Archive for October, 2012

Luke’s Rebukes – pulling it together

Posted: October 31, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

A number of most interesting features have stood out in this survey:

1. The ‘sinners’ are never rebuked. Never ever. We could say that the sinners are the only ones who are not sinners in Luke. In Luke’s moral ordering of things, the sinners are at the top of the heap, the ones least responsible for evil. Elsewhere in Luke Jesus portrays them as lost, in need of rescue; as sick needing healing; as outcast and needing encouragement.  But not as rebellious, needing rebuke. Instead, the message is again and again that God sides with these ones in the judgement.

2. The ordinary people are rarely rebuked. On the occasions when they are, it is for blindness. They need their eyes opened to what God is doing in their midst. However, this blindness, under the influence of wicked leaders, could prove fatal. And so it becomes clear that Jerusalem faces ruin.

3. The disciples and other ‘good guy’ characters like Zechariah and Mary are rebuked mainly for blindness and unbelief. These are their besetting sins. They cannot assess things clearly, because their minds so often distort the signal. Frequently they fail to grasp what God is doing in front of their noses. Occasionally the disciples start talking like Pharisees, and then they get a sharp rebuke – but these are lapses, not their typical character.

4. The Pharisees and other religious leaders get the huge bulk of the rebukes in Luke. Like 80% or so. And these are typically the most stinging rebukes. Jesus never lets up on these guys, and always about the same things: greed for money, hidden by a veneer of religious uprightness which they use the dominate and oppress others. They are exposed as foolish and unbelieving as well – but their distinctive sins are that they exalt themselves socially, at the expense of the poor and the outcasts. They care nothing for honour from God, only from man. This is the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Of the classic Lutheran ‘trying to earn favour with God’ or ‘hope that your own goodness will be good enough for God’ – type of self-righteousness, which we talk about so much today, there is no hint in Luke. Not from the Pharisees, not from anybody.

5. The group rebuked most after the religious leaders is the rich and powerful. They combine the blind folly of the ordinary people with the oppressive greed of the Pharisees, and so sit somewhere in between. They appear to lack the self-righteous instinct. The rich are sternly threatened with God’s wrath, while the poor are overtly not. Rather, the poor are offered the opposite: relief and restoration when God’s kingdom arrives.

Summary and Conclusion:

Not everyone in Luke’s Gospel is in the same position or condition under sin. Some people are definitely (to quote King Lear) more sinned against than sinning. For these ones God’s judgement will largely mean salvation and relief: he will judge for them. Most people are foolish and blind. These ones are rarely threatened with God’s wrath: much more often they are welcomed and invited and encouraged to be healed. It is largely the leaders and the rich and powerful who are viewed as actually and actively rebellious against God. In summary, they reject God and oppress men. The woes are exclusively pronounced against them.

Rebukes 4: The disciples rebuked

Posted: October 30, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

Final part of our survey:

The disciples come in for rebuke, 22:24

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.  But not so with you…

They are starting to talk like the Pharisees, worrying about which of them will have the most honour among men. But they are  instead to go low, to be those who serve.

But the disciples’ more characteristic failing is foolishness. They are also rebuked for sleeping when prayer for rescue was the urgent need, 22:45

When Jesus got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief,  and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”

The disciples did not understand the peril, or their need of help, and not understanding, were not equipped to act appropriately for the moment.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus were rebuked, once again for lack of understanding, 24:25

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

They were puzzling over the events of the passover weekend, as though it was some great mystery. Foolish, because all along their Scriptures pointed to the necessity of those events.

When Jesus appeared later on, the disciples thought he was a ghost, 22:37

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?…45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…

The disciples were blinded to the teaching of their own Scriptures, that’s why they behaved so foolishly when they saw the risen Jesus. Fear and unbelief – the pair have been characteristic partners since Zechariah was rebuked for them back in ch.1.  The disciples needed this blindness specifically healed.

It is notable that apart from an occasional lapse, the disciples are not rebuked for the same sins as the Pharisees and co. Not for greed or self-righteousness, or lack of compassion. If these are the sins of the bad guys, we might almost say fear and doubt are the sins of the good guys!

Rebukes in Luke – 3: Rebuking the leaders

Posted: October 29, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

What is Luke’s view of sin? We’re using the rebukes in Luke as an index or indicator of what part sin is playing in the story.

Jesus rebukes the crowds: 12:56

You fools! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

They have such clear sight for predicting the weather, but they are blind to what is happening around them: God’s kingdom arriving. And because of this bizarre blindness they fail to respond rightly.

In 13:15 Jesus rebukes the synagogue ruler, who tried to stop healings on the Sabbath:

“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?”

This ruler lacked basic human compassion – he treated little people as less valuable than his own animals.

A leading pharisee who hosts Jesus comes in for a serve: 14:12

Jesus said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite these sort of people – your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours…

The host was only interested in important people who could pay him back the honour, not in honour from God. This is the Pharisees’ signature sin: desiring honour from men rather than God. This is their brand  of self-righteousness.

We see it again in the next rebuke, 16:14:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

They are self-righteous in order to impress other people, but that won’t impress God. He sees the greed in their hearts.

The Pharisees are again in the firing line for self-righteousness at 18:10 in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people:

Presumably the Pharisee is hoping people will hear his prayer and be impressed: that’s why he prays in public like this. The sinful tax-collector who stood far off, went home approved by God, but the Pharisee was rejected for exalting himself.

Jesus rebukes Jerusalem: 19:41

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,  saying, “If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

The city’s downfall is her blindness. She like Zechariah and others suffers from mental disorder: like a dementia sufferer, she cannot recognise what is before her eyes or work out which course of action is best.

Once in Jerusalem, Jesus rebukes the temple authorities in 19:46

“It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’;
but you have made it a den of robbers.”

They have stolen the place of prayer from the people and from foreigners, and are using it for their money-making.

The scribes are especially condemned: 20:46

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

As before it is greed, cloaked by self-righteous position-seeking, that is the religious leaders’ downfall.

Rebukes in Luke – 2

Posted: October 27, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

For your view of sin to be challenged, you need to see the evidence. Come with me through this survey.

In 5:22 the Pharisees and others accuse Jesus of blasphemy, because he has pronounced ‘release from sins’ over the paralytic man. Jesus turns the tables on them:

“Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?…But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to release sins…”

Like with Zechariah, the problem here is doubt and unbelief. By now these leaders had seen enough of Jesus, they should have listened to his mission statement, they should have realised that God had sent him. But they still didn’t get it. Their hearts raised questions that were unnecessary and unworthy. And these set them in direct opposition to God.

In ch.6, Jesus gives an extended rebuke to a whole class of people:

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation…

As with John the Baptist, social sins are in view. The rich grasp for themselves what belongs to all, and their greed condemns them. But the poor receive blessing from Jesus.

Jesus also rebukes those who seek to bolster their reputation as leaders by judging and condemning others (6:37)

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; Can a blind person guide a blind person?”

In context, these are clearly the Pharisees and friends. Their self-righteousness is a tool they use to rise socially at the expense of others.

In ch.7:33 Jesus rebukes the leaders of his generation:

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’;  34 the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

The leaders fail to welcome John and Jesus, because they are not children of wisdom, but of folly. They are so foolish, they repeatedly reject good as evil.

At the home of Simon the Pharisee, Jesus rebukes his host, 7:45

You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.

Simon did not think he himself was needy or lost. So he wasn’t in a position to receive mercy. The woman was, and receiving it she came to love Jesus the giver of mercy. Self-righteousness left the Pharisee hard-hearted.

In 8:25, after rebuking the storm, Jesus rebukes his terrified followers:  “Where is your faith?”

They should have known they were safe in the boat with Jesus, but they didn’t understand, and so acted inappropriately. Fear rendered them foolish.

In 9:53 the disciples would like to re-enact Elijah’s fire-from-heaven-on-the-idolatrous-evil-doers scene.

The Samaritan village did not welcome him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them.

After all this time, the disciples still don’t understand Jesus’ intentions towards outsiders. He has come to save them, not burn them. Once again we are dealing with a lack of wisdom, impaired mental function – they cannot understand what is before them.

The whole generation is indicted in 11:29

“This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

The generation’s problem?  “But when your eyes are unhealthy,  your body also is full of darkness.” That generation cannot see straight.

The Pharisees come in for the most extended rebuke in Luke’s Gospel, 11:38-52. They neglect God’s justice and love; they are hypocrites who present a righteous exterior but inside are greedy and wicked; they love honour from men; they reject the prophets; they oppress the people and hinder them from coming to God.

This self-righteousness is a major emphasis in Luke’s treatment of the religious leaders. It is not quite the classic ‘Lutheran’ sort. It  generally has two sides to it: desire for honour from men, and lack of concern for God’s approval.

Those who claimed “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” (11:15) are rebuked sharply at 12:10

“whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Those who see the Spirit’s work and imagine they are seeing Satan – their distorted view puts them in great peril.

A terrifying rebuke occurs in the parable of the rich man. He had hoarded everything for himself, imagining he could enjoy it all.

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your life will be required from you. Now who will enjoy all the things you have prepared?’

He imagined he was acting in his own best interests, but his foolishness left him destitute.

Rebukes in Luke

Posted: October 26, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

Ok here’s my approach: we’re going to use the rebukes in Luke as an index of what part sin is playing in the story. Who gets rebuked or condemned in his writings, and why? Where did they go wrong? This should help us get a handle on Luke’s view of sin.

For you to be challenged in your view of sin, you’re going to need to see the evidence. That takes a bit of space. I hope you come with me on this journey – it’ll be worth it.

The first rebuke is copped by the priest Zechariah. Gabriel the angel has told him about his wife’s pregnancy, and Zechariah doesn’t believe it. Mildly corrected in 1:12-13

When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid…

Fear was a wrong response. But the major problem comes in 1:18

Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute…

The words were true, Zechariah should have realised this and welcomed them. But he feared and did not believe.

Luke here introduces his favourite pair of negative responses to the gospel: fear and unbelief. There is a kind of mental disorder at work so that people do not respond appropriately to God’s blessing. Where they should be happy and feel honoured, they are scared and doubting. And for no reason. This is not malicious, it is not selfish or actively defiant. It is foolish. An inability to recognise the true from the false. Zechariah does not act in his own best interests.

(Mary is the direct contrast: when Gabriel visits her, she believes, welcomes the word, and rejoices (1:26-55). She is wise where the priest is foolish.)

The next rebuke comes in 2:48. Mary and Joseph have lost Jesus, and search for days before finding him in the temple.

“Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  But they did not understand what he said to them.

A mild rebuke. Jesus’ parents should have known where to find him. But they did not understand him the way they should have. Again a problem in the realm of wisdom. Mental disorder: they could not see what was in front of their noses.

John the Baptist brings an implied rebuke, in his call to change, in 3:10:

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Those who have power over others are rebuked for greed which exploits the weak and is hard-hearted towards the needy. Sin here is in the realm of social injustice. Along with fear and unbelief, oppressive greed will feature quite a lot in Luke.

John also rebukes Herod, another powerful man, 3:19:

But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done,  added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Herod’s sins here are two: flouting the laws of marriage, and oppressing John. Both sins are in the realm of the misuse of power. But Herod features as one actively opposed to God, mistreating his prophet.

Redefining sin

Posted: October 25, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

I’ve been reading Luke-Acts quite a bit over the past four years, and I’ve gradually become more aware of an anomaly I encounter, reading it as an evangelical Christian: Luke doesn’t seem to share my view of sin.

You know:

sin = rebellion

core sin = self-righteousness

sin problem = guilt problem

That stuff. That’s how I was brought up to view sin. At heart, sin is rebellion against God. We actively oppose him. In his place we try to establish our own goodness. So our deepest expression of rebellion is self-righteousness. The biggest problem sin creates starts off as a problem for God, because he is the just judge. Sin creates guilt, and God has no choice but to condemn the guilty, i.e. us. So although sin has many bad effects, its worst effect is guilt:  it creates a barrier stopping God from relating to us in a positive way. And since everyone is guilty, the world is polarised into: on one side God, and on the other, all of us. The cross is all about satisfying the legal debt of that guilt, to allow God to forgive us.

As I’ve spent time with Luke, it’s slowly dawned on me that I’m just not finding that story much in his writings. Sin is a prominent issue in Luke-Acts, and he has something he wants to say about it. Rebellion, self-righteousness and judgement all feature – just not in the way I described above. Luke has a different story to tell about sin. Different, that is, from the one I always got taught at church. He certainly has different to say about the cross.

I’ve found that a bit unsettling – you might too. But I think I’m ready to try to explore this, to try to express what Luke is wanting to tell us about sin. Over the next few days I plan to have a go.

I’d appreciate it if you readers could help by keeping me accountable. Let me know if I go wrong here. It’s a bit scary, challenging the view you’ve grown up with! Also, I’m only dealing with Luke – someone else will have to do the work of integrating this into a wider biblical theology. I can’t do everything!

‘Albus Severus’, Harry said quietly, ‘you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin, and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.’

Snape is easily the most interesting and tragic figure in the Harry Potter books. And yes, the most heroic. All this comes through more clearly in the films, I think, than the books – Rowling is not good at pathos. But in Yates’s (last four) films, there is true depth of feeling in Rickman’s Snape.

On the surface of it, the double-agent thing creates a situation marvellously complex and ambiguous. We are allowed to hate Snape along with Harry all the way through, only to have that antipathy turned on its head at the end.

But there are deeper veins running in Snape’s story. Beneath his life of shifting allegiances, Snape’s love for Lily Potter is the one constant. While everything else in his makeup drew him towards the death-eaters, eventually that love had enough gravitational pull to sling him back to Dumbledore’s cause. Snape is a truly repentant man – he has definitively changed sides. Love has changed him.

Love propels him into a life of danger and duplicity. As he insists to Dumbledore ‘No one must ever know’. Snape becomes the bad guy who protects the good guys from the worse guys – a thankless task. He does not have the luxury of becoming morally pure. If he did, he could no longer be the protector. Ultimately his part involves becoming the assassin who murders Albus Dumbledore.

Nearly everything about Snape is ambiguous and conflicted. The one he is most sworn to protect is also the one he most despises: Harry Potter, son of Lily, but also son of the bully James Potter, who made Snape’s life a misery in his school days. Harry has her eyes, yes – but the rest of him is his father. Snape is at once friend and enemy – an ambivalence which he trades on throughout the story to play his double-agent part to perfection.

The personal cost for Snape is enormous: he must live with no true friend in the world, no one who knows his secret, except Dumbledore. And he knows that great man does not really love him. Ultimately Dumbledore is using him, trading on his love for Lily Potter to extract Snape’s extreme services. Snape is completely alone.

Thus in the end it turns out that the one character we dislike the most is the one who suffers the most, and the one character who has done everything out of love. What burns in Snape’s heart, when it is finally revealed, takes our breath away. And all the more because it is such a lost, hopeless, grief-filled love.

The paradox of Snape is that he goes into the darkness so that others may enjoy the light. He is Rowling’s deepest character, and the true hero of the story.

Two comments:

First, Snape is a very modern hero. He is not Dudley Do-right on his gleaming stead. Snape never gets any moral high ground, nor seeks it. He is so entangled with the forces and processes of evil that he cannot be clearly distinguished from it. The path of purity, for him, would represent the failure of courage, the abandonment of all he holds dear. Love demands that he dance with the devil.

And isn’t that the story of ‘free democracy’ in modern times? The guys that claim the moral high ground, that stand on ideology, that won’t negotiate with terrorists or compromise principle, end up doing terrible harm (think Lenin in Russia, Bush in Iraq) – while the compromisers, the  flexible ones who acknowledge realpolitik, are willing to get their hands dirty retrieving some good out of a messy, ugly reality.  They work within corrupt systems and make them a little better, or prevent them getting worse. Not much glory there. They find unglamorous ways out of the glorious wars the ideologues started. Modern heroes – real ones – do not often keep clear of the mud.

Second:  Snape reminds us of our modern heroes, but isn’t there someone else he resembles? Isn’t Snape’s character and story – post-repentance – also in many ways modelled on Jesus Christ?

Jesus and the lost ones

Posted: October 17, 2012 by J in Bible, Mission, Theology

undefinedPreaching this week on Luke 15.

The Pharisees viewed sinful people primarily in categories of guilt, defilement and judgement. People had done wrong, they deserved to pay for that. Punitive justice. The Pharisees could express a little of that reality by excluding people socially and religiously, letting them feel a bit of the final judgement in advance. This distancing also kept the good guys safe from ‘catching’ the defilement.

Jesus here busts up that view completely, presenting in its place a fundamentally different category controlling his view of sinful humans: lost. This category explains Jesus’ mission just like the Pharisees’ category of ‘wicked’ or ‘dirty’ explained their way of treating people. While they distanced themselves from others, Jesus went seeking out sinful people to bring them back. Justice, yes, but restorative justice. The sort that puts things right. Its other name is grace.

This confrontation in Luke 15 challenges us to radically rethink our paradigm for dealing with human sinfulness. The big picture here, bigger than the other realities of disobedience or rebellion or evil or godlessness, is lostness. The people we know who don’t love Jesus, don’t love him because they have lost their home and their true Father, everything that makes them most truly who they are: they have really lost themselves in the process. Their lives of sin are not , in the whole, planned, at least not by them. They simply don’t know what they’re doing, or where they’re going. Of course they are prey to every dark and wicked force that lies waiting to ensnare and enslave them. That’s because they’re lost.

The tragic thing is that so often Christians still think and talk about their neighbours in the old Pharisaic categories. We so often talk as though what our society needs is to be confronted with its own wickedness and made ashamed, to realise God is against it. We offer a message which is largely preoccupied with retributive justice. Exactly the program of the Pharisees.

Trouble is, this view of things does not naturally lead to mission. Not to Jesus’ mission, anyway.

We would do better to listen to Jesus and let our theology be challenged and rewritten by his gospel. I.e. we need to learn to see it like he does. Then perhaps we might be able to take part in the mission his view of things inspires. Of seeking the lost with grace.

That’s the line I’m planning to take next Sunday, anyway. How does that sound?

Joel Green on Luke

Posted: October 11, 2012 by J in Book review

I took the time and effort to read Green on Luke 14 before starting to write my sermon. I’m glad I did.

I feel I understand the passage better now than I did before.

That doesn’t often happen with commentaries, does it? Especially not with commentaries on Luke.

But I feel it was time well spent.

Here’s to you, Joel Green.

Church Growth

Posted: October 7, 2012 by J in Bible, Church, Mission

After grappling all week with Luke 13:18ff, my message tomorrow is about church growth, and it goes something like this:

God’s kingdom will grow and no one can stop it. But are you (are we) part of it?

How does that sound?