The “grace” vs. “holiness” debate

Christianity Today has set up a symposium discussing the following question:  Do American Christians Need the Message of Grace or a Call to Holiness?  As usual, no Lutherans were asked to participate, and the whole debate is maddening for a Lutheran to read, not just because of its false dichotomies but because of what is missing in the understanding of both terms. [Read more...]

The importance of Christ’s baptism

Last Sunday the epiphany being celebrated was the baptism of Jesus.  John’s baptism was for sinners, so when Jesus was baptized, He began His work as our substitute.  In our baptism, we are united with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-11).  Thus, the Holy Spirit descends on us.  We have by adoption what Jesus has as the Father’s only begotten son, so that the Father can say of us, “You are my beloved son.”  And because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, the Father can say of us, “with you I am well-pleased.” [Read more...]

The nature of Hell

Something interesting I found exploring the Patheos neighborhoods:  A discussion from Ryan Adams (whom I assume is not the same person as the former lead singer of Whiskeytown) on the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Hell, which is defined as the suffering that comes from being loved by God and yet rejecting that love.  He talks about this notion in Dostoevsky and shows how that mysterious phrase of the Creed about Christ’s descent into Hell plays into this.  Read it all, but here is his conclusion: [Read more...]

How to interpret “kill Americans”

The South Korean rapper Psy–whose “Gangnam Style” goofy dance moves have become the top YouTube video of all time–was once virulently anti-American.  In 2004 at an anti-Iraq war concert, he rapped these lyrics written by a South Korean metal group:

“Kill those f—— Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captive / Kill those f——- Yankees who ordered them to torture / Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers / Kill them all slowly and painfully.”

Now he is apologizing:

“While I’m grateful for the freedom to express one’s self, I’ve learned there are limits to what language is appropriate and I’m deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted. I will forever be sorry for any pain I have caused by those words.”

My interest is not in Psy’s anti-Americanism or his violent lyrics.  I’m sure his apology is sincere.  But what gets me is his reference to “how these lyrics could be interpreted.”  He says to kill Yankees and the girls and women in their families.  In what sense is that statement in need of interpretation?  How else could those words be interpreted, other than as an exhortation to kill Americans and their families?

The notion that all language statements and assertions stand in need of interpretation and may be interpreted in many different ways–including those that contradict the explicit meaning–is wreaking all kinds of havoc.  Especially  when treating the Bible.  Theology has often become an exercise in interpreting away Biblical statements that the theologian does not agree with.

To be sure, some language calls for interpretation, but other language is clear on its face.  Some of the controversies involve questions about which is which. But even interpretation is supposed to help us understand what has been said, rather than undoing what has been said.

via Heat is on South Korean rapper Psy for anti-American rap – The Washington Post.

Forgive us our debts

University of Chicago theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite says that when Jesus told us to pray (in some translations) “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he was calling for the forgiveness of economic debts.  She also says how Occupy Wall Street is “operationalizing” Jesus’s economic teachings:

The folks who brought you Occupy Wall Street have launched what they call “Rolling Jubilee.” By donating to Rolling Jubilee, individuals can give money to buy up distressed consumer debt that is normally sold to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. But instead of acting like debt collectors, hounding folks for the full payment, you are giving to cancel the debt, that is, forgive it.

What Jesus taught as a prayer about forgiving debt (Matthew 6:12) has just been operationalized by Occupy.

Through prayer and deed, Jesus pursued an economic plan called the “Jubilee,” as I write in ‘#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power,’ my new book on how what Jesus really said about money, and what he did about economic issues in his own time that is just now launching as an e-book, and then in print.

It is critical that American Christians learn that Jesus really meant it when he asked us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Conservative Christians would like you to forget that Jesus really meant debt forgiveness. The Religious Right would like you to focus only on specific, individual “sins” like homosexuality (something that Jesus actually never mentions), and ignore that Jesus was really concerned about structured economic inequality in his own time. To Jesus, systemic economic inequality was the “Kingdom of Caesar,” not the “Kingdom of God.”

Jesus starts his ministry (Luke 4:16-19) by standing up in the synagogue and reading from one of the key texts of his Hebrew scriptures on the biblical “Jubilee.” The biblical “Jubilee” is a time of debt forgiveness.

Rolling Jubilee is exactly what Jesus was talking about and doing something about throughout his whole ministry.

According to the Jewish tradition in which Jesus stands, and from which he preached, the Jubilee is a special year of “liberty” where every 50 years there was a kind of “reboot” of Jewish economics and social relations. As described in Leviticus, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return every one of you to your property and every one of you to your family” (25:10). This 50th-year (or 49th-year) Jubilee followed seven “sabbatical cycles” where every seven years male slaves were released without debt, and land was allowed to lie fallow.

But that was millennia ago, some will say. How could the biblical Jubilee possibly be an economic plan in today’s economy, one that is far more complicated than in the first century CE?

It has never been more important to raise the issue of debt forgiveness and do something about it in concrete ways than it is in 21st century America.

via Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite: ‘Forgive Us Our Debts’: Occupy Operationalizes the Lord’s Prayer on Debt.

This reminds me of a preacher I heard, back in my pre-Lutheran days when I belonged to a liberal denomination, who taught that because Jesus proclaimed “release to the captives,” we need to empty our prisons by letting all of the inmates go free, a gesture of grace that would surely reform them all.

What do you think of Dr. Thistlewhite’s exegesis?  If you disagree, how would you answer her?   OR, does she have a valid point somewhere in her teaching?  What is the principle behind the Jubilee year?

The widow and the End Times

Pastor Douthwaite’s sermon last Sunday was based on the assigned text for that day, about the widow’s mite (Mark 12: 38-44).  He began with a useful survey of what the Church Year means and shows what it means to live in light of the End Times:

With the Festival of the Reformation and the Feast of All Saints now in the rear view mirror of the Church Year, our thoughts are turned these last three Sundays to the end times, the return of Christ, the last days, judgment day . . . or, to use the fancy theological word for it: eschatology. Our Church Year takes us from the expectation and promises of a Messiah in Advent, to the days of His birth at Christmas, to the revealing of His divinity in Epiphany, to His suffering and death in Lent, the joy of the resurrection in the Easter season, the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and that same Spirit working now in the life of the Church through the Pentecost season. But now we are at the end, and we look forward to the end, and the return of our Saviour to raise the dead and take us, all who believe and are baptized into in Christ Jesus (Mk 16:16), home. To the rest and pure joy of heaven.

And so (you may be thinking) that focus must start next week, because this week we didn’t hear end times or eschatology readings – we heard about a widow and her two mites in the Holy Gospel. . . .

And so, it seems to me, there is more to this reading than meets the eye. Something more than just about how much she – and we – put into the offering box or the offering plate. It’s about eschatology. It’s about how we live this life with a view toward the end. For, we believe, ever since Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we are living in the end times, the last days. Once Jesus ascended, He could return at any time, and we don’t know when. So how do we live in these days, these last days? It’s good to take stock of that and consider.

And there are two examples presented to us today: the scribes and the widow. Of the scribes, Jesus says, beware. Beware not (this time) of their teaching, but of how they are living. For their lives are all about the here and now. What honor they receive now, what glory is bestowed now, what advantages they get now. There seems to be no mercy or compassion in them, for they even devour widows’ houses. And their religion is a scam too, Jesus says. Their long prayers are a pretense – something they do to look holy, while going after the things of this world. . . .

But then there is the widow. How utterly different is she. For her the here and now is a hardship. Unlike the scribes, there is no honor for her now, no glory for her now, no advantages for her now. Maybe she still had her house because she was so poor and her house so humble that it wasn’t worth the scribes’ effort to devour it! And yet what little she had, those two small copper coins, she doesn’t keep, she doesn’t spend on food, she doesn’t hold on to for future needs – she drops them into the Temple treasury. They didn’t really make a difference. Her offering was like dumping a glass of water into the ocean. Or (to use my fiscal cliff example) like me sending in a dollar to the US Treasury – it’s not really going to make a difference in paying down the national debt!

But that’s not why she did it. She gave those two coins because she was living with a fundamentally different outlook than the scribes. Her “here and now” wasn’t even worth two small copper coins; but her future was. She did what she did because she was living her life with a view toward the end. Others may laugh at her for putting in so little, they might come and devour her house next, she might not have food the next day or the next week. But her life wasn’t in these things. These things were not her utmost concern. For, Jesus said, she put in everything she had, all her life. That’s what it really says: all her life. She put her life into the Temple that day; into the place where God dwells. [Read more...]


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