Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The One Sided Coin

This week I would like to make a comment concerning the ongoing culture war by considering a well known incident in the life of Jesus.  I will translate it from Mark's Gospel account (Mark 12:13-17) because the other Gospel writers (Matt. 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26) probably used Mark as their source material:

And they sent away certain ones of the Pharisees and Herodians in order to ensnare Him [Jesus] by [His] word.  And after they came, they said to [Jesus], "Teacher, we know that you are true, and in you is no bias concerning anyone; for you do not look into the face of people, but you teach the way of God in truth.  Is it lawful to pay the poll tax [i.e., a tribute imposed by Augustus in 6 C.E.] to Caesar or not?  Should we pay it or shouldn't we pay it?"  But having seen their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them, "Why do you test Me? Bring to Me a denarius so that I might look at it."  They brought [Him one].  And [Jesus] said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's."  Jesus said to them, "Pay the things of Caesar to Caesar, and the things of God to God."  And they they were exceedingly astonished by Him.

Brother, nothing is new under the sun, is it?  The same political manipulations and trickery used two thousand years ago live on today without mitigation.  Duplicity is one of humankind's best weapons against its self.  Our advanced technology definitely has afforded us the ability to refine duplicity into a high art and science, but we are still as nasty as ever.

Some nineteenth century American scholar/statesman--I don't remember his name--once said something to the effect that politics makes strange bedfellows.  It's true.  Here we see two opposing forces in first century Palestine--the Herodians, who represent the economic and political arm, and the Pharisees, who are the religious arm--in cahoots to blacken Jesus' eye of reputation in order to turn the people against Jesus.  They attempt to liquor Jesus up with  Jim Beam's oldest and most potent recipe affectionately dubbed, "Vanity."  They hope that in His inebriated condition He would slip up and either answer "no" and get the Romans down on Him for fomenting sedition, or answer "yes" and incite the Jewish zealots against Him.  What they don't understand is only the will of God intoxicates Jesus--as it should all of us.

What we need to see in understanding Jesus' response is what coinage represented in the minds of people in those days.  Whoever struck a coin was in effect saying, "this is my realm, my rules, my things!"  Whoever's money you exchanged with others marked you as an ally of the minter of the money.  For this reason, the Jews only used faceless coins minted by either Herod, Herod Antipas, or, until the reign of Vespasian, the Romans in deference to Jewish sensibilities (see A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Hendrickson (2000): p.740).  In this way the Jews maintained their allegiance to the Jewish nation and therefore God.

Don't miss what they were doing in the incident under discussion.  In order to win their culture war against Rome and Jesus--because Jesus, by standing outside of the war, was undermining the causes of both sides of the conflict--the Jews willingly contradicted their own sacred beliefs and traditions; they resorted to using their enemy's methods to achieve their own purposes; they showed their true alliance was with the sword which they hoped someday to wield, but for the time being remained in the hand of Caesar.  The Herodians had long ago bought into the so-called truth of might makes right; but the religious Jews were not far behind them; they would later fully capitulate to this so-called truth when they would confess before Pilate, "We have no King except Caesar!!" (end of John 19:15)

 Jesus' answer to all those hypocrites might be restated as, "Let Caesar do his gig, you play God's gig."  Jesus wasn't into culture wars because the present world order--if we can be so gracious as to call it an order--will do whatever suits it, and what suits it will always oppose the perfect order and love of God's kingdom Jesus has brought to us.  This doesn't at all mean Jesus condones or doesn't care about all the evil persisting in the present age--He does, and so should we.  But such evil will never be beaten by its own methods because the evil feeds on its methods.  The present world system will only be vanquished by the methods of God's kingdom, which are love and forgiveness.

As members of Christ's kingdom juxtaposed on this grim, dark, and evil world system, we should not be trying to fight a culture war because eventually we will be drawn in to use the same tactics and methods of our opponents--that's how wars always work.  Inevitably, as did those Jewish leaders of two thousand years ago, we will attempt to make our point by investing our enemy's money against them, as if to say I represent one side of the coin and you represent the other side.  In reality, though, the coin is one sided.

For example, we cannot hope to show the truth of God's kingdom by repudiating abortion while at the same time war mongering and supporting the death penalty and harboring bitterness against other people, as evidenced by a relentless spewing of vitriol against everyone who doesn't see it our way.  In the end, everyone is killing everyone else.  Instead, we must stand for the sanctity of all life by investing ourselves in a crumbling society by trying to lift people from the desperation, despair, and false allegiances leading them to their murderous decisions and outcomes.  We do this by living according to the sacrificial and humble nature of God's love, which by its very definition means we won't be liked by the present world--indeed, they will try to snuff us out.  But we should not be deterred because God's love is the Truth; and we know this because our King, Jesus the Christ, is alive.  I mean, really folks, what are we afraid of?

Our fear is palpable because we insist on fighting a culture war.  As long as we keep fighting culture wars, all that our opponents will see is our fear.  And our fear will defeat us because fear is contrary to the only force that can bring life, beauty, and peace.  As John writes in his first epistle, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear holds punishment, the one who fears has not been perfected in love." (I John 4:18)

The people of the present world system are afraid, so the methods they employ are fear based.  When we use their methods we show them we are afraid, too.  There is only one side to the coinage of the present world system, and it is fear.  We need to bring to this fearful world a new coin--a rare, precious, and beautiful coin--that has been minted in a kingdom they do not know, yet long for without knowing it.  We need to dazzle them with the resplendent and bright coin of God's holy love by loving them as Christ has loved us.  Only in the light of the stark contrast of our fearless love will they perhaps come to see their fear and all that fear leads them to do to escape it, only to keep dragging them farther down into its hopeless misery and despair.

Jesus said, "I have spoken these things to you so that you might have peace in Me.  In the world you have tribulation.  But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


A few years ago, I was sitting at my wife's desk waiting to take her out for lunch.  She was a therapist at an elementary school, and was away somewhere on the campus dealing with whatever she dealt with.  I watched the children passing by her open door on their way to the cafeteria.  Each child or group of children streaming by became framed for a moment by the doorway as snapshots of the human race.  It was all of us coursing before my eyes that noon: the flamboyant, the timid, the tough, the haughty, the humble, the weak, the contemplative, the playful, the scared, the invincible, the popular, the marginalized, the swindler, the wheeler and dealer, the politician, the bully, the picked-on, the predator, and the prey.  There we are, I thought.

Then I sat up a little because a small boy--maybe eight or nine years old--drifted through my view, wearing out in the open what all the others were concealing.  There were elements of despair and worry in his face; yet none of these quite described what I witnessed in that little shaver.  In fact, those descriptors--even though accurate at one level--are too easily spoken--too glib.  If they were all one saw in that little guy at that moment, then one would completely miss the profound impression I'm trying to convey. No, he was lost; but lost in the deepest sense.

It was quite evident that he had found himself up against a high, blank, and impenetrable wall.  He knew something lay on the other side, and he knew he needed to get there in order to survive.  But he had looked up and looked to his right and looked to his left, and all he saw was featureless gray.  He no longer thought of going back.  The little lad had come to a point where there were no answers.  It was as if his tender mind simply shrugged its shoulders and told him, "I don't know."  The boy was lost.

When my wife returned, she saw my eyes had welled with tears.  After I explained what I had seen, she said, "Oh, yes, he is one of my students,  He lost his lunch box."

We don't often have such an open window to our selves as I had that day in my wife's school.  I wouldn't see that little light again until sometime later when it reappeared in a woman.

I was waiting for my girls--as I am wont to do--outside a department store when I spied a solitary, middle aged woman walking away from the store.  All she was carrying was her purse; the scene was quite ordinary.  What caused me pause, though, was the manner by which she held her purse.  Her bag had nothing to distinguish it.  As I recall, it was plain and perhaps a bit worn; I don't even remember its color, except that it was monotone.  Yet she carried the purse as if she were carrying her self.  She was clearly lost in the same deep sense as the little chap back at school was lost.

Everyday, millions and millions of people tote around their purses, backpacks, and bags.  If a robber were to snatch a bag from one of these people, you know he or she would get mad--and rightly so; the person might even go after the thief.  But after it was all over, the victim would simply go out and buy new stuff.  This was not the impression that lone woman left me with.  If someone were to suddenly lift her purse, I'm convinced she would end up standing there where it happened in exactly the same state as that little boy had found himself. She would be paralyzed by a hopelessness she couldn't understand.  She wouldn't see her self as a victim--only as one without recourse or options or explanation.  To take something from someone else is wrong; to take that poor woman's purse would be an inscrutable cruelty that would leave her devastated.  And the bleak sadness in this is she wouldn't be able to articulate her devastation because she is lost.

Two people afforded me two glimpses into all of us.  We are all lost just as I have described here.  We are a race in denial.  We are experts at hiding our selves from our selves.  We are all like those with iTunes(R) blaring in their ears in order to drown out themselves in those unwelcome silences.  We are a people without hope until we are willing to quiet the white-noise and finally meet our selves.  We cannot really help each other, either; unless we are willing to look beyond the smoke and mirrors--clever and intimidating as they often are--and see each other as God sees us: the little guy without his lunch pail, the lonely woman clutching her purse.  And when we do that, let us turn back to God; the only one who holds the answers, who finds the lost, who leads the way out, and who genuinely loves us.

"When Jesus saw the crowds, he was filled with compassion concerning them, because they were distressed and sunk powerless like sheep without a shepherd.  Then [Jesus] said to His disciples, "The harvest is great, but the workers are few.  Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest so that He might cast out workers for His harvest (Matt. 9:36-38)."

And on another occasion:

"After He heard this [i.e., about the execution and burial of John the Baptist], Jesus departed from there by boat to a deserted place by himself.  And after the crowds learned this, they followed after Him on foot from the towns.  And after He came out, Jesus saw the populous crowd and was filled with compassion for them, and He healed their sick (Matt. 14:13-14)."

Oh, and by the way, my wife made sure her bewildered little charge had lunch that day.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ol' Dad's Advice

My wife and I recently returned home from our annual anniversary getaway weekend.  In the mail that had accumulated in our absence was a contest promotional from a regional business.  It was one of those scratch and play deals, where if you match three icons, you win.  Well, I scratched away and sure enough I matched three $25000 icons.  The sheet claimed I was a certain winner, although there was an asterisk following this proclamation. But even after reading the fine print, it seemed I had really won.  After fifty-plus years my ship appeared to have finally come in; perhaps lady luck was giving a wink to this old luckless Kokko.  It was Sunday, so I put the document aside to pursue on Monday.

As the day wore on, though, I kept thinking about how I was going to spend the twenty-five grand--well, actually the twelve grand after taxes.  Then I recalled a piece of sage advice that was part of a trilogy of wisdom nuggets my Dad had passed on to me the day I left home for the last time.  He said, "There's no such thing as a free lunch."  I related this to my wife, who then went on the internet to see if anyone had posted anything about the company or its promotion.  Sure enough, the business had played this game before in another city.  A winner in that contest was awarded a fifty dollar gift certificate, which she later learned was really only worth five dollars.  When she complained they told her the contest had ended and all prizes were non-negotiable. My Dad's wisdom and my wife's cool objectivity rescued us from a lot of wasted time and the embarrassment of looking like rubes.

Perhaps you are curious about the remaining two pearls of wisdom my Dad had left me all those many years ago.  Some people--mostly my mother--have been a bit put off by the colorful manner by which my father packaged his little gems.  But even this shows how wise my father is; after all, one will probably forget, "You don't get anything for nothing," but will almost certainly remember, "There's no such thing as a free lunch!"

According to my mother's sensibilities, my Dad's other two pieces of advice to his parting son are not fitting for any child with any breeding.  By today's standards--if you can call them that--they pretty much read PG.

Dad had actually introduced me to the first when I was in high school, years before my famous send off.  We had gone to a small shopping mall near our home, that day.  As we entered the mall we passed by a sixties-something woman, who was holding a shopping bag and a purse, and standing by the front doors, apparently waiting for someone.  Coincidental with this my Dad blurted (I don't remember what we had been talking about) out loud, "Yeah, you don't want to be a closet drunk."  Well, as it happened, a short while later we passed through the same set of doors and the same woman still waiting for whoever, when my Dad offered, quite for all to hear, what would become the first of his famous canon of wisdom:  "Well, just remember to save your money and buy good bourbon!"  The poor woman was noticeably appalled that a father would teach his young son (I looked like I was ten in high school) such horrid things.  But I have never forgotten what he taught me that day, and I bet you won't forget it, either.

What was the third piece of the trilogy, you ask?  Well, he told me, "And, son, always pay your poker debts."  It's perhaps not as poetic as Shakespeare's "Neither a borrower, nor a lender be," but it sure hits you right in the gut--don't you think?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Did God Create Some Humans to be Damned? Part 7


Even though the title question seems to emerge from an airtight syllogism, we cannot afford to decide such an important theological issue on the basis of logic alone; because such simple logic is totally silent to the character and purposes of God.  Certainly the character and purposes of God fall far beyond our capacity to understand them (Rom. 11:33-36).  Nevertheless, we are also not totally ignorant because we can see what God has revealed about His nature and purposes in His one, only, and unique son, Jesus the Christ.  Through Jesus we see God’s goodness and the primacy of His goodness.  We also see that because of His goodness God has predestined a place to dwell with us, who are His image-bearers, in perfect justice, which is the right order of all things through righteous relationships of holy-love.  And He predetermined that this place of perfect relationships would stand in Christ, and Christ alone, forever.  This eternal realm is the kingdom of God and His glory.

A person stands in Christ and therefore in His kingdom because he or she chooses, under the all-sufficient light of God’s grace, to repent and surrender him or herself in uncompromised humility wholly to Christ.  A person remains outside the kingdom of God only because he or she stubbornly and arrogantly clings to the delusion of his or her self-sufficiency.  And the only one of these two people you will ever find boasting of his or her decision is the rebel.

God knew before all time the decisions we all would make in the light of grace afforded each of us because of the faithfulness of Christ.  But just because He had such foreknowledge doesn’t mean He had destined us to our choices; for to do that would contradict His goodness and subvert His purpose of a just kingdom of holy-love.  God predetermined to create us and the cosmos to be His kingdom fully aware of those who would resolutely rebel against Him; and He allowed for such rebellion because His love can have it no other way and still remain His love.  This meant that with such great love would also likely be great suffering.

But ponder long and deep this love of God; God’s love loved so much and so powerfully that it completely took all the suffering upon and within itself and then consumed it.  It is as John teaches in his gospel account: 

In Him [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of humankind; and the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:4-5).”

In one sense God because of His love created a universe with the risk His love would go unrequited and incur suffering. Yet even as I admit this again here, I--as I well hope you do, too--realize how simple minded it is to speak of risk at all in the context of God’s love.  God’s love is so powerful it can recover its losses without compromising its nature; so love proceeds in its purposes insensible of any concept of risk or threat of risk. This is the power of God surpassing all understanding; this is truly God’s glory.

Because of Jesus’ faithfulness in going to the cross and taking upon himself all the suffering—past, present, and future—born of unrequited love, and carrying it to the grave, and on the third day vanquishing it once and for all by being bodily raised from the dead and ascending to the right-hand of God (i.e., to reign King over His kingdom), we all stand forgiven (I John 2:2); suffering and evil no longer have any lasting power except what we grant them.

Therefore, in the light of such a love as God’s love, the very idea of God purposely creating people to be damned is ridiculous.  The God who is love created a universe by means of His love, because of His love, and for His love, and in His love; and God’s love is prevailing in Christ, forever.

So the only question remaining for any of us is, “Who is my king?” 

Jesus said,

 “The appointed time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe in the good news! (Mark 1:15)”