Monday, September 7, 2015

In Defense of John the Baptist

I was disturbed when I heard a preacher on the radio saying that John the Baptist had a crisis of faith when he sent disciples In Luke 7. I had to write this in his defense. Here is the story first.

18 John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, 19 he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

20 When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”

21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

24 After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

28 I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

Now the defense.

Mr. Anderson the religion teacher at the mission in Guatemala had to leave town. He told his students that the Pope himself will be teaching them until a new teacher is hired. Many students didn’t know exactly what a “Pope” was. The students were sad. A third grader said “We don’t want you to leave. We like learning religion from you. We don’t know if we can trust this Bishop to teach us the right thing.” Mr. Anderson explained you can totally trust the Pope


Student: Should believe whatever he tells us?

Anderson: Yes

A 6th grader decided to play along. “Suppose he tells us not to listen to the priest?”

Anderson: He won’t do that?

Student: What if he does?

Anderson: Then you would listen to the Pope.

Student: Suppose he says Father Tony is not even a priest anymore?

Anderson: You would listen to the Pope.

Student: So who could tell us that Jesus is not the Messiah?

Mr. Anderson was a bit taken by the question. After thinking for a while he said” No one can. Only God or the Son of God”

Mr. Anderson looked at the back of the church where Father Tony was sitting. Father nodded in approval.

After class Mr. Anderson asked Father Tony, “So when John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah, John must have already known and believed that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God?”

Fr. Tony: Indeed!

Anderson: So why ask?

Fr. Tony: The first question we should be asking is why did John the Baptist still have disciples after he told all his followers that he is only here to prepare the way for Jesus? Did John do his very best to make his disciples follow Jesus instead?

Anderson: Yes

Fr. Tony: Is it a good thing that there were still disciples that followed John?

Anderson: No

Fr. Tony: Do you think he tried his best to get them to stop following him and turn to Jesus?

Anderson: Yes

Fr. Tony: So why did they continue?

Anderson: Maybe they were emotionally attached to him.

Fr. Tony: I think so. So this was a sort of intervention for those disciples’ emotional problem. Instead of telling them to go follow Jesus which they seem to refuse, he tells them “Go ask him a question for me”. Doing that he puts them in a mind set to listen to Jesus and do as he says. He also makes himself seem unsure (intentionally). He also knows that when they go see Jesus they will witness great miracles.

And Jesus (knowing everything) “plays along” speaking as if John was stumbling.

Did you notice that Jesus has so many good things to say about John? But he only says those things after John’s disciples leave. Jesus always had great things to say about John (some of the greatest testament by one man to another ever). The only time he says something less than flattering about John was when John’s disciples are around. As soon as they leave he goes back to saying great things about him.

Would Jesus, who knows the heart of every man say such things about someone who has a crisis of faith?

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Why did Jesus say so many outrageous things?

Once upon a time there was a conservative candidate for the presidency who was known for being ultra conservative. He was opposed to illegal immigration and probably all immigration. He strongly opposed same sex “marriage” and gay couples adopting children. When he was asked about his view on immigration he said, “I don’t care if it is legal or illegal. I just don’t want this country to become Mexico.” When asked about children of gay couples he said, “Gay and lesbian couples can’t have children.” His responses were immediately picked up by all the news media. Many experts said that this was the most outrageous statement ever by a presidential candidate. “In the era of soundbites this is all you have to do to end your campaign”, the experts said. “He should’ve known that now even conservatives can’t stand by while he says things like that”. When liberals heard of this they were duly outraged. They said that now conservatives will have to abandon him or be viewed as lunatic right wingers. “This is the end of his candidacy.” The big surprise was that most, if not all, conservatives agreed with him. His support among conservatives increased. Even middle of the road conservatives, and some moderates and independents, liked his views.  Conservative media were now replaying his quotes round the clock energizing more conservative voters. There was no way for anybody to avoid hearing those quotes. Almost every person in the country knew about them. Each side claimed that those quotes helped their cause and converted some undecideds to their side. But, one thing was certain, his quotes reached everyone. He became the most well-known politician in recent history. Did he win the election you may ask? No he didn’t. You can say he energized the opposition too much!  He was accused of hate speech and forced to drop out of the race.

The most amazing thing about our candidate was he was able to use his opposition to spread his message. The same quotes that the opposition thought were outrageous and absurd and thereby replayed over and over, those same quotes were picked up by his followers and repeated with great pride and affection. Imagine if this happened before there was the internet and news TV. Imagine further that this was before newspapers, when the only news was word of mouth. How amazingly effective was this mechanism of spreading the word? That is why when his history was written by his followers many years later most of what they remembered verbatim was those outrageous quotes. If you read their reports you might think that half of what he said was so outrageous and outlandish. Or as one priest said “Deliberate exaggeration intended to shock for the desired effect”. I think he probably had a lot more “reasonable” things to say. But, it makes sense that if no one wrote any of them down at the time, then they would be more difficult to remember so many years later.

Think about how many outlandish quotes from the gospel were repeated by Christian parents, priests, preachers, and teachers? Quotes about hating your parents and plucking your eye out! They were repeated with great pride, respect, and affection. These are the kind of quotes that non-Christians would say is all they need to show how crazy those Christians are. My thesis is that for a few years, even decades after the ascension, those quotes continued to be repeated by both sides. And that is why those quotes are over represented in the gospels. Jesus basically used his opposition both to spread his word and as a memory aid. The quotes had to be exaggerations to achieve that.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Eleventh Hour Laborers

Matthew 20, 1-16

(The 11th hour is about 5pm. It is based on a 12 hour work day from sunrise to sunset. If you start working at the 11th hour you have only about 1 hour of daylight left to work.)

Mr. Anderson was teaching religion to the 8th grade class. He was explaining the parable of the 11th hour laborers. There was almost a student revolt against the owner of the vineyard. They all insisted that he was unfair. Leading the charge were Peter and Paul, new converts to Catholicism. They both spent years in foster homes and got into a bit of trouble until they were adopted by two wonderful families. Those two kids were a wonderful success story. They were excellent academically and morally. They embraced the faith and were so motivated and curious to understand all about it. Mr. Anderson tried to explain that the “daily wage” they agreed on is actually a “Dinar” in the original scripture and that was a generous pay for a day’s work. That didn’t help much. Also explaining that the Dinar was eternal life, God himself was the reward and there could be nothing more didn’t help. Neither was explaining that the owner fulfilled the contract requirement and that, by definition, would be justice under the law. He went on to explain the personal loving relationship that developed between owner and the 11th hour workers. How they never asked how much will they be paid. They started work at a time when the other workers were starting to slow down, gather their tools, clean up and get ready to go home. They were running around wishing there was more time to work for this wonderful man. They didn’t think about their wages, anything would be generous. They were not expecting to make a single penny that day.

“Fair is fair”, said Peter. “These guys were paid way more per hour than the first ones. I am sure they were paid way more per unit work than the first ones. That is not fair. Should not the judge of all the world act with Justice?” Peter was quoting Abraham from Genesis, knowing that the owner of the vineyard represents God.  Paul asked “Why did he start by paying the 11th hour workers first? Is that to add insult to injury? Maybe it’s the only way the parable would work. But surely Jesus could find a way to teach his point without being more abusive to the first workers.” Mr. Anderson seized on that point. “What is Jesus’ purpose in teaching that parable?” “I don’t know. How you should never work for this owner starting in the morning and under contract?”, said Peter. “These guys got a terrible deal”.

Mr. Anderson started, “Remember how I explained that many of Jesus’ sayings are deliberate exaggerations meant to shock for the desired effect. The desired effect here is….” Paul interrupted, “And why that tone? He talks to the first workers as if he wants nothing to do with them. Like get out of my face. These guys didn’t do anything wrong. They expected to get paid more and grumbled. But that seems reasonable. If the owner wants to teach them something maybe he should explain whatever he wants in a nicer way.” “You think that would help?”, asked Mr. Anderson. “Sure”, echoed the whole class.

“OK let’s do this. Let’s reproduce the parable and I will be the owner and I will explain to the first workers what Jesus wanted to teach them to their full satisfaction. “I gotta see this”, answered a few students. Taking the bait, or perhaps the challenge, Mr. Anderson said, “I guarantee that by the end of this class all the students playing the role of the first workers will be totally satisfied with my explanation.” “Are we going to work all day in the vineyard?”, joked one of the students.”No, we will just reshoot the last scene of the foreman paying the laborers. I will be the owner and foreman. I will sit down here up front. You guys will stand in line. In the front of the line would be the 11th hour workers. In this group I need people who feel that God has been so generous to them. That they wish they had more time to do good works. That even if they lived another hundred years serving God and laboring in his vineyard they would never deserve the rewards of eternal life.” As expected, Peter and Paul were upfront with a few other students. “Behind these guys I want the laborers who started working in the afternoon. If you feel that God has been very kind to you and that you are undeserving of His gifts get in that point.” A few more students got in. “Now on to the workers who started at noon and late morning. If you feel that you have worked hard serving God in your life but still know that you cannot possibly be deserving of eternal life because of your own merits and being free from sin, then get in that group.”

“Now, for the last row I want students who feel that they have definitely earned the right to Heaven by their hard work and…” Paul interrupted, “ Mr. Anderson, there’s no one left. There are no students in the last row. Do we have to put some students in the last row for the parable to work?” “ The exact opposite”, said Mr. Anderson. “Nobody has to be in the last row. That is the purpose of the parable. Jesus wants everyone who hears this parable to never ever want to be in that row. Perhaps that is why the owner was particularly abusive to them. It is a motivational story about how wrong it is to feel entitled to God’s gifts. Not only are you not entitled, but also if you feel entitled you will be miserable and would be offending God, who purchased the gift of eternal life for you by his own suffering and death. The “day’s heat” doesn’t really account for much. If you appreciate God’s gift you would wish there was more heat and labor to repay him.