Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Christmas Revisited

January 19, 2021

Yes, I know. Wrong time of the year. Whatever. These days if you can find something beneficial and good, go with it even if it’s not seasonal.

This is a succinct article summarizing research into the holy sites in Israel – sites associated with the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God. Having been blessed to visit Israel in 2012, I’ve seen many of the sites listed in this article. And as someone with some historical knowledge, I viewed and experienced them from two perspectives. The first is as a pilgrim, someone following centuries of footsteps to places revered by followers of Jesus the Christ, trusting in their footprints to lead me to the right place and grateful for a bit of contextualization and familiarization with places formerly just words in a book and pictures on the Internet.

The other perspective was more as a historian who knows that sometimes things aren’t what they seem, even if they were well-intentioned. Knowing the turbulence of this particular area of the world in just the last 2000 years (or even 1400 years!), I had to realize there was a possibility the venerated sites our guides took us to were not, in fact, the actual place of Jesus’ birth or death or burial.

I reconciled these two perspectives with the knowledge that even if these sites weren’t the sites, there actually were (and therefore are) sites – perhaps ignored or forgotten or erased by the transient irritations of vying potentates. The incarnation of the Son of God in creation, including geography and time, means that Jesus was here. Actually and really and remarkably well-documented, historically. I could relax and enjoy the experience not as a skeptic but as someone of faith who recognizes it is just our human nature and attachment to physical things and places that make such pilgrimages necessary and useful. I could experience these places knowing that, even if they weren’t the places, they were close. In the ballpark, so to speak.

But I have to also admit, as the article noted above supports, that some of these traditional sites have been traditional for a long time. Prior to the 300’s AD and the sudden interest of a converted Roman emperor. As such, it is not unreasonable to presume that the location – if not necessarily the particular walls and accoutrements over and around it – is actually the right spot. While we can be suspect of sinful (even when well-intentioned) human nature looking to make a quick buck off of tourists, there are certain places that have been venerated for a long time. Not because the site itself is divine but because the act of veneration, of being in the same area where the Son of God walked or cried or bled is one particular aspect of a life of faith. Not a necessary one, but a special one. And it can – and should – be enjoyed as such for what it is.

Annunciation – the Sitcom

December 19, 2020

Perhaps interpreting Mary’s confusion in Luke 1:26-38 as an attempt to unravel a theological or existential riddle is a bit heavier and serious than intended. What if Mary is simply perplexed by the enthusiastic joy of Gabriel as messenger? And if this is the case, perhaps meditating on Fra Angelico’s depiction of the Annunciation is less helpful to a modern Christian who is far more at ease with the promptings and cues of another art form (?) – the sitcom. If so, perhaps the episode might look something like this:

Scene: God, sitting at a giant celestial desk. Feet up (in sandals). Smoking a cigar. Long white robe, radiant white lighting around him. A computer screen is on his desk. Across the desk from him sits an angel with an iPad and conversation is already ongoing as the opening credits and theme song (Amazing Grace being rapped to jazzy music). Music fades out and conversation picks up as God takes his feet off the desk and leans across earnestly to the angel.

God: All right, I’ve got big news. It’s time!

Angel: What time?

God: The time!

Angel: The time?

God (nodding smugly): That’s right, the time. It’s time for the Incarnation. Time to fulfill that promise back to Eve so she quits nagging me. I think I’m allergic to those fig leaves she keeps waving around (laugh track).

Angel (visibly flustered and excited): You mean right now? Without warning? Without planning?! Ohmygosh, we have so much to do! So much to figure out!

God (leaning back again enjoying the angel’s agitation): Naw, it’s pretty simple. Me and the Holy Spirit have the basics worked out. But I figure we need to clue in the Mom, Mary of Nazareth.

Angel (tapping quickly at the iPad, then scrolling and looking increasingly perplexed): Her? Sir, but she’s nobody!

God (laughing): No she’s not! I made her! She’s Mary of Nazareth! (laugh track)

Angel: I mean, she’s really not anybody of any import. No last name, no real social standing, a few notable ancestors but otherwise, I mean, sir, surely you want someone who’s a bit more of an influencer? (laugh track)

God: Naw, this will be great! Really hit home with the poor and disenfranchised! You know me, I like to work from scratch, do the unexpected!

Angel: Yes, well, the duck-billed platypus certainly was unexpected, sir! (laugh track)

God (shaking his head angrily): That was a great idea! I can’t help it if you all insist on categorizing everything so narrowly! Sheesh, I might as well have just let things evolve out of goo like Satan wanted if I’d have known you were going to all be so uptight! (laugh track)

Angel (sighing and shaking his head with an eye roll): Yes sir, if you say so sir. Anyways. How are we going to clue this girl in?

God: Gotta be gentle. She’s young. Really young. Probably skittish. We need someone with a light touch.

Angel (continuing to peruse iPad): Hubert and the heavenly choir are suggesting an angelic flash mob and free-style annunciation, sir. (laugh track)

God (shaking head vigorously): No, I’ve got those guys in mind a little later on for some late night work with some shepherds out in some fields (laugh track). Who else have we got?

Angel: Pickings are slim, sir. Although Michael did win the celestial office pool on when you’d announce this was happening. He was within 10 months of today – definitely the closest of the angels. He’s going to be pretty happy about his winnings! (laugh track)

God (sputtering): Michael!? Are you nuts? In his armor and covered in demon blood or whatnot? (laugh track) I said a light touch! Somebody a bit more nuanced. Who else could we send?

Angel (setting aside iPad and shaking his head): That’s pretty much it, sir. Everyone else is already on other assignments.

God: What about Gabriel?

Angel (visibly shocked): Gabriel? Sir, you can’t be serious!

God: Why not? Gabriel’s a good guy. I’ve used him before, right?

Angel: Yes sir, and not with very good results. You asked him to explain and clarify some visions you gave to Daniel hundreds of years ago, sir.

God: Yes, that’s right! I remember now! See? I told you he had experience.

Angel: Sir, he gave some of the worst explanations ever. Worse than IKEA assembly instructions (laugh track).

God (looking concerned): Really? His explanations weren’t helpful?

Angel (rolling eyes): About as helpful as a child trying to explain a smart phone to their grandparents! (laugh track)

God (shuddering visibly): Oooh…that’s not good. Not good at all. Still. He’s been moping around for a few hundred years now. Maybe he needs a second chance. Grace and forgiveness and all that. (laugh track)

Angel: Sir I really don’t think that’s a good idea. This is a really important event – arguably the most important in creation history. We can’t risk him complicating things.

God: It’s a simple message. Nothing complicated. No visuals. Mary – congrats! – you’re having a baby! I’ve got full confidence in you! Even have the name picked out – Jesus – one of my favorites! Gonna be really successful. Piece of cake. Even Gabriel can’t screw it up! (laugh track)

Angel: What if she has questions?

God: Questions? What could she have questions about? It’s just a baby, after all! Go ahead and send Gabriel!

Angel (sighing heavily and tapping on iPad): Yes sir. He’s on his way.

* * * * * COMMERCIAL BREAK * * * * *

Fade in to new scene – humble 1st century mud and straw home in Nazareth, Galilee. Mary, a young girl of about 13 or 14 is seen in very poor clothing, sweeping the dirt with a straw broom. Natural lighting. Nobody else around. Suddenly, very bright light! Mary drops broom and holds her arms up to shade her eyes. Stumbles back and falls to the ground. Gabriel appears in the midst of the light, smiling broadly.

Gabriel (in very thick, Texan accent): Well hooooooowwwwdeeeeee!! (laugh track – Mary looks perplexed but remains silent)

Gabriel: Well if you ain’t just the cutest little thing since I don’t know when! (Mary looks perplexed)

Gabriel (looking worried and hastily pulling out a crumpled paper and smoothing it out and reading it in extremely thick Texan accent): Oh, uh, hey! Um, Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Mary continues to look puzzled)

Gabriel (sighing in exasperation, rolling his eyes, wadding up the paper and tossing it over his shoulder): Oh please, give me a break! Honey, this is so exciting! I can’t believe I’m the one who gets to breatk the news to you, and they give me this “Greetings O favored one” schlock! Good grief girl, this is BIG! Exciting! Everything is going to change and you’re ground zero! This is bigger than the giraffe! Bigger than the whale! It doesn’t get any bigger or more exciting than this and I’m the one who gets to tell you! Look, you’re going to have a BABY! Not just any baby but a special baby. Not Joseph’s baby – trust me, I know you ain’t been misbehavin’ (laugh track) but this is God’s son!

Scene shift – back to heaven, God staring nervously at a monitor on his desk with the angel from before behind him looking over his shoulder.

God (annoyed, pushing the angel back): Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve got this guy named Luke…he’s going to smooth over the rough edges. Everything’s fine! (laugh track)

(Scene shift – back to the room with Mary and Gabriel, Gabriel just finishing up with “and of his kingdom there will be no end!” still in very heavy Texan accent)

Mary (visibly puzzled and perplexed): How will this be, since I am a virgin?

(Cue flashing red lights and alarm noises back in God’s office room. God and angel throwing papers in the air in visible panic. Cut back to Mary & Gabriel with Gabriel arlready talking, clearly making things up as he goes along)

Gabriel: – and a little seed is planted in the mommy’s tummy and it grows into a baby! (looks very satisfied. Mary slaps her forehead with the palm of her hand and shakes her head in frustration)

(scene shift back to heaven, God at desk with head in his hands. Angel on floor next to him in fetal position crying. Sound of Mary & Gabriel’s voices over the monitor: “That was the worst explanation “ever!” Gabriel: “Funny, Daniel told me the same thing.” [laugh track]. )

(scene shift back to Mary’s room. Gabriel sitting cross-legged on the floor, dejected, halo askew, Mary sitting on a chair nearby staring at him and listening)

Mary: I mean, that’s it? That’s the best you can do? Look this is all really confusing but it would be a little easier if I just had some idea how it’s all going to work!

Gabriel: Honey, I don’t even know how sex works (laugh track – Mary looks surprised and a little scornful). I just know that you’ve been picked for something really important. Probably the most important job since, well, since that whole incident back in the Garden of Eden – I told him that Tree of Knowledge was a bad idea. (laugh track, Mary shakes her head bemused but still listening)

I don’t know how God is going to work this, but your child, He’s something special. He’s the one God promised to Eve way back then. Her descendant that would stomp on the serpent’s head. That’s who you’re going to bring into the world. That’s who’s going to be growing inside you. Not Joseph’s kid, but God’s. Don’t worry, we’ll figure out how to let Joseph know what’s going on – probably with a different messenger after this fiasco, though. (laugh track, Mary looks questionably relieved).

This kid, he won’t just be special and important to you. He’ll be special and important to everyone. We’ve all (jerking thumb skywards, laugh track) we’ve all been waiting a long time for this. A long time for God to send his Son into creation. To undo the Fall. To kick Satan’s butt and end the power of sin and death in all of creation. It’s a really big deal, despite the fact that thosands of years from now people are going to compete to find the uglieset sweaters to wear to commemorate this event. I’ll never understand humans. (laugh track).

So, whaddya say, Mary? Are you on board with this? Are you ready to be a nearly not single-mother? I don’t have all the answers, but He does (jerking thumb upwards again, sympathetic audience noises). He’ll be there every step of the way with you, I promise. Whaddya say?

Mary (pausing dramatically, then smiling beatifically – cue light shining on her, faint glow of halo appearing over her head): Sure, why not. I mean, I’m nobody. I’m just a servant. If God wants to do it this way, who am I to say no?” (audience applause. Gabriel gets excitedly to his feet – makes victory pump, audience laughter)

Gabriel (looking upwards as spotlight appears on him): Ok Boss! Beam me up! (Gabriel covers his mouth as though he’s said something he shouldn’t, Mary scratches her head, puzzled, audience laugh track)

(light increases in frequency until whole screen is whited out, fade back in to God’s office in heaven, God and angel high-fiving each other behind God’s desk.

God: Make sure you’re taking good care of Luke – we’re going to need him to do some heavy-duty editing. But I’ve got a good feeling about this. A really good feeling!

Angel: Yes sir. You were right sir, Gabriel was the perfect choice.

God: Of course I’m right! I’m God!

(laugh track, cue commercial break and roll credits)

Book Review: What If Everything You Were Taught About the Ten Commandments Was Wrong?

November 23, 2020

What If Everything You Were Taught About the Ten Commandments Was Wrong? by Erick Tokajer

A parishioner gave this to me to read and I was immediately captivated by the title. Not that I really expected I was going to find out that 3500 years of understanding about the Ten Commandments was incorrect, but still. What a curious assertion, at the very least! The back cover info on the author only increased my curiosity. Tokajer is a rabbi in Florida and apparently a Messianic Jew – a Jew who believes Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). I believe this strongly influences his hypothesis and goal. He interprets the Sinai event that start at Exodus 19 in terms of prophecy regarding The Messiah/Jesus. This seems to be his primary purpose, to show how Jesus is the prophesied fulfillment of all the Law and in particular the portion of the Law indicated as the Ten Commandments.

He begins be referencing what he calls Biblical Fables – false ideas or impressions people improperly credit Scripture with. Facts that aren’t actually in Scripture at all but have been repeated for so long many believers are convinced are in Scripture. This premises his basic assertion – the Ten Commandments as we have come to know them are wrong, and another Ten Commandments are actually the right ones. That’s a pretty strong assertion – here’s how he lays out his argument.

Chapter 1 – Tokajer claims the only reason Exodus 20 is associated with the Ten Commandments is because of the helpful headers most Bibles have, quickly summarizing what happens in the following section. These are different than the chapter and verse designations. These headers are not part of the Biblical text, but are added by publishers to make it easier to read through the text. He argues the actual text of Exodus 20 nowhere uses the Hebrew for ten commandments (or more accurately, ten words). This is the crux of his theory – the text doesn’t designate what we know of as the Ten Commandments (vs. 1-17) or otherwise set these instructions aside as special or unique in any way. Therefore, we have been incorrect in doing so.

It’s an interesting approach. True, Exodus 20 doesn’t – in the text itself – specify or designate or separate vs. 1-17 as the Ten Commandments linguistically. However the structure of Exodus 20 does. Verses 1-17 are the only words God the Father speaks directly to the people of Israel. At the end of this section the people freak out and ask God to just talk to Moses and have Moses tell them what was said because they can’t handle the power and majesty of the presence and voice of God the Father. The remainder of God’s instructions to his people are carried through Moses, not voiced directly from God to the people. This is a pretty interesting separation of vs. 1-17, the traditional Ten Commandments, without designating them as such textually.

Chapter 2 – Tokajer here deals with (somewhat) what I just pointed out above. Going back to chapter 19 (based on how Chapter 20 begins, with the English equivalent of then – meaning what follows is directly tied to or a continuation of what happened before. He notes how God is calling the people together to enter into a covenant with them, and that this process is interrupted by the people themselves because of their fear. God then continues through 31:18 sharing with Moses what to say to the people, and concludes at verse 18. Nowhere is there any textual indication of the Ten Commandments, but rather this forms the beginning of 613 commandments, roughly organized into commandments, judgments and ordinances (p.23). Tokajer doesn’t see the break at v.18 as significant to the uniqueness of vs. 1-17. Verses 1-17 are simply the beginning of a very long list, according to Tokajer.

Chapter 3 – The major point here is two different sets of covenant terms and tablets. In Exodus 24:1-4 Moses reads to the people of Israel what God has spoken to him and writes it all down. Then again it is read in 24:7. In both cases, the people of Israel unanimously agree to abide by the terms stipulated there.

However in 24:12 God invites Moses up to the mountain to give him additional information – tablets of stone written by the finger of God. These are referred to as the Tablet of Testimony as distinct from the Torah or the Book of the Covenant, which is what Moses read to the people in 24:1-4 and 24:7. Tokajer goes off course at the end of the chapter, linking to Revelation 13:8ff.

Chapter 4 – Tokajer now goes on to 34:1 and a discussion about the second set of tablets God provides to Moses after Moses smashes the first set in Exodus 32:19 during the Golden Calf incident. Tokajer rightly points out the grace of God in providing this second set. Unlike the first set, which God provided both the stone and the writing for, Moses will provide the stone for the second set and then God writes his words on them again – the same words that He inscribed the first/smashed stones with.

It is here, 34:14-28, Tokajer argues, that God lays out the terms of the covenant relationship – the real ten commandments as indicated in the text itself. In 34:1 God indicates that what is to follow is the same as what was said before, and in 34:28 God uses the term Ten Commandments/Words for the first and only time. In other words, everything from vs. 14-27 are the real Ten Commandments as indicated by God, rather than a Bible publisher trying to make the text easier for people to read.

These commandments are:

  • You shall have no other gods/idols
  • You must keep the Feast of Matzah (Passover)
  • You must redeem your firstborn sons
  • You must keep the Sabbath
  • You must observe the Feast off Sukkot and the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)
  • You must assemble all the men before God three times a year
  • You must not offer the blood offering with yeast
  • You must not have leftovers from the Passover meal
  • You must honor God with your firstfruits
  • You must not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk

Just a little different than what we’re used to thinking of as the Ten Commandments!

Chapter 5 – Tokajer now goes into these Ten Commandments in a bit more depth, and particularly from the prophetic aspect. He sees each of the commandments as pointing towards the Messiah, and links each command to New Testament verses to create connections he feels validates his interpretation. While I question some of his exegesis, it’s a curious path to wander down.

The first command against other gods boils down to a marital fidelity command, in Tokajer’s interpretation. 34:14 says don’t worship other gods and 34:15ff specifies not entering into covenants with pagans. Tokajer asserts the type of covenant meant here is a marriage covenant, and this is important because the covenant God enters into with Israel at Sinai is a marriage covenant. Israel is already married to God, and therefore is not eligible for a marriage relationship with anyone else. He then connects Revelation 19:6-10 to this passage, with the marriage celebration of the Lamb foreshadowed in this command.

Tokajer doesn’t bother to substantiate his interpretation of the covenant language in Exodus 34 or Exodus 19-24 being marital in nature. Perhaps it is, but I haven’t seen other literature that would bear out this assertion and therefore hold it as suspect. He jumps through a lot of hoops in order to link this command prophetically to the Messiah, but this is hardly necessary as the very command against worshiping another God presumes God exists and is more than adequate to provide for his people, including providing salvation.

The second commandment also points forward to the Messiah, Tokajer argues, because Jesus was executed on the Passover Sabbath.

He links the third commandment to Jesus as the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15). While this is true, of course, it seems like a thin stretch.

The fourth commandment is linked to Hebrews 4:4-11.

For the fifth commandment he links the feast of Shavuot to Jeremiah 31:30-32 and Hebrews 8:8-10 that speak of a new covenant (the Feast of Shavuot [Pentecost] is celebrated as the day God gave the covenant to Israel). However he doesn’t at all attempt to find explanations for why the feast of Sukkot is also included in this command.

The sixth commandment he claims is linked directly to the pilgrimage requirements to appear in Jerusalem at the Temple for the three major festivals each year. Of course, there is no Temple and Jerusalem won’t be conquered and made into the capital of God’s people for another 500 years or so, but the fact this isn’t dealt with in the text doesn’t cause Tokajer nearly as much difficulty as the words the Ten Commandments not appearing in the text in Exodus 19-20.

For the seventh commandment Tokajer goes to 1 John 3:5 to show that yeast represents sin and therefore this commandment is a prophecy regarding the sinless nature of Jesus. It is true that Scripture sometimes refers to yeast or leaven as a metaphor for sin. But this ignores the reality that Jesus in Luke 13 and Matthew 13 uses leaven as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. So perhaps Tokajer is stretching here in his interpretation.

The eighth commandment has significance because it prophesies how Jesus’ body would be taken down before the end of Passover and the beginning of the Passover Sabbath.

The ninth commandment is symbolic of how Jesus is the greatest firstfruit of all.

The tenth commandment is a reinforcement of the first commandment, acccording to Tokajer, who asserts boiling a kid in it’s mothers milk was a pagan fertility ritual designed to help a young woman become pregnant. Again, I haven’t heard this before so I can’t verify whether it’s true.

Finally, Tokajer succinctly summarizes the purpose and point of his hypothesis at the end of the book (p.63): I believe that these Tablets of Testimony and the real Ten Commandments were not intended to be a list of things to do or not do. The Ten Commandments and the entire Torah was given to us for the purpose of leading us to Messiah Yeshua.

It’s an interesting theory. But what to make of it. I have two primary challenges to his hypothesis.

When Jesus encounters the rich young man who wants to know how he must earn salvation (Mark 10, Matthew 19), Jesus quotes the Law to him first, and it’s the Law as provided in Exodus 20. Jesus quotes nearly the entire second table of the Law – those laws pertaining to how we deal with one another (no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness) as opposed to the first table of the Law which deals with our relationship to God (no other gods, don’t use the Lord’s name improperly, observe the Sabbath). No mention of firstfruits or pilgrimages or leaven or most of the other ten commandments as Tokajer defines them.

The fact that Jesus goes to Exodus 20 rather than Exodus 34 is a pretty major argument that we haven’t gotten the Ten Commandments wrong all these years.

My second objection is a linguistic/textual one, since this is the basis for Tokajer rejecting the traditional Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy 10:3-5 Moses is reminding the Israelites about what happened back in Exodus 19-34. And in v.4 Moses describes the contents on the tablets as the Ten Commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of assembly. And as Tokajer correctly noted, the words God spoke to the general assembly – as opposed to directly to Moses – were the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20:1-17, not the ten commandments of Exodus 34. So if the tablets contained the words God had spoken to all the people, and those were the Ten Commandments, then Exodus 20:1-17 is not just the traditional source for that material, it’s the correct source.

His premise is interesting but has very little support in my opinion, either textually or, more importantly, in Scripture as a whole.

Book Review – Cannery Row

November 16, 2020

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Reading a great writer, reading for fun, is one of the best joys in life. Relatively inexpensively you can travel across geography and culture and time itself. I’ve loved Steinbeck since I encountered him in junior high and high school, but never read this particular work. Cannery Row is an enjoyable character study of a community and some of it’s specific inhabitants. Centered around a cluster of unlikely characters united by a place and one another, this reads like a series of very short stories and sketches. Having lived in California for the last 13 years it is fun to not only try to picture Cannery Row as Steinbeck knew it, but to hear other familiar place names.

This isn’t a great book in terms of some gradiose theme, but rather, as Steinbeck aptly does, a celebration of smaller stories and the people who never make the history books, but without whom the history books would have nothing to say.

Updates to Roman Catholic Doctrine

October 21, 2020

News outlets made some brief mention of a new papal encyclical released earlier this month, but largely it was ignored. Curious, seeing Pope Francis takes this opportunity to potentially end the Roman Catholic Church’s tolerance of both capital punishment and war. A good article summarizing this can be found here.

Based on Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church has long recognized the legitimacy of both capital punishment and “just” war, even as it often encouraged world powers and leaders to carefully consider the application of both these tragic tactics. But now, Pope Francis may just have effectively overturned 2000 years of Roman Catholic understanding in a single letter. It all hinges, I suppose, on how authoritative a papal encyclical is. As near as I can tell, the answer is it depends.

Within the Church, encyclicals were historically letters from a bishop (not just the Pope) to other church leaders, either in a limited or specific area or on a larger, church-wide scale. But there is obviously some confusion or at least a lack of consistency in defining what an encyclical means today, as my Roman Catholic go-to site demonstrates. An encyclical has a particular style and form to it, particularly in both how it begins and ends. But not all encyclicals follow this form.

Popes have various distinct ways of communicating their thoughts on subjects of interest. Papal bulls and briefs are two common options, though Popes also speak through speeches as well as more specific writings. This all is interesting enough, but then we have Pope Pius XII’s statement in his encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 (section 3) basically saying once a Pope has communicated his thoughts on a controversy, the controversy is essentially ended. In other words, when a Pope speaks in an encyclical, his statements can be binding on the Church.

I’ll be reading and commenting on Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti encyclical shortly. For now, I’m just amazed at how many different forms of communication a Pope might employ, and how those various forms are known more by their physical characteristics as opposed to their level of officialness. To my mind, it would seem to make sense that if a Pope wished to issue a binding decision for the entire Church for all time on a subject, it would take one form. An opinion that was considered guiding but not necessarily mandatory would take another, etc. Maybe that’s actually the case and my Protestant ignorance and Internet research simply hasn’t made that clear to me yet, in which case I’d VERY much appreciate some pointers from some of my Roman Catholic readers on how to better understand this issue!

In the meantime, it’s fascinating to think that war and capital punishment might just have been officially condemned by the Church, despite the fact God commands in Scripture the exact opposite in various places, notably Genesis 9:6 on the issue of capital punishment along with Exodus 31:15. I can see how an argument might be made that war is one of the things Scripture describes but does not prescribe, and sections (like most of the book of Joshua) describing war commanded by God are exceptions and special circumstances rather than an acknowledgement that war is something we are free to instigate on our own as a last resort. Saints Augustine and Aquinas – some pretty heavy hitters in Roman Catholic theological tradition – both specifically write to the contrary on the topic of war, but I suppose since they weren’t Popes, their opinions or interpretations can be superceded.

Painfully Helpful?

October 5, 2020

For those who have a hard time thinking the Genesis account of creation and humanity being descended from one single set of parents could be true, I think this is an interesting and relevant article. Being neither a geneticist or a genealogist, it’s possible I’m not understanding it correctly. But the main gist is we’re more closely interconnected than we (and evolutionary theory) tend to think we are.

Though scientists are quick to discount that a single couple – married to each other, actually – could be the source of all our genetic linkages, if I’m understanding this correctly there’s not a scientific reason we couldn’t be, other than that it would too closely sound like Genesis and we can’t have that.

Curious and open to better explanations or applications of this article if you’ve got them!

Finding Us

October 4, 2020

The readings for this Sunday are challenging ones to hear. Isaiah 5:1-7. Matthew 21:33-46. Talk of vineyards to be sure, but more pertinently talk of failure and disappointment. Failure and disappointment on God’s part with the chosen people He called for himself. As good Christians (or perhaps just as Lutherans), our response is to read His Word and find ourselves in the stories. To apply what should be applied to our lives. To repent, watch, and be ready.

There’s a tendency to see these two stories, separated by some 700 years, as essentially the same, allowing the Old Testament reading to dictate our hearing of Jesus’ parable. Isaiah conveys God’s displeasure with his people who, instead of being a holy and obedient people are as savage and wild as those God hasn’t called into covenantal relationship with himself. He could have just skipped the whole process of tending to them and protecting them – the end result was no different. Not that God didn’t know this, of course, but rather that his people should be ashamed to presume upon the grace and protection of God as some sort of birthright when they clearly had no interest in being the sort of people He called them to be.

We can tell Jesus’ story is somewhat different. The problem isn’t the harvest – there’s definitely a harvest! – but rather the tenants, an element completely absent from the Isaiah text. So we understand Jesus not to be angry with God’s people in general or total, but more specifically with the leadership of God’s people, the chief priests and elders who should have been stewarding God’s people in preparation to receive the Messiah. Instead, they are rejecting the Messiah and in effect trying to keep the people for themselves. They wouldn’t see it this way, of course, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation, a situation Jesus speaks to bluntly in this story. It’s clear his hearers know who He has in his crosshairs, yet their response is not repentance but a continued insistence that this man must be done away with.

So we try to fit ourselves into this. It’s easier with the Isaiah text, because who among us would deny our fruit is somewhat sour, to say the least? Who among us can pretend our fruit is perfect and sweet and exactly what God should expect from us? We stand condemned in our sin.

And we know that this isn’t the point of Jesus’ story, we understand He’s targeting the leaders of God’s people, and so we presume we must hear it as a warning to the leaders of God’s people, the ordained or commissioned or Called workers as well as to the lay employees and volunteers. Anyone with authority over God’s people in any fashion. We aren’t sure what the warning is about, but we presume Jesus intends us to hear it as a warning and be on our guard against something.

But we have a hard time defining what that is. The Messiah has come. The Son of the Master of the House has arrived and we acclaim and proclaim him. We seek to follow him, imperfectly of course but yet faithfully. Our leaders should be careful of obstructing God’s people from God’s son, perhaps with sermons that focus not on the Son but rather on social justice or other issues we presume are highest on God’s list of priorities. But this is still a stretch, still awkward.

Is there another way to hear Jesus’ story of tenants and a land owner?

Perhaps if we allow Jesus to guide us, through his quoting of Psalm 118. Go ahead and follow the link to read the psalm BUT, as you do so, read it as though Jesus is speaking the words of the psalm. Not just the one verse He quotes directly, but the entire psalm. Read it as though Jesus is speaking Psalm 118 for the first time ever, composing it on the spot, as it were. And bear in mind the context. This is Holy Week. The Holy Week. The first Holy Week. Jesus rode into town on Palm Sunday a day or maybe two ago. He’s cleared the Temple courtyards of moneychangers and animal sellers. Now He’s being pressed to defend his actions. His adversaries are gnashing their teeth, chomping at the bit to get at him and get him out of the way. Tension mounts. In just a few days Jesus will be arrested, tried, convicted, executed, buried. And just three days after that, He will be alive again.

Read Psalm 118 in that context.

Pretty wild, eh? Eerie how well the entire psalm fits not only Jesus but Jesus at this particular moment in time, on the cusp of fulfilling the fullness of his Incarnate purpose.

And it transforms this from a text applying to you and me and church leadership throughout all time, into a declaration of victory against the group of men standing in front of him. Close enough for him to smell the sweat on their brows as they grit their teeth in the sunlight, aching to get rid of him and unable to do anything but pretend they’re listening just like everyone else. But they aren’t. This group of men with murder in their hearts, who refused to acknowledge John the Baptist and now refuse to acknowledge Jesus. This group of men in their fine robes and tefillin. With their tallits practically on permanent display, so convinced they’re right, so convinced they are doing the will of God in plotting murder.

We lose many interpretative options when we presume every single thing Jesus says is only for edification, only for justification and sanctification. Perhaps some of the things He says only He can say – perfectly, sinlessly, poignantly, stingingly. Perhaps sometimes all we can do is listen and give thanks to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world through his insistence on obedience to the will of God rather than his own. Through suffering and death and blood and burial, to resurrection and ascension and victory and honor.

Mobs and Justice

September 25, 2020

Once again there are mobs floating around major cities in our country demanding justice after the decision of a grand jury not to indict any of the police officers involved in the tragic shooting death of Breonna Taylor. The range of these protests is typically broad, from peaceful protests to more violent protests. The Los Angeles Times reported about two cars that “plowed” through protestors, implying guilt on the part of the drivers, though when you actually read the article it’s far from clear that’s necessarily the best characterization of what happened.

First off, a reminder that protests which block traffic are illegal, though some states allow protestors to block streets if they obtain a permit in advance. But a mob of people arbitrarily deciding to block traffic is in itself an illegal act – pretty much all the time as far as my limited Internet research shows. I’m happy to be proved wrong with appropriate links in the comments section. This document from the ACLU indicates as much. Blocking traffic is in itself illegal, an irony somehow lost in the shuffle of cries for justice, which clearly then are cries for justice in certain situations rather than others, problematic in the least. And needless to say, attacking vehicles and their drivers is very, very illegal, very much against the idea of justice the protestors claim to be demanding. At least one of the vehicles in the LA Times article received extensive damage from protestors who were angered it didn’t want to stop. The car that struck one of the protestors is also said to have damage on it, damage the driver claims was inflicted on the vehicle first and which caused the driver to try and escape the crowd.

Complicated stuff at best, though the headlines certainly wouldn’t lead the casual reader to that conclusion. I don’t think they intend to, frankly.

The cry for justice in this situation is also problematic. The death of anyone is a tragedy, and certainly the death of someone in their own home at the hands of public agents of any kind is additionally odious and should call for investigation. However, investigation actually did happen. The cries and protests for justice come after a grand jury determined no criminal charges were appropriate against the officers involved for Taylor’s death. The officers weren’t cleared of wrong doing by an internal investigation but by a grand jury. A grand jury is a means for determining possible offenses in a situation and lodging official charges to be pursued in a court of law. A grand jury is made up of private citizens, similar to the jury in a court case. They are assembled and tasked with determining to the best of their ability whether a crime has or hasn’t been committed.

So the crowds blocking roads and attacking motorists in a demand for justice are ignoring the fact that justice has already been applied. Typically 16-23 people are assembled for a grand jury and a majority of them must agree a crime was committed and indicate which law was broken. So the majority of the people on the grand jury for this case determined the police officers did not violate a law.

That doesn’t mean Taylor’s death isn’t tragic. It doesn’t mean that perhaps the existing laws might need to change, and already there is discussion towards that end regarding the serving of no-knock warrants, where police can enter a home without prior notification or warning. Of course there are also reasons why such warrants exist, such as protecting officers from a coordinated, deadly response to their ringing of the doorbell or knocking on the door. In this particular case the man they were looking for – an ex-boyfriend’s of Taylor – was not there. Yet her current boyfriend was there, and he was armed, and he opened fire on officers first.

I don’t hear the protestors talking much about that. Clearly, this is a more complicated situation than some people would like it to be. Some details don’t contribute to a story of an innocent young woman shot to death in her own home by reckless and uncaring agents of the State. Apparently the majority of the grand jury realized this as they explored the facts of the case.

So what is justice then? If the due process of the law is inadequate, what do the protestors suggest as an alternative? Is it a matter of mob justice, so to speak, where if enough people scream and yell and threaten and destroy property, they determine the appropriate verdict in a trial? Is this justice? Do what we demand or we destroy things?

Grand juries have been around for over 800 years and are part of a cherished and celebrated legal process and set of protections against mob justice or the arbitrary whims of power. They’re intended to provide as much assurance as possible that a crime really has – or hasn’t – been committed, regardless of which persons or powers demand an outcome to suit their own preferences or interests. Against this what do the protestors suggest as an alternative?

Deadly force is deadly serious, without a doubt. That’s something police officers are trained to recognize and to which they are at least theoretically held accountable. They are also responsible for performing dangerous work like serving warrants on premises or for people that are known to be dangerous and capable of killing them. That’s a lot of pressure to be under, even for professionals, and something the law seeks to take into account. I also assume the man who fired on those police officers when they entered the home understands that deadly force is deadly serious, and if you’re going to pull a gun and start shooting immediately rather than waiting to assess the situation a bit better, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re probably more comfortable with deadly force than the average person. Cries for justice ought to reasonably include why this man opened fire immediately.

Bad things happen. Sometimes bad things happen because of bad people, and in those situations the bad people should be held accountable. But not all bad things are matters of injustice or a matter of bad people. This is something that should be – and is – evident regardless of your ethnicity. Yet even ethnic minorities are denounced and vilified if they question or disagree with the mob justice mindset that insists on a particular verdict. Do the mobs have all the details and information the grand jury did? Is their shouting and blocking traffic a superior insight into the happenings of that fateful day? Does their anger somehow trump whatever facts are available?

Should it? Is that how we want verdicts reached – by whoever screams the loudest or makes the most intimidating threats?

Are the protestors demanding an end to grand juries? Are they demanding that police be disbanded? Are they demanding an end to no-knock warrants? Are they demanding a particular charge and conviction of murder in this particular case? Are they demanding other things not specific to this case but part of a larger agenda of change? And how will they respond if a larger or more vocal or more violent group of protestors shows up and demands just the opposite? Who decides who is right? Is it just a matter of starting to shoot and stab each other and see who is left at the end of the exchange? Or do we rather place our faith in a good albeit imperfect system of law, knowing that sometimes injustices will go unpunished, but that far more often than not justice will be done, and can be relied on to be done without protests and threats and violence?

If the laws need to be changed then work for change. But that change involves not simply making demands under threat of violence but wrestling with the difficult realities of a sinful and broken world where many bad people exist, and where most of them probably don’t wear a badge. If you want to agitate for change then know what it is you’re agitating for as well as what you’re agitating against. Because tragedy happens every single day. This doesn’t make it less tragic. But compounding tragedy with riots and threats of violence does make it more tragic, especially if you don’t really understand what it is you’re asking for or protesting against.

Reporting Jesus

September 22, 2020

I don’t for a second believe this guy is legitimate in the least. That’s not the point of this post.

But in reading this news report I realized this is probably how Jesus’ death was reported by the Powers That Be. We have the underground report, the eye-witness up-close reports in the Gospels – four separate, individual reports by or of people intimately familiar with Jesus – Matthew and John, both in Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples, Mark’s account which is basically a retelling of Peter’s preaching and teaching about Jesus, and Peter was another of the twelve disciples, and finally Luke’s account which is a compilation of testimonies. Although modern, more liberal scholarship will try to argue that Matthew and Luke are basically just copies of Mark, careful reading argues against this assertion.

In any event, the Gospels portray Jesus by those who knew him best. But how would Jewish or even Roman reports have read, were newspaper articles a thing? The article above probably gives us a good taste.

It would describe Jesus as a cult leader, which immediately categorizes ahead of time how the reader/hearer thinks about the person. Cults are bad and dangerous, right? Fanatical at the least, abusive and evil at worst. Jesus was likely described as a cult leader claiming to be the Son of God. Cults are small and separated from the mainstream and therefore inherently suspicious.

Jesus would have faced charges for an illegal religion, perhaps, but certainly for blasphemy, and perhaps for allegations of abusive behavior. Jesus didn’t often mince words with his opponents, which I’m sure some might categorize as abusive. Certainly his stern rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16:23 could be interpreted as abusive. Without knowing context, or by misinterpreting context (either intentionally or accidentally) any number of situations could be classified under dire-sounding language. I’m sure the article might characterize Jesus as a former carpenter. Such wording lead the reader/hearer to question why the accused wasn’t still doing their former work, what prompted their shift to religious leader or spiritual teacher, and calls into question their credentials for doing so.

Like the article above, Jesus was apprehended by a special operations unit likely consisting of Roman soldiers as well as Temple police, guided by an informant. The desire to apprehend an influential figure away from his followers who might endanger themselves to protect him is nothing new.

A historical news report might cite how Jesus embarked in a radically new direction after a spiritual awakening in the Jordan River under the influence of another charlatan, John the Baptist. The sudden change in lifestyle would certainly demonstrate some level of psychological instability, or at least cause the reader/hearer to infer it.

The need to try and evaluate what is reported and how it is reported is important, as the ability to smear someone in the press is nothing new and perhaps easier than ever with ubiquitous, instant news feeds and the ability to create or locate condemning evidence of a digital nature. The particular charges will vary by circumstance and reflect those charges considered most odious in a particular context. Christians were accused early on of both being atheists as well as cannibals. Jesus was charged with blasphemy. Jewish people through the centuries have been accused of murdering Christian babies. Charges hardly need to be religious in nature. Consider the sudden disappearance and then reported arrest and conviction of a leading Chinese dissent figure, convicted of corruption, something odious in a Communist country.

It’s said that history is written by the victors and there’s truth in this. Likewise, news is written by people who control the channels of information. In both cases, truth is sometimes difficult to discern or separate from opinion!

Cold Comfort

September 21, 2020

What a relief.

If a COVID vaccine in the United States turns out to be dangerous or unsafe, we know who we can blame. Dr. Anthony Fauci has assured MSNBC and the American public that if anything goes wrong with the vaccine process, he’ll take “the heat” for it and make sure we’re kept informed.

I’m sure he will. Whether he should or not is more complicated. But not as complicated as exactly what his taking “the heat” will actually accomplish. I assume at some level it means he’s willing to fall on his sword and resign in disgrace from his position if a vaccine is approved that turns out to be dangerous. Of course, with no long-term clinical studies ahead of time, it may well not be possible to know of potential problems with the vaccine until long after Dr. Fauci has either retired peaceably or even died.

If he has to retire because of the fallout of a bad vaccine roll-out, I have no doubt there are plenty of sympathetic individuals and companies who would be happy to ensure he doesn’t end up homeless in exchange for the relative luster of even a disgraced former immunology expert on their board.

Fauci might take some level of public blame, but that hardly means much. Especially since he’s not a political figure or a political appointee in any substantive manner. Not much comfort – not if you or your child or loved one is affected for life by unanticipated side effects of a vaccine. At the very worst, Fauci can rely on the passage of time and the dustbin of history to remove his name from common parlance and disparagement. But I guess that’s what those who might suffer side effects can count on as well. Nothing lasts forever, certainly not even life itself.

I’m not faulting Dr. Fauci or even MSNBC. This is political talk and it’s expected and perhaps has some place. But let’s be clear about the limitations of such talk. Having a scapegoat hopefully won’t be necessary. But if it is, nobody’s going to be very comforted by knowing who to point the finger at, no matter how willing that person is to be pointed at.