Life is Like a Narrative

“Lent suggests life is more like a narrative than an outline. It does not remove blurry lines. Lent may provide some answers, but also new questions. Lent allows topics to overlap with one another. Although it is a temptation to separate one from the other. Lent reminds us of the reality that everyday topics intersect with big picture topics. We seem to have a natural inability to balance our focus of the kingdom of heaven with the details of earth. We are not to solve these dilemmas. Instead, we accept them and encourage others to see reality, to recognize the kingdom in the midst of these mundane and ordinary parts of our schedules. Lordship and dominion intersect with everyday tasks. The Word of the Lord meets the ink of our Day-timer.”

Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p.49

A Discussion About Sin

Here is how N. T. Wright describes the common view of sin in The Day the Revolution Began “A killjoy, finger-wagging, holier than thou moralism” that focuses on “small personal misdemeanors” and ignores “major injustice and oppression.”  Such a definition eventually arrives at “A severe story line that cheerfully sends most of the human race into everlasting fire.”

The Greek word for sin means “missing the mark.” It is a picture of shooting for a target and failing to hit it. Wright suggests this is far different than receiving a long list of things you must and must not do. He proposes it was wrongdoers who used to worry about sin, but no more. Now “The people banging on about sin are those who think it’s someone else’s problem.” Some of us still try to cling to the old rules. Others have become trendier and thump the pulpit “against fossil fuels rather than fornication.”

What I like most about Revolution is N. T. Wright’s attempt to be faithful to the biblical storyline. His attempt to talk about sin in context of the biblical story results in stimulating discussion. He is convinced we have tended to talk about sin in ways that the bible does not. Wright suggests our conversation about wrong behavior usually sounds like failure to keep a moral contract. He goes to great length to tell readers that sin is more serious than breaking a moral code.

Wright tells us we have willingly “handed over control to forces that will destroy us and thwart our original purpose.” We have rejected our God given vocation to be “image bearers” and have given our authority to other powers and forces within creation. These forces have taken that authority and “run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell.”

Wright labels this “Idolatry” which he explains “covers a lot more than simply the manufacture and adoration of actual physical images.” This happens when we place anything above the Creator. When humans worship parts of the created order or forces in creation, they give away power to those forces which will then rule over them. Sin then, is not simply the breaking of a moral code but is missing the mark of genuine humanness by worshipping idols rather than the one true God.

Sin is bad. But Wright wants us to know that it is a symptom of a deeper problem. And that problem is addressed by the biblical storyline. “The problem is that humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected.” And “This rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols.” And “This results in giving life to the idols – ‘forces’ within the creation – a power over humans and the world…”

When humans fail in their image bearing vocation, the powers seize control. And the Creator’s plan for creation does not proceed as intended. The problem is not that humans have misbehaved and need punishing. The problem is that we have refused to play our part in God’s creation. It may be a moral failure but is also a vocational failure. To worship creature rather than God is to choose death. Genesis 3 is deeply etched in the biblical storyline and the pages of history. Obey the serpent’s voice and you forfeit the right to the tree of life. Just as the prophets insisted, exile is the result of sin. Leaving the land is as leaving the garden.

Good Friday and a Contrast of Kingdoms

Among other things Good Friday reminds us that when the world feels threatened, it becomes defensive. By default, it will attempt to tame whoever or whatever threatens it. But what the world cannot tame it will label a rebellion and rebellions must be stopped. The world will resort to any violence necessary in order to maintain control.

On Good Friday Jesus was viewed as a revolutionary, his following as a rebellion. It should not surprise us the world responded the way it did. Since the beginning the ways of the world have conflicted with the ways of God. Yet, the intensity increased significantly with the arrival of Jesus. The crucifixion is evidence of that and presents a clear contrast between the way the world works and the way that God works.

Ever since Jesus announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God it was inevitable we would find ourselves at the place called skull where the world is trying to maintain control. In order to do so it mocks and spits and hits and insults and crucifies. Meanwhile, Jesus forgives. As the world demonstrates its ways of keeping order, Jesus demonstrates the ways of God.

The cycle has not changed. And we are in it. Good Friday invites us into the Gospel narrative where the ways of God continue to threaten the world. The world continues to respond in ways they do not understand. And followers of Jesus are to demonstrate the ways of God no matter what the world throws at us.

Matthew: a Gospel of Treasures

Matthew invites us to participate in a hunt for treasure.  This is not separate from his emphasis on teaching.  Followers of Jesus find practical instruction and wisdom to live by as disciples.  Matthew contains the largest amount of teaching material and uses the word disciple more than any other Gospel.  This is even emphasized in the conclusion “make disciples… teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.”  Perhaps Matthew wants us to know that the true treasure is the wisdom found in the teaching of Jesus.  Perhaps he wants us to think of making disciples as sharing treasure.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to store up “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Although many may try to convince us that they have valuable treasure, it appears that all treasure is not equal.   Jesus thinks temporary things do not make good treasure.

Later, He says that “the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  Then, after finding a pearl of great value, he tells us that “every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old.”  Later yet, he records Jesus saying, “go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven.”  It is safe to say that Jesus likes to talk about treasure.

Ben Witherington suggests that Matthew is like a scribe who has become a disciple and “brings out of his treasure things new and old.”  This may be evidenced by his desire to affirm traditional Jewish teaching, while at the same time; he also includes new eschatological teaching of Jesus.  Witherington says that Matthew “manages to balance an old and new portrait of the Messiah, with Jesus sitting for the portrait.”

Matthew mixes the teaching of Jesus with narratives that describe activities of Jesus.  These work together and remind us that the teaching must be lived out in the narrative stories of our lives.  Matthew insists that the everyday world that we live in cannot be separated from the teaching of Jesus.  Like explorers on an adventure, we enter the Gospel where the stories of life and the teaching of Jesus intersect with one another.  There we find treasure to live by.

Troubling Images of God and Old Testament

Eric Seibert has attempted to help us understand Old Testament narratives that depict God as violent in his Disturbing Divine Behavior:  Troubling Old Testament Images of God.  There is good reason for such a book as there are some images of God in scripture that are disturbing to modern readers.

Seibert asks some pretty good questions along the way.  He explores hermeneutic.  He discusses genre.  He turns to historical precedent.  He desires that we approach scripture not as moderns.

Yet, Seibert He uses several arguments to get to his point that the bible need not be read as if it is accurate.  He attempts to read a christocentric hermeneutic back into the Old Testament that allows God to act only as Christ acted.  He claims that Jesus embraced some OT portrayals of God while rejecting others.  He attempts a dual hermeneutic that allows one to read a passage and glean from it what the reader deems helpful and discards the rest.  He even calls on the Jesus Seminar for evidence.  He quotes others out of context to glean what he wants from them.

Repeatedly, Seibert appears to use the methodology he writes against.  His work seems to be a response to his modern idea that God does not act in the violent way of the Old Testament narrative.  He even reads Genesis 1-2 as a text of non-violence.  Is it possible that God is other than pacifist or violent?  Seibert seems to suggest that the Old Testament narratives imply a violent God.  His book implies that God will act only as his own pacifist ideas allow him to do so.  He writes as if God is in need of defense.  As if someone must explain his behavior or explain it away.

It is dangerous to silence the text.  To explain away the text is to leave it without authoritative voice.  The purpose of text is not “it must have happened because the bible says so.”  But to hear the text for the voice of God.  I do not think that Seibert intends to silence the text, but his methodology does run the risk of silencing the text by attempting to explain the text in ways that agree with his own presuppositions and make more sense to modern readers.

Seibert is correct that interpretation is important when discussing problematic pictures of God.  However, he enters dangerous territory when he suggests that eliminating problematic portrayals and focusing on less problematic portrayals is the way we will best understand God.  For one, that suggests that we have a handle on who God is.  It may also suggest that we are more enlightened than writers of scripture.

This is an interesting read that asks questions worth asking.  Yet, in the end his troubling methodology leaves us with some troubling images of the Old Testament and of God.  Seibert’s book is an exercise in hermeneutical gymnastics.  Are we at liberty to adjust our interpretive approach because we are uncomfortable with a text?  The result of his work is a harmless deity who is soft on sin.  It reminds us of the difficulties that emerge for those who read with presuppositions.  In the end, Seibert’s God is not very interesting.  He lacks surprise.  He lacks the unexpected mystery of the Old Testament.  His God and his Old Testament is a troubling image indeed.