Subscribe in a reader or enter your address to get posts via email: 
Like this blog on Facebook!

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

A Life of Jesus

Several months ago I ran across an article about a new movie project by Martin Scorcese. Initially I had heard the (false) rumor that he was going to do a gender-flipped movie about Jesus (with women playing the parts of Jesus and His disciples), so I looked it up to find out if that was true. After all, the last time M.S. made a film about Jesus, it was "controversial" to say the least! But it turns out the rumor was partly true - Scorcese apparently is ready to start shooting a movie based on the book A Life of Jesus which was written in the early 1970's by a Japanese author named Shūsaku Endō (no, I don't know how to pronounce it!) I immediately looked it up in my local library's catalog, and discovered that they do not own a copy, but I could get one via interlibrary loan. I made the request, and after a shorter-than-you-might-expect wait, I had the book in my hands!

The book was originally written in Japanese, for a Japanese audience. Shūsaku Endō was a rare Japanese Catholic, and he was writing the book for his countrymen. The situation, as I have read about it, is that the Japanese are more of a matriarchal society than the historically patriarchal West, and the Japanese (again according to what I read, I do not have personal experience) don't particularly take well to the miraculous. Reportedly, Endō deliberately focused on the more motherly aspects of Jesus' ministry, and I did find that to be the case. But even we Westerners who are used to the "Father and Son" paradigm can get some nice takeaways from this book.

A Life of Jesus is not a narrative retelling of the Gospels like Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice (I wrote about that book here). This book is more like sitting around with a novelist (which Endō was) who has done a lot of research about Jesus, listening to him tell you about his research. And the author clearly did his homework. He had traveled to and was familiar with the Holy Land, and he had read tons of scholarship and writings by Theologians about the life of Christ. And I agree with the starting point for his journey: there are "facts" and there is "truth", and the writers of the Bible were basically more interested in the "truth" than in detailed "facts". That's why if you read the four Gospels and pay close attention, you'll find that events sometimes are related in a different order, and different details are given about the same event. For many years I've been of the opinion that it is too much coincidence to believe that every time in the Bible that there is a crowd or an army or a city, the number of people is always a round number (as in, Jesus fed exactly 5,000 people, not 5,025 or 4,904). In today's culture, we are obsessed with finding out exact facts. The writers of the Gospels (and, indeed, the entire Bible) were much more interested in showing us who God is than, say, what Moses ate for breakfast, or what color the apostle Peter's eyes were. I think that is partly cultural, too... I don't know that middle-Eastern people living in the desert 2,000 years ago were that interested in precision. They had a story to tell, and as long as they hit the main points, that was okay.

So from that starting point and with the mind of a novelist, Endō begins to read the lines, and then read between them. And he has some pretty interesting things to say, too. For example – there was a group in the setting where the Gospels take place called the Essenes. We know about them through history, but they are not mentioned directly in the Bible. These are the group that allegedly compiled what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls. Endō draws some interesting and startling conclusions about them. First, he theorizes that they were a political threat to Rome, and that is why the Gospels skirt around their existence – to lessen the chances that the Gospels would be seen as subversive literature and destroyed (this seems plausible to me). Second, he theorizes that John the Baptist was either their leader or someone in high leadership (okay, I can follow Endō to this conclusion). But then, oddly, he jumps to the conclusion that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, and basically took over John's role when John was executed.

And that's the way a lot of this book went for me. I kept feeling like Endō was making some interesting points, but then going one or two steps too far. I think Jesus had a lot of respect for John, but I don't think Jesus was a disciple of John and I don't think that Jesus was just the best runner-up that people could find to follow once John was gone. I think Jesus superseded John in every way possible, because Jesus is God and John the Baptist is not. 

Another characteristic of this book is that it rarely mentions the miracles of Jesus, choosing to focus on His teachings and on what the author imagines his personality must have been like (remember, this was written by a novelist!) There is of course precedent to this – Thomas Jefferson actually constructed his own copy of the Gospel accounts by physically (with a razor blade) cutting out anything miraculous or spiritual, leaving only Jesus' teachings (at least Endō does not leave out the Resurrection, as Jefferson did!) Endō tells us that the Gospels were based on older documents containing lists of things Jesus said (probably more or less true), and that the miraculous parts were mostly added in later by the Early Church to spice things up (have I mentioned that sometimes he goes a step too far for me?) Except for the Resurrection, he essentially tries to explain away Jesus' miracles and healings. One idea that I found interesting, even though I don't believe it is the truth, is that the signs of demon possession in the Gospels could be explained away as rantings of someone hallucinating with a case of malaria. He doesn't say, but implies, that casting out demons was really just sitting with people until their fever broke. He says outright that the story of Lazarus' resurrection is symbolic and not factual.

He also basically says that any fulfillment of prophecy that you see in the Gospels (such as Zechariah 9:9 which is fulfilled in Matthew 21) were added later by the Early Church. They knew the prophecies, he argues, and made up stuff to match them. I think there are two things that are more likely than that. One of the things is that the prophecies were of something that was going to happen in the future, and it happened, because that's what a prophecy is. The other possibility in my mind is that Jesus knew the prophecies, and when the time was right, He did what God had lined out for Him to do and deliberately fulfilled the prophecies out of obedience to His Father. I believe the truth has a little of each of those things in it. What I don't think is that the Early Church deliberately manipulated the accounts of Jesus' life in order to make them more exciting. I tend to think Jesus' life was already plenty enough exciting!

But Endō doesn't seem to think so. He paints a pretty plaintive picture for us of a moody, saddened Jesus who walked around thinking about how nobody really understood Him. He goes so far as to say that when Jesus sent out His disciples to minister, it was because Jesus Himself was going into hiding because the crowds were mean to him. I tend to think Jesus was much more concerned with the actual needs of the people than with what people thought of Him.

The author also asserts that Jesus never actually said He was the Messiah. I think the Bible text directly contradicts that idea, and I don't think that the Early Church added that in. He also rejects the idea (from the Gospel accounts) that there was an actual period of darkness and Jesus' death, at which time the earth shook and the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom. I'm not sure why you would believe that Jesus rose from the dead but also reject outright that lesser miracles might have happened when He descended into death, but the author does.

I wish I felt like I had the liberty to assume that entire hunks of the Bible were added later, like fan fiction, but the problem is that I'm convinced that the Bible says what it says for a reason. I don't think there are things in there that are factually untrue. The details are sometimes different, as they will be when two people tell the same story and don't collaborate beforehand, but I tend to think that except for minor details (like that five thousand and first person Jesus probably fed) the things recounted in the Gospels actually happened that way. Ironically, Endō once or twice adds in details from the extra-Biblical Catholic tradition, such as the "falls" of Jesus on the way to the Cross. There's your fan fiction.

He paints a strange picture of Jesus' perception of God. Despite the Gospel reports of Jesus repeatedly using the term "Father" in prayer, Endō tells us this: "He believed that God by his nature was not in the image of a stern father, but was more like a mother who shares the suffering of her children and weeps with them..." Now, understanding that Endō was writing for a specific audience, and that he did not say that God is not a father but that God is not a stern father, I still think this misses the mark a little bit. I think that Jesus experienced and empathized with human suffering, but that was because Jesus actually became a human being. God the Father loves us, and maybe even weeps with use when we are in pain, but He does not suffer, and I don't think Jesus thought He did. The Gospel writers did not presume to put unspoken thoughts in Jesus' head, but 2k years later, Shūsaku Endō somehow thought he could. I'll say it again, though - Endō was a novelist, so his natural mindset tended to work in character development and coherent plot in places where they are absent from the Gospel narratives.

I do think his characterization of Judas Iscariot is interesting. Endō essentially saw all of the disciples as looking for a political victory over Rome, and that's probably not far from the truth on one level; I think they sensed something spiritual happening too, but from their perspective, Messiah was to be their savior from Rome. Judas, on the other hand, is characterized as maybe the smartest in the bunch, seeing potential for political victory but also realizing way ahead of the others that Jesus wasn't going to be a military leader, and that the story of his objection to the woman pouring perfume on Jesus' feet amounts to him implicitly admitting this. The Gospel accounts paint Judas with a broad, vengeful brush, but I almost agree with Endō that they are harsh on Judas a bit unjustly. After all, all of the disciples cut and ran away when the chips were down. I imagine that if nobody had given Jesus up, Jesus would have found a way to surrender himself anyway. Judas did nothing to Jesus that God hadn't planned for ahead of time.

I wouldn't read this book as a devotional handbook. In my opinion, its flaws are too extensive for that. If you are not secure in your understanding of the Scriptures, this book could really introduce some unnecessary confusion and uncertainty. Endō asserts that nothing but a true resurrection of Jesus from the dead could have turned the weak-willed disciples of Jesus into the strong leaders who spread His message all over the world and, tradition tells us, most of whom eventually faced martyr's deaths themselves. But if you are willing to accept the most unlikely miracle of them all, a man coming back to life after being killed, why would you discard other lesser miracles such as healing the sick or casting out demons? And why, with the ultimate miracle in their toolbelt, would any early writer presume to fabricate other lesser miracles? I think this book holds some interesting stuff for someone who isn't easily swayed in their convictions, but in the long run, there are probably better books if you're looking for truths from the Word. For example, start with the Word itself - get comfortable with what it says! Then if you read something like this book, you won't be toppled over by "steps too far" like the ones I see in this book!

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Forgive and Forget

A friend of mine posts funny memes on Facebook almost every day. I don't know how he finds them all, but he rarely posts one that doesn't actually make me smile. Some time ago he posted one that contained some "rules for life" that are tongue-in-cheek and pretty funny to me. The first one, however, I thought contained a grain of truth. It said, using a word I won't use here because I don't want to offend anyone, that you should always forgive "your enemy", but then you should also remember the guy's name. The reason that I thought it contained some truth is that I don't believe in "forgive and forget" – at least not all of the time.

Don't get me wrong, I 100% believe in the "forgive" part! Jesus made it very clear that we should forgive people who wrong us, over and over if necessary. I'd say there are two reasons for that: first and foremost, the person who wronged us can see God's forgiveness modeled in us. Second, when we hold unforgiveness in our hearts, it is damaging to us, too. I've heard it said, and I think this is a fantastic analogy, that harboring unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping that the other guy will die! Unforgiveness is toxic; forgiveness is mandatory.

But I would submit that forgiving and forgetting can be like eating healthy and hoping the other guy loses weight! Your forgiveness does not change that person, outside of giving them an opportunity to make a change themselves when they see God's work in you causing you to forgive. But if they don't change, there is every chance they will wrong and hurt you again.

But isn't that what forgiveness is... letting go of past hurts and being open to the person? Trusting them again like you did before? Well, let me frame it this way. Let's say you know someone who has a hot temper and a loaded pistol. Let's say that person aimed their gun at you and shot you. You were badly wounded, went to the hospital, got patched up, and forgave that person for what he did to you. All good so far? You did the right thing!

Months later you run into that person. He has his firearm. He pulls it out and aims it at you. It is loaded. Do you stand there and get shot again? Is that what forgiveness means? This person did not change. The first shooting was not an accident, and the impending second shooting will not be an accident either. What is the purpose of you going to the hospital again? To show the person how holy you are? Well, maybe. Maybe God says to you in your heart, be still. I'm taking care of you, and you need to stand up and be brave, and I'll get the glory in this situation. But to my way of thinking, if that doesn't happen and you just stand there and get shot again, you're kind of stupid. You're probably more useful to God alive than potentially dead, and this guy may have been spending the past few months at the shooting range, making sure he won't have to waste a third bullet on you!

My friend disagrees, and I'm sure he's not the only one. He believes that if you are wronged and you forgive, you should be totally open to being hurt again the same way. Maybe sometimes that is the case. And since I'm not God and I've been wrong before, I'll just say right here and now that my opinion is my opinion only where this is concerned. But Jesus didn't always let people get away with harming Him. Jesus literally came into the world with the express intention of allowing Himself to be brutally murdered one day, but years before that time, an angry crowd (in his own home town of Nazareth!) was trying to throw him off a cliff. It would have been the perfect time to die at the hands of enemies, if that's your intention. Did Jesus let them kill Him? Nope... the Bible says he just walked on through the crowd and left. (You can read it yourself in Luke 4:28-30.)

Did Jesus forgive them? Of course He did! In fact, he even came back to Nazareth later and tried to minister to the people again - it's recorded in Mark 6:1-6. The people basically didn't believe in Him this time either (he healed a few sick, so clearly someone believed), but at least they didn't try to throw him off a cliff this time.

So, two lessons from this. (1) Jesus defended His own life – not with force, essentially with pacifism, but He didn't let them harm Him. (2) This gave Him an opportunity to minister again to the same people later, and some who wouldn't have had a chance to be healed, got healed. (3) Clearly Jesus wasn't afraid to put Himself in harm's way again, going back to a place where he had already been rejected and almost executed!

In my opinion, sometimes there are situations where you forgive, but then you don't get in the same situation again. Domestic violence is often a good example. A woman who is being abused and stays with her attacker often just fuels his behavior, and the abuse gets worse and worse. That woman can forgive him every single night and continue to get injured, until one day she forgives him for the last time in Heaven. Or, she can get out of the dangerous situation, preserve her own health and life, and maybe even try to get him some help. Maybe losing her is what he needs to wake up to the fact that he is ruining his own life by being out of control. I've seen marriages that survive terrible situations, and certainly God is powerful enough to heal a broken marriage. And maybe, just maybe, the solution for a woman in that situation is to stay. But I'd say the default should be to get out and not get killed.

What about someone who is wronged in business? Let's say you go into business with someone. You work through the hard years of getting it off the ground, and eventually you start turning a profit. Everything is looking good for five or six years... and then your business partner drains the accounts and leaves the country, and you have to close up shop. You're ruined. You have to fire people who depended on you. Maybe you even lose your own house. You know you have to forgive that person; it's excruciatingly hard, but you do it.

A few years down the line, your former business partner, who has returned to the country after spending all of the money he stole from the business, comes to you with an idea for a new business. We built one before, he tells you – we can build one again! You know you can't trust this person. Does your forgiveness compel you to go into business with that person again? I would say not.

God may well tell you to "let him have your cloak as well" if they take advantage of you. Or, He may counsel you not to "be unequally yoked with unbelievers". But neither of those actions means that you have or have not forgiven that person. The forgiveness happens in your heart; once you have forgiven, you are then free to make the Godly choice of what action to take next.

Friday, March 15, 2024

ALL His Benefits

One last time, for the people who came in late! This is the list of benefits God has for His children, as listed in Psalm 103:

  1. forgiveness for iniquity - read the post about it
  2. healing for diseases - read the post about it
  3. redemption from "the pit" - read the post about it
  4. being crowned with "steadfast love and mercy" - read the post about it
  5. being satisfied with "good" - specifically good health - read the post about it

Can I attempt a paraphrase of the list of benefits, based on what I've blogged about them? Here we go:

  • God knows we struggle with our sin natures, and He pardons us when our motives are wrong.
  • God provides healing for us when our bodies aren't working right.
  • God knows that we were imprisoned and headed for ultimate destruction, and paid the price for our release.
  • God's love is so deep, devoted, and unchanging that it completely surrounds us.
  • God supplies us with things that are good for us, bring joy to our lives, and help us be strong as we make our way through life.

Picture in your mind a man or woman who is imprisoned and in chains. They are 100% guilty of what they have been accused of. They have been beaten and wounded during their crime and later as punishment for it, and they look decades older than they are because of what they have experienced. Now imagine that they are brought before a judge, That judge is God. God picks up his gavel, bangs it on the desk, and says, "I hereby pardon this person." Then God comes down to the person, touches them with His hands, and their wounds immediately disappear. He turns to the bailiff, and says, "Release them - I have paid back everything owed." The bailiff takes off their handcuffs, and instead God wraps the former prisoner in a luxurious robe of His love which they need never take off. Next He gives them a refreshing drink of the best water that has ever existed. When the person drinks the water, they visibly become more alert, their breathing is more calm, and they look back at God with eyes filled with peace.

That's you. That's the benefits God has provided. Don't let them pass you by!


Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Benefits (Benefit #5)

 Here's that list of benefits from Psalm 103 again:

  1. forgiveness for iniquity
  2. healing for diseases
  3. redemption from "the pit"
  4. being crowned with "steadfast love and mercy"
  5. being satisfied with "good" - specifically good health

God satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's

There is an inspiring story about eagles, that they fly to the top of a mountain and break off their beaks and lose all their feathers and grow new ones. I'm no ornithologist so I don't know if that's true or not, but I don't think this means that your body is going to regenerate somehow and you'll suddenly look 20 when you're 60. I think the imagery in the Bible of an eagle is an image of strength. Look at what it says in Isaiah 40, for example:
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
     and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
     they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
     they shall walk and not faint.

I think that the image of the eagle in the Bible represents strength and stamina. It is true that sometimes we have to go through a painful process to get to where God wants us to be, but in my opinion, that's not what this is about.

So what is the process that this verse is talking about? It says that our youthful strength and stamina is renewed because God satisfies us with "good". Good what? Well, the word just means good and pleasing. What if God wants to satisfy us with things that make us happy? And I'm not talking about expensive cars and yachts and huge televisions and that sort of thing... even people who don't believe in God know that wealth alone doesn't make you happy. I think that in general God wants us to be supplied and comfortable in our lives – I think He wants our lives to be full of joy. I mean, if God wanted us to suffer, he could send us all right to Hell right this minute. The Gospels don't show us a Jesus who came and injured people and caused damage... Jesus came and healed people, supplied for their needs, even sometimes fed them. I think God wants to bring things, people, and circumstances into our lives that we can rejoice in, that put a spring in our step, that make us feel like we could spread our wings and fly up into the sky!

Counter point: Sometimes Believers suffer.

Yes they do.

In fact, the next verse, immediately after the benefits, acknowledges that: "The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed." (Psalm 103:6) Some people, it says, are oppressed. BUT: God is working in their behalf, bringing justice, bringing that "good" promised in the benefits! The Bible isn't some kind of utopian nonsense. It fully admits that difficulties exist. God's benefits are not a denial of reality – they are hope that it will get better!

On to the final wrap-up, or start from the beginning!

Friday, March 1, 2024

Benefits (Benefit #4)

Here's that list of benefits from Psalm 103 again:

  1. forgiveness for iniquity
  2. healing for diseases
  3. redemption from "the pit"
  4. being crowned with "steadfast love and mercy"
  5. being satisfied with "good" - specifically good health

God crowns you with steadfast love and mercy

Crowns are round, and that's why translations use the word "crowns" here. But it doesn't seem to me to be about a royal crown. The Hebrew word means "to encircle" – it seems to me that this is more of a protective measure than the coronation we might think of. In Psalm 5:12 it says "For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover him with favor as with a shield." That word "cover" is the same word translated "crown" here, in Psalm 103:4.

"Steadfast love" means loyalty, devotion, and the unchangeable nature of God. In Deuteronomy 31:8 (and also a few verses before in 31:6) Moses said this about the nature of God: "It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed." In the passage in Hebrews 13 that quotes Moses, the author wraps it up this way: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." (Hebrews 13:8) God loves you, and He isn't going to change His mind!

And finally, "mercies" means a deep well of loving compassion. In verses 13-14 of this same chapter, the Psalmist expands on this a little bit more: "As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust." God isn't looking for a reason to condemn us. He knows that we are fragile creatures, able to be wiped out by nothing more than a change of temperature or an invisible gas that we breathe. When one of my children is in pain or fearful or in some kind of danger, I am immediately there for them, in their corner, because I know them and I know when they have a need. That's the way God is for us.

All of that meaning packed into seven words! God protectively encircles us with His devotion, His loyalty, His never-leave-you, His love, His mercy, His compassion. It's like being in the safest place you've ever been, with the kindest, strongest, and most protective person you've ever met. It's that, but more. Wow!

On to Benefit #5, or start from the beginning!