God’s Revolution and Reign
God’s Revolution and Reign
Mark 2:16-17, 21-22; Luke 5:36-39
Let’s hear God’s word:
“When the scribes of the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, they said to his disciples: ‘Why is he eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?’ ”
“Sinners” was a catchall term for all Jews who didn’t follow the dictates of the scribes of the Pharisees. The tax collectors were lumped in with these other “sinners” for reasons we’ve mentioned – they were seen as traitorous thieves who did the pagan’s bidding.
Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees had not fared well in direct debate with Jesus. So, here, their attack is indirect. They try to stump his disciples. They didn’t want their “gotcha questions” to trigger any more “gotcha answers”.
Of course, theirs wasn’t a question; it was yet another accusation meant to entrap Jesus. But, they were more insistent on being right than sure they were right. The self-righteous don’t really believe they’re righteous. And, although they’re blessed with an uneasy suspicion of their unrighteousness, they nonetheless suppress it and insist on their righteousness. So, they do all of this with such little tactical caution, that their malicious maneuver malfunctions.
“Jesus overheard them. And he said to them, ‘People who are healthy don’t need a physician; the unhealthy need a physician. I have come to call sinners, not those who’re well.’ ”
Foiled again! Still, at God’s deeper level of mercy, they were given yet another opportunity to find the truth even in the foiling.
Jesus confronted their effrontery with a parabolic deflection – appropriating their own self-serving discriminations and inviting their reflection. He says he’s come to heal all who admit to a need for healing, but has nothing for those who don’t admit such a need.
Jesus knew that it was useless to more frontally attack their self-righteous defensiveness, so he took a roundabout way to offer them a reality check. Still, for the publicly pious who’d postured righteousness for so long, there was too huge a stake in keeping up appearances. They would not admit to any lack in their religiosity.
So, Jesus goes on to frame his point in further parables. He said:
“No one puts a patch of un-shrunken cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. People pour new wine into new wineskins. Yet, those who prefer the old wine refuse even to taste the new wine, insisting that, ‘Old is good!’ ”
His emphasis on no one’s doing this and no one’s doing that – and all for quite practical reasons – showed that no one could reasonably disagree that putting a new patch on an old coat or unfermented wine in a hardened old wineskin was foolishness.
However, since parable invariably points beyond itself to deeper – even disturbing – truth that’s more than a simple story, the further truth isn’t grasped so willingly.
And God’s radical revolution, inaugurated in Jesus’ ministry of grace, so confronts the schemes of traditional religiosity, pious pretensions and self-serving prejudice that, nothing short of a total turnaround – indeed, nothing short of repentance – is sufficient for the spiritual conversion of established and entrenched hypocrisy that insists: “Old is good!”
This parable points to the radical fact that, as one scholar almost understates: “Jesus is more than a reformer of Judaism.” (Darrell Bock) Says another: “To mix the ‘new’ with the ‘old’ will ruin both, [for] the ‘new’ is more than the ‘old’ revised.” (E. Earle Ellis) Still another says that the text indicates it’s “equally foolish to mutilate the new way of life taught and called into existence by [Jesus] for the sake of the old, obsolete forms of religion such as those of the followers of John [the Baptist] and the Pharisees. Just as fatal will it be to adapt the principles of Jesus to the old systems.” (Norval Geldenhuys) Says another: “Trying to contain the gospel within the bounds of Judaism will destroy both [for] the Gospel is radically new and must be allowed to express itself in its own way.” (I. Howard Marshall) Bock agrees: “A new era with new perspectives has arrived [and] one cannot mix what Jesus brings with the old ways without creating a destructive mix. [Jesus’] new way needs new ways of doing things. [But to] minds [that] are already made up”, Bock notes, “Jesus’ remark is both a description and a warning [for Jesus] knows that some do not want change.” This conservative scholar goes on to note: “The issues Jesus raises here are dangers that those of a conservative theological bent always face”, for, as he adds, “legalists major in minors and ignore the major relational requirements God asks of his followers.”
Bock observes: “In the early church, this new way took on a focused character that should still be present in our communities. There was less concern with the externals of relating to God and more serious concern with nurturing the conditions of the heart and the treatment of others, both in the community and outside it.” He calls us to put ourselves into the scene: “The Pharisees picture how resistant we can be to things being done in a different way under God. Jesus’ presence demands that we reflect on how he is leading us.” (Italics mine.)
Noting the fact that the “security and identity [of traditionalists is] so closely tied to other things that they will not even think of trying the new way God can bring to them”, Bock recognizes that, “there are times when we must accept that is where some people are.” He’s right. They’re locked into their insecurity and self-interests, worried about denominational affiliation, employment, pensions and reputation as well as having to admit they’ve been wrong and, in that, they’ve wronged others. This is the sad case in gay debates within the churches today. Traditionalists fearfully stick with the old ways, old interpretations, rationalizing: “Old is good!” – at least until the new gets older.
Of course, ecclesiastical politics, as any politics – Left or Right – bogs down and won’t budge, because a power-driven Party Line is unforgiving.
As in Jesus’ day and in the days of the early church, so it’s been for two millennia and on down to today. Specific expressions of what’s “old” and “new” have changed over time. The “new”, once vehemently denounced, becomes the “old”, now vigorously defended against yet something “newer” that will, in time, become something “old” and taken for granted as “traditional”. But the ever-present pattern of resisting the more recently “new” in favor of the less recently “old” is that ever-old resistance of the Pharisees who opposed Jesus down to his death at Golgotha. And even after his resurrection, the majority continued to refuse to recognize him for who he is.
In every generation, the original message of Jesus must be revitalized as the startling, even scandalizing, Good News that it was at first, for every generation can get, so soon, so old and so stuck in its all-too-familiar but off-message “traditions”.
For perspective, it’s well to recall that, over the years, what’s been resisted and rejected so vigorously in Christian circles has included some very silly things that have nothing whatsoever to do with the gospel or real Christian discipleship. In the 1960s, students’ beards were forbidden by the administrators of Moody Bible Institute, founded eighty years before by the fully bearded D. L. Moody. A century ago, “black gospel” music was rigorously resisted and rejected as sinful “ragtime” by black preachers and their black congregations. Now, “black gospel” is synonymous with the black church. Some churches forbid pianos and organs in worship, for pianos and organs aren’t found in the New Testament. Yet these so-called “New Testament” churches are air-conditioned and their preachers are miked as they preach from Bibles written in a language no New Testament writer could read or write.
Tragically, though, it’s not only trivia that Christians have rejected and resisted while arguing that, “Old is good”! Abolition of slavery, racial integration and interracial marriage are but three efforts that have been violently rejected and resisted by so-called Christians who ignorantly and selfishly spouted Bible proof-texts in support of their views in those now bygone days. But, instead of missing out on merely some instrumental accompaniment or some “black gospel” music or the fun and freedom to sport an adolescent beard at a Bible institute, millions suffered tortures of enslavement that tore families apart and racial discrimination that was so-called “Christian” policy in church and society and they were legally blocked from marrying whom they loved. Nowadays, descendents of pro-slavery and Jim Crow Christians turn their ignorant and self-serving spouting of Bible verses against gay men and lesbians. And their animosity sends traumatized young people packing as bitter and brokenhearted and unrequited lovers of God, resolved never again to be victims of “Christians”. But the deep word of God on real sin, real grace, real love, real Christian discipleship – while it’s resisted by rationalization – is clear enough to all who are willing to listen and hear and treat others as they, themselves, know darn well they wish to be treated.
Over against a misapplied metaphor, a coined term that’s now inscrutable and ancient cultural contexts that now get ignored for the sake of self-serving anachronisms, there are the clear words of Jesus. They bring together both the Old Covenant and the New: “In everything, how you want other people to treat you, treat them that way, for this is the point of the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 7:12) This is the pivotal Bible verse on all dealings with others – whether on slavery or racial civil rights or same-sex marriage or anything else touching on how we who know how we want to be treated, must treat others.
Christians who happen to be heterosexually oriented insist on support for their marriage to their beloved. How is it, then, that many refuse to support, and indeed, fight against, marriage for same-sex oriented couples? Heterosexuals don’t want to be pushed into a same-sex marriage. Why do they so blithely advise a same-sex oriented person to marry someone of the opposite orientation and gender? Heterosexuals don’t want to be pushed into mandatory lifelong celibacy. Why do they so blithely advise a same-sex oriented person to commit to lifelong celibacy? How does any of this nonsense live the clear ethic of the Golden Rule? No matter! “Old is good!”
Another clear word from scripture is from Jesus’ brother James, who didn’t become a disciple until after Jesus’ resurrection. Before that, for him, the old was good. James writes: “If you really keep the royal law found in scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” (James 2:8; Lev 19:18) Again, it’s old treasure and new treasure – from Jesus and from Yahweh! But, mindful of how we can try to evade such obligation, James cautions: If we merely wish others well – “Go and be well, keep warm, eat something”– but we do nothing to meaningfully meet their real needs, what good is that? James said faith without action is dead and he recalled the faith and action of Abraham. Said David Livingstone: “Sympathy is no substitute for action.”
Yet Christians whose own sexual orientation is heterosexual and know what it is to desire and enjoy marriage with their chosen spouse, blithely rationalize that they’re “doing right”, they’re “doing God’s will”, by insisting, albeit with a smile and a claim of concern, that all who find that their own orientation is to a person of the same gender must be saddled with lifelong celibacy or marry someone to whom they’re not attracted. No matter: “Old is good!” Go away!
Well, here, from the Bible’s old wisdom literature, are some more clear words: “Six things the Lord hates, seven are detestable to him.” “Seven”, in scripture, stands for comprehensiveness, so here’s what the Lord hates: “Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that contrives wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and anyone who stirs up dissension among brothers.” (Prov 6:16-19)
Are they not “haughty eyes” of married heterosexuals that look down in condemnation on those who long to belong in a same-sex marriage? Is it not a “lying tongue” that anachronistically smuggles today’s same-sex experience into ancient awareness? Are they not “hands that shed innocent blood” that point fingers of damnation at gays pushed to suicide? Is it not “a heart that contrives wicked schemes” that pushes “reparative” and “ex-gay” promises that have proven fallacious and even fatal for decades? Are they not “feet that are quick to rush into evil” and “a false witness that pours out lies” that caricature gay men and lesbians and “stirs up dissension among brothers” so that all must submit to ill-informed ecclesiastical establishments’ antigay opinions? No matter: “Old is good!”
In my recent critique of N. T. Wright’s antigay reading of I Corinthians 6, I cited three of the most prominent evangelical leaders of the 20th century. And, what I quoted from them was not about homosexuality per se. It was about the centrality of love over everything in Christian life. This, from Dutch Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer: “Love is the only meaning of the law.” This, from E. J. Carnell, apologist and the first president of Fuller Seminary: “Examine any form of wickedness – any whatever – and it will be discovered that the cause is a lack of love.” And Carl F. H. Henry, America’s premier 20th century evangelical theologian and founding editor of Christianity Today, wrote this: “Christian love is only half biblical when it deteriorates into a concern only for souls and is indifferent to the needs of the body.” I noted that sexual needs were what Wright specifically admits he needs to meet, but he says specifically, that gays don’t need to meet such needs. So what! “Old is good!”
There’s an old-time ditty with a catchy tune that’s a “hymn-time” selection at the Grand Ole Opry. It’s called, “Gimme that old-time religion”. “Gimme that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.” Really? “It was good for the Hebrew children … so it’s good enough for me.” Really? “It was good for dad and mother … so it’s good enough for me.” Really? What about Jesus? There’s nothing in there about Jesus. What about the gospel? There’s nothing in there about the gospel. “The old-time religion” with no Jesus and no gospel? Hmm. That’s what those Pharisees wanted? “Old is good!”
Of course, the merely old isn’t any better or worse than the merely new; the merely new isn’t any better or worse than the merely old. So, Jesus spoke of a wise man’s bringing both old treasures and new treasures out of his storeroom. (Matt 13: 51-52) And Jesus said that, in view of his coming, his disciples, as scribes of God’s kingdom, should do likewise: Bring out both old and new treasures, just as that wise man did. The key is the right combination of old and new – continuity and discontinuity, promise and fulfillment, statement and restatement, birth and rebirth.
Responding to the question, “Which is the great commandment”, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Deut 6:5; Luke 10:27) He said: “All Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:40) And, he challenged them further, saying: “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other as I’ve loved you.”
Discussing the relationship of old and new, an evangelical Bible scholar notes that, “the new must be allowed to have its own integrity: it is not on the one hand, to be reduced to a patch on the old, nor is it right, on the other hand, to attempt to contain the new within the constraints and limitations of the old.” (John Nolland) He cautions: “Under the image of the new wine, there is, however, a grimmer prospect that can be illuminated. The new vintage may be full of exciting possibility, but people prefer old wine. What Jesus offers as new wine in one respect, is to be, by many, passed over as only new wine in a quite different respect.” He warns: “A dark shadow stands beside the new era of joy.”
Such dark shadows cast palls over every new implication of the wideness of God’s mercy. And sure enough, professing Christians have repeatedly refused the new wine that’s on display in Paul’s declaration: “In Christ, there’s neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, and there’s no male and female.” (Gal 3:28) They’ve opposed inclusion of uncircumcised gentiles as a violation of God’s everlasting covenantal command. (Gen 17:1-14) They’ve opposed slavery’s abolition that, in the words of the 19th century’s foremost Southern Presbyterian theologian would bring abolitionists to “calamity, in the pages of impartial history, and in the Day of Judgment.” (Robert L. Dabney) Today, John Piper, formerly a segregationist and now a popular neo-Calvinist preacher, condemns same-sex marriage as “insanity”, the “fruit” of which, “in 10, 15, or 20 years”, he soothsays, “will be absolutely devastating.” Says Piper: “The Bible sets up at the beginning that a man and a woman become one flesh. That’s God’s way of doing sexuality.” But, says the Apostle: “In Christ … there is no male and female”, quoting the “male and female” phrase from the text of the Bible’s book of beginnings. (Gen 5:2)
Furthermore, and contrary to those who oppose the many implications of the new wine, a Bible scholar writes: “The point is that the new wine must have room to expand.” (John Nolland) Says another: “Jesus’ coming represented a quantum leap forward: it was the coming of the revolution, and the Pharisees, the Qumran community and the disciples of John were still living in pre-revolutionary Judaism. … Jesus’ coming was a dramatically significant revolution, marking a turning-point between one age of world history and another, between the time of preparation and the time of fulfillment.” (David Wenham) Another evangelical scholar explains: “What [Jesus] repudiated was not Scripture, but the current religious practices allegedly based on Scripture. … But he did repudiate the suggestion that they should remain confined within the accepted understanding of the old system.” (Leon Morris)
Morris’ point is crucial in same-sex debates today. Self-styled “conservatives” can self-servingly accuse people they wish to label “liberals” of repudiating scripture, but the authority of scripture is not being questioned, much less repudiated, in debates between evangelicals on different sides of this issue. Our intra-evangelical debate on same-sex issues is like our debate between Calvinists and Dispensationalists. It’s not about respecting or not respecting biblical authority; it’s about interpreting the sacred texts differently. Such hermeneutical debates have been common throughout church history.
We don’t interpret the Old exactly as ancient Jews did. We can’t, for we have the New. And, we don’t interpret the New even as Christians used to do. We can’t, for, by God’s common grace, we’re better informed and thus, better aware of human needs. And we shouldn’t think we’re finished learning something new or finished unlearning something old. And we’re surely not finished living all we’ve learned. We’re always way behind on that.
So, in better understanding the Bible as well as what Christians have called God’s Book of Nature or science, instead of posing as those whom C. S. Lewis perceptively sized up as, “chronological snobs”, let’s be humble enough to recognize that, as we still have more to learn from science, we still have more to learn from scripture. A wise old Puritan reminds us: “God hath yet more light to shine forth from His word.” (John Robinson)
Still, the tragic fact – the real sin – is humanity’s self-centered, shortsighted, even ruthlessly deliberate blindness to God’s eternal light. God’s light has been shining through the ages. The Light of the world has been shining for two millennia. And all the “more light” God’s ever shined has exposed refusal to live by the light we have. Christians have not been the light for the world that we were called to be when Jesus said we’d be known as his, by our love. (John 13:35) Jesus’ words were in M’Cheyne’s mind when he wrote: “The Christian is a person who makes it easy for others to believe in God.” How easy or hard do we make it?
Well, by now, it’s clear: Mere human effort will never save this world, for all of us do sin and fall short of God’s glory. (Rom 3:23)
On Thursday, a television series called, “Reign”, will premiere. The “reign” is “Bloody Mary’s”. Its blurbs assert: “Love is the most dangerous subject” and promise the series will be “bringing viewers into a world of political dangers, backstabbing, dark forces and sexual intrigue.” Who in this world needs to be brought into that; we need to be liberated from that. And that liberation is found only in God’s Reign in Christ – in a whole new world of light and love.
So, take heart! God’s reign in Christ has come and is coming to completion in Christ’s return. In the meantime we’re called to live, every day, under this reign of God. As we do so and while we wait, we sing Isaac Watts’ words: “Jesus shall reign where’re the sun does its successive journeys run; His kingdom shall stretch from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more. … People and realms of every tongue, shall dwell on His love with sweetest song; and infant voices shall proclaim their early blessing on His name.”