Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An Awkward Response

This is quite delayed, a response to something I saw over a month ago, but I felt it needed a response and I also believed I should respond after looking into what was being said and what the Bible says. I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself here, however.

One of the little groups one can follow on Facebook is called "Awkward Bible Verses." A small number of my atheist friends like this, demonstrating what kind of group it is. In general the pattern is to take a Bible verse that seems particularly questionable, post it - sometimes with a clever picture or artwork - and do the equivalent of a John Stewart facial quirk: laughter (in the form of approving replies) ensues. I am being rather hard on this group. Several of the posts have had writers who at least can look back at the Greek or Hebrew meaning of words.

The verse in question, here, is Luke 14:26: "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple."

I got to admit, they are good at finding awkward Bible verses. I would note that awkward is not hard to find, really. You get awkward verses fairly quickly into Genesis and honestly they just don't stop. If anything, I accept the awkward as a feature and not a bug. If something strikes a reader as odd or uncomfortable, it's likely the author wants that reaction - he wants you to look at what has been written and ask questions about it. Contrary to some claims, we're expected to discuss the Bible, especially when things look odd.

I'm going to go into the tl;dr territory. Sorry about that, but discussing this verse or most verses, can be an involved process.

The author has some good points. First, sometimes we Christians try to re-write things so they sound better. In this case, we take the word hate and try to say Christ means something entirely different. The author notes the Greek word here, μισέω (miseō), definitely means "hate" or "detest". We really can't or rather shouldn't try to weasel out of that. That's fair. I remember in the eighties when some people tried to rationalize away fear in "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" as if the author meant another word other than fear. It's a cop out. It doesn't work, and it's trying to make the Bible say something you like. We shouldn't do that.

Secondly, he points out that earlier, Christ notes we are not to hate our brother. And just to drive the point home he points to I John where the apostle calls on us to not hate our brother. It's true, both those are in there. That seems an apparent contradiction to which the atheist then stops and says, "Contradiction achieved! Christ wasn't all that great a teacher after all! He's therefore not the Messiah, and the whole Bible is therefore invalid." Well done. I guess I can go home now.

Oh wait, no I can't. Unfortunately for us and the length of this post, our atheist friend is engaging in the popular past-time of taking a verse out of context. I won't fault him exclusively for this. As I've said, it's popular and Christians love to do this more than anyone else. Luke 14:26 is about the beginning of a paragraph, and is part of a larger passage. As I said earlier, if we see a contradiction, it's an invitation to look deeper at what is being said, not an error of authorship. In this case, we need to look at the verse in its context, and also at the author of this work. Let's start, however, with the context.

Actually, I'm going to go further. Let's start at the greater context. We're in the middle of Luke, at the peak of Jesus' popularity. He's become something of the flavor of the month. He draws crowds. People go to amazing lengths to see him, to touch him, to get healed or blessed by him. He's getting some criticism from the "wiser heads" of the day, the Pharisees, but he's still getting invited to all the cool parties.

In fact, at the start of this particular chapter, Christ is at a dinner party with a Pharisee, he's just that popular. In Modern America, we tend to turn up our noses at the Pharisees and Sadducees of that time. After all, Christ was pretty hard on them. We'd do well to remember that Pharisees were highly regarded in their community at the time. Christ's criticism of them was rather subversive. So when a man with dropsy (or as Young's Literal Translation puts it, "and lo, there was a certain dropsical man before him") appears at the party, Jesus poses a question: "Is it acceptable to heal on the Sabbath?"

It's not entirely out of the blue, here. In the last chapter the Pharisees criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. He gave them a bit of a humiliating dressing-down there. So asking this question at the Pharisees dinner table recalls that moment. The Pharisees give no response. I, however, like to think of their response being more like several months ago when my wife asked, "So did you pay the electrical bill yet?" and I responded, "Well I *muttermuttermuttermuter* ..." She wasn't buying it either.

Christ isn't buying this non-response. He heals the man and continues, "Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?" Again, no response ("*muttermuttermutter*") The Pharisees aren't willing to give an answer. Jesus then says

When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who  are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Okay, this seems off topic. Wasn't he talking about healing on the Sabbath? Where does this come in? This has no bearing on what he was talking about!

Okay, actually it does. We have to assume the author put this particular passage in for a reason, and moreover that he has purpose to the placement of these passages. Look again at the Pharisees. These are important religious men, but when the guest of honor asks them about a potentially important topic of religious discussion, they decline to comment. They aren't willing to risk humiliation in front of their guests. Christ is telling them they've got entirely the wrong attitude. They should be willing to humiliate themselves with the potential of being exalted. Instead they try to hang on to their exalted position and end up being humiliated. He goes on to explain they shouldn't be looking for reward but instead giving freely, with no thought of reward. He sees right through them. They were expecting to get some praise from Jesus for being so gracious as to invite him to dinner.

At this point, someone clever goes, "Happy is he who shall eat bread in the reign of God" (again, using YLT here). I have to admit: This guy is me. I'm the guy trying to say, "hey, I can see how you're both right" or "hey, we're all following Jesus so all these details don't matter" (note, don't say this in the middle of a Lutheran/Catholic debate, from one who knows). So yeah, I would wager I know exactly what he was trying to do. He was trying to defuse the situation, let everyone off the hook. When God establishes his reign, we're all going to be at the table. Only ...

Jesus isn't letting that comment slide, either,

But He said to him, “A man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.’ Another one said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.’ Another one said, ‘I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot come.’ And the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled. ‘For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.’"

We're getting invites, but not everyone is going to be at the table during the reign of God. In fact, some who were specifically invited won't be going. They had a lot of good excuses - seriously, there's nothing wrong with inspecting your purchases or getting married. In this case, however, it was a hindrance to them. The response, invite everyone else. Fill that table up with whoever you can, just don't let in those who refused. They had their chance. Not everyone is going to be at this table.

We've come a long way, but we're finally at verse 26. The question at the end of the first 25 should be, "Okay, so who is going to be at this table?" The scene shifts; however again, we assume the author juxtaposed these scenes for a reason. Now we get to the meat of things:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple

And yes, Jesus is using the word "hate". He means to use it. It gets your attention, doesn't it? It probably got the attention of the disciples as well. What's going on here?

Let's take a moment and look at the author, Luke. A contemporary of Paul, and probably the only Gentile author of any part of the Bible, Luke wrote one Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel of course tells the story of Jesus Christ. The book of Acts is unique. None of the other authors go on with narrative of what happens after. Luke shows the eleven apostles and the other disciples following Christ after being filled with the Spirit. In the course of the book they must stand against their own religious leaders, face death, and even Paul must remain a captive for a third of the book as he goes to trial after trial. The reader, Theophilus, probably would be looking at these Jews following some strange sect and going, "Why are these people doing this?"

Here's the verse that started the whole conversation. But even then, this is an incomplete quote. Let's look at his statement in its entirety:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not  hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends  a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions."

Okay, hold on. We got the first part, but what does it have to do with mid-first century middle eastern architecture and what does that have to do with ancient military tactics? Is he just messing with us now?

No. He's giving us fair warning. Following Jesus is not for sissies. You are either all in or all out. And there are going to be people and things that try to turn you away. For the Jews listening to Jesus then, their religious leaders in the Sanhedrin would shun and persecute them. It's quite reasonable to assume they would have family who would be embarrassed by an individual's discipleship. I can imagine them saying, "You have a duty to your family, your parents, your wife, your children. Don't you love us? Drop this Jesus thing and come back to us. All will be fine if you do."

But Christ is warning them away from this. They will have to abandon standing, position, their people, their religion, even family. To anyone trying to turn them away with cries of "don't you love us?" the answer necessarily must be: "No." Paul exhibits this in Philippians 3:5-7:

 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ

Recently in a forum conversation, the subject of Messianic Jews came up. The orthodox Jews in this forum stated that such people weren't Jews, as they followed Christ against Jewish Law. A Catholic peer of mine tried to argue that was unfair, but ... well, they refused to accept. But that is what Christ is talking about. Following Christ means losing that which you might hold dear.

In college, in Campus Crusade, there was a young Asian Christian who was going to be baptized. For her, this was a huge step. For her family, this meant disowning. Baptism was a big deal for them. She couldn't be baptized into Christ and be a member of their family. Following Christ means losing that which you might hold dear.

Today, in our increasingly secularized culture, we're being told that to have opinions on same sex marriage outside the norm is immoral as far as our culture declares, and for that we can lose our business, our job, our financial well-being, or even our freedom. Following Christ means losing that which you might hold dear.

The apostles and disciples were persecuted and killed. Luke's book just stops, we never see what happens to Paul, but we do know that Nero officially declared the Christian faith illegal and persecuted them. By the last book, Revelation, almost all the apostles lost their lives in spreading the message of Christ. Only John remains, a prisoner on the isle of Patmos. Following Christ lost them everything.

Look back to the beginning: the Pharisees weren't even willing to risk their good standing. They weren't even going to risk getting humiliated by Jesus' tough question. To them, their worldly stature and possessions were far more important than following Christ.

That's what Christ is saying in this passage. In these early days when he's popular, he's got a lot of hangers-on, but he's having none of that. None of them realize what's coming. He's giving them fair warning. Be prepared, because to follow me you have to detest everything else. It will cost you dear, but he is letting you know beforehand. Like the builder or the warring king, he's showing you the plans ahead of time. The path before us is costly - very costly. We will have to make choices that will lose everything. But that is what it takes to follow Christ.

So yes, he uses the word hate, but no, he's not using it to contradict what he said before. This is preparation. This is letting us know what it takes to be a follower of Jesus.

Christ sums it all up:

Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

That is the path we are on. Plan ahead, it will be dangerous. If we hold back, we'll lose what makes us unique in Christ, and we are no good to anyone.  So is this awkward? You bet it's awkward. Christ intended it to be awkward. He wants to shake up these hangers-on. He wants to shake up His followers today. He's asking an important question: Are you all in?

Coming back to our skeptical peers - if they are still here as I did go on quite a while - we can see that Jesus said what he said, but there's a lot more to what is being said than the simple contradiction that was highlighted. Sadly, the author of the original post criticized Christians for simplified answers that fit their worldview and replaced it with one equally simplified that fit an atheist worldview.

Don't be afraid to look at the apparent contradictions and the awkwardness that's in the Bible. They exist and call your attention. They do not call for simple dismissals from any side of the debate.

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