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Festival for All

December 8, 2023

As Christian and secular worlds celebrate Christmas each winter, Jews celebrate Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה, also spelled Chanukah). Although by-and-large these two holidays are unrelated, there is one piece of common ground around which Jews, Christians, and all people can readily celebrate.

But first, what are these holidays? In a nutshell, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, thought to be around 5 B.C. give or take a few years; Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish Temple's rededication in 164 B.C.

Hanukkah menorah

In 168 B.C., King Antiochus IV—a Seleucid—looted the Temple, mascaraed Jews, and outlawed their religion. He placed an altar for Zeus inside the Temple and ordered other atrocities. Not surprisingly, there was pushback and violence. By 164, Jews led by Judas the "Maccabee" ("Hammer") recaptured the Temple, purified it, and rededicated it to God.

As the story goes, there was only enough uncontaminated oil to fuel the holy candles for one day. New oil could not be produced more quickly than eight days. Trusting in God, however, they dedicated the Temple and lit the candles. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days . . . hence the eight days of Hanukkah and its iconic candelabra.

So what do Christmas and Hanukkah have in common? Luke 2:10 of the Christmas story recounts that the angel said to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid. I bring good news of great joy that is for all people." All people is the key. Christmas is about Jesus coming for all people—all those who accept it. Hanukkah is about religious freedom—a value for all people.

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, and it should be, but that doesn't mean that Gentiles can't appreciate the broader implications: In the 2nd century B.C., courageous individuals fought against religious persecution, arose victorious, and restored their right to worship. Whichever holidays are marked on your calendar, raise a glass for freedom-of-religion.

Chew on It

November 16, 2023

With just shy of 1,200 chapters, at a rate of just over 3 per day, the Bible can be read cover-to-cover in less than one year. This is the goal of many, and there is a wealth of "Bible in a year" plans to make it happen. But is this the best approach?

For general familiarity, reading the Bible in a year is a good start. However, appreciation of the Bible comes through slow study, back and forth reading, contemplation, and chewing. Yes, chewing. Rumination the way that a cow chews cud: taking its time, going over the same pieces again and again and again to thoroughly digest them.

Cow licking its lips

Continuing the theme of "Weaning": Don't binge the Bible. Digest it slowly. Chew the cud. The beauty of the Bible is in its development, cross-reference, subordinate plots, and meta-themes. Form a literary view, much of the Bible is poetry, allegory, and allusion; these styles require contemplation and thoughtfulness.

I imagine that a streamlined, no-duplicate-information Bible would be half its current size or less. But the Bible is not an executive summary, it's the opposite—it's a lifelong pursuit and endless study. When multiple Gospels recount the same event or story, we are not supposed to skim or skip it, we are supposed to wonder about their similarities and differences, about what made an encounter stand out in the minds of multiple witnesses, about the perspectives of those witnesses and what it means about the author, the event, and the meaning.

In the Christian Old Testament, the books of Samuel and the Kings are immediately followed by the Chronicles. Chronicles, as many readers note, repeats much of what's found in Samuel and Kings. The Jewish Bible, for these several books, is perhaps better organized. The Jewish Bible—called Tanakh, which holds the same contents as Christian Old Testament—places Chronicles at the end, with hundreds of pages of Prophets and Wisdom between it and the Samuel-Kings narrative of the nation's kingship.

Perhaps this is because we are meant to read Chronicles under the influence of the books of Prophets and Wisdom, our perspective of the kingship having been colored by these other writings. When we encounter Chronicles, we're not supposed to speed through it because we know the stories already; instead, we’re supposed to approach them with a more robust understanding of God's people than we had when concluding Kings.

There is a great satisfaction in completing the Bible in a year. But we're never really supposed to complete it, are we? After all, when we arrive at the back cover, don't we turn it once more to the front and begin again? In that case, don't speed-read the Bible; chew on it. Chew on it the way that a cow chews cud. As the Lord told Joshua: "Never stop reading this Book of the Law. Day and night you must think about what it says."

Weaning

October 11, 2023

According to What to Expect, most babies are ready for solid food at around 6 months. By Paul's estimation, however, Christians—at least First-Century Corinthians—take much longer.

When writing to the church at Corinth, Paul lamented thusly: "I couldn't talk to you like spiritual people, but like unspiritual people—like infants, not adults. I had to give you milk, not solid food, because you weren't ready for it yet. Even now, you still aren't ready."

First foods for a baby

Paul wanted the Corinthians to grow up, mature, and advance their understanding of the faith and manifestation of the same. And yet, the average among them wasn't ready. I wonder why these fledgling Christians held fast to the bottle. The possibilities are endless, but I suspect that part of the reason is that weaning is difficult.

Even for babies who are interested in food and take it well, weaning is tough. There is familiarity in milk; in it, there is comfort. Weaning cuts loose the safety net, the tried and true, the constantcy of a loving mother, or of a dear friend, or of an unwavering companion.

In his metaphor, Paul said, "Let's get going! Let's move beyond the introduction, the day-one, the entry-level!" We can't be mathematicians if we never attempt algebra. We can't be athletes if we never lift a heavier weight or run a faster mile. We can't be kingdom-builders if we never learn a new cut or joint or tool. Paul wanted to teach the Corinthians calculus, show them how to cartwheel, and get them using table saws . . . but they insisted on milk, not solid food.

This predicament reminds me also that it's not all on the teacher. Students must practice themselves. Learners must attempt on their own time and from their own internal motivation. If not, each new week, the teacher has no recourse but to review the old material once again, and again, and again.

Weaning is difficult. We have to want it. If it's forced on us, we'll cry and choke and fuss and, with bloated red faces, beg Paul for another bottle. Furthermore, we have to take what we're given, learn it, practice it, and show up ready for the next level. In the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro, Don Diego told Alejandro that, "there is a saying, a very old saying: When the pupil is ready the master will appear." The Corinthians were not ready for Paul, but perhaps we can be pupils who are.

Rosh Hashanah

September 15, 2023

L'shanah tovah—"For a good year!" Sundown today marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה), one of several that can be thought of as a Jewish New Year. The holiday commemorates the anniversary of creation.

Row boat on the water at sundown

Rosh Hashanah, which means "head of the year", begins a 10-day period of repentance and contemplation. The ten Days of Awe soberly recognize that God is lord of all and has authority to judge creation. Yom Kippur (יוֹם כִּפּוּר)—the Day of Atonement—ends this period.

Atonement means that sins are forgiven . . . not without payment, however. That's why it is, after all, "atonement": amends, redress, reparation, expiation, recompence, etc. The wrong has been righted, the debt paid. Not that God made a sudden volte-face and put aside justice for the sake of gentleness. Even better: that God accepted payment on our behalf.

Traditionally, the Days of Awe are an intervening time between sentencing—Rosh Hashanah; God's judgement—and execution—Yom Kippur; payments due. These ten days are viewed as an opportunity to make amends, appeal God's ruling, and change the outcome.

Although Christians don't celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or the Days of Awe, they are good opportunities to reflect on these things: God brought creation into existence; the Holy One insists on justice; Jesus atoned for all sins. These certainly herald a good year!

How to Knock

August 25, 2023

Following "Who's Knocking?", a reader asked, "How do I knock?" Such questions, I suppose, are the million-dollar ones. Indeed, whether I'm knocking on God's door, or God at mine, when I want to connect already, what do I do?

Of course, I could advise that one read the Bible, pray, attend a Christ-focused church, and more. While I don't discourage these, I only feel that they leave many people nonplussed if, after some time, no a-ha moment arrives. Indeed, if there were a physical door, this would all be easier.

Large door in brick wall with bicycle in front

As Jesus asked that we serve others to the degree we serve ourselves, I suggest that approach: For as often as you read a chapter of the Bible, discuss it with someone else; when you pray, pray with and for others; for every hour you sit in a pew, spend another in the field or on the streets.

My next thought is to set appropriate expectations. The Bible is full of heroes who go years between hearing God's voice. And whereas some people received angels in-the-flesh, others only in dreams, and still others only heard God's voice thorough mere mortals. We can recall sentiments from "Four Common Answers", "Raspberry Pie", and "Excruciatingly Necessary".

Lastly, keep at it. Persistence seems to be a commonality among successful God-seekers. While in the previous blog I suggested that God is easy to find, elsewhere (cf. "The God of Abraham") I speculate about why a God eager for our friendship can somehow feel so hidden. Such is one of the Lord's many mysteries. Accordingly, abide. Endure and persist in the pursuit. If what you're doing doesn't feel fruitful, you can pivot, but don't stop. Seek God eagerly and dutifully.

The metaphor of the door, the knocking, and who even owns the door encourage me to extrapolate just a bit and wonder if the door is perhaps a bit sticky, a bit rusty, or warped, or subjected to a pressure differential. Ok then, so we have either knocked or heard knocking, parties both sides of the door want it opened, but what next? I suppose the answer, dear reader, for "How to Knock?" is to push. Push and pull and punch and pry and, surely, it will open.

Who's Knocking

July 27, 2023

Since at least the days of King Guthred (Northumbria, c. 890 AD), until 1624, criminals who managed to reach and knock at the Sanctuary Knocker of Durham Cathedral were granted immediate sanctuary for 37 days. Kept apart from the rest of the church, the fugitives were nevertheless provided and cared for. This was called the "Right to Sanctuary".

Simple door knocker on wooden door

Both Matthew 7 and Luke 11 include the following well-known encouragement from Jesus: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to whoever knocks, it will be opened." Therefore, if we knock at God's door—search for the Holy One, calling out "Lord, where are you? I'm looking for you!"—then God will answer.

Of course, God's answering doesn't always feel like the master of the house throwing the door wide open. Sometimes it's a still, small voice that answers; at others, some pertinacious Christian.

My wonder, though, is this: More often than not, who's knocking on whose door? Me at God's, or God at mine? We are, thankfully, told that if we knock at God's door, it will be opened. But I wonder how many doors God is knocking on right now. How many people have God just outside? For how many has the Lord drafted an invitation or prepared a mission? The Holy One just needs us to respond.

The ideas of seeking and knocking conjure images of circumvallate fortresses and redoubtable edifices like the Durham Cathedral. Though, rather than be intimidated, maybe we should remember that at any time—day or night—two monks waited by the Sanctuary Knocker to welcome fugitives into the Right to Sanctuary.

But what if it's even better than that? What if we don't even need to search high and low for God's door? Perhaps the Lord is waiting right outside ours. God frequently knocks, then steps just to the side to await an answer. When we're ready, we need only to open the door and call. The Lord isn't far away. After all, yes, we can knock at God's door, but God is already knocking at ours.

Corpus, Part 5

July 3, 2023

As an afterword to this blog series, let us reflect on the following words attributed to Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582):

Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Corpus, Part 4

June 21, 2023

This blog series about Corpus—that is, the Body—would be incomplete if it failed to mention the body upon which everything else rests. Indeed, the church is built on the broken body of Jesus. (It is important to distinguish that Jesus was not a broken man—defeated and demoralized—rather, albeit pressed, he and his resolve were victorious to the end.)

Communion elements of bread and wine with a cross

Physically, however, Jesus was quite injured. Episodes "Excruciatingly Necessary", "Don't Sell Yourself Short", and "The Standard of Stigmata" spend time discussing the specifics of Christ's crucifixion wounds; here, then, we can limit ourselves to asking: Why? Why did Jesus endure such physical hardships? In short, it was his—God's—divine love for mankind… the type of love that insists on solidarity: Since life is hard, Jesus joined us in the hardship.

The hardships began long before the execution. In fact, the Christmas story details the inconveniences surrounding his birth and infancy: gossip and scandal, Roman taxmen compelling the father-to-be to leave his hometown during his fiancée's pregnancy, a midnight flight to Egypt to avoid murder, etc. Later in life, Jesus was a member of the worked-to-death laboring class. If the Shroud of Turin is to be believed, even Jesus's hands were the oversized, muscular hands of a proletariat… maybe even of a carpenter (though such details of his life are unknown).

Of course, at the end of his life, there were the beatings and tortures prior to, and during, his crucifixion, as foreshadowed only hours before his arrest: Jesus, during Passover, broke bread before his disciples and told them that it represented himself; he also took a cup of wine and used it as a metaphor for his own blood which soon would be spilt. (Read "Bread and Wine" for more details.) At that meal which we refer to as the Last Supper, Jesus instructed his followers to reenact what he was doing there—breaking bread and drinking wine—so that whosoever would partake of those elements could be reminded of the broken body and shed blood that made the ensuing era possible.

The new age began with the body of Christ and his body of believers, who became the body of the church—a church in which every member has an important role, even ears and feet and tax collectors and fishermen and… and even you. The church has been entrusted to us, to maintain and support and build, and God-willing we will pass it to the next generation, and they to the next, until finally the Kingdom of Heaven is brought to earth and Christ's great commission fulfilled. This is the promise: the body was broken so neither we nor the world has to be. Realizing that ideal is the highest calling of the body of believers.

Corpus, Part 3

May 28, 2023

"Come for the music; stay for the preaching." This adage of contemporary church management is, honestly, quite accurate. Good music both is attractive and an easy invitation: "You should check out my church; the music is on-point!" Truly, however, the music—being but one component of any given service—will not keep a person in attendance week after week; for that, a good preacher is needed: someone who strikes the perfect balance of humor and insight, subversion and tradition, propriety and informality, etc. With a worship leader luring the masses and a speaker captivating them, a church is sure to thrive.

Piano keys with sheet music

Or is it? How does one measure the success of a congregation? How would God measure it? The most common ways that churches compare themselves are with budget, attendance (and growth), and baptisms. But are these accurate? Indeed, corporations can pursue trademarks and copyrights weekly, be exceedingly profitable, and have ever-growing reaches… and yet treat their workers poorly, operate unethically, sell cheap products, and be just plain bad for the world. Of course, a thriving church will have generous members, growing numbers, and baptisms a-plenty, but do such metrics equal success? How is a successful church different from a successful secular organization?

Instead of using music to invite others, what if your inner light were sufficiently intriguing: that radiance of Christ followers that makes others gape in wonder: the lively joy, the inexplicable peace, the uncommon generosity, the loving grace? These Christian qualities should attract newcomers by the masses. Concerts have music, but church has every elixir of life! Come for the welcome, the acceptance, the grace, the hospitality, and the what-do-you-have-that-I-don't.

Once inside, why stay? Why return? What if it were not "stay for the preaching", but rather, "stay for the one who is preached about"? Perhaps the je ne sais pas of a Christ-follower will pique one's interest enough to walk through the door, but God-willing that it is the Christ himself who is found therein. Preachers are mortal and fallible, but Jesus is eternal, flawless, and the Church's rightful cornerstone.

Great worship is delightful and quality preaching felicitous, but I don't want to come for the music and stay for the preaching; I want to come for the promise of new life and stay for the one who gives it. Church is more than anthems and oratory, it is Jesus and it is people. When measuring success, above all other metrics, every congregation must ask itself if people come for Jesus; then, even more importantly, Do they find him?

Corpus, Part 2

May 3, 2023

Model of a Saturn V rocket during launch

In the 1995 masterpiece Apollo 13, Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) said that "the astronaut is only the most visible member of a very large team, and all of us, right down to the guy sweeping the floor, are honored to be a part of it." Replace the word "astronaut" with "preacher", and we have a fair description of many modern churches. While it is true that, from the outside, it might appear that there is no place for your unique talents, first impressions aren't always what they seem. Jesus intended his church to represent the entire body of believers (not just as sit-in-the-pews passive spectators, mind you, but as a get-in-there-and-do-something active contributors).

All types of people are needed in God's movement. The church has lasted for two millennia because, from the very beginning, it made use of all its members' penchants. Consider administratively-minded Matthew, scholarly best-seller Paul, passionate-though-uncouth take-charger Peter, hands-and-feet doer Stephen, push-you-outside-your-comfort-zone Mary (the mother), street-smart Mary (the Magdalene), well-connected wealthy-man Joseph (the Arimathean), and so many more.

Consider also that none of these people began (or necessarily ended) as experts. In Luke 10, Jesus commissioned some six-dozen followers to travel the country spreading peace and encouragement that "the Kingdom of Heaven is very near." None of these people had advanced degrees in ministry, and probably few of them were familiar with the places they visited or people they met. Furthermore, Jesus did not send them with well-crafted visuals, links to a website that explained everything, cheat-sheets, housing stipends, nor anything but the clothes on their backs and the greatest news ever uttered this side of eternity.

This is not to say that we should refuse resources or venture unprepared into the unknown; however, it does mean that we cannot shy away from our Christian duties to share the Gospel and trust in the Holy Spirit's provision. The modern church needs an all-hands-on-deck approach just as much as the nascent church did.

Model of a person holding another person

But if you are still thinking that you're not qualified, then take heart, for neither were all of the six-dozen. In Matthew 17, we hear about an epileptic boy that the disciples were unable to cure. Instead, the boy's father had to take the child directly to Jesus. Later on, in confidence, Jesus counseled the unsuccessful disciples that they needed stronger faith and more time with the Father. The disciples' failure (though embarrassing, surely) helps us greatly, because it encourages us that we don't need to be perfect, we just need to keep at it.

As we began with a quote from a movie, let us also end with one: In Pearl Harbor (2001), Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle (played by Alec Baldwin) remarked that "there is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer." Perhaps this is true for the church, too. The best people to join Christ's congregation are the ones who are eager and willing to be used by God. After all, the body is composed of many members, each with its appointed role and proper place.

Corpus, Part 1

April 13, 2023

Paul famously satirized the Corinthians by asking, Because a foot is not a hand, does that mean it's not part of the body? Or, if an ear wished it were an eye, what then? How would one smell? Doesn't every part of the body have its appointed role? This caricature was intended to help the early Christians realize that every person had a place in the movement. Not everyone can lead the meeting nor speak in tongues nor interpret those tongues nor prophesy, etc., but there are other roles… right?

We understand what Paul was telling the Corinthians, and we feel that it's probably reasonable—it makes sense that everyone can help somehow, someway—but when push comes to shove, there are two main reasons why we find ourselves quoting Mr. Sad Ear and saying, "Because I'm an ear, not an eye, I guess there's no place for me in the body." The first is basically self-esteem: feeling inferior to the task, or embarrassed, or merely saying "I'm not the right person". Any way the pie is sliced, we ourselves fail to step forward and contribute to the body.

Orange traffic cones in a parking lot

But then there is the second reason: external circumstances. Just before squibbing the Corinthians with pouty feet and ears, Paul reminded those believers that there are many different gifts: wisdom, knowledge, healing, miracle-working, and others. To a contemporary church, the roles might need to be updated: There are gifts of preaching, music, managing the audio-visual, and … umm… parking-lot attendant? Maybe being an usher or bouncer?

Wait, what if my gifts include leadership or teaching or administration or compassion or healing or so many other things? How do I contribute those? In fairness, most churches will find a place for your talents if you'll only make them known, but then again there are others that already have their full complement of staff and can offer you little more than some orange traffic cones and a reminder that Service is a gift, too, and that people need to find parking.

One of the (regrettably many) tragedies of the historic Church was the Medieval-era dichotomy into Clergy and Laity. It relegated the majority of the church members to the sidelines and placed institutional barriers between the body of Christ and its ability to do anything. In essence, the church became a purblind, half-deaf, quadriplegic. These days, the bodies of most congregations have ditched the iron lungs and allow its members to wiggle a few toes, maybe even frisson as holidays like Christmas and Easter loom. But let's not praise the state of things; the Body ought to be skipping around like a school girl, accomplishing God's good works like we really believe that we have Good News to share and a perfect Kingdom to build here on earth! Over the next few blogs, we'll revisit the sentiments expressed in "First Principles" and think about how invigorate the Body once again.

Munus Triplex

March 16, 2023

In 1215 A.D., one of humanity's great charters of liberty—the Magna Carta—transformed England from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. Several millennia prior, however, the Kingdom of Israel adopted the world's earliest known constitutional monarchy—a kingdom in which the monarch himself is subject to Law. Ancient Israel prototyped other aspects of modern governance also; namely, separation of powers. Priests, prophets, and kings occupied distinct, non-overlapping roles. Additionally, a person who occupied one of these offices was forbidden from simultaneously holding any other; that is, a priest could not also be a king, nor a prophet be a priest, etc.

Bowl of olive oil

When a person assumed a role of priest, prophet, or king, he was anointed with oil, thus becoming an "anointed one" or "messiah". (Messiah—or rather, Mesiach (מָשִׁיחַ)—simply means "anointed one" in Hebrew.) Throughout the Old Testament, however, God continually promised to one day send more than simply a messiah, rather: the messiah, the consummation and fulfillment of all the others who had preceded him. The Messiah (definite article, capital "M") would be triply anointed and permitted to overcome Israel's separation of powers; he would occupy a threefold office: Priest, Prophet, and King.

The most recent podcast, "More on Melchizedek", discussed how Melchizedek foreshadowed the Messiah by holding two of those three roles: priest and king. Though the Priest-Prophet-King secretariat, enumerated as such, is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, Christian theologians since at least Eusebius in the third century have asserted that Jesus claims these three titles. In the 1530s, John Calvin provided the most comprehensive treatment of the "threefold office" (munus triplex in Latin). He and countless others have contributed voluminously to the understanding of munus triplex, but for our purposes, here is a very brief summarization:

Munus Triplex is the threefold office of Priest, Prophet, and King, occupied simultaneously and legitimately, reserved for God's promised Anointed One (Messiah), fulfilled in the person of Jesus. The consolidation of these roles within a single person corroborates God's approbation of the individual and validates his authority delegated from God.

Priests mediate between God and people. They intercede by offering sacrifices to God on behalf of sinners. In the book of Hebrews, its author avouched that Jesus, through self-sacrifice, acted as that mediator: He stood in the gap between sinful man and incorruptible God and brokered a new, restored relationship.

Prophets reveal God's will. In Deuteronomy 18, God vowed to raise up a great prophet, and the book of Acts explicitly equates that promised prophet to Jesus. When we observe the life of Jesus, we see God's will revealed in his teachings, interactions, and very essence.

Kings rule the kingdom and govern the subjects. In 1 Corinthians and elsewhere, the claim is made that Jesus rules the earth. In the blog collection of "Blind Animals", "Parousia", and "The Kingdom of Heaven", we dove deeper into Jesus's reign (including his/its seeming absence) and how followers of Jesus believe that he has complete authority over the entire earth, including even its imperfect administrators.

The Christian philosophy holds that all positions of power—from emperor or bishop, to team lead or HOA treasurer—and those who occupy them ought to adopt a servant mentality. Jesus demonstrated this by washing the disciples' feet at the Last Supper, but through the munus triplex, he continues to serve us every day—offering intercession, revelation, and leadership: the duties of Messiah.

Matthew

February 23, 2023

Jesus was famed for his willingness to associate with tax collectors and sinners. Instead of reviling, he went to them, famously remarking that "It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick." He even invited a tax collector named Levi-Matthew* to join him as one of the twelve disciples. (*Levi is his Hebrew name; Matthew is his Greek name.)

We don't know much about Matthew's contributions to Jesus's cause: his name is not cited as much as Peter's or John's; unlike each Mary, none of his great moments are recorded. Was Matthew even bold enough to have great moments, or was he more of a stereotypical accountant/taxman? Although he had no recorded lines in the New Testament, he made up for it with an entire narrative: the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus was probably strongly questioned for partnering with a tax collector, but consider the voice that this administrator gave to the movement:

A ledger

The Gospel of Matthew is certainly the work of one who is organized; its author sets about his task like a doctoral candidate designing a dissertation, carefully citing evidence upon evidence in support of his thesis that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Though written to a Jewish audience by a Jew, its orderliness would have made any Roman nod approvingly.

The Gospel of Mark—generally believed to have Peter as its primary source—is quick, to-the-point, and everything you'd expect from a proletariat and fisherman who, as we'd say today, was "street smart (not book smart)." Luke's gospel, written to Theophilus and other God-lovers of the Greek world, bares striking resemblances to other classics of the Greek world; its authorship is evident: a Greek writing to Greeks (about their Jewish savior). Finally, John's gospel, written a generation later, takes a wholly different approach to storytelling: He omits many of Jesus's better-known tales and instead gives his readers the vantage point of an intimate disciple.

Each gospel is distinct: Matthew the Jewish organizer, Mark the working-class everyman, Luke the Greek scholar, John the close friend. Even still, the once-reviled tax collector brought a perspective that might have been absent without him. The more-heady Jews were often grumpy at Jesus when he was alive, but due to Matthew's biography of the man, perhaps many of those scribes and Pharisees opened their eyes to the truth about Jesus. There is even a chance that Matthew’s logical theology paved the way for Paul’s erudite reasoning. Despite probable hesitations from his inner circle, Jesus knew beyond-a-doubt that Matthew was very much the right person for the job. All talents and all perspectives—even those of a tax collector—find gainful employment in the work of Christ.

Tax Collectors

February 3, 2023

"You've been told to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I tell you to love your enemies and pray for those who mistreat you… What is there to brag about if you love those who love you back? Don't even tax collectors do as much?" (Matthew 5:43-46)

Drawing of bag of money

A Stories of Symmetry listener asked, Why are tax collectors so reviled in the Bible? Great question! From the dawn of organized civilization to the present day, there has been universal contempt for the taxman. Even still, why, as in the passage above, are tax collectors used to represent the utter worst of the worst? What makes them so ungodly, leading to the phrase "tax collectors and sinners" being used at least eight times (!) in the gospels?

Judea, Galilee, and countless other territories of non-Romans had been subsumed by that great empire. First and foremost, then, taxes were levied by a foreign power rather than the people's own government, making it that much worse to bear. Secondly, the "tax rates" were harsh and did not consider if the taxed populations would be left with anything for themselves, leaving many as beggars.

Thirdly, the Romans employed natives as the empire's boots-on-the-ground taxmen; meaning that Jesus and other Jews had to relinquish their goods to fellow Jews in-league with Rome, a practice that cast tax collectors (or "publicans" as they're called by the King James Version) as traitors to their country. Fourthly, they were "paid" by collecting more money than Rome required and pocketing the difference. As such, it was easy for publicans to become excessively greedy: "Rome requires 3, but I'll tax you 5 and keep 2 for myself."

Statue of Julius Caeasr

There are more reasons, but let's pause and reflect: The first and second points explain only general dislike for taxation and easily applies to many of this blog's modern readers. The third and fourth points highlight the particularly cunning ways in which Rome managed its empire, demoralized its client states, and incentivized greed. However, none of these four quite explains why tax collectors were so vehemently reviled. To explain such antipathy, we must turn from the togated race and more-closely examine the Jewish one.

Despite many millennia's worth of explanation, interpretation, analysis, etc. of the Bible, its fundamental messages are few and simple. Joel, Amos, Micah, the Beatitudes, the Pauline letters, the whole of the Law and Prophets, the message of the apostles… they all point to the same few desires of God: love others, promote justice, help the vulnerable. Are there more than these? Of course. But God constantly returns to these wholesome practices as the rightful center of our attentions. (Think about what we discussed in "Fasting Not Required".) Tax collection, however, through the practices mentioned above, directly contradicted these fundamental mandates of Judaism, and perhaps this is what made its implementers so revolting.

Whether pious God-seekers preparing for Messiah or workaday laborers preoccupied by family matters, tax collectors were loathed by all. And yet Jesus challenged the crowds to love their enemies, love even those contemptible tax collectors. Jesus, for his part, asked one such publican to follow him, and that wretched soul did and became one of the Twelve. His name was Levi, also called Matthew, and it was in his account of Jesus that we find this blog's opening text. (We'll learn more about him in the next blog.) Indeed, even tax collectors are fit for the Good News; after all, it is intended for them and all sinners.

Change of Mind

January 5, 2023

Heralded by Isaiah, baptized by John, affirmed by the Spirit, tempted by Satan, attended by angels… it is not until verse fifteen of Mark's gospel that Jesus speaks. As translated in the King James Version of the Bible: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." While nearly every word of this short sermon is worthy of further investigation, let's look at just one word, for it is often inappropriately translated with a tone that is different than what Jesus probably intended. For misrepresenting Jesus, let us together "repent".

Statue of contemplative person

Mark writes μετανοεῖτε (me-ta-noe-ee-te), which is the plural imperative of μετανοέω (me-ta-no-e-oh). Typically, this word is translated as "repent" (although "convert" or "turn back" can yield harsher or softer attitudes, respectively, if desired). However, a more appropriate sense of this word is "change your mind", or better yet, "be open to considering something new". Jesus was not at the pulpit demanding, "Repent, ye sinners!" Rather, he was inviting them: "Please, change your thinking."

What should we reconsider? Perhaps the "Time[ing]" (of the Old Testament's "Day of the Lord"), the nature of its "Fulfillment", the "Kingdom of Heaven", the Gospel (literally, "good news"; that is, the good news about the Time of God's Kingdom being Fulfilled, and how), and of course what it means to "Believe" this Gospel.

All in all, Mark's first quotation from Jesus was an invitation. There was no force in his voice; no condemnation; no hellfire or calling-out specific sins and their perpetrators. Instead, Jesus looked at his beleaguered fellows who had been living under oppressive empires for centuries, who struggled to pay the rent and keep out of trouble, who were surrounded by feuding factions of their religion which could scarcely agree on anything anymore, who knew that God was supposed to help but questioned what that really meant… and offered them new hope.

Jesus said, "Are you ready to change your mind about what surrounds you? I have Good News for you: God's Day is here; Heaven is nearby. Reconsider your perceptions, and believe this." While the plights of these first-century Jews in no way resemble anyone's contemporary difficulties, maybe Jesus's words aren't irrelevant. Maybe we too are invited to have a change of mind. It is, after all, a new year, and the perfect time for a resolution such as this.

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