few days that there are two things that are immutable – things that you cannot change. (1) is the past. (No need to thank me, brilliance is part of my job). (2) is a person who does not want to change.

I am slowly becoming aware of the reality that a person’s past is far more predictive of their present, and even future, than what I have been willing to admit. If we are all bent and broken people, it is because at some point in our past we have been bent or broken. It seems to me that we basically have two options open to us regarding those injuries. We can accept that bent and brokenness, we can “own” it, and then move forward to attempt to mend and heal those wounds; or we can deny it, repress it, or, barring any ability to shove it out of our psyche, we can blame others for it and attempt to live our lives free of any responsibility.

The past is done, over with. It is gone. It will never come back. Injuries are injuries, wounds are wounds, whether self-inflicted or others-inflicted. To deny them is really a symptom of insanity. But, on the other hand, to accept them, to “own” them, means that we have to consciously deal with pain – sometimes a great deal of pain. Sometimes it is just easier to “forget” or to repress those injuries. The problem is, our minds don’t ever really “forget.” And so a young wife explodes at her bewildered husband and begins divorce proceedings, not because of something that he is guilty of, but because some of his actions remind her of the manner in which her father treated her mother, and the pain is just too much to handle. Or, a young husband initiates a sexual affair with a co-worker, not because his wife is unaffectionate, but because he is desperately seeking the approval that he never received from his parents. Our past injuries really can and do cripple our present lives.

Unfortunately, in seeking to repress or deny those injuries all we do is to inflict further injury on others.

In regard to immutable truth #1 above, what I have learned is that to admit our past injuries, to recognize them for what they are, is neither to condemn the innocent nor to acquit the guilty. It is simply to say, “I am hurt. I am broken.” It is at that point that we can move on. I do not suggest this is easy, and certainly in many situations it will not be painless. But, I do suggest it is the most mature, and healthy, way to address our bent and brokenness.

In regard to immutable truth #2 above I am more at a loss, but never-the-less I think there are two healthy paths forward. The first is obviously the path of restoration, of redemption and renewal. This, just as obviously, involves the possibility that both parties are willing to come together and to work out all differences, either real or imagined. This, clearly, is the best option. But, sadly, in our fallen world it is not always possible.

In dealing with a person who has, by all indications, become unwilling or unable to change, I believe there are, once again, two paths open to us. The first is for us to apologize, sincerely and honestly, for any pain or injury that we may have caused. The apology may or may not be accepted. Most likely, it will not be, as it requires the other person to own and to work through their own pain. It will be easier for them to hold onto their grievance as a buffer to protect them from addressing their culpability, and perhaps even greater injustices in the past.

Second, and at great cost to ourselves, we will have to lay down the burden of carrying our grudges. I have written elsewhere about situations in which it is impossible to practice the true biblical forgiveness. (Seem my three part series beginning here –The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (1) [Uncertain Inferences Series]  To summarize in a sentence, if there is no repentance, if there is no request for forgiveness, there can be no genuine forgiveness, no restoration of a broken relationship. However, that does not excuse us from the possibility, and even at times the necessity, of laying down the crushing burden of resentment and anger. That is what Jesus called turning the other cheek, walking the second mile. It is what the apostle Paul called the willingness to be wronged, and not seek retaliation. And, it is brutally painful.

I am, by virtue of my humanity, a bent and broken person. I have likewise hurt others, many of whom I love and cherish very deeply. I have, in times past, been able to restore some of those broken relationships. With others, I have not been so fortunate. Many will never know how much I grieve those injuries and losses.

I would like to end this rather personal reflection with the words of one of my favorite poems. It is both beautiful and raw. It speaks to the very core of the questions I ask myself. It is, in a way, a beautiful prayer. I share it with you:

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I step out of my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly, and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Who Am I, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English), vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 459-460.

Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8)

Last night in our Bible study we had a wonderful discussion of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). To begin, there is the necessary discussion of whether the story actually belongs in the gospel of John. To be scientifically precise, I am not convinced it does. The oldest manuscript that contains the account dates to the fifth century (i.e. 400 years after Jesus lived), and subsequent manuscripts date much, much later. The story interrupts the flow from 7:52 to 8:12, but that in-and-of-itself does not mean much – the gospel writers are more than willing to demonstrate that there really was not a “normal” day of teaching for Jesus. But all of the technical “stuff” aside, the story of the woman caught in adultery has a power that makes it virtually impossible for modern translations to ignore – despite the evidence to the contrary. I know of no modern translation that removes the pericope from the text and either puts it in a footnote or eliminates it altogether. Sometimes tradition is just too powerful for even the hardiest of “change agents.”

In my mind the story generates more questions than it answers: if the woman was “caught” in adultery (as the text states), where is the guilty man? As our teacher pointed out, last time he checked, adultery required two participants. And, everyone’s favorite question, what did Jesus write in the dirt? There are as many answers to that question as there are people who make guesses, but my favorite response is connected to that very first question. Obviously no one knows what Jesus wrote, but my guess is that he pointed out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees with a simple question, “Where is the man?” I also personally wonder how it came to  be the the woman was “caught” in the act. Was she set up? Was she followed? Was she known to be an adulteress, and so catching her was not that difficult?

Our teacher asked another question last night that I had never stopped to consider: why did the scribes and Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus in the first place? He had no legal authority, and his opinion would have been utterly meaningless to any tribunal that might have been convened to hear the woman’s case. In that respect, the question before Jesus was a blatant attempt to discredit him, and even worse, to provide a pretext to get him in trouble with the Sanhedrin. Questions, questions, questions.

I have two observations regarding the text, at least in connection to our study last night. The first is kind of technical. In our English translations (especially the ESV), Jesus’s response to the Pharisees appears to be one of qualified, and in the mind of most readers, unattainable, permission to stone the woman. Reading the text in the Greek I was struck by a different tone – Jesus is commanding the stoning to begin (the Greek verb is in the imperative mood), but the sentence must begin with the person(s) who were without sin from among the accusers. Those two emphases are often overlooked. One, Jesus agrees with the interpretation from the Law of Moses – such adulterers must be executed. There appears to be no question of guilt here. But – and this is a huge but – the sentence must be carried out by those who have no complicity in the situation. Here is a point that I think most interpreters either overlook, or willfully ignore. The entire scenario just reeks of injustice. The equally guilty male is nowhere to be seen. This is no trial, it equates to a lynching. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is not just apparent, it is blatant.

I disagree with the interpretation that Jesus is requiring that in order for the sentence to be executed those who accused the woman must be sinless in every respect. That would be an impossible requirement. It is a common view, I grant, but one that is totally outside of any biblical justification. Those who were commanded to execute guilty criminals under the Law of Moses were not required to be perfectly sinless in every respect. However, they could not be complicit in the crime, and could certainly not be guilty of false accusations and of conducting a sham trial. In my understanding, Jesus is looking the scribes and Pharisees squarely in the eye and saying, “I see what is going on here, and you all are just as guilty as this woman – if not more so. So, go ahead, stone her – but let the innocent cast the first stone, if there is anyone here who is innocent in this matter.”

Second, what I see about this story is the incredible power of Jesus to completely change the dynamics of a situation, and to free a tortured person from their prison. As I mentioned above, there appears to be no question of guilt here. The woman was caught, apparently in the act of sexual adultery. Her sin was obvious. According to the strict interpretation of the law, she had no defense and her life was forfeit. Yet, in spite of that, Jesus completely re-wrote the script and condemned her accusers and set her free. He forgave her, with the emphatic caveat that she not continue in her life of sexual impurity. This is why, I think, that despite the textual evidence to the contrary, this story remains in our English translations. As one of my professors summarized, it may not be genuine John, but the story is clearly genuine Jesus.

This story convicts us on many different levels. How many times do we fall in with the Pharisees? We know the rules. We love the rules. We hate those who violate the rules, and we especially hate those who excuse those who violate the rules. We demand justice be done to those who violate the rules. We are good, Bible believing, rule following Christians. And then we read this story and all of our legalisms are blown up. Jesus sides with the accused, and we end up dropping our rocks and walking away chastised and embarrassed.

On the other hand, I think we all hope, to some degree or another, that Jesus will treat us like he treated the woman. We know we are guilty, we know we have no defense. We have been caught “red handed.” All we can do is hope that this teacher blesses us with those words, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”

What a story! And what better way to illustrate that we all ascend higher if we climb lower.

The New Normal

We human beings function the best when we have at least a relatively certain belief that we can understand our past and anticipate our future. That belief is called “normal,” and without it our lives would be chaotic. No sentient being can exist in chaos for long – that is why soldiers and other individuals who face catastrophe and disorder for long periods of time are permanently scarred. Our psyches were just not made to endure severe turmoil or even mild disorder for long periods of time.

When something radical happens in our life we typically adjust – the “old” normal is replaced by the “new” normal. Most of this happens without much thought, and typically it is either benign or even positive. I don’t think anyone really wants to give up their cell phone or tablet.

Sometimes, however, the new “normal” is anything but healthy or even benign. New normals can be insidious, malignant, destructive. I believe that as a society we have reached a new “normal” in societal relationships, and it is anything other than healthy.

  • Item: a police officer mistakenly shoots a young man. Within days – seemingly within hours, people declare her to be guilty of MURDER and demand that she face the most violent of repercussions possible.
  • Item: an appellate judge is nominated for the Supreme Court, and AFTER THE LEGAL INQUIRY INTO HIS PAST IS CONCLUDED a letter is produced in which a woman accused him of sexual assault OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. Immediately he is condemned in the court of popular opinion, and many demand his professional career be terminated.
  • Item: a professional tennis player is admonished by an official for actions that are contrary to the rules of her sport, and over the course of the next few hours she repeated berates the official, throws a temper tantrum in which she destroys her racket, and then screams obscenities at the official. She is steadfastly defended by many for the apparent reason that she is (a) a female and should not have to abide by the rulings of the court official and also because she is (b) a minority and therefore has had to overcome more difficulties in life than a racial majority would have had to overcome. Never mind that her opponent (who was defeating her at the time) was also a racial minority, and a female who WAS abiding by the rulings of the same court official.

These are all examples of the “new normal” by which we get to condemn (and metaphorically execute) individuals on the basis of some bizarre Facebook or Twitter revelation, or that a lifetime of hard work and dedication can be destroyed by an unsubstantiated and unverifiable claim of wrongdoing that took place over three decades in the past, or that deviant, miscreant behavior can be tolerated and even celebrated so long as the perpetrator can claim some minority status or some real or perceived handicap.

I have a name for the new normal. It’s called anarchy, chaos, mob rule. If there is no straight line by which we can measure truth and falsehood, proper and improper behavior, then everyone will eventually become a savage. Societies, no more than individuals persons, can long exist in the face of a moral vacuum. We are living today in the reality of that moral vacuum.

Ours is not the first culture to experience this vacuum. Moral degeneracy has been a common feature of the human race. It’s just that for the past couple of hundred years the deviancy away from a universal moral plumb-line has been easy to detect – the American slavery experience, the Nazi regime, the Rwanda genocide. Today the plumb-line has been so bent and twisted that we (as a culture) no longer can recognize truth, integrity, honesty – or even beauty for that matter.

It is precisely at this moment that the truth of the gospel needs to shine the most brilliantly. Christians MUST accept that if we are to bear the cross and wear the name of disciple of Christ we are going to be labeled as counter-cultural, bizarre, weird. If the basic understanding of morality and truth is a lie, then those who hold up the truth of the gospel will be considered deviant. This is why Jesus – the very prince of peace – was executed for being a treasonous malefactor. There is no escaping this reality. We as disciples of Christ can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that the world will love us just because we use the adjective “Christian” in our name. If Jesus the messiah was killed because his world hated him, how can we even attempt to justify having our world love us?

If  the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)

I have grown weary, and have now even openly rejected, what I consider to be “weather vane” Christianity. These so-called “Christians” and the churches they populate function like a wind-sock at an airport. They point to the direction where society is headed, and then work furiously to make sure they are out in front so that they can appear to be “leaders” in the movement. They are loved by the culture they identify with, and they receive the commendation of those who have created that culture. As Jesus said, they have received their reward.

The new normal is not going to end up looking like anything most of us are familiar with. I’m not even sure what the eventual “normal” will look like. But I can see that as our culture continues to eviscerate itself, there will not be much left in it that will even be worth keeping. If there is no universal truth, if there is no common decency, if there is no consideration of authority, if there is no fundamental acceptance of a person’s dignity, if mere innuendo and accusation can take the place of verifiable facts – then where will we as a culture end up?

There is a place where the light of God’s kingdom can shine. There is a place where decency and honor can be practiced – and where forgiveness and grace abound. There is a place where sin is frankly and openly dealt with and repentance, confession, and restoration is the standard. It can be found in the church – the assembly, the gathering – of God’s redeemed people. It will increasingly be viewed with distrust and suspicion – and even hatred – and for that very reason its members must never, never, never surrender to the scandalous attacks of its opponents.

Our savior ascended by descending to the death on a cross. May we, like him, climb higher by descending lower.

Dancing With Goat Heads

Embed from Getty Images

I think, somewhere back there, I have shared just how much I despise the American justice system. This catches some people by surprise – they equate the American justice system with everything that is good and holy in the world – right up there with apply pie, mom, and baseball. For those who know me the best, it should not come as a surprise that I have a somewhat different take.

The American justice system is the goat head in the garden of life. It does what it was designed to do (cause incredible pain), it multiplies its pain prodigiously, and it puts out a cute little flower to hide its insidious little weapons.

Let me cut directly to my conclusion here: nothing short of the biblical concept of justice will ever count as “justice,” and the American system is designed to make that justice an impossibility.

Basic civics lesson here. The American justice system is built on the principle of adversarialism (I think I made up a word here). The point is we have a prosecution team (the State) and a defense team. The prosecution is intent on achieving a conviction, the defense is intent on avoiding that conviction. As we have seen in far, far too many cases throughout our entire history, the prosecution can and does act dishonestly, and the defense can and does act dishonestly. Innocent individuals are convicted, and guilty individuals are acquitted, and as far as the judicial system is concerned, nobody cares. If a jury reaches a decision, the “system” worked. There are certainly those outside of the court system who care deeply if a wrong verdict has been declared, but the number of innocent people in jails and prisons and the number of guilty perpetrators walking our streets is stark evidence of their relative inability to effect any significant changes.

The problem IS the system. And as long as the system keeps grinding out verdicts, nothing is going to change, and there will be precious little “justice” in our country.

Now, how would a biblical system of justice look different from our current system? For one thing, instead of focusing on “winning” or “losing” a case as the adversarial system demands, both the prosecution and the defense would be focused on arriving at the pure truth of the case. The idea that our adversarial system is designed to get at the truth is the greatest, and most damaging, lie of our justice system. Currently our prosecution teams do all they can to avoid certain truths from becoming evidence – and the defense teams are just as vigilant to avoid letting other truths from being known. Judges, the so-called arbiters of truth, routinely prohibit certain truths from being heard by the jury. If you ever participated on a jury and thought you were getting all the facts – whoo boy, were you ever lied to.

A system based on identifying the truth of a case has profound implications both for the innocent and the guilty. The innocent would have no fear of the judicial system (honestly – how many minorities think our current system is fair?). On the other hand, the guilty could be treated in a much different fashion. Have you ever stopped to notice how in the God’s perfect plan there are no prisons, no jails, for those guilty of crimes? Thieves were to repay what they stole, plus some “interest.” Those guilty of taking a life, albeit with no intention, were allowed to live in a modified “house arrest” (were able to live in a city of refuge). Those guilty of intentionally dishonoring human life (murderers, rapists, kidnappers) were simply executed.

Today our prison mentality has turned the judicial system into a growth industry. There really is no “justice” when a person is sent to prison. There is no restitution, there is no personal interaction between criminal and innocent victim. It is all sterile, and for all intents and purposes, invisible.

To me, no greater example of how this could change the life of an accused and the lives of the victims is the current case of the Dallas police officer facing charges in the death of a young man. In our current adversarial system, we (the public) will – without question – never be told the truth of what happened. The prosecution will tell “their” truth, and the defense will tell “their” truth – but the goal of each will be to “win” the trial. Regardless of the outcome, I will have very little confidence that justice will be served.

In an open-ended search for truth and genuine biblical justice, both sides would sit facing each other, and the accused would be allowed to explain and defend him/herself. Critically, they would be allowed, and even encouraged, to confess their guilt. The victims (or their survivors in at the case of a death) could challenge the presentation of the accused’s story, and ask questions. They would be permitted, and even encouraged, to extend forgiveness and work with the guilty to arrive at an equitable restitution/punishment. The judge would preside to make sure everything was conducted in a civil manner as befits a civilized culture. And, mark this: there would be swift and severe repercussions for perjury! (Deuteronomy 19:16-21) Prosecutors would be severely punished for manufacturing incriminating evidence or concealing exculpatory evidence, defenders would be severely punished for manufacturing mitigating evidence or concealing evidence of wrongdoing. In sum: the purpose of the preceding would be to determine the truth of the situation, and if guilt is present, to determine the appropriate restitution and, if needed, punishment. The most important goal would be to maintain the cohesiveness of the community.

Without the quest for truth, any exercise in a judicial preceding is simply an exercise in futility. We as a people could do so much better – if we had the will to do so. I’m afraid that is the problem. We are all so wrapped up in vengeance and revenge and retribution that we cannot see that we are dancing barefoot in a field of goat heads.

One Second

It is terrifying how quickly our lives can change. No matter how much we plan, no matter how we protect ourselves, no matter how many layers of padding or insulation we wrap around ourselves, our entire life can be irreversibly changed in the time it takes to blink an eye.

In what can only be described as a horrific and unimaginable tragedy, a police officer shot a man in his own apartment. There is no “sense” to be made here – reason simply fails us. There are times in this world where all we can do is hang our heads and cry, “Oh God!” That is why we call them tragedies. Tragedies are unexplainable. They break our hearts and they devastate our lives, but trying to make “sense” out of them is hopeless.

And in that exact moment when disciples of Christ should be the most circumspect, the most hesitant to jump to conclusions, the most reticent to assign guilt or blame, we have “Christians” screaming for the blood of the officer. The hatred that has been expressed by those standing in or in front of churches is, quite frankly, repugnant. It seems, according to these “Christians,” that even the very lowest bar of justice – that of “innocent until proven guilty” is WAY too high for them to consider. The words of our Savior in the sermon on the mount about praying for one’s enemies, about walking the second mile, about loving as God loves – forget that. “I know I say I am a Christian, but that does not matter in this case. I can hate cops – its my right.”

I think I know why this case troubles me so deeply. A number of years ago I was involved in a car accident. I say, “involved,” but I should really say I caused it. I carelessly did not see a warning sign. No one was hurt, although to this day I don’t know why. One second earlier or later and there would have been serious injuries if not death. I was careless. I was negligent. I could have been criminally charged were it not for that blessed second of time.

I do not know what went through that officer’s mind as she entered that apartment, why she did not step back, why she drew her weapon, why she decided she had to shoot. None of us do – except that officer. Which makes it particularly important that we not assign motives to her actions without knowing more of the story.

It may very well turn out that she knew exactly what she was doing. She may have staged the whole event. She may indeed be guilty of a crime far worse than negligence. I am not omniscient, I do not know. None of us do. Right now I know she took the life of an innocent young man, my brother in  Christ. He was washed in the same blood that washed me, and it is that reality that pushes me to my knees when I think of the many times in my life when I have done things that have hurt other people – sometimes physically but much more often emotionally – and through that blood I am promised that I stand forgiven. Honestly, I don’t understand why.

One second. When I remember that accident I break out in a cold sweat. I think of the way I could have been treated. I think of the way I was treated. I had no excuses, I had no defense.

I just wonder – how many of the people who are screaming for the blood of this officer have been one second away from a similar tragedy – senseless, inexplicable, indefensible.

Almost 2,000 years ago a man stood in a Roman courtyard and received the whipping that I deserve. He died the death that was reserved for me. “By his wounds we are healed.”

I am terrified by the thought that only one blessed second separates me from the position this officer finds herself. If her story is true – if there is even the smallest possibility that she has faithfully and honestly reported her impressions and her actions to those investigating this case – at the very least she is guilty of negligence. In such a case there is no doubt in my mind but what she wants that one second back – would give anything to have that one second back. It won’t happen.

As I sit here hundreds of miles away from Dallas, I wonder: of all the thousands of “Christians” who are demanding that this officer be punished to the very extent (or even beyond) of what the law allows –

Is there one Christian, one disciple of Christ, who is willing to reach out to her?

One second. Dear God, I am so guilty.

Those Mysterious “Rolling” Sins [Uncertain Inferences Series]

When we examine inferences made from Scripture, whether ours or those of others, we can note that some are sound and legitimate, some are kind of squishy, although not necessarily wrong or dangerous, and some are just flat out wrong. When we make inaccurate inferences it is either due to simple ignorance (we are not aware of other passages that bear on the subject we are discussing, or we misinterpret the verses we use to defend our inference) or due to a blatant disregard for opposing Scriptures in an effort to make our inference unassailable, or “necessary.” The results can be anything from amusing to dangerous. Regardless, an incorrect inference is incorrect, and I do not believe anyone wants to promote falsehood.

One common inference is based on Hebrews 10:4, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” From this verse, taken by itself and entirely out of context, it would appear that no one was ever forgiven of their sins by the sacrifice of any animal. Now, this misunderstanding could be rectified if 10:4 was read in the context of 9:13-14, and 9:22. But the idea that the sins of the Israelites were not forgiven until the death of Christ became an entrenched teaching – and to explain it the idea of the sins of the Israelites being “rolled forward” was promoted. [cue the theme to “Rawhide” here, “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’, keep those doggies rollin’, rawhide!] First let’s examine the teaching of the forgiveness of the sins of the Israelites under the Mosaic covenant:

The priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin, and he shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf, and you shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the sin that you have committed, and you shall be forgiven.

You shall confess the sin that you have committed . . . and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for your sin.

Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the sin that you have committed, and you shall be forgiven.

Thus the priest shall make atonement . . . and you shall be forgiven.

The priest shall make atonement on your behalf with the ram of the guilt offering, and you shall be forgiven.

You shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it . . . The priest shall make atonement on your behalf before the LORD, and you shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and incur guilt thereby.

(Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:5-6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:5-7, NRSV; See also the chapter on the Day of Atonement, chapter 16)

Color me silly here, but I just do not understand how anyone can read these passages and come up with the conclusion that the sins of the Israelites were not forgiven at the time that they went to the priest, confessed their sins, and provided the appropriate sin offering. These passages are in perfect agreement with Hebrews 9:13-14.

Now, let’s examine the passages that teach that the sins of the Israelites were “rolled forward.”

[ . . . ]

That was fun, wasn’t it?

You see, someone, or a bunch of someones, wanted to emphasize the importance of the sacrifice Christ made on the cross. Who would want to minimize it? So, taking Hebrews 10:4 as their proof-text, they had to “explain” how the sins of the Israelites could be forgiven by Jesus. This person, or persons, came up with the idea that these sins were “rolled forward” to the day of the crucifixion. There is no passage that teaches such an idea, and even Hebrews 10:4 does not teach such an idea. Never-the-less, the belief has become as undeniable for some people as the nose on their face.

I do not believe there is any profound ethic or behavior that would result from a misunderstanding of Hebrews 10:4. But the inference that the Israelites were NOT forgiven, when God repeatedly and emphatically told them that they WOULD BE forgiven, is to twist, and even deny, Scripture. If you were able to ask a faithful Israelite who was leaving their sacrifice if they had been forgiven of their sins, they would have looked at you as if you were crazy. Of course they had been forgiven. They had been promised the forgiveness of their sin, they believed in the promise of God, they had obediently followed the command of God – why would they think they had been denied that which was promised?

Let’s be blunt here. The idea that what was effective for the Israelites is somehow effective for us is just plain falsehood. The author of the book of Hebrews makes that point in a number of ways. Christ’s sacrifice is superior to the Mosaic sacrifices as the sun is superior to my little flashlight. The Mosaic code provided for the temporary, (the Hebrew writer called it “fleshly” forgiveness), while Jesus provided for “once-for-all” (forgiveness of the conscience) forgiveness. The two are profoundly different in the mind of the author of the letter to the Hebrews, and we should not try to put them back together.

The idea that the sins of the Israelites were “rolled forward” is certainly a possible deduction from Hebrews 10:4; it has been taught and defended with the greatest of fervor. But, is it a correct inference or deduction? I do not believe it is, and I am convinced that the book of Leviticus and even Hebrews 9:13, 14, and 22 all teach quite clearly that while the forgiveness under the Mosaic system was temporary, and therefore imperfect, it was none-the-less effective for that covenant.

I am profoundly thankful that we have the covenant established by Christ and sealed with his sacrifice on the cross to trust for our salvation. As the writer to the Hebrew Christians encouraged, let us not trivialize nor forsake that great sacrifice!

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (3) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Stated plainly, I do not believe that God teaches we are to forgive people unconditionally. I do not believe God does so, and I do not believe we can justify doing so from the Bible. I wrote in my last post that I believe there is a very selfish reason why we hold so firmly to the idea of “unconditional forgiveness.” We just do not want to be confronted by our own failure, and so in order to excuse our own weakness we simply choose to “forgive” everyone else and defend our actions with a very pious sounding argument.

There is yet another reason why we are so firmly attached to the idea of unconditional forgiveness. We simply do not understand the depth of the consequences of human sin. If we really took the time to reflect on our sinfulness and rebellion, I just do not think that we would be so cavalier in our dismissal of the biblical teachings regarding forgiveness.

Ponder for a moment the God’s reaction to sin in the book of Genesis. Consider Isaiah 64:6, and if need be, research the meaning of “filthy rags” or “polluted garment.” Ask yourself what Paul was trying to communicate in Romans 1. Think about why he warned the Thessalonian Christians about the coming “day of wrath.”

Read Jeremiah 6:14-15, 8:10-12, and Ezekiel 13:1-16. Could it be that when we blithely and sanctimoniously “forgive” we are actually repeating the actions of those whom the prophets so soundly condemn? Are we not coming dangerously close to fulfilling the words of Isaiah 5:20-24?

Why did Jesus have to die if God can, and indeed does, forgive unconditionally? It seems to me that the most obscene injustice this world has ever seen would have been the cross on Golgotha if God simply looks down on our little peccadilloes and wipes the slate clean with a brush of his divine eraser.

Others have written far more eloquently describing this false forgiveness. I offer just one example:

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. . . The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, a denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God. . . Cheap grace means justification of the sin, but not of the sinner. . . Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 43-44.)

I mentioned in my first article that those who believe this myth have not committed some serious theological crime. In one sense maybe that might be true, but in another sense maybe I myself was being too glib, too forgiving. The myth of unconditional forgiveness is itself rather innocuous, but it leads to a denial of the gospel. If we are forgiven unconditionally, then Jesus’s death itself becomes, as I said above, obscene.

Although I am not a psychologist, I also believe there are some serious psychological repercussions when we buy into this myth. When we suggest that we are forgiving unconditionally, we are attempting to perform spiritual gymnastics that only result in the short-circuiting of a process that God had instilled deep within the human soul. We humans are designed for community, for relationship. Our first relationship is with God, and second with other humans. When we expect God to forgive unconditionally we are telling him that our sins do not matter – he just needs to “get on with life” and wipe the slate clean. When we do not expect, or demand, that others acknowledge their sins agains us, we are denying them the opportunity to unburden their soul – to admit their own failure. This is a critical point so often overlooked – we as humans have a very deep need to be able to admit we are wrong, and to be forgiven of that wrong, so that our relationships can be healed. “Unconditional forgiveness” sounds so wonderful, but in reality it actually prevents what it is supposedly designed to do.

So, what do we do in the very real world where many of those who hurt us have no intention of asking for our forgiveness, or who have died and therefore cannot ask for our forgiveness? Can we forgive them?

In a word, no. As I said in a past post – we do have the ability to surrender the will to get even. We do have the ability to pray to God, to surrender our hurt feelings, to not let the sun go down on our anger. I believe in the practice of writing letters to be placed inside caskets letting go of the hurt and anger. I believe in punching pillows or sweating our frustrations out. I also believe very firmly in the ability to pray the imprecatory Psalms – the Psalms that ask God to exact revenge on those of our enemies who refuse our efforts to make peace. But we must remember to allow God to exact that revenge.

This is NOT forgiveness, however, and in no manner, shape, or form should we disguise it as such. Forgiveness is two individuals, or groups, that have be separated by a real disruption of relationship, who come together for the purpose of healing that relationship. The offended party offers peace, the offending party acknowledges guilt and asks for forgiveness. The offended party accepts the apology and extends the forgiveness, and the two parties reaffirm their love and acceptance of each other. This is biblical – from Genesis to Revelation. This is putting the words of Jesus into practice. This is the act of ascending higher by climbing lower. Anything less is just not biblical.

It is a myth.

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (2) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

I would like to move on and discuss the theological aspects of the idea of unconditional forgiveness, but before I do that I want to examine one other critical question – why is the myth of unconditional forgiveness so entrenched in our beliefs? If there is such little (or, in my opinion, zero) scriptural support for the idea, and so much scriptural evidence against the teaching, why is it so tenaciously defended?

In a sentence: because we ourselves are utterly terrified to consider the prospect that we might stand before God as unforgiven sinners. The logic is that if we can impose upon God the concept that forgiveness must be unconditional, then we ourselves do not have to repent, we do not have to change, we do not have to turn from our idolatrous practices and yet we can stand wholly and totally forgiven. Therefore, we create this unbiblical, yet psychologically appealing, model by which we are to “forgive” others whether they ask for it or not, simply to smooth over our rebellious defiance of God’s pleas for a “broken and contrite heart.” (Psalm 51)

For evidence all I have to do is to point out the difference in worship hymns written before the twentieth century and contemporary worship songs composed in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. While there are many older hymns that highlight God’s love and forgiveness, as you scan the majority of these hymns you see another central component – a confession of man’s sinfulness and complete dependence upon the God of love. “Amazing Grace” is meaningless without an acknowledgement that I am a “wretch” that needs saving. The light of God’s grace can only be seen through the reality of a very dark world of sin.

I will also admit that there are phrases in today’s contemporary worship music that use the word “sin,” but the overwhelming majority of songs heard on Christian radio stations (and increasingly used in worship services) only talk about the love of God, about how Jesus is our “lover” or “brother” and how we as Christians can bask in the glow of God’s presence. In short, there is very little “wretch” in these songs. The message these songs give us is, “We’re forgiven, God loves us, get over all that unhealthy guilt stuff.”

But, I say again, we cannot repent of something that does not exist. If we as Christians are forgiven “unconditionally” and without our even asking for forgiveness, then there is simply no reason to pray for forgiveness (as Jesus and the apostles plainly teach us to do) because we dwell in a perpetual state of being unconditionally forgiven.

I know the concept that God might expect, or even demand, conditions before forgiveness can be extended sounds harsh, repressive, and even un-biblical. But as I stated earlier, I think it is because we as Christians in the industrialized, capitalistic, and democratic societies in the West have lost a critical understanding of the meaning of the word “sin.” It is to that subject that we must turn if we are going to ever regain what it means to be truly “forgiven.”