Send As SMS

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 21, 2004

Matt. 5:21-26

I've been asked to comment on this passage in Matthew, but to save you having to look it up, I'll put the text here (from the NRSV):

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, "You shall not murder"; and "whoever murders shall be liable to judgment." But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool," you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

This verse first struck me as a teenager, when I read it with great anguish, remembering that my favorite term for my younger brother was "fool." Hellfire loomed.

I'm sure there are textual nuances and cultural circumstances of which I am unaware. I don't know the cultural implications of the word "fool" in 1st century Palestine, or the ins and outs of the court system. I do know, however, that when you pull back for the long view, this is an important passage that ties in with the central New Testament theme of Incarnation.

All of our religious devotion, rituals, and practices are pretty well useless if they don't evidence themselves in the flesh...if they have no effect on how well we love our neighbors. Bringing your tithe to church doesn't earn you the first brownie point with God, if you go home and are nasty to your family. Christian faith is lived out in the carne...where the rubber meets the road. If it doesn't result in greater love for God, self, and neighbor, it is a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

This passage also points out the truth that we are much better off dealing directly with people rather than trying to resolve our issues through institutions. Having spent time as a conflict mediator with the Justice Center of Atlanta, I can really relate to this. By helping people resolve issues face to face, we reached resolutions that otherwise would have landed in the lap of a judge to decide, and it would not have been a good experience for either party. We are so quick to take our cases to court, where somebody wins and somebody loses and the only one truly better off is the lawyer. This passage encourages us to use the court system only as a last resort. Work it out with the other party. Meet face to face where you can acknowledge your common humanity. Apologize for your part, let it be known that you want to work things out. Sometimes it does have to go to court, but more times than not, simple confessions and apologies will soften the heart enough to lighten the case load of your attorney. Once the legal system takes over, you are bound by the black and white of the law..."you will never get out until you have paid the last penny."

Going back to the first part of this passage, verses 21-22 begin a series of statements that are structured, "You have heard it said...but I say to you..." Each one takes a statement of law about a given action...murder, adultery, divorce, swearing falsely, etc. Then Jesus expands the law to show that the sin does not begin with the action, but in the heart. A sinful action is the end product of a process that begins with our general attitude towards ourselves and others, moves to the mind as a specific thought and finally results in a physical act.

In this particular passage we see how murder comes to be. If the general attitude toward another is scornful ("You fool"), and events cause anger in the heart, murder results...or at least it becomes more likely. This strikes me as psychologically true. Jesus is not trying to make life harder by expanding the commandments to our attitudes and emotions. He is simply trying to show the psychological truth that our actions, good or bad, begin with the attitudes of our hearts. Better to tackle the problem at the source...with the negative attitude, dealing with the anger by trying to directly resolve the conflict and being reconciled to someone. Then there will be fewer irreversible actions to worry about.

Sunday, October 17, 2004


I've had a couple of people ask me lately about miracles in the Bible. Did they really happen? Were they really miracles? As usual, there are lots of ways to look at this.

My general philosophy is that God can do what God well pleases. In my world, that's part of the definition of God. I've heard a lot of arguments about Jonah, for instance. Did he really get swallowed by a whale? Is it possible for a man to live inside a whale for 3 days? Well, to begin with, we human beings don't really know what is possible and what is not...even within the laws of science. We are learning new things and adjusting old ideas all the time. God made those laws of science and is way smarter than we are. So we're not in a position to judge whether any particular thing is theoretically possible or not. As a second point, if God (who I believe created the universe and all that is within it) wanted Jonah to be swallowed by a goldfish, God could have worked that out. I believe God, as the author of science and its laws, can revise them or circumvent them if necessary. Again, it is part of the definition of God for me. If God is beholden to the laws of science, then the laws of science are God. I think it is the other way around.

So, on general principle, I think any amazing thing in Scripture could have happened, if God so chose. However, saying it could have happened and saying it actually did happen are two different things. As you may have gathered, the first part is the most important to me. God stays on top and in charge...God could. I do think it is possible, even probable, that on a number of fronts God engages in self-limitation.

For example, God could control us like puppets and make us always do what is good and right. However, I believe God has chosen not to exercise that power in order that we might have free will. It means that we experience some things that God never intended, because God refused to control our actions and we chose to do something horrible. But I don't believe that just because God has the power to do something that God always does it. We humans are very different. We seem to think that if we can do something then we should. If we can clone a person, we should. If we can walk in and take over a nation, we should. If we can beat someone at chess, we should. If we can know the future, we should. I don't think God operates that way.

On the miracle front, then, it might be that when God set up the natural laws that would govern the universe, God decided to impose the self-limitation that even God would not break those laws. (By the way, I'm trying to be gender-neutral in my language for God here, but I want you to know that writing about a personal God without a personal pronoun is a real pain and less elegant English than I would prefer!) Even so, however, I refer you back to point #1...we don't actually know what is possible and what is not.

So those are my underlying assumptions. I also have particular ideas about what the miracles in Scripture are...or were...for. Specifically dealing with the various miracles of Jesus, I think the Gospel of John is illustrative. John does not call them miracles, even though he talks about some of the same ones in the other Gospels. John calls them "signs." I think that is exactly right. Jesus was definitely filled with compassion when he healed someone. Jesus did not, however, heal every sick person he saw, or he would have done nothing else. Healing people was not the central purpose of Jesus' ministry. The healing came from a heart of compassion, and an ability to directly channel the creative, healing power of God. The purpose of the healing, however, was to give a sign to the people that Jesus had the power and authority of God.

I think that is what Biblical miracles are about...they are signs, reminders if you will, that God is present and in control. God does all sorts of miracles at the time of the Exodus as a way of 1. Showing that the Egyptians were barking up the wrong deity, and 2. To reassure the fleeing Hebrew slaves that this was God's work and that God was providing for them. Elijah and Elisha perform miracles also as signs to the people that they really are true prophets of God, and sometimes as more personal signs that an individual has not been forgotten by God.

Now I grew up on fantasy literature where anything was possible, so it is not in my nature to be skeptical of the miracles. I tend to think that most of them happened. However, if God were to show up in my study and say, "You know, Anne, the Red Sea really wasn't all that's just that chariots don't do mud very well," it would not trouble my faith. I would still believe that God could part a vast ocean in two if it were necessary, and I would still believe that it was recorded in Scripture as a sign to indicate the power, presence, and authority of God. What it reveals about the nature of God (and the Bible is supposed to be about revelation) is still true, even if the facts are not.

Specifically on Jesus and healings, I don't doubt a single one of those. Of course I'm not a doctor, don't play one on TV, and didn't just stay at a Holiday Inn Express. However, I do believe that Jesus is God in the flesh and that God...again by wholeness. To connect with Jesus through faith...either his faith directed at a person, or a person's faith directed at God through him...would automatically result in healing. And again, it is a sign. It is a sign of what God is about. God desires healing, not harm; wholeness, not a compromised physical state. The presence of God means healing. Since the whole point of Jesus is to make the revelation of God tangible and accessible, the signs had to be tangible and accessible, too. Need to reaveal that God is a healer? Heal someone. Need to reveal that God is life? Raise someone from the dead.

Lastly is the question of what defines a miracle. Lots of people tend to believe that if they can prove that something in the Bible that is called a miracle has a natural explanation, that they have disproved the miracle. Well, to me a miracle is simply something amazing...something unexpected...something that makes me sit back and say, "Wow! Thank you God!" Maybe that is something that I can't find an explanation for, like walking on water. But it is also a miraculous work of God when a perfectly normal and natural occurrence happens at just the right time and place or when God uses the mundane to touch a heart or change a life. The thing that makes it a miracle for me is God's involvement, not the event per se.

That probably only shows my lack of faith. I should expect God's involvement all the time. Angels probably don't see miracles. They probably just say, "Well, duh!" I should expect that God will take the mundane words of one of my sermons and use them to turn a life around. I should expect that when the night seems blackest, God will shine a star. And yet they still come to me as miracles.