Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

Alma 1:10-25

March 19, 2010

For my Reading Scripture class, we’re using Royal Skousen’s recent edition of the earliest Book of Mormon text.  I love it, in part just because it’s a beautiful book, but also because I feel as if it helps me read more carefully, to notice things I never saw before.

The story of Nehor’s trial is one that I’m used to hearing.  And yet, when I read it out loud on Wednesday, it seemed completely unfamiliar.  There is a part of the story in the text that I don’t think I had ever opened my ears to hear before.  The way the trial is presented is not, as I had thought, unambiguously positive.  As I read, I get the feeling that the narrator (Alma, Mormon?) might view the handling of Nehor’s trial as a mistake.

The text that catches my voice says that after Nehor is condemned
“they carried him up on the top of the hill Manti,
and there he was caused
or rather did acknowledge between the heavens and the earth
that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God…” (Alma 1:15).

Maybe it’s the sense-lines in this printing, but I don’t think I’d ever noticed the ambiguity before over whether Nehor’s confession of the error of his ways was forced or voluntary.  It seems almost to be a slip of the tongue: “he was caused or rather did acknowledge…”  But this is a serious issue, because it’s the difference between an effective judicial procedure and a kangaroo court.  And I think the text includes both possibilities for a reason.

What follows from the trial also surprises me.  We learn that Nehor’s execution “did not put an end to the spreading of priestcraft through the land” (1:16).  This is an aberration, since the two situations which follow this same pattern—that of Sherem (Jacob 7) and that of Korihor (Alma 30)—end in the text with all the people becoming convinced of their errors.  So now we have two unsettling facts: the text leaves some question as to whether Nehor’s confession was forced and then says that for the only time in Nephite history, the public refutation of an Anti-Christ didn’t end the spread of his doctrines.

What if these two issues are connected and the first explains the second?  This is Alma’s first recorded ruling as chief judge.  We know that there will later be significant questions about the legitimacy of the judges.  And we know that there are already tensions—expressed in Nehor’s preaching—about the role of the new Church (of which Alma is high priest) in society.  So perhaps we can imagine that there was considerable attention surrounding this case, in which an opponent of Alma’s Church was brought to trial before him, on charges of murder.

And this is where the uncertainty about Nehor’s confession and the continuing spread of priestcraft come together for me.  Nephites who are perhaps skeptical of this new Church which has been established, and this new system of judges, are watching closely to see whether Alma will use his governmental authority to support his religious denomination.  And then Alma makes Nehor’s trial not a matter of murder, but of heresy.  And during Nehor’s execution, which ends with his “ignominious death” (Alma 1:15) there is a problematic confession, not of murder, but of heresy, which likely was portrayed by the Church as voluntary and by Alma’s opponents as forced.

What’s the end result?  The rift between the Church and non-believers become wider, as some non-believers begin to suspect that the power of the government is being used to bolster Church authority.  Controversial preachers outside of the Church grow in popularity, perhaps by preaching against what they call misuse of the judgment seat.  And soon believers and non-believers are not only arguing, they’re brawling in the streets (Alma 1:25).  Alma’s ruling against Nehor is not a success, it’s a terrible mistake (even if it’s a factually accurate ruling) because it undermines the legitimacy of the fledgling system of judges and harms the reputation of the Church in the eyes of non-members.  Perhaps it even led to increasing popularity for the preaching of one Amlici, who says that the judges have failed, and he should be king.

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Types and Shadows

March 9, 2010

You, looking at this painting, see Jairus, his wife, and his daughter.  I see my parents and my sister, who served as models for the artist.  To me, that says something about the way a work of art can be two things at once (or three, or four, or more) which may in turn help us understand how a scripture can mean two things at once ( or three, or four, or more.)

The first time I saw this painting (right now it’s hanging in the BYU Museum of Art) all I could see were my parents and sister.  It had been months since I had seen them, and when I walked in and saw them hanging there on the wall it hit me in the gut, and all I could think of was how lucky I was to have a family, a family with the kind of love you see in this painting.  There is my sister looking out, and my mother looking at her with the love I know she has for all five of us, and my father with concern pouring out of his eyes.

Later I could see Jairus in my father, and I could imagine my sister raised from the dead.  And what struck me about this painting was how Jairus and his daughter are looking out, as if Christ is standing where you are standing, looking at it, because from the thanks in Jairus’ eyes you know he is looking at the man who just lifted up his dead daughter and somehow made her very much alive again.

And then I saw it again, as my family and there family, and noticed how tight they are, how they are all holding each other, how the mother is holding her daughter with desperation and adoration, so thankful to still be able to hold her, to feel her pulse and her warmth.  And I noticed how healthy, how far-from-death, the daughter looks; how the sickly looking one is her father, the sweat on his brow testament to the crisis he has just gone through, the terrible heart-wrenching despair he has experienced.

Seeing Jairus and my father in this painting, I know this is not only a picture, but a promise.  That by raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead, Christ showed that he has power to raise my sister also.  That my family’s grief, which will someday come, will be swallowed up in the power of Christ as he brings us all forth at that great day.  He raises, he rose, and someday he will lift me from my grave, into the arms of my parents.

Romans Four

March 6, 2010

There’s a reason Paul and his companions were called “These that have turned the world upside down” (KJV Acts 17:6).  It’s because what they said and what they did was a radical threat to everyone’s assumptions.  It’s because they preached that the Son of God had come down and been crucified as an enemy to Rome and a heretic to the Jewish religious establishment.  And I think it’s because they talked about a “God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (4:17).

By now, we’re used to the idea of a God who gives life to the dead.  But one who calls thing that are not as though they were?  What kind of God is that?  Isn’t that what lying is?  And isn’t our God a God of truth?  And anyway, what purpose would God have to call things that are not as though they were?  What sort of game is that to play?

Yet this is emphatically the sort of God Paul declares.  And, for anyone who considers Genesis and the Psalms to be authoritative, he furnishes some pretty good evidence. After all, Genesis says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3).  And faith certainly isn’t part of what the Jewish establishment thinks of as righteousness; faith is a good step, but righteousness is the works of the Law, isn’t it?  Even if faith might be part of righteousness, Paul takes a look at that word ‘credited’.  When you work, he says, you don’t get wages as credit, you get them as your due.  But God credits Abraham’s faith as righteousness, in effect saying “It’s not the same thing, but I’ll count it.”  Which means that God is calling a thing which is not as though it were.

And then there are the Psalms, which Paul quotes as saying “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (4:8). Sin is sin, and yet here is God openly saying that he’ll choose not to count some sins against some people.  God is calling a thing which is as though it were not. He’s making things utterly unreliable.  How are we supposed to distinguish between the righteous and sinners if God will ignore the sins of some and credit righteousness to others?

I’m all prepared to get terribly unhappy with God for this kind of irrational behavior when I remember something very important (which Paul has already covered at length in Chapter 3).  If God calls things the way they are, then I’m in trouble. Because I’m a sinner.  I can’t count on the rules, or the way things are, to save me one bit: I’m on the wrong side of that equation, just like everyone else.

And the thing about God’s way of accounting, as Paul describes it, is that it never works out against the one in debt.  Someone like Abraham, who hasn’t yet fulfilled the works of the law, has his sheer willingness to rely on the promises of this God credited to him as righteousness.  And the sinner’s sins don’t have to be counted against him.  No one who is righteous gets counted as a sinner in this system, and sinners (like me) have a chance to get counted as righteous.

But let’s get back to that faith of Abraham’s. God calls things which are not as though they are.  And Abraham’s faith is not just a belief that God is.  It’s a belief that they way God calls things is the way they will be, even when it seems completely impossible. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” Paul says, and in that phrase captures the essence of Christian faith (4:18). Against all evidence and hope in this life, we hold fast to the hope that Christ died and rose again, that because of him we will all rise.  Against all evidence and hope, we believe firmly in a God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they are.  And by doing so, we truly turn the world upside down.

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.