What is the Good News?

Third Sunday After Epiphany

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Mark 1:14-15

“What we have here is a failure to communicate” Cool Hand Luke

What is the gospel, or the good news? In Greek, the word is “euaggelion“, from which we get our word “evangelism” But I’m afraid that when most people hear the word “evangelism” or “evangelistic” today, the associations that comes to mind are certainly more in line with the “turn or burn” fire and fury of John the Baptist than the way Jesus seemed to have understood the word.

Although the New Testament uses the word translated as “gospel” 76 times, its use in the ancient world wasn’t restricted to religious applications. It was a general term used in a variety of contexts, and was commonly used (by the victors, of course) to announce a military victory. There’s a very interesting reference to Augustus Caesar which says in part, “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him” So at least for some first century readers, the association with the word “gospel” might have been to the Pax Romana! If you’re interested, here’s a link to a lengthy, but fascinating article about the use of the word, as well as information about emperor worship, in the time of Jesus.

First-century Jewish people had been looking forward to the coming reign of God for a long time. Although their forced exile in Babylon was over, they were still a subjugated people at the mercy of both their Roman overlords and collaborators like Herod. The glory days of Israel during the time of David and Solomon had long passed into legend. Where was the promised new David, who would free them from captivity and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity, where everyone could sit unafraid under their own vine and fig tree? Of course, the “good news” that the first century Jews were longing to hear would be bad news for the Romans, who would be defeated and stripped of their power. Israel would be restored under the leadership of a wise and good king, and take Rome’s place as the dominant superpower, respected by all the other nations of the world.

Into this eclectic mix of cultural expectations and longings came Jesus, who used the same announcement of “good news”, but seemed to have understood the meaning of the word very differently. Luke gives a few more details than Mark about the content of Jesus’s initial proclamation. In his home synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus quoted the words of Isaiah, but added a twist of his own:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.

It’s interesting to read the whole passage from Isaiah 61 and note what Jesus chooses to include in his selection, and what he leaves out. He ends his reading with proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, but leaves out the next line equating that time with God’s vengeance on Israel’s oppressors. God’s reign on earth begins not with a powerful military leader like David crushing his enemies, but with Jesus, who went about doing good” and “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Furthermore, Jesus goes on to say that the good news of the kingdom of God (kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) isn’t just something that will happen in the future.  It is here, beginning now. Time and time again, Jesus tries to explain both the immanence of the kingdom of God and how it differs from preconceived ideas about it. The Kingdom of God is found not by looking for easily identifiable external realities but is within you. Often Jesus resorts to metaphor: the kingdom of God works  like yeast in bread dough and grows slowly like a mustard seed. Like treasure hidden in a field, it may not be readily apparent to the casual onlooker.

I’m afraid that in today’s world, the “good news” has become misunderstood as much as it was in Jesus’s time, and the message of Jesus has been distorted just as much as it was in the Middle Ages prior to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Franciscan renewal. As NT Wright puts it in “The Day the Revolution Began“, we have “platonized our eschatology, moralized our anthropology, and paganized our soteriology” to the point where we no longer really understand what Jesus was trying to tell us. Most of  today’s “evangelism” is geared toward convincing people to make a one-time choice between spending an eternity in heaven or hell. That choice is made by intellectually accepting certain theological principles, saying the right words in prayer, and then presumably (although those being evangelized are not generally told this) adhering to a behavioral code heavily dependent on “thou shalt nots” which may vary depending on the group doing the evangelizing. Not surprisingly, many recipients of this kind of proselytizing do not think what they are being told is “good news”, and they never really hear the radical message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is not just some future apocalyptic dream, nor is it primarily about what happens in the afterlife. The kingdom of God is among us, and like the mustard seed in the parable, has the potential to grow into a great sheltering, nurturing tree. But as Jesus said, we have to change our hearts and lives to make it so. The kingdom of God will not come if we keep on thinking that life is a zero-sum game and behaving accordingly.  We have to give up self-centered ways of thinking and behaving and start acting more like Jesus. We have to make Jesus our Lord in practice, not just in words. If Jesus is really Lord, then we ought to be putting a great deal more time, money, and effort into loving other people and a great deal less indulging our self-centered desires for more pleasure, wealth, and power.

Imagine what the world might be like if everyone in it who identifies as a Christian actually acted more like Christ. Imagine the majority of the human race treating everyone with whom they come into contact with the same kindness and compassion they would want for themselves. Imagine if more humans understood themselves to be caretakers and stewards of God’s creation, rather than viewing it as as something to be exploited, used up, and discarded like a broken toy. Imagine if most humans put their minds to work in positive rather than negative ways, finding ways to heal rather than harm, to create rather than destroy, to help rather than hurt, to make the world a little better because they were here. Imagine…

Jesus said, Don’t just imagine. Change your hearts and lives. Trust the good news. The time is always now, and (quoting N T Wright again) the revolution has begun. And that’s good news to me.




Nevertheless, She Persisted

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21-28

The story of the Canaanite woman is both interesting and troubling. The way that Jesus behaves toward the woman seems out of character for him. At first he ignores her plea for help and then he tells her his mission isn’t to help “her kind” of people. He comes pretty close to calling her a derogatory name. Nevertheless, she persists, and seems to show more politeness toward Jesus than he does to her. Jesus responds by apparently changing his mind about who is deserving of his help, praises her for her faith, and there’s a nice happily-ever-after-ending to the story.  It reminds me of the parable of the unjust judge, which doesn’t seem to paint God in a very good light, either.

The traditional interpretation of the story- that Jesus was just testing his disciples and/or the woman in order to teach them a lesson- has always created cognitive dissonance for me. To put it bluntly, it seems cruel, and I see Jesus as being “never cruel or cowardly”.  I never have been very successful with explaining away things in the Bible which bother me, nor tossing out the bits and pieces of it that are hard to understand. Instead I wrestle with them, sometimes for a very long time, until I can come to a conclusion that makes sense to me. I often find that the struggle results in a quantum leap in my faith understanding. No pain, no gain. Like Jacob, I won’t let go without a blessing.

So here’s what I am thinking today about this passage. Orthodox theology teaches that Jesus was a paradox, fully human and fully divine simultaneously. I think that the description of Jesus as “He, being in very nature God” refers to the essential character of God, which is not omniscience or omnipotence, but love. I think that the human Jesus was a product of his culture, which taught him that the world was flat and that Jews were superior to their Canaanite neighbors. There’s a peculiar story in Genesis where Noah’s son Ham walks in on his drunken, naked father, and when Noah wakes up, he curses his grandson Canaan into slavery to his brothers.  The book of Deuteronomy has God commanding the extermination of the Canaanites inhabiting the Promised Land, which Joshua attempts to do as wholeheartedly and bloodily as any of the Game of Thrones characters.  The few who manage to trick Joshua’s invading armies into sparing them are sentenced to be “hewers of wood and carriers of water” in perpetuity. Saul loses his kingship for sparing  King Agag of the Amalekites (a subgroup of Canaanite). Jesus would have heard all these stories, and many more like them,  and I think up until this point he had not really examined them in light of his growing understanding of who he was and what his purpose was in God’s redemptive plan. I think that his encounter with the Canaanite woman was an “eureka moment” for Jesus. The persistence of the Canaanite mother changed the way he thought about insiders and outsiders.

Some may have difficulty with my explanation, arguing that Jesus was sinless and therefore could not have been prejudiced. Which is worse, prejudice or purposeful cruelty in the form of testing, even if it is supposedly “for the greater good”? Perhaps prejudice itself is not a sin; it is when we fail to question our prejudices, or when we act on them in harmful ways, that we fall into sin. I don’t think there is anyone who can truthfully claim to be completely free of prejudice, of making assumptions about people we don’t know. We are all products of our cultures, with a natural tendency to be tribalistic, to be suspicious of people who are not part of our group. But when we get to know an outsider, we begin to question our pre-judgements and assumptions about “those people”. Couldn’t that be what happened to Jesus?

I grew up a white person in the segregated South. My fourth grade history book, “Know Alabama”, imagined happy, contented slaves, portrayed the Civil War as a battle for state’s rights, and described the KKK as a necessary and good constraint on our carpetbagger oppressors. Many schools were named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other heroes of the Confederacy. My Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers applied the “curse of Ham” story to explain that those of African descent were meant to be subservient to those of European descent. My mother, who was progressive enough to be threatened with cross-burning in her yard, once hesitated before handing me the phone to talk to a black classmate who had called to thank my father for his help in getting a job. She hesitated, but she thought about it and handed me the phone.

At some point, I, like my mother before me, and I think like Jesus in this story, began to question what we had been taught. My elementary school was segregated, but my high school was not, and I met black people who were smart and funny and kind and not in the least inferior to me. I read widely from a variety of sources, and began to see history through different perspectives. I also read the Bible quite a lot, and began to notice things my Sunday School teachers hadn’t mentioned. For example, when Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses’s Cushite wife, God struck Miriam with leprosy as a punishment. I couldn’t quite follow the curse of Ham logic, either. Not only did it seem overly punitive to punish all of Ham’s descendents for what seemed to me to be a minor infraction, I didn’t see where Africa came into the picture at all. There were many other Bible stories involving African people in positions of honor and leadership, like the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Eventually my own observations and Bible study led me to the place where I decided my textbooks and Sunday School teachers were wrong. But my questioning of tradition began with my first contact with black classmates.

Jesus was no stranger to questioning authority. In fact, there are several examples of him doing that in the very same chapter in which we find today’s story. He rejects both (the misuse of) Scripture and traditional purity laws as the basis for living a life pleasing to God. So it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination for me to think that Jesus, when confronted by the Canaanite woman, might have begun to question what he’d been taught about the proper place of Canaanites. He might have started out holding the prejudices common to his culture, but that’s not where he ended up, and that’s not how he behaved. His essential character overcame his learned prejudices. He healed the woman’s daughter, and he praised her faith. The writer of Luke tells a similar story, this time involving the faith of a Roman centurion.

From what I can infer, at some point in his ministry, Jesus moved from an exclusionary to an inclusionary understanding of God’s grace. Perhaps it was a direct consequence of the unnamed Canaanite woman’s persistence, although we can’t know for sure. What we can be sure of is this: No one is outside God’s grace, and there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. This is made especially clear in the story John tells of the woman at the well.    Paul, whose letters predate the writing of the gospels, writes in soaring poetry, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

“Nevertheless, she persisted”. It’s a pretty amazing story to think that this woman played the role of teacher to the son of God and caused him to change his mind. I’m impressed…and encouraged. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today, lots of fear and prejudice and hate. There are people who think God’s grace is meant for them, not others, those who want to exclude rather than include.  It’s scary and depressing and overwhelming at times. But I believe that change can come, not by power and control, but by love.  Persist. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”


Acts: Love Trumps Hate

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest  and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.  “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Acts is the second book in the New Testament attributed to Luke, and parts of it appear to be eyewitness accounts as a shift in syntax occurs midway through the book from third to first person plural. It begins with Jesus’s commission to “go and make disciples” and that’s what the book is about: the beginnings of Christianity, both its early successes and its setbacks. The first few chapters describe the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and a few of the “acts” of the original disciples, especially Peter. My favorite story in these earlier chapters is the account of Peter’s vision of the great sheet which Peter interprets to mean that the kingdom of God is open to all people who seek him, not just to observant Jews who follow all the rules. But it is Paul’s adventures which seem to dominate most of the book of Acts.

We first meet Paul in chapter 7, where he is a witness to (and apparently a cheerleader for) the stoning of Stephen. By chapter 8, he has become an active persecutor of the new faith, which he views as dangerously heretical. But in chapter 9, he undergoes a dramatic conversion and spends the rest of his life promoting the faith he once tried to exterminate, travelling throughout the known world. His adventures are detailed in the remaining chapters of Acts, which include acts of mob violence and police brutality, assassination attempts, and shipwreck. Although Luke ends Acts on the up note of  “for two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.  He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance” tradition tells us that he was executed shortly thereafter, probably during Nero’s reign.

So why did I choose such a deliberately provocative title for this post? It’s because as always, I find the Bible speaks to me at the point of my deepest need. I was stunned and disappointed by the results of the election, and I’m frightened about what may happen in the next few years.  Although Hillary had her faults, as we all do,  I think her heart and mind were in the right place, and I resonated to her vision of love and justice and inclusiveness. I try, and I think I can understand, the viewpoints of my conservative and libertarian friends who think less is more when it comes to government. What I can’t come to grips with is how so many people could have chosen someone whose rhetoric (whether he believes it or not) is so incendiary, cruel, and decidedly incongruent with the teachings of Jesus. Do the ends justify the means? What does it accomplish to gain the whole world and lose one’s moral center?  Isn’t that what the third temptaion of Christ was all about?

What Acts says to me is that in the end, love will win, even if in the interim things get very unpleasant. There are people bent on evil in the Biblical sense- those who worship self-centered idols of pleasure, money, and power, those who don’t care what happens to other people as long as they get what they want.  There are well-meaning people who can cause terrible harm and suffering, perhaps more so than those obviously bent on doing bad things. There’s all the collateral damage to the little people just trying to live and love in their own lives who are unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire. There are people who suffer precisely because they are trying to be kind and helpful and good.  Sometimes the world as it is seems awfully chaotic and random. But faith tells me that God is present, and still working to bring good our of evil, order out of chaos, love out of hate, and hope out of hopelessness. Sometimes this comes in surprising ways, as Paul found out on the road to Damascus. I’m sure neither Paul nor the people he was persecuting could have imagined that scenario. But often God shows up in less dramatic, even plodding ways: in simple acts of kindness by image-bearers who try  to follow the teachings of Jesus in loving their neighbors as themselves, and of not growing weary in doing good.

Stephen died a martyr, as eventually did Peter and Paul, but the teachings of Jesus continued to spread, and still do. Along the way, there has been a lot of backtracking and wandering off the path Jesus blazed for us and invited us to follow. Sometimes I think that the church today has gone as far off the rails as the medieval pre-Reformation church did.  The kingdom of God comes not by power and control, but by self-sacrificing love and servanthood. There is a moral arc to the universe, and it does bend toward justice, even if the curve is so slight as to be indiscernable to me.. God is still working, and he hasn’t given up on us yet. And that’s good news to me.


Joel: In a Time of National Disaster

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

This year marked the 15th anniversary of the  9/11 terrorist attacks, and as I read through Joel in my annual trek through the Bible, I couldn’t help but see a parallel. When disaster strikes, where is God?

The timing of Joel’s writing is uncertain, but his short book is written in response to an particular,  and unusually severe and  devastating plague of locusts. Interestingly, unlike most Biblical prophets, Joel doesn’t attribute this disaster to God. He doesn’t say that God sent or allowed this plague because of their unfaithfulness, or bad behavior toward their fellow men. He just uses some unforgettable poetic metaphors to describe how bad things are, and implores the people to call upon God as their only hope.

I’ve always liked the passage in Joel, which Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost, for its inclusivity. The spirit of God is not limited by age or gender or ethnicity or station in life. It is available to everyone. And one day, God will put all things right that have now gone wrong. And that’s good news to me.