Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Moral Relativism: The Rise of a "Be Nice" Culture

Some time ago I was riding on a plane reading "The God Who is There" by Schaeffer and "Truth Decay" by Groothuis, weighing the implications of truth decay in our postmodern culture. There was a young boy and his father seated next to me. I always try to mind my own business while traveling, but the close proximity limits one's ability to avoid eavesdropping. The interaction between this father and son was quite entertaining, yet I could not help filtering their dialogue through the books I was reading.

The boy was talking about aliens, and how, if they found our planet they would probably invade us. The father interjected that if aliens did exist, they probably would not be inclined to invade our planet. To prove his point, the father reversed the scenario on his son. "If we (humans) discovered another planet with life on it, we would not invade them for no reason." The son remarked, "Well, I would." The father smirked slightly and replied, "Well, that's not very nice son."

I find the use of the word nice intriguing. Ultimately, I think the truth the father wished to convey was that his son's action would be wrong (It would be wrong to invade someone for no good reason.) The problem is that our culture no longer recognizes objective moral truth. Any judgment of right or wrong is considered subjective, and our language has merely morphed to snychronize with this trend towards moral relativism.

The problem with a word like nice is that it is neutral. It does not convey an absolute standard. Something could be the right thing to do and not be considered nice at all. Alternately, an action could be considered nice in gesture, but be entirely morally bankrupt. You see, nice has a subjective quality that depends on the perspective of the observer or recipient.

I am not suggesting that we remove the word from our vocabulary altogether. My point is to show an example of the subtle increase of moral relativism in our culture. Philosophical shifts always manifest themselves in art, music, and especially language. We will at times disagree with one another as to what right and wrong ought to be, but we must never reject absolute moral standards altogether. This would lead to total anarchy and is existentially unlivable in a sane world. On a secondary note, we should all take great care that the words we use reflect our values. To the gentleman on the plane that day: If you are not a moral relativist, I suggest you carefully consider how you employ your words. We all should do likewise.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Jesus, the Subversive Radical (Part 5 of 5)

This is part five in a five part series from a paper I wrote about the ministry of Jesus to the social outcasts of his day. See the blog archive to the right to read the earlier sections.
Summary and Conclusion

The significance of Jesus' ministry to the outcasts of his day is difficult to overstate. This aspect of his mission was integral to his primary purpose on the earth, to seek and save that which is lost. His mission was to redeem sinners and usher in the kingdom of God. Jesus made it clear that this kingdom was both a present and future reality. For Jesus to usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth required a radical subversion of long-establish patterns and systems in the world. With the coming of a new kingdom came a clash of values. This explains why Jesus actions violate the cultural and religious customs of his day. Jesus was establishing a kingdom with values which were not being honored by the prevailing systems of his day.

Jewish ceremonial law taught that a leper was unclean. The disease was seen as a curse from God. Lepers were kept from certain holy places and worship opportunities because of their curse. This made sense according to their customs and interpretation of the law. In the kingdom of God, compassion is a higher virtue that obedience to customary practices. So out of compassion for the leper, Jesus overthrows the system by touching the man and healing him. Jesus restores the man to community, even at his own expense.

Jewish tradition held that the table was a place to draw boundaries and emphasize the insiders over the outsiders. Sinners did not belong at the table because they did not merit inclusion in the fellowship. In the kingdom of God, all are sinners and in need of the grace of God. Therefore, Jesus takes a method used to establish exclusion and redeems it by utilizing it as a method of inclusion. The table of Christ is a place for ALL sinners who recognize their need for a Savior.

Jews found many reasons to label the woman at the well invaluable. She was a Samaritan woman with a questionable marital history. The kingdom of God eliminates labels and social status. The only status that matters is a person's identity in Christ. In the Kingdom of God there are no social outcasts.

Many people today fail to see the actions of Jesus in light of their historical context. They interpret Jesus' treatment of lepers, women, non-Jews, and other social outcasts, as merely nice gestures of sympathy. When we understand the culture in which Jesus lived, it becomes clear that his ministry to the outcasts was radical in every way. When Jesus ate with the tax collectors and prostitutes, he was revolting against the socio-political and religious systems of his day. Jesus began a revolution, which he entrusted to his disciples to continue.

All who claim to be disciples of Jesus are called to continue the revolution that Jesus started almost two thousand years ago. Our culture may not embrace the same socio-political and religious systems that Jesus encountered, but we have our own. We may not understand what it means to hate a Samaritan, but we have our own ethnic prejudice. Perhaps our list of social outcasts may not include lepers and tax collectors, but we all have our own list. Cultures, politics, and economies may change, but human nature essentially remains the same. The situation Jesus encountered, and his mission to subvert it, is fundamentally the same for all followers of Christ. Jesus never promised this task would be easy. In fact, he promised us that we would encounter persecution (Matthew 5:11, John 15:20). We are called to pick up the cross, deny ourselves, and follow Christ (Matthew 16, Mark 8, Luke 9).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jesus, the Subversive Radical (Part 4 of 5)

This is part four in a five part series from a paper I wrote about the ministry of Jesus to the social outcasts of his day. See the blog archive to the right to read the earlier sections.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman:
John 4:1-42

Early in his gospel account, John records two unique conversations that Jesus shared with individuals. The first was with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council, and the second with a Samaritan woman. These two conversations proved very different, yet each revealed important truths about the kingdom of God. Craig Blomberg writes of the striking differences between these two individuals, "He was a powerful, male Jew, probably well off, a religious leader, and a model of piety and wisdom. She was a powerless, female Samaritan, probably poor, unlikely to have had access to any religious education, and an outcast because of her marital history."[1] A Jewish audience in the first century, hearing about these encounters, would be shocked on multiple levels. The conversation with Nicodemus is surprisingly negative, yet the one with the women is surprisingly positive.[2] While the account with Nicodemus has unusual elements, the conversation and conclusion are not nearly as shocking as Jesus' interaction with the woman at the well. This exchange very clearly reveals the heart of Jesus for the social outcasts of his day.

John prefaces his account of the woman at the well with a brief explanation of how Jesus arrived in Samaria. Throughout the gospels, Judea was repeatedly a place of opposition and hostility for Jesus. At the beginning of chapter four, Jesus left Judea because rumors about his ministry were spreading, and He wanted to avoid arrest and his death until the hour appointed by the Father.

On the way to Galilee, Jesus and the disciples stopped in the city of Sychar in Samaria. The disciples went into town to buy some food, and Jesus sat down by a well to rest. When a Samaritan woman came to draw some water, Jesus asked her for a drink. The woman was understandably shocked that a Jewish man would ask her for a drink given the cultural norms of the day.
[4] Jesus broke several social and religious customs to engage this woman.[5] First, Jewish men did not typically engage conversations with women in public. It appears this standard was even higher for a Rabbi.[6] Second, Jews did not associate with Samaritans because they were considered heretics, foreigners, and unclean.[7] Third, there is some evidence in the text to indicate that this woman may have been considered an outcast even among her own people. John records that the interaction took place about the sixth hour, the time of day we refer to as noon. The noon hour was an unusual time for a woman to be drawing water.[8] It was also uncommon for a woman to visit the well alone. Perhaps she came at this hour to avoid other women from the town. This hypothesis is strengthened by the information John gives about her marital history later in the story. Clearly this woman was at the bottom of the social ladder. She was not the type of person with whom a Jewish Rabbi would strike up a conversation with, especially to talk about the things Jesus spoke with this woman about.

Jesus responded to the woman's hesitation by telling her that if she understood who he was, she would be the one asking for a drink. Thinking that Jesus was speaking of physical water, she pointed out his lack of a tool to withdraw water. Jesus explained that the water he offered was a spring of life that leads to eternal life, and would quench her thirst forever. The thirst Jesus spoke of was not a physical thirst for water, rather a thirst in the soul for eternal life in the presence of God.
[9] Though she did not grasp the full nature of what Jesus offered, she was open to Jesus and asked him to give her this living water.[10]

Before responding to the woman's request for living water, Jesus shifted the conversation to discuss the woman's personal matters. It is important to note that while Jesus displayed a remarkable openness to sinners, he always confronts the sin in their life.
[11] We cannot stress his love and compassion to the exclusion of his judgment for unrepentant sin and opposition to the will of God. Jesus called her out by revealing his knowledge of her multiple marriages and apparent fornication, evidenced by her living with a man that was not her husband. The Gospel of John does not give the details of her situation, perhaps for theological emphasis. The details of the woman's sinfulness are not the point of the story. The point is that Jesus knew the messiness of this woman's life, yet he still offered her living water.

The woman reacted to Jesus' knowledge of her situation by calling him a prophet. Directly following this acknowledgment, she asked Jesus a question that seems strikingly out of place. Commentators and writers have contrasting interpretations of what her motives for the question may have been. Leon Morris believes that the woman's question was an attempt to change the subject and steer the conversation away from the uncomfortable topic of her sinfulness.
[12] Frances Gench presents the alternative opinion that the woman was not trying to create a diversion, but rather asking a deeply theological question in response to her revelation that Jesus is a prophet.[13] This is an important question to consider but may not be central to interpreting the passage. Her question regarded the proper location for worship. The Samaritans worshipped at Mount Gerazim, the location of the first alter built by Abraham once he entered the promised land.[14] The Jews worshipped in Jerusalem. Jesus pronounced to her that a time was coming when true believers would worship neither at Gerazim nor in Jerusalem. In other words, she was asking the wrong question. The better question would have been, "How are we to worship?" Jesus told her, "God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24 NIV).

It is debatable how much of Jesus' declaration the woman had grasped up to this point, but she understood enough to catch the "messianic implications of what Jesus is saying."
[15] She interjected, "I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us" (John 4:25 NIV). Jesus then very clearly reveals himself as the Messiah.[16] This is extremely significant because it is the only place recorded in the Gospels, prior to his trial, where he clearly disclosed this truth about himself.[17] Jesus revealed his mission more clearly to this woman than he had to his own disciples up to this point. This act might suggest that Jesus was elevating this woman to a position of respect much higher than society subscribed to her.

At this point, the disciples return and are surprised to find Jesus talking with a woman. Their surprise reflects both the deeply ingrained prejudices of the day, as well as the disciple's limited understanding of Jesus' mission. However, on this occasion they refrain from voicing their concern. The woman left immediately, leaving so fast that she forgot to take her water jar with her. She ran into town and invited people to come and listen to this prophet who proclaimed to be the Christ. Although her belief was unsure, she proved to be the most effective witness recorded in the Gospel of John.
[18] Jesus qualified this Samaritan woman of low social standing as a partner in ministry.

The story concluded with many of the Samaritans in Sychar believing in Jesus as the Messiah. Adrian Van Kaam recognizes two stages of faith in the Samaritans conversion experience.
[19] First, they responded to a personal witness account. Second, they encountered Jesus personally and believed in him. This aspect of the story reveals an important truth for all followers of Christ. Gospel faith requires a personal encounter with Jesus; however, many times Jesus uses the personal witness of his followers to draw people into a relationship with him. These witnesses do not have to be perfectly pious or entirely confident. Jesus uses people, like the woman at the well, who live messy lives, lack confidence, and possess limited understanding, but who are nonetheless open to Jesus and what he offers.

The account of the woman at the well is truly remarkable. This story captures a unique portrait of Jesus' mission and values. It reveals the depth of compassion Jesus had for social outcasts, and his ability to overcome the prejudice, sexism, and injustice that permeated his culture. Most importantly, it emphasizes that the grace of God breaks all the man-made barriers created by gender, ethnic background, and socioeconomic status.

[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 228.
[2] Ibid., 231.
[3] Adrian Van Kaam, The Woman at the Well (Pittsburgh: Epiphany Books, 1993), 15.
[4] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 218.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 274.
[7] Frances Taylor Gench, Back to the Well: Women's Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels (Louisville: WJKP, 2005), 112.
[8] Morris, John, 258.
[9] Carson, John, 220.
[10] Gench, Back to the Well, 117.
[11] Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 228.
[12] Morris, John, 267.
[13] Gench, Back to the Well, 117. See also, Carson, John, 221-222.
[14] Carson, John, 222.
[15] Ibid., 226.
[16] Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 229.
[17] Morris, John, 273.
[18] Gench, Back to the Well, 123.
[19] Van Kaam, Woman at the Well, 20.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jesus, the Subversive Radical (Part 3 of 5)

This is part three in a five part series from a paper I wrote about the ministry of Jesus to the social outcasts of his day. See the blog archive to the right to read the first two parts.
Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors and Sinners:
Matthew 9:9-13

Also in Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32

All three synoptic gospels record the account of Jesus calling Matthew (Levi) to follow him as a disciple. Interestingly, he is the only disciple whose calling is given individual attention. The reason for this is almost certainly due to the scandalous nature of Jesus inviting a tax collector to be one of his inner twelve. Most Jewish citizens despised tax collectors for two main reasons. First, the Jewish patriots had a disdain for them because they worked for an unpopular government established by Rome.[i] Second, tax collectors were known for taking more than what was officially due in order to fill their own pockets.[ii] Even though tax collectors were neither poor nor sick, they were nonetheless considered social outcasts because of their occupation. The story of Matthew's call and the scandalous dinner that followed reveals the heart of Jesus for the outcasts of his day. He seemed to have a particular openness to tax collectors and sinners.[iii]

While dining at the home of Matthew, many tax collectors and sinners came to eat with Jesus and his disciples. Apparently, Matthew represented a large group of outcasts who were interested in Jesus and his message.[iv] It is likely they heard rumors of Matthew's invitation to follow Jesus, and came to see if Jesus was really open to associating with people like themselves. In the Old Testament era, Jewish culture considered a meal a type of boundary marker.[v] Only those who belonged to the fellowship were welcome at the table.[vi] This idea remained true for Jewish culture in the first century. For Jesus to share a meal with these people implied his full acceptance of them.[vii] This was certainly the understanding of the Pharisees.[viii] Jesus did not allow this cultural standard to prevent him from ministering to these people. He did not require repentance as a prerequisite to sharing a meal with these sinners and tax collectors.[ix] Jesus welcomed sinners at the table, though he never condoned their sinful lifestyles. Jesus was very open to sinners, but he always confronted their sin. For Jesus, the table was an opportunity to offer them an invitation to repentance, transformation, and discipleship.[x]

A group of Pharisees witnessing the event approached the disciples and asked, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" (Matthew 9:11b NIV) There are several possible reasons why they approached the disciples rather than Jesus himself. Most likely they were avoiding direct confrontation because of Jesus reputation as a formidable teacher.[xi] Apparently Jesus overheard their question and responded directly to the Pharisees in the form of a proverb.[xii] Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Matthew 9:12 NIV). Jesus was likely drawing upon a proverbial saying that had been recorded in various forms.[xiii] He proceeded to explain the parable by quoting from Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." In this context, Jesus was condemning the Pharisees for their preoccupation with ritual purity, which caused them to neglect those in need.[xiv] For Jesus to use the Scriptures as a means to condemn the Pharisees would be terribly embarrassing to them because they considered themselves experts in the Scriptures.

The scene ends poignantly with Jesus making perhaps the most scandalous statement of the night. Jesus said, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." This statement emphasizes the centrality of forgiveness of sin in Jesus' ministry.[xv] He came to call sinners to repentance, and those who easily recognized themselves in this category were often the quickest to respond.[xvi] Readers and hearers of the story would immediately think of Jesus calling Matthew, the most recent "sinner" to join his group of followers.[xvii] Essentially, Jesus was saying that the sinners and tax collectors qualify for discipleship because they recognize their need. The Pharisees rejected the doctor because they thought they were healthy. They were condemned by their self-righteousness. Later in the same gospel account, while addressing the chief priests and elders of the court, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you" (Matthew 21:31b NIV). Jesus was not excluding the religious leaders from forgiveness, rather trying to reveal to them their need for forgiveness just as much as the sinners they so eagerly opposed.

When Jesus calls Matthew to become one of his followers, he reveals the universal scope of his compassion and mercy.[xviii] The mission of Christ was a work of mercy rather than merit, thus no one was excluded from the invitation to discipleship.[xix] When Jesus emphasized his coming for the sinners and not the righteous, he was not excluding the Pharisees from discipleship. Rather, he was making it clear that they must follow him on his terms. They must be willing to admit their illness and need for a doctor. Again, the gospel is offensive to human pride. Sadly, many of them were unwilling to step down from their high status and join the humble repentant sinners.

[i] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 351.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Helmet Merkel, "The opposition between Jesus and Judaism," in Jesus and the Politics of His Day, ed. Ernst Bammel and C.F.D. Moule (Cambridge: University Press, 1984), 137.
[iv] France, Matthew, 350.
[v] Craig L. Blomberg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus' Meals with Sinners (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005), 64.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Dallas: Word, 1993), 238.
[viii] Craig Keener, Matthew (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 188.
[ix] Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, 102.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] France, Matthew, 354.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 240.
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] France, Matthew, 355.
[xviii] Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 240.
[xix] Ibid.