Spirituality & Politics

“And if a house is divided against itself,
that house cannot stand.”

– Jesus of Nazareth, per Mark 3:25

“Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth?
I tell you, not at all, but rather division.”
– Jesus again, per Luke 12:51

There are two overarching questions posed by this blog post. The first question is spiritual: On which side of the house does Jesus stand? Or does he speak out of both sides of his mouth – the flavor of the day?

The second question is political: What applicability is there to the recent (perhaps recurring) partial budget shutdown of the U.S. government?

Survey the Field

To help address these questions, a survey has been fielded — of friends, more distant acquaintances, and yet those more distant (via Twitter). Six questions were posed.

The sample size is not adequate to represent statistically reliable results. Yet, the views of diverse interests – spiritually and politically — were obtained. On average, the surveys took just under six minutes to complete.

Here are the six questions – together with representative responses.

Q1 – In the midst of political standoffs (like the partial Government shutdown), do you think your spiritual faith has any advice to offer to those active in the public arena?

Nearly 80% answered yes, spiritual faith yields advice for those active in the public arena, less than 20% said no.

Q2 – If you answered “yes” to Q1, what is your advice.

Those who responded provided the following suggestions:

  • Understanding that “God is trustworthy to take care of our daily needs”
  • Suggestion to “put politics aside and join forces for the best interests of our country as a whole”
  • “Work in the best interests of all citizens in the world”
  • Recognition that “this is a spiritual battle–good vs. evil”
  • “To grow up and learn to get along!”
  • “Do whatever it takes in time available to get to yes!”
  • “Do to others as you would have done to yourself”
  • “To pray”

Q3 – If you answered “no” to Q1, what is missing that might be relevant or otherwise useful to the political dialogue?

Fewer responses were provided, but including one that was quite detailed:

  • “Weighing what is best for citizens over political standoffs”
  • “Quit posturing and do what Davy Crockett would: ‘Make sure you’re right, then go ahead’ “
  • “I find that when religion is incorporated into political dialogue that the belief of the infallibility of the Bible is transferred onto both the Constitution and one’s own political beliefs. I believe this tends to make people incalcitrant in their views. Probably the biggest things missing are: a view that God is not a Republican or Democrat, respect for the other side (realizing they have something important to add), and humility to understand that there’s a 99.9% chance our own views are mistaken.”

What is interesting is that, while these respondents do not purport to rely on their faith (or lack thereof) for help in the political arena, their values (of weighing what’s best, making sure of what’s right, and humility) are similar to the values of those who would offer a more faith-based response.

Q4 – Politically, how far to the left or right do you lean — or somewhere in the middle (like independent)?

A sliding scale of 1-100 was used with 0 representing far left, 100 far right, 50 in the middle or independent.

On average, the multi-respondent average was just under 50 – about in the middle. Close to 40% rated themselves toward the left (with scores ranging from 0-40), a similar proportion in the middle (from 40 to nearly 70), and between 20-25% toward the right (rating themselves 70-100).

Q5 – Spiritually, would you describe yourself as a fundamental or evangelical Christian, mainline or progressive Christian, non-religious, or other?

Of those responding, over 40%  described themselves as fundamental or evangelical Christian, less than 10% as mainline or progressive Christian, over 20% as non-religions, and nearly 30% as other. 

Of those responding as other, beliefs ranged from what was described as “orthodoxal Christian” to “heterodox Christian” to “heretical” to “born-again Bible-believing nutcase.”

In comparing religious faith with political leanings, not surprisingly the fundamental/evangelical Christians rated themselves as the most right-leaning (but averaging a relatively moderate 53 points on the 0-100 scale). The other grouping scored roughly in the same moderate to right category as the fundamental/evangelical Christians. The mainline/progressive Christians and non-religious are more to the left (averaging about 35) on the 0-100 (left to right) scale.

Q6 – Whether or not related to your political or spiritual preferences, how do you think political conflicts are best resolved?

This question received the greatest degree of comment. Surprisingly, there is considerable convergence of opinion – despite seemingly divergent overall religious and political viewpoints.

Here are verbatim comments, organized from the most conservative politically and spiritually to the most non-religious and liberal:

  • “They need to all come to the table & agree on what is best for our country & not our political party.”
  • “… compromise. In every society we will always live next to those with whom we disagree. We should work for a culture that values righteousness and justice. Christians must also understand that is the nature of humanity not to want things of God. It is therefore our primary duty to evangelize to a fallen world before we try to change it for our own interests. As Christians, we need to be careful what political matters we put our weight behind.”
  • “…talking,  compromise, honesty, in a civil peaceful environment.”
  • “Political conflicts are best resolved by focusing on solutions, not who is right or wrong, or who did what shitty thing in the past.”
  • “…give and take”
  • “… commitment to resolution and keeping the conversation going.”
  • “As the prophet Isaiah says, come let us reason together.”
  • “… through negotiation.”
  • “… by always balancing justice with mercy.”
  • ” … by each side listening to each other, hearing points of view and learning how to agree on what is best for all.”
  • “I have no idea, except the ethical and moral fiber of the USA has eroded.”
  • “… balancing the gains of one issue versus negatively impacting the finances and commerce of many. Employing judgment with responsibility.”
  • “… through diplomatic conversations where judgment is put aside and empathy can play a large role.”
  • “… listening, considering the others’ viewpoints as valid, finding a compromise.”

If these thoughts truly represent a reasonable cross-section of opinion, there may be yet hope for our bold but imperfect American democratic experiment. With talking, listening and compromise as American as apple pie. And if, at the end of the day, we let our pragmatic instincts prevail over the more momentary lapses of political, religious or other ideological fervors.


For more, check out the full website: http://www.jesustheheresy.com



8 Questions of Christianity

Straight Answers to Tough Questions

Those who call themselves Christians are often asked tough questions. From non-Christians and from other followers of the way. Provided below are eight questions asked by a friend – together with initial responses – some fairly definitive, others more tentative.

And in the end, as the apostle Paul once wrote to a church at Philippi (Greece), we are each to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

The Questions (& Responses)

So, here we go….

1. Why did God select earth to send his son here to die and form a religion called Christianity?

Response: It seems like this is really a 2-part question with each part addressed, in turn:

a) Why did God select earth?
We can not be certain that earth is the only planet selected. It’s possible that God is working with different populations and different planets – whether in this universe or across parallel universes?

b) And why send a son to die and form a religion called Christianity?
This is a tougher question but with a simple (perhaps simplistic) response. It’s because God set the rules of the game within which (at least) this planet is to operate.
He can make up any set of rules that he pleases – independent of whether they make sense to humans or not. His rules appear to involve elements both logical and free-wheeling.
The rules for earth center on offering free will to his creation. Then, God saw the consequences of unbridled freedom. He offered redemption through the offering of a blood sacrifice – certainly something understood to the Hebrew/Jewish population of long gone eras.

If there are other planets (or places) in the universe with similar creations, the rules of the road may all be the same. Or they may vary wildly, sort of like an experimenter trying different formulas to see what works best. A creator who’s willing to bear the consequences of the good with the bad – and adapt accordingly.

2. Fact: we now know that millions of galaxies are in our universe. Are there other planets that contain similar entities?

Response: It may be that the probabilities of similar entities elsewhere are limited. But if the universe is truly infinite (a point about which this author is not convinced), then it seems unlikely that there is just one planet with human-like, free willed, living and self-conscious beings.

3. Did God not visit these other locations and if he did – why are these other visits not reported in the Bible?

Response: God (the Father) may well have appointments elsewhere. If so, that would certainly be good reason for the Father to hand the baton for this planet off to his designee and Son Jesus.

As to why these other planetary visitations are not reported in the Bible, maybe it’s because it’s more than our minds could readily absorb or would want to handle. Maybe that comes with subsequent revelations. Or maybe God is willing to allow the time for us to discover on our own, whether in this life or the life to come.

4. Why do we combine the New and Old testaments in one Bible?

Response: Why not? Admittedly, the two sets of scriptures were prepared for different periods of time and with different interests in mind. It appears that the Hebrew scriptures as we know them were compiled largely during and subsequent to the Babylonian captivity. What we now call an Old Testament canon was, in effect, occurred in the wake of post-Jerusalem destruction (AD 70) by rabbinic communities in places like Jamnia and Tiberias.

The New Testament was composed for an emerging (and increasingly non-Jewish) Christian church. While some early patriarchs (like Papias around the beginning of the 2nd century) thought the church was better off with oral tradition alone, the impetus to create a written canon was created later in the 2nd century by a wealthy ship-owner on the Black Sea named Marcion. In reaction to Marcion’s claim to know which writings were authentic and which were specious, an orthodox movement arose to counter what were considered to be Marcion heresies – focused largely on his acceptance of Paul’s writings to the exclusion of most others.

Marcion also viewed the God of the Old Testament to be a distinctly different entity from the God of the New. The Old Testament Yahweh was a fairly idiosyncratic, bestial and war-like deity, not at all the same as the kinder, gentler, and perhaps more corporate Son of the New. The God of the Old also aligns more closely with the Muslim conception of Allah.

Despite claims to there contrary, there was never a fully settled canon (at least by the Catholics) until the 16th century. The full church finally adopted a formal canon in the 16th century as a counter to Martin Luther’s denigration of some New Testament writings – especially James which Paul thought to be a rather “strawy” epistle.

Over time, this author has come to appreciate the combination of Old and New documents. Getting to better know and understand this rambunctious creator of all – following what I earlier learned as the victory of son Jesus over death and into life beyond.

5. If Jesus taught about 3-in-1,  why then must Christians claim to being the only religion and why does our religion require that all prayers must go through Jesus vs. straight to God?

Response: There is nothing in the Bible that teaches the Nicene formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as 3-in-1– except in the Latin Vulgate with the 16th century addition of I John 5:7. It also seems that 3-in-1 unnecessarily separates us from our Jewish and Muslim brethren – who are better followers of one God. Or as the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 asserts – the Lord is God, the Lord alone.

With Christianity,  it is possible, if not probable, that God passed the baton, handing off the primary responsibility for interaction with the divine to his son Jesus. Give me the freedom to pray to the Father, to the Son, or through the Son to the Father. Perhaps not theologically correct. But willing to await further instructions as to the correct protocol. And in the meantime, with a need to better understand and appreciate the role of the Holy Spirit.

6. Catholics are required to go through their priests, thru to God. Jews, Catholics and protestants – do we all pray to the same God?

Response: Yes, although our conceptions of what God is about may differ.

7. If there is only 1 God – what about Muslims, Tao, Hindu, Shamans?

Response: Intriguingly, both Muslims and Jews have perhaps the best understanding of the clear primacy of God the Father (Yahweh or Allah). With religions that encompass multiple gods (like Hinduism), it’s admittedly harder for at least some westerners to relate. They may better understand the concept of distinct responsibilities of different members of a Godhead than Christians. However, the seeming emphasis on quantity over quality trivializes the distinct attributes of divine versus human capacities and capabilities.

8. Are we holding ourselves above the rest of the world? Creating division instead of acceptance of others?

Response: Christians have made this mistake, witness the legacy of the Crusades or the Reformation and Counter Reformation. But let’s not get so hung up on creating division. After all, it was Jesus who said he came not to bring peace but division. So, embrace conflict on the basis of intense but respectful competition – as between the Dodgers and Red Sox – rather than the bloodletting of say, between the western world and radical Islam. Meaning a need to set rules of engagement – where the best ideas, the most proven, are the winners. As Christians, let’s put ourselves to the ultimate test – that of the marketplace.


For additional information on multiple topics of earthly to divine import from our web site, check out: www.jesustheheresy.com

Outsiders & Jesus

Jesus is often cited as being a peaceful, loving guy. How do we square this with his violent act of overturning tables of money changers and driving them out of the temple – with a whip? His stated purpose is: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ 

In this account as well as numerous others, we are confronted with a God-man of seeming contradictions. And on one issue – God’s view of insiders versus outsiders – this Jesus of Nazareth can come across as a man with a split personality.

In the temple incident, Jesus appears to be welcoming both insider and outsider, both native and foreigner – a place of gathering “for all nations.”

But on the other hand, he was explicitly exacting vengeance against money-changers. Why?
The reasons are not clearly stated but the information available suggests a possible nativist bent to this savior.

The money changers were exchanging local and Roman currency for the pure silver shekel coinage of Tyre – even though the Tyrian coins were often stamped with pagan images. The pure shekels were then used to purchase animals for sacrifice.

In effect, Jewish rabbis had decided that the commandment to give the half- or full-shekel Temple tax, with its proper weight and silver purity, was more important than the prohibition of who or what image was on the coin. For Jesus, it would appear that the rabbis had it all wrong. On God’s holy site, purity should be more about coinage that reflected Jewish monotheistic values than silver content.

Trump vs. Outsiders

Today, the American and global landscape is being shaped by a president who puts “America first.” A leader who wants stricter enforcement of borders – even if it may mean separation of children from parents. A president willing to use high tariffs in an effort to promote purchasing of domestic goods over products shipped in from elsewhere.

And this president’s view is not just that of a lone wolf. It’s a perspective shared by a substantial (though perhaps not majority) contingent of American voters. And it is a viewpoint that is increasingly gaining traction abroad – from Europe to China – further fueled by retaliatory motives of our trading “partners.”

What Would Jesus Do?

Jesus never made an explicit statement about tariffs or closing borders or separating children from parents – at least nothing recorded. If we are looking for a clear-cut Christian perspective on contemporary issues that are now tearing the social U.S. and global fabric, that distinctly Christian position is hard to find – even harder to biblically defend.

Jesus’ own ambivalence on matters bearing on the current debates makes the job of articulating right from wrong yet more challenging. Should Christians then sit silently on the sidelines? Or actively engage in the debate – even when believers may be pitted against each other?

While there is no clear-cut Christian platform on which to run, Christ’s ministry offers some guideposts useful to better frame the believer’s response. So, let’s consider the evidence.

A Random Gospel Walk

Jesus’ temple experience occurred just a few days before his death by crucifixion. Let’s start this walk from in Jesus’ formative years – from childhood – then travel forward to his short period of earthly ministry:

  • Geographically speaking, the most glaring omission of the New Testament gospels is the lack of any reference to the most important Galilean cities of Jesus’ youth and adulthood – Sepphoris and Tiberias. Located about an hour’s walk from Jesus’ hill country hometown of Nazareth, Sepphoris was the capital city of Galilee while Jesus was growing up. As a city being rebuilt after recent destruction, Sepphoris was a major construction site, perhaps a source of employment for carpenter Joseph, with Jesus perhaps accompanying his earthly father to the construction site.
    In adulthood sometime before beginning his ministry, Jesus moved to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was only about 6 miles from Tiberias to which Herod Antipas had relocated his capitol (from Sepphoris) in about 20 AD.
    Unlike smaller largely Jewish settlements of the Galilee, Sepphoris and Tiberias were multi-cultural with substantial pagan influences – including those of the Herodians and Romans. Why are these cities never mentioned in the New Testament? Is it because Jesus assiduously avoided places dominated by “outsiders?” We are not told but this deafening silence seems more intentional than inadvertent.
  • Jesus appears to have mixed views on the Samaritans – those half-breeds of Jews not deported during the Babylonian exile who intermarried with surrounding non-Jewish neighbors. There is a time (recorded in Matthew) when Jesus instructs his disciples to “enter no town of the Samaritans” during their missionary travels, but to confine their ministry to “the lost sheep of the Jews.”
    However, Jesus would interact with Samaritans, most notably with the woman he met at a local well – the one who had five husbands  but became a convert to the “living water” offered by this Jewish and messianic itinerant.
    And there was the time when Jesus was again traveling through Samaria, but not received kindly by the local population. And so his disciples ask: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But now Jesus comes to the Samaritans’ defense. He tells his disciples that “the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
  • This unpleasant Samaritan encounter must weighed on Jesus mind afterward. Because it’s not long thereafter that he lays out a parable for his disciples and a Jewish lawyer to ponder – the story of the Good Samaritan. This was in response to the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor?”
    Jesus tells the tale of a Jewish priest and a Levite who passed by a man on the roadside who had been beaten by thieves and who is then finally rescued by a lower class Samaritan. So at the end of his story Jesus asks: “Which of these three do you you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” The lawyer was boxed in, and so answered : “He who showed him mercy.” And so Jesus drives his point home, telling this lawyer to “Go and do likewise.”
  • Consider another encounter by Jesus with an outsider. Jesus and his disciples are traveling when a non-Jewish Canaanite woman accosts him, crying out: ““Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” Jesus refuses at first to acknowledge her. His disciples suggest that he act more definitively and tell her to go away.
    Jesus then observes that “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (an Israel first type of comment). The woman is not deterred as she comes and worships him, literally begging: “Lord, help me.”
    Jesus is still in no mood to lend a hand but rather responds in rather pejorative (if not racist) terms saying: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
    To her everlasting credit, this petitioner does not back away but again confronts Jesus with this rejoinder: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” At this, Jesus finds himself with little choice but to acknowledge: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.”
    Matthew’s gospel records that immediately (as at “that very hour”) the daughter was healed. Score one for confronting the divine and winning!

We could continue with yet other examples of Jesus’ seemingly contorted responses to the never-ending divisions between locals and foreigners, insiders versus outsiders. If this great teacher – this divinely appointed figure – comes across as conflicted, is it any surprise that people of otherwise goodwill might also come across as deeply divided?

Statutory vs. Common Law

There is one other issue that rears its ugly head in issues pitting insiders versus outsiders. That is the question of whether rules-based statutory law should prevail over a more flexible, situational common law approach. This conflict is particularly evident with the current immigration question of whether to follow existing statute which appears to mandate separation of children from parents versus a more humane and situationally responsive approach to the unique circumstances of this particular immigration crisis.

Again, the question could be posed: What would Jesus do? And again, Jesus’ position could come across as fairly confused – at least based on an initial cursory review.

After all, it is Jesus who is recorded by the gospel writer Matthew as firmly stating:

“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

This suggests a fairly rules-oriented messiah. However, Jesus could say one thing and do another. In practice, this itinerant master and his disciples would intentionally violate the myriad of legal provisions of first century Judaism – in matters both trivial and consequential – for example, engaging in prohibited practices ranging from picking corn to healing on the Sabbath.

And it was in response to the corn-picking incident that Jesus would opine for a more fundamental concept, that: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” To wit: laws were made for humans, and not humans for statutory compliance.

And there’s an even more fundamental statement, boiling down statutory to common law as two commandments. First, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And the second: “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

The bottom line is: when push comes to shove, Jesus is more of a common law and less of a statutory kind of guy. 

Of course, the first command is directed to those who are adherents to a heavenly kingdom and not applicable to an earthly state such as the U.S. with clearly stated separation of church and state.

Jesus’ second command is directly applicable to earthly common law – the dictum to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And who is your neighbor. It’s the one who is prepared to show mercy – not limited to sectarian or nation-state borders.

Take Aways

What can you or I take away from what Jesus has to say. Three possible answers – not necessarily comfortable, but yet maybe imperative:

  • Expect conflict even between persons of good-will – not all issues are readily resolved.
  • There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing localized over broader global concerns – so long as localized actions for the benefit of insiders do not come at the expense of outsiders.
  • Treat the outsider as you would want to be treated – consistent with the heavenly mandate of a creator who prioritizes mercy over sacrifice.


For additional information on multiple topics of earthly to divine import from our web site, check out: http://www.jesustheheresy.com

Antiquities of the Levant

Available Now

Unparalleled Opportunity – A long-standing Israel based antiquities business is making its collections available for purchase – preferably on a wholesale, single transaction basis.

Representing ancient civilizations of the Levant including early bronze and Canaanite, later bronze and iron age Israelite, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic, three collections are available for a qualified purchaser:

  • Business collection – approximately 5,000 items ranging from ancient coins to pottery and glassware.
  • Personal collection – another 2,000+/- items with focus on fine pottery of the Middle East.
  • Added collection – signature antiquities of unparalleled value.

Business Collection

The 5,000+/- items in this collection include glassware, pottery, scarabs, tools, weapons, jewelry, and coins (gold, silver, bronze).

The collection has been inventoried to address requirements of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Certificates of authenticity will be provided together with assistance with export permit arrangements for items to be shipped outside of Israel.

Personal Collection

Over many decades, the Owner/Seller has built a substantial personal collection of approximately 2,000 items. Primarily pottery, just a portion of which is depicted here. Due to wide diversity of provenance – in terms of culture and era of manufacture represented – the Seller has agreed to make available the services of a well-recognized archaeologist of Palestine to assist with further research and documentation.

This generous offer of assistance is available across all three collections.

Added Collection

The story of the Levant is carried via myriad strands of history – a web of cultures, sacred and profane.

Being made available is an added collection representing the finest of Greco-Roman and Judaic civilizations, from the Greek Eros to a Roman stone eagle – from the head to the foot of Middle Eastern history.

And anchoring it all is the voice of an age-long Judaic tradition – perhaps best exemplified by a circular Temple menorah of the Herodian era.

All are available, preferably as a combined collection. The legacy of a time unlike any other.

For More Information

The Seller’s collections are available at a cash price as may be mutually agreed between the parties. Requested is a lump sum payment or a down-payment and installments timed to coincide with merchandise shipments. Escrowed funds will be handled in the U.S. or as otherwise agreed through an independent third party pursuant to instructions mutually agreed by the purchaser, Seller, and Seller’s Representative (as conducted in conjunction with http://www.jesustheheresy.com).

The Seller has authorized its Representative to coordinate with contacts made toward the sale of its full remaining antiquities inventory. Any sale made via this representation will include a transaction fee as a portion of the gross sales amount when the transaction is finalized.

The purchase price will include the transaction fee as well as shipping cost. Shipping including offsets for any damage is the Seller’s responsibility. The Seller will provide Certificates of Authenticity with each purchase and will assist with export permit arrangements for all items to be shipped outside of Israel. Availability of merchandise may be subject to approval by the Israeli government. The Seller’s Representative (including http://www.jesustheheresy.com) makes no representations regarding merchandise provenance, Seller capacity to deliver, or legal requirements; all due diligence is the responsibility of the purchaser.

If any party is interested in pursuing this matter further, please contact via email: theauthor@jesustheheresy.com. All inquiries are treated on a confidential basis unless otherwise agreed. As the Seller’s Representative, we are prepared to coordinate arrangements with the Seller as for pricing and other information, submittal and review of a purchase proposal. Electronic files with more extensive photos of the merchandise represented may also be made available on request.

Whether or not you represent a qualified purchaser, your interest in preserving this legacy for the Owner/Seller and for the peoples of the Levant is most appreciated.


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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 http://www.jesustheheresy.com.

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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