Saturday Night Theologian
23 April 2006

Acts 4:32-35

The price of oil hit an all-time high this week, passing $75 a barrel, and consumers have been feeling it at the pumps as gasoline climbs past $3 per gallon in the U.S. (much more elsewhere). At the same time, oil and gas companies are reporting record profits. ExxonMobil made $37 billion in profits last year, the most any corporation has ever made, and the CEO and other top executives made out like bandits. Giant superstores exploit low wages in China, pay their employees next to nothing, and provide few or no benefits, yet their owners are among the richest people on the planet. Land speculators buy up unused farm and ranch land for a song and cover it with single-family dwellings, apartments, or strip malls, polluting the water supply and seriously harming the local environment. Big business opposes any measures that would lead to mandatory limits on the production of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile the Greenland ice sheet is melting at twice the previously measured rate, the Gulf Stream has lost 30% of its flow as the oceans warm, avian migratory patterns are disrupted, and polar bears drown as Arctic ice melts. All of these examples are the result of a relatively small, yet powerful group of people making money without regard for the welfare of others. That people are selfish and want to make money regardless of the human and environmental cost is not surprising for anyone who knows either theology or human nature. What is perhaps surprising is that the mass of people do absolutely nothing to interfere in the process. Why don't ordinary, average people stand up to profit-mongers and environmental marauders? In part, the reason is that they have become convinced that some of the profits from these enterprises may eventually trickle down to them, even though it rarely happens. The early Christian community put the needs of the community over the needs of the individual. Today's reading from Acts says that they sold everything that they had and brought it to the apostles to divide among those most in need. If this smacks of socialism to some people, they're right, that's exactly what it is. Early Christians understood that they had a responsibility to care for others who were in need. Too many modern Christians seem to think that unbridled capitalism is mandated by God (e.g., the "invisible hand" of Adam Smith), when even a superficial reading of the Bible shows that God expects people of faith to share their resources with others, especially with the poor and the outcast of society. Too many modern churches offer their members classes on wealth management, managing personal finances, and even investments, and too few offer classes on directed giving to charities and non-profits. It is time for the church to refocus its vision, turning away from an overemphasis on the needs/desires of the individual and concentrating on the Christian's duty to the human race.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Psalm 133

In the wake of Hamas setting up its new government in Palestine, Israel has cut off all payments of tax revenues collected for the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians launch missiles at Israeli cities, and Israeli planes shoot missiles at the homes and businesses of suspected terrorists. The election, which was probably an inner-Palestinian rebuke of Fatah corruption and impotence, has increased the tension between Israelis and Palestinians almost to the breaking point. Israel threatens to make unilateral decisions regarding its border with Palestine, and new Palestinian members of parliament call for the destruction of the state of Israel. The current situation--indeed, the situation for much of the past 60 years--is an ironic mockery of the psalmist's words in Psalm 133: "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity." The flip side of this statement is also true: "When kindred cannot get along with one another, life is miserable, desperate, and even dangerous." It is a shame that not enough leaders on either side, nor their strongest ideological supporters in other countries, nor a sufficient number of religious leaders of various persuasions, have taken a strong stand against violence and in favor of peaceful solutions, respect, and even a sense of family. Humans focus far too much on the things that divide us--ethnicity, language, skin color, country of origin, religion--and far too little on the things that unite us--basic human decency, world citizenship, common stewardship of the planet, a commitment to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren. A Palestinian who hates an Israeli also hates his future descendants, who might be descended from an Israeli on one side of her family, as well as from Palestinians. An Israeli who hates a Palestinian and wants to build a wall to cage him in like an animal is only engaging in prophetic self-fulfillment, for people who are treated like animals often lash out at their captors, like an animal might. The answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies not in walls, or denunciations, or official recognition of governments, or tax revenues, or missiles, or invective. The answer lies in an honest evaluation of current and future prospects, both with and without an agreement. It requires changed positions on both sides of the border. Above all it requires respect for and, eventually, friendship with those who will one day be former enemies. Ethnic and religious conflicts have existed since the beginning of recorded history, but most have been resolved in the distant past. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arguably the most significant disagreement in the world today, because of the strategic locations of the two countries. Resolving this long-standing conflict will be a tremendous blessing for everyone, "like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes."

For other discussions of this passage, click here or here.

1 John 1:1-2:2

The recently published Gospel of Judas contains a passage in which Jesus tells Judas, "You will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel, a gospel that sees Jesus as a divine being trapped inside a human body. If Judas will hand Jesus over to be killed, he will "sacrifice the man that clothes me," or in other words, free the real Jesus from the fleshly body that presently restricts him. There were many different varieties of Gnostics in the first two or three Christian centuries, with different sets of beliefs, but they all believed that human flesh was something to be overcome so that the spirit could truly live. One early group of Gnostics was called the Docetists. They believed that Jesus did not really have an earthly body at all: he only seemed (Greek dokéō) to have one. By postulating the absence of a sinful body, the Docetists were able to think of Jesus much more easily as a divine being. Apparently people who held beliefs similar to the Docetists lived around the recipients of the letter we call 1 John. The letter begins with one of the New Testament's clearest testimonies to the humanity of Jesus: "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life." The unnamed author of this letter (traditionally John the apostle) makes it perfectly clear that Jesus has come in the flesh and that his body was real, not imaginary. In the movie The Passion of the Christ, the director, Mel Gibson, tries to emphasize Jesus' humanity by focusing so much attention on his suffering, particularly in the scourging scene, probably the most graphically violent scene in any movie ever made (in part because of the length of the scene). However, the extremity of the violence causes some viewers to tune out in order to cope with it, and it has caused at least one person I know to think that Jesus' stamina throughout his ordeal, plus the fact that he doesn't pass out from the pain, suggests that Jesus' divinity is being emphasized as much as his humanity. Ironically, then, the movie might be interpreted as deemphasizing Jesus' humanity rather than emphasizing it, as it is usually interpreted. In contrast to this, I saw another movie this week that puts a completely different spin on Jesus' passion. To End All Wars is based on a true story of Allied prisoners in a Japanese POW camp in Southeast Asia during World War II. This film also has quite a bit of violence, but it also shows the power of Jesus' words, interpreted in the context of what passes for a classical education in the midst of the war, to transform people. In this movie, the prisoners suffer at the hands of their enemies, but many of them learn to accept their situation and even transcend it through the powerful example of Jesus' life and words. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," Jesus said. Also, "Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you." The prisoners begin to learn how to put these words into practice, and the end result is a remarkable testimony to the power of a single, human life, lived in the power of God, to transform ordinary human beings into people who are extraordinary. A fully divine Jesus with only limited humanity has little power to inspire us to emulate him. Only a Jesus whose participation in the divine does not diminish his full humanity can give us the courage to live our lives according to his example.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

John 20:19-31

Sometimes I wish I had been a contemporary of Jesus and had observed his teachings, his ministry, and even his suffering. Even more, wouldn't it have been amazing to have been in the upper room when Jesus appeared to the frightened disciples? If only I had seen all that with my own eyes, I think, I would be a better Christian. But what does Jesus say to Thomas? "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." It sounds like Jesus was talking about you and me! Believing in Jesus because you've actually seen him with your own eyes is good, but even better is believing without seeing. Those who believe without seeing--all of us believers today--actually have an advantage, Jesus says, over those who were eyewitnesses. But how do we know what to believe, when there are so many different options? Did Jesus really live a sinless life or didn't he? Was he literally raised from the dead, or only figuratively? Did he literally walk through walls or was it a vision? These are reasonable questions to ask, since many of us are trained to think critically, but they are not really the most important questions. Here are some examples of more important questions. Based on the testimony of various gospel writers and other early Christians concerning Jesus' life, how should we live our own lives? If we have experienced the power of the resurrection in our own lives, are we also willing to partake in the fellowship of his sufferings? If we have encountered Christ in a real and meaningful way on one or more occasions in our own lives, how has it inspired us to modify our behavior, life goals, attitudes, or actions? Rather than lament the fact that we weren't around to see Jesus in real life, we should be celebrating our fortune at having come to faith in an age of disbelief and selfishness. Then we should go out and live our lives in the power of our encounter with God through Christ.

For other discussions of this passage, click here, or here, or here.