The Story Does Not Begin On Christmas

Christians are taught that the story of Jesus, and thus our story, begins on Christmas and ends on Easter. As a Christian I think it better if we were taught that our story begins in Babylon. The destruction of the temple, the exile of Judah, the release from exile, reconstruction of the temple and religious cooperation with political power set the context of the New Testament. To understand meaning, one must start at the beginning.

Thy Kingdom Come, My Kingdom Go

One sabbath Jesus was in a synagogue and noticed a man with a deformed hand. Knowing that the law and order folks there were watching to see whether he would break the law, Jesus asked the man to stand up in front of everyone.
Jesus asked, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath, to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill?” The law and order people remained silent.
Jesus was angry and deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts. He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand” and as he did so, his hand was completely restored. The law and order people left the synagogue and began to plot to kill Jesus
(Mark 3:1-6 paraphrase mine)

In the story above Jesus is fully aware that he is being watched to see whether or not he would break the law and thus give the law and order people that which they needed to bring legal charges against him. The Pharisees, or the law and order folks, were simply enforcing the law, and to the letter they were right, Jesus broke the literal law. However, what Jesus was telling these people is that the law’s purposes, to do good rather than evil, where more important than the literal words of the law.

You can understand the law and order folks, who surely thought God was on their side. It was God’s laws they were upholding after all. And they could not imagine, nor abide the idea that God in Jesus was completing (accomplishing) the law they always knew. (See Matthew 5:17-18, John 17:4, John 19:30, Ephesians 2:15)

Fearing they will lose their position of privilege in a society that valued power through order above everything else, the law and order religious leaders collaborated with the empire, and Jesus was hung on a tree.

The law and order folks certainly thought they were in the right and at the moment of Jesus’ death it certainly looked that way, however three days later God raised Jesus from the dead, and in so doing declared Jesus right and the law and order folks wrong. (Matthew 17:5)

It is God’s vindication of Jesus on Easter that makes any claim that God holds the law above compassion emphatically wrong.

After Jesus’ resurrection, one of the most zealous of the law and order folks, a man named Saul, had an encounter with the risen Christ. Mind blown by the reality that the Messiah was hung on a tree, an act to which the law says the hung person is cursed, Saul turned a 180 and became what he was persecuting. So dramatic was the change that even his name was changed to Paul, as if he was a new person. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Paul spent ten years after his first encounter with Christ wrestling with what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection meant for the law, for the Jews, and for the Gentiles. (Galatians 3:19-28)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

If you have read all Paul’s letters you know that his answer to what Christ crucified means centers on the limitations of the law and how that blinds us from fully seeing God’s grace and experiencing his love. Paul’s theology, most of which is practically synonymous with Christian theology, is why quoting Paul to support law over compassion is either ignorant or insincere. (Galatians 2:21).

The law and order people of Jesus’s day were so blinded by the power the law provided them over everyone else that they did not see God in their midst. The consequence of their blindness was felt as Jesus predicted. About thirty years after Jesus was crucified, despite the best efforts of the law and order folks to retain their positions of privilege, most were put to death, their temple destroyed, and Jerusalem left in ruins by the Romans, never to be the same again. (Luke 21:5-6)

When Christians pray using words Jesus taught, we say “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” One cannot declare with its fullest meaning, “thy kingdom come” without also saying at the same time, “my kingdom go.” On earth, as it is in heaven.

Simply Childish

People even brought babies to him, for him to touch them; but when the disciples saw this they scolded them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. In truth I tell you, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ Luke 18: 15–17

In a recent blog post I shared the above scripture and using the title of the post I asked, is this a cute story or important theology? If you are like me, as you hear this passage you might recall images of Jesus kneeling down, smiling, and looking at the face of these children thanks to the iconography of the Roman Catholic tradition. We must set aside these cute images and look at this passage with fresh eyes because I think it is important teaching.

The passage above in Luke comes after Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee and tax collector praying. The Pharisee prays, thanking God that he is not a sinner like the tax collector, while the tax collector continually beats his breast asking God, “be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus ends the parable saying, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humbled themselves will be exalted.”

Why does Luke follow the parable of the Pharisee with this interlude about people bringing children to Jesus? Perhaps the passage that follows after it provides a clue to the answer.

Luke follows the passage about children with another parable about a rich ruler. A wealthy man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus quotes the commandments, to which the man replies that he has kept all of them since his youth. Jesus then says there is one more thing for this man to do, sell all he owns and distribute the money to the poor. The man becomes sad and Jesus says, “How hard is it for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

The Pharisee believed he was better than the tax collector because he fasted and tithed, and the ruler believed eternal life came through keeping the commandments. Neither of these men were particularly bad, they in fact were simply living with in the norms of their society. It seems to me given the context of the parables of the Pharisee and the Rich Man, Luke has Jesus teaching us about something different than the norms of society as it was in his day and as it is for us today, and here are two important points to consider.

First, for me after 52 years of living to become like a little child I must unlearn many things. A child doesn’t know much about science or laws or medicine or business or religion; all these things I must unlearn. If this is true, then my practices, my religion if you will, must be one of continual emptying. Most importantly, I must empty myself of all that which I think I know about the world around me and of how I think of God.

In other words, and this I think is the second point of this passage, I must release all of my beliefs. No child is born believing anything, a child has no concept of belief or disbelief. Belief is something taught to children, and unfortunately the “eating of the apple moment” for most children occurs when they learn that Santa Claus or the tooth fairy is not real. We don’t learn about belief until we learn about lying. How ironic it is that this usually comes from parents who later implore their children not to lie to them, not realizing they are the very ones who introduced the concept of lying to their children!

What every child, in fact just about every mammal, is born with is trust. It is instinctual, we trust that to which we were literally connected to during the first nine months of our existence to protect us, to feed us, and to take care of us. Time and time again from infant through childhood our trust is reinforced, and trust reinforced over time is love. Such love, which John says is God, is what we all need to live through our encounter with the tree of good and evil.

Do you now see the truth in what Jesus is saying in this passage? To get to the level of trust into which we fall into agape, which John says is God, we must let go, unlearn, and release our grip on beliefs and open ourselves back up to our childhood. So simple it takes a lifetime to learn.

Doubt and Hope

“As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13

One of the most commonly known passages of the Bible is from the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. You often hear it read at weddings due to its beautiful language of love. What I find interesting is that after twelve verses about love, Paul ends comparing love’s greatness against faith and hope.

Circumstances in my life over the last three years has caused me to reflect on hope. I think that in our dualistic, either/or society hope is not truly known nor understood. Non-dualistic, both/and thinking brings a deeper appreciation for hope in light of doubt.

Western society lifts up confidence and casts doubters as weak. We all, as humans, have doubts but rarely admit them because we tend to think of them as wrong. Many Christians avoid expressing doubt, particularly in context of religion, lest they be accused of having little faith.

I am convinced that hope requires doubt, without doubt what is it that we are hopeful for? To say you have hope without acknowledging doubt is to only give lip service to hope, you are not really hopeful.

I think that what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 13:13 is that what we get from following Jesus is to trust (faith) more than we have before, hope more than we have before, and love more than we have before. Yet, isn’t it odd that he writes so much about love in the prior verses and then seemingly throws in faith and hope in the final verse of the chapter?

It might be that Paul didn’t think he needed to spend so much on faith and hope to his audience because they already had a deeper appreciation of them. Living in Roman occupation gave his audience a good dose of anxiety, the opposite of faith, and doubt, the opposite of hope. It may be they better knew the benefits of faith and hope because both were exercised every day just to exist.

Our egos and society in general like the simplicity of an either/or world. We gain the illusion of control by laying claim between two options, as if one can simply decide to have faith and hope. Reality is not that simple, anxiety and doubt exist and are in fact necessary to how we function as humans.

Anxiety can drive us to action and doubt can constrain decisions, faith and hope are the antidote to being paralyzed by anxiety and doubt. To live fully in faith and hope requires recognizing our anxieties and doubts and living with them in love with Jesus.

Jesus never promised to eliminate our fears and doubts, but he does promise to help us more fully understand faith and hope by facing our fears and doubts. To know hope is to know doubt.

Many of us today have doubt about the world around us and what lies ahead. While there are many ways things could end badly, there is also the possibility that we begin to learn how to love the other, our neighbor, the human of a different economic status, different race, different ethnicity, different citizenship, different faith tradition, and different sexual orientation.

In a time in history not too unlike ours, in which many were anxious and doubted that the future would be better, Jesus proclaimed God was doing something new, God’s reign had begun, and implored us to turn towards that reign. Just around the corner of doubt lies hope, just waiting to be seen.