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Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, Dr. Strangelove, features a rogue general ordering a nuclear strike on Russia. While the bomber moves closer to its destination, the president and his advisers attempt to recall the bomber before its payload. The incompetency and lunacy of the  council cannot recall the bomber in time. The film satirizes, among other things, the Cold War policy of the proliferation of nuclear arms as the greatest deterrent to war with Russia. Kubrick’s point was that the proliferation of nuclear weapons can only lead to their use and not to their non-use. To underscore this point, Kubrick uses numerous sexual references and symbols throughout the film signifying that we will eventually give in to our base urges and use these weapons.

That an event that would lead to the end of the world could be satirized in such way is simultaneously humorous and repulsive – and Kubrick is a genius for it. I’m sure you’re wondering what Dr. Strangelove has to do with The Shack.

I get that The Shack was intended to be read as a serious piece of allegorical fiction, and that the book supposedly aligns itself with the mission statement (at least at the time of this article) of Windblown Publishing, which published the book: “to provide creative and intellectually honest literature for those seeking a renewal of love and faith.” A noble goal that I believe The Shack fails to meet.

Yet, when interpreted along the same lines as Kubrick’s classic (i.e. as a satire), The Shack becomes a work of genius. If you’re repulsed by this point, I consider my case is already made. For those of you still unconvinced, I’ll designate this satirized version of the book with brackets – [The Shack] – and present my case.

I know that many of my friends have read The Shack, enjoyed it, and been impacted by its message. I’m not trying to diminish that impact. God uses many means to get a hold of us. You have been honest with me about your love for this book. Please let me be honest about what I feel about this book. Before we anoint it as a “Christian classic,” we ought to consider its message seriously.  It purports to break the mold of rigid religiosity and intellectualism to bring biblical concepts to a lay audience. I believe it does none of that.

But the Shack’s satirical alter ego does. Presenting us with a poorly thought-out theodicy encased in shoddily written narrative with little emotional depth, [The Shack]  is a beautifully composed, yet biting critique of the Contemporary Christian Subculture (CCS) that generates this type of media commonly represented in popular sermons, music, books, blogs, and magazines. By adjusting our lens to see the book behind the book, we will find that [The Shack] calls us to a higher standard, and we ought to get behind its message.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

I think the key point was the moment the main character described his view of Scripture. The letter that Mack receives from God flies in the face of what God was supposed to do:

[T]he thought of God passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow Sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to  be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.

Although many have argued that The Shack is steeped in Scripture and that it’s the allegorical nature of the book that enables the “unorthodox” pictures, I believe this statement from the main character is what enables Young to break from traditionally formulated doctrine in a way that doesn’t require him to tie whatever statements and caricatures he makes back to Scripture. The difficulty in writing allegory is making clear what real thing the allegory refers to. The Shack doesn’t do this. Whatever theological concept or Scriptural reference it has a backdrop for the allegory was extremely unclear. If the book isn’t establishing its ideas about God on heretical beliefs (I am always willing to extend grace), it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint which orthodox ideas the author is allegorizing.

Read from the point of view of [The Shack], however, the above statement takes a different significance. The CCS and its community, whether they acknowledge it or not, possess a shallow knowledge of Scripture. Any interpretation, philosophy,or theology is fair game as long as it matches the expectations of  CCS, which has become the interpretive grid through which to learn about ourselves and about God. Impersonal, irrelevant theological thinking and interpretations are perceived as generated by cold-hearted “intellgentsia” and are easily deposed because they limit God to the proverbial “box.”

[The Shack]  enables us to see how such views have become prevalent in the CCS. What follows in [The Shack] is a slightly less than heterodox presentation of the Trinity and the inner working of their relationship. The Father can be a grammatically-challenged African American woman, Jesus, a migrant worker from the Middle East, and the Spirit, an Asian woman who possesses the wisdom and clarity of a fortune cookie. The Shack intends these pictures to challenge our notion of God. [The Shack], however, challenges the lack of interest in theological thought by presenting the Trinity in highly stereotyped human forms. All the attempts of the CCS crowd to imagine a God “outside the box” are just skin deep. CCS’s God still retains the classic stereotypes that restrict him from acting in a way appropriate to his character as described in Scripture.

God does not “have” to punish sin, sin is its own punishment. Everyone is his child already. God really wants relationship with everybody with no responsibilities or requirements and no strings attached. The notions of penal substitution as the ultimate solution to sin and evil and the call to sanctification through the power of the spirit, both explicit in Scripture, are placed in a box and set aside. We might expect a Scripture-saturated allegorical story dedicated to exploring the problem of evil to make mention of these important points. [The Shack] leaves them out in a conspicuous manner declaring that if one has an inadequate view of God, theodicy naturally suffers.

The “bare-bones” story might have the potential to explore the topic of grief and pain as long as the details are fleshed out properly. Mack is a man who was abused as a boy by his Bible-wielding father. Although his faith is not the strong faith of his wife, he loves his children and is himself a decent father. He decides to spend some extended quality time with them by taking them on a camping trip through the Northeastern United States. Each day is better than the last until two of his children accidentally capsize their canoe. When Mack rushes to the water to save his children, his youngest daughter, whom he left to save the other children, was kidnapped and eventually murdered by a serial killer.

The story is not, however, well told. The characters have little depth. There’s almost no feeling. Mack’s struggle with grief, the “Great Sadness,” is portrayed linearly. He struggles early in the story. Mack then encounters a Mormonesque version of the Trinity, eats pancakes with God, plants a garden with God, walks on the water with God, and delves into highly questionable theological thought…with God. The “Great Sadness” is all but forgotten until the narrative decides that Mack needs to let it go. The Shack deals with the issue promptly with some emotional flourish. I thought the expression of grief was flat and inadequate especially in contrast to books like the Psalms, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Job which all deal with the concept of enduring grief and pain.

[The Shack] quickly and shallowly deals with Mack’s grief and thus demonstrates the inadequacy of CCS to deal with sorrow. Grief and pain have a weak presence in the life of the Christian who knows that God is “quite fond” of him or her. [The Shack] further underscores this foolishness by narrating the story in a poorly-written style: A Scripture-less culture is simply incapable of expressing grief and pain in a thoughtful and honest way. [The Shack] limits its expression for the sake of expediency – keep the story short and flat, keep the words small and the theology vague. The reader can choose to stop and think and confuse himself or move on quickly to find out “what happens next” – always moving from comfort to comfort.

…And Love The Bible

Obviously, I didn’t like the book. I didn’t like any of the book. I thought it mocked Christian thought, sold itself short on Scripture, and left me extremely confused. Don’t get me wrong though. I think we need more books like The Shack. Well, we need books better than The Shack. We need books that can actually be what the The Shack was supposed to be. G.K. Chesterton has said, “A great man knows that he is not God. The greater he is, the better he knows it.” We may never possess the brilliance or greatness of Kubrick or David, but let our work aspire to be great by making something worthy of God. Great Christian novels should not be characterized by weak storytelling and shallow theology. Learn the art of expression, and make it good. Most importantly, learn how the Bible expresses itself, and love it. The Bible expresses itself truly and deeply. Since that’s our first and best book, maybe we should start there.

I hesitate to write this post because I don’t want to spark an endless debate or add wood to the ongoing conflagration that everyone sees once they log in to Facebook. I’m not a huge fan of politics and social media. I understand that it can be done intelligently and respectfully, but often politics are reduced to pithy “truisms” with a URL to red meat articles that lambastes the opposing side. Thankfully, God in his kindness and foresight blessed us with the “hide” option.

I’m not writing to comment on this vitriol. I’m much more interested in the trend among both sides of the political spectrum to invoke the Bible as a defense of a political position and often in contradictory ways. I think this trend has to do with a misunderstanding of the politics of the Bible. The interaction of biblical politics and our own American context is a complex one, but I hope to encourage more thinking and less cherry-picking in this short post.

The Problem of Improper Reading

One of the greatest temptations we as Christians face is to overread a biblical verse or story based on our own context. For example, sometimes Jesus’s saying about himself in John 12:32, “When I’m lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself,” has been interpreted to mean that when God’s people really worship Jesus, he’ll save people through his people’s example. This statement may be true in some way but not based off this verse. The next verse tells us that Jesus is actually speaking of his “lifting up” (i.e. death) on the cross.

That was pretty easy. Let’s take a look at a more relevant example from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people called my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear them, forgive their sin, and heal their land.” This verse has been applied to Christians in America countless times. The idea of Christians praying for America so that “America can be great” in the eyes of God “again,” however, is an improper application of this verse. If anything, the promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is fulfilled in Christ. Th previous verse (7:13) echoes the curses of the law found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Verse 14 is God’s way of saying, “Just because you’re under the curse, doesn’t mean you’re permanently stuck under the curse. There’s a way out, and it’s through repentance.” Of course, the “way out” of the curse is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. America is not God’s people. The church is God’s people.  Jesus did not die for the US; he died for his people. Even if America continues its long history of committing evil against God, God’s people are secure in Christ, safe from sin and curse.

The Explicit and Implicit Nature of Biblical Narrative

Before I get to the beef, I think I need to address an important hermeneutical (i.e. interpretive) point. The Bible is a subversive book. It’s subversive because it undermines humanity’s corrupt way of thinking about the world, and it does this in two ways: explicitly and implicitly.

Explicitly, the Bible tells and shows us that we are sinful. We are incapable of loving God and doing what he tells us to do. We are incapable of repentance. We are stiff-necked, hard-hearted, dead in our sins kind of people. We are told because of God’s faithfulness to his promise and his kindness toward us, he gave his Son as a sacrifice for our sin, and he gave the Spirit to call us to his Son, convict, sanctify, and live in us. The Bible is clear about these facts. Jesus is Lord of all and Savior of his people.

Implicitly, the Bible speaks to a great many other questions. Because we must receive these answers from Scripture by means of implication, we must work hard to ensure that we are not misusing Scripture. This can be really hard and really frustrating. Sometimes, Scripture does not give an answer to a particular question. That’s okay. The Bible is not an instruction manual for everything. It’s not an instruction manual at all. It’s a story or a history of God’s dealings with his people. Actually, it’s more than narrative, so maybe we can call it “theological and ethical instruction through reflection on history, poetry, epistle, and apocalypse.”

Well…okay, it’s difficult to really sum up without generalizing too much. The point I really want to make is that the message of Scripture is cohesive and unified around God and his dealings with his people. Everything that we glean from Scripture – our hermeneutics, our interpretations – should be submitted to the main point: Jesus is Lord of all and Savior for his people. Without that point, Scripture loses its cohesive nature, and we end up doing what we want with Scripture, which is what got us into trouble way in the beginning of things.

So Where’s the Beef?

My complaint is that we pick without reflection verses to justify this or that political policy or democratic, socialistic, capitalistic idea. I’m not saying that Christians can’t use their reflections on the biblical message to justify policies on immigration, healthcare, racism, or environmentalism. The more biblical we are, the better. I’m not convinced, however, that the Bible cares about where “America” comes out on the issue.

As far as the Bible is concerned, America is as good as Rome (or rather as wicked as Rome). In the beginning of several gospels (Mark in particular stands out to me), Isaiah 40 is quoted in reference to John the Baptist. It’s the “prepare the way of the Lord” passage. Isaiah 40 declaring the coming rule of Yahweh to save and to judge the earth. If John is preparing Jesus’s way, the gospels are declaring the Jesus is both Yahweh and king of the world.

In a world where Caesar rules over everything significant, a king comes who is greater than Caesar. One of the only times Jesus mentions Caesar is when he is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes. Jesus famously takes a coin with Caesar’s face on it and says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to him.” Explicitly, it appears that Jesus is saying there are two kingdoms and one is not concerned with the other, but there are other implications to Jesus’s words. They raise other questions. Why mention God’s belongings at all? What actually belongs to Caesar?  Doesn’t everything belong to God? Jesus appears to be saying it doesn’t matter what Caesar claims for himself. If Caesar wants you to pay taxes, pay them. Be concerned with what God wants from us because he owns everything.

Imagine how political that message actually is. Caesar is not lord, Jesus is lord. Jesus, amazingly, rarely mentions Caesar despite the obvious contrariness of Jesus’s message with Rome. This is intentional. Jesus isn’t merely focused on replacing Caesar’s temporary kingdom. Though Caesar rules today, there will be a time when his kingdom is no more. Jesus’s kingdom is now, and not yet, from now and forever.  God already passed judgment on the kingdoms of the world in the Old Testament. We know that God’s rule isn’t limited geographically by borders or by ethnicity or by time or by money or by progress. Caesar’s rule, and by extension, any other non-Jesus kingdom, including one whose borders extend from sea to shining sea, is limited.

It would be great if America or any other country submitted itself to God, but there will be a time when America will no longer exist. Why should it? God’s kingdom is better.

Where the Rubber Meets Route 66

The difficulty for Christians is that we live in two societies. We have a dual citizenship. One society is a democracy or something resembling it. We have a say in how society is run, and we play a part in its success. Our choices and hard work matter for the society and ourselves. The other is an autocracy. We submit lovingly to the One who commands us how to live and supplies us with whatever we need in order to fulfill our purpose in that society – we work, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. One society is incredibly individualistic. The other, while concerned with the individual, emphasizes unity with each other as brothers and sisters.

Can you see how this might cause conflict and how it makes reflecting on Scripture for political guidance difficult? Here’s a harder question: when what’s good for America contradicts what is right for a Christian what stance will we take? Besides that, a lot of America’s values line up with Enlightenment values rather than Christian ones. At the end of the day, Jesus calls people to himself in submission to his Lordship. America attempts to preserve the right of the individual to believe and act as they want as long as it doesn’t hurt others. America has defended slavery, butchered natives, developed and implemented eugenics programs, and still battles with racism and poverty and abortion. America is postmodern, agnostic, pagan, and so on. Worst of all, America doesn’t submit to God but in many ways still invokes God to bless it.

The answer is absolutely political. Jesus is Lord of all and Savior for his people. Christians, our dedication to our first and best citizenship is the answer. Our faithfulness to Scripture and to our Lord is the best political action we can take. The obligations we have as a church to preach the gospel, take care of each other, and live lives that have been redeemed by God takes precedence. In some cases, we may end up having to take political action in the American context. But we must be humble when we do. We don’t know everything, and the Bible is as concerned about America’s rule as it is for Caesar’s. America is a part of the world that is passing away, let the work we do in it have eternal value. Let it be honoring to God. Let us be prepared to work hard and pray that our reflections on Scripture cohere with its central message.

I taught several weeks ago about the kingdom of God and used Mark’s characterization of the kingdom as an example. In continuation of the theme of my last blog post, I wanted to provide a short discussion on the nuances of Luke’s characterization of the coming kingdom of God in his gospel. I have two topics I want to address in this post. First, what does the kingdom of God look like in Luke and how does Jesus’s mission fit into it? Second, what does life in the kingdom of God look like and what kind of people are in it?

What Kind of Kingdom is the Kingdom of God?

We should understand that when Jesus and others refer to the “kingdom” of God, they do not refer to a chronologically- or geographically-bound entity. Kingdom refers to wherever God carries out his will against opposing powers and for his people. Whether he casts out demons, rebukes the Pharisees, heals diseases, or forgives sin, Jesus is bringing all things under subjection to God’s rule. For Luke, God’s rule on earth means salvation has come for the marginalized people of society.

Luke and Role-Reversal

God’s rule is counter-cultural. The Messiah did not come to be considered among the elite. He did not come to raise an army agains the Romans. He came to lift up the humble and to bring low the proud. We can see this role-reversal theme from the beginning of the gospel:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (1:50-53)

The proud and rulers are humbled, but the humble are lifted up. The hungry are fed, but the rich are sent away with nothing. God’s salvation reaches out to society’s lowlifes and includes them. The kingdom of God has different boundary markers than the kingdoms which rule this world.

Luke carries this theme throughout the gospel. The Jewish people at that time focused on renouncing idols and keeping themselves clean from anything that could defile them. They kept the Sabbath in a strict fashion. They studied the Law. They fasted and prayed. Are they not Abraham’s children? Are they not entitled to the kingdom of God? John the Baptist answers this question: “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones!” (3:8). They do not have the birthright to the kingdom. Their actions demonstrate that they are not truly Abraham’s children. In fact, they are children of snakes (3:7) because they do not act consistently with repentance.

Jesus also answers this question through his actions. He heals people and casts out evil spirits. He saves a leprous man – healing him and restoring him to society. He demonstrates his authority to heal by completely restoring, physically and spiritually, a paralyzed man. He calls a tax collector as a disciple and eats with sinners. The kingdom of God is made up of people whom society has regarded as outside the bounds of God’s community.

Salvation as Jubilee

Luke characterizes the kingdom of God as a kingdom of release. Jesus’s first act after coming home from the wilderness was to proclaim the fulfillment of the Isaianic Jubilee. He conflates two passages from Isaiah (61:1-2 and 58:6) and leaves out the clause about God’s judgement. Both modifications emphasize the role of “release” in Jesus’s own mission:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind [Is 61:1],
to set the oppressed free [Is 58:6],
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [Is 61:2] (Lk. 4:18-19)

This “release” is both spiritually and physically oriented. Jesus heals physical ailments and forgives sins. This “release” is for all kinds of people, and often, the lowest rungs of society are the ones who benefit from the message. They are released from bondage of sin and societal marginalization. The lowly are the ones who experience the blessing of the Lord. The only way to attain this “release” is by entering the kingdom of God through repentance and faith.

One prime example of improper grasping of the kingdom of God comes in the following verses of the same passage. Jesus’s direct audience reject Jesus’s message. They identify Jesus as Joseph’s son (instead of God’s son). They say, “Jesus will bring these blessings into effect especially for us since he is a local boy.” They misappropriate Jesus’s message for themselves by laying claim to Jesus’s heritage. No one owns the kingdom by right; it must be entered by repentance (24:46-47). Only the humble can obtain entry. Thus, the poor, already brought low by society, are in prime position for entry.

Who Needs the Kingdom of God?

Jesus says: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (5:31-32). If Jesus’s ministry is oriented around society’s outcasts, do the rich need a savior? Luke answers that question with a resounding “Yes.” Recall Jesus’s interaction with the rich ruler (18:18-29). He came to Jesus to ask how he may enter God’s kingdom. He claimed obeyed every law of God from his childhood. Jesus, however, identifies his need. The ruler was dependent on his wealth and status in society. Jesus calls him to renounce his dependence on his wealth, but the ruler is unwilling to do so. The lowly and marginalized recognize their need for a savior because they lack everything society values. The rich possess those things (one might say are possessed by those things) and have trouble leaving them behind.

He further illustrates this principle in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man enjoys life now while Lazarus suffers. When they die, the Rich Man ends up in torment and Lazarus is comforted. This role reversal occurs because the Rich Man valued his possessions and current comfort and despised the message of Moses and the Prophets (the same Moses and Prophets that testify about Jesus [see 24:25-27]).

In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus says that just because a person avoids evil things happening to them, doesn’t mean that they are in any less danger of hell. No one can escape the coming judgement who does not cling to Jesus. Everyone needs to enter the kingdom of God through repentance. Jesus does not limit his community to any boundary marker that society sets up for itself. Jesus breaks those societal rules and reorients society around himself. Thus for Luke (and for Jesus) the Kingdom of God is for anyone regardless of social class who renounces everything that God does not value and places their trust in Jesus. The poor do not gain entry because they are poor, and the rich are not barred entry because they are rich. Everyone who enters the kingdom enters by faith in Jesus.

Rule of the Kingdom

Jesus did not found a social club or a Facebook group where people could gather an commiserate over the wrongs of society and their pitiful state at the lowest level of society. He established a community of women and men who had been released from the bondage of sin, disease, and oppression. In laying out laws for living in God’s kingdom, Jesus continues the theme of role reversal: Love your enemies, lend freely without expecting anything, and perform acts of love toward everyone (6:27-36). They are not to set up artificial boundary markers. They are a community that is marked by God’s mercy and hold to God’s truth. They who are under the rule of God experience true life and live as humanity was supposed to live: oriented around loving God and people.

When we hear stories about Jesus preached and taught, the telling of the story is usually centered around the historical event with an emphasis on the theological significance of that event. I can think of no major theological issue in teaching on “Jesus’s baptism,” “Jesus’s feeding of the 5,000,” or “Jesus’s crucifixion” as historical happenings, nor can I imagine any major problem in drawing from different Gospel accounts to paint a more accurate picture of “what actually happened.” Might I suggest, however, that we may be losing something when we do isolate these events from their context?

We have four Gospels, not one. While four (or fewer) accounts of the same events help corroborate a story, we were not given four gospels merely because we needed the veracity of each testimony confirmed by several witnesses. Each Gospel brings a nuance to Jesus’s life and mission that is unique. Four Gospels prevent us from flattening Jesus into what we think he should be even though it is popular today to do just that. By isolating the event from text and/or supplementing the account with details from another Gospel we override the nuance author was bringing to the text – almost like we are letting one voice speak over the top of another.

Perhaps we can illustrate this best by talking about how each of the Synoptics (sorry John!), which share a lot of the same language and stories about Jesus, talk about the healing of the paralytic.

Mark: Yahweh’s Kingdom Unstoppable (Mark 2:1-12)

Mark’s version is probably the most well-known. Mark presents Jesus as Yahweh finally coming to restore his people and establish his kingdom on earth. What that looks like is totally different from Jewish expectations at that time. Jesus begins his mission by teaching, calling disciples, casting out demons, and healing the sick. Except for all the healings and exorcisms, nothing “out of the ordinary” happens until he heals a leper by touching him. Jesus risks becoming ritually unclean in order to cleanse the leper, but the leper’s uncleaness doesn’t sully Jesus. Jesus’s cleaness overcomes the leper’s uncleaness and heals him. At that point, Yahweh’s coming kingdom takes on more dimension. Neither demons nor sickness nor perpetual uncleaness are outside the bounds of Jesus’s mission of restoration. The healing of the paralytic comes next. Mark sets the scene by emphasizing how full the house was more than the other Gospels. The fullness of the house serves to show the depth of the five friends’ faith. They believe Jesus and stop at nothing to get their friend to him. Mark’s placement of the story is strategic as well since he uses the story to add another dimension to the type of kingdom Jesus is bringing to earth. Jesus heals the man by forgiving his sins. Jesus’s actions raises an important question: How does this man think he can do what only God can do? To the scribes, Jesus is denying God’s oneness. Jesus, however, affirms his ability to forgive sins by  healing the man. One commentator calls this “hard evidence” of Jesus’s ability to forgive. From Mark’s perspective, this story demonstrates that forgiveness is not just a heavenly thing: “The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sin.” Forgiveness – as has the kingdom – has come to earth.

Matthew: Jesus’s Authority Demonstrated (Matt 9:1-8)

Matthew takes the same story, compresses it, and places it in a series of stories about Jesus’s authority. First, Jesus and his disciples are traveling in a boat when a storm comes. The disciples, afraid for their lives, summon Jesus to ask for help and declare that they are about to die. Jesus rebukes the disciples. Then he rebukes the storm. The storm is pacified, and the disciples are left wondering at the type of man that Jesus is: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Answer: the type of man who you should put your faith in. Next, Jesus goes to the country of the Gadarenes where he encounters two demon-possessed men (by the way, Mark and Luke place this story some time after the healing of the paralytic). These demons convince Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs. After Jesus  permits their request, the pigs rush out of their pen, fall into the water, and drown. Due to Jesus’s actions, the men are calm and sane – all is right. Not even the most powerful of demons can stop Jesus. The people of the town, however, beg Jesus and his disciples to leave the region.  Are these people responding appropriately to Jesus? Finally, we come to our story. As mentioned before, it’s a compressed version of what we see in Mark and Luke. There’s no mention of the crowds or even the house. The friends bring the paralytic to Jesus, Jesus forgives the man’s sins. The scribes question Jesus, Jesus responds to scribes and demonstrates his authority over sin and sickness by healing the man. The people respond with great wonder that God would give such authority to men. By arranging the stories the way he does, Matthew shows that Jesus has supreme authority over everything on earth. What kind of response is appropriate when we face a man with that kind of authority? We must put our faith in him and be disciples.

Luke: The Kingdom and Great Role Reversal (5:17-26)

Luke’s story looks very similar to Mark’s telling with a few exceptions. In the beginning, Luke prepares the reader for the coming conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees:  “He was teaching one day, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting (they had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem). The power of the Lord was with him to heal.” Jesus and the religious leaders were about to clash over a healing.  We also know that the Lord was with Jesus, that is to say, what is about to happen to the paralytic falls in the purview of Jesus’s mission: to set captives free (4:17-21).  Jesus’s interaction with the paralytic demonstrates the orientation of Jesus’s ministry toward the lowly and marginalized, and forgiveness is a vital part of that ministry. While the Pharisees express outrage at Jesus’s actions, Jesus addresses the need in front of him. Jesus restores the man in front of him completely. He silences his opposition not with the power of a sword but the power of a healing. Jesus did not come to make war with the Romans or slaughter his human opposition. He came to restore his people spirit and body.

Summary

In all three gospels, the story of the paralytic gives dimension to Jesus’s ministry. In all three, Jesus confirms his authority and, arguably, his divinity. Yet, the three gospels use the story differently in their own presentations of who Jesus is. If we isolate the story or supplement the details from another gospel, we risk distorting that presentation. The story is a part of a tapestry. We can appreciate the design by itself, but let us not try to remove design from the fabric it’s woven into. Instead, let’s take a step back and appreciate how the design contributes to the beauty of the whole piece.

In Mark 2, Mark describes how a group of friends bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus by removing part of the roof on the house where Jesus was teaching. They were expecting Jesus to heal their friend. He did, but to the great irritation of the religious leaders Jesus’s version of healing included forgiving the man’s sins as well. In this passage, we come face-to-face with a question that still puzzles us today: “Which is easier to say: ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Get up and walk?'” For Jesus, the healing of the paralyzed man is an inside out process, and his physical healing demonstrates the reality of his spiritual healing.

Today, we might say this: “Which is easier: ‘to let someone go despite wrongdoing’ (read “forgiveness” here) or ‘to make them pay?'” In our society, the latter receives the most attention. Movies like Kill Bill, where a woman seeks revenge on her former employers for taking the life of her unborn child and sending to her a hospital in a coma, portray a messy, yet to some degree rewarding view of revenge. At the end of the Kill Bill movies, she locks herself in a hotel bathroom while she laughs hysterically for the joy/relief of accomplishing her revenge mission. Katniss Everdeen, the main protagonist of the book series The Hunger Games, votes in favor of instituting a final Hunger Games, turning the Capital’s (the antagonists) main method of subjugation against them, in order to demonstrate the brutality of the Capital and exact retribution from them. Cultural depictions of revenge often acknowledge its inherent messiness, yet revenge is often glorified as a better alternative than forgiveness. After all, what’s more satisfying than successfully exacting retribution and putting the offender in their place?

Forgiveness, however, does not receive its fair shake. Keira Knightley illustrates this point well when she says: “It’s absolutely extraordinary. If only I wasn’t an atheist, I could get away with anything. You’d just ask for forgiveness and then you’d be forgiven.” It’s too costly for the one wronged and too cheap for the one forgiven. Forgiveness demands no change of course for the forgiven and gives no justice to the ones who have been wronged. Forgiveness offers no satisfaction – at least in the eyes of modern people.

Jesus holds a different view: His forgiveness is a powerful healer. Aside from Mark 2, where forgiveness and healing are presented as part-and-parcel to Jesus’s ministry, take a look at how Luke 4:17-21 talks about Jesus’s ministry:

And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus uses the language of Isaiah to describe his own ministry. Isaiah is using the language of Jubilee where debt forgiveness receives a central focus. The prisoner is no longer a prisoner because he is free. The blind is no longer blind because he can see. The debtor is no longer a debtor because he is forgiven. Forgiveness is truly a powerful thing if it can accomplish that!

So we come around once again to Mark 2. Jesus healed the man from the inside out. Forgiveness does not come cheaply for Jesus, but he gives it freely to those who need it and ask for it in faith. For those who receive his forgiveness, their outlook on the world is different. They are no longer rebellious outcasts but faithful children. No longer are they to perpetuate injustice; they are to be beacons of justice. They are to be lovers of God and of people. They are not perfect, but they seek to live lives that forgiveness frees them to live. Forgiveness does not allow us to live how we want without consequences. No, forgiveness frees us to live the way were made to live without condemnation.

A few months ago, my pastor and I decided to read and discuss a couple of NT Wright books. He chose “How God Became King.” I read “Simply Jesus.” NT Wright is certainly a controversial name in many evangelical circles, and the subtitle of Simply Jesus (A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters) does little to quell the uneasiness about his writings. When he finished reading his Wright book, my pastor said that he believed that Wright was a Christian – something he wasn’t sure about based on what he’s heard about Wright. He also found Wright’s writing powerful and insightful.

We could say the same thing about Simply Jesus. Powerfully written, insightful, useful. The main differences between the book I read and the book my pastor read is that He God Became King focuses on the messages of the four gospels while Simply Jesus reads sort of like a short biography. Simply Jesus aims at telling Jesus’s story while highlighting the significance of Jesus’s life on earth. Wright tells that story in such a way that it pierces through Modern thinking of history: “I think, to be clear: writing about Jesus has never been, for me, a matter of simply ‘neutral’ historical study (actually, there is no such thing, whatever the topic…).” He defies the Bultmanian (I think that’s a word?) division between the Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith. Wright makes no attempt to keep the two divided. His work is not merely academic, however. He writes for the person who wants to know the answer to the question: “Could you tell me about Jesus?” The question has no simple answer, but he tries to answer it as simple as possible.

He divides the book into three parts. The first part lays out what he calls “the key questions.” These questions relate to Jesus’s historical setting. We can’t think about history in a Modern, Enlightenment way (which even in the church tends to be deistic in nature). We must understand how Jewish people in the 1st century thought about God and his role in history, and we must understand what the role of the Roman government had in Israel at that time. We must do it in a way that is not biased against supernatural happenings. The second part is the meat of the book. This part attempts to answer: “What is Jesus doing?” Everything that Jesus does falls under the rubric of “God’s Kingdom Coming on Earth.” Jesus opposes the cosmic powers by casting out demons. Jesus fulfills biblical expectations of the Messiah by healing and forgiving sins – setting people free from all kinds of bondage. He defies improper thinking about the Messiah. They thought about the Messiah would inaugurate physical kingdom that would defeat the Romans. Jesus’s mission is concerned with much more than that. Jesus defeats the powers opposing his kingdom (political and cosmic, and sin and death) ultimately at the cross, that is, at his death. Evil is invited to do its worst and expends itself completely. Jesus conquers sin and diseases and opposing points of view with words and not swords. Jesus conquers death and the cosmic forces through humility and suffering and not with an army.  In the third part, Wright describes how Jesus is raised from the dead in victory and now rules the world through his people who are now tasked with carrying out the same mission to the world in the same way that Jesus did.

I think Wright’s work is valuable in that he corrects “Christian escapism.” Christians do not need bunkers. Christ is reigning victoriously, and we need to live as if that were true. The old phrase “Kingdom Living” applies here. How does my life right now reflect the fact that Jesus is ruling this world, and that evil is already (although not yet) defeated? We preach that Jesus is Lord and restoring all things in himself. We are ministers of reconciliation – loving God and neighbor in ways that were impossible without Jesus.

The biggest thing I wish he emphasized more was that living Kingdom lives means living holy lives. Thus we follow Jesus’s lead in obeying God. On the cross, Jesus deals with our first and biggest problem. Jesus graciously bore our sin on the cross. This fact makes the gospel so good and makes the ministry of reconciliation possible.

Consider reading Simply Jesus. I’m curious as to what you might have to say!

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been kicking around ideas for putting what I’ve studied and taught in Sunday School and at Southeastern into text. While I don’t think that what I’ll say is a “new” or “fresh” perspective on an issue, I hope that what I write provides a way for people who don’t have the time or resources to go to seminary to share in the benefits from my learning. My education would only really be a waste if I kept it to myself.

Here are a couple of the projects I’m thinking about right now:

Amos Today: How Amos’s words calls today’s church to action. I’ve been studying Amos in my Septuagint class.  In his message to Israel he describes the depth of Israel’s sin and coming judgment of God on his people. We are met by a holy God who cares about what his people do. His words are tough yet gracious since they since he reminds of the importance of how we live in his world. Even the “mundane” matters to God!

What the Psalms say about… A few months ago I team taught a 13 week series on various types of Psalms. Instead of dividing the psalms by their genre, we asked how the psalms address different situations in our lives, how they guide our worship, how they structure our prayers, and how they shape our understanding of God and faith.

In addition to these topics, I’ve been struggling with what the content should look like. I would like for this book to be useful in small groups.

How detailed should the book be? How much attention should the book pay attention to academic matters?

On the flip side, how devotional should the book be? How can both the “academic” and “devotional” elements be blended together?

If this book’s target audience is small groups, what kind of material would be beneficial for small groups?

The biggest question I have to answer is how much do I let questions we ask today shape the material?  The biblical text often (and ought too!) reshape the kinds of questions we ask and I need to pay special attention to that.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but I’m hopeful that by God’s grace I can produce something that is useful to my brothers and sisters in Christ.