Genesis 2 (creation remixed)

There are not one but two creation stories in Genesis. And they’re very different. It’s like rewinding the film, zooming in on one bit, and changing the camera angle.

Genesis 1 describes a creation where everything goes according to plan. Genesis 2 is a more intimate portrait of a world that still needs work.

The sequence is different in Genesis 2. Again the writer arranges the details a certain way to make a point, but this time it’s a different point.

In Genesis 1, humans are created last and handed a ready-made world, formed and filled to perfection. But in the Genesis 2 version, “no shrub had yet appeared and no plant had yet sprung up” when God gathered a handful of dust, breathed into it, and created a man. What’s even more interesting is the apparent reason creating Adam: “there was no one to work the ground.”

Genesis 1 describes a God powerful enough to create the universe all by himself. Genesis 2 suggests this same God creates Adam, the first man, so he can partner with God in the ongoing act of creation. God designs a world where he needs someone to work the ground. Otherwise, no shrubs. No plants.

This need for partnership and connection seems hardwired into creation itself. In Genesis 1, everything is “good.” The writer can’t stop telling us just how good it is — seven times, as if he thinks we’re in danger of forgetting. In Genesis 2, it feels like someone has slammed the brakes. Not only is there something “not good” about creation; it’s God himself who says so. And what is “not good,” according to God, is the man’s solitary state.

Adam needs a “helper.” You’d be forgiven for thinking the word suggests inferiority or subservience, but elsewhere the Bible uses the exact same Hebrew word for God (Psalm 27:9, for example).

What Adam needs is a partner, a companion, an equal — as he realizes when he says, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The word “now” could be translated “at last!” or “it’s about time!” Adam instantly recognizes that he and the woman were made for each other.

And this may be the thread that holds Genesis 1 and 2 together. Nearly everything about these stories seems different. Even God’s name changes. In Genesis 1, he is elohim, the supreme, all-powerful God. In Genesis 2, it is YHWH, the personal, covanental God who partners with people to shape and change the world. But the need for relationship is found in both stories.

In Genesis 2, creation is “not good” until Adam is no longer alone. Back in Genesis 1, we read that “God created human beings in his own image… male and female he created them.” Scholars have offered several theories on what it means to be made in God’s image. But the one I find most the most compelling is the one that says I am not made in God’s image (not completely, anyway), but that we are made in God’s image.

By myself, I am an incomplete representation of the God who made me, because I was not made to exist in a vacuum. Not according to Genesis 2, which says a state of perpetual solitude is “not good.” And not according to Genesis 1, which says, “In the image of God… he created them.

When we seek connection, partnership, relationship with each other, that’s when we experience the divine spark that God has apparently put in us.

There’s another thing both stories reveal. In ancient times, to bear the “image” of the king or the emperor was to represent him to others, to show the king’s subjects who he was and what he was like.

As a male, I do not fully represent who God is or what he’s like. It’s only “male and female” together that, according to the text, represent the image of God.

While I plan to carry on praying to God my “Father,” the debate over whether God is essentially masculine or feminine ultimately misses the point. Without both male and female, we cannot possibly hope to understand God.

The God who is, according to Jesus, our Father is also the God who “gave birth” to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 32:18). The God who sent his Son to earth is also the God who comforts his people like a mother comforting her children (Isaiah 66:12-13). (And I won’t even tell you what some scholars think the term el shaddai, one of the Bible’s many names for God, means.)

Far from being an invitation for the PC police to purge our liturgy of masculine references and replace with them neutralizing alternatives, we are free to go on calling God our Father (which, after all, is one of the most common characterizations of God in the Bible) because this communicates something essential about who God is — but it does not communicate the whole of it. That’s why the Bible is filled with all kinds of rich imagery to help us understand God.

That’s why he made human beings male and female. Because it takes both to show the world something of who God is.

Genesis 1 (a.k.a. T.S. Eliot, ecology, and free-range birds)

Reading Genesis 1 brings back memories of listening to and occasionally joining in discussions about the origins of the universe. Is the earth 6,000 years old or 6 billion? Are the “days” of Genesis 1 literal, 24-hour spans of time, or are they simply a literary device meant to hold the story together? The opening lines of the Bible have been dissected with scientific rigor and made to support one argument or the other.

But you can’t use bunsen burners and microscopes to analyze the opening lines of the Bible any more than you can T.S. Eliot. Genesis 1 reads more like poetry than prose — and certainly more like poetry than scientific text.

Which is pretty cool, really. For Jews and Christians, whatever else these words may be, they are in some way God revealing himself to us. God decides to start a conversation, and his first words take the form of a poem.

When I read Genesis 1, it hits me: the God behind these words is a God who values beauty. Not just beauty in what he creates (which the text calls “good” not once but seven times — very significant to Jewish readers); he values beauty in the description, too.

The first words of the Bible are not that concerned with the how of creation. They’re all about the who (God) and the why (for us). The details are carefully arranged to make not a scientific point but a theological one — about who God is and the way the world was meant to be.

God begins by creating a world that is formless and empty. It’s dark. Unfit for human (or any other) habitation. But his presence, the spirit hovering over the deep places of the world, changes everything.

The progression of creation is significant — again, not for scientific but theological reasons. The world is formless, so God starts off by giving it form and definition: light/dark, water/sky, sea/land. It’s also an empty world, so then he goes about filling with all kinds of living creatures: plants, birds, fish, wild animals.

The acts of creation are arranged in order of importance; the last thing created is the most important, the crowning achievement, the reason for everything else. Which, if you’re a woman, should make you feel pretty good about being created second in the Genesis 2 version of the story.

Back in Genesis 1, it’s only when human beings appear that the writer declares that creation is not just “good” but very good.”

God is making a habitat suitable for humans. And then, like a landlord closing the deal with his tenants, he hands over the keys and tells Adam and Eve to take care of the place.

Which is one of the things that fascinates me about this chapter. The Bible’s first command to humans, sometimes called the “cultural mandate,” is a command to look after the planet. The Hebrew concepts of “subduing” and exercising “dominion” over the earth have more to do with stewardship than endless consumption. The image here, literally and figuratively, is one of cultivating a garden, not pouring concrete. Cultivation is about more than what you take from something; it’s what you put back into it.

To put it another way, words like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” are Genesis 1 ideas.

Something else fascinates me about Genesis 1. The very first blessing spoken by God in all of the Bible wasn’t given to humans. It was given to fish and to birds. It’s same word, barak, that appears a few lines later when God blesses human beings. Which has me thinking about something I saw on TV.

Channel 4 (UK) recently aired Hugh’s Chicken Run, a documentary exposing the realities of intensive (battery) chicken farming. When the presenter, UK celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, learned that intensive chicken farms weren’t about to open their doors to his film crew, he decided to build his own, raising intensive and free-range chickens side by side.

Intensive chicken farming isn’t pretty. Thousands of bird crammed into a windowless barn 24 hours a day, with practically no room to walk around and no opportunity to be outside in a chicken’s natural environment. They spend all day and night standing or sitting in their own feces, legs burned and bodies blistered by the ammonia.

Around 95 percent of the chicken we we eat is farmed this way.

Not long ago, this wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. My reaction would have been, “Who cares? They’re chickens. Food.”

But in Genesis 1, chickens get the first blessing. So now I’m compelled to ask: is this how we were meant to treat a creature blessed by God?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an enthusiastic meat eater. (There’s a (free-range) chicken in the oven as I type this.) In the end, he met the exact same fate as his intensively farmed cousins. I’m OK with that. But many cultures before ours believed that it was important to respect the food they ate. When (and why) did that change?

Something about a chicken existing in its natural environment before it ends up on my dinner plate seems to fit the created order of Genesis 1 better. Maybe that’s because one of the lessons of Genesis 1 is that it matters how we treat the creation, how we treat other living things blessed by God — even if they were put on this earth for our benefit.

After all, this is God’s planet. And how we treat an object is an extension of how we treat the object’s creator or owner. What we do with this earth reveals what we think of its maker.

P.S. Another reason to eat free-range chickens? A side-by-side nutritional comparison with intensively farmed chicken showed that free-range birds have higher protein content and less fat.

Evangelical recovery?

Several prominent evangelicals released a statement today called The Evangelical Manifesto. Definitely worth reading.

The statement and its signers seek to define evangelicalism in a way that, to many, may sound a lot like someone trying to put new spin on an old idea. But what this manifesto proposes is nothing more (or less) than a return to evangelicalism in its most classical, authentic sense.

This is evangelicalism as John Newton and William Wilberforce knew it.

Unfortunately, one of the most prominent evangelicals of all, Dr. James Dobson, declined to sign, citing a “myriad of concerns.”

What I love most about this manifesto is its humility. The signers distance themselves from some of the more extreme expressions of evangelicalism in recent history—without becoming strident or self-righteous… or falling into the trap of making little more than a desperate appeal for acceptance.

Here are some of my favorite bits. But really, you should skip this part and download the whole thing

As followers of “the narrow way,” our concern is not for approval and popular esteem. Nor do we regard it as accurate or faithful to pose as victims, or to protest at discrimination. We certainly do not face persecution like our fellow-believers elsewhere in the world. Too many of the problems we face as Evangelicals in the United States are those of our own making. If we protest, our protest has to begin with ourselves….

As the universal popularity of such hymns and songs as “Amazing Grace” attests, our great hymn writers stand alongside our great theologians, and often our commitment can be seen better in our giving and our caring than in official statements. What we are about is captured not only in books or declarations, but in our care for the poor, the homeless, and the orphaned; our outreach to those in prison; our compassion for the hungry and the victims of disaster; and our fight for justice for those oppressed by such evils as slavery and human trafficking….

Above all else, [evangelicalism] is a commitment and devotion to the person and work of Jesus Christ, his teaching and way of life, and an enduring dedication to his lordship above all other earthly powers, allegiances and loyalties. As such, it should not be limited to tribal or national boundaries, or be confused with, or reduced to political categories such as “conservative” and “liberal”….

First and foremost we Evangelicals are for Someone and for something rather than against anyone or anything. The Gospel of Jesus is the Good News of welcome, forgiveness, grace, and liberation from law and legalism. It is a colossal YES to life and human aspirations, and an emphatic NO only to what contradicts our true destiny as human beings made in the image of God….

We call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel, and of all the human issues that must be engaged in public life. Although we cannot back away from our biblically rooted commitment to the sanctity of every human life, including those unborn, nor can we deny the holiness of marriage as instituted by God between one man and one woman, we must follow the model of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, engaging the global giants of conflict, racism, corruption, poverty, pandemic diseases, illiteracy, ignorance, and spiritual emptiness, by promoting reconciliation, encouraging ethical servant leadership, assisting the poor, caring for the sick, and educating the next generation. We believe it is our calling to be good stewards of all God has entrusted to our care so that it may be passed on to generations yet to be born….

The other error, made by both the religious left and the religious right in recent decades, is to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes “the regime at prayer,” Christians become “useful idiots” for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form. Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests. Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, left as well as right, have made the mistake of politicizing faith; and it would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left. Whichever side it comes from, a politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church—and disastrous first and foremost for Christian reasons rather than constitutional reasons….

We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth. While some of us are pacifists and others are advocates of just war, we all believe that Jesus’ Good News of justice for the whole world was promoted, not by a conqueror’s power and sword, but by a suffering servant emptied of power and ready to die for the ends he came to achieve. Unlike some other religious believers, we do not see insults and attacks on our faith as “offensive” and “blasphemous” in a manner to be defended by law, but as part of the cost of our discipleship that we are to bear without complaint or victim-playing….

happy 490th birthday, protestantism (a few days late…)

It’s easy to forget—what with that other holiday that falls on October 31… last Wednesday marked 490 years since a hefty German monk posted his 95 Theses (apparently, this title was preferable to “Nearly 100 Reasons Not to Like Those Pointy-Headed Romans”). He nailed them (his theses, not the pointy-headed Romans) to the door of the church in Wittenberg (which, as all good theology students—and Germans—know, is pronounced with a V, not a W.)

luther.jpgSome Protestants have attempted to reclaim the last day of October in honor of their forefather Martin Luther, christening it “Reformation Day.” I even saw a poster at work advertising a Reformation Day Hymn Sing (which seems like the perfect way to threaten would-be trick-or-treaters if they misbehave).

Luther was one of the most fascinating theologians I studied in seminary, mostly because of his raw humanity. Luther was a hothead. He was a reactionary. He probably flailed his arms and spat when he talked. The man drank and cursed—while preaching, no less. (Well, the cursing, anyway.) He had a twisted sense of humor which he kept to the end. (On his deathbed Luther announced that the worms were about to get a very fat doctor to feast on.)

And I haven’t even gotten to his dark side yet. The man who ignited the Reformation was anti-Semitic. (Back then, a lot of people were anti-Semeitic, but that’s no excuse, especially when the object of your worship is a Jewish rabbi.)

When European peasants rebelled against the nobility (being on the butt end of feudalism apparently wasn’t all it was cracked up to be), Luther didn’t just fail to counsel the nobles to show restraint. He did the opposite, urging the ruling class to “smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly.” Luther compared peasants to a “mad dog” that must be struck down before it strikes.

Luther also had his quirks, like arguing with the devil—out loud. In one of his writings, he claimed that once the devil started prowling in the kitchen below his room, making all kinds of racket just to distract him. (I hate it when that happens.)

One of my favorite things about Luther was his personal journey—especially the way he encountered God’s love. Luther spent much of his young adult life in terror, convinced that God, angry and vengeful, was about to strike him down at any moment for some unknown sin. Luther was an obsessive-compulsive confessor, badgering his priest and mentor, Johann von Stauptitz, who finally told Luther to come back when he had some real sins to confess. Luther admitted to hating God. But when he finally discovered the implications of grace—that God is for us, not against us—he was transformed. Previously consumed by his fear of God, he was now consumed by his love for God.

Mostly I wonder what Luther would make of the Reformation he started, almost 500 years on. It’s no secret that Luther meant to reform the Roman Church, not break from it. It wasn’t until being excommunicated in 1521 that reformation turned into revolt. Luther thought he was doing the Pope a favor by writing the 95 Theses—alerting a benevolent but naive ruler to the abuses being perpetrated in his name. (Little did he know at the time that indulgences being sold to Germany’s pious peasants were funding the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.)

Luther distanced himself from what he considered the more extreme elements of the Reformation. He condemned one of his colleagues, Andreas Karlstadt, for rejecting infant baptism and claiming the bread and wine of the Eucharist were nothing more than symbols of Christ and not a means of grace.

Still, perhaps thanks to his rediscovery of grace, sometimes Luther exhibited an amazing ability to share it with others—even those he disagreed with. (Luther was neither perfect or consistent in this regard, which makes the bright spots in his story even more amazing.)

A year after denouncing Karlstadt, Luther took in the former colleague in his moment of need. After publicly excoriating Johannes Tetzel, Europe’s most famous indulgence salesman, Luther comforted him on his deathbed, writing, “Don’t take it too hard. You didn’t start this racket.” Six years after being alienated from his spiritual mentor, Luther maintained that Staupitz was his “most beloved father in Christ.” Luther even said, “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.”

That’s the Martin Luther I like best.

Then again, I almost forgot to mention the ex-monk’s profound thoughts on matrimony. “There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage,” he wrote. “One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails which were not there before.”

Dr. Phil, eat your heart out.

Mark Driscoll and the Reformed-Emergent smackdown, pt. 1

About a month ago, Mark Driscoll (pastor of Seattle’s ginormous megachurch phenomenon otherwise known as Mars Hill—not to be confused with Michigan’s ginormous megachurch phenomenon also known as Mars Hill) spoke at the Convergent Conference, sharing his thoughts on two competing visions of Christianity.

In his speech (click here for the podcast), Mark drew strong battle lines between what he calls the “Revisionists” (i.e. the emerging church) and the “Relevant Reformed” (his group—i.e. the cool Calvinists).

Recently I took a theological worldview survey for the fun of it, and apparently I’ve got a little bit of the both groups me, among other things. (Not to blur the battle lines or anything…) While there are some very real differences between these two perspectives, I’m not sure I buy the idea that they’re mutually exclusive in every way.

Needless to say, there have been lots of reactions to Mark’s speech—some heralding it as a watershed moment marking the beginning of the end for all those emerging types… others questioning the tone and substance of Mark’s presentation… and still others simply, ah, winking at Mark.

Mark Driscoll is an important voice in the church today, so I decided to tune in and see what Mark had to say. And it provoked a number of thoughts/questions/observations. I see at least five dangers in it all, so I think I’ll divide this into five posts. Here’s number one:

1. The danger of conversations and the even greater danger of not having them

There is no single term that can describe the entire emerging church, but I think many would agree that seeing faith as a conversation—that is, a dialogue, a journey, a process of discovery—is one of the emerging church’s major contributions to Christian thought. Even one of its leading critics, D.A. Carson, picked up on this in the title of his book, Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church.

But Mark seemed to depict conversation as one of the great threats to the church:

What concerns me is what I see in Genesis 3… It shows us where history went askew and we were led by the serpent—which Revelation reveals is Satan our enemy—into error and falling. And that is through a conversation. And the emergent church has positioned itself as a conversation—a conversation about things that God has said. A conversation about whether or not God meant what he said. Of course, I don’t mind a conversation. I have a wife and two daughters—I’ve had them. But when God speaks, we are not to converse. We are to obey.

Now, the notion of faith as a conversation was not invented by the emerging church. It’s an integral part of the biblical story.

What about Abraham, who not only conversed with God, but openly questioned how God could bring about his promised blessings (Genesis 15)? Or what about when Abraham bargained with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33)?

What about Moses, who tried (and failed) to converse his way out of leading the Hebrews (Exodus 3-4) and, on another occasion, boldly—and successfully—talked God out of destroying the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 32:11-14)?

What about Job, who engaged in such a scandalously frank conversation about God’s justice that his friends rebuked him for it? (In the end, Job’s friends were rebuked by God for questioning Job’s integrity.)

What about the rabbis, who engaged in a never-ending conversation about the Torah, how to interpret it, and which laws were more important—a conversation that Jesus actively participated in?

Conversation is risky—and yes, it can be dangerous. But a conversation about what God said is not necessarily the same as a conversation about whether or not he really meant what he said. After reading the scriptures, some might even say that faith itself is one big conversation; it’s through conversing with the text and each other that God reveals himself to us. God demands our allegiance and obedience, yes—but he also invites us to wrestle with him, like Jacob did.

Tomorrow, part 2: the danger of being against being known for what you’re against

does Jesus want a “Christian nation”?

The International Herald-Tribune posted an interesting article on their website yesterday:

The U.S. is not a “Christian nation”

This is no anti-religious article. The writer—Newsweek editor Jon Meacham—doesn’t make the founding fathers out to be irreligious. In fact, he readily acknowledges that many of this country’s architects were deeply committed to their faith.

Meacham does, however, cite some interesting historical facts to support his argument that we are not a Christian nation. For example, when Connecticut ratified the Constitution, some felt there wasn’t enough religious language in it and campaigned to revise this country’s foundational document. Their efforts, however, failed. Meacham also quotes some who opposed the Constitution’s ratification because, in the words of one such critic, “No deity comes down to dictate it.”

Of course, our national liturgy is filled with religious language, and Meacham is not blind to this fact. His argument is not that Christianity has no place in our national story—just that it does not occupy the only place.

But what fascinates me more than Meacham’s historical observations are the theological questions he raises. He reminds us of the profoundly spiritual and political statement Jesus made to Pilate, governor of Judea, shortly before Jesus’ crucifixion: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Meacham also cites Peter’s speech at Cornelius’ house, given on the occasion the apostle first realized that God does not prefer Jew over non-Jew (or vice versa):

I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right.

— Acts 10:34 (TNIV)

For me, all of this raises the question: What would Jesus do with a “Christian nation” anyway? Is it something he even wants?

It seems to me that Jesus did not put his faith in nations to advance the kingdom of God. The notion of spreading the gospel by the sword (which, in the scriptures, is a metaphor for governments) originated with Constantine, not Jesus.

Jesus, it seems, had a better plan.

It hinged upon a group of followers who were not of this world, advancing a kingdom that was not of this world—that is, a kingdom that does not depend on the power of nations or governments or militaries or anything else that denotes power in the minds of most.

Apparently, Jesus was under the impression that small groups of people from every background imaginable could accomplish more simply by loving each other (and their neighbors) than any “Christian nation” ever could.

When we aspire to make this country a “Christian nation,” maybe we’re settling for less than what God wants to offer us.

We are part of something bigger

This is a picture I took a couple years ago in an olive grove halfway up Mount Carmel in Israel. According to our guide, the trees in this grove are more than two thousand years old.


Notice the newer branches growing out of the stump. It makes me think of the practice of grafting—where a branch from one plant is fused into the trunk of another. I don’t know if that’s what happened to this tree, but the end result is pretty much the same: something new growing out of something old.

Paul uses the grafting analogy in Romans to explain why he brought the gospel to Gentiles and not just Jews:

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

—Romans 11:17-21 (TNIV)

This passage is used by lots of people to make a lot of different points. It’s part of a larger section of scripture, Romans 9-11, that many in the Calvinist tradition consider the linchpin of their argument for individual predestination—the belief that only those handpicked by God for eternal life have any real hope of salvation. The rest, are (depending on what kind of Calvinist you are) either predestined to hell or simply passed over. This is what I used to take from this passage. Never mind the fact that Paul is quick to point out that the original branches, which represent ancient Israel, were only broken off because of their “unbelief.”

Among evangelicals, there are at least two major views on the relationship between Christians and Jews—and both camps appeal to Romans 11:17-21 for support. One camp argues there is a clear distinction between Israel and the church. The church, they say, is sort of a parentheses or interlude in the middle of God’s dealings with his chosen people, Israel. This view emerged in more or less its current form back in the 19th century, and it gave rise to Christian Zionism, a unique blend of theology and foreign policy.

The other camp argues that the church has replaced Israel; the church is the new Israel and baptism is the new circumcision (and pork is the new lamb, presumably). Ancient Israel had its chance and blew it, according to this view. And now the distinction of being the “chosen people” has been transferred to this thing called the church.

And of course, there are plenty of nuances to both views and many good efforts to arrive at some sort of middle ground between the two. But in the end, I think both camps miss the point of Romans 11:17-21. Maybe if we pay better attention to the analogy Paul uses, we can avoid making the same mistake.

In horticulture, grafting is done for a number of reasons: to increase fruit yield; to create new, hybrid breeds; to improve plant hardiness; to repair damage… the list goes on. Whatever the reason, grafting is a lot like God’s idea of marriage: two things, previously separate, becoming one.

Saying either that the church is totally separate from ancient Israel or that it has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people both lead to the same conclusion: missing out on a big part of our heritage.

If, on the one hand, we reduce the church to a mere parentheses in between God’s dealings with Israel, then for those of us in the Christian tradition, the Hebrew scriptures are of little use aside from their historical value. And the church—God’s best plan for putting his love on display—will be reduced to a mere historical footnote. We may even forget the redemptive role we have to play in this world and waste our time with lesser things.

On the other hand, if we say that we have replaced God’s formerly chosen people, then like the wild branches in Paul’s analogy, we’re in danger of thinking ourselves superior. We might forget that we’re building on a foundation someone else laid for us. We may end up making the same mistake that some Jews made in Jesus’ day, thinking their lineage gave them an all-access pass to God’s kingdom (Matthew 3:9-10).

The good news of Romans 11:17-21 is that as Christians, the Hebrew tradition is our tradition. Their promised blessings are our promised blessings.

But the even better news of Romans 11 is that God’s economy does not operate according to the principle of the zero-sum game. Just as God always meant to extend his blessing beyond the original “chosen people” (Genesis 12:3), our blessing does not have to come at the expense of theirs (Romans 11:30-32).

There is room in God’s kingdom for all of us.

blessed is this world…

One of the projects I’ve been working on lately has had me spending lots of time in the beatitudes. And I’ve been struck by other-worldly they aren’t:

For the poor: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”

For the meek: “They will inherit the earth…”

And for the persecuted, again for good measure: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”

Luke is even more down-to-earth in his rendition of the beatitudes. “Blessed are you who are poor,” he writes. Not just those who are poor in spirit. And, “Blessed are you who hunger now.”

According to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not just a distant promise for the persecuted and the poor. It’s meant to be a present reality, affecting their lives in the here and now.

According to Jesus, the inheritance of the meek is not a pile of heavenly riches. It’s the earth—this world. In Greek, the word for earth is the same as the word for “ground” or even “dirt.”

All of this begs the question: If Jesus meant for the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the persecuted to experience blessing now, exactly how is this supposed to happen? Who will bring for them the kingdom of heaven, the earth, and satisfaction for body and soul?

Maybe it’s our job. Maybe, when we see to it the needs of the poor are met, we bring a little bit of God’s kingdom to earth. Maybe, when we defend the rights of the meek (read: powerless), we carve out a small piece of earth for them. Maybe, when we give food to the hungry, we bring more than just physical sustenance.

Come to think of it, maybe all of the beatitudes have a present (and not just a future) dimension to them. Maybe those who mourn are comforted and the pure in heart see God whenever we live up to our calling to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

To be sure, Jesus at times speaks of “reward in heaven.” But for ancient Jews who, like Jesus, believed in the afterlife, the line between this life and the next was blurry at best. Eternal life was something that began not the moment you died, but the moment you entered into a relationship with God.

The kingdom of heaven is a blessing that lasts for eternity. But according to Jesus, you don’t have to wait till you die to enjoy this blessing—or to share it with others.

some things matter more than others

Flipping through my Bible this afternoon (actually, using an online Bible search tool, but somehow that just doesn’t sound the same), I came across this passage, which I’m sure I’ve read a thousand times before:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

— Matthew 23:23 (TNIV)

Some translations have it as the “weightier matters of the law.”

In the Hebrew scriptures, there were 613 commands… a lot to keep track of, if you were Jewish. Rabbis spent countless hours debating which laws were more important than others—which laws were “greater” and which were “lesser.” Which were “heavier” and which were “lighter.” After all, a comprehensive list, sorted by order of importance, might come in handy, should you find yourself in a situation where obeying one law requires you to break another.

What should you do, for example (assuming that you’re an observant Jew living in ancient Israel) if someone’s donkey collapses under a heavy load… on a Sabbath? On the one hand, you would be obeying Exodus 23:5 (not to mention Leviticus 19:18) if you lent a hand. On the other hand, by doing so you would violate Exodus 20:8-11. Dilemma.

How do you decide which law to keep and which to violate? Do you go by whichever passage is longer? Whichever has more verses? (Probably not the best method of deciding if you’re an ancient Jew, since your scroll wouldn’t have had verse numbers…)

Do you choose not to help, because the command about not working on the Sabbath was obviously more important, since it made it into the Ten Commandments, while the precise words “love your neighbor” did not?

You could ask some trusted rabbis, but you might not get the same answer twice. The good news is, pretty much everybody agreed that “love the Lord your God” was the greatest command. The bad news is, that’s where the agreement ended.

Some rabbis thought that “you shall have no other gods” was the next greatest command. Others said is was “keep the Sabbath.” Still others nominated “love your neighbor” for the distinction of “number two command in the Bible.”

Jesus weighs into the debate in Matthew 22:37-39, siding squarely with the “love your neighbor” camp—with a twist, of course. He says that the second greatest command in all of scripture is like the first. In other words, you cannot truly love God unless you love your neighbor. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands, Jesus taught.

Well, that’s nothing new. In fact, I think I’ve blogged about it before. Possibly more than once. (Can you say “one trick pony”?) But slightly less well known is Jesus’ rant in the very next chapter. Jesus works himself into a frenzy, directed at the religious establishment. Seven times he pronounces a “woe” upon them—which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says is a word “used to express grief, regret, or distress.” Um, that’s putting it mildly, especially when you read the content of Jesus’ seven woes. Not very nice stuff.

But it’s woe #4 that caught my attention today. The Pharisees and teachers of the law measured out even their tiniest spices to make sure they gave the required ten percent—not an ounce less (and presumably, knowing their hearts, not an ounce more). The problem is, at this point they wiped their hands in satisfaction, thinking they’d done their bit to stay in God’s good books.

Jesus accuses them of getting their priorities out of whack—obsessing with the most obscure minutiae of the law while completely forgetting about the “weightier matters.” And what does Jesus say these weightier matters are?




In other words, making sure the poor are taken care of matters more than making sure your prayer shawl is on straight. Or, perhaps, making sure we sing the “right” kind of songs (whatever your preference) in church.

In other words, freely extending God’s mercy to everyone we meet (which, according to Scripture, is a nonnegotiable if we hope to enjoy some of that same mercy for ourselves) is more important than making a list of who has and hasn’t got their theology straight and discriminating accordingly.

In other words, spending a lifetime caring for the poor and extending God’s mercy is more important than spending a lifetime playing religious games.

All of scripture matters to God—and the Pharisees were not wrong to make sure their tithes were in order, according to Jesus. But what they were doing was a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Some scholars think that Jesus was expounding on Micah 6:8 in this particular rant (leave it to Jesus to always be interacting with the scriptures, even when he’s ripping into someone):

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

That’s it. And when it comes right down to it, Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23 are just different ways of saying this:

Love your neighbor.

End of story.

Doubting Teresa

Ten years after her death, Mother Teresa is on the cover of Time again—this time because it turns out she wrestled with doubt. Not just passing questions in the back of her mind from time to time, but a lingering, maddening inability to sense Christ’s presence almost the entire time she was serving the poor and the dying of Calcutta.

It turns out the woman who demonstrated God’s love for the poor better than anyone in modern history struggled so long—and, for the most part, so unsuccessfully—to feel God’s love herself.

Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one—the one you have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no one to answer—no one on whom I can cling—no, no one. Alone… where is my faith? Even deep down right in there is nothing but emptiness and darkness…

For anyone who believes that being a Christian means radiating an inextinguishable sense of confidence and wearing a permanent smile on your face, words like these are difficult to swallow, to say the least.

But I think Mother Teresa’s doubt may be her greatest gift to the church.

As I read the article in Time, I couldn’t help but think about the man in Mark 9 who brings his convulsing son to Jesus—after the disciples are unable to help. Jesus rebukes either the watching crowd or his disciples (or both) for their lack of faith, which was apparently the reason the disciples’ efforts to heal the boy failed.

In response, the boy’s father pleads with Jesus: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus picks up on the uncertainty: “‘If you can?'” he says. “Everything is possible for the one who believes.”

The desperate father blurts out, famously, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” What amazes me is that Jesus says nothing about the paradox of belief and unbelief expressed in the same breath. He doesn’t point out the seemingly obvious contradiction in the man’s words. Instead, Jesus seems perfectly satisfied with this response. Without another word, he heals the man’s son.

Apparently Jesus is willing to act on faith, even when it’s mixed with doubt.

Then there’s the time John the Baptist—imprisoned at the very moment God’s kingdom was supposed to be crashing onto the scene—sent his followers to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

You can almost hear the frustration—the impertinence—in his demand for answers. It’s as if John says to Jesus, “Look, if you’re the messiah, then start acting like it. Otherwise, quit wasting our time.”

You’d think this kind of doubt wouldn’t sit well with Jesus, especially since he was in the midst of a miraculous free-for-all at the very moment John’s disciples showed up. But Jesus simply instructs them to return to John and tell him what they’ve seen.

No rebuke. No warnings about the dangers of doubt. No list of 88 irrefutable reasons to believe. Just…

The blind see.

The lame walk.

The dead live.

The poor have hope.

According to Jesus, these are the most compelling reasons to believe in a loving God.

The orphaned child who is given a warm, loving home. The vulnerable widow whose rights are defended from those who would take advantage of her. The untouchable leper (or AIDS patient) who is touched with compassion, despite every social taboo against it.

Each of these is more powerful evidence of Christ than the most impressive, well-reasoned argument. Every time someone cares for the poor, they prove Christ real all over again because it is, in fact, Christ they are serving (Matthew 25:31-40).

Those of us who are tempted to believe the gospel can be summed up in a sermon—or that intimacy with God can be achieved through inner spirituality alone—would do well to remember these words from the prophet Isaiah:

Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7 TNIV)

The great irony—and blessing—of Mother Teresa’s life was that she experienced her own doubts precisely as she was giving the rest of us the best possible reason to believe in the transforming power of Christ.

The fact that the poor continued to find hope, the untouchables continued to be touched, and the dying continued to be loved even as Mother Teresa quietly confessed to God her own doubts about his love is, to me, the greatest proof that God never stopped loving Teresa or the ones she served. Mother Teresa may not always have been able to see or hear God’s love for herself—but she never stopped radiating it.

Which should make it easier for the rest of us to believe.