Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Perspective on the Problem of Suffering

What follows is a letter I wrote to a friend regarding the reality of suffering in our world. It was published in the Truett Journal of Church and Mission a couple years ago. I thought that in light of the second anniversary of hurricane Katrina, this pastoral theological reflection would be of some benefit. I know its long, but you'll just have to forgive my verbosity.

I admit that my perspective is not in keeping with many of my monergist/Calvinist/Augustinian friends. Please remember that what I have written is pastoral theology, not systematic theology; meaning, my aim was not to make a fool-proof case for a theological position, but offer a thoughtful, biblical, lay-level view on the problem of evil. Feel free to disagree with me, but please do so with kindness.

Dear Friend,

Why does God allow innocents to suffer in His world? As I’m sure you know, you have asked an immensely difficult question. In fact, it is considered by most to be the question of Christian apologetics and perhaps of theism in general.

The theological problem of the suffering of innocents, which is usually simplified and generalized as “the problem of evil” (for the suffering of the innocent is ultimately a thing of great evil), is at the same time universal in scope and intensely personal in application. It is universal because as far as we can tell, all peoples of all religious convictions at all times and in all places have struggled with this problem. The experience of suffering and evil is shared by all, though differing in degree for each person, and is therefore a common part of human existence. Yet, it is also intensely personal because each of us experiences the victimization of evil in a unique way. Although others can mourn with us and we can receive comfort from them in the midst of our pain, no one else can bear the total burden of our misery for us. For each person, the experience of suffering, in whatever form it comes, ultimately takes place within a solitary encounter with the deepest anguish.

But, that is where God enters the picture, isn’t it? Even for the unreligious or unbelieving, the experience of suffering causes the scalding question, “Why?” to boil up from within. And, since human finitude prevents us from accounting for the many complexities of the world, our question is ultimately laid at the feet of the supreme governor of the world. Thus, we ask, where is God in my encounter with suffering? What responsibility does God have in the universal experience of evil throughout human history? And, ultimately, why would a supposedly good, loving, and all-powerful God allow the rampage of suffering and pain to continue, seemingly unabated, throughout his creation?

Many Christians simply avoid these questions because of their complexity and seeming impenetrability. Yet, as representatives of Christ on earth, I feel that we have an obligation to do more than simply shrug our shoulders and sigh, “It’s a mystery…” In the struggle with the problem of evil, we are faced with a tremendous task. Yet, it seems to me that, with Jesus Christ as our north star, the canon of scripture as our compass, reason as our steering wheel, and the eyes of faith as our guide, we must explore the murky depths of the problem of evil and do our best to find our way out.

So, where should we begin? We should probably start with the way that most Christians respond to the problem of evil. The question, “Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?” is commonly answered with the claim that God has a good and perfect plan, one that somehow includes the experience of suffering. In this mindset, it is common for people to say something like, “Well, I know that God is totally in control, so even though I don’t understand, I’m going to trust that there is a good reason why God is putting me through this. Maybe God is trying to teach me something.”

This view assumes that God is not only in control of everything, but that God is also the cause of everything; this includes suffering, pain, and every manifestation of evil. It may be possible to justify some apparently evil events, as within the plan of God, particularly when they appear to lead to a greater good (e.g., the death of a loved one reunites a family that has been estranged for many years). Yet, how shall we justify events of gratuitous evil? Are we really supposed to conclude that God willed the recent tsunami in East Asia in order to bring about some greater good? Was the death of over 300,000 people fulfilling some perfect, predestined plan of God?

Although this view is popular, I think that it does unnecessary violence to the character of God. Is it necessary to assume that in order for God to be all-powerful, he must also be in complete control of everything? Is it necessary for God to control every detail of the world in order to be sovereign over it? Is it necessary for God administrate his will in the world with meticulous micro-management in order to achieve his ultimate purpose? Is it necessary for God to be the ultimate cause of evil in order to ensure his triumph over it in the end? I think that the only way to get out of blaming God for the evils of the world is to answer “No” to each of these questions. In my opinion, unless we are satisfied with a God of moral ambiguity, who actually wills and plans for evil and suffering to occur, we should seriously reconsider our understanding of the way God governs his creation.

Thus, as I see it, the main issue behind the problem of evil is the character of God and, subsequently, the nature of the world God created. Let us briefly examine the character of God and what that tells us about his creation.

As Christians, we profess that Jesus Christ is God incarnate (John 1:14) and the fullest revelation of God to us (Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-4). In Jesus, “the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells in bodily form,” (Col 2:9, HCSB). But, does that mean that Jesus reveals everything there is to know about God? No, of course not. But, in Jesus we see all the things that make God who he is—what makes God God. Through knowledge of Jesus, we gain knowledge of God himself, who God is in his eternal essence. When we see Jesus, we also see the very heart of God. The incarnate son of God doesn’t reveal all of God, but he does reveal all that we need to know about God. Therefore, to really know what God our creator is like, we need to focus on what Jesus is like.

In the life of Jesus, three themes present themselves as intimately related to the nature of God and his creation: (1) the relationship between love and freedom, (2) the real conflict between God and the forces of evil, and (3) the paradox of God’s victorious victimization on the cross. All three of these themes work together to reveal the best way that I am able to understand the way God has chosen to govern his creation.

The focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was the announcement of the present-but-still-coming kingdom of God. He did this primarily through authoritative teaching and miraculous healing. The teachings and healings of Jesus speak volumes about the love of God for human beings. Rather than pandering to the rich and powerful elite, Jesus humbled himself to associate with lowly sinners and social outcasts. Tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the poor, and the lame, all received the attention and blessing of Jesus. He dispensed forgiveness of sins to the humble and brought physical healing to all that he could. In all these things, the goodwill and gracious love of God toward humanity is made manifest. Jesus embodies the desire of God that all human beings are to be made whole, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Jesus reminds us that God’s plan for human beings from the very beginning was to have creatures formed in his image (Gen 1:27) that would reflect God’s character of love. Human beings were to love God and to share love with one another. Yet, in order for love to be experienced, freedom also had to be experienced. It is widely understood that a healthy, loving relationship is one that is freely chosen. One cannot be forced or coerced into loving another. So, a freely made decision is a necessary part of the experience of love. Even the love of God is characterized by a free decision: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). The freely chosen nature of love is evoked in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. He truly desires for them to choose love and obedience over their rebellion, but as he says, “You were not willing!” (Matt 23:37-39).

So, in order for real love to be given from God’s creatures back to him, God knew that freedom must also be granted. Human beings must choose to love God, not be forced or coerced into it. By granting human beings choice, however, God freely took upon himself some measure of limitation—that is, self-limitation.

Christians are often uncomfortable with the thought of God having limitations, but let us put aside the initial “knee-jerk reaction” to limitation and really consider this prospect. Any relationship inherently entails limitation of some kind. In our friendship, your actions affect mine, either advancing my desires or hindering them. I also respect your boundaries in that I do not force my will upon you or manipulate you in order to get my way (even if my way is truly best for you). These things are a natural part of the healthy “give-and-take” that is necessary when two people relate to each other.

Now, I would say, why can the same not be true of God? How shall we imagine God being in genuine relationship with human beings without some kind of limitations that these relationships entail? I would submit that there is nothing inherently wrong with an all-powerful God choosing to limit the extent of his power (and control) in order to create a world where freely chosen love is a possibility. In fact, it would seem to me to be that only a holy and perfectly self-sacrificing being would have the capability to condescend in such a way.

If God is sovereignly in control of his own sovereignty, then he can choose how he desires to exercise it. So, as I see it, for the sake of the creative project God was beginning, God chose to work within certain boundaries. These include the respect of freedom in the individuals God created and the willingness to give and take with these individuals in order to bring about his purposes. This sounds like a real relationship, does it not?

With the self-limitation of God to the boundaries of real relationships, though, God was also putting himself in a position of tremendous vulnerability. By granting human freedom God was allowing for the possibility that he may not always get his perfect way. God is surely powerful and wise enough to work in all situations to bring good out of them (Rom 8:28), but free wills operating outside of his meticulous control indeed entail a degree of risk. In addition to this risk in God’s ultimate plan, God was also exposing himself to the possibility of personal pain and suffering.

We do not often think of God as suffering pain, but the Bible testifies extensively to God’s experiences of sadness, frustration, and pain. Furthermore, a true relationship also entails emotional connection and God’s relationship with humans should be no different. The possibility of human will thwarting God’s will means the possibility of God’s genuine experience of divine sorrow. All of these limitations and risks are inherent to relationships, particularly the relationship of a holy God with finite, created beings. Yet, because of the self-sacrificing love of God and his desire to create a world to reflect that love, God embraced the risk and took upon himself the necessary limitations.

As Genesis relates, however, the first humans exercised their free will in opposition to God’s plan. They chose that which was not God, falling for the lie of the serpent and becoming partakers of, and participants in evil (Gen 3:1-7). Was the fall of humankind into sin the plan of God for the world? Scripture and the character of God lead us to say, No. But, was God taken off guard or surprised at the outcome? I think we must say No, again. God was prepared for the freedom he gave humans to be used in the wrong way, but the goal of loving relationship had to be tested in order to be genuine.

The fall of humankind resulted in universal alienation from God. All humans are now born leaning into the wrong, choosing the ways of self over the ways of God, allowing for the propagation of further evils to continue. The volition of an individual, exercised in rebellion against the creator, is a dangerous and destructive thing, as the bloody and war-torn history of humankind clearly shows. Even the created world is marred by sin, with nature wreaking havoc on the earth, bringing destruction to the very creatures it was supposed to bless. Put simply: Things are not the way they are supposed to be.

So, where is God in all this? With sinful humans running amok in the world and the planet gone awry, is God wringing his hands wondering what he will do to get things back on track? No. Our all-wise God was prepared for the possibility of sin and suffering in the world, and from the fall of our first parents he has been working in and through all things in order to bring creation and his creatures back to where they belong. This “scarlet thread of redemption,” as W.A. Criswell put it, runs through the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants of the Old Testament, leading to God’s ultimate providential act of loving reconciliation in Jesus Christ. In the freely chosen sacrifice of Jesus the God-man on the cross, the God of love provided the means by which human beings could have restored relationship with him. On the cross, God allowed himself to become a victim of evil. Yet, through his suffering, God also won victory over evil.

What does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus say about God’s relationship to evil? First, it says that God neither wills nor causes evil. Not only did Jesus take a decided stand against the forces of darkness throughout his earthly ministry, but he also took the final stand against the prince of darkness, disarming Satan’s power through his sacrificial death and victorious resurrection (Col 2:15). The cross says that God can use the evil actions of men to bring about good, but God does not will those evil actions to occur.

Second, it says that despite the limitations God is working within, he is more than capable of triumphing over the powers of evil in the end. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate declaration of the victorious power of God’s love in the world. Despite all appearances to the contrary, sacrificial and winsome love is ultimately more powerful than overwhelming and dominating might.

Third, it says that God is able to identify with us in our suffering in the most intimate of ways. Through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God himself was a victim of evil. Jesus Christ certainly chose to submit to the suffering and pain, but he experienced it nonetheless. For our sake, Jesus took upon himself the suffering of the abandonment of God the Father and the damning effects of human sin. And now, as Hebrews says, “Since he himself was tested and has suffered, he is able to help those who are tested” (Heb 2:18).

So, getting back to the original question, “Why does God allow innocents to suffer in his world?” My answer is that God does not want innocents to suffer in his world. In fact, God has done and is doing everything within the boundaries he has established and the complexities of creation in order to prevent and alleviate the suffering of innocents. Yet, the nature of the creation project God began entails the possibility of evil and suffering. Ultimately, God gave humans choice, but human beings are to blame for exercising their will in order to bring evil and suffering in the world.

Thus, we are living in a world that is the consequence of the choices made by humans throughout the history of God’s creative project. In all this, we look to Jesus. In light of the Son of God’s crucifixion, we can affirm that in the midst of human suffering, God suffers also. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Jesus, we can also affirm that in the midst of human suffering, hope remains.

You may ask, though, after all is said and done, am I completely satisfied with the answer I’ve presented here? I would like to say “Yes,” but that would be a lie. Many questions remain even within the model I’ve attempted to sketch for you. I think that ultimately, any answers we formulate for the problem of evil on this side of eternity will be like trying to catch a rock in a spider’s web. In the words of theologian Frank Tupper, “The questions are not larger than our answers, but our answers are more fragile.” Our human finitude prevents us from possessing the information and perspective necessary to form a perfectly solid answer to the problem of evil. We can do our best, but in the end humility must win out.

Right now, I believe that my answer is the best one, particularly compared to the alternative. Yet, my creaturely weaknesses remind me to yield to my Creator and Savior, who will, I trust, make things significantly clearer when his Kingdom finally comes. In the darkness of suffering and pain, I cling desperately to hope in the God who is love and await his ultimate triumph over the forces of evil.

Christian poet, singer, and songwriter Andrew Peterson has written a beautiful song that I think captures our desperate hope in the love of God that will remain once the sufferings of this world are over. The lyrics are stark, but poignant, and I think you will appreciate them:

After the last tear falls
After the last secret’s told
After the last bullet that tears through flesh and bone
After the last child starves
And the last girl walks the boulevard
After the last year that’s just too hard
There is love

After the last disgrace
After the last lie to save some face
After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
After the last dirty politician
After the last meal down at the mission
After the last lonely night in prison
There is love

And in the end, the end is oceans and oceans
Of love and love again
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms
Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all

‘Cause after the last plan fails
After the last siren wails
After the last young husband sails off to join the war
After the last “this marriage is over”
After the last young girl’s innocence is stolen
After the last years of silence that won’t let a heart open
There is love

‘Cause after the last tear falls
There is love

In conclusion, my friend, I will modify a phrase first offered by Frank Tupper: Life is hard. God is love. Hope.

Many blessings to you on your search for answers,

Monday, August 27, 2007

Teresa and her "Absent One"

This evening, I scheduled a few hours of "down time" for me to rest and recuperate after a very busy and emotionally turbulent weekend. Part of my R&R included reading a fascinating article from TIME magazine on the spiritual life of Mother Teresa. The article is based upon the collection of Teresa's correspondance with her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, called Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk.

Through the publication of Teresa's private letters, the book reveals that the saint of Calcutta struggled with a "dark night of the soul" for the majority of her life. Although she served Christ faithfully and sacrificially, teaching others to do the same, Teresa came to call her beloved Savior, "the Absent One," and her times of seeking God, "darkness," "dryness," "loneliness," and "torture." What follows is an excerpt of one letter provided by the article in TIME:

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 & darkness —
My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith —
I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them —
because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me —
When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven —
there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.
I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

(Mother Teresa, note addressed to Jesus, undated)

Although many will surely be ruffled by this revelation, I find myself comforted in the knowledge of Teresa's struggle. She is only one of innumerable people of God who struggle with intense doubts and feelings of abandonment by God. Moreover, her cries echo the desperate question of our Lord: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

I look forward to reading the book. For tonight, I find myself even more amazed with the God who chose to empower a little, doubting, pained woman from Calcutta in order to share Christ's love with the world.

I have nothing to say...

I left my husband in Liberty Township, Ohio.

Today he began his first week as high school and college pastor at Liberty Heights Church. Even though he hasn't officially moved yet--that will take place this weekend--and even though we'll see each other every two to three weeks until I join him in December--praise God for a generous relocation budget--the truth is, I miss him already.

In the midst of a flurry of activities, with a myriad of thoughts bouncing around in my brain, I find myself curiously bereft of creative motivation. It is as if I try to open my mouth to speak and all that emerges is prayer. I am compelled by my weakness to seek the Lord and in my thirst for God, I have found the psalms to be a deep well of relief. I offer the following to my readers because, in all honesty, I have nothing else to say:

Protect me, God, for I take refuge in You.

I said to the Lord, "You are my Lord;
I have no good besides You."

As for the holy people who are in the land,
they are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.

The sorrows of those who take another [god]
for themselves multiply;
I will not pour out their drink offerings of blood,
and I will not speak their names with my lips.

Lord, You are my portion
and my cup [of blessing];
You hold my future.

The boundary lines have fallen for me
in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

I will praise the Lord who counsels me—
even at night my conscience instructs me.

I keep the Lord in mind always.
Because He is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad,
and my spirit rejoices;
my body also rests securely.

For You will not abandon me to Sheol;
You will not allow Your faithful one to see the pit.

You reveal the path of life to me;
in Your presence is abundant joy;
in Your right hand are eternal pleasures.

(Psalm 16; HCSB)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dispossession and the Cost of Discipleship: Luke 14:25-35, Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Third Statement on Discipleship (14:33)
The connection of v. 33 to the parables preceding it has been argued above, but its specific injunction remains to be explored fully. On the one hand, v. 33 may be intended as a third condition of discipleship, parallel to the hatred of family and self, and cross-bearing (vs. 26-27), but demanding a step beyond these. This view understands the object of dispossession very specifically, as “all things one possesses” or “all things one owns.”(1) On the other hand, v. 33 may be intended as a summarization of the first two conditions of discipleship, thus broadening the scope to include everything connected to a person. This view would understand the object of dispossession very broadly, as “all that one has.”(2)

In the end, both viewpoints can be argued reasonably from the text. The scales shift toward the first perspective, however, when one considers the way the word translated “possessions” is used elsewhere in Luke’s gospel. Every time that “possessions” appears in Luke, it clearly refers to the material things in one’s custody (8:3; 11:21; 12:15, 33, 44; 16:1; 19:8). Furthermore, if v. 33 is a command to give up all of one’s material possessions, then it is a concept already introduced by Jesus, for 12:33 records him instructing his disciples, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” It is also consistent with the perspective of 12:29, which forbids the quest for food and clothing; as well as 16:13, where God and money are set in stark opposition. It seems, then, that the best way to understand v. 33 is as a third condition of discipleship. Following the abandonment of family ties, the rejection of self-interest, and the assumption of a life-style of cross-bearing, the final source of security left to renounce is that of material possessions.

Either perspective one chooses, however, v. 33 remains the strongest dispossession command in the Synoptic tradition. This is especially apparent in light of the verb, which literally means “to say good-bye to,” “to forsake,” or “to renounce.”(3) The tense of this verb is also important, because in the present, it stresses not that “the disciple must be continually ready... to give up all that he has,”(4) but that the disciple must be in a constant state of giving up all that he has.(5) This is a very difficult teaching, indeed, especially in light of the uncompromising tone, which “goes beyond calling for the right use of wealth in generosity to the poor and calls for its abandonment.”(6) The consequence of refusing to do so is severe: “you cannot be my disciple.”

What is the best way to understand this aspect of discipleship? One must resist the urge to over-spiritualize Jesus’ teaching, thus minimizing the constraint and lessening the sacrifice involved. Jesus has harsh words for the “rich” elsewhere in Luke’s gospel (cf. 6:24-26; 12:16-21; 16:19-31; 18:24-27) and there is a clear expectation throughout that one’s acceptance of discipleship will necessarily effect a change in one’s financial priorities and socio-economic standing (cf. 3:10-14; 5:27-29; 8:2-3; 18:18-22; 19:2-10). The book of Acts further reveals the conclusions of Jesus’ earliest disciples regarding this teaching: “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32b). Clearly, Luke understands the expectation of Jesus to be more than “spiritual” dispossession.

Yet, it is not faithful to Luke or the Luke-Acts tradition to over-literalize Jesus’ teaching either, thus making economic poverty a necessary requirement of discipleship. Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus surely transforms his attitude toward and use of his possessions, but he comes short of literally forsaking all of them (Lk. 19:2-10). Other exemplary characters in the gospel and Acts reveal the same pattern, with the emphasis on their generosity and self-sacrifice, but not their adoption of voluntary poverty (e.g., 8:2-3; Acts 4:36; 11:27). Even the Jerusalem church, which “shared everything they had,” and cared for their member so that “there were no needy persons among them,” did not dispense with possessions altogether.

If these two extremes are to be rejected, then what is the intended application of v. 33? The best understanding is to be found somewhere in the middle, with a balanced combination of the spiritual and the literal. On the one hand, it must be recognized that what Jesus calls for is rooted foremost in a spiritual change of heart (Lk. 6:43-45). It is possible for a person to give away all of her possessions, yet remain obsessively absorbed in their acquisition. Merely doing any of the “marks” of discipleship described in this passage, whether denunciation of family or giving oneself up to death, does not qualify as genuine obedience to Jesus’ expectation. Thus, it is rightly granted that without a radical transformation of the heart away from the trappings of material security, one cannot be Jesus’ disciple.

On the other hand, it must be recognized that what Jesus’ calls for does not end at a change of heart. The only true verification of a would-be disciple’s heart condition is concrete evidence. The person obeying Jesus’ call to relinquish ownership of his possessions spiritually will demonstrate the truth of the matter physically. For some, this means literally selling everything and giving it to the poor, as Jesus expected of the rich young ruler (Lk. 18:22). For others, this means supporting the work of the Kingdom of God out of their earnings, as the women who followed Jesus did (8:3). In the end, the individual acts of obedience that evidence the heart transformation of the disciple will vary from person to person. What matters is that one is listening to the Master-Teacher and seeking to live every day in submission to his instructions.(6)

Before moving on, it would be beneficial to return to the theme of the entire passage, for v. 33, discussed above, completes Jesus’ three-fold expectations for discipleship: (1) abandon family ties and the security of kinship; (2) abandon self and all aspects of physical life; and (3) abandon possessions and their trappings. The association of these three requirements with the two parables reveals that the objects of abandonment (family, self, and possessions) ultimately represent inadequate resources. That is, these things constitute common sources of identity and security, but they will prove to be insufficient, and even destructive, in the end. Therefore, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, one must abandon all of one’s inadequate resources, because retention of them means one’s exclusion from discipleship and, by implication, the Kingdom of God.

Warning and Call to Obedience (14:34-35)
Jesus’ three-fold requisites for discipleship are followed by a saying about “salt,” the only appearance of this parabolic saying in Luke’s gospel.(7) The parallels in Mark and Matthew occur in very different contexts (Matt. 5:13; Mk. 9:50), so it is probable that this was a well-known saying in the early Jesus tradition.(8) Why does Luke choose to include this saying in the present discourse? The image of salt is probably being used to underscore the tragic end of those who do not commit to the way of discipleship, the abandonment of inadequate resources, outlined in the previous verses.

Analyses in the field of soil chemistry have suggested the possibility that Jesus is bearing in mind a property of Palestinian salt that permits the gradual leaching away of salt content from the crystals; allowing the salt to “lose its saltiness.”(9) Yet, there is also evidence that the idea of “salt” losing its “saltiness” was considered impossible and ridiculous by the people of Jesus’ day. A second-century rabbinic dialogue compares the absurdity of salt losing its saltiness with that of a mule bearing a foal.(10) There seems to be little difficulty either way, though. If Jesus’ hearers considered it a frustrating possibility for salt to lose its flavor, then they would be able to understand the reality of its uselessness. If Jesus’ hearers considered it impossible for salt to lose its flavor, then they would understand both the absurdity of this notion and its obvious worthlessness.

In either case, it seems the point remains constant. Though “salt is good,” if it were to lose its “saltiness” it could not be “re-salted.” Salt-less salt is completely useless, not even for purposes of crude agriculture or waste disposal (v. 35a).(11) A person who desires to be a disciple of Jesus, yet does not forsake allegiance to all other sources of identity and security, simply cannot be a disciple. These would-be disciples are ultimately good-for-nothing, as they lack the distinctive characteristics that constitute true disciples and can contribute little to the Kingdom of God. To paraphrase vs. 34-35a: “Disciples are surely good things to have, but if they do not obtain their defining characteristics, how possibly can they be re-defined or ‘re-discipled’? Such non-disciples are not useful, even for the smallest of tasks, and ultimately will be excluded from the work of Jesus.”

To conclude the discourse on discipleship, Luke includes the frequent appeal of Jesus, that “whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (v. 35b). This injunction first appeared in 8:8, following the parable of the sower, and this is the second and last time it will occur in Luke. The connection to the parable of the sower is instructive, for that parable draws attention to the possible obstructions to “hearing,” including troubles, riches, and pleasures (8:14). Thus, one must listen to the teachings of Jesus with “clear-eyed deliberation.”(12) This call to “hear” is not an invitation to debate the requirements set forth, or to attempt compromise with Jesus on their severity. It is a prophetic charge for those with the willingness to listen and the motivation to understand, to consider carefully and act in appropriate obedience.

Exposition in Application
Though the gospel of Luke is primarily the story of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, it is also chiefly concerned with discipleship. Because Jesus is already Lord (e.g., 12:41-42) and his Kingdom is already present in his ministry (11:20; 17:21), the call to discipleship is fundamentally an invitation to swear allegiance to Jesus and the Kingdom he has inaugurated. According to Luke, membership among this new people of God is not based upon inherited status or financial ranking, but only the willingness to live as Jesus lives.

I think it is apparent that Luke wrote with pastoral concerns for the readers of his gospel, for the emphasis on wealth and possessions in 14:25-35 and elsewhere, suggests that the situation of his readers included those who were “relatively prosperous and inclined to find false security in their prosperity.”(13) Thus, in the broader theological context of Luke, the discourse on discipleship in 14:25-35 represents a “job description” of sorts, declaring to all, from those already following, to those weary in following, to those yet to follow, the manner of life and witness expected from anyone claiming to be a disciple of Jesus the Savior and Lord. The uncompromising language is intended to be shocking, thereby forcing all who hear to consider carefully their position in relation to the standard set forth and modeled by Jesus.(14)

In view of the scope of biblical theology, it will be troubling for some that the three-fold requirements for discipleship appear to suggest the performance of works to merit the Kingdom of God. Yet, this misunderstands the consistent emphasis of Jesus that all acts of obedience spring from a transformed heart. One need not perform tasks to gain God’s favor, for Jesus’ entire ministry demonstrates that God shows mercy to all who will receive it, regardless of their perceived worth. Jesus’ expectations of his disciples are predicated upon their broken, awestruck encounter will the grace of God. In each of the Gospels, near-nobodies are often portrayed as manifesting surprisingly insightful response to Jesus’ call. These very imperfect “disciples” reveal the truth that the works of discipleship only occur following a powerful encounter with the unearned grace of God.

For the contemporary interpreter, it is almost impossible to apply this passage in general ways. The threefold requirements of discipleship cover every possible area of life and communicate the truth that nothing is to be untouched by the demands of Jesus under the reign of God. The truth is that each person will hear the emphasis of Jesus differently.

A young man will hear 14:25-35 and realize that in order to “hate” his family he must give up his father’s claim upon his future, choosing to receive training in the Scriptures rather than go to medical school. This choice and the ones that follow will force him to cast his lot irreversibly with the way of Jesus and those who obey the Kingdom of God.

An older woman will hear this passage and realize that in order to truly carry her “cross” she must give up her comfortable middle-class, school-teacher existence and move to New York City to work among some of the poorest and most neglected children in the country. This choice and the ones that follow will force her to violate established social codes and embody the great reversal proclaimed by Jesus in God’s reign.

A child will hear this teaching and realize that she must be willing to help her younger brother with his homework and befriend the kid in her school who looks and speaks “funny.” Even in the world of children, such actions and those that follow as a result will inherently separate her from the typical ways of the world.

Yet, in the end, no one can tell these potential disciples precisely what must be done to obey Jesus’ call. Such things are left between them and the Master whose voice they are heeding.

Once again, it must be remembered that Jesus does not call the listener to something he himself has not undertaken. Luke’s gospel shows that when Jesus entered adulthood at the age of twelve, he operated with the understanding that the priorities of the Father supercede those of family and social network (2:49). This truth was affirmed again at his first recorded preaching experience in Nazareth, not only being rejected by the members of his hometown, but also enduring his kinsmen’s failed attempt to murder him (4:28-30). Later, Jesus explains to would-be disciples that he is without even the minimum material comforts of ordinary life (9:58), and it is evident throughout his ministry that he lives with the confident expectation of death (9:22, 44; 18:33; 20:15; 22:20-22).

Jesus calls all members of the crowd, both in the first century and the twenty-first century, to abandon the many resources to which they cling and commit themselves to the mission that Jesus himself models. As the parables make clear, to neglect the call is to ensure failure and humiliation. The only way to ensure one’s “success” in the Kingdom of God is to surrender all emblems of success from the kingdoms of this world, and solely commit oneself to follow after Jesus. Once the reader better comprehends these demands, more often than not he will find himself, not amongst the inner circle of disciples, but standing amid the large crowds, perplexed and conflicted regarding the proper course of action. To follow Jesus entails daily sacrifice and total surrender, but to stay means missing out on the reign of God, a prospect that is far worse.

(1) This is the perspective of Schmidt, 152; Beck, Christian Character in the Gospel of Luke, 36; and Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 230, 233.
(2) This is the perspective of Marshall, 594; Green, 567; and Hendrickx, 86.
Rogers and Rogers, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, 147. The same verb form occurs five times in the New Testament, and in each instance an individual leaves another individual or group (Mk. 6:46; Lk. 9:61; Acts 18:18, 21; 2 Cor. 2:13).
(3) Marshall, 594.
(4) See the detailed argument for this understanding in Schmidt, 152. Beck (36) and Hendrickx (86) agree.
(5) Beck, 36.
(6) The discussions of wealth and discipleship in Luke-Acts provided by Beck (46-54) and Schmidt (133-162), were very helpful in my attempt to discern the proper interpretation of Luke 14:33.
(7) Technically, Jesus’ saying is not cast in the form of a parable, but it is parabolic in function as the concluding admonition shows: “whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” The same admonition is found only one other place in Luke’s gospel, following the parable of the sower in 8:8.
(8) Marshall, 595.
(9) See the summary of this study in Marshall, 596.
(10) See the helpful discussion of this rabbinic tradition in Wolfgang Nauck, “Salt as a Metaphor in Instruction for Discipleship,” Studia Theologica 6 (1952): 171; although Nauck’s overall conclusion that salt is a metaphor for “wisdom” in the New Testament, does not readily fit the context of the present passage.
(11) For a discussion of the uses for salt in ancient Palestine, and the possibility of using salt for “the soil” or “the manure pile” (v. 35a), see Marshall, 596-597.
(12) Caird, 179.
(13) Beck, 52.
(14) Ibid., 98.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Dispossession and the Cost of Discipleship: Luke 14:25-35, Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

Two Illustrations: A Tower-Builder (14:28-30) and a War-Making King (14:31-32)
Jesus’ two statements on discipleship are followed by two parables unique to Luke’s gospel. It is not uncommon for the gospels to present two parables containing the same or a closely related message, such as the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven in Luke 13:18-21 or the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl in Matt. 13:44-46. Still, the parables of the tower-builder and the war-making king have been persistently difficult to interpret. This problem seems to have arisen for two reasons: (1) from the hypothesis that the two parables have been haphazardly inserted by Luke into an unrelated discourse,(1) and (2) from the unnecessary association of the two parables with one in the gospel of Thomas.(2)

It appears, however, that the first underestimates the aptitude of the author-editor and virtually ignores the parables’ connection to the strong application statement that follows (v. 33);(3) and the second results in unnecessarily “pigeon-holing” the parables into a fixed interpretation provided by a non-canonical source, with an entirely different context.(4) Regardless, the author-editor of Luke perceived a relationship between the parables and the context, as the word “for,” indicates that they are intended as illustrations of the prior teaching. It seems, therefore, that one should begin with the assumption that the parables are indeed related to the context, rather than the opposite, unless the evidence proves to be overwhelmingly clear to the contrary. It is from this perspective that the two parables will be considered.

The intended subjects of the parables, the tower-builder and the king, are rightly understood as Jesus’ audience. The phrase, “which of you,” beginning v. 28, parallels the phrase, “anyone of you” in v. 33, and compels the listener to identify with the parables’ protagonists.(5) The first is a landowner wishing to build a “tower” (v. 28), which, depending on his available resources, could indicate a watchtower in a vineyard, a tower for a city wall, or something even more elaborate.(6) Jesus’ audience most likely included more small farmers than wealthy landowners, so the “tower” probably indicates a type of farm building, but one of significant enough size that even laying the foundation has the potential to tax the builder’s full resources.(7) The second protagonist is a “king” preparing to go to war against another king (v. 31). Although the language changes in v. 31 and the inclusive “which of you” (v. 28), is absent, there is no need for members of Jesus’ audience to be “kings” to appreciate the situation.(8)

Both parables contain a plot of sorts constructed along parallel lines: a hypothetical, demanding enterprise + an analysis of existing resources in comparison with the requisite resources for achieving a successful conclusion to the enterprise + a negative outcome when available resources fall short.(9) A person who wants to build a “tower” will first “sit down and estimate the cost” to be sure they have sufficient resources to finish the project (v. 28). For the person who cannot finish the project once begun will be ridiculed and humiliated by on-lookers (v. 29). A king who prepares to go to war against another king first will “sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand” (v. 31). Realizing he is not able, though, the king will be forced to send a delegation and submit to terms of peace or, more likely, terms of surrender (v. 32).(10)

It is apparent that a parallel phraseology between the stories is “sit down and estimate the cost” in the case of the tower-builder and “sit down and consider whether he is able” in the case of the warring king. This has caused many to conclude that the interpretive crux lies in “sitting down,” and “counting the cost,” which is then understood as the conduct Jesus intends for the hearer to emulate. Hence, the explanation of the passage usually takes the form, “Do not act without mature consideration, for a thing half done is worse than a thing never begun.”(11) Or, more specifically, “becoming a disciple was the most important enterprise a man could undertake and deserved at least as much consideration as he would give to business or politics.”(12)

Yet, this interpretation is in serious tension with the emphasis on decisive action associated with discipleship elsewhere in the gospel (esp. 9:57-62),(13) and modeled by the examples of Simon Peter, James, and John (5:11), Levi the tax collector (5:28), and Zacchaeus the chief tax collector (19:6, 8-10). It also does not take into consideration the word “able,” which serves as a connection between vs. 29 and 31, and 26-27, 33.(14) This verbal link means that the concept of ability with respect to resources is common to the parables and their applications. The concept of “cost-counting” has no such commonality throughout the passage.

Furthermore, Jesus’ conclusion to the two parables is the declaration, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciple.” Purely from a text-linguistic perspective, it is more likely that the “in the same way” of v. 33 refers to the endings of the parables, which depict mockery and surrender, rather than the beginnings of the parables, which depict cost counting.(15) Finally, the inference of failure found in both parabolic endeavors are, in both cases, the result of insufficient resources. The connection of this theme to the application statement in v. 33 is made clear when the converse of the statement is shown: whoever remains attached to their possessions cannot be my disciple.(16)

A better interpretation, therefore, views the parables as illustrations that one’s resources are, however one calculates or considers them, necessarily inadequate and must be abandoned in order to follow Jesus in discipleship.(17) Schmidt offers the following summary: “As tower-building with inadequate resources results in mockery, and as war-making with inadequate troops results in surrender, so retention of inadequate means of security results in exclusion from the kingdom.”(18) This understanding of the two parables does not preclude careful consideration and reasoned forethought, but it places the emphasis where Jesus (via Luke) chooses: at the point of surrender and self-sacrifice.

(1) This is the perspective of a number of scholars, represented by Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, Revised Ed. (New York: Scribner, 1962), 106; and Peter G. Jarvis, “The Tower-builder and the King going to War,” ExpTim 77 (1966): 196-198, both of whom begin their interpretation of the parables with the presumption that they cannot trust the authenticity of the application statement that follows in v. 33.
(2) This method is also represented by Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 196-197; along with Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 126-127; and, among German language works, C. H. Hunzinger “Unbekante Gleichnisse Jesu aus dem Thomas Evangelium,” Festschrift Joachim Jeremias, BZNW 26 (Berlin: 1960), 209-217.
(3) Verse 33 is potentially the strongest dispossession command in the Synoptics and for this reason alone should be given greater weight in the interpretation of the preceding parables. This does not preclude, however, the real probability that v. 33 and its connection to the parables are redactional, though as will be seen, the connection is not untrue to the sense of the parables. Ultimately, it is the separation of v. 33 from vs. 26-27 (cf. Matt. 10:37-39; 16:24-25; Mk. 8:34; 10:28-30) and its placement as the culmination of the passage that suggest Luke’s editorial handiwork, particularly in the interest of portraying the relationship between wealth and discipleship.
(4) The Thomas parable is number 95 in the collection by Robert M. Grant, et. al., The Secret Sayings of Jesus (London: Collins, 1960), and it says: “The kingdom of the Father is like a man who wanted to kill a great man. He drew the sword in his house and ran it through the wall in order to know whether his hand was strong enough. Then he killed the great man.” Hunzinger was an early proponent of the relationship between the Lukan parables and the parable of the assassin in Thomas, but the parable of the assassin portrays the measuring of strength for a successful end, while the Lukan parables portray the calculation of resources to avoid a humiliating end. This difference alone recommends caution when positing a comparison.
(5) J. Duncan M. Derrett, ‘Nisi Dominus Aedificaverit Domum: Towers and Wars (Lk XIV 28-32),’ NovT 19 (1977): 264-265, argues that the parables are a midrash on Prov. 24:3-6, and contends that the tower-builder and king represent God, who will succeed in his endeavor. This conclusion simply cannot be supported by the evidence. Prov. 24:3-6 does not mention a tower, and it serves as a recommendation of wise counselors (not troops) for war. Furthermore, the parables of Jesus assume failure, not success. Similar problems plague the ineffective argument of J. Louw that the primary reference of the parables is Jesus (“The Parables of the Tower-Builder and the King going to War,” ExpTim 48 (1936-37): 478. For a more thorough discussion of this issue, see the Schmidt, 150-151, 222.
(6) Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers, III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 147. See also Green, 566. For instances of “towers” in the Old Testament, see Gen. 11:5; 2 Ch. 26:9, 10; Is. 2:15; Zech. 14:10.
(7) I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Paternoster Press, 1979), 593.
(8) Furthermore, Luke has shown elsewhere the presence of military personnel among those who hear the preaching of Jesus (Cf. 3:10-14; 7:1-10).
(9) Adapted from Green, 566.
(10) H. St. J. Thackeray, “A Study in the Parable of the Two Kings,” Journal of Theological Studies 14 (1913): 389-399, suggests that the common translation of this phrase, “ask for terms of peace,” is not merited in light of the evidence from the Septuagint and examples of ancient near eastern diplomacy. Citing 2 Sam. 8:9-12 in particular, he suggests that the Greek phrase is a translation of a Semitic idiom meaning “to offer unconditional surrender.” Thackeray’s arguments are convincing and his conclusion certainly has implications for the depth of humiliation involved in the king’s decision to “send a delegation” to the opposing king. Moreover, it lends further support to the understanding that failure and humiliation is assumed in both parables.
(11) Jeremias, 196; and Marshall, 591.
(12) Caird, The Gospel of St. Luke, 179.
(13) Schmidt, 150.
(14) Technically the word translated “able” in v. 29 is not the same as the one appearing in vs. 26-27, 31, 33, but the semantic domain of the words are similar and they are sometimes interchangeable in the New Testament.
(15) Ibid., 151.
(16) Ibid.
(17) Ibid., 150. See also, Hendrickx, 84; and Green, 566, n. 183.
(18) Schmidt, 151.

Dispossession and the Cost of Discipleship: Luke 14:25-35, Part 2

Part 1

Recipients of the Instruction (14:25)
The section begins with the statement that “large crowds” were accompanying Jesus as he traveled. As discussed above, this short transition provides a spatial separation between the teaching to the crowds and the dinner with the Pharisees, while also bringing the reader back to the journey motif. The noun “crowd,” with its derivatives, occurs thirty-six times in Luke, and the phrase “large crowd” occurs five times. But, the phrase “large crowds” occurs only one other time besides the present passage. In 5:15, Jesus heals a man of leprosy and the man’s testimony results in the fact that “large crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.”(1) Another possibly related occurrence of “crowd” is found in 12:1, where “thousands of the crowd” gathered around Jesus, so much so that they were “trampling one another.”

While elsewhere in Luke, “crowds” are portrayed as “pools of neutral persons from whom Jesus might draw disciples,”(2) it is possible that there is an intended difference here. Conceivably, this enthusiastic entourage, a large group distinct from Jesus’ traveling “disciples” (cf. 7:11), is following Jesus with a serious lack of understanding, much like the crowds who flocked to him in 5:15 and 12:1. Perhaps they follow him with the notion that they are accompanying Jesus on his messianic victory march into Jerusalem. Of course, in one sense they are correct, for Jesus is on a “victory march” of sorts. Yet, Jesus’ difficult teaching that follows offers immediate disillusionment to those who misunderstand his mission and the mission of all who go after him.(3)

First Statement on Discipleship (14:26)
The first statement Jesus makes about the nature of discipleship is shocking at best: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has said previously that his disciples must “love” their enemies, those who hate them (6:27-35); therefore it is puzzling that he now says that his disciples must “hate” their family and themselves.(4) What a peculiar rabbi, who instructs his students to “love” their enemies and “hate” their family!

Yet, the way Jesus is using the word “hate” in his Hebraic context does not have the visceral emotional connotations that the word “hate” has in the Western context. Instead, Jesus is presenting a hyperbolic dichotomy that is intended to show the stark distinction necessary between one’s loyalty to kin and one’s loyalty to Jesus.(5) A parallel usage of this love/hate dichotomy in 16:13 helps to illustrate this point: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”(6) This parallel also reveals that Jesus foresees a conflict between the demands of family and the demands of the Kingdom, something that he himself has vividly experienced (see 2:43-50; 8:19-21).

Rather than a call to loathe and despise family, therefore, Jesus is saying that his disciples are characterized by cutting themselves off from their family network in the interest of following him; something that most members of society would still consider tantamount to hatred.(7) At the very least, the call to “hate” one’s family means an intentional rejection of the high cultural value placed on kinship. This is consistent with Jesus’ other teachings in Luke, which show that discipleship relativizes one’s normal and highly valued loyalties to family and other social ties (8:19-21; 9:57-62; 12:51-53; 18:28-30).(8) Moreover, the call to “hate” one’s family may lead to purposed alienation from them.(9) Jesus leads by example in this regard, rejecting the claims of his family upon him for the sake of embracing those who “hear God’s word and put it into practice” (8:21).(10)

It is in light of this understanding of hating one’s family that the reader is to heed the call to hate “life itself,” literally “one’s own soul.” This is not the affective self-loathing that characterizes many people, especially those plagued with depression or other psychological ailments. It is also not the morbid self-hatred of one intentionally seeking vainglorious honor in martyrdom or some other sacrificial death. When viewed in light of the previous call to reject family commitments and their benefits, this command to hate “one’s own soul” is partly a call to “set aside the relationships, the extended family of origin and inner circle of friends, by which one has previously made up one’s identity.”(11)

It may also include the abandonment of all projects, plans, and personal goals one constructs in the course of existence, usually for the purpose of personal honor. Yet, when viewed in light of the charge to “carry one’s cross” that follows (v. 27) and the parallel use of “soul” in 12:20-26, it seems best to understand this use of “soul” or “life” as the sum total of one’s physical existence.(12) One’s commitment to Jesus must be of such intensity that one gives up familial identity, social acceptance, self-actualization, and even the instinctive human drive for self-preservation.

Second Statement on Discipleship (14:27)
While Jesus pictured discipleship in v. 26 as the abandonment of family and life itself, he now casts it in a different, but familiar image—one of cross-bearing: “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has made this statement before following the first prediction of his death and resurrection (9:23). The verb form is the same in both instances, with the demand to “carry” in the present tense, probably stressing the ongoing quality of living in this manner. Although the qualification “daily” is included in 9:23 but absent in 14:27, it appears that the daily nature of the cross-bearing is implicit in the present context. If carrying one’s cross is parallel to repudiating one’s family, social ties, and even life itself, then it is not a one-time experience.

This image of discipleship is common to the Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 8:34; Matt. 10:38; 16:24), but it disappears after the end of Luke’s gospel.(13) Perhaps the metaphor was just as challenging to Jesus’ early disciples as it is for those reading his words today. What does it mean to “carry” one’s own “cross”? Unlike the images of decorative and gold-adorned crosses in today’s popular culture, the cross of Jesus’ day could only refer to a humiliating and cruel instrument of torturous death. It is likely that many members of the crowd had witnessed a crucifixion in their lifetime, hence the startling nature of Jesus’ requirement. It would be virtually impossible for these listeners to imagine a person willingly taking up the heavy cross-beam and voluntarily marching toward certain death. Yet, this is exactly what Jesus requires of those who would follow him.
Jesus expects nothing that he has not already accepted for himself, however, for this is the same one who has “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (9:51).

For Jesus, life in the Kingdom of God has been characterized by the repudiation of his former sources of self-identity and the willful acceptance of the cross as his new source of self-identity. It is reasonable that his disciples are called to nothing less.(14) The deliberate and willful nature of the cruciform life must be emphasized, for Jesus’ calling is often mistaken as the passive suffering of the daily trials of life. Even the way this image is used in today’s vernacular suggests this false understanding: “Oh well, I guess this is just my cross to bear!” But, the cross-bearing of Jesus is not the endurance of life’s burdens with stoic compliance. Instead, in the words of one theologian,

Jesus did not suffer passively from the world in which he lived, but incited it against himself by his message and the life he lived. Nor did his crucifixion in Jerusalem come upon him as the act of an evil destiny...According to the gospels, Jesus himself set out for Jerusalem and actively took the expected suffering upon himself.(15)

It is this purposeful life of self-denial in the Kingdom of God that Jesus calls the crowds to take up and “carry.” To “carry one’s own cross” means to embrace daily the humiliation, degradation, and suffering, that come from a life devoted to the priorities of God’s Kingdom and not the priorities of self or the kingdoms of this world. Like Jesus, cross-bearing disciples will live in such a way that they provoke the powers of the world against them, by welcoming the unwelcome, loving the unlovely, and declaring the presence of God among the godforsaken. Both the requirements to abandon one’s family ties and to carry one’s cross are addressed to “whoever,” which serves as a reminder that the invitation is open to any who would respond in obedience.

(1) This represents my own translation of the text, for the TNIV strangely leaves out the adjective “large,” in their translation of Lk. 5:15.
(2) Green, 564.
(3) G. B. Caird, The Gospel of St. Luke, Pelican Gospel Commentaries (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), 178.
(4) The severity of this saying in Luke suggests that his is the closest to the original and that it was Matthew who chose to tone down the language with an accurate, perhaps more intelligible, paraphrase in his gospel: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37). If Matthew’s version is indeed a later paraphrase, then it reveals the way in which Jesus’ followers understood the meaning of this difficult teaching.
(5) James Denney, “The Word ‘Hate’ in Luke 14:26,” ExpTim 21 (1909-10): 41.
(6) In the Old Testament as well, the word “hate” is used in a comparative way, meaning “love less.” See, for example, Gen. 29:31 and Deut. 21:15, where most translations find a need to moderate the verb “to hate” in favor of “to love less” or “to not love.”
(7) Frederick W. Danker, Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel, Revised Ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 272.
(8) Green, 565.
(9) It appears that for the Twelve, this took the form of literal separation from family (Lk. 18:28) for at least three years. It is likely that they were reunited with their families following the ascension of Jesus, however, as evidenced by the testimony of Paul that the apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Peter all traveled with a “believing wife” (1 Cor. 9:5). For a helpful discussion of the relationship between the early disciples and their wives and children, see Hendrickx, 88-92.
(10) It is also interesting to consider this injunction in comparison to the prophecy pronounced to Zechariah regarding John the Baptist in Lk. 1:17, which says, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.” Jesus harshly rejects this expectation of “peace on earth” in 12:51, expecting “division” among family members instead.
(11) Green, 565.
(12) Luke 12:20-26 uses the same noun, “soul,” in two complementary ways in close proximity to one another. In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus says, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Here, there clear meaning is simple physical existence. Then, in teaching against worry, Jesus says to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life [lit., soul], what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” Here, the meaning is broader than simple physical existence, including the many tasks and concerns associated with physical life. In light of the flexible meaning of the word, therefore, it does not seem necessary to limit the meaning of “soul” in 14:26 to one or the other.
(13) Throughout Acts and the epistles, the cross, or cross-bearing, is never used as an image for discipleship, but remains inextricably tied to the sacrificial death of Jesus: Acts 2:23; 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Cor. 1:17, 18; Gal. 5:11; 6:12, 14; Eph. 2:16; Php. 2:8; 3:18; Col. 1:20; 2:14; Heb. 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:24.
(14) Hendrickx, The Third Gospel for the Third World, 82.
(15) J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 51.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Dispossession and the Cost of Discipleship: Luke 14:25-35, Part 1

"I used to think when I was a child that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one's eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people's hands, eyes, lips, and hearts." - Dom Helder Camara

"It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity." - Frederick D. Huntington

I would be curious to discover what most Christians understand to be the necessary characteristics of discipleship. Perhaps church attendance and evidence of personal morality would make the top of the list, followed closely by the giving of money and maybe even charitable works for those in need.

Yet, as he is portrayed in Luke’s gospel, Jesus himself painted a very different picture of discipleship. Hence, the difficulty most readers have with his teaching found in Luke 14:25-35. Hate parents, spouse, and children? Shoulder an instrument of humiliation, suffering, and death? Say good-bye to all possessions? Assuredly, these are severe and radical demands, a fact that should give the eager interpreter reason to proceed with care.

For this reason, I find it important to consider thoroughly this difficult passage, with the aim of better understanding what Luke intends to communicate about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I hope that my study in several parts will be of benefit to my readers and they ponder their discipleship to Jesus as well.

Literary Context
Luke 14:25-35 is located in the middle of the third gospel’s journey section (9:51-19:44), at the center of Jesus’ trek to Jerusalem. It reveals a subtle shift in emphasis from confrontation with Jewish leadership to preparing the disciples for his departure. The more immediate context portrays Jesus eating a meal at the house of a leading Pharisee. He instructs the invited guests about the perils of exalting oneself and grasping after the “place of honor” (14:7-11), and the Pharisee about the blessedness of table fellowship with “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” (14:12-14).(1) Then, in response to a dinner guest, Jesus relates a parable about the Kingdom of God that serves as a pointed illustration that God’s reign has extended beyond the bounds of Israel (14:15-24). Because of their obstinacy, those who were first extended the invitation shall be rejected while those who had not been invited before shall be compelled to come in.

Since it directly follows the dinner discussion in the Pharisee’s home, with little to no narrated transition, there is some debate whether 14:25-35 takes place within the previous scene or constitutes a change in scene. The parable of the large banquet, told during a meal in the Pharisee’s home, is addressed to Israel’s leadership. Yet, 14:25 shifts the focus to the “large crowds” (cf. 5:15) who are traveling with Jesus to Jerusalem. It is possible that the teaching on discipleship in 14:25-35 is addressed to the crowds while Jesus is still at the home of the Pharisee, but definitive proof for or against this possibility is lacking from the text. The point for the narrator, it seems, is to draw the attention away from the dinner scene and back to the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem; the setting in which most of his teaching on discipleship takes place.(2)

The section in question is also thematically related to several other passages in the gospel of Luke. The subject of taking up one’s cross is first presented in 9:23-24, when Jesus is teaching his disciples about his coming death. Then, the demands to forsake family and material security are introduced in 9:57-62, when Jesus responds to three potential followers. In 12:49-53, Jesus emphasizes the divisiveness of his message, again explaining that even families will be divided and relatives will be forced to oppose each other. Finally, in 18:18-30, Jesus addresses “a certain ruler” who becomes very sad at Jesus’ demand that he sell everything he owns. Jesus relates to his disciples the seeming impossibility of “the rich” entering the Kingdom, followed by an assurance to them that whoever has left home and family for the sake of the Kingdom will surely “receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” This final promise is a comforting word in light of the stark message of 14:25-35, which includes no such assurance.

Main Idea
In my opinion, the main idea of Luke 14:25-35 is as follows: To be a disciple of Jesus Christ, one must abandon all of one’s resources, including family heritage, social standing, material possessions, and physical life itself. These resources are ultimately inadequate, and one’s retention of them means one’s exclusion from discipleship and, by implication, the Kingdom of God.

For the purpose of facilitating a better understanding of the text, the following is my paraphrase of Luke 14:25-35, based upon my study of the passage:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate their own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay a foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king sets out to go against another king in battle. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? For if he is not strong enough, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will negotiate a truce.

“In the same way, those of you who do not say good-bye to everything you have cannot be my disciples.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, with what can it be made salty again? Salt without saltiness is good for nothing, not even for the soil or manure pile. It is thrown away.

“Anyone who is willing to listen should consider this carefully and act accordingly."

For the purpose of grasping the overall flow of thought in the text, the following is my outline of Luke 14:25-35.(3) This section consists of an introduction to those receiving instruction (v. 25), two parallel statements on discipleship (vs. 26-27), two parabolic illustrations (vs. 28-32), a third statement on discipleship (v. 33), and a concluding warning and call to obedience (vs. 34-35). This outline will also serve as the basic structure for the Explanation of the Text below:

I. Recipients of the instruction: Jesus turns to address the large crowds traveling with him (14:25).

II. First statement on discipleship: One cannot be a disciple of Jesus without hating one’s own family and even one’s own life (14:26).

III. Second statement on discipleship: One cannot be a disciple of Jesus without carrying one’s own cross (14:27).
A. First Illustration: A tower-builder cannot complete a tower with inadequate resources, and will be mocked and ridiculed for his attempt to do so (14:28-30).
B. Second Illustration: A war-making king cannot defeat an enemy with inadequate resources, and will be forced to surrender for his attempt to do so (14:31-32).

IV. Third statement on discipleship: Like the tower-builder and the war-making king, one cannot be a disciple of Jesus without giving up every (inadequate) resource that one possesses (14:33).

V. Warning and call to obedience: The disciple who is unwilling to obey Jesus’ teaching is like salt without saltiness, which cannot be remedied, is useless, and must be thrown away (14:34-35a). Anyone willing to listen should consider this teaching carefully and act accordingly (14:35b).

Explanation of the Text
After concentrated study of Luke 14:25-35, I have concluded that the passage’s meaning is deceptively simple and, therefore, quite easy to miss. It is commonly suggested that the theme is “counting the cost of discipleship,” so much so that most Bible translations begin this section with the same, or a similar, heading.(4) This appears to be correct at first, for the two illustrative parables contain identical references to “sitting down” and “considering the cost.”

Yet, this common interpretation does not explain effectively Jesus’ essential point of application in v. 33, which compels the listener to abandon all possessions. For this reason, as the teaching of Jesus in this passage is explored below, I recommend that the conventional understanding of “counting the cost” be set aside and that receptiveness to an alternative explanation be maintained. In keeping with the above outline, therefore, I will provide a broad exposition of Luke 14:25-35 in several parts in the coming days. Please join in the conversation.

(1) Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from Today’s New International Version.
(2) Though it is not integral to the present discussion, it also appears that the disparate scenes appear to be joined by a common theme. The issue introduced in the parable to Israel’s leadership—that illegitimate attachments prevent obedience to the call of the Kingdom—is elaborated upon in a slightly different way to the crowds in 14:25-35. Johnson is right, therefore, when he says, “Having told this parable of rejection to the leaders in which an over-involvement with possessions and relationships closes those invited to the call of God, Luke has Jesus ‘turn to the crowds,’ (14:25) and repeat the same warning for those who would wish to follow him,” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991], 232). Thus, in the literary context of chapter 14, the cautionary message of Jesus continues from the parable of the large banquet, but now it is modified and developed in more detailed instruction to those from the “large crowds” who would seek to become his disciples.
(3) Detailed structural analyses of Luke 14:25-25 are difficult to locate, therefore, the following outline was constructed in consultation with these sources: Thomas E. Schmidt, Hostility to Wealth in the Synoptic Gospels (JSNTSup 15; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987): 150-153; Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997): 564-568; and Herman Hendrickx, The Third Gospel for the Third World, Vol. 3-B (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000): 77-88.
(4) As is often the case, readers of the New Testament frequently are so familiar with the text or teaching that they neglect a detailed and focused investigation. In the course of study, it appears that even the majority of commentators consistently make this unintentional mistake. The two stand-out exceptions among the commentaries were Green, The Gospel of Luke, 564-568; and Hendrickx, The Third Gospel for the Third World, 77-88. In all fairness to commentators, however, the breadth of study necessary for writing a commentary inherently works against the deliberate, concentrated study of every passage in the gospel of Luke. Perhaps it is for this reason that the best explanations of the present text came from the following two monographs: Schmidt, Hostility to Wealth in the Synoptic Gospels, 150-153; and Brian E. Beck, Christian Character in the Gospel of Luke (London: Epworth Press, 1989), 36, 51, 98-102, 153.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

"Astonished" and "afraid"

"They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. They were astonished, but those who followed him were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them the things that would happen to him." - Mark 10:32

This verse has always been a bit of a puzzle to me. The narrator says that as they went to Jerusalem, the people were "astonished" and "those who followed" Jesus were "afraid." Then, in light of their state of mind, Jesus takes the Twelve aside and tells them what will happen to him in Jerusalem. No triumphant coronation or blood-soaked battle with the Romans awaits him, only betrayal, condemnation, mockery, insult, flogging, and death (Mark 10:34).

Doesn't this seem strange to you? Maybe its just me, but I think if I were writing this narrative, I would have had Jesus explain what is coming first, then describe the astonished and fearful response of those with Jesus. But, no. Mark is clear that as the group travelled on the road, "going up to Jerusalem," with Jesus "walking ahead of them," "they were astonished," and those who followed him "were afraid." They were already astonished and afraid, even before Jesus explains his coming death.

Perhaps I'm overly inquisitive, but in my mind, a question leaps from the page: If they were only walking with him on the road to Jerusalem, then why were his followers astonished and afraid? From where did the shock and fear arise?

The first part of Mark 10 reveals that the disciples' tumultuous emotional state comes on the heels of four important "teaching moments" betweeen the Rabbi and his students.

In vv. 1-12, Jesus responds to the inquiry of the Pharisees regarding the matter of men divorcing their wives. The disciples are puzzled by Jesus' conservative response, for one prevalent Israelite tradition allowed for men to divorce their wives for any reason as long as they provided a certificate. Jesus removes this possibility, however, and assures his male disciples that the spirit of God's Law is such that they are bound to be faithful to their wives, no matter what.

In vv. 13-16, Jesus encounters an eager mass of parents and children seeking his love and attention. When the disciples rebuke them, Jesus becomes indignant and challenges their mindset. Rather than the Kingdom of God belonging to the "high and mighty," the educated and elite, Jesus informs them that the Kingdom belongs to these insignificant children. Moreover, whoever doesn't embrace God's reign in the way a child embraces it will never enter in.

In vv. 17-22, the disciples witness Jesus challenge a religious man of great wealth. Though eager to become Jesus' student, the man had "many possessions" and he would not submit to Jesus' command to "sell all you have and give it to the poor." Rather than give up all his belongings, the man "went away grieving," choosing wealthy piety over impoverished follower-ship.

In vv. 23-31, as the rich man walks away, Jesus' exclaims, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!" The disciples, being men of their age, thought that the wealthy are the ones most blessed by God, most likely to enter the Kingdom of God. But Jesus' words, which imply that it is impossible for the rich to enter the Kingdom, leave the disciples "astonished." Peter is disbelieving, pointing out to his Master how much they have sacrificed to follow him. Jesus assures him that whoever has left family and property and endured persecution for his sake will be repaid and receive eternal life. In the end, "many who are first will be last, and the last first."

As I read them, these pericopes provide a gradual revelation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: obey the higher law of love; welcome the Kingdom like a lowly, insignificant child; give up worldly possessions; and exchange family and property for the sake of eternal life and the promise of vindication. It is after all of these "hard teachings" that the disciples are following behind Jesus "astonished" and "afraid." He has stripped them of all earthly confidences, all worldly securities, and he marches resolutely toward certain death. I do not blame them at all.

Today, among all days in the past several months, I find myself in their sandals. I see myself walking behind the Lord Jesus as he leads me to Jerusalem. I have heard his teachings. I have recognized the cost of discipleship. I know the fate that awaits my Lord. And, yet, still I follow.

This morning, Ronnie submits his resignation to First Baptist Church of Fairfield, Texas. We have served the families of this church for a little over five years and the heartache I feel is like nothing I've ever experienced. We love our church. We love our students. We want to stay. But, we believe God is moving us to a church in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, a life-change that wasn't even on our "radar" a month ago.

While we are certain about the move, we are grieved at the cost. We have a team of volunteer youth leaders whose love and faithfulness are beyond words. We have juniors and seniors in high school that we've had the privilege of baptizing, mentoring, and watching them grow into young men and women of God. We have dear friends and older siblings in the Lord whose prayers and guidance have seen us through some very dark times. During the approaching time of transition, I feel as though I am among the disciples, astonished and afraid at the cost, while Jesus walks out ahead of us.

Of course, our Lord does not ask to do what he has not done himself. Trudging through the dry and arid landscape of first century Israel, Jesus loosed the bonds of family, security, goods, and even friends, in order to embrace his fate. Now, in the midst of uncertain times, I can see him. He's out there in front of me, filthy robes billowing in the dust-filled wind, sweat dripping down back and brow, lined face sun-darkened like Galilean soil. He is headed for Jerusalem. Although the cross-beam has not been forced upon him yet, he has already taken it up. And, with nowhere else to turn, with no other option but to move forward, astonished and afraid, I take up my own and follow him.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Sometimes, this is all I can say...

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A reflection on Harry Potter and the Kingdom of Darkness

Since I was able to avoid being burned at the stake for my last post on Harry Potter, I find that I am emboldened to offer another reflection. Let us hope that Wal-Mart isn't running a special on firewood and kerosene.

Apart from the ubiquitous witchcraft and wizardry, two favorite evangelical criticisms of the Harry Potter series are as follows: (1) the series portrays a world in which there is no God; (2) the series routinely obscures the difference between good and evil.

In response to the first criticism, I refer my readers to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I am inclined to believe that if J.R.R. Tolkien can create truthful, beautiful stories in a fantasy world devoid of explicit mention of God, then so can J.K. Rowling, no matter how much my conservative brothers and sisters wish to overlook the similarities between the tales. In reponse to the second criticism--the supposed obscuration of good and evil--I offer the following reflection.

Although there are a number of frightening creatures in the Harry Potter series, the dementors, which are introduced in book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, are the most terrifying by far. The dementors are the guards of the wizard prison in Azkaban. They are brought to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry when a notorious prisoner escapes. What follows is the description of the first dementor Harry encounters on the train to Hogwarts:

Standing in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin's hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood. Harry's eyes darted downward, and what he saw made his stomach contract. There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water...And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings. An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart...

After this first encounter, Harry discovers that dementors affect him in a profoundly different way than his friends. Through a number of run-ins with the dementors, Harry realizes that when they come near to him, he can hear the murder of his parents by the Dark Lord Voldemort. In every encounter, the screams of Harry's mother and her pleading for Harry's life fill his head with horrors that overpower him and cause him to lose consciousness.

Harry seeks the help of Professor Remus Lupin, the teacher of the Defense Against the Dark Arts class. (Sounds a bit like a spiritual warfare class, perhaps?) Lupin agrees to help Harry learn to defend himself against their attacks using a very difficult spell. In Lupin's explanation of the dementors' nature, we learn more about the power they wield for evil:

"Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in the decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can't see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soul-less and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."

I think that the creation of this horrific, evil creature alone is enough to counter the accusation that Rowling does not properly distinguish between good and evil. Yet, one might say that while Rowling can conceive of evil, she may not understand rightly evil's effects on humanity. Respectfully, I beg to differ.

Hagrid is the Hogwarts' gigantic groundskeeper, a loveable oaf of a man, who spent time in Azkaban when he was falsely accused in the past. He offers the following testimony to Harry of the dementors' effects on him during his time in prison. (Warning to my sensitive friends: there is a teensy-weensy bad word at the end of the dialogue.)

"Yeh've no idea," said Hagrid quietly. "Never bin anywhere like it. Thought I was goin' mad. Kep' goin' over horrible stuff in me mind...the day I got expelled from me dad I had ter let Norbert go..."
His eyes filled with tears. Norbert was the baby dragon Hagrid had once won in a game of cards.
"Yeh can' really remember who yeh are after a while. An' yeh can' see the point o' livin' at all. I used ter hope I'd jus' die in my sleep...When they let me out, it was like bein' born again, ev'ry-thin' came floodin' back, it was the bes' feelin' in the world. Mind, the dementors weren't keen on lettin' me go."
"But you were innocent!" said Hermione.
Hagrid snorted.
"Think that matters to them? They don' care. Long as they've got a couple o' hundred humans stuck there with 'em, so they can leech all the happiness out of 'em, they don' give a damn who's guilty an' who's not."

Many scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, have observed that one of the most insidious aspects of the Enlightenment, modernist mindset is the denial of the existence of evil. With a belief in unstoppable progress and the salvific power of rationalism and human discovery, modern minds put away any belief in personal, powerful evil as a force to be reckoned with. N.T. Wright says it this way in his recent publication, Evil and the Justice of God:

Somehow, despite the horrific battles of Mons and the Somme during World War I, despite Auschwitz and Buchenwald, despite Dostoyevsky and Barth, people still continue to this day to suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less soluble by technology, education, "development" in the sense of "Westernization," and the application, to more and more regions, of Western democracy...This state of affairs has led to three things in particular which I see as characterizing the new problem of evil. First, we ignore evil when it doesn't hit us in the face. Second, we are surprised by evil when it does. Third, we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result.

Scripture speaks of the satan, which means "the accuser," who is also called the devil, Beelzebub, the serpent of old, the red dragon, as a personal, malevolent being who musters all the powers of evil in the world to fight against the Kingdom of God. This clash of kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Darkness, is the centerpiece of the story of God, from Genesis to Revelation. Human beings take part in this conflict as well, for the human heart, without the grace of God, seeks after what is perverted, wrong, and yes, evil. It is the deadly cooperation between the Prince of Darkness and the human heart that has turned God's good world up-side-down.

Yet, the modernist mindset knows not what to do with biblical descriptions of the power of evil, as a cosmic force in the world and a personal force within each human heart. In contrast, Rowling's Harry Potter stories, which focus upon the growing conflict between Harry and the Dark Lord Voldemort, nicely complement the truths of Scripture. Whereas the words of Scripture fall on the deaf ears of Enlightenment thinkers, I think Rowling, whether consciously or not, has listened and understood.

"And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to this worldly age, according to the ruler of the atmospheric domain, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and by nature we were children under wrath, as the others were also" (Eph. 2:1-3).

"Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand" (Eph. 6:10-13).

"Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, [Christ] also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the Devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death" (Heb. 2:14-15).

The dementors of book three are a powerful example of Rowling's insight into the nature of evil. The description of the dementors' affect on the human soul is a vivid illustration of the way in which the Kingdom of Darkness exercises its tyrannical rule over humanity. In closing, I recall the words of Professor Lupin:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in the decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them...every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you...the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soul-less and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

If this is not a vision of the nature of evil, a profound description of the human life devoid of God, an imaginative illustration of the satan's work in the world, then I don't know what is.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I Lose Again

I have a number of posts I would like to write, but I can't seem to get away from some personal struggles Ronnie and I are facing. There are a lot of things going on in our church that are not fun. We've lost a few beloved staff members and it seems like an overwhelming sense of sadness hovers over our fellowship. I'm not sure what my role is in all this, but I know that for now, I mourn with my brothers and sisters.

In this midst of all this, cannot help but recall the lyrics to a song by musician, singer, songwriter, and worship pastor, Ross King, whose music has provided an inspiring soundtrack for our lives over the past four to five years. The following song comforted me during the death of my mother-in-law and brought me to a point of brokenness and surrender. I hope it ministers to you today.

I Lose Again
You ruined me;
You took away my dreams;
You did exactly what I wasn't hoping for.
You changed the end--
Now I'm confused about the means;
You make me feel as if my prayers have been ignored.

I'm falling up this mountain--
I'm rising down to freedom.

This is not how
I would have chosen it to end.
It makes it hard to see you as a friend.
But where would we be now,
if you had let me win?
Hallelujah, I lose again.

You got your way.
It must be nice
to never have to choose your battles,
knowing you can always win.
I tried to fight.
I'm so pathetic,
I thought I was standing strong,
when I was kneeling to my sin.

You sure don't make this easy--
You break my will to free me.

This is not how
I would have chosen it to end.
It makes it hard to see you as a friend.
But where would we be now,
if you had let me win?
Hallelujah, I lose again.

In everything you do,
There is less of me,
There is more of you.
In everything you do,
There is death to lies
by the sword of truth.

But I'm not always ready,
I'm not always ready,
I'm not always ready,
For what you put me through.

This is not how
I would have chosen it to end.
It makes it hard to see you as a friend.
But where would we be now,
if you had let me win?
Hallelujah, I lose again.

(c) Ross King