Bible for Thinkers

Liberals love the Bible, too. We just look at it differently. This is a place to discuss the Bible where you don't have to check your brain at the door. There are many ways to see it, and many ways to have it come to life.

Thursday, October 07, 2004


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I am The Way

Even though we are just beginning Genesis in my Disciple class, one of the members was troubled by John 14:6 last night, and so we talked about it. The passage in question reads, "Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'" The man was troubled, as many are, by the exclusion. What of those who don't know, who haven't heard, or for some reason can't get there? Does God really cast them out? Are they really not welcome?

This is one of those passages that has been so intertwined with a single interpretation for so long that it is hard to hear it without the implications of exclusion tied to it. The traditional Christian interpretation of this passage has have to believe the Christian proposition that Jesus is divine and that Jesus died for our sins in order to go to heaven. That is one way to look at it, but I don't think it is the only way or the way that best represents a faith that also proclaims in 1 John 4:7, "Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God." else to view it? There are at least two other possibilities. One is to say that Jesus is the way to God in the same way that lungs are the way that I breathe. In a way that can only be described as mystery, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus put something into place that enables us to have contact with God in a way that wasn't possible before. Let's look at the lung metaphor.

When I was born, a rude doctor slapped me and I took my first breath. That breath would not have been possible without lungs. Doctors can slap a child without lungs all they want, and that child will not breathe. The only way to breathe is with lungs. As a newborn, however, I didn't know any of that. I wasn't consciously trying to breathe and I didn't know the first thing about oxygen, lungs, or the respiratory system. He slapped, I breathed, and that was that.

In that same way, it is possible that Jesus is the way that we come to God. We may not understand how that works, we may not know anything about Jesus, we just find God beside us and learn later how that came to be possible. Some might find that arrogant, but it is not exclusive. Jesus as the way, in this sense is simple fact, not an intellectual proposition which offers no benefit without assent.

And there is still a deeper way in which John 14:6 can be read. John, after all, is the Gospel of many layers of meaning. When Jesus says he is the vine in the next chapter, he doesn't mean he is filled with chloryphyll. Anyway, "No one comes to the Father except through me" could simply mean that to truly meet God we must first meet God in the flesh. We must meet God in others, love God in others, recognize God in the least of these (Matt. 25), love the brother or sister that we have seen (1 John 4:20) before it is possible to know and love the God who is spirit and truth.

That seems to me, from my experience, simply to be a psychological truth. So many times I run into people who cannot get to God because their human relationships have been so disordered. With an abusive family and no one who has ever given you either any slack or unconditional love, it seems hardly possible to imagine that such things can come from God. You have no frame of reference...nothing to say, the love of God is like... Hurtful human relationships are the hands-down winners for why people I've met can't reach God. We must go through Jesus...that is to say we must go through the incarnation of God in the flesh. That happened supremely in Jesus, but it happens also through a glass darkly in those others of us who try to live as Jesus taught and to love as Jesus loved. Martin Luther called Christians "little Christs," and we call ourselves the Body of Christ. If we take that seriously, we become either the way or the block to either help or hinder others as they try to learn what it means to say that God is love. Using this verse as a weapon to send people to hell for not assenting to an intellectual proposition would be, in this last interpretation, blasphemy.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Shrewd Manager in Luke 16

This passage in Luke 16:1-13 is a problem for a lot of folks because Jesus seems to be praising a crook. One of the Sunday School teachers in the congregation asked me about it recently, and here is my response:

I guess the first thing to note is that all of Luke 16 is about money in one way or another. There are two parables about money...this one and the closing one about the rich man and Lazarus with some money-grubbing Pharisees providing the filler between the two.

I find two keys to this particular parable. The first is in v. 9 where Jesus says, "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth. The NIV translates it "worldly wealth." The point to me seems to be similar to Jesus pulling the coin out of the fish's mouth to pay his taxes...earthly money has no eternal value, so if you're going to have it, you should be using it for making life better for others. So the dishonest steward first just squandered the money. Then, after he was caught, he wised up and used it to make others happy....granted he did it for his own benefit, but even in his warped mind he could see that things would go better for him if he made it better for others.. The rich man in the parable at the end of the chapter never got even that much and never gave the poor man, Lazarus, any benefit at all...selfishly or otherwise.

It is in that light that I see the other key verse, which is the one before, verse 8: "For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light." In other words, if a crook can figure out that his own life is better when he gives away money to benefit others, then why can't the people of the light manage to get it right?
The point is not to be dishonest, but to say, "Look, how come you religious folks are so daft that you can't manage to figure out that using money to benefit others is simply the smart way to use earth's wealth? Even dishonest financial moguls know that you need to have some philanthropy in your portfolio!" I think it relates to the verse that says, "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

There is also the point that earth's wealth is really a pittance. Having earthly money (dishonest wealth) is the "little" and heavenly treasure is the "much." I don't think verses 10-13 are meant as praise for the dishonesty. I think Jesus has moved on to more general talk of faithfulness in regard to money, rather than referring back in this section to the parable. I think the parable ends with verse 9 or even verse 8 and just serves as a springboard for what follows.

Let's say that a man is convicted of murdering his wife and is sentenced to prison. Further, let's say that on his way to begin serving his sentence he goes past a burning house with a child left inside. Figuring that misery awaits him anyway and figuring that saving a baby can't hurt his reputation, he dashes into the building and saves the child. A pastor is watching and goes home to write a sermon. "Why is it," he says the next Sunday "that this murderer can figure out that saving a child is a good thing and the 16 churchgoers who were there watching the fire burn, did nothing? This convict is smarter than all of them. Use the opportunities life presents to you to enhance God's reputation. The one who risks his own life to save another is living out the Gospel."

The pastor would not be condoning the wife's murder and is probably not ignorant of other motives on the man's part. He would also not be saying that Peterson enhanced God's reputation. But the point is in the contrast between what obvious sinners know about relating to the world and the way that religious folks think that they can live all for heaven without paying attention to life on earth. The encouragment to be faithful with "little"...dishonest wealth...earthly saying if you don't know how to use the pitiful excuse for riches that we have here on the earth, how will you possibly know how to use "much"....true treasure...God's real gifts. Earthly money is like Monopoly is how we practice being faithful. Even crooks understand how to use it for benefit, how much more should the righteous be able to do!

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Bible for Thinkers

Okay, I'm tired of narrow-minded Bible interpretations. The Bible is a great book. I've read it through many times in my life and have studied it in seminary. I preach from its pages every Sunday in a United Methodist church. The Bible doesn't have to be rigid or boring or a weapon. It can be the living Word of God if we will just let it be itself and let God use it in our lives.

So this is a space where I want to just post thoughts on Bible passages in the hopes of opening it up some. I have a book coming out in the Spring called Blowing The Lid Off The God-Box, which has a whole chapter on how the Bible has been used and abused by well-meaning folks to serve ends it was never intended to serve. I hope you'll e-mail me at if you have comments or a passage of Scripture or Bible issue you'd like me to write about.

For today, I'm agitated about the word "dominion," specifically as it appears in the Creation account in Genesis 28. It's the beginning of time, God has created the world and everything in it, and gives the first human beings "dominion" over that creation. You need to know that I'm an animal fanatic and environmentalist. So it really makes me mad when people use this dominion business in Genesis to justify doing anything they want to God's earth and God's creatures. With tomorrow being the Feast of St. Francis and today having been our annual Blessing of the Animals service, this is on my mind.

Dominion does mean rule. There's no getting around the term by going back to the Hebrew. It's a correct translation. What I think has gotten really messed up, however, is the interpretation of the word. God expects us to have "dominion" and to "rule," I think, in the same way and with the same attitude of love, mercy, justice, and respect that God rules and has dominion.

Human history has pretty much been the history of us abusing the earth and each other. We have interpreted dominion to mean that I can do whatever I want with something. Anything that results in my advantage or the advantage of my group is okay. If I've got the power, I have every right to wield it. That is exactly wrong from a Biblical perspective. We are to rule as God rules, not as human beings have ruled for millennia.

Psalm 24 declares that "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." It's not ours. We are given dominion, much as the trustee of an estate is given dominion over funds. But those funds are certainly not there to be used at the discretion of the trustee. They are there to be used as the owner wills and for the owner's good. So with our earth. It is not okay to do what we want with the earth or its non-human creatures, just because we have been given some authority. To disregard God's intention for creation makes our "dominion" diabolical.

Your back yard isn't really yours. You've got dominion over it, but it still belongs to God, as does anything that happens to walk, slither, swim, or fly into it. So whatever you do with it should be in keeping with God's design. That's what dominion is all about. It's stewardship not unchecked power.