Martin Luther – Reformation Undone

Five hundred years ago today (October 31, 1517), an Augustinian monk posted a notice requesting a public discussion at Germany’s Wittenburg University. With these 95 Theses, thirty-three year old monk Martin Luther declared an end to the 1,200 year era of holy Roman Catholic hegemony over Christian belief and practice.

The single catholic church created 12 centuries earlier by Emperor Constantine would now be faced with a challenger over an issue as old as the dispute between the apostle Paul and Jesus’ brother James. Was salvation from eternal damnation to be found as a matter of works or of faith?

For Luther, the issue at hand related to the increasingly pervasive practice of selling indulgences – relief from the eternal damnation or purgatory in exchange for a monetary contribution. The application of much of this pay for grace theology involved funding the construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.

The 95 Theses were aimed squarely at papal authority – both temporal and spiritual. Luther’s thesis #5 launched the attack: “The pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties beyond those imposed either at his own discretion or by canon law.”

By the time he gets to Thesis #86, Martin has become more personal in his attack: “Again: since the pope’s income today is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of indigent believers?”

The Reformation Luther launched carries forward as the dominant event of Christianity (if not western civilization) for the subsequent 500 years to this 21st century. Unfortunately, this reformation is incomplete. In the end, the Christian revolution was aborted – by none other than Luther himself.

Background of Martin Luther

The life of Martin Luther can be divided into distinct categories – as it has by numerous
theologians and historians. At least three distinct phases can be identified – beginnings,
reformation, church leadership and old age.

Luther’s Beginnings: Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany on November 10, 1483. His father Hans was a copper miner. The older Luther had high hopes for Martin to become a professional man, a lawyer. At age 17, his father picked the University of Erfurt, one of the finest universities of the time – as the place for Martin’s college education – and paid for by Hans.

After graduating 30th in a class of 57, Martin received his Masters degree. His father then
arranged for Martin’s entry into law school. On July 2, 1505, less than two months after
beginning law school, Martin was traveling his way back to Erfurt from his parents’ home and became caught in a violent thunderstorm.

Luther was nearly struck by lightning and thrown to the ground. At this moment, he cried to Saint Ann (mother of the virgin Mary and grandmother of Jesus) to save him, vowing to become a monk if he escaped alive. Just over 2 weeks later, Martin Luther entered the Black Monastery on July 17 – much to his father’s displeasure.

Luther saw this as perhaps the surest path to his own soul’s salvation. As a
grouping of Augustinian Hermits, the monastery was a strict though not austere order of
mendicant monks. In 1507, Luther was ordained and celebrated his first mass. The subsequent year he taught briefly at the new university in Wittenburg.

In 1510, he and a traveling companion were sent to Rome to handle some of the orders’ political affairs. Upon his return in April 1511, Luther was transferred to the newly constructed Black Cloister in Wittenburg.

In 1512, Luther received his Doctor of Theology degree. A year later, he became a lecturer on the Psalms. At age 30 (in 1513), he also became priest off-campus at Wittenberg’s city church.

Two years later (at age 31), he was appointed vicar in charge of eleven Augustinian
monasteries. That same year, he began a year of lectures on the subject of the New Testament book of Romans.

In 1516, plague struck Wittenberg. Luther stayed and the next year Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences on the borders of Saxony. This occurred through licensing action of Pope Leo X as a means to finance the construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.

Many of the customers for Tetzel’s indulgences also were parishioners of Martin Luther. As one side effect, Luther noticed fewer people coming to confession. Luther was outraged.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to protest the sale of indulgences. To elevate the level of protest, he also had a copy of the Latin text delivered to the archbishop, hoping to get an answer beyond that of a private disputation. Initially, Luther received little response, but in December Johann Tetzel wrote two sets of counter-theses after noticing a falloff in the sale of indulgences.

Reformation: Less than one year after the posting on the Wittenberg door, Luther was tried (in absentia) on charges of heresy in Rome. Pope Leo also issued Cum Postquam, outlining the church’s doctrine on indulgences (in direct opposition to Luther).

By early 1519, Luther was ready to recant and even send a letter of apology to the pope. In March, he actually sent a letter to Leo X, stating it was not his intent to undermine the
authority of the pope or church.

However, Luther also entered into a debate with Johann Eck. It was during this debate that he denied the primacy of the Pope and the infallibility of church General Councils.

In 1520, Luther completed three major works. The first was titled and addressed To the
Christian Nobility of the German Nation. It debunked the three walls on which papal authority had rested: stating that all believers are priests, there is no exclusive papal right to interpret the Scriptures, and a reformatory council of the church could be called by others than the pope.

In 1521, Martin Luther was summoned by Emperor Charles V to appear before the Diet of Worms. During the second hearing, Luther made his position clear: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.”

In 1523, the first Protestant martyrs were burned at Brussels. In 1524, peasants revolted,  citing Luther’s teachings and demanding more just economic conditions. Luther also stopped wearing the religious habit.

n 1525, Martin Luther wrote Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. At the Battle of Frankenhausen, 50,000 peasant lives were lost. By the time the uprising was quelled, nearly 100,000 lives were lost. The peasants believed Luther had betrayed them.

This same year, Martin Luther married former nun Katherine von Bora. They took up residence at Black Cloister, the former Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg.

Church Leadership & Old Age: Though married late at nearly age 42, Martin Luther clearly enjoyed family life. Over the next 9 years, Katherine gave birth to 6 children – two of whom would die before their father.

His love for family is an on-going legacy – reflected in the Christmas tree tradition begun for Martin’s family. As a composer, Luther wrote the Smart Songbook and “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in 1527. He wrote doctrinal text for the new Lutheran church, including a Small and Large Catechism.

While Luther found marriage enjoyable, advancing age and, perhaps, job stress led to growing health issues. Within two years of marriage, Luther began to experience heart problems as well as long-standing digestive and intestinal difficulties.

By 1538 (age 54), deteriorating health (including uric acid stones) and arthritis were affecting his ability to work and write. The next year, Katherine experienced a miscarriage; Martin was by her bed much of the time.

Advancing age also brought on more violently polemical writings, capped by his polemic
Against the Jews in 1543. In 1545, Luther wrote Against the Papacy at Rome founded by the Devil.

Less than one year later, Martin Luther died during a visit to Eisleben, the home of his
birth. Death was attributed to heart failure. The date was February 18, 1546, and Martin was 62 years of age.

Reformation Incomplete

Half a millennium later, we live in the shadow of what might be charitably described as Martin Luther’s heresy. Martin’s heresy was not the doctrine of salvation by grace; he merely uncovered what Paul had written 1,500 years earlier.

Rather, Luther’s heresy was his inability to put the concept of a priesthood of believers into practice. Luther’s heresy was the imprimatur for Christianity – Protestant or Catholic – to continue down the same path of intolerance and repression that continue to obscure the diversity and true eclecticism of Jesus’ message.

Part of the reason for Martin Luther’s inability to shake the Catholic tradition of intolerance comes from his own proclivity to long bouts of depression. This natural predisposition was reinforced by Luther’s preoccupation with the wrath of God – and his personal bouts with the devil.

During a bout of this black horror, he could not bear to read biblical words such as those of Psalm 90: “For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.”

Luther’s inability to fully trust in a priesthood of believers, in individual reason, came as the result of his own insecurities. Because Luther’s God was a god of vengeance, Martin Luther similarly gave himself license to wreak havoc on those with whom he disagreed.

As with the church he dedicated his life to tear down, this revolutionary reverted to what he earlier had disdained – a priesthood of one. Papal authority was no more; in its place was substituted Luther, the new religious autocrat.

Peculiarities of Martin Luther

Much like the apostle Paul, Martin Luther was a man of uncommon intellect and authority. One did not cross Luther lightly. Yet it is precisely the power of the man from which spring forth distinctive eccentricities.

The Vulgar Luther: Much of Luther’s vulgar commentary focused on the digestive and excretory systems – where Luther himself often experienced physical problems. Luther was particularly haunted by the presence of the devil – who manifest himself in obscene ways.

Even a few days before his death, Martin Luther believed he saw the devil sitting on a rain pipe outside of his window, exposing his behind to Martin. But Luther had his means of taking on Satan himself man-to-man. As the 20th century psychologist/historian Erik Erikson would write: “The the devil can be completely undone if you manage to fart into his nostrils is only one of those, shall we say, homeopathic remedies which Luther, undoubtedly on the basis of a homegrown demonology, advocated all his life.”

And in the melancholy mood of his later years, Luther would express what the Erikson describes as his “depressive self-repudiation in anal terms.” The example this writer gives in his book Young Man Luther is of Luther at the dinner table, expounding: “I am like ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic ass-hole. We probably will let go of each other soon.”

Lutherly Exclusion: The Augustinian monk who railed against the egotistical excesses of the papacy increasingly came to emulate similar patterns of disfavor, then persecution for those out of synch with his own expectations. On the canonical level, a particular target of Martin Luther’s ire was the New Testament epistle of James.

The epistle’s assertion that “faith without works is also dead” absolutely rubbed
Martin the wrong way (as it had the apostle Paul before him). Luther commented that James was “a right strawy epistle” and questioned whether a book of such inferior worth even belonged in the New Testament.

On a more practical level, Luther’s disfavor had more catastrophic consequences. His ultimate condemnation of the Peasants’ Revolt would lead to the loss of 100,000 lives. He came to support the execution of Anabaptists who he felt disrupted the public order and refused to stay in banishment.

And in a sentiment with far-reaching consequences, Martin Luther came to advocate severe repression for the Jewish population in Germany, offering suggestions to: “Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to work, and deal harshly with them, as Moses did in the wilderness, laying three thousand lest the whole people perish.”

Martin Luther in Summary

With Martin Luther, we profile the last of the spiritual giants of the last two millennia – the last of the great heretics of Christianity. Luther took his historic stand at Wittenburg – placing himself in opposition to the combined weight of more than a millennium of accreted Catholic dogma. His 95 theses unleashed the forces of people, faith and politics against papal authority and the economic hegemony of a single European church-state.

More so than other heretics of the Christian faith, Martin Luther changed not only the church, he altered the state. The economic and social energies unleashed by the Reformation heralded the end of feudalism, the triumph of capitalism, the resurgence of education, and eventually the swelling tide of democracy.

If the 21st century still resonates in the freedom and dynamic energy released by of these tidal forces, we also remain imprisoned within the socio-religious fortress that Luther reinforced. Jesus remains a caricature of an incomprehensible trinitarian Nicene Creed which continues supreme.

To the dominant church of his era, Martin Luther’s heresy came in his challenge to papal authority. To those who value the divine, Luther’s heresy was the claim of salvation through grace, not works. But these heresies were nothing new; Luther was merely rediscovering and again unleashing the power of a Pauline ministry 1,500 years earlier.

The reformation of protestants that Luther launched carries forward as the dominant event of Christianity for the subsequent 500 years to this 21st century. Unfortunately, this reformation is incomplete. The Christian revolution was aborted – by none other than Luther himself.

For those who have lived in the ensuing five centuries of Luther’s legacy, the real heresy lies in Luther’s failure to complete the Reformation he started. Luther failed to throw off the shackles of Nicaea, to accept and celebrate diverse interpretations of the Jesus message, and to center a revived church on the message of creative conflict rather than monolithic uniformity. That time, that fulfillment of reformation, has yet to come.
Excerpted from the chapter “The Heresy of Luther: Reformation Undone,” detailed in the 360 +/- page book 12 Heresies of Christianity. Check us out at


John the Baptist – Who Was This Guy, Anyway?

Meet one of the most enigmatic figures of the New Testament – the wild man known as John the Baptist. Consider this introduction by the gospel writer known as Matthew:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

Make His paths straight.’ Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire, His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

– Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)

What must of us know John comes from his name “the baptized.” Yet, this man clothed in camel’s hair is more than the Baptist – he is perplexing.

Stepping back from Matthew: Who was this wild man? What was his message about? And what is the relevance today?

The Players

To get started, it’s important to know a bit about the cast of characters – people important in the story of the Baptist:

  • Zechariah – of the priestly order – lived in a hill town of Judea, was chosen to enter the sanctuary of the Lord. In the temple, an angel appeared to tell him he would have a son who would “turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.”
  • Elizabeth – wife of Zechariah and descendant of Aaron (first priest), barren “getting on in years,” relative/kinswoman (possibly cousin) of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus.
  • John the Baptist – son of Zechariah and Elizabeth – born a year before Jesus, he grew to be a man who would “never drink wine or strong drink”. In the 15th year of emperor Tiberius’reign, he “went into the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
  • Mary, mother of Jesus, relative of Elizabeth and perhaps of well-known Jerusalem family – one that traditions says owned Garden of Gethsemane.
  • Joseph, (adoptive) father of Jesus, married Mary only after being talked into it by an angel. A carpenter by trade.
  • Jesus, son of Mary, born 6-4 BC just before the death of king Herod the Great.
  • Herod the Great (died 4 BC) client king of Caesar Augustus at time of Jesus birth. He died shortly thereafter.
  • Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was made tetrarch of the Galilee by Rome. He was the ruler who would order the beheading of John the Baptist. And later, Jesus would stand trial before Antipas before being put to a temporary death by crucifixion.
  • Phasaelis, first wife of Antipas, daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. Antipas divorced her to marry …
  • … Herodias, 2nd wife of Antipas, who herself was formerly married to Herod II (or Herod Philip I), a half-brother of Antipas.
  • Salome (?) – the unnamed daughter of Herodias is reputed to have danced before Antipas so becomingly that he offered up her to half his kingdom. She asked only for and received the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
  • Elijah – is the Old Testament prophet who some people of Jesus’ day say has returned in the likeness of John the Baptist. Much as Elijah was charged with the mission of challenging the idolatry of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel during Old Testament times, so John would take on the mission of challenging the illicit relationship between Herod the Tetrarch and his wife Herodias (the former wife of his half brother Herod Philip).

John The Baptist – Gospel Chronology

Now let’s scan the major recorded events of the Baptist’s life – including source of information in parentheses ( ):

  • Birth of John – to Zechariah and Elizabeth in Judea (Luke)
  • John’s Baptism of Jesus (all 4 gospels)
  • Jesus begins ministry in Galilee after the arrest of John – moving from Nazareth to Capernaum (Matthew)
  • John and Jesus – or disciples – both baptizing (John)
  • Rumor that “Jesus is baptizing more disciples than John.” (John)
  • John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask why his disciples don’t fast (Matthew, Mark)
  • A 2nd time, John who is now in prison sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one – the Messiah (Matthew, Luke)
  • Jesus compares his testimony to that of the Baptist(John)
  • John is executed by Herod Antipas (Matthew, Mark)
  • Herod is reported as being perplexed at whether Jesus is “John had been raised from the dead.” – or Elijah. He says: “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke)
  • Jesus at Caesarea Philippi asks disciples who people say the Son of Man is, First response is “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah” then Peter says “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew, Mark)
  • Coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus says that “Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him. Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist. (Matthew)
  • In the Temple, Jesus is questioned as to his authority. He asks a question as to whether “the baptism of John comes from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (Mark)
  • And, finally. after escaping an attempted stoning in the Temple, Jesus says he has a “testimony greater than John’s.” (John)

Introducing Josephus

Before going further, it’s time to introduce one other character. For some added perspective on this wild and woolly Baptist, consider the testimony of a non-Christian, the Jewish historian Josephus. First a bit of background on this first-century historian:

  • Josephus was born a bit after the ministry of Jesus to parents of priestly and royal ancestry.
  • Even before turning 30 years of age, Josephus served as commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee at the beginning of the Jewish insurrection against Rome, before surrendering to the Roman army in 67 AD.
  • Like Benedict Arnold, Josephus then flipped to the other side, becoming an adviser to the Roman General and future emperor Vespasian. In this new capacity Josephus attempted (but failed) to negotiate a surrender by resistance forces in Jerusalem – with the result being the total destruction of the holy city in 70 AD.
  • In later years , Josephus became a prolific historian – who wrote major books still available today: The Jewish War (c. 75) and The Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94).

There are only three persons associated with Jesus and the early church that Josephus mentions in his writings. He does mention Jesus, but only as a one-paragraph (and hotly disputed) sidebar to his main story.

Josephus has much more to say about two other figures in the Jesus movement – John the Baptist and James the leader of the Jerusalem church. The reason he writes about these two followers of Jesus and not others is that they were important figures in the political as well as the religious events of 1st century Judaism. And maybe it’s not coincidence – but the Baptist and James are also both blood relatives of Jesus.

Josephus on John the Baptist

We are now ready to take a look at what the Jewish author and historian Josephus has to say some 65 years after the death of John the Baptist.

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.

Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.

Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. 

– Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5
(bold for emphasis)

What was the punishment of Herod about? Well, Josephus records earlier that it was for the taking of his half brother’s wife unto himself – the same sin that John the Baptist railed against. That divorce got Antipas into trouble not just with John, but with King Aretas, the father of Herod’s first wife Phasaelis.

Conveniently enough, a dispute arose with King Aretas over territory east of the Jordan on the border of Perea and Nabatea, and war ensued. History records that Antipas did not go down easily. He appealed to Roman emperor Tiberius to help but the emperor died before reinforcements arrived. Antipas not only lost a war to the father of his first wife, but he went on to lose his kingdom – under the reign of emperor Caligula  and at the instigation of his nephew Agrippa, who was brother of Herod’s 2nd wife Herodias. Antipas and Herodias would spend the remainder of their days in exile in Gaul (today’s France).

Now you probably have been told more than you ever known or wanted to know about the life of John the Baptist – about his political role as well as his spiritual mission. So, let’s turn to a question about his theology.

The Mikveh / Purpose of Baptism

Based on the seemingly contradictory testimony of gospel writers versus both secular and Christian historians, there is this nagging question: “What is baptism all about?”

For John the Baptist, the purpose as stated by the gospels Matthew and Luke was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But, as we just read, the Jewish historian Josephus has a different interpretation – that baptism was primarily for “the purification of the body,” not for anything about repentance.

Writing two centuries later, church historian Eusebius is even more dogmatic in restating John’s purpose – saying that the washing with water was “not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body.”

And we wonder why baptism remains such a touchy subject for Christians of different persuasions today …

For your consideration, here is a different take on this question – driven by wandering among the baptismal pools (or Mikvehs) that are lined around much of the Temple Mount even today in Jerusalem:

  • A Mikveh is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Biblical rules require full immersion in water to regain ritual purity after impure incidents contacts ranging from sexual activity to eating meat from an animal that died naturally. A person was required to be ritually pure in order to enter the Temple – creating a thriving business for pilgrims coming to Jerusalem as during Passover.
  • During the time of Jesus, there was an “explosion” of purity among the Jewish population in Palestine. There are countless excavated mikvehs around at least two sides of the Temple Mount. One can literally spend hours wandering around and through baths such as the one pictured on the screen. As you see, this particular mikveh has a low raised partition which is thought to have separated the descending impure person (on the right) from the pure person leaving the bath (on the left).

    Ritual mikveh bath near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount

  • More common are also smaller mikvehs with a single stairway – intended for no more than one person at a time.
  • The wealthy had their own purification baths, right in their own homes.
  • And there were larger pools as at Bethesda and Siloam (pictured as the place where Jesus sent a blind man to wash and receive sight). These were designed to accommodate almost all of the ritual purification needs of the large numbers of Jewish pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem at festival time.

    Pool of Siloam (an excavation in progress)

  • So we have different pools for persons of different means and needs. An observant Jew would use the pool for purification. John was on to something else when he spoke of and practiced baptism not just for purification, but for the more fundamental requirement of repentance.

Jesus View of John

How are we to deal with John’s message and politics? For an answer, look to Jesus.

Consider the occasion when John’s disciples come to Jesus and asked: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus avoids taking this head-on but instead responds by comparing himself to a bridegroom –saying don’t fast while the bridegroom is with you; that can wait till later.

And later, after John has been imprisoned, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus again avoids a direct answer, telling the messengers to tell John to look to Jesus’ example as one who heals the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf – who raises the dead and brings good news to the poor.

As the messengers leave, Jesus turns to the rest of the crowd and re-assures them that, yes, John is a prophet and a messenger who prepares the way. And he says:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! 

– Matthew 11: 11-15

In effect, Jesus both confirms John’s role and John’s fallibility in preparing the way for the kingdom of God. Despite being given a God-critical mission, John remains as much or even more a questioner of his faith than others who enter the kingdom.

Whether it’s with Jesus relative John or with us far removed from the action 20 centuries later, we don’t always get it. But maybe that’s ok, so long as we demonstrate humility like John, acknowledging that we are not even fit to carry Jesus’ sandals.

In Summary

Based on John the Baptist’s example, the question is posed: how then shall we live? Three observations are noted:

  • God calls some of us to be out on point all the time – or perhaps most of us to be on point some of the time – preparing the way for glimpses of his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Don’t worry that we don’t fully measure up – that we often get confused or need to ask questions along the way. If John the Baptist could question his savior and his theology, then so might you or me. God can use us as we are – even with our questioning and our doubts.
  • When you move down the path of following this master, consider your baptism as an on-going event. The baptism of repentance, the baptism of the Holy Spirt and fire, and the baptism of purification.

And a Prayer

Heavenly Father, thank you that you call people like Elijah and John to prepare the way for your kingdom. Thank you for the courage and the willingness to question and to learn the wisdom that you impart. Help us to do our part when we are called to act as agents on your behalf – whether in matters mundane or monumental.

In your name,


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Prodigals & Jesus

One of the best known of Jesus’ parables is that of the prodigal son. This is the tale of an ungrateful son who takes his inheritance, leaves his family to live a riotous life until he finds himself broke – and left to eat food fed to the pigs. The now penitent son returns home with great apology, the father is waiting for him (even from afar). A feast is set, the faithful older brother is angry. But the father has the last word – welcoming with merriment a son and a brother who was “dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”

From the father’s perspective, the moral of the story is forgiveness – a slow motion film about not just a fictitious parent but about the never ending love of a heavenly father.

And it’s a story that has real life roots – reaching back to some of the more notable events of the Hebrew scriptures – the accounts of Jacob, Rahab and Jonah. In each, we see the Father’s unique response – tailored to the individual and circumstances at hand. And with each event giving insight into the character of the almighty Creator.

Jacob the Deceiver

The story of Jacob – son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham – is long and full of plot twists, accounting for about one-half of the Genesis narrative. And it’s the tale of one always grasping for what’s not his – even from before birth as Jacob grabs the heel of Esau in the womb (the one who would be first-born).

Much later, Jacob cons his older brother into selling his birth right on the cheap; he cons his father into giving him the blessing planned for Esau. Jacob then flees for his life to the distant land of his mother’s brother, where he now becomes the victim of deception – being married off to the older sister Leah rather than Rachel whom he loves.

Finally, Jacob the prodigal tires of the treatment of his father-in-law, and returns home to face the father and brother he had deceived. Along the way he meets and wrestles with God himself, saying he won’t relent until God blesses him. Jacob’s hip is dislocated in the wrestling match, but Jacob persists and finally receives the blessing of the Almighty. In effect, we are seeing a man whom God blessed even when he did not deserve it.

And what is the blessing? It is that Jacob will no longer be called Jacob but known as Israel. A name that literally means “struggle with God.” For all time, Jacob becomes Israel – the man who struggled with God,  birthing the nation Israel that continues to wrestle with God – even today.

Rahab the Prostitute

We encounter our next prodigal just after the Israelites have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, Moses has died, and Joshua is charged with leading his people into the promised land. The first obstacle is the world’s oldest continuously settled city – Jericho. So Joshua sends out two spies to Jericho – who take up lodging in the “house of a harlot named Rahab.”

The king of Jericho gets wind of the two spies. But in a show of remarkable courage, Rahab hides the spies rather than turn them over to the authorities. Here’s what she says as to why she will hide them on the roof of her house underneath stalks of flax. “And for good reason. She knows “that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you.”

Rahab goes on to say that: “… the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.”But she Rahab than makes a request: “…spare my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.”

The spies agree saying: “Our lives for yours, if none of you tell this business of ours. And it shall be, when the Lord has given us the land, that we will deal kindly and truly with you.”

So Rahab lets the men down by a rope through the window of her house which was on the city wall. And the spies tell her to put out a scarlet rope and they will save her and her family when the attack comes.

The spies go back to Joshua, the battle plan is finalized, the Israelis march around the city 7 times, the walls fall, and the city is destroyed. But Joshua keeps the promise made by the spies. He spares Rahab as well as all of “her father’s household, and all that she has.”

Unlike our other prodigals who turn on their heavenly and/or earthly fathers, Rahab has turned on the pagan community in which she lives and makes her living, in favor of a God who rules above all.

So, what is the significance of this most very different – this pagan – prodigal We have to turn to the New Testament to the book of Hebrews to find an answer. Chapter 11 has a familiar saying: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

The author of Hebrews goes on to make this point by listing all of the Old Testament stalwarts of faith who made a difference for God’s people: Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. And this list then ends with one last name … Rahab.

She seals the deal for the victory of faith. As the author of Hebrews explains: “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.”

In a separate book of the New Testament, Jesus’ brother James wants to make a different point about the importance of not just faith, but works. James reaches back to make his point with two Old Testament personalities. In chapter 2, James first asks:  “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?”

And then James concludes his case with the example of … Rahab. “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?”

In the very next sentence, James concludes with his punchline: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

In effect, Rahab has been drafted into the big leagues of the early post-resurrection Christian church; she’s on a par with father Abraham. And she is only one of two people cited as exemplifying what it means to live both by faith – and by works.

If you put what Hebrews has to say together with what James has to say, the message is clear. The real heroes of God’s kingdom are those who act out of faith and with good works. Abraham and Rahab – these are two people who put their money where their mouth is.

Jonah the Runaway

The story of Jonah is well known in one form or another. For a quick  refresher, here are the bare facts.

Jonah’s book opens with God telling Jonah to: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”Jonah is being asked to go into the capital city of Assyria, the greatest power on earth and talk them into repentance. He is either very scared or thinks God is nuts, so he runs away to the port city of Joppa and takes passage on a boat.

A storm comes up and, after some plot twists, the others on the boat throw Jonah overboard at his request. Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish but survives three days and three nights in the belly of this sea creature. He cries out to the Lord and the fish vomits him to dry land.

This time, Jonah goes to Ninevah where he preaches that the people have 40 days to repent of their sins or be overthrown. To his amazement, the people and the king of Ninevah believe God and turn away from their evil ways. So God saves the city from destruction.

Jonah gets extremely angry because God has changed his mind. He complains, saying:

“I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”

God puts a simple question to Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah doesn’t respond but is still unhappy. Rather than turn tail and run, he decides to camp out at the edge of Nineveh, to wait and “see what would become of the city.” Still hoping for destruction.

Now here’s where God decides to have a little fun with his prodigal prophet. God causes a plant to grow up and give shade to Jonah as he waits, then has the tree wither so that Jonah gets exposed to the full heat of the sun. God and Jonah then argue about whether it is ok to be angry about the plant.

And so we get to the end of the story, with God telling Jonah: “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

In his own way, God is telling Jonah: “You think you’re hot stuff.” Well, I’ve got other priorities like the people. Oh and even the cattle of Ninevah. Then, maybe I’ll get around to you. In other words, “get over it, buddy!”

With the exception of the book of Jonah and one verse in II Kings, there is no other reference to Jonah in the Old Testament. So what is his significance. As with Rahab, the answer is found when we look to the New Testament.

We find our answer in Matthew 12. This occurs as the Jesus nemeses, the scribe and Pharisees, are seeking to bait the Savior. So, these leaders of the day tell Jesus: “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” Jesus doesn’t take the bait but retorts:

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.”

So, what is this mysterious sign of Jonah? For Jesus, Jonah was a symbol – of his descent to the grave followed by miraculous resurrection.

This message of Jonah and resurrection resonates throughout early Christendom. After the death and resurrection, Christianity spreads across the Roman empire – to Rome itself. And so, there are drawings in the catacombs of Rome depicting Jonah being cast back onto land by the fish. And more recently, even some 1st century Jewish ossuaries (albeit highly controversial) have been found that testify to the expectation of resurrection.

Father God’s Response

What lessons can be drawn from these examples? What is God’s response to these wayward souls? For a recap, again briefly consider each of these one-by-one:

So let’s start again with Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal son. What is it we learn about the heavenly Father’s kingdom?
We see a God of forgiveness. A father who is constantly on the lookout for his wayward son. The outrageous conduct of the younger son is forgiven, but it is still the older son who gets the remaining inheritance.  The prodigal gets something he would probably get nowhere else – the chance for a do-over.

Now go back to Jacob the grasper, the deceiver and his request for a blessing from God. What do we see?
We see a man who gets the blessing of receiving the name Israel. He and his descendants will always have a unique relationship with God, but it will come only with struggle – both then and now.

What about Rahab the harlot? What is God’s view of a woman who makes a choice to switch sides and serve the one she acknowledges as “the God in heaven above and on earth beneath”?
We see a woman who will be forever remembered as an example of faith and works – the faith to trust the real God, put into action by protecting spies bent on destroying her own earthly community.

And finally we have Jonah, the runaway. How are we to remember a man who in the end served God grudgingly and under duress?
We see a heavenly Father with a sense of humor. More importantly, we see the sign of Jonah – a symbol of resurrection that would extend to God’s son Jesus and eventually to all humankind.

These are some quick answers – not the whole story – but the essence of how God custom tailors each response to the individual and the situation at hand. In a nutshell, the message is about:

  • Jesus’ Prodigal Son – forgiveness
  • Jacob – blessing
  • Rahab – faith & works
  • Jonah – resurrection

And one more thing. Of the four responses, that of Jesus is the more encompassing. Forgiveness is the umbrella under which the other more specific responses are found. If God could not have forgiven Jacob, there would have been no blessing. Lack of condemnation for Rahab’s lifestyle – acceptance as she was – proved pivotal to her subsequent acts of faith and works on behalf of the Israeli spies. And if God were to hold a grudge against Jonah, would he have incented the sea creature to cough Jonah up onto the shore?

How Should We Then Live?

How might we apply what we learn from considering the lessons of the prodigal?

Each of us now has or has had some piece of the prodigal – of the wayward son or daughter – in us. And even if you were 100% pure, you undoubtedly still know relatives, friends and acquaintances who have walked away from Yahweh – our heavenly Father?

But despite all our folly and our sins – from these examples – one key message comes through again and again. That message is: God loves the prodigal. He’s offers forgiveness, the chance of a do-over, blessing, support for our faith and our works, and the promise of resurrection. That’s a package no one else can come close to matching.

So, how should we then live?
This is a tougher question to answer, because God’s response may be different for each of us, adapted to our personal struggles and to what He wants to accomplish in and through us.

But, there are a couple of suggestions that may apply to all – wherever we are at:

1)    Wherever you are, don’t give up on God. 
He is always there, waiting for you. As the book of Hebrews (11:6) says: whoever “comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”

2)    Don’t give up on those you know and love who today are running from God.
God is always there, in some cases prodding, in all cases expectantly but patiently waiting a human response. Do your part, like those two Israeli spies, cutting the deal that makes salvation possible for Rahab and family.

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Repair or Replace?? Jesus on Health Care

Well, we may yet be back at it again. The first major defeat for the Trump Administration was the defeat of the Republican plan to replace Obamacare.

But this ever-mercurial President hasn’t yet thrown in the towel. And in any event, we know that this autumn will herald a new round of rate hikes, insurance companies abandoning unprofitable markets, soaring costs and ever more unequal care.

America gets less for its health care expenditure than any country in the world. As of 2015, health care expenditures reached $10,000 per person. We’re spending over 18% of GDP – Tesla prices for a Fiat product. Paying double the global average and 40-80% more than most other developed countries in the world.

Should Obamacare be repaired or replaced? Or do we just bumble blindly ahead?

Before yet more poorly conceived and ineptly executed stumbles, stop and ask: What would Jesus say and do? 

Jesus Cares

One of the most remarkable but overlooked facts about Jesus ministry is his pre-occupation with health care. Perhaps the most famous parable of Jesus is that of the Good Samaritan – caring for the wounds of a fellow traveler.

And Jesus was not just about talking, but doing. Of the miracles recorded by the four New Testament gospels, three-quarters put Jesus front and center as the healer – Dr. J!

And, most critically, we know that Jesus cared. When his friend Lazarus died, what was the master’s response? “Jesus wept.”

How Does Jesus Do Health Care?

Four observations can be drawn from a review of Jesus miracles – all the way from healings in his native Galilee to the raising of friend Lazarus from the dead in a suburb of Jerusalem:

1. Jesus’ healings are widespread, but selective. Jesus healed people one-at-a time – people like an epileptic, the mother-in-law of his disciple Peter, a Roman centurion’s servant, the mentally ill (or demon possessed). He healed people in groups – two blind men here, 10 lepers there, whole crowds reaching out just to touch the hem of His garment for healing power. Jesus even re-attached the ear of a servant of the high priest severed by His ne’er-do-well disciple Peter, in an attempt to resist the arrest of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus deputized his disciples to heal the sick throughout the villages of Galilee. And he offered care to those down through the centuries yet to unfold: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

But even a healer this prolific did not immediately reach out heal everyone who needed treatment. He discouraged a non-Jewish woman from seeking His help, caustically remarking: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And he deliberately let his friend Lazarus die – staying two more days “in the place where he was” before finally traveling to his friend’s home in Bethany.

2. There is always a larger divine purpose that accompanies Jesus’ healing touch. You might ask: What possible motive could a god-man like Jesus have in spending so much time dealing with the diseases both real and imagined of those around him? Shouldn’t God be more concerned with making a better planet where all humans can live free of disease?

For example, why did Jesus let His friend Lazarus go to the grave? Jesus himself supplied the answer: “Lazarus is dead.  And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe.” The purpose: to convince others that He was no ordinary person, but one who commanded attention as overriding the very laws of nature.

Each healing tended to have its own distinct objective. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever; she “arose and served them.” Nothing like getting a good home cooked meal in exchange for a little faith healing.

The non-Jewish woman who demanded healing for demon-possessed daughter? Jesus forced her to spar verbally with him before he acceded to her request, saying: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.”

And to those who questioned whether a man’s sins had resulted in his blindness, Jesus would make the question an object lesson: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.” All for the glory of the divine.

3. Healing is available to persons of all social and economic classes. There is no means testing with this healer. No request to see your insurance card before the magic treatment. Jesus took on cases of both friend and foe, even the indifferent. He healed during the work week, and he healed on the Sabbath when work was prohibited.

He healed those who were outcasts and those in power, rich and poor, beloved and despised. When He sent out his disciples to heal on His behalf, it was with the directive to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons.”

4. Though  the health care of Jesus is made available no charge, yet there is always a cost, something the master wants in return. At the pool of Bethesda, Jesus orders a man who was infirm for 38 years to “rise, take up your bed and walk.”

To the non-Jewish woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus wanted her reaction to being demeaned before he took action as complained, telling her that “it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” Fortunately, she  gave as good as she got, responding to Jesus by offering that: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

To his disciples who are unable to cure an epileptic, Jesus condemns their unbelief, saying that “if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

He heals two blind men, after first asking: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” Then after touching and opening their eyes, Jesus makes an added request, asking that the patients “see that no one knows it” (about the healing). They went and spread the news about Jesus “in all that country,” anyway.

And to the Pharisees who complained about Jesus dining with a hated tax collector, Jesus response immediately turns to the analogy of medicine as he rejoins: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

And a Couple of Added Thoughts

Two added strands of Jesus message come to mind when wondering how he might address America’s current health care debacle. The first that comes to mind is Jesus interaction with those in the synagogue of his home town Nazareth. Jesus reads about “the anointed” from Isaiah, puts down the scroll and concludes with:

Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

The congregants are incredulous at the audacity of their home town boy. Jesus can’t contain himself and He comments:

“You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Your country.’”

Then He said,

“Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.”

Even in his day, Jesus must have been aware of the time-honored saying that: “An expert is somebody who is more than 50 miles from home.” He attacks their prejudice by taking on what must have been the high regard with which health practitioners were regarded in the first century: “Physician, heal yourself.” In other words, good medicine care starts at home, even when over-familiarity with the caregiver inevitably breeds contempt.

And here’s a second thought. It is prompted by remembrance of Jesus asking a crowd before him:

“… which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’?”

And so it is with health care. America has taken on a noble cause. But will we finish well? Did we adequately count the cost? And is the added cost commensurate with our ability to foot the bill? Questions yet to be answered.

So, What About Obamacare vs Trumpcare?

To the best of our knowledge, Jesus of Nazareth has never uttered a word about the on-going health care debate that grips the U.S.A. So, this blog poses no definitive solutions – at least none that can be directly attributable to the Master.

However, there are some guiding principles that can be drawn from what we know Jesus said and practiced about His kind of medicine. Lessons and principles applicable to the resolution of the matters at hand. Here they are:

  1. Health care should no longer be considered a privilege; it’s a fundamental human right. Every American should have ready access to health care prevention, maintenance, and treatment, regardless of their means.
  2. Every American should also have skin in the game. Either keep and enforce that individual mandate for all to purchase coverage (in accordance with financial means), or provide a market based mechanism with the same effect, e.g., you’re automatically enrolled and billed to be in a backstop plan until you prove you’ve purchased on your own.
  3. Squeeze out the excess, bringing the U.S. into alignment with other advanced nations for reduced health care cost as a share of GDP. Do the simple things like: sell insurance across state lines to encourage added market competition, disincentivize expensive investments in places where redundant and poorly utilized, and incent coordination in caregiving between varied providers whether or not in the same institution or practice. Require good faith estimates in advance of treatment. And make house calls – whether in person or via social media.
  4. Continue to reward the only good thing about American medicine today – continued innovation but implemented cost effectively. Whether it’s to the patient, the provider or the insurance, the message of the Savior is very simple: “Rise, take up your bed, and walk.” Get going!


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Jerusalem’s Old City Blues

Just back from a nearly 2-week sojourn in Jerusalem accompanied by my daughter. An overall impression? While Israel’s largest city thrives, the old walled city – historic Jerusalem – lags behind.

Yes, there are still boatloads of tourists. And plenty of places to drop cash on King David Street stepping down from the Jaffa Gate, and the antiquities shops along the Via Dolorosa. Not to mention the Arab shopping districts of El Wad and Suq Khan leading off from the Damascus Gate – or a great Armenian tavern in the otherwise forbidding Armenian Quarter.

What’s going on?

Talking to shopkeepers, business is down. The random attacks of late 2015 reinforced the sense of the Old City as unsafe – a perception that has carried forward to today. Especially at night, there is little going on except at the Jaffa Gate or on King David. The shops and restaurants at the Muristan near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher close up as the sun goes down.

The Jewish Quarter is the exception. Retail is new (as with recent storefront development on the old Roman cardo) and there is a great, always active public gathering place near a central synagogue.

While Christians account for over half of tourists, tourist publications reportedly have shifted to more actively promote Jewish sites, de-emphasizing the Christian and Muslim attractions.

And with the exception of the Jewish cardo, the Old City feels, well, just dated! Not hip.

There are other factors at work, as well:

  • The tourist demographic is changing from American and western European to countries with less disposable income – places like Russia, the Philippines, Latin America, and China (the one notable exception regarding spending capacity).
  • Traditional shopping streets like King David are so congested with passersby it’s hard to stop and window shop.
  • Many purchases that could be made because of concerns about getting the goods through customs. Who wants to buy pepper and be interrogated about the substance at the Philadelphia airport? Or worry about legality of purchase of artifacts and their removal from Israel?
  • And while the walk through tight, ancient streets may be attractive at the start, it gets old quickly. For some, the lack of auto, taxi and transit access makes the walk in and through the Old City simply less competitive for retail traffic.
  • Conversely, streets of the Armenian Quarter and much of the Christian Quarter have little to no active street life – but are institutionalized enclaves, walled from the street.
  • The focus of Jerusalem shopping has shifted to nearby districts such as Ben Yehuda Street and the Mamilla Mall (just off the Jaffa Gate) – for tourists as well as locals.
  • For millennials, the action is not even in Jerusalem but Tel Aviv.
  • There is relatively little lodging directly in the old city except at the edges – depriving the district of the 24-hour vibe desired by hipsters and supportive of a more secure nighttime dining and entertainment environment.
  • Traditional bricks and mortar shopping is down generally as the internet takes a bigger bite and as consumers shift from buying merchandise to spending for experiences. For example, Jerusalem should be a perfect place to buy books. But who does, anymore?
  • And somehow Trump hangs over it all. Will he abandon the two-state solution? A deal-maker for better days ahead? Or incendiary?

What’s to be Done?

Well, probably not much – at least near term. Longer term, some ideas to think about:

  • More public open space, like the plaza now at Jaffa Gate and in the Jewish Quarter
  • People mover, transporting people, for example, from Jaffa Gate to area of the western wall.
  • Shifting the retail mix to include infotainment packages – not just the same old merchandise
  • Getting more nighttime dining and entertainment
  • More hostels and boutique lodging
  • Better packaging of Old City trip experiences (rather than as stand-alone destinations)


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The Conservative, the Liberal, the One in the Middle

A tumultuous 2016 draws to a close. An uncertain 2017 lies ahead. Time to consider where we’ve been and where we may be going from the vantage point of the three who have defined this political year – radical conservative Donald Trump, the old liberal Bernie Sanders, and the one in the middle – the defeated presumptive front-runner Hillary Clinton.

And introduce three who define the religio-poltico shape of a much earlier era that still resonates today – conservative James brother to Jesus  of Nazareth, liberal Saul of Tarsus, and the war-horse in the middle – St. Peter of Capernaum.

What’s the Comparison?

Comparing three characters of biblical proportion with the trio that have dominated the political headlines of the last couple of years may seem a bit odd – perhaps forced. Bear with me and consider:

  • Of the leaders of the early Christian movement, Jesus’ brother James was a Johnny come lately. James criticizes his brother’s earthly ministry, yet somehow mysteriously ascends to leadership of the Jerusalem church as carefully alluded to by Luke the writer of the Acts of the Apostles. As later recounted by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, James climbed his way into but was then murdered by the establishment aristocracy. Mr. Trump similarly came out of nowhere to overturn the establishment of his party and the political correctness of the two coasts. A wealthy and privileged New Yorker, he yet remains an outsider scrapping his way to anointing as leader of the yet dominant nation on the globe. One difference: James fell to his antagonists while Donald (so far) has prevailed.
  • Yes, Paul was the liberal of his era – breaking the new found Christian movement free of its Jewish moorings. With a message that appealed to a Roman world hungry for authentic rather than tired and ineffectual spirituality. And like his modern counterpart Bernie Sanders, Paul pulled no punches – even advocating that those troublesome followers of James and Peter castrate themselves. The difference is that Paul’s message of a universal Christianity prevailed while Bernie’s socialist crusade has foundered – at least for now.
  • Then we have the front-runners who choked before getting to the finish line – tripping over flaws too big to ignore. As Jesus’ lead disciple, we know about Peter’s impetuous behavior – such as cutting off the ear of an officer come to arrest Jesus. There may have been worse – witness the demise of Ananias and Sapphira at the hands of Peter as the first leader of the post-resurrection church. In the fourth century, church leader John Chrysostom was forced to deny rumors that Peter may have had an active hand at least one of these deaths. While Hillary Clinton may not seem to be so openly brash, think throwing dishes at Bill Clinton over Monica and other trailer trash . Think Whitewater, conducting national business on a personal server, or maybe Vince Foster. Unending, whispered and not-so-whispered rumors.


Before going further, it’s time to define the terms of engagement. Webster’s dictionary offers the following definitions for the terms liberal and conservative:

  • Liberal – “one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways …”
  • Conservative – “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society …”

In short, the conservative is ever glancing in the rear-view mirror; the liberal looks and acts forward. 

So, What are the Take-Aways?

At first blush, there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the determination of whether the conservative, liberal or one in the middle will prevail. Fate seems so fickle, blown about by the moods of the moment combined with the quirks of the respective lead personalities:

  • The reactionary movement of the Donald has carried the day today – although the much earlier conservatism of James lost out despite the familial connection with the anointed one – the Savior.
  • The liberalizing and liberating New Testament theology of Saul (renamed Paul) prevailed because it played to the interests of the Roman populace for a more believable deity than the shopworn gods of the Greeks and Romans. Two millennia later, Bernie’s socialist ideals would play well to millennials feeling betrayed by their elders – but not enough to carry the day (at least not yet).
  • The losers then and now were the middle of the road types – a Peter who vacillated between adhering to Judaism versus opening to Gentiles and a Hillary who has wavered on issues ranging from global trade to support and then opposition to the Iraq war.
  • In ascendant periods, middle of the road types represent continuity combined with the aura of all boats rising together. Think Peter as lead disciple during Jesus’ ministry continuing forward for awhile as leader of the pack once his master had departed the earthly scene. In the U.S., think Eisenhower as the victorious WWII general leading a homogeneous nation during the period of American ascendancy in the 1950s. Or consider Hillary’s precursor in husband Bill as the New Democrat in the wake of the post-Soviet 1990s.

But in uncertain and troubled times, the mood swings to more extreme options. The only question is whether the populist conservative or liberal plays better to the temper of our times. For Christianity, liberality won out because it played to a much larger market – the whole Roman empire, not just one isolated province. In 2016, the reactionary (but not fully traditional) conservative solution won out because the populace found itself betrayed by the patronizing liberalism of two Obama administrations. As many working class Americans and millennials have perceived. the emperor is wearing no clothes.

In the End, Liberalism Wins

Does the example of Paul or that of Mr. Trump better represent likely long-term outcomes? For all of the arrogance and independent of any theological truth, the Pauls of this world always win out in the end. Inclusion beats parochial self-interest. Serving the common good is better politics than propping up the cultural and economic elites. And despite twists and turns along the way, the world of today is better than that of renaissance Europe,the Greco-Roman empires or even earlier civilizations whether on the scale of the Egyptians or nomadic tribes from Africa to the Americas.

For better or worse, there are two reasons why liberals inevitably beat out their more conservative counterparts:

  • The first reason is empirical. Despite jarring cyclical swings between liberality and retrenchment, the long-term march is upward – toward the ever-beckoning city on a hill. The world is a better place to live today than at any time in recorded human history. And so long as we survive our own suicidal tendencies, life 100 years from now will be even better than today.
  • The second reason is spiritual. The divine embodies the discordant mix of mercy and judgment. Individually and culturally, we are responsible for our actions. But in the end, mercy trumps judgment. And as Jesus would say: “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

If this view is correct, President-elect Trump’s victory may be short-lived. For us conservatives, now is the time for some thorough house-cleaning. Whether or not Mr. Trump is the man for the job remains to be seen.

Without fail, liberalism will live to again carry the day. This will happen when liberals regroup to again embrace rather than patronize the needs, the preferences, the aspirations of all humanity – not just the imperatives of like minded elites.


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Jesus vs Trump – On Trade (Part 2)

In the wake of the November election, I wrote that President-elect Trump’s opposition to free global trade was not only bad economics but downright immoral. Looking back to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the case is made that if The Donald is to define neighborly based on America first (to the exclusion or detriment of our extended neighbor network), then he’s missed the point of what the Christ advocated.

The message of Jesus is clear. Eternity belongs to the neighborly – even when it may cost to be neighborly. And in the end, squeezing our global neighbors will prove counterproductive. The road kill we pass by will inevitably include our own.

In this sequel to the earlier blog, a counterargument is made from another event during Jesus’ ministry. That counterclaim is that Jesus argued that taking care of your own comes before taking care of the alien, the other. Is Jesus contradicting himself? Or How are these two seemingly opposed viewpoints to be reconciled? And what practical advice can be drawn for application to the steps that Mr. Trump may take upon inauguration.

And was asked in the first installment of this blog discussion, the question is posed: What would Jesus say about being pro- or anti-trade? 

Jesus A Racist?

For a different perspective on how the Christ – the anointed one – might react we look not to a parable but to perhaps the most perplexing encounter that Jesus has with a stranger as recorded in the Christian New Testament. As recounted by the gospels of Matthew and Mark, this is Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman from the non-Jewish area of Tyre and Sidon (in present day Lebanon). Jesus deliberately left communities in the Galilee with Jewish population to venture into less familiar Gentile territory. He finds and enters a house where he could be incognito. But alas, his whereabouts are soon discovered – by a women desperate to find a cure for her demon possessed daughter.

The exchange that then unfolds between the male rabbi and the female foreigner is nothing short of astounding:

  • The Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.
  • Jesus doesn’t answer – but ignores this foreigner, this alien.
  • Jesus’ disciples pile on, urging Jesus to “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
  • Then to make sure the welcome mat is withdrawn, Jesus for once supports the logic of his disciples, saying: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
    Implication: Preferred access to God’s kingdom is for the Jewish population to the exclusion of all others.
  • The woman tries again, calling out to him: “Lord, help us.”
  • At this point, the Savior of the universe comes across as more than a little bit perturbed, answering: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” Meaning little bitches, or at best little puppies. The debate over what Jesus meant rages down over 20 centuries. What we do know is that dogs were not man’s best friend in Jewish culture – but were low on the animal pecking order. As the Proverbs say, “As a dog returns to his own vomit, So a fool repeats his folly.”
  • In today’s world, Jesus remark would be taken as blatantly racist, certainly not politically correct. But this alien woman holds her ground, bypasses the insult, and responds with even a bit of good humor: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
  • She has the better of the exchange and Jesus caves: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed “that very hour.”

So, What Does this Have to do with Donald Trump & Global Trade?

Put yourself in the shoes of Jesus Christ – or Donald Trump. Do you see much difference?

  • Both demean the foreigner
  • Both espouse taking care of the people at home first
  • Both deliberatly insult the one(s) who come across as their adversary
  • Both engage in what at least appears to be racist rhetoric
  • And both are engaged in no holds barred negotiation.

Jesus makes a 180° turn, yielding to the woman’s better reasoned case. The Donald has shown, in some cases, similar flexibility (witness his bromances with Dr. Ben Carson, maybe even Mitt Romney). Could he cave on trade as well?

And the Moral of the Story Is …

Put aside the apparent put-downs, the seeming racism, the disingenuous baiting of the audience, the blatant inequity of parochialism. Admittedly, these are thorny moral questions. But morality may be irrelevant to outcome.

What is on display with Jesus  and Mr. Trump is the willingness, the seeming reckless abandon, to push for resolution that would not have been possible without an adversarial encounter.

And What does this Mean for the Global Community?

Based on the parable of the Good Samaritan,  I have argued that President-elect Trump’s opposition to free global trade is not only bad economics but downright immoral. How is the example of the caring Good Samaritan to be reconciled with the image of a grasping Canaanite woman and her belligerent all-powerful adversary?

The answer comes down to the distinction between free trade and fair trade:

  • The example of the Good Samaritan speaks loudly for free trade – a world where every nation, every person is our neighbor.
  • The example of the Canaanite woman speaks volumes for fair trade – if you’re going to get, you have to give.

So, it is for Mr. Trump. Uphold the global community. Reward those who can do more for less – for improved standard of living and reduced environmental footprint.

Concurrently, push without ceasing for exchange that recognizes the full cost versus benefit for all transacting parties.

And if it all involves a bit of hard-edged politics along the way, so be it.


Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician (Canaanite) Woman (Matthew 15:21-28, NKJV)

Then Jesus went out from there (around the Sea of Galilee) and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”

But He answered her not a word.

And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”

But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”

And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.


For the first installment (Part 1) of Jesus vs. Trump on Trade, click:

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