Matthew 18

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

-Jesus, Matthew 18:22

reconciliation_webHow often should I forgive a Christian brother or sister when they wrong me?  A lot, it seems.  As we’ve seemingly been taught just about every time this passage is read, “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven” is not Jesus being overly picayune about numbers.  Rather, it is Him using an exaggerated figure to let us know that we need to keep on forgiving people.  We’re not just supposed to stop on the 78th or 491st offense, in other words.  Such forgiveness is yet another hallmark of the Kingdom of God that runs counter to many “common sense” aspects of our broken world.  It seems neither fair nor safe, we say…and yet there it is.

The principle inherent in what Christ shares is a powerful one, and reminds us once again of the humility and grace that He embodies and to which Christians are called.  But as I am thinking about Jesus’ words, I wonder if a little “spiritual experiment” would help bring such forgiveness into sharper relief.  While perpetual forgiveness is a powerful thing, it can often just fade into to background in a general principle–lofty but inexact.

What if, instead, I actually decide to forgive a fellow Christian seventy-seven times?  Keep track of it all, consciously choose to forgive, and move through each and every one of the nearly eighty sins and wounds this person might inflict on me?  I realize, of course, that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5).  I wouldn’t be remembering these moments in order to angrily hold onto the pain and hurt.  Rather, I would do so in order to consider the way forgiveness really worked.56382620

Thinking about forgiving a person that many times–even the modest number of 77–seems daunting. Especially if the sins to forgive are weighty.  I recall one such instance in my life, and how hard it was to move on.  Seventy-six more of those?  That’s hard.  The concreteness of that number is stark, and it doesn’t allow us room to wiggle out of it.  And yet we know, deep down, that this kind of grace, mercy, and humility is exactly what Christ seeks to accomplish in and through us.

May we pray to be people of such forgiveness, both in moments one to seventy-seven as well as following that 78th sin.

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Matthew 14

Note: This is a continuing weekly series on the book of Matthew that I began earlier last year.

tumblr_no956oieMQ1rn4nu1o1_1280We read a sad tale in Matthew 14.  A tawdry tale.  A story of manipulation and shame that ends in death.  It is the story of John the Baptist’s murder.

John had been imprisoned by Herod, and now on Herod’s birthday that same ruler is throwing a party.  In walks Herodias’ daughter and starts to dance for Herod and the assembled guests.  What kind of dance?  Well, the Scripture doesn’t say, but it does let us know that it is entertaining enough that Herod offers to give her whatever she asks.  A study note in my Bible mentions such a performance on her part would have been “unquestionably lascivious,” so I think we all understand the picture.

Excited Herod temporarily yields his authority to this woman, in so doing opening himself up to destruction.  As his power is now given to another (Herodias’ daughter), she in turn is directed by her mother (who may very well have plotted the dance in the first place) to make Herod act in a way he did not intend.  And so because of what he promised in the throes of titillation, he now had to execute John the Baptist.  salome-with-the-head-of-john-the-baptist

The story is a sad one, and wholly unnecessary.  It is like some kind of fable or short story by O. Henry that seeks to teach us a lesson about the power and pervasiveness of human evil.  Now, I could be reading into things too far, but bear with me.  Herod, clearly caught up in the lust of the eyes and his own sexual energy, relinquishes control of himself to the object of his sin.  Said object may then be doubly objectified, as she is led by her mother to command Herod to effect John’s execution.

Thus it is that a) a young girl may be manipulated into something in order that b) a king could be tricked into doing what he didn’t intend, all so that c) another person could get what they wanted; in this case, murder.  Such a complicated and tawdry chain of events is worthy of a soap opera.

baptist_001As history and recent events have shown us, sin–especially of the sexual nature–can be ruinous.  And not just for the man or woman (i.e Herod/Herodias) committing the main offense.  There’s more than that.  There’s the innocent person (in this case John) wounded or destroyed because of decisions made, and sometimes another person or persons who have been trapped, manipulated, and caught in a system from which they cannot extricate themselves (here quite possibly Herodias’ daughter).

What a mess.  What a disaster.  What a crime.  And all because one person had no control over his lustful desires and another couldn’t stop until their murderous thoughts were fulfilled.  There’s a lesson in there, friends.

And so original sin remains, as always, ““the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith” (Reinhold Niebuhr).

Matthew 9

But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…”

Matthew 9:6

paralytic-9It is a familiar scene: a paralytic being brought in on a mat.  We know what he is seeking.  What most, if not all, in his situation would seek: physical wholeness.  And yet Jesus chooses not to acknowledge that tacit request at first, instead telling him in verse 2 that his sins are forgiven.  An unexpected initial outcome both for paralytic and reader, but there it is.

Some of Jesus’ opponents took umbrage at such a divine claim to mercy, however.  Blasphemy, they call it in verse 3.  And blasphemy it would be were this not Christ.

Yet rather than extensively debating this point with those arrayed against Him, he offers only a few words before simply upping the ante.  He does something undeniable: he heals the paralytic.  What gets me about this is not so much the healing itself (miraculous as it is), but that Jesus almost seems to do it as an afterthought.  Kind of like: “OK, fine.  I’m not up for debating this today, folks.  How about I just show you?  See.  How about that?”  I paraphrase humorously, but the point is taken.

God in Christ has so much power at His disposal that even things which are completely impossible for us are done by Him without the bat of an eyelash.  His relatively nonchalant healing of this man implies the rich wellspring of God’s authority and might.  Knowing as we do from the rest of the Scripture that this is all tied to the deep love of God for His broken Creation makes it even better.

Jennifer Lawrence the Theologian

JENNIFER-LAWRENCE-JON-STEWART-618-618x400By now, most people are aware of a recent episode involving actress Jennifer Lawrence and others.  Basically, personal iCloud accounts were hacked and private nude photos of famous stars published on the Internet.  These images were never meant to see the light of day, and their distribution on such a wide scale has often been called a “scandal.”

Just yesterday, Lawrence responded to the situation in an article in Vanity Fair.  She spoke directly:

“It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime…just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this.”

She’s right, of course.  Such photos were never meant for public distribution.  They represent a violation of her privacy and constitute an unwanted public invasion into her life in a way that took matters out of her control.  She didn’t have a choice whether or not the world would see these photos.  She has become unwitting and unwilling pornography in a digital world where such things never go away.

From the Church’s point of view, the question of pornography has taken on increasing importance with the rise of the Internet.  Many people (including an unfortunate number of ministers) have found themselves caught up a culture heretofore relegated to the seedy shop on the other side of the tracks.  Addiction is a serious word, but for some if not many pornography has become a kind of drug.

The Church, often focusing on those caught up in the cycle of addiction and shame, has rightly addressed the issues of sin, purity, and faithfulness that are involved with pornography.  Words like “moral failure” get tossed around as a euphemism for some of what is happening.  This is all fine and good as far as it goes, but I think that a situation like Jennifer Lawrence’s reveals that such a view of sin is far too limited and–dare I say–selfish.  Pornography and the TIME-JENNIFER-LAWRENCEaccompanying objectification of women is not just a problem for the man who “dirties” himself and gives into lustful thoughts and actions.  It is a sin against the subject of those pornographic thoughts as well.

The Atlantic has an interesting article that clarifies Lawrence’s concern as being one of consent.  She never had a say about whether these photos would be made public.  In this way she was violated.  Consider: it would be a transgression of sorts for any of her private photos to be published online; that they were nude photos makes it much, much worse.

I would agree with the Church that everyone (let’s be honest, mostly men) who has been viewing those images to satisfy their own lusts has been sinning.  You’ll get no argument from me there.  But the sin doesn’t simply stop at a person making themselves guilty.  It also means that we’ve sinned against this woman.  Violated her privacy.  Gone against her wishes.

Such considerations go beyond photo-hacking, however.  They have to do with a whole culture of objectification.  While publication of private nude photographs is one of the worst examples of this, living in a world that often values people for how “cute” or “hot” or “sexy” they are offers implicit and potentially pseudo-pornographic objectification everywhere we turn.  How many friends have we seen on Facebook post pictures of themselves looking for positive feedback? How many times have we simply commented how good they looked and left it at that?

So even in those instances where people seem to “share” themselves of their own free will via the selfie, magazine cover, or photo shoot, I would submit that at least some of this is because our culture has told us this is the way to be.  Made it a mark of value and worth.  Indicated to us that this is how you know you’ve arrived.  It is an alluring lie.  But it is a lie nonetheless.  I’m well aware that there is a school of thought in which volitional expressions of female sexuality and celebration of the body by choice is a way of pushing back against a society that robs women of agency.  Yet to do so in the same way the offense comes makes me wonder if the dynamic has really changed that much. (For more on this re: Jennifer Lawrence, read the Atlantic article referenced above.)

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-–-Part-1-Jennifer-Lawrence-7In the end, I hope that a situation like Lawrence’s shows us that sins of lust, the use of pornography, and the like do not belong in some dark and private personal category.  Why?  Because they are sins not just in our heart alone; they are sins against a fellow human being.  Whether such images or actions are available for all to see because of a person’s overt decision or not, it is still all symptomatic of a world that removes agency from the individual and places it in the hand of the consumer.  You don’t have to have your iCloud photos stolen to be trapped in the world of objectification.  Sometimes that world can lead people to objectify themselves because that’s the only option it appears to permit.

I’ll bring this to a close with the words of Lawrence herself:

“Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside…Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame.”

When it comes to pornography, it isn’t just about the wrong we did.  It is about the people we’ve wronged.  With Lawrence that wronging is much more obvious and direct, but it doesn’t change the numerous ways in which we devalue others and keep our world–defined by supply and demand–locked in such a destructive pattern.

Matthew 4

temptationSin.  It’s an ugly word that we rarely want to confront…especially when it has to do with us.  As a  particularly religious term, some like to avoid it entirely.  Talk about ethics, though, or matters of right and wrong, and a lot more people are on the same page.  Mention hubris or flawed human nature and pretty much everyone else is with you.

Lapses in judgment, moral failures, humanitarian wrongs, and deep betrayals are all part of our shared human history.  While we might not accept that we ourselves are necessarily caught up in “sin,” acknowledging this about the rest of the world is rather easier.  Further, though we may not all agree what constitutes right or wrong, that there are such things is near universally acknowledged.

Knowing that sin–or whatever we call it–exists means that its corollary (temptation) must also be recognized.  After all, each of us are faced with decision points at which we might consider the wrong choice or path.  To hurt or heal.  To love or hate.  To sin or not.

None of us are immune to these moments–not even Christ Himself.  In Matthew 4, He is thrice tempted by the Devil.  Three times indexHe is strongly encouraged to contravene the commands of God and go against the right He knew He had to do.  As the ordeal progresses, he is tempted to do something that he feels he needs (bread).  He is tempted to do something he can get away with (jumping from great heights knowing there are angels to protect him).  He is tempted to do something in order to get what He might want (all the kingdoms of the world without having to go through that nasty crucifixion business).

While I’m probably reading more into this story than is intended, these three ideas: perceived need, entitlement, and desire form a nice troika in the psychology of temptation.  At least in my life.  I’ve been tempted–and sometimes failed–so many times.  I know the pattern will continue to repeat.  I don’t say this happily or proudly, but simply as a matter of fact.  To live means to make decisions, and as long as our decisions can move in the wrong direction, we will face the temptation to do so.  More specifically, I face the temptation to do so.

Girl Peeking Over the CounterThe fact that God Incarnate faced such temptations is comforting for many.  It is for me.  But then of course He never gave in.  He never gave up.  That isn’t my story.  And the assumption is, of course, that after this episode in Matthew 4 he was never tempted again.  How different this is than our lives, we say.  But then I’m not sure this is the case.  I think that Christ was continually tempted even after this period.  If you had the potential of all the power in the universe and were facing the seemingly inevitable reality of your own public execution, wouldn’t you be?

For me, Matthew 4 is not so much about Jesus’ only three temptations, but perhaps just those at the beginning of his ministry.  Though the text doesn’t specifically say that, it makes some sense.  Because I am sorely tempted from time to time.  Tempted to do what I shouldn’t.  And I sometimes give in.  The temptation won’t stop.  Not for me, and not for any of us.  Though God is there for us in the midst of our struggles and can help us in these places, Christ reminds us just a little later in the book of Matthew that temptation and sin are continual realities in our lives and consistent matters about which to pray.  Why else would the Lord’s Prayer speak of daily bread, forgiveness of sins, and avoidance of temptation all in the same breath?  A healthy reminder, surely…and a confirmation of sorts of one of Luther’s most famous maxims: that the Christian is simul justus et peccator (at the same time righteous and a sinner).

Matthew 3

“The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)

baptist3Once again the brief story of John the Baptist confronts me.  The necessary precursor to Jesus (it seems), he is a stark and fiery preacher that demands repentance as preparation for the coming of the Son of God.  He tells everyone to turn from their sin, and has especially harsh words for the religious elites of the time.

“The ax is already at the roots of the trees…”  A powerful image, reminding these latter hearers–and me–that the time has come to make a decision.  That there is such a thing as justice.  As judgment.  That bad, dead, fruitless living needs come to an end.  That there is a great “No” to the gospel as well as a great “Yes.”

Being theologically trained and suspicious of the over-individualization of spirituality and sin, I might read this story and default to thinking of the ways in which all of society is broken.  And that’s true.  Our whole world is a fallen place.  But then that is only part of the story.  Because it isn’t just the world that is barren, false, and a in need of repentance.  It is me too.

Picturing the an ax at the root of my life reminds me that ax at rootjudgment doesn’t start with the world.  It starts with Joshua Ziefle.  It means looking within and being aware of where I am not producing good fruit…far from it.  It necessarily humbles me before the Lord.  And it keeps me from getting so excited about denouncing all those other sinners…because I’ve got quite a lot to deal with right here.

In light of this, maybe we Christians–personally and societally–simply need to spend some more time listening to John the Baptist.

Matthew 1

splash_matthew1As I pondered the first chapter of Matthew this past week, I couldn’t help but reflect on the genealogy that figures prominently in it.  Tracing a line from Abraham to Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph, it represents the long history of Israel and reminds readers of the faithfulness of God over hundreds of years.

It also features a significant list of individuals–heroes, certainly, but also (and more importantly) some very flawed and broken people as well.  I think here of Tamar, one of the few women listed.  A victim and actor in a sorry tale of abandonment and sexual trickery, she is very specifically named.  Then there’s Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, taken advantage of by King David on his journey down the path of adultery and murder.  David appears too, a man after God’s own heart who nevertheless has some serious flaws.  His son Solomon, whose vaunted wisdom is only equaled by his sometimes moral and religious stupidity.David-and-Bathsheba

Then we have a long list of the other kings of Israel, some of whom were counted by the Bible as “righteous,” but others who were simply dismissed as having done evil.  It’s a mixed bag, this long family history…but it is the adoptive family into which God sends Jesus.

Normally reflections on such genealogies end up talking about Jesus being born into our sorry humanity, and that’s true enough.  But as I was looking at Matthew 1 this week, I saw something else.  Because here, you see, it is actually Joseph who is said to share blood with this rogue’s gallery.  Not Jesus.  It is Joseph who has to cope with a family history full of greatness as well as shame.

In the midst of this, he finds out that his family history of disgrace may not yet be behind him.  His own betrothed is pregnant before they’re even married.  One more scandal.  One more sordid tale.  No wonder he has in mind to divorce her quietly.  But then an angel appears and shares with him the (amazingly bizarre) facts.  He decides to go ahead with things, even though, I suspect, many outsiders would simply say he was a chip off the old family block when it comes to messing up.

matthewYou might say I’m reading too much into this.  Perhaps I am.  But I think it makes sense to think about the way in which our past–and our family history–carries right along with us.  We like to say we aren’t defined by these things, that we can make our own way…but there is a deep sense in which the backstory is always with us and is a part of who we are.  Even as God calls and may help us transcend what has gone before, history is not erased.  Fear can threaten to rule the day.

When I consider my own past and the long story of my family history, I too see a mixed bag of success and failure.  I think everyone looking at these categories for themselves would say the same thing.  They make up a part of who we are.  But not all of who we might be.  That’s where Joseph’s story is interesting.  God’s intervention means that though the past matters, it is not all that matters.  And, if we’re willing to embrace this new thing, it may mean new history beginning right now.  That’s as true for Joseph even as it is for you and me.