Tag: pharisees

Red Letter — Cutting to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount

This is an edited transcript of a sermon on Matthew’s Gospel from City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. You can listen to the sermon here, or watch here. The running time for those options is 35 minutes.

If you were given the ability to cut out anything in the modern world to fix it, where would you be pointing your blade?

What political issue or system would you tackle to bring about righteousness?

Maybe, this week, you are feeling like it is religious freedom? Maybe it is modern economics?

What would you cut down that gets in the way of heaven on earth? Jesus has been talking about the kingdom of heaven at every turn (see Matthew 3:2), and he keeps going in this passage today. Jesus is still speaking on the mountain (Matthew 5:1-2), as the new Moses.

Moses would meet God on the mountain (Exodus 19:3, 24:18, 34:4). Mountains are a meeting place between heaven and earth. Mountains are places where God’s people would meet with God (like Jerusalem would become with the Temple) and then take God’s kingdom down to earth. When Moses did this, over time, he was transformed by being in God’s presence, till he began shining with God’s glory (Exodus 34:29).

And now Jesus describes a restored Jerusalem — a whole city of shining Moseses — people who are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-15), whose light shines, visibly — so people see our good deeds, they get a glimpse of heaven and of God and instead of glorifying us for our goodness — they see God in us and with us — and glorify Him (Matthew 5:16). He’s come to create a kingdom of Moseses.

One way to think about “glorifying” is the idea of “shining the light on” — our good deeds do this because we are carrying the light of heaven — radiating God’s character, imaging Him. This is a little picture of the kingdom of heaven; this shining people. Jesus keeps using this phrase the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19, 20). It’s what Israel is waiting for. Jesus says he has not come to get rid of the old, not to replace Moses, or the Old Testament law — or to get rid of the prophets — but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17); fulfilling their hopes for a Kingdom.

Now, we might file these bits of the Bible — law, and prophets — separately, but Jesus groups them together and says both have a purpose or a telos — or something, or someone they are pointing to — and he is it.

What follows is one of the most intense bits of Jesus’ teaching — it looks like he takes the law and makes it harder to obey — or some people think it is to teach us how impossible the law was to keep, so we rely on grace alone — and it is true only one person has fulfilled the law perfectly… and that he offers us forgiveness for where we fall short, by grace, through faith.

Jesus says those people who want to set aside these commands will be called least in the kingdom, while those who practice them and teach them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19).

Jesus is not changing the law. He is showing how the law has been misunderstood — to show people are not pursuing righteousness, because they are not pursuing God. They are not a bunch of rules with nothing to do with being the kingdom of heaven — the city on a mountain — They are not an impossible standard to ignore. They are a way of life we are invited to practice in the freedom that comes from being God’s children; those liberated to join Him in His kingdom.

Sometimes in our rush to reduce the gospel to the good news about how we are saved by Jesus — “justification,” we miss that the gospels — like Matthew — are a story that is also about what we are saved for, “sanctification,” how we are called to become like Jesus as we imitate him. This idea that we should teach these commands — and obey them — comes up again in the Great Commission — we are not just told ‘make converts by preaching the Gospel’ — we are told to take people through a new exodus — baptism — and to make disciples who will obey these commands (Matthew 28:18-20).

Back on the mountain Jesus drops this bomb. He says the kingdom of heaven requires a righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).

He is playing with the expectations first century Israelites have about the kingdom. The Pharisees believed God would not send a Messiah to end the exile until Israel was cleansed. There is a document from the late first century BC called the Psalms of Solomon, reflecting their thinking about Israel’s restoration and the end of Roman rule. For this to happen God had to cleanse Israel before this day of mercy and blessing when he would bring back his anointed:

“Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David. At the time in the which thou seest, O God, that he may reign over Israel, thy servant. And gird him with strength that he may shatter unrighteous rulers.”

“And that he may purge Jerusalem from nations that trample her down to destruction. Wisely, righteously he shall thrust out sinners from the inheritance.”

“And he shall not suffer unrighteousness to lodge any more in their midst, nor shall there dwell with them any man that knoweth wickedness, for he shall know them, that they are all sons of their God.”

For this to happen, Israel would have to cut out their unrighteousness. The wicked would be removed and only children of God would remain — there would be no more enemies. No Romans.

This idea of righteousness meant the Pharisees created a bunch of extra laws going beyond the Old Testament — to create a righteous Israel, so the Messiah would come. There were other groups too.

The Zealots; they hated the Romans, and some of them even started assassinating them in the streets using a special sort of knife called a Sicarii. They wanted to bring the kingdom by literally cutting out God’s enemies.

The Essenes, who cut themselves off from those they saw to be a corrupt Israel — waiting for God’s king to lead them home. The Dead Sea Scrolls found in a place called Qumran — were probably from the Essenes. They were waiting for a priest-king who would bring a shining, glorious, kingdom. Here is an excerpt from one of the scrolls (4Q541). This Messiah would speak words from the heavens, bringing a shining light that triumphed over darkness:

“His utterance is like the utterance of the heavens, and his teaching is according to the will of God. His eternal sun will shine, and his fire will burn in all the ends of the earth, and over the darkness it will shine.”

And the Sadducees were wealthy rulers who ran the priesthood in Jerusalem. They were pretty legalistic, and it seems they majored on the Torah — the Old Testament law. They were prepared to cut out sin, literally. There is an ancient source that talks about a book of decrees they had with guides for how to literally apply the “an eye for an eye, a hand for hand” law from the Torah (Exodus 21:23-25). Other groups had tried to put a money value on restoration, the Sadducees wanted to get the knives out.

All these communities came with different pictures of what a Messiah — the promised king — would be like; how he would wield the blade; and who would get cut. When Jesus says he is fulfilling the Old Testament, all these groups have different ideas (Matthew 5:17). Jesus starts unpacking where they have got it wrong. He repeats this little pattern six times in the chapter — “you have heard…” “but I tell you” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44).

And the stakes on getting the kingdom right are high — not just about the political future of Israel, but cosmic questions of heaven or hell (Matthew 5:19, 20, 22). There is even what we might call cosmic geography built into some of the commands — do not swear by heaven — God’s throne — the earth — his footstool — or Jerusalem — the mountain city of God’s Messiah — when he talks about oaths, there are kingdom categories we do not typically have in mind when swearing an oath with our hand on a Bible (Matthew 5:34-35). And then Jesus goes into some examples to reveal the heart of the law — the way God’s people were always meant to understand it. Starting with anger (Matthew 5:44-45).

Righteousness is not just about actions, but about the heart — the inner person — Jesus is not coming to cut away at people’s actions, or different political groups — he is coming to cut hearts.

We can be like the Pharisees, thinking about righteousness in terms of controlling our actions, making rules or systems to stop ourselves sinning — and self-control is great — but the kingdom does not need new rules to shape your behaviour, new systems in place — it needs new hearts.

It feels odd to need to point it out — but harboring anger in your heart is absolutely less sinful than murdering them. He is not saying ‘if I am angry I may as well do more.’ Jesus is not equating the two — there is a whole heap of intersecting sins caught up in the murder of a person involving the theft of a life — a person who belongs to God and others — that means both the consequence and the offence is greater — that is not actually Jesus’ point.

Jesus is revealing that the law was always about the heart; not about being righteous through actions, but becoming righteous through the pursuit of God.

Think of it like a house — the “do not murder” a law — is the floor of the house. When you cross that barrier you are not part of the house. You are unrighteous. But walking around not murdering people is not the same as righteousness. It is the floor when it comes to writing a law, but God’s law was not just written to define the floor. In the law, and the story the law is embedded in, in the Torah, we are meant to meet the righteous and loving God behind the law — and to become like Him.

That is the ceiling.

Jesus is not changing the rules as much as saying that by looking at the floor, and making sure you do not fall through it, you have missed the ceiling.

And maybe anger is an area where you are happily not violating the floor — not murdering — maybe even putting up laws or strategies that stop you getting angry — but how are you going at loving people, rather than being angry at them.

It is the same with lust (Matthew 5:28) — adultery is much more costly than lusting after someone in your heart — but lust is already a failure to love. We are already missing the principle at the heart of the law about being like God and seeing other people like God does; we are already slipping into seeing people the way Satan wants us to see people.

God’s law is actually — and has always actually — been about hearts that are devoted to God, that produce lives that look like God, that reflect and bring glory to Him. That is the righteousness the law requires — that we actually be image bearers of God.

And this stuff is serious — it is worth cutting out. Jesus even says we should be prepared to take the knife to ourselves (Matthew 5:29-30).

Now — there have been people in history who have taken this idea of cutting off body parts that lead to sin quite literally with drastic consequences — and maybe they would be appropriate if our eyes or our hands actually caused us to sin…

But we know they do not. Do not we?

In fact, Jesus is going to say that all this stuff — anger — lust — the stuff we might blame our hands and our eyes for — murder, adultery — and other sins — comes from the heart (Matthew 15:19-20).

It is our hearts that need to go under the knife.

Blessed are the pure in heart.

The Pharisees wanted to change Israel — to produce righteousness —through new laws governing behaviours, but they missed the heart… The Zealots thought the problem to be cut out was other people — fix the system and righteousness would flourish… Get rid of the Romans…

And the Sadducees — they would chop bits of sinners to produce righteousness rather than their own bits… Jesus upends their expectations too… In case the crowd watching on has not got the point Jesus goes straight for the bit in the law the Sadducees loved (Matthew 5:38-39).

And maybe the idea driving the Zealots in their pursuit of justice through violence — and he says do not — and even — do not resist.

Overcome evil with good. If they slap you on the right cheek, turn the other one…

Now again, this is the teaching of principles — It is not actually a good idea in a whole bunch of situations to let people punch you or hit you — the point is to not retaliate with retribution, or even with justice, but with love and mercy. Taking the cost of making peace upon yourself — And, if someone wants to sue you for your shirt, give them your coat, and go the extra mile when someone is forcing you on a journey (Matthew 5:40-41).

You sense the Zealots going cold here.

The Messiah has not come to destroy Israel’s enemies — but to love them (Matthew 5:43-44).

He has not come to chop up sinners or stab Romans. He has not come leading a rebellion with swords and spears, but to lead people — even Gentiles — even the Romans, back to God.

The Pharisees might have thought Israel needed to be cleansed of wickedness — of enemies — in order for the children of God to be revealed (Psalms of Solomon). Jesus teaches that it is those who love their enemies — those who persecute us — who will be children of God (Matthew 5:44-45). And then, here is where Jesus reveals what the law was always about — the ceiling — Jesus says the task here is to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Or as Leviticus puts it — be holy, because God is holy (Leviticus 20:26). It is this reflecting the nature of God that was meant to set Israel apart as God’s kingdom.

There was never a way we could hit the ceiling. The law was designed to produce godliness, by driving people towards God; depending on His grace and mercy and forgiveness. Moses became shinier the more he went back to God after Israel sinned, after he had failed, trusting in the goodness of God.

Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17) by bringing heaven and earth together — mediating between us and God, and speaking for God, the way Moses and the prophets did.

He fulfills the law by more than just keeping the law — even being perfectly holy and like God — he fulfills the law in the same way he fulfills the prophets.

He is the one the law points to — the sacrificial system, our need for God to save, the Exodus story and the idea of a kingdom of image bearing priests who would fill the earth with God’s presence.

He even fulfills the idea that the knife needed to be turned on our own hearts. Moses promised a return from exile would happen when God changed hearts — circumcised — cut them — so we might actually love God, and in loving God, find life (Deuteronomy 30:6-7). We will see Jesus pick up this language in Matthew. Then the idea of new hearts and a new covenant was picked up by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:33).

Who said God’s law was going to be written on his people’s hearts — recreating a people, a kingdom, for himself — which is what Jesus comes to do, as he brings heaven and earth together by baptizing with the Holy Spirit and bringing the kingdom of heaven. Showing us it is our hearts that need cutting first — not others. Ultimately the Pharisees and Sadducees will throw their lot in with Rome — staging an insurrection against God’s king. Coming with swords to arrest him and turn him over to the Romans.

And they do this at the exact the moment the Zealots have their own insurrection — an uprising — against Rome going on in Jerusalem — that is what Barabbas, the guy whose place Jesus takes, and the thieves crucified next to him were guilty of —

And as Israel reveals what it thinks the kingdom of heaven is going to look like,

Jesus is revealing God’s kingdom. In his death and resurrection we see the heart of God, as Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets —

You want to know how the law is fulfilled, or the prophets, look at Jesus.

You want to know what the kingdom of heaven looks like, and what righteousness looks like, and what God requires in an image bearing person who radiates his glory, look at Jesus. Crucified.

This is where we see him as the one who fulfills the Sermon on the Mount — loving his enemies, praying for those who persecute him, turning the other cheek.

He does not cut up the enemies of God, but has his own skin pierced, to love his enemies and make us God’s children — bringing those who receive him as king and savior into his kingdom.

Jesus comes to show us that the problem with the world is not out there — it is not just the Roman Empire and Satan pulling the strings. It is in us. It is our hearts. He brings forgiveness of sins — cleansing — and new hearts; fulfilling the Law (Deuteronomy 30), and the Prophets (Jeremiah 31).

Whatever bringing the kingdom looks like, it is not fixing some out there thing first, but having the knife applied to our hearts, having God’s law written on our hearts, so that we pursue the God we meet in Jesus and are transformed to become his shining children, the light of the world; a heavenly city of shining ones, whose transformed lives, and utter dependence on God to save — will glorify God (Matthew 5:14-16).

Right at the end, as Jesus sends his disciples into the world — people who follow and walk with the king — he takes them up a mountain (Matthew 28:16), and sends them — and those who came after them — into the world teaching one another to obey his commands; as shining ones (Matthew 28:19-20).

When we think about how we would fix the world, we can operate like Pharisees or Zealots or Sadducees. We can be keen to reach for the knife, to take out our enemies, or cut off bits of people who have wronged us, to do our bit to create laws that will fix things; fighting some culture war, and so forgetting about the real battle, as Jesus frames it; to live lives from hearts that have been cut by God so that we obey him.

Are you prepared to make the cuts to your own heart?

To live as shining people who practice and teach the commands of Jesus, not because they save us, but because we are saved to live this way as those whose lives reflect the glory of our God and his king.

Imagine what we would look like if we practiced these commands from the Sermon on the Mount; not perfected them, but just making them practices that drive us to the heart of God (Matthew 5:44-45).

Imagine if we worked hard at being peacemakers when we have conflict with our brothers and sisters in Christ — as a training ground for how we love our enemies.

Imagine what it would look like if the church had a reputation not only for sexual purity — which we often do not — but for being a place where we do not objectify and lust not only after those in our communities — our brothers and sisters — but those outside.

Imagine if we took Jesus’ words seriously on porn, or our thought worlds, and worked harder to cut out that habit? Not chopping your hand off when it causes you to sin, or gouging out your eyes but having God change your heart, so you see those men and women as those made in the image of God who are meant to reveal his glory, but more, so that you hunger and thirst for righteousness; for God.

Imagine if we cared about our own hearts, and bringing them into alignment with the heart of God, more than the actions of others.

Imagine if we were not known for using courts or legislation to protect our rights and police the righteousness of others, but for being generous, including to those persecuting us.

Imagine, for a moment, one of the more popular scenarios in the culture wars — a Christian baker being forced to make a cake for a gay wedding cake at the threat of legal action… Whether being asked genuinely, or as part of the culture war being fought by others.

Imagine if that baker instead of doubling down and refusing to give his shirt, made two cakes, or catered for the wedding.

Imagine if we took these words of Jesus seriously, rather than putting them in the too hard basket.

Obeying them will look different for different people in different contexts — these are little stories that are not likely to happen to you tomorrow, but the principle is what we are trying to figure out. Those are the sorts of good deeds that shining people might do as we reflect a little bit of heaven on earth.

How to live as X-Men and X-Women: lessons for today’s church-in-exile from 1st century Israel and the X-Men

How are we going to respond to the Secular Juggernaut? Here are some lessons from ancient and modern examples of life as exiles.



There’s been barrel loads of digital ink spilled in the last year or so on the question of whether the church is now in exile; culturally; and how helpful this is as a category for thinking about life and our witness in the world. Stephen McAlpine wasn’t the first to get the ball rolling, the Apostles Peter and Paul probably started it all a while back, and there are plenty of characters in the early church who piled in, but there is certainly a sense that if Christendom represented some sort of return from exile, we’re entering some new era in the life of the church and our relationship with the world and its powers, and even just its people, our neighbours. McAlpine called this Exile: Stage Twoand in that pivotal post suggested we should stop thinking of ourselves as being in Athens — a marketplace of ideas where we’ll get a hearing — and start thinking of ourselves as being in Babylon — where we’ll potentially be fed to lions. I liked what he said, but felt the paradigm was a little too OT exile focused and not enough a reflection of the sort of exile being experienced by God’s people around the time Jesus arrived on the scene. At the time I suggested Rome, not Babylon, the empire that executed our Lord, but that also presented an ultimate alternative vision for human flourishing to the Gospel — one built on power, prestige, wealth, and sexual liberation — is perhaps a better paradigm for us to be thinking in.

The church-as-exiles movement has continued rolling along in the last year and a half, and there have been plenty of landmark cases both here in Australia, and elsewhere in the western world for us to both notice the seismic shift in the world we live in especially with regards to the place so-called Christian values have in our social norms and laws, and to figure out how we’re going to respond to those shifts. We’ve had Safe Schools, and a continued debate on same sex marriage; we’ve, increasingly, been told that religious freedom is the greatest human right since sliced bread and something to be upheld at all costs, and often found that voicing traditional Christian views — those still reflected in our laws — is a form of bigotry (all our grandparents and most of our parents, it seems, are actually bigots when assessed by today’s values).

Somehow, in the midst of all this, Christians have been standing up in the public square to be speaking in favour of a bunch of created goods like marriage and freedom without really saying much at all about the creator, or his grand story of forgiveness, redemption and victory over death in Jesus. It’s like the public square is now a bonfire where we’re burning anything ‘Christian’ that looks off-trend, and it feels like life as exiles is mostly about trying to hold on to valuable furniture. Sometimes it feels like certain streams of Christianity are figuring out what furniture to toss on the fire in order to join the fun, rather than trying to douse the flames and call people to a better party.

There is, at the heart of an understanding of who we are as Christians, a fundamental disconnect between how we see and live in the world, and how our neighbours do; a difference in the kingdom we belong to and the values and virtues we pursue. Like Israel before us, we’re called out of the world, by God, to be different. We’re by nature exiles in a profound sense, not put into exile by the world but by an exodus brought about as God rescued us; this brings us a totally different view of the world. As Paul puts it:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…

What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. — 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, 12-14

We are Mystique: Trying to figure out how to be ‘Mutant and Proud’

Life in our rapidly changing world can feel like we’re the mutants in the world of Marvel’s X-Men, trying to figure out exactly what to do with a super-power that feels a lot like being an unwelcome freak.

Do we let the world co-opt us to its agenda? Like Wolverine, who is signed up to the Weapon X program to serve the human ’empire’?

Do we adopt Magneto’s scorched earth strategy and attempt to forcibly mutate or eradicate those who would stand against us?

Take the ‘cure’ offered by the world — like the vaccination offered in X-Men: The Last Stand so we give up our power to become just like everyone else for the sake of our comfort and theirs?

Do we withdraw and hide and wait for a time when we’ll be welcome again? Or live undercover, like Beast desires with his serum — hide our mutation but keep our power, pretend there’s nothing different about us?

Or do we follow Charles Xavier who has a vision for a world where mutants and humans co-exist? Using our difference to serve the community, even as they try to crucify us for it?

The most interesting character in the X-Men franchise isn’t one of these people advocating one response or another, but Raven/Mystique whose shape-shifting ability would allow her to comfortably choose any of these options. Ironically in one timeline she’s shot with the ‘cure’ and abandoned by Magneto cause she’s not a mutant anymore… Throughout the different storylines, but perhaps especially in the new timeline stories, she’s pulled in different directions by each of these ‘leaders’ — Professor X, Magneto, and Beast — who each love her in their own way and desire their vision of the good life for her.

It’s a bit like the church is Mystique; we have the power to look just like everybody else, to hide, or to be proudly mutant and fight, or to use our power to love and save our enemies… we just have to decide which way we go.

What does it look like for us to be proud mutants where our mutation is shaped by our new DNA, the DNA that comes from being children of God, united with Christ, and being shaped by the Holy Spirit? What does it look like to be exiles because we’re different to a world around us that doesn’t like difference?

It’s not just the world of the X-Men that might help us grapple with how to live in a shifting world, but how Israel responded not to exile in Babylon as they hoped for a return to power (as we see it in the Prophets, and in characters like Daniel), but under Roman rule, where that return had failed. There are parallels in Jewish history for each of the paths taken by the protaganists in the X-Men franchise.

Weapon-X: The ‘Hellenisers’, Pharisees, and ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join em’ Option

Under Roman rule the easiest thing for the Jewish community to do was simply to, as much as possible, act Roman. To cuddle up to the empire and, as a result, be allowed the freedom to practice their religion so long as it didn’t upset the Imperial apple cart. Tertullian, a Christian guy writing in the late 2nd century described the status as Judaism in the empire as being a religio licita; a legal religion. Judaism enjoyed a privileged place in the empire — they didn’t have to physically bow the knee to Caesar, so long as they offered prayers for the emperor and empire in the Temple. Both Tertullian, and the Gospel writers, point out that this concession was largely symbolic; it was pretty clear who really ruled, and never clearer than in the battle between Caesar and Jesus that the arrival of God’s promised king represented.

The Sadducees went a step further than the Pharisees in that the Pharisees maintained a degree of difference, proudly, from the people around them. The Sadducees, it seems, were ‘hellenised’ — they took on the cultural and physical appearance of the Graeco-Roman world they lived in so they wouldn’t stand out. They were happy to deny spiritual and supernatural concepts like the resurrection of the dead — a concept the Greek world, especially the world of Greek philosophers (and the Areopagus in Athens is an example of this) found pretty laughable, but which even the Pharisees held on to. It made sense for them to conform because they didn’t believe anything particularly distinct anyway… They just wanted to look like everyone else, so they became like everyone else.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were so keen to hold on to their privileged place in society that they threw Jesus under the bus and joined Team Caesar, the equivalent of William Stryker’s Weapon X program, where mutants fought for the empire.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” — John 11:47-48

This came to a head at the crucifixion, where it was pretty clear they weren’t separate any more…

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seatat a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12-16

There’s an incredible temptation for us to do this in the church today, and plenty of people are doing just this. Going as far as the Pharisees in giving up any sense that the Lordship of Jesus requires anything other than totally bowing the knee to Caesar. Christians are told to pray for and honour those in authority and to be oriented towards living at peace, but not at the expense of citizenship in God’s kingdom (1 Timothy 2:1-2, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11-17). We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the Pharisees.

Tertullian doesn’t really want the empire to assume that Christians are a religio licita simply because we share a history with Israel, he has a different view for what life as exiles looks like that we will return to below…

 “I have already declared the Christian religion to have its foundation in the most ancient of monuments, the sacred writings of the Jews; and yet many among you well know us to be a novel sect risen up in the reign of Tiberius, and we ourselves confess the charge; and because you should not take umbrage that we shelter ourselves only under the venerable pretext of this old religion, which is tolerated among you, and because we differ from them, not only in point of age, but also in the observation of meats, festivals, circumcision, etc., nor communicate with them so much as in name, all which seems to look very odd if we are servants of the same God as the Jews” — Tertullian, Apology, XXI

He’s also not so keen to cuddle up to the empire, as we’ll see below.

Brotherhood of Mutants: The Maccabees, Zealots, and the ‘Culture Wars’ Option

Magneto: This society won’t accept us. We form our own. The humans have played their hand, now we get ready to play ours. Who’s with me?
Magneto: [to Mystique] No more hiding.
Professor Charles Xavier: [to Mystique] Go with him. It’s what you want.

Raven Darkholme: And one more thing. BEAST!
[Raven places free her hand on her chest]
Raven Darkholme: Mutant and Proud! — X-Men: First Class

Magneto’s goal is to use power — his power — to win a victory for his people; to take the ascendancy in the culture wars so that his people rule everyone else. In the first X-Men movie, Magneto wants to use a machine to turn everyone into mutants; like it or not. In others, like First Class, he simply wants to win freedom for mutants to be mutants, but he wants to do so using power. This isn’t so different from the Maccabees in the second and first centuries BC.

Before the Romans took hold of Israel there was a period when they were under the rule of the Greeks and then the Seleucid Empire. Israel was in exile, and they didn’t love it. They staged a violent revolution, led by the Maccabees family. They were largely successful in reclaiming Judea, and tried to use military force to convert people to Judaism. They cleansed the temple and looked like they had things all together; until the Romans arrived and took over about 100 years later. The zealots picked up where they left off… they were around in Jesus’ day, but rather than fighting as an organised army, they were like ninjas… they launched stealth attacks on Romans and Roman sympathisers with sharp knives. But zealotry didn’t really work… the ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ maxim proved true. 

 The equivalent these days is to act as a combatant in the culture wars; to take up your political sword (more often than not a keyboard) and attempt to use power to secure your desired outcome at the expense of those who disagree with you, rather than figuring out how to live at peace with one another. This option, if you’re successful, produces short term success but your opponent comes back at you holding a grudge, or people know what it takes to unseat you from power — they just have to use power against you. It didn’t work for the Maccabees as a long term strategy. It never works for Magneto. Plus, a pretty smart guy (Jesus) said those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

District X: Essenes/Qumran and the Benedict Option

This hasn’t happened in the X-Men movie universe yet; but in the comics, a collective of mutants form a community-apart-from-the-community called Mutant Town or District-X. A place for mutants to be proudly mutant; apart from the world. In Israel, under Roman rule (and a bit before), the Essenes formed counter-cultural communities who behaved in counter-cultural ways; there’s a good chance they authored the Dead Sea Scrolls and that they viewed the Hellenised Jews as compromisers and covenant breakers. Their communities-of-difference were designed to maintain the faith. Josephus writes pretty extensively about them… here’s a couple of quotes about their differences from the world around them:

“Whereas these men shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue. And although there is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character…

… these two things are matters of personal prerogative among them: [rendering] assistance and mercy. For helping those who are worthy, whenever they might need it, and also extending food to those who are in want are indeed left up to the individual; but in the case of the relatives, such distribution is not allowed to be done without [permission from] the managers. Of anger, just controllers; as for temper, able to contain it; of fidelity, masters; of peace, servants. And whereas everything spoken by them is more forceful than an oath, swearing itself they avoid, considering it worse than the false oath; for they declare to be already degraded one who is unworthy of belief without God.

The Essenes were basically a Jewish monastic movement. They withdrew from society — or formed a counter-society in order to not be tainted by the wider society, but also to serve it. One response to our present life-in-exile that seems to be gathering momentum is conservative pundit Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, in a sense it’s Alasdair MacIntyre’s Benedict Option in that it comes from this paragraph in After Virtue. It seems to be both a new District-X/Essenes movement based on the order started by St Benedict at the decline of the Roman Empire; a monastic movement that focused very much on virtue formation in an alternate community. MacIntyre wrote:

“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.” — Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

This all sounds very ‘Essene’ or very ‘District-X’… Dreher is keen for Christians to take up this vision; rightly calling us to remove ourselves from being too caught up with earthly empires — not making the Pharisee/Sadducee mistake, and calling for an end to the culture wars where we’ve tried to do a Magneto/Maccabees to fight off the imperial regime of our day. There’s been quite a lot written about this stuff since Dreher first proposed it; and frankly, it’s confusing exactly how engaged or disengaged with the wider world those pushing this barrow want their communes to be. It’s like a Benedict Option can be anything along a spectrum from Amish to just being a distinctly different community within the community (namely, the church), where you’re focused on cultivating virtue by being different in practice. Very few people would want to disagree with that… But there are three things I think are worth thinking about when deciding if the Benedict Option is the way forward:

  1. Are we in pre-dark ages Rome or pre-Christian Rome?
  2. Is withdrawing actually effective, or when all the Christians turn their attention inwards does that actually hasten the decline.
  3. Is virtue formation a means to an end, an end in itself, or a fruit of a good life, such that virtues are the character produced by a life lived towards a particular telos or mission, rather than being the aim of our mission.

In X-Men terms — are mutants the best version of themselves if they go off to mutant school to participate in a bunch of skill-honing montages, or are they better off training in mutant school, while stepping out to use their powers for the sake of others (which has the effect of training and forming these mutants to an end more inline with what goodness looks like (‘mutant and proud’ maybe?).

Dreher reads the cultural landscape pretty well, I think, its just that his solutions are a bit pessimistic and his view of Christian mission and what the church is for is a little too inwards looking for my liking.

Over the past decade, especially in the struggle over same-sex marriage, some of my friends and allies among social and religious conservatives have called me a defeatist for my culture-war pessimism. I believe that pessimism today is simply realism, and that it is better for us to retreat strategically to a position that we are capable of defending. The cultural battlefield has changed far more than many of us realize…

If by “Christianity” we mean the philosophical and cultural framework setting the broad terms for engagement in American public life, Christianity is dead, and we Christians have killed it. We have allowed our children to be catechized by the culture and have produced an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order… This is not to endorse quietism. I don’t think we can afford to be disengaged from public and political life. But it is to advocate for a realistic understanding of where we stand as Christians in twenty-first-­century America. Our prospects for living and acting in the public square as Christians are now quite limited. — Rod Dreher, Christian and Countercultural

I’m a little more hopeful than Dreher that if we were to get our house in order, in the church, we might ‘catechise the culture’ via the Gospel, rather than being losers in the worship wars. I think we can revive Christianity first by returning to the Gospel, not by withdrawing from the world then returning to the Gospel in isolation. In Dreher’s Benedict Option the benefit is primarily for the church and the Christian — with a long term potential benefit for those seeking to come in to these communities for some sort of ‘protection’ from the new dark ages.

These communities offer a way for believers to thicken Christian culture in a time of moral revolution and religious dissolution. And if they’re successful over time, they may impart their wisdom to outsiders who crave light in the postmodern darkness. — Rod Dreher, Benedict Option

“Benedict did not leave the world for the sake of saving it. He left the world for the sake of saving his own soul. He knew that to put himself in a position where he was open to the Holy Spirit required living life in a certain way, in community. Hence the monastery. The monastic calling is a special one given to a relative few men and women, but the principle that believers need a community, a culture, and a way of life to keep themselves open to the formative (re-formative) power of divine grace is true for all of us.” — Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option Still Stands

For most of us, though, that degree of commitment isn’t possible, even if it were desirable. Our Benedict Option will express itself within institutions—churches, schools, para-church organizations, and so forth—whose purpose is to keep orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture… We need to teach ourselves and our children to desire Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, as preserved within our traditions, and to make that pursuit the focus of our moral imagination. This is not a lofty ideal, but a matter of intense practical urgency. We do not have time to waste in building our little platoons… There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive. — Rod Dreher, Christian and Countercultural

Dreher also published a sort of FAQ guide to the Benedict Option if you want to get your head around it a bit more. If Carl Trueman is your cup of tea (he’s often not mine), he’s written a few pieces worth considering about the Benedict Option including: The Rise of The Anti-Culture, and Eating Locusts Will Be Benedict OptionalIf you really want to understand the Benedict Option you could do much worse than read this piece by Matthew Loftus. For those following the Worship Wars series of posts here, there’s also this from Dreher which quotes the reasons James K.A Smith doesn’t like the Benedict Option. Also, for what it’s worth, Stanley Hauerwas says MacIntyre regrets the Benedict line as he puts forward what I think is a better alternative. Another thing by Greg Forster points out that:

“The Benedict Option” is a phrase now so thoroughly jawed over that it effectively means whatever you want it to mean. No amount of effort by Rod Dreher to clarify what he means by it can prevent everyone else who is looking for something new from using it to mean whatever they happen to be fascinated by…The overarching problem, however, is the Benedict Option’s failure to love the unholy world. The holiness of the church has crowded out its divine mission.” — Greg Forster, The Benedict Option As Culture War

The thing about the Mutant Town project, and the real, historic, Essenes community, is that neither of them had a lasting impact on their world and neither of them had the desired effect on the people leaving the world. They were failures. Unless the preservation of scrolls in some jars is a success. There’s probably even more concern for us as Christians if we take Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 9-11:1 seriously — it seems that imitating Christ is about the desire to win some to the Gospel by becoming like them rather than them becoming like us, and that the key to holding on to the Gospel is actually holding out the Gospel. It may be that being Christlike and on mission with the Gospel (and thus habitually living out the Gospel story) is what will cultivate real virtue for us, not simply withdrawing and doing a bunch of Holy sacramental, discipline type stuff.

The X-Men: The Jesus option

Raven/Mystique: You know Charles, I use to think it’s gonna be you and me against the world. But no matter how BAD the world gets, you don’t wanna be against it do you? You want to be part of it. — X-Men: First Class

Raven: Get out of my head, Charles!
Charles Xavier: Raven, please do not make us the enemy today.
Raven: Look around you, we already are!
Charles Xavier: Not all of us, Raven. All you’ve done so far is save the lives of these men. You can show them a better path.
Hank McCoy: [to Xavier] Shut her down, Charles!
Charles Xavier: I’ve been trying to control you since the day we met, and look where that’s got us… everything that happens now is in your hands. I have faith in you, Raven. — X-Men: Days of Future Past

But what if we’re not in the Dark Ages at the end of the empire? What if we’re in first and second century Rome?


What if District-X was as bad an idea as the Brotherhood of Mutants and Professor-X’s X-Men actually have it right? What if the key to virtue formation, the church’s survival, and the salvation of the world actually lies in us fighting to save it by lying down our lives for the sake of others? Living as exiles but seeking the welfare of our place? Our enemies even? Imitating Christ. What if our job is to show a better path as part of the world; fully engaged, fully on mission to keep people alive.

What if Professor-X is basically Jesus (and Cerebro something like a mechanical version of the Holy Spirit)? And what if we’re formed as virtuous people by living out the mission given to us by Jesus for the sake of the hostile world that crucified him. How do these very clear instructions end up with the Benedict Option rather than with a team, or community, of people on mission?

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? — Matthew 16:24-26

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20

How does the Benedict Option (or any of the others) represent a life that extends Jesus’ mission into the world, where he became ‘God with us’ — present and engaged with a hostile culture; light coming into a darkness he knew was not going to receive him (John 1); how does it reflect this model of God’s engaged presence in the world that begins at the start of the Gospel and continues here in the Great Commission with the promise that he is with us?

What if it’s not the monastery we should be looking to for inspiration for how to handle the barbarians at the gate, but to the early church living amidst the barbarous Roman Empire which executed Jesus. Oh yeah. Christians building systems based on the halcyon days of the Roman Empire — as if the barbarians only came from outside are like those who think America or Australia were ever really Christian empires, who are more shocked than the rest at the secular juggernaut because it represents a greater loss of territory and influence. The world is yet to see a political empire built with Jesus as king. The church is yet to be anything other than a community of exiles; an alternate polis.

What if we should assume Christendom ended so long ago that what we’re dealing with isn’t a world about to enter the darkness, but a world that has been dark for so long it forgets what life really looks like? What if we’re not the church in Benedict’s day, but in the time where Jewish exiles were running around getting in to bed with the Romans, stabbing them with knives, or setting up communes only for Jesus, and then his church, to emerge as a real alternative kingdom so thoroughly engaged with life in the empire, from the margins, that the values of the Empire eventually turned upside down? What if an optimistic taking up our cross is the answer; if it virtue-formation looks more like martyrdom than life in a commune? What if the hope for the empire doesn’t lie in us pulling out in the face of hostility, but pitching in.

What if instead of looking at the Benedictine monks and their practices we looked to texts like Tertullian’s Apology and the ancient Epistle to Diognetus, to see how the early church — those exiles — responded to the Empire (and how this differed from the suite of Jewish exilic models in Rome). Is the Benedict Option really going to produce the sort of Christian who so relies on the truth of the Gospel that we stand in front of the secular juggernaut and say “bring it on, the Gospel will go further if you steamroll me…” Cause that’s what Tertullian said… 

“And now, O worshipful judges, go on with your show of justice, and, believe me, you will be juster and juster still in the opinion of the people, the oftener you make them a sacrifice of Christians. Crucify, torture, condemn, grind us all to powder if you can ; your injustice is an illustrious proof of our innocence, and for the proof of this it is that God permits us to suffer; and by your late condemnation of a Christian woman to the lust of a pander, rather than the rage of a lion, you notoriously confess that such a pollution is more abhorred by a Christian than all the torments and deaths you can heap upon her. But do your worst, and rack your inventions for tortures for Christians—it is all to no purpose; you do but attract the world, and make it fall the more in love with our religion; the more you mow us down, the thicker we rise; the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more.”

Is withdrawing into our own communities, ultimately for our own sake, really going to provide the sort of schooling in virtue that we need to love our enemies and lay down our lives for them? Is it going to produce communities whose engaged difference works for the good of the empire as it transforms one life at a time until our momentum is irresistible? Until the Gospel becomes a juggernaut with more momentum than the secular community trying to ram us? It has happened before, and the key wasn’t people pulling out of society that did it… it was a bunch of exiles living as citizens of a better kingdom, lives like those described in the Epistle to Diognetus an anonymous description of Christian community and beliefs from the late 2nd century:

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”

This doesn’t sound Benedictine to me. But it sounds powerful. It sounds like Jesus.

What if the answer isn’t withdrawal into ‘communities of virtue’ outside the mainstream but being an alternative community desperate to love the mainstream with the Gospel where our virtue is shaped by our interactions with the world such that martyrdom of some sort — the practice of self-sacrifice and rejection with our eyes fixed on the greater kingdom we belong to — is our process of being formed as virtuous people. There’ll be a certain sort of rich, thick, loving, community that makes martyrdom more plausible — if the love of the church is more compelling than the love of the world — but this sort of monastic way of life, even if still engaged, is both too negative and pessimistic about our chance to change the empire (as we did in the past) and too disconnected from the way of life we’re called to imitate. Jesus did not live in a monastery but spent his time amongst friends and sinners. The way to save our own soul, to run our race and hold on to the Gospel is to hold the Gospel out to others. To love others at cost. To be prepared to lay down our lives to do so. The way to be virtuous is to be on mission, to be the church, as Hauerwas puts it (confusingly, Dreher says he’s on board with what Hauerwas says in this interview, which is one of the reasons everyone is so confused about exactly what the Benedict Option is):

“The church doesn’t have a mission. The church is mission. Our fundamental being is based on the presumption that we are witnesses to a Christ who is known only through witnesses. To be a witness means you bear the marks of Christ so that your life gives life to others. I can’t imagine Christians who are not fundamentally in mission as constitutive of their very being – because you don’t know who Christ is except by someone else telling you who Christ is. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore it is the task of Christians to embody the joy that comes from being made part of the body of Christ. That joy should be infectious and pull other people toward it. How many of us have actually asked another person to follow Christ? In my experience, far too few.”

If you’re going to be ‘mutant and proud,’ in exile, be the X-Men. They always win. The movies tell me so.

There’s a better story that tells me that putting my pride in Jesus, for the sake of my neighbours, is a better way to win, and a better way to be an exile.

What Alan Jones and Mitt Romney can teach us about Public Christianity

It’s hard to believe that two almost identical situations have occurred so close to each other on the conservative side of politics. Alan Jones can’t have been ignorant of what happened to Mitt Romney when some graceless comments he made at function for party faithful found their way into the media. Which makes Jones’ simply awful comments about John Gillard even less excusable. If that’s even possible…

Image Credit: The Australian

Jones has apologised today, calling the remarks a “black parody” – and that’s the problem with “parody” – it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between “black parody” and the twisted things a shock jock thinks and chooses to express. Romney’s put down of almost half the people he’s hoping will vote for him will probably cost him any chance he had at the presidency.

But there are a couple of lessons here for anybody who speaks into a microphone, or in public, or even in semi-private, or private… first – there’s no such thing as off the record. Ubiquitous recording makes it likely that anything stupid you say in front of people will see the light of day. It’s not enough to not put dumb and damaging things in writing – you can’t even speak them if you don’t want people hearing them.

There is no private. No closed room. No off the record. And people will be quick to throw light on misdeeds. Even when you think you’re only talking to the in crowd.

The rule for company spokespeople used to be never say anything you don’t want people to hear in front of a mic or camera even if you think it’s off… the better principle is probably “never say anything you haven’t thought about that you don’t want being heard by everyone.”

It’s very easy to say that you were misquoted, taken out of context, speaking in parody – but at that point the damage is already done. It’s easy to make clumsy statements – to offensively compare people to the Nazis when they disagree with you, to make slippery slope arguments that disgust your opponents, or to draw unfortunate comparisons by linking different topics deliberately or otherwise… it pays to be careful with what you say, in any context. To “tame your tongue”  because it can be pretty dangerous – as Jones and Romney are learning the hard way, or as James puts it in his letter in the New Testament…

“5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James prefaces that statement with a particular warning for people who are going to teach others – which I think doesn’t just apply to what ministers of the gospel say from the pulpit, but what Christians say when they speak as Christians in public.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”

This, on one level, is a pretty superficial solution – but it would’ve helped both Romney and Jones. A better solution goes to the heart of the matter. Verse 2 is also a great reminder that we’re all going to stuff up at some point – which is why it pays to apologise early, and often, and to be clear any time you speak that you’re speaking as a broken person only made clean by an external agent – Jesus.

The problem that Jones and Romney have exemplified, and the reason its so hard to swallow an apology after the fact – is that these guys haven’t been just pinged for wrong speaking, but for wrong thinking… the tongue, whether the brain is properly engaged or otherwise, reveals the heart. Or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 15:

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them….

17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person.”

This works in both ways – both Jesus and James are keen for words to be matched by deeds, and hearts… it’s no good speaking good words from an unclean heart, as a later interaction with the Pharisees (who approached Jesus to question what his disciples do in Matthew 15)… from Matthew 23 demonstrates.

First, Jesus instructs the people about the Pharisees…

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…

Then he turns to the Pharisees to proclaim a series of woes… here’s two of them…

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

A better solution than “don’t say dumb or harmful stuff where people can hear you” is “don’t think dumb and harmful stuff” – get your internals right, and the externals will follow.

Like James said – we’re always going to stuff up. It’s hard to tame the tongue. The real solution for people in ministry or doing public Christianity is to base everything on the work of Jesus, and God’s grace, in the light of our brokenness – so that we’re known for the gospel, and can point to our own stuff ups as evidence of the need for Jesus’ help, and his words as the basis of our words. If we’re known for that, rather than known for banging on about moral codes that we’ll all inevitably break without a generous act of God and the Spirit, it gives us something consistent to point to when we apologise.

An apology is more believable, and easier to accept, if what is being apologised for is not consistent with everything we’ve said before – and this is where Jones and Romney are going to struggle – Romney has a reputation for being out of touch with the lower class, his wealth, tax records, the aloof and out of touch things he says about life for the everyman, are going to make it hard for him to move past his 47% line, and Jones has a reputation for saying crass and shocking things to make a political point, especially when it comes to Julia Gillard.

This too is why it’s going to be harder and harder for Christians in Australia if we’re not known as people who love God, love our neighbours, and want to follow Jesus – but as people who want to protect “Christian values”… especially when we inevitably misspeak, or aren’t quick enough to distance ourselves from those who do… there’s tremendous pressure on Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party to distance themselves from Jones, just as there was last week with Bernardi’s unfortunate contribution to the gay marriage debate.

Image Credit: SMH

As James puts it…

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

The aim is to use our tongue for the first, and avoid the second… while being wise (more from James):

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deedsdone in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

Incidentally – if you didn’t read verse 14 after reading verse 6 – you might think there was a contradiction between what Jesus says about the heart being what “defiles” – because James says the tongue starts fires that “corrupts the whole body,” while Jesus says the tongue reflects what’s going on in the heart. It’s clear from this verse that James thinks the heart is the basis of the boasting of the tongue… his argument seems to be that an untamed tongue poisoning both for the speaker, and those who listen…

That is all.

Campbell’s Law for Christian Debates on the Internet

Naming a law after yourself is probably right up there with giving yourself a nickname ie not cool and it never really sticks… but I’ve been thinking about the conversations I’ve been having with different people from various points in the Christian spectrum on a couple of issues lately and I’d like to propose what I think is the Christian equivalent of Godwin’s Law.

Godwin’s Law states:

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 (100%).”

Campbell’s law states:

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Pharisees or legalism approaches 1 (100%).”

Thus, as with Godwin, so with Campbell, such transgressions lead to an automatic loss in any argument.

Lets face it, the law doesn’t need to be named after me, but there’s something similar going on here… “you’re like the guys who killed the king of the Jews” should carry about as much argumentative weight as “you’re like Hitler.” Though, as with Godwin, so with Campbell, there are times when such comparisons are appropriate (with Godwin I’d say these are limited to genocide, with the Pharisees I’d say it can be legitimate when people are acting like pharisees).

That is all (except to say that I’ve already coined a law before).

New Testament 101: Background – Intertestamental Period

The Old Testament period, depending on who you listen to, either ended with Malachi (around 445BC), or Daniel (some scholars put Daniel in the second century BC).

In any case, the canonical account of the end of the Old Testament wraps up after the construction of Jerusalem’s “second temple” – hence the name “second temple Judaism” is applied to the religious practices that developed in this period. Israel exists under the reign of the Persians at the close of the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament find themselves under Roman rule. A lot of political water has gone under Jerusalem’s bridge in this time…

We have a fair bit of literature from second temple Judaism covering this period – important bits for reference sake include:

The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

These books are non-canonical histories of the Jewish people that were widely circulated amongst second temple Judaism, and included in the Septuagint (also known as the LXX) a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament from around the third century BC. The writings included in the Septuagint (and wikipedia links) include: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Jesus Sirach, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremy (in the Vulgate this is chapter 6 of Baruch), additions to Daniel (The Prayer of Azarias, Sosanna and Bel and the Dragon), additions to Esther, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, and Psalm 151.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered at Qumran, include copies of scrolls from the Hebrew bible, copies of these apocryphal documents, and a bunch of secular writings from the period describing life in Second Temple Judaism.

Jewish Histories

Josephus wrote significant (though pretty biased) accounds of Jewish history covering the intertestamental period and different events in the first century AD.

Philo of Alexandria gives a unique insight into the Hellenization of Judaism. He was a Jew, living in a Greek city in Egypt, he was well connected, and wealthy. And he fused Greek philosophy with the teachings of Judaism. Philo was a Jewish envoy to the crazy Roman emperor Gaius Caligula when trouble kicked off between the Jews and residents of Alexandria over the Jew’s refusal to worship the emperor as part of the Imperial Cult. His fusion of Greek and Jewish theology led some 19th century critical scholars to dub him the father of Christianity – because they believed the beliefs of Christianity to have evolved from this fusing. But it was more an apologetic exercise where he sought to promote Judaism as the best philosophy on offer.

The Persian Period (539-332 BC)

The Persian period placed Israel in a geographically precarious position between waring nations. Israel was the frontier for conflict between Egypt and Persia. Some suggest Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls should be understood in this light. Aramaic became the Jewish Linga Franca in this period.

The Hellenistic Period (332-143 BC)

Alexander the Great smashed Syria up bad and belted any Persian political pretenders into submission. Persia’s territories fell under Hellenistic rule. Then Alexander died and all his potential heirs started clamouring for power. Judea became a pawn in a two hundred year wrestling match between two dynasties – the Ptolemaic rulers from Egypt, and the Seleucid rulers from Syria.

The Hasmonean (Maccabean) Period (143-63 BC)

The Seleucid dynasty took control of the near east in about 202BC, and initially provided Israel with religious freedom. This symbiotic relationship lasted until 169 BC when Antiochus IV decided to loot the temple. There was a mini-rebellion after this, and Antiochus eventually issued an edict banning any expressions of Judaism and installed a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. This was like flame to a fuse, sparking a Jewish military rebellion. The Hasmoneans, a family linked to the priesthood – and particularly the Maccabean clan – aligned themselves with the Roman Empire and eventually claimed the high priesthood (Antiochus’ successor repealed his edict), and finally independence. The family eventually claimed royal honours and began expanding Jewish boundaries, in a quasi-messianic campaign.

During this period of self-government a number of Jewish religious groups emerged – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots. See below for their distinctives… and these groups

The Roman Period (63 BC to New Testament times)

The Hasmoneans rebuffed Greek rule for a significant amount of time, and during this period a power vacuum emerged in the near east – and there was nothing the Roman Empire liked more than a power vacuum in neighbouring territories. So Rome invaded. Pompey, a Roman General, arrived in Judea and found a house divided, two Hasmonean upstarts were fighting for supremacy. Both turned to Pompey for support, he picked a side (Hyrcanus), the other guy didn’t like it. And Pompey invaded.  Hyrancus was installed as high priest and “ethnarch” (but not king), and Rome redistributed the territories the Maccabees has claimed. A guy named Antipater, and his son Herod the Great, took power from the Hasmoneans. Herod was a Roman puppet. He ruled for 26 years and conducted a huge infrastructure program (largely to honour Roman rule and cement his power). He also wiped out the last of the Hasmoneans (including his wife, and his two sons by her). Herod died in 4 BC, leaving dueling heirs, and a dynasty vastly unpopular with the power brokers of Jewish society. Augustus wasn’t happy with either heir and placed Judea under provincial rule, through Roman officials reporting to the governor of Syria. In 66AD the Jews rebelled against Rome and Jerusalem, and the temple, were eventually destroyed.

Hellenistic Judaism

Hellenism was a cultural phenomenon. As the cultured Greeks conquered the primitive barbarian like nations around them they brought their culture with them. Cultural appropriations included religion, language, social structures, government, art, philosophy, and an aesthetic approach to just about everything… As this influence crept in, or possibly burst in, to the Jewish scene, the citizens of Judea were forced to reassess the core and non-core elements of their religious practice. This Hellenisation caused significant tension within the Jewish population – but it’s fair to say that it wasn’t all encompassing. Jews maintained their religious identities and kept ceremonial and cultic distinctions from the rest of the Greek empire. In many ways Philo was the model Hellenised Jew.

Hellenisation was essential for social mobility. Any political wannabees had to sell out their Judaism for progress.

While some “scholars” like Bart Erhman push the idea that nobody in Palestine spoke Greek as a piece of evidence for a lack of authenticity of the gospels – this is a minority position that pretty much contradicts all the extent evidence, including coins, inscriptions and papyrii from the period. Hengel is one scholar who has conducted significant work in demonstrating that Palestinian culture was a multilingual, multicultural melting pot. About ten percent of Palestinian Jews, in Hengel’s estimate, spoke Greek as their primary language.

There was no real “normative” model of Judaism in this period – everybody pretty much chose how Greek they wanted to be, or how Jewish.

Jewish Theology

The Qumran documents, and other apocryphal writings, show that there was significant theological diversity operating in the Second Temple period. There were four dominant theological movements, or sects, operating in Judea in this time:

The Pharisees

The Pharisees emerged largely in opposition to the Hasmonean rulers, and their fusion of prisetly and kingly power, they were a popular group and socially powerful. They sought to apply the Torah to everyday life, and are presented (particularly in Matthew) as the foils to Jesus teaching, they are often grouped with “the teachers of the law,” they were particularly concerned with creating a fence aroung the Torah, they created a series of extra laws and customs to ensure they would never encroach on the Torah (these were later written up as the Mishnah). They sought to bring about the Kingdom of God, and the arrival of the Messiah, by teaching God’s law. They believed in the soul, in resurrection, in heaven and hell, and in the existence of the supernatural. While they are often presented negatively in the light of Jesus’ teachings, it was a broad church of beliefs and practices (Nicodemus in John 3 was a Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea may have been one too).

The Sadducees

The Sadducees were compromisers – they supported the Hasmonean dynasty, and the Hellenisation of Israel. They were wealthy. They were corrupt. They focused their theology on the Pentateuch alone, while acknowledging the rest of Scripture. Only doctrine that could be demonstrated through the Pentateuch was binding, they rejected Oral Law. The Sadducees, in contrast to the Pharisees, dismissed any notion of immortality, resurrection or supernatural beings like Angels and Demons. They did not oppose Roman rule. They were the administrators of proceedings in the temple under Rome, and died out with Jerusalem in 70AD.

The Essenes

The Essenes were essentially a Jewish Doomsday cult. They tried to withdraw from society, maintaining purity and piety, while awaiting the apocalypse. They repudiated the Maccabean dynasty, and believed that withdrawing from society would hasten the coming of the kingdom of God. They were intensely devoted to the law and saw themselves as God’s elect subgroup within Israel. Qumran was a particularly rigid Essene monastic community. They expected two messiahs – a priestly leader, and a kingly leader, and their documentation found at Qumran reveals that though the community was contemporaneous with Christianity they did not acknowledge Jesus or Christianity in any way (despite the views of some “scholarly” conspiracy theorists.

The Zealots

The Zealots were cool. They carried swords around and stealthily killed Roman collaborators. They were first century Jewish ninjas. They hoped to overturn Rome’s empire in a military fashion and led a variety of revolts during the first century that can best be described as failed messianic uprisings. Their expectations are consistent with some of the disciples’ expectations of Jesus as a military messiah.

My oath

Our WCF classes have proven to be fun and exciting. Which is a surprise. We were up to Chapter 22 tonight – “Of Lawful Oaths and Vows” – it’s pretty controversial, because it prima facie contradicts instructions from Jesus in Matthew 5, and James, in James 5.

Things got heated. In a pretty good way – but raising a couple of points that I’ll post separately…

I’ve got to say that at this stage I’m with the Westminster assembly on this one. I think oaths are ok – despite the face value instructions not to swear them.

Let me explain.

In Matthew 5 Jesus is talking to the Pharisees – who have completely, and terribly, misunderstood the heart of the law. That’s the problem Jesus has with their approach to everything – from adultery to generosity.

Their problem with oaths is that they’re swearing but trying to get out on technicalities. So they swear on heaven, on Jerusalem, on anything and everything but God, because it gives them a way out. So Jesus tells them that’s not on – but he doesn’t rule out swearing an oath by God – nor does he in Matthew 23, where the issue comes up again. In fact, a natural reading of Matthew 23 (verses 16-22) is to see Jesus encouraging the Pharisees to swear their oaths by God rather than working around the issue with stupid technicalities.

Deuteronomy 6:13 tells Israel to take their oaths “in his name” – not in the name of the kingdom, Jerusalem or the hairs on one’s head.

My understanding of the Matthew passage is that the Pharisees are to aim for honesty (let your yes be yes) so that complicated oaths with easy technical get out clauses are not needed. And when Jesus says “anything more is of the devil” it would seem to be referring to anything designed to obfuscate.

Then the James 5 passage is a direct quote of this one, so should be understood the same way.

I can understand the other side of the argument – but I’ve got to say I’d be pretty comfortable swearing an oath on God’s name to tell the truth provided I then did, and pretty uncomfortable if I swore that and didn’t so not swearing seems to be the safer option anyway…

What say you?

Preach, when necessary use wordle

I’ve been a little bit lax in my blogging this weekend. I spent yesteday being a husband, a spectator and a friend. I went shopping with my wife, went to the NQ Fury’s A-League debut, and then hung out with a friend as part of his bucks day.

I also did a bit of sermon tweaking. Here’s the resulting wordle from today’s sermon effort. I did use a few seconds of the binocular soccer video in my talk.

I think I was better this time than last time, though perhaps not as good as my best time. I was repetitive but with a little more creativity in my repetition…

Here’s how the video tied in (for the curious)…

The Pharisees are just like these Japanese soccer players – they’re running around trying to keep everything in equal focus. The big things and the small things. They’ve got no perspective. They’re swinging, and they’re missing. They’re keeping all the rules – but they can’t get the bigger part of the game right. They can’t hit the ball. They aren’t scoring any goals. They’re losing.

But they’re worse than the Japanese soccer players in that video. These guys are running the game. They’re the coaches and they’re strapping binoculars on everyone else. It ruins the game for everybody.

The heading, despite being an obvious reference to the graphical content of this post, refers to what I think is one of the great fallacies of modern evangelism. The idea of preaching solely by actions is nice, but fundamentally wrong.

Putting things in perspective

I am, depending on swine flu, preaching this Sunday morning. I’m doing the fourth woe in Matthew 23. I’m going to use this video as an illustration. If I’m allowed out of bed.

Oh yeah, the doctor said it was too early to diagnose me clinically yet. So I have to wait to see if it gets worse.

Here’s the passage.

“23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”