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!

No Strength to Answer

This past Sunday we were examining the first few verses in Luke 14. I try to follow along in my Greek text, not that I am a Greek expert, but I am trying to recover what I lost, or gain what I never had. Anyway, we were reading along and I came across a word in v. 6 that I thought I recognized, and lo and behold – I was right!

Luke 14:6 is one of those innocuous verses that on first reading just gets filed away under “interesting, but let’s move on.” But there really is a fascinating phrase here that Luke chose to use. This verse is one of those verses that cannot have a direct “one-to-one” translation – and no translation that I looked up even attempts such a thing. The basic meaning is found in every translation I researched – the Pharisees and those at the meal could not respond to Jesus’s questions (note the context).

What I found to be noteworthy, however, is that the word Luke chose to convey this inability is also the word that has the meaning of strength, or power. The meaning of “ability” is also present in the word, so it is not like our English editions have mistranslated the word. But it is this nuance of strength, or power, that got me to wondering if Luke did not have more in mind than just saying the Pharisees were flummoxed, stymied, mentally stuck.

A purely colloquial way of translating the sentence would be that the Pharisees were mentally gassed, they were brain fried, they had brain cramps, their brain muscles no longer worked. Jesus asked them a question that just short circuited their synapses. It was not just that they could not come up with the right words to answer Jesus – they didn’t have anything left in the tank to even come up with any words.

All of this got me to thinking – I just wonder how we would be able to answer any of Jesus’s questions. We who are so smart, who have learned to take God’s word and “contextualize” it so that it no longer offends anyone. We who have realized that with the concept of “progressive revelation” all we have to do is to decide what we want the Scriptures to say, and then teach that God really wanted his word to agree with us. We, who with the passage of time, have come to realize that God could not have possibly meant all those mean, nasty, ugly things that the Old Testament says could actually have any meaning for good, polite Christians like us.

Jesus took one command, one seemingly tiny little fragment of the Old Law, and just obliterated the Pharisee’s defenses. The keeping of the Sabbath might not have been the only linchpin in the Pharisee’s theology, but it was certainly a key component. Jesus proved, with one itty, bitty little question, how fragile that theology was.

The scary thing is, the Pharisees had far, far more evidence on which to build their theology of Sabbath keeping than we have for most, if not all, of our cherished traditions. (Through Ezekiel, the LORD excoriated the Jews for their violations of the Sabbath day. The Pharisees were, at least on one level, simply trying to obey the teachings of Ezekiel, and to a lesser degree, Jeremiah.)

All of which simply goes to support the major thesis of this blog. We had better be careful – extraordinarily careful – that what we say and teach comes from the mind and heart of God. We must always make sure that we are standing under Scripture, and not above it. We do not explain to God what his writings teach, we correct our beliefs, attitudes and actions according to his words. If need be, we let Jesus’s questions blow up our theology – and short circuit our synapses.

We ascend by climbing lower.

Luke 22:35-38

In the seemingly never-ending debate over guns and gun ownership and how to curb gun violence, one passage of Scripture keeps showing up. There are some remarkable aspects to this passage, and I have been working for some time on how to properly interpret and apply the passage. I have come to the conclusion that there is one interpretation that I emphatically reject, one interpretation that makes sense on one level, but which I ultimately conclude is not satisfactory, and then I have my own tentative (as much as I can be tentative) interpretation.

To begin, let us put the passage before us:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered wit the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment. And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38, ESV)

Let me begin with the interpretation that I flatly reject. It has been suggested that this passage provides clear support for the concept of arming oneself to the teeth for the purpose of self-protection. I simply cannot accept that interpretation for this passage. I have a number of reasons for making that statement.

  1. This teaching of Jesus is only found in one gospel, and in only one place. I am exceedingly nervous about single-text theology, and anytime anyone wants to build a huge platform on one single text I get suspicious – even if I am leaning toward accepting the conclusion of what is being discussed.
  2. In regard to the above point, when single-text interpretation is necessary, a person must always ask, “Is there (or are there) any text(s) that teach the opposite of what I believe this text is teaching?” In this case I believe there is not just one, but actually a number, of texts that refute the above interpretation. (1) Matthew 5:39, which the ESV translates as “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil…” That phrase is better translated, “Do not resist by evil means*.” Jesus clearly resisted evil people! The apostles resisted evil people, and Christians of all generations have resisted evil people in their world. But Jesus never used the evil tactics of the individuals he was resisting – same with the disciples. Using a sword to defeat a sword would be in clear violation of Matthew 5:39. (2)  Matthew 26:52 – “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” If Jesus wanted his disciples to be armed, he certainly prohibited the use of those weapons. (3) John 18:36 – “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Swords are weapons to defend worldly kingdoms – either personal or national. Jesus repudiated the idea that his kingdom was this-worldly. So there are actually a number of passages that contradict the interpretation that Jesus was condoning the use of weapons for self-protection.
  3. The book of Acts, the letters of Paul, James, and Peter, and subsequent church history demonstrate the dozens, if not hundreds, of ways in which the disciples of Christ submitted to abuse and even martyrdom rather than defend themselves with offensive weapons.

So, if Jesus was not condoning the use of weapons for self-defense, what was he doing? I now turn to the interpretation that at least on one level makes sense, but on further reflection just does not convince me. That is that Jesus was making sure there was at least one sword among the eleven remaining disciples so that the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 could be fulfilled. After all, isn’t this the interpretation that Jesus himself provided? Well, yes and no.

First, there is no indication anywhere in any of the gospels – especially Luke – that the disciples were included in the arrest or trial of Jesus. How could he be “numbered with the transgressors” if the disciples were not considered to be “transgressors”? Second, consider the context of the saying – it was well after dark on the night of one of the highest feast days of the Jews. Where in the world would any of them be able to “sell his cloak and buy a sword?” But if the saying was meant to be in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 it would have to be fulfilled that night – Jesus could hardly be considered to be “numbered with the transgressors” if his disciples went out and bought a bunch of swords weeks or even days after his death. And, just to carry that thought one step further – where exactly were they supposed to by such swords? The Romans? Jewish zealots? The local pawn shop? Third, the events of the evening flatly contradict the idea that Jesus was arrested for insurrection. No charge of armed rebellion was brought against Jesus – treason yes (before Pilate), but armed rebellion, no. In fact, the attempt to do so strikes me like that of a Monty Python skit:

Accuser – “This man is an anarchist. His slave chopped off the ear of your servant!”
Chief Priest (examining the ear of his servant) – “He did?”
Accuser – “. . . well, yes, . . . but then this terrorist put it back on .”
Chief Priest – “Thanks a lot!”

It just seems to me that Luke is far too precise an author to make these kinds of factual, and even theological, mistakes. So, while I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus was reminding his disciples of the prophecy of Isaiah 53, I just do not think he was using his disciples as the “transgressors” to which the prophecy referred. So, if not option number two, is there a third choice? I believe there is.

I believe that this exchange between Jesus and his disciples was recorded by Luke to demonstrate (1) Jesus’s acceptance of his immediate fate, and (2) the disciples continued misunderstanding of not only Old Covenant prophecy, but Jesus’s own explicit teaching.

I have already said that I do not believe Jesus was somehow surrendering his disciples to use the weapons of the world to defend themselves. In point of fact, in John 15-16 Jesus makes it clear that when the Holy Spirit would be given to the disciples, they would be better armed and protected than even when he, Jesus, was present with them. I reject the idea that the “transgressors” with whom Jesus was to be numbered were the disciples – I believe that the two thieves/robbers with whom Jesus was crucified fulfilled Isaiah 53. If those two options are removed, and if we grant that Luke was a precise and deliberate author (guided by the Holy Spirit, no less) then we have to explore the idea that what Luke recorded in 22:35-38 was an ironic conversation, one that the disciples utterly, completely, misunderstood.

As one last, but I believe significant, bit of evidence, I suggest that Jesus’s response – “It is enough” has enough biblical background to support this interpretation. Consider Genesis 45:28, Deuteronomy 3:26, 1 Kings 19:4, 1 Chronicles 21:15. In these texts the expression is used as a command to stop the conversation – a point of absurdity had been reached and there was no sense in continuing any further. The disciples response, “Looky here, Jesus, we have two swords!” demonstrated their lack of understanding. Jesus just put a stop to the conversation. It was as if saying, “I give up. I’m not even going to try to explain.”

There are many passages of Scripture that we want to turn to as a “proof text” to defend what we already want to believe. When that occurs we must be extraordinarily careful that we slow down, apply all of our tools of exegesis and hermeneutics, and especially consider if there are other passages that suggest an alternate interpretation. I believe Luke 22:35-38 provides such an example. I freely admit my interpretation may be in error, and so in conclusion I would simply suggest that it is far better in the long run to say, “I do not know” what a passage means, and be absolutely correct, than to defend interpretations that are absolutely wrong.

*I am indebted to Glen Stassen for this insight. See Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, p. 137-138, 186.