Saturday, December 28, 2013


"There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be made known.  So then, whatever you say in the dark will be heard in the light and what you've whispered in the ear in secret rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops."
Luke 12:2, 3

Jesus said these words nearly 2,000 years before Facebook, Twitter, blogging, texting, sexting, YouTube or even the telephone!  And nearly 1,000 years before Jesus, the author of Ecclesiastes said, " ... in your inner thoughts don't curse a king and in your bed chamber don't curse a rich man, because a bird of the air will carry the sound, and a winged creature will relate the words" (Ecclesiastes 10:20).

It happens all the time, and with electronic media nothing that is said (or printed or texted or tweeted) goes unheard or unread.  It's almost as if these Scriptures were speaking of our age.

A star of a popular TV reality show is suspended because of remarks in a magazine interview that were considered homophobic and racist.  A celebrity tweets remarks considered racist and thoughtless while in flight and before she lands she is attacked by the news media.  It seems to be a continual problem -- celebrities, politicians, sports stars make comments considered by the word police to be racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, bullying, or who knows what else.  And then these (sometimes) are followed by the  necessary confessions, excuses and expressions of regret.

At the risk of having my words condemned as being construed as belonging in one or more of the above offensive categories, I must confess that my usual initial reaction to the indignant tsk-tsks is to simply say "Get over it!  People are stupid and they're going to say stupid things."

I long ago came to realize that original stupidity is one aspect of original sin!  Jesus' brother James said, "For we all stumble in many ways; if anyone doesn't stumble in his speech, he's a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body" (James 3:2).  And James wasn't talking about a speech impediment; he was talking about abusive and/or offensive speech, as the rest of the passage makes clear.  (I have yet to meet "a perfect man.")  As James tells us, we are all guilty of saying things that cause offense.  And I suspect that we often do so out of ignorance of how hurtful our speech is.

But it is also true that what we say really expresses what we think or believe.  Jesus said that " ... out of the abundance of the heart (one's) mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45).  If I am interpreting this saying correctly, it's telling me that when someone blurts out offensive words (though he may utter without thinking) he is expressing what is really in his mind.  So if I utter racist or bullying remarks, they are an expression of my own inner racist or bully, and if I shout, "Damn you!" at someone who cuts me off on the freeway, I really am desirous of his damnation.

I think the greater lesson to be taken from seeing and hearing well-known people saying offensive things, is to recognize that we who claim to be followers of Jesus are also capable of offense.  We need to watch our speech and we need to watch our thoughts.  We need to recognize that every word we say has consequences and to treat every word as if immediately on leaving our mouths it would be heard by all.  That applies as well, if not even more, to words written, texted, tweeted, e-mailed or posted on Facebook or blog.

"Don't let any nasty word come out of your mouth, only that which is good for building up according to the need, so that if may give grace to the hearers" (Ephesians 6:23).

"But sexual immorality and impurity and any greed should not even be named among you, as is fitting to saints -- or filthiness or stupid talk or crude sarcasm which are unfitting -- but rather thanksgiving" (Ephesians 5:3, 4).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


I suspect that for many people, Christmas just doesn't live up to its promises.  I'm not speaking here primarily of all the commercial hype, though that does add to their distress.  Of course, I'm speaking from my own personal experience.  I haven't done any studies or surveys, although I've sensed this feeling from conversations with others.

I grew up during World War II in what would probably be considered a not-too-religious home.  My mother was Roman Catholic who seldom went to church.  My father, to my knowledge, never professed any faith at the time.  But preparation for Christmas was always exciting with decorating the tree -- often one freshly cut from the back yard.  I recall a book of Christmas cards, illustrated with the typical scenes of the season.  I especially liked the pictures of those pretty female angels floating around with their harps.  There was also talk about Santa Claus and I and my sister were quizzed about what gifts we hoped to receive.  (Somehow I don't recall ever "believing in" Santa Claus, but played along to humor my parents.)

It was in a rural school where I learned the most about Christmas.  Public schools in those days never had a problem with this.  We sang Christmas "carols" (hymns) along with songs like "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."  Every year the school would have a huge Christmas pageant in which (as I recall) every child would take part.  (Our school went from kindergarten to 8th grade.)  To me the most fascinating part of the program was when three eighth-grade boys would march up the auditorium aisle in their exotic garb singing, "We Three Kings," in their cracking bass (at times) voices.  I dreaded thinking that one day I'd be chosen for the part.  Thankfully I wasn't.

But all of this was a mystery to me.  I knew that at Christmas we celebrated Jesus' birth and I knew who Jesus was (See:  WHY DO I BELIEVE?) but what did it all mean?

The hymns were especially mystifying.  We sang all of the verses, many of which are now no longer sung.  There were baffling lines like these from "Hark the Herald Angels Sing":  "Veiled in flesh the God-head see"; "Rise the woman's conquering seed, bruise in us the serpent's head."  Creepy sounding.

The most confusing, however, were the lines from "Joy to the World," that spoke of the Savior's reigning and all of "heaven and nature" responding.

And lines about "peace on earth, good will to men."

There was a war going on!  And when Christmas was over there would still be war going on!  This was obvious even to me as a child.  So all this anticipation of something better was nothing but a huge let-down.  All things remained the same.

And then there were the much-anticipated presents.  There were gifts at Gramma and Grandpa Lorenz's house on Christmas Eve.  There were gifts under our tree on Christmas morning.  More gifts at Gramma Ball's house Christmas afternoon.  I always received more than what I had hoped for.  And yet by evening the novelty wore off, some of the toys were already broken and a feeling of disappointment would engulf me.  And of course the Christmas celebration was reinforced by alcoholic beverages.  Sometimes there was tension and angry words.  It didn't always end well.

There are many more memories, some very bad and some very good.  But even the good memories finally came to an end, leading to the question of, "Is that all there is to Christmas?"  It never lived up to its reputation, to all that promotion, to all that hype.  And every year, as I grew older, it seemed that the best way to deal with the post-Christmas feelings of despair was to celebrate in the way I learned from my family, with alcohol.  New Year's Eve was coming -- more of the same.

And then in my teens I met another family, the Cooks.  I started dating Uni two months before Christmas, and began hanging around her house all the time.  Christmas there was different.  There weren't many decorations.  The tree didn't appear until a few days before the holiday, after the trees that remained on the lot were discounted.  There were few gifts beneath it.  Mom Dad Cook couldn't afford them.

What impressed me most was the nativity scene; few homes had them in those days.  This one was different from those I'd seen previously.  The stable was home-made; there were little figurines of Mary and Joseph and there was a manger, but it was empty!  I found that when they woke on Christmas morning, the kids (eight at the time) rushed out of their rooms, not to see what Santa brought them, but to see the baby, whom Dad had placed in the manger before going to bed on Christmas Eve.  It seemed that they understood that Christmas isn't about them -- it's about Jesus.

My feelings toward the holiday changed as I began to understand that truth.  And to understand, as well that it's not just about Jesus' birth.  Christmas is not an end in itself, but the beginning of a story that reaches its climax on Easter and doesn't come to a conclusion until He returns.  It is then that we'll be able to truthfully say, "Joy to the world, the Savior reigns," but we can "repeat the sounding joy" in anticipation of that day.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


I recently was forwarded an article entitled "Romans 1:26-27:  A Clobber PassageThat Should Lose its Wallop" by Don M. Barrows, 10/1/2013.  In this article the author tells us that when he is debating with someone who quotes Romans 1:26-27, as proof that the Bible condemns homosexuality, he comments, "What do you make of the vocative at the beginning of Romans 2?"

The author admits that the question is pretentious, but is effective, especially against those who are "eager to wield the Bible as an authoritative weapon" and especially "those who have read it only in translation."

Well, I have to admit that I felt it was pretentious, even pompous, the sort of trick that someone with a knowledge of Greek (no matter how little) would use to show his readers or hearers how smart he is, and to tell them to submit to his authority.  I've heard preachers and debaters do this many times:  throw out a few Greek words, and even better, references to Greek grammar which make little if any sense to the uneducated.  (I confess that I've even done it myself a few times.)

[By the way any reader of an English translation would understand that Paul was speaking directly to the person referred to as "O Man."  One need not be a grammarian to understand the address or the use of the vocative or the second person, though he might not understand the labels.  The English does just fine.]

After reading the challenge at the beginning of the article, I immediately scrolled down to the blurb giving us the author's qualifications.  Among other things, he's "a former Christian fundamentalist" who is "completing his Ph.D. in classical studies."

So, as one who has a bit of working knowledge of the Greek New Testament, I felt I needed to say a few things about Dr. Burrows' argument.  I feel that I may be qualified for this task as one who has been reading the Bible "in translation" for nearly 60 years and as one who has been reading and studying it in the original languages for 40 years.  I, however, only have a Master's degree in theology with a major in New Testament.  I also am, as he is, "a former Christian fundamentalist," though I still consider myself an evangelical and I like to think of myself as a fundamentalist in recovery.

The argument of the article is that Romans 1:18-32, with its offending verses (26, 27) about homosexuality is not original with Paul, but rather "boilerplate"; Paul is here simply presenting standard "Hellenistic Jewish material" attacking Gentiles.  We're told it "does not represent Paul's views and doesn't fit well here as part of Paul's argument, except as some sort of lead-in to his address to his (self-righteous Jewish?) readers in chapter 2, whom he addresses in the vocative case.

I would concur with Dr. Burrows that what Paul is saying in Romans 1:18-32 would be agreeable to a Hellenistic Jew of his day, and I suppose that similar thoughts can be found in contemporary Jewish writings.  But I can't see where Paul in any way disagrees with these thoughts.

Paul and other New Testament writers frequently used the "straw man" tactic, putting words in the mouths of their readers, so that they could refute thinking with which they disagreed.  But usually they give us some indication that they are doing so, often using "but" or some other adversative ("All things are lawful to me, but not all things are profitable" - 1 Corinthians 6:12).  There is no adversative, however, at either end of Romans 1:18-32.  In fact, Paul introduces the section with "for" (gar), which is a conjunction used to indicate cause.

Paul tells his readers earlier in chapter 1, that he is "eager to preach the gospel in Rome" (1:15).  This statement is followed by a series of statements, each introduced by the word "for" (gar).
          "For I am not ashamed of the gospel," (verse 16a)
          "for it is God's power ... " (verse 16b)
          "for God's righteousness is revealed in it ... " (verse 17)
          "for God's anger is revealed from heaven ... " (verse 18)

There is a smooth flow of argument here.  He continues with a "because" (dioti) and a "for" (verse 20) and a "because" (verse 21).

And then we come to 2:1, the passage that has that scary "vocative."  However, it does not begin with the vocative, but with a "therefore" (dio), an inferential conjunction.  The implication would be something like, "what I just said in the previous applies to you" (the person addressed in the vocative).

We should notice that Paul uses the word translated "without excuse" (anapologetos) in both 1:20 and in 2:1.  If I may paraphrase, "these heathen are without excuse for their behavior, and you 'O Man' are also without excuse," because as Paul says, " ... you who judge do the same things!" (2:1b)

Dr. Burrows points to Paul's "similar conclusion" in Romans 14:13, in which he finds similarities to 2:1.  I'll agree that there is a similarity, but 14:13 is near the close of Paul's argument, while 2:1 is near the beginning.  Romans 14:13 is not in the vocative case, but in the subjunctive mood.  It is an exhortation, which includes Paul himself ("let us").  And there's a lot of argument in between.

Paul's argument in the first chapters of Romans is a blanket condemnation of the whole human race, Jew and Gentile.  He wants all to recognize their need so that they can freely receive God's free gift of His righteousness in Christ.  He states in 3:9:

"When then; do we (Jews) excel?  Not at all!  For we have previously accused (proaitiaomai) both Jews and Greeks to be under sin."

But it is in 1:18-32 that Paul had "previously accused" the Gentiles!  If we omit this passage from his argument than he has not accused the Gentiles as he claims.  1:18-32 is a necessary part of his argument.

So I suspect that not only would most of Paul's 21st century English readers see 1:26 and 27 as a condemnation of homosexual behavior, but his first century Greek readers would as well.

But I do also believe that this passage (1:26, 27) is not meant to be a "clobber passage."  A few points need to be made:
·       First, Paul speaks of homosexual sex as an "exchange," as an act that is "contrary to nature."  As such it is used as an illustration or metaphor for man's "exchange" of the revelation of God in nature for something else - idolatry.  The word "exchanged" is used in this way in verses 23 and 25.
·       Homosexual acts are not singled out as the most degraded acts, as many of my conservative friends seem to believe.  They are seen as only one manner of behavior that results from God's giving humankind over to the consequences of their rejection of Him!  See the phrase "God gave them over" in verses 24, 26 and 28.
·       The list of condemned behaviors does not include sexual acts only; there are enough listed here to hit every one of us:  lust, impurity, dishonoring of bodies, a debased mind, greed, envy, murder, gossip, slander, etc., etc.  We all find ourselves here!  We are all "without excuse."

Paul does not give this list in order to condemn any one particular group of sinners, but to point out that we "all have sinned and are falling short of God's glory" (3:23).

And he tells us this to show us our need for a right relationship with God through simple faith in Christ.  " ... even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe; for there is no distinction" (3:22).

And I agree, that "Paul goes on to offer advice on healing the rifts between Jew and Gentile," as he finally attempts in chapters 14 and 15.  But this is only after his readers have recognized their needs for faith and commitment, which occupies much of Paul's argument in the intervening chapters.

I suppose the above thoughts will not be satisfactory to those on either side of the issue of homosexuality.  I make no apologies.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


"And just as you want people to do to you, do to them in the same way" (Luke 6:31).
“Everything then, whatever you want people to do to you, in the same way also do to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
Just about everyone seems to have some knowledge of the verse in the Bible known as the Golden Rule found in Jesus' Sermon On The Mount.
We have two different versions of this rule, which differ slightly.  When we remember that Jesus was most likely speaking in Aramaic, while Matthew and Luke have given it to us in Greek, and that both give us condensed versions of the Sermon, the differences can be easily accounted for.  The real difficulty is that Luke places it early in the Sermon, tucked into a longer passage on love, while Matthew places it much later, separating it from other sayings.

Why is this?  I believe that the simplest answer is that Jesus said it twice.  Most preachers (myself included) repeat themselves in the same sermon, so why couldn't He?  The first time it's spoken (Luke 6:31), it is tucked away within Jesus' commands regarding loving our enemies.  The second time was nearer to His closing remarks.

Most people could probably recite the Golden Rule in one form or another, or at least paraphrase it.  It also seems to be the verse most often deliberately misquoted:
·       “Do unto others what they do unto you.”
·       “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
·       Or (my personal favorite) simply:  “Do others!”

The saying (sometimes referred to as the ethic of reciprocity) is so familiar to Christians who know that it’s a quote from Jesus, that they are often surprised to find that this concept is also found in many religions and cultures.  A Google search will quickly show many similar sayings in Buddhism, Baha’i, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, as well as in many ancient writings much older that the Gospels.  A few samples:
  • Buddhism:    
    • "...a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?" Samyutta NIkaya v. 353
    • Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." Udana-Varga 5:18
  • Confucianism:
    • "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you" Analects 15:23
    • "Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'" Doctrine of the Mean 13.3
  • Hinduism:   This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. Mahabharata 5:1517
  • Islam: "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." Number 13 of Imam "Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths." 3
  • Judaism: 
    • "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary." Talmud, Shabbat 31a
    • "And what you hate, do not do to anyone." Tobit 4:15 4
Theologically liberal Christians gladly receive this information as evidence that all religions are equal.  Theologically conservative Christians are sometimes rattled or upset, feeling that this sort of thinking is a threat to the uniqueness of Jesus.
But is it?  Does finding truth in other religions threaten the uniqueness of Jesus?
No way!
  • First of all we need to realize that not everything Jesus said was original with Him.  Every word He said was and is true, not because it was all original with Him, but because He is God.
  • Secondly the doctrine of natural revelation teaches us that God has revealed Himself in many ways.  “…that which is known of God is evident among them (humankind), for God made it evident to them” (Romans 1:19).  “For whenever gentiles, those not having the Law, do by nature the things of the Law, these, though not having the Law are a law to themselves, such ones as show the work of the Law written in their hearts…” (2:14, 15).
But Jesus’ statement is unique for a number of reasons.  The first reason is that it is the word of the Son of God and as such has an authority over His hearers that the other sayings do not.  Also, many (though not all) of the other sayings were in a negative form (“Do not…”), whereas Jesus’ was in a positive form.

Many of the other sayings were stated or could be interpreted with a utilitarian motive, i.e., be nice to others, so that they will be nice to you.  Jesus gives a different reason for this behavior, “…for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  This, I believe, is the radical difference.
Jesus’ hearers were mostly Jews, living under the Old Testament Law of Moses.  In Matthew's Gospel we read that Jesus had already devoted a large portion of this sermon to the proper understanding of that Law (5:17-48).  He taught that God’s Law is not simply about the performance or non-performance of external acts, but began with the thought life.  Much of that teaching was in a negative fashion.  Here, in this one statement, He gives a positive summation of the keeping of the Law, as well as the teachings of the Old Testament prophets.
Later, when Jesus is questioned by a Pharisaic law expert (Matthew 22:34-36; Mark 12:28) as to which is the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied, “’You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it, ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31).
Jesus here was quoting from two texts in the Mosaic Law, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18b.  And He ties these two together as a summation of the Law and the Prophets.  Jesus quoted these passages a number of times, but sometimes only the second, Leviticus 19:18b, about loving one’s neighbor.
I would even venture to say that when He placed the two love commands together, He was implying a link between them – an unbreakable link.  Can one actually love his neighbor without loving God?  Can a person love God without loving His neighbor?
And if the “Golden Rule” and the Law of Love are both said to be the fulfillment of God’s Law, can we not assume that they are one and the same?  This elevates the Rule to more than a utilitarian social ethic.  Though it may be found to be good practical advice, it is so much more than that.  It is an expression of the Love of God worked out in our lives.  As John, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, would later write, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The other disciples also grasped this concept.  James, Jesus’ brother, who was not a believer at the time Jesus preached the Sermon, but may very well have heard it, wrote of it in his letter, referring to it as “the perfect Law, the Law of Liberty” (James 1:25) and “the Royal Law” (2:8).
And then there’s Paul, another who was an unbeliever at the time of the Sermon, who probably never heard Jesus at all, and who many believe wrote before the Gospels were written.  Yet he grasps Jesus’ sayings and almost paraphrases Him.
“For all the Law is fulfilled in one word in this, ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another, for the one who loves the other has fulfilled the Law.  For this, ‘You will not commit adultery, you will not murder, you will not steal, you will not covet,’ and if there’s any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does not do evil to a neighbor, therefore love is the Law’s fulfillment!’” (Romans 13:8-10).
So for the follower of Jesus, the “Golden Rule” is more than just good advice, more than the best advice.  It is the living out of the love of Christ in our relationships with others.
{NOTE:  Most of the above thoughts were previously posted on THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, 20.}

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Luke 6:27-35

          "But I'm saying to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you!  To the one who hits you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the one who takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt!  Give to everyone who asks from you, and from the one who takes away your stuff, don't demand it back! (verses 27-30)
          And just as you want people to do to you, do to them in the same way. (verse 31)
          And if you love those who love you, what grace is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them!  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what grace is that to you?  Even sinners do the same thing.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive what grace is that to you?  Even sinners lend in order that they may receive back the same! (verses 32-34)
          However, love your enemies and do good and lend, not hoping for anything back, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful!" (verse 35)

When Jesus was questioned elsewhere as to what the first and great commandment of the Law was, he replied:  “’You will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the great and first commandment.  And the second is like it.  ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31; See also Matthew 19:19).

Jesus was quoting, of course, from the Old Testament Law.  The commandment to love the LORD was from Deuteronomy 6:4, 5.  The commandment to love one’s neighbor came from Leviticus 19:18.

We should note that in the same chapter in Leviticus that Jesus quotes, there is another commandment:  “The stranger (or alien) who resides with you shall be to you as a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).  Both verse 18 and 34 conclude with “I am the LORD!”

And later, when a lawyer (teacher of the Law) tried to find a loophole by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus told him a story of how one about whom the lawyer held racial and religious stereotypes (a Samaritan) behaved as a neighbor, and then told the lawyer to do likewise (Luke 10:25-27).

So then, our neighbors include not only those who look, behave and worship like we do, but also aliens, and people of different races and religions.

And here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that we are to love those who hate and persecute us, and we are even to pray for them!  I don’t see how this excludes anyone.  There are no loopholes!

We will have enemies; we’re not told that we won’t.  The New Testament is filled with promises and examples of persecution and conflict.  But I don’t believe that we are to choose our enemies, nor to consider those with whom we simply disagree as our enemies.  Nor are we to pray for their demise.  We can’t prevent some people from being our enemies, but we should leave the choice to them.  And we are to love them.

And the reason given for loving indiscriminately is “You will be sons of the Most High.”  I don’t believe Jesus is speaking here of that sonship that we have through faith in Him, but rather He’s referring to a concept found throughout the Bible.  To be “the son of” someone meant to be characterized by the same traits as that person.  Paul says in Romans 4:11, 12, that Abraham was “the father” of those who believe, even though not physically related.  Jesus accuses the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:31 of being “sons of the murderers of the prophets.”  In similar fashion we show our family relation-ship to our Heavenly Father when we love and do good indiscriminately.

We often tend to read Jesus' commands rather abstractly.  We nod our heads and agree with Him without really considering what it means to love another person. 

There was a dear sweet lady in a church I pastored years ago, but she had an uncontrolled tongue; gossip and hurtful sayings were often part of her conversation.  When I finally confronted her about these things, she gave me a sad puzzled look and said, "But I just loove everybody!"  I'm afraid many of us, myself included, tend to use this as our defense or excuse. 

But Jesus doesn't just give us this command in the abstract.  He gives us specific examples of how that love is to be worked out toward even our enemies:
          Do good to them.
          Bless them.
          Pray for them.
          Don't retaliate.
          Don't withhold.
          Give expecting nothing in return. 

Can we really say that we love our enemies? 

{NOTE:  Most of the above thoughts were previously posted on THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT.]

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


In my previous post I discussed how Jesus chose to eat with those who were looked down on by the religious of His day.  He "eats with tax collectors and sinners" was the criticism often leveled against Him.  He ate with people who did not keep the rabbinical rules and who probably weren't too careful about keeping God's rules.

As I stated there, Jesus was on a mission to bring people back to God, and apparently started with those who would have been more aware of their alienation from God.  He seems to have given up on the "righteous" -- those who were satisfied that they were in a right relationship with God.

But He hadn't completely given up even on these -- the Pharisees and the scribes; in at least one incident we find Him extending an invitation to them.

Even though the story is familiar to many of us, it may be possible to miss the invitation.  The story takes up the entire 15th chapter of Luke, even though it includes three familiar parables which are often looked at separately out of their context.

"And all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Him to hear Him.  And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them'" (15:1, 2).

Notice the next words, "And He told ­­­them this parable ..." (verse 3).  As all good grammarians know, a pronoun usually refers to its nearest antecedent.  In other words, even though the tax collectors and sinners may have heard and enjoyed them, the following three parables were directed primarily at the religious complainers.

The first parable Jesus tells (15:3-7), is of a man who owned 100 sheep, but searched out the one that was lost.  After finding it he called his friends and neighbors to celebrate with him.  Jesus concludes this story with, "I'm telling you that even so, there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents more than over ninety-nine righteous who do not have need for repentance!  (15:7)

The next parable (15:8-10) is of a woman who had ten drachmas, but "lit a lamp and swept her house" until she found one that was lost, after which she too called her friends and neighbors to celebrate.  Jesus concludes this one with, "Even so, I'm telling you, there will be joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents!  (15:10)

The third story (15:11-32), is of a father who had two sons.  Most of us know the first half of this story, of the so-called "prodigal son," the younger son who leaves home and squanders his inheritance on "loose living," then repents and returns to his father who "moved with compassion" welcomes him back into the family with a party.  But there's more to the story than this.  There's an older brother -- one who has been loyal to the father, who has "never disobeyed a commandment" of the father.  (See:  THE BARTER SPIRIT.)  Like those Pharisees and scribes we meet at the beginning of the chapter, he objects to the father's compassion for the lost brother.

The story closes with an open ending.  The father pleads with his older son, "Child, you are always with me and all that's mine is yours.  But it was necessary to celebrate and rejoice, because this your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!?  (15:31, 32)

We're not told how the story ends, whether the older brother responds to the father's invitation or turns around and walks away.  But this is just a story.  The real invitation is for those religious grumblers to recognize that these "tax collectors and sinners" with whom Jesus was eating were lost brothers who were returning to the fold, that God was celebrating over this and that they too should celebrate.

I used to teach a class called Bible Study Methods at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, TX.  Most of my students were older than the typical college kids, and most were "churched."  I taught that there are three steps to Bible study:  observation, interpretation and application (See:  ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS).  I used this story as one of the assignments.  They were to find and write out the biblical principle or principles found in the passage and to write out a personal application for themselves.  I would remind them that when we apply biblical principles we must apply them to ourselves -- to where we are right now and what changes are necessary for our lives.  So even if they had a great testimony of how "Jesus found me in the pigpen of sin and pulled me out," that was not what we were looking for.  The question was where does this passage and its principles hit me now in my present state of spiritual growth and what changes does it demand of me?

A few (very few) wrote about how they were still like that rebellious younger brother and how they needed to repent as he did.  Quite a few told stories of sibling rivalries they still were clinging to (not surprisingly most of these were the older of a pair).

But the stories that were the most moving went something like this:  (I'm paraphrasing and conflating).

"I was like that younger brother before I came to Christ, and God changed my life!  But that was years ago and now I realize that I have become that older brother.  I'm a good church member; I serve as a deacon; I teach a Sunday school class; I sing in the choir; I tithe; I say all the right words.  I look down my nose at some of those young people I see.  I don't go out of my way to meet and greet them.  I even wish that they wouldn't come to our church.  But now I realize that I was just like them a few years ago.  And God is inviting me, as He did that older brother and those Pharisees and scribes, to celebrate with Him when these people come to Christ.  I've been growing in the wrong direction.  God wants me to become more and more like the father, like Jesus, and less and less like that older brother or the Pharisees."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


"Being first is a problem.  I have to eat so much."
- Ronald Reagan (quoted in Time, 9/23/1985)

The Gospels, especially Luke's, devote a great amount of material to accounts of, and disputes about, Jesus' eating. His and His disciples' eating habits were often the source of criticism and condemnation by His contemporaries, especially the religious ones.

"And the Pharisees and their scribes were grumbling to His disciples saying, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax gatherers and sinners?'"  (Luke 5:30)

"And they said to Him, 'The disciples of John fast often and say prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink" (5:33).

"And it was on the Sabbath and He was going through the grain fields and His disciples were rolling the heads of grain in their hands and eating.  But some of the Pharisees said, 'Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?'"  (6:1, 2)

"For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine and you say, 'He has a demon!'  The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you say, 'Look, a man who's a glutton and a wino, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'"  (7:33, 34)

Then there's the story of the "town sinner" who washed His feet with her tears while He was dining at a Pharisee's house (7:36-50).  "And when the Pharisee who invited Him saw this, he said to himself, 'If this one were a prophet, He would have known who this is and what sort of woman she is who's touching Him, that she's a sinner'"  (7:39).

"... a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him and He entered in and reclined.  And the Pharisee was amazed when he saw that He didn't first wash before lunch" (11:37, 38).

Then the first 25 verses of chapter 14 give a series of incidents that occurred while He was dining at the house of a Pharisee on the Sabbath.  First He healed a man, which was considered to be unlawful on the Sabbath.  Then He followed this with a series of parables and sayings punching holes in their ostentation and pomposity.

Again in chapter 15:  "And all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to hear Him, and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling, saying 'This one receives sinners and eats with them'" (15:1, 2).

Or the account of the conversion of Zacchaeus (19:1-10), a notorious tax collector, who promised after coming to Jesus that he would make amends to everyone he had swindled and give half his possessions to the poor.  All we read of the crowd's reaction was, "All who saw this were grumbling, saying, 'He's going in to lodge with a man who is a sinner!'"  (19:7)

So what were these people so uptight about and why did Jesus seem to enjoy pushing their buttons?

There are many explanations and not all fit.  An answer usually given to the first question is that the Jewish people of Jesus' day attempted to rigidly follow 'Kosher' laws.  There were rules in the Law of Moses, the Torah, prescribing what kinds of animals could be eaten, as well as how these meats were to be prepared.  There were rules regarding cleansing and laws specifying who could eat what.  There were also rules regarding the Sabbath day, the day of rest and what could or could not be done on that day.  Then the rabbis had added more rules on top of these to ensure that the God-given laws could be kept.  This was referred to as "building a fence around the Law."

While there were of course, many who strove to observe all the rules, there were also those who felt themselves specially chosen to make sure those rules were kept.  And of course, there were others, who didn't or couldn't keep all the rules.  These folks were regarded as "sinners."  They were defiled and all who ate with them were defiled as well.

Jesus kept the Mosaic Law.  We read of no incident where He broke it.  But He did push the line and in pushing the line, He often crossed the artificial lines that fenced in the Law.  And He Himself explained why He behaved the way He did and as to why He ate with the outcasts -- the tax collectors and sinners:  "The healthy have no need of a doctor, but those who are ill do.  I didn't come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (5:31, 32).

I don't know if His hearers -- "the righteous" -- caught the sarcasm in those words.  Jesus was a man on a mission; he had come to bring people back to God.  And He had to start with those who were sinners, who recognized that they were in some way alienated from God.  He seems to have given up on those who felt that they were already right -- "righteous" -- before God (and that God was lucky to have them).

But in befriending "sinners," He had to break with tradition, with those man-made rules.  And in doing this He became regarded as unclean in the eyes of the "righteous."

I have often attempted to get a mental picture of Jesus reclining at the table with disreputable people.  I can see Him surrounded by loud, shaggy, dirty, smelly men (and women), laughing as He tilts his glass and chugs down one more round.  He must have been pleasant company, as we're told that they sought him out.  He was their friend.

And though He was on a mission, I can't help believing that He was enjoying himself immensely.

Monday, November 4, 2013


1 Corinthians 12:9, 10:  "And He said to me, 'Sufficient to you is my grace, for power is perfected in weakness.'  Most gladly then will I rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell upon me.  Therefore I take delight in weaknesses, in insults, in disasters, in persecutions and distresses on Christ's behalf, for whenever I am weak then I am strong."

I'm sitting in a hospital room as I begin writing this.  Earlier in the week, Uni and I took a spill while riding our tandem bike; I slammed my right side hard against a curb, as well as acquiring quite a bit of road rash on my right knee and elbow and on both hands; Uni received a huge blood blister near her right eye.  We sat there in pain for a few minutes, then got back on our bike (which was undamaged) and rode a few more miles.

I didn't think too hard about it -- I always felt that I had a pretty high tolerance for pain -- until a couple of days later, as the pain seemed to intensify and my breathing became more labored.  Anyway, after some loving persuasion from Uni and some friends, I ended up in the hospital.  I have a collapsed lung, a broken rib and a chip at the end of another rib.

I feel weak; I feel dependent; I don't like this!  I am now at the mercy of doctors, nurses and technicians as they poke me and probe me, as they wheel me away for one more test or x-ray.  I have tubes attached to me; I can't move -- even in bed -- without pain or getting entangled in tubes.

I'm a man and I am proud.  It is at times like this that I realize how proud I am.  I'm 76 years old and am told that I don't look it.  (I know Uni doesn't look her 75 years).  We can still walk a few miles and ride our bikes.  We go dancing.  I take pride that I can keep dancing with my friends' wives after the men are worn out (if they can dance at all).

But now!  Now I feel 76 years old!  Or even older!

At times the Apostle Paul seems a bit proud in his writings -- especially in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians from which the quote at the top comes.  When we read of his sufferings in 6:4ff, we can't help but admire his physical strength and endurance.  And then in chapter 11:16ff he really cuts loose.

And then in the middle of his "boasting," he says something that sounds strange.  11:30:  "If it is necessary to boast, I will boast in the things of my weaknesses."

Our heroes are persons of great strength (or at least must appear so), whether sports stars or movie stars or comic book superheroes.  Even rock and country musicians have to have the sleeves ripped off their shirts to display their bulging biceps.  And we normal mortals do our best to emulate them.  We exercise and work out, not just for our health, but also for our appearance.

But every so often God reminds us of just how weak we are, as He did with Paul.  And as He did with me.  God doesn't need our physical strength or our emotional strength or any other kind.  God rather desires our dependence on Him.  He wants us to recognize that any strength to accomplish anything of worth comes not from ourselves but from Him.

I'm home from the hospital as I finish this.  I'm healing nicely.  I can probably get back on the bike soon, though I'm a bit reluctant to do so.

Thank You, Father, for the lesson on weakness.  Please help me not to forget as I heal.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


On a post last autumn, (WHY I VOTE THE WAY I DO), I mentioned the possibility of having to choose "the lesser of two evils."  This idea was criticized as simply another way of saying that "the end justifies the means."

Also in some correspondence concerning the hate speech of Christians who hold certain political views, I was given the excuse that "most believers in America today" have a "dilemma" concerning the direction their country is headed.

I had written out some thoughts on these matters but never posted them.  And then a recent post by my friend Canadian Atheist spoke of an ethical dilemma he had about eating meat.  This brought to mind my previous musings so I figured I might as well post them.

A dilemma is a choice we have to make, but don't want to, especially when either alternative is undesirable.  When I speak of an ethical (or moral) dilemma, I have in mind a situation in which one is confronted with only two apparent alternatives, either of which would involve sin.

Most of us are, at some time or another, faced with genuine ethical dilemmas, but we should be careful not to see every difficult decision as a dilemma.  The following are not ethical dilemmas:
·       A decision between two goods.  The decision of how to behave in such a situation must be made on the basis of wisdom and sometimes simply personal preference.
·       A decision between good and evil.  That is what's known as temptation.  Many of the "dilemmas" presented in our popular culture -- fiction, movies, country songs -- are just that.
·       A choice of "let us do evil that good may come" (Romans 3:8), of choosing a wrong act to achieve a good end -- i.e., "the end justifies the means."

What is an ethical dilemma then?  It is when I am faced with a situation in which whatever action I choose, I will be doing wrong.  The classic example:

Suppose I live in Nazi Germany.  I have Jews hidden in my house.  The Gestapo knock on my door and inquire if there are any Jews hidden inside.  Do I tell them the truth and allow innocent people to be condemned (which would be a sin of omission on my part), or do I simply lie (which would also be a sin) in order to protect the innocent?

I suspect that most would say "No problem, just lie."  But how do I really determine what to do in such a dilemma?

Those of us who look to the Scripture as our guide for making moral choices may be frustrated when we look at the cases mentioned there.

One of the situations usually noted is the case of the Hebrew midwives who lied to Pharaoh to save the lives of the Hebrew baby boys and were apparently rewarded by God for this act (Exodus 1:15-21).  However, it should be noted that the lie itself is not commended, but their fear of God (verses 17, 21) and undoubtedly their refusal to comply with Pharaoh's order.

Another case is Rahab who hid the Hebrew spies and lied to their pursuers to save their lives (Joshua 2, especially verses 3-5).  She also was rewarded by having her life and the life of her family spared (Joshua 6:25).  Though the text does not say God rewarded her, the New Testament does commend her, especially for her faith (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).  Again it should be noted that the lie itself was not commended, but her faith which led to action.

There were other dilemmas in the Bible, such as Jephthah’s rash vow which led to the sacrifice of his daughter (Judges 11:30, 31, 34-40) and Herod Antipas’ rash vow which led to the death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:22-28).  In both cases there was a decision between breaking a vow and taking an innocent human life.  In neither case is the decision to keep the vow commended or condemned.  As often in the Bible, the actions are merely reported without any moral pronouncement being made.  We should be careful not to make an "ought" out of every action reported in the Scripture.

Before we go any further, I believe something should be said about the view that has been described as "unqualified absolutism," (a view held by some Christians) whose basic premise is that all moral conflicts are only apparent and not real. This view boils down to just two or three errors:
·       The error that the “way of escape” of 1 Corinthians 10:13 means that there will always be a “third alternative.”  The way of escape is given “that we may be able to bear” the test, not avoid it.  Sometimes what seems to be faith may simply be presumption.  In the cases of Rahab and the Hebrew midwives, even if there might have been a “third alternative,” they are not faulted for not taking it.
·       The error that “all real moral conflicts are brought on by a person’s prior sin(s).”   While some of them may be, not all are.  And even so, the individual is still faced with a real moral dilemma.
·       The tendency to rationalize sin as not being sin.  Two of the biblical cases mentioned above involved deception.  To argue that a deliberate deception is not a lie if somehow phrased in truthful terms, is casuistry.  This would get Satan off the hook for his lie to Eve (Genesis 3:5, 6).
So it seems obvious that we many times may be forced to make a choice between two evils.  How do we determine?  I believe the following thoughts may be of help.  At least they have for me.
·       Sin is always sin.  Lying is always sin, even if it is chosen rather than the alternative.
·       There is a gradation of higher and lower moral laws.  Some sins are worse than others.  Jesus' reply to Pilate in John 19:11 would appear to indicate this:  "You would have no authority over me unless it had been given to you from above.  Because of this, the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin."
·       Though we may choose "the lesser evil," God while regarding this act as an evil, apparently does not in this case impute guilt to the sinner.  Apparently "extenuating circumstances" are considered.

How do we determine which choice to make when confronted with an ethical dilemma?  Ethicists, both Christian and non-Christian, have discussed this question for centuries and it seems that when someone comes up with a formula for determining, a new dilemma shows up that does not fit the formula.  So, though many criteria have been suggested, I'll suggest one that I believe is biblical.  It is love, the simple choice of others over self.

This won't solve all our dilemmas, but it should be of help in many.  It would mean that I must make a choice that would benefit others more than myself.  It could mean that I would bear the harsher consequences.

Our big problem is that often these dilemmas do not allow us time to meditate and ponder both sides of the matter, as in our voting practice.  Rather, they come on us instantly -- maybe not the Nazis at the door, but in other ways.  It is then that we must make a decision based on the working of the Spirit in bringing to our minds what are the right choices.

[NOTE:  Many of these thoughts are taken from my notes for a biblical ethics class I taught at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston in 2005.]