Archive for February, 2010

Matthew 25:31-46

February 27, 2010

Jesus is speaking in the Messianic third person again.  He does this often—someday I need to look through all the Gospels to see just how often—but here it’s especially appropriate.  The “parable” of the Sheep and the Goats, after all, is about what people do to the Messiah without realizing it is the Messiah they are dealing with.  And here is Jesus, the Messiah, surrounded by those who doubt his Messiah-ship (even his closest disciples will have moments where they’re not so sure he’s the Son of Man he’s been talking about) giving a lesson on how the Messiah will approach those who didn’t recognize him until he came in his glory.

But before I get to that, I’d better say why I’m uncomfortable calling this a parable.  Most of the parables we’re familiar with—the ten virgins, the talents, the prodigal son—are stories, specifically fictions, that teach us something about what the kingdom of heaven will be like.  This seems less parable and more prophecy. Jesus isn’t likening the kingdom of heaven to anything; he’s telling how it is.

There is that quick little likening, which we turn into a title. “[The Son of Man] will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (25:32-33).  This is the image of the Good Shepherd.  According to Robert Farrar Capon, it’s also a reminder of the universality of Christ’s Atonement and Christ’s Kingship.  Just as the shepherd is responsible for both sheep and goats, the Son of Man is responsible for both the righteous and the damned.  This universality is also emphasized when Jesus declares that “All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man]” (25:32).  But except for these two verses, Christ’s message is free of references to sheep, goats, shepherd:  He is not talking about livestock, he is talking about the Judgment.

And here is what he has to say:  All the people the world has ever known will be divided into two groups of people.  The first will be commended for doing good they didn’t realize they had done.  The second will be condemned for not doing good, and will complain that they would have done good if they’d only known how good it was.

But wait: I’ve described it wrong.  I forgot that whole part about non-recognition.  There are two kinds of people: both of them meet the Messiah, but neither knows it.  One kind gives him aid, since he’s in need, the other kind passes by (on the other side of the road, perhaps, like the Pharisee and priest in the “Who’s your neighbor?” parable.)  It’s like one of those fairytales about sharing a loaf of bread with an old crone who turns out to be a fairy.  Those who help Christ are rewarded; those who ignore him are condemned.

But there’s another catch: It’s not that these people met Christ once, or twice.  Because what the Son of Man tells them is that everyone they’ve ever met was him.  They don’t have to know that everyone they meet is him—in fact, it’s pretty clear that none of the righteous ever caught on, because they’re so surprised.  The wicked are surprised too, asking “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (25:44).  And his answer is that they never needed to know to be saved, all they needed was to do.

And that’s what catches us about this parable.  Christ has already said that it’s pointless to try and please men.  Here, he says that it’s pointless to try and please God.  The wicked were just as concerned, perhaps more concerned, about pleasing the Messiah as the righteous were.  It’s just that none of them, saved or damned, knew him when they saw him.

He’s saying that what matters are good works, but that good works done to game the system, to please God or man, are missing the point.  It’s not about doing good to be seen by anyone, but doing good for goodness sake, doing good because good is good, even (especially) when you don’t know it’s the Messiah you’ve just met torn and bleeding by the side of the road.  And those who have got this goodness, who don’t even realize how much their goodness is endearing them to God, are the ones who will be surprised with the promise of his kingdom.

Mormon Doctrine?

February 25, 2010

Sometimes people say that Mormonism has no doctrine.  And sometimes I’ve heard that everything the General Authorities say is doctrine.  Both of those statements are wrong.  Mormon doctrine exists, and it’s really, really simple.

Jesus said it in the Book of Mormon, and he says it to us:

“And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.

And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.  And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and I bear record of it from the Father; and whoso believeth in me believeth in the Father also; and unto him will the Father bear record of me, for he will visit him with fire and with the Holy Ghost.  And thus will the Father bear record of me, and the Holy Ghost will bear record unto him of the Father and me; for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost are one.

And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and become  as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise receive these things.  And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God” (3 Nephi 11:32-38).

No more,  and no less.   (Or as Hillel might say: The rest is commentary,  go and learn.)

Mark 6:30-44

February 19, 2010

The Christ Mark shows us is unstoppable.  Temptations, crowds, the questions of the Pharisees, the confusion of his disciples: he bowls through it all, heading with all his momentum for the momentous week he begins preparing his disciples for in chapter eight.  He’s also unstoppable in that, except for his short nap on the boat in the storm (4:38), he doesn’t seem to sleep, rest, even catch his breath.  This Christ moves from one crisis to another: healing, teaching, feeding, constantly meeting the unceasing demands of those around him (The first chapters are heavy on healing and short on teaching: In the later chapters the ratio is reversed.  The phrase “I tell you the truth,” which in Mark often precedes Christ’s teachings or prophecies, appears twice in the first eight chapters and eleven times in the second eight.)

Early in chapter six, he sends the Twelve out to live the kind of life he’s been living. They go forth with almost nothing, and they teach and heal incessantly. Then they return and begin to report “to him all they had done and taught” (6:30).  But things are as busy as always, and “so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat”  (6:31).  We can imagine that having returned from their missions they are tired and hungry.  Showing his usual compassion for the needs of others, Christ says “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (6:31).  We can only imagine their relief and gratitude, their quiet recognition of the love he has for them.

But this is Jesus, and they can’t expect to get rest so easily.  They set out on the lake, but “many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them”  (6:32).  This is a great comic set-up.  They went out precisely to get away from crowds for a while, but Jesus’ reputation (for compassion, for healing, for charisma) has gone before him.  People come from all the towns, suggesting that the crowd ready to meet them on the shore when they arrive is even greater than the crowd they left.

Mark tells us that when Jesus sees the crowd, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:33).  It says nothing about how the Apostles feel, so we can only imagine their faces falling as they row toward the shore and see the throng.  They’ve been with Jesus for a while now, they’ve seen him with crowds, and they know where this is headed.  He’ll teach, he’ll heal.  It will take forever.  People will keep asking him for things, and he’ll keep giving to them (liberally, and upbraiding not).  Their chances of having a quiet, restful getaway have just disappeared.

And they’re right.  Jesus teaches the crowd.  Maybe the Twelve sit down and listen, maybe they stand glumly by the side, waiting for his undivided attention.  However it happens, the day keeps passing, and eventually they decide they need to do something or they won’t have any time with him at all.  So they come forward and say “This is a remote place and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat” (6:35-36).  They’re showing compassion to the crowd as well.  Surely he’ll realize it’s for the best, and they’ll get him alone.

But that’s not what happens.  Jesus asks them to show the kind of compassion he does, to share with the crowd the way he shares with them.  His request is simple “You give them something to eat” (6:37). Imagine their jaws dropping.  Remember, this whole thing started because they were hungry, they were tired, and nothing’s said they’ve taken a bite yet.  They tell him he’s crazy (which they do pretty often) “That would take eight months of a man’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?” (6:37).

But again, he’s unstoppable, and their normal expectations of how things work have no bearing here.  He can’t be dissuaded.  And he takes the Apostles’ lunch (five loaves and two fish) and gives it to the crowd.  Somehow, everyone is fed (perhaps even the Apostles).  And there are more leftovers (many more) than there was to start with (6:43). How does he do it?  No matter how much people asks, he just keeps on giving (and giving, and giving).  Later, Paul will name the secret: charity never faileth.

Garnishing is more than parsley

February 18, 2010

From Ben Crowder: (by way of Theric Jepson)

    D&C 121:45 says to “let virtue garnish your thoughts unceasingly.” You know, I looked at that verse and thought, “What in the heck does that even mean?” In today’s English, “garnish” means “to decorate (a dish) for the table.” As in parsley. Okay, I’m thinking, we’re supposed to let virtue decorate our thoughts, adorning them with beauty and loveliness.

    But “unceasingly”? Unceasingly means not letting up — it means urgent, important. I don’t know about you, but decorating doesn’t seem to fit with urgency. It doesn’t make much sense.

    So I went back to the OED and found that “garnish” originally came from the Old French garnir and meant “to fortify, defend (oneself), provide, prepare.” It’s also directly related to our English word “warn”/”warning.”

    Okay, that makes a whole a lot more sense. We need to let virtue fortify our thoughts unceasingly, defending them with the strength that comes from godliness.  That’s how our confidence waxes strong in the presence of God– knowing we’re clean before him and that we’re becoming like him.

I thought that was a pretty good insight.  Hope y’all enjoyed it too.

Amos Five

February 12, 2010

Here is Amos’ lament for Israel, which seems to me to be more than anything a cry of anguish on the part of God, anguish at Israel’s wickedness, at the impending judgments that will come upon them.  Amos’ lament is the powerful keening cry of true loss.

And what’s the message of this cry?  What is the message the Lord has given Amos to give to Israel?  “Seek me and live” (v. 4).  The Lord is saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.  I do not desire destruction.’  Amos’ prophetic call is to shock Israel into an awareness of the consequences of their brutality and injustice, their dishonesty and decadence.

We can only imagine how strange this prophecy must have seemed to the Israelites.  Was Amos standing in the streets of Bethel, calling to them with this lament from the heavens?  And how must it have seemed, the prophecy that “Bethel will be reduced to nothing” (v. 5) and that “there will be wailing in all the streets, and cries of anguish in every public square” (v. 16).  This was a time of prosperity, and Bethel was a busy place.  The only cry of anguish was Amos’ own cry.

If his lament came as a surprise to those Amos was calling to repentance, I think the force of his anguish should surprise us as well, for a moment.  Why should a prophet calling down the just judgments of God on the wicked be so sorrowful?  I think it still surprises us to come face-to-face with the full force of God’s love for his people. Amos cries because God loves Israel, loves with a fierce force even those who “turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground” (v.7).

If we forget this love sometimes, the people of Israel did as well. Amos rebukes those who “long for the day of the Lord” because “that day will be darkness, not light” (v.18).  The NIV footnote suggests that this rebuke is aimed at the same crowd as the previous judgments are, that the wicked Israelites expected the judgments of the Lord to come upon their enemies but not upon them, and that Amos is reminding them that the Lord will judge all the wicked, including them.  But couldn’t this message also be for the poor and pious who had been oppressed?  Had some of them desired the judgments of the Lord to come upon their oppressors within Israel?  Had some of them rejoiced as Amos prophesied of the destruction to come?  I see Amos’ rebuke as a reminder to them as well:  Do not desire the destruction of those who have harmed you, desire their repentance.  Anyone’s destruction should be a cause of mourning, not of joy. The day of judgment is always “pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness” even when those being judged are your enemies (v. 20).

This is the message I take from Amos: a fervent desire for justice is not the same as a fervent desire to see the unjust perish, and a fervent love for God is not the same as fervent hatred for those who defile his ways.  In fact, for Amos, love for justice means mourning the destruction of the unjust, because their destruction means they never turned from injustice.  Love for God requires loving those who ignore him, because they are also loved by God, and so loving him means loving them.

Amos’ call to Israel, and to us, is to start living with that kind of all-consuming love.  He calls us to seek the Lord, because the Lord is life.  He calls us to make “justice roll on like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (v. 24) because we should thirst for justice the way we thirst for water, because justice is the only way we can have a life worth living.  He calls us to stop looking after our own houses, our own vineyards, and to remember the poor.  And if we don’t, he says, God mourns.