Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sermon on the Mount, sections B & B' (part 2)

Continuing where I left off in part one of this series about the Sermon on the Mount…

In the previous Beatitude we learned that “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…” and what that entails.  Here, immediately afterward in verse seven, we find “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Who are “the merciful”?  And is this merciful character contrary to a hunger and thirst for justice? How should we distinguish between mercy and justice?

One of the round-about ways I have tried to understand such questions is to think about how Christians today describe God, Jesus, and our relationship with Him. For example, Christians tend to talk a lot about God’s “grace.” Grace has, for a long time, been defined among Christians as receiving what we do not deserve, whereas “mercy” is defined as not receiving what we deserve. Grace is “unmerited favor”; there is nothing you did or could do to receive it. Grace is uncalled for, unwarranted, and freely bestowed. Mercy, on the other hand, is underserved treatment in light of what you did or could have done differently. Mercy is called for, warranted, and conditionally bestowed. Grace is positive favor irregardless of what justice demands; Mercy is leniency or mitigation in regard for what justice demands. Justice does not necessitate mercy. Yet mercy cannot be implemented without an absolute standard of justice. I think these are all helpful distinctions.

St. Jerome also spoke with agreement, saying that “Justice and mercy are so united, that the one ought to be mingled with the other; justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice, profusion.”1

And as St. Augustine points out, mercy is "coming to the aid of the miserable.”2

Therefore the merciful could be understood as those who hunger and thirst for Godly, or absolute, justice, the justice which only God can perfectly know and dish out. Like Jesus, the merciful are meek before the wicked who oppose Him; they mourn over what absolute justice demands, and so, as St. Augustine pointed out, they come to the aid of the miserable. By contrast, those who remain “rich in spirit” should be expected to receive absolute justice without mercy.

Who, then, according to the next Beatitude, are “the pure in heart”? And what does that have to do with “seeing God”?

The Greek word for “pure” could also (and probably does) mean “clean.” It is most frequently used throughout the Torah to describe those in need of ceremonial impurity, in order to draw near to God.

For example, within God’s Law the hands of God’s people needed to be clean, free from blood and other impurities. Their clothes needed to be clean, free from blood, bodily fluids, and contact with the dead. Their sacrifices also needed to be clean, free from blemishes and sickness. Their houses needed to be clean, free from pollution, mold, and contagious skin diseases. 

All of these were necessary to draw near to God in His house, but interestingly, a “clean heart” was not prescribed; instead, a “clean heart”, was developed through a relationship with God in his Temple. Such was not only taught in the Torah, but Paul also implies that he thought it developed over time through interaction with God. According to I Timothy 1:3-11, it’s developed through understanding and trusting in the goodness of God’s Law, in accordance with the gospel of God. Through understanding and believing in the goodness of God's Law, a “clean heart” that is accompanied by a good conscience and sincere faith in Jesus Christ produces the love which Paul aims for when he commissioned Timothy to confront enemies within the Church. Go and read I Timothy 1 for yourself. It's all taught there. 

In God’s Law, a person who is “clean in heart” is one who fears God and will not betray Him; he is one who loves God with undivided allegiance with all his heart (Deut. 6:1-6). The “clean in heart” are allowed to ascend the Mountain of the Lord, and stand in His Holy Place (i.e the Temple, which was God's "House"). The clean in heart are the ones who want to remain faithful to the Lord without reservation or falsehood, in order to teach others the ways of the Lord (Psalm 24:3-4; 51:10; 73:13).
“Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-4) 

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. …Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” (Psalm 51:10, 13)

Along with the Psalmist, Christians ought to see how clear the biblical symbolism must have been for first century Jews. St Jerome even noticed it when he said that “The pure is known by purity of heart, for the temple of God cannot be impure.”3

All of this, of course, connects with the next Beatitude. So then, why do we find, in the following Beatitude, it forecasted that “the peacemakers” are going to be called “sons of God”?

I think that an understanding of that question goes along with understanding of first century history. Most Christians I know have absolutely no clue about what was going on in the first century. Nevertheless, we find a taste of something crucial woven throughout the New Testament Scriptures. Indeed, throughout Matthew’s Gospel and throughout the history of first century Christianity, the “sons of God” were divided between Christian Jews and anti-Christian Jews. The anti-Christian Jews of Rabbinic Judaism considered themselves to be the true “sons of God.” That's a fact. According to various historians (like Eusebius, Hegessipus, etc.), first century Rabbinic Judaism was hostile to the “conversion” of Jews to Christianity. Josephus is also heavy on the emphasis of how radical and extreme first century Judaism was. Christian-Jews, on the other hand, did not consider themselves to be “converts,” but rather true heirs of the faith of Abraham through Israel’s promised Messiah; and they were at peace with their rejection by Rabbinic authorities.

Jesus, therefore, was likely teaching Israel that peacemaking would be essential for the world to see who was and was not a child of God and a faithful worshiper of God. It was because Jesus forecasted that there would be warfare and bloodshed that he also forecasted the need for his disciples to be true, non-violent peacemakers. 

As I was studying the Fathers’ comments about the Sermon on the Mount, I came across an interesting comment by St Augustine about the tension between war and peace. He wrote: 
Peace is the fixedness of order; by order, I mean an arrangement of things like and unlike giving to each its own place. And as there is no man who would not willingly have joy, so is there no man who would not have peace; since even those who go to war desire nothing more than by war to come to a glorious peace.4

Here are some questions floating around in my mind, which I think are helpful for us all to consider: Is peacemaking contrary to a hunger and thirst for justice? Is peacemaking contrary to just warfare? Is there even such a thing as just warfare, if God’s people are called to be peacemakers?

One interesting implication of that statement by Augustine is the way in which it relates to God. If it is true that people who go to war desire nothing more than to come to a glorious peace through it, then what does this teach us about the desire of the God we image, who does go to war against His enemies?

When we read the history of Israel and sometimes see the Lord going to war against the evil people and corrupt gods of certain nations (which they remained loyal to), we find at least two issues looming in the background:
  1. Those wicked nations and their gods relentlessly contended with the Lord, without repentance
  2. God’s enemies would not accept His terms of peace or heed his desire for brotherly love

In light of Augustine’s statement above, coupled with the Scripture’s own accounts, one implication of such warfare by God was His desire to bring his people, who did love Him, to “a glorious peace.”

The Scriptures only continue adding to this complex paradox. For instance, it is in the Scriptures that we find God waging war sometimes, but not all times. God wages war against certain people, but not all people. Jesus, the Son of God, says that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword; yet Jesus also says blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Jesus says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword; yet Jesus is the one who promises that many people of Israel in his generation would fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem would be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles (Luke 21). And in the book of Revelation we find a whole host of examples of Jesus and his angels waging war upon "the land" from "the heavens." In chapter nineteen the sharp sword used to strike down the unfruitful vineyard of Israel even comes from Jesus’ mouth.

With all of these added complexities in mind, let me show another important quote from St Augustine, who wrote:
Because nothing can contend against God, the children of God are peacemakers; for, of course, children ought to have a likeness to their Father.5

St. Hillary also wrote something along the same train of thought, when he wrote: 
The blessedness of the peacemakers is the reward of adoption, ‘they shall be called the sons of God.’ For God is our common parent, and no other way can we pass into His family than by living in brotherly love together.6

If such claims are all true, the complexities don’t end there. They get even more difficult to sort through once some other views of these saints come into play. For instance, both St. Augustine and St. Hillary believed and taught a “just war” theory, and they even contended against many enemies of the Christian faith; yet in all of their works they also promoted peacemaking and brotherly love, and in some of their works they even pray that God would avenge His persecuted saints in order to bring them peace.

How in the world are Christians supposed to solve this great complex paradox? 

Believe it or not, I have an answer. Or, I should say, the Christian Tradition has an answer which is deduced from the Scriptures themselves. That answer might not satisfy all people, but I have an answer; and that answer begins by understanding the history behind the New Testament. 

It is pretty much an indisputable fact that many first century Jewish authorities and their disciples displayed a kind of ruthless and bloodthirsty zealousness for the expansion of their own empire. They wanted the Roman empire gone and their own independence secured. (An excellent book on this subject is The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism: Jewish and Christian Ethnicity in Ancient Palestine, by Doron Mendels.)

The first century was a time for the people of Christ’s kingdom to make peace and promote brotherly love as much as possible, and to die for the sake of Christ as necessary. By such faithful peacemaking unto death, not only would Christians be dissociated from the “richness of spirit” among the Jewish brethren, but their faithful witness to the truth-claims of Jesus would not be futile either.

With all of this in mind, one might also recall that in the book of Revelation, which describes first century Jewish persecution, we learn that the prayers of the saints who had died in the first century were heard, and the persecution they received for their faithful witness to Jesus was expected to be vindicated. That vindication of the prayers of Jesus’ peacemaking disciples occurred just as promised, by Jesus, beginning in the Jewish wars of 66 A.D. and definitively ending the old covenant administration in 70 A.D., by the destruction of Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple.
The I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the land?”  

Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake. 

…Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of wrath has come, and who can stand?” 
(Rev. 6:9-17)

According to the Book of Revelation, the prayers of the peacemaking saints were effective and necessary in bringing about God’s justice. Peacemaking is not contrary to praying for God to respond to injustice with perfect justice. We—the Church—need to learn how to put our complete trust in God. And I believe that a life of prayer is the answer to that “how.”

Those of us who tend toward being bloodthirsty for justice, who struggle with jealousy and selfish ambition, need to learn how to pray for God’s mercy and peace upon His enemies and upon ourselves. 

Those of us who tend toward an unrealistic ideal of total peacemaking and pacifism, who delight in timidity or struggle with having any desire for justice (as though that desire itself is taboo in God’s sight), need to learn how to pray for God’s perfect justice. But as we pray for God’s justice and peace, we must not pray or live according to a double-standard

If we pray that others would receive God’s peace, we must be peacemakers ourselves. If we petition God to bring justice upon others who persecute us unjustly, we must expect the same justice to applied to our own selves as well, if God ever catches us persecuting others.

All of this sheds light on the closing Beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness (i.e. justice’s) sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Why are they “fortunate” if they are persecuted for the sake of justice? And what justice (or whose justice) are they going to be persecuted for?

In the following verse (Matthew 5:11), Jesus tells us whose justice threatens their enemies: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” 

Those who are persecuted for the sake of justice are the same as those who are persecuted falsely on Jesus’ account. They go out among their family and friends, proclaiming the “Gospel of the Kingdom,” but receive persecution for it, as Jesus would forecast again in Matthew chapter 10.

They were “fortunate” to be persecuted for “the sake of the justice” on Jesus’ account—on account of the Just One. They would also be persecuted for being more just than their enemies, and Jesus promised to reward their faithfulness with vindication. 

Since this is what Jesus promised to his first disciples, how much more does such a promise apply to his disciples in every generation thereafter?

1.  Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels (volume 1), John Henry Newman, trans. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012) p. 131
2.  Denis J. Kavanagh, trans., The Fathers of the Church: St. Augustine Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount with Seventeen Related Sermons (Catholic University Press: Washington, D.C., 2001 reprint) pp. 23
3.  Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels (volume 1), John Henry Newman, trans. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012) p. 132
4.  Ibid.
5.  Ibid. p. 133
6.  Ibid.

Sermon on the Mount, Sections B & B' (part 1)

It has been a long time coming, but I am now, finally, prepared to post my thoughts about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I've actually had plenty of notes prepared for years, as one could guess from how much of Matthew's Gospel I have blogged about in the past. I'm just now making time to jot them all down on my blog. Here goes something.

As I noted in a previous post, the literary structure of the Sermon consists of nine parts, and is, of course, structured as a chiasm. Indeed, every discourse in Matthew’s gospel is structured as a chiasm except the central discourse (Matt 13). For the sake of redundancy, I’m going to post the entire literary structure again, below:

A. Jesus ascends mountain surrounded by crowds (4:23-5:2)
   B. Blessings (5:3-10)
      C. Fulfill “the law and prophets”/ glorify “your Father in Heaven” (5:11-20)
         D. Two triads about Torah (5:21-48)
            E. One triad about spiritual discipline (6:1-18)
         D'. Two triads about Godly priorities (6:19-7:6)
      C'. “This is the law and prophets”/”your Father in Heaven” provides (7:7-12)
   B'. Warnings (7:13-27)
A'. Jesus descends mountain surrounded by crowds (7:28-8:1)

Sections “A” and “A’” are self explanatory, so I’m going to begin my comments with sections “B” and “B’.” 

The first part of section “B” worth noting is its emphasis upon “Blessing.” Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, etc.

The word in Greek translated here as “Blessed” literally means “Happy.” Among the forty five beatitudes of the Old Testament, this word is used to denote blessedness in terms of being in a privileged and fortunate situation—a situation which ought to make you very happy. Furthermore, it’s interesting to notice carefully that all of those old testament beatitudes somehow, some way, cover one of four themes:

1) Those “blessed” all delight in the Law of YHWH
2) Those “blessed” all take refuge in YHWH
3) Those “blessed” all fear YHWH
4) Those “blessed” all trust in YHWH

In each of the Psalms where most of those beatitudes are contained, two more common themes are found surrounding the beatitudes:  First, they all express affliction because of their faithfulness to YHWH. Second, they are all promised future consolation and vindication from YHWH as a result of their faithfulness to Him.

These two themes, I surmise, are also in the background of each “beatitude” in Jesus’ Sermon. Let's now see how this plays out.

When we read the first beatitude and try to view it from the perspective of those who heard Jesus say the first beatitude, we should ask and attempt to answer the question, Who are the “poor in spirit”?

According to the old testament, they are the ones abandoned to the dusty wilderness, and cast aside into the ash heap (I Sam 2:8). They are the ones whose mouths are shut because of injustices of wicked authorities (Job 5:16). They are the ones whom the wicked hotly pursue in their arrogance, and are caught in their schemes (Psa 10:2). They are the “upright” ones upon whom the wicked draw their swords, and bend their bows to slay (Psa 37:14). They are the ones crushed by oppressors and downtrodden in shame because they seek to do YHWH’s will (Psa 72:4; 74:21). 

With such a background, this first beatitude leads me to suspect that it was given to prepare Israel for the persecutions which would arise from those who are “rich in spirit” (ie. the unjust, arrogant, bloodthirsty, oppressors) before the Kingdom came in their generation. Interestingly, even a cursory glance at Luke’s version of this Sermon shows the clear parallels between those who are “poor” and those who are “rich.” Matthew adds “in spirit,” but I think it’s safe to say that Luke’s shortened version still had the same people in mind (Luke 6:20, 24). The poor in spirit would be those who would suffer persecutions for their loyalty to Jesus, whereas those who were rich in spirit would be the persecutors, who have already received their consolation, which is why they felt justified in their allegedly righteous persecutions of others. 

Who are those who mourn, and why does Jesus teach the crowds to not only anticipate “mourning,” but also to welcome it? 

Those who mourn are the ones who lose family, friends, and their home because of God’s judgment upon the land (I Sam 19; 1 Kings 13). They are the ones who believe YHWH’s promise to strike Israel and their leaders with a great blow  (I Sam 6:19). They are the ones who see the faithlessness and apostasy of fellow-Israelites around them (Ezr 10:6; Neh 1:4; Jer. 8:21; 12:4; Dan 10:2). They are the ones who hear the curses of God’s Law and believe the words of YHWH spoken against Jerusalem and it’s temple (Isa 3:26; 19:8; 22:12; 61:2, 3; 66:10; Jer. 6:26; 12:11; 14:2; 16:5; Lam. 2:5; Ezek 27:31).

According to St. Augustine, those who mourn are those who grieve “over the loss of things that are highly prized. Those who have been converted to God are losing the things which in this world they used to embrace as precious things, for they find no delight in the things which they used to enjoy. They are torn with grief until a love for eternal things is begotten in them. …When they have lost temporal happiness, they may fully enjoy the eternal.”1

When I ponder the things in life which were “highly prized” among 1st century Jews, and what attachments they delighted in and embraced as precious, the first things which come to mind are Israel’s inheritance in the land, and especially every way of life which centered on Herod’s temple. This leads me to suspect that this beatitude was given to prepare Israel for the judgment which would fall on Jerusalem and their their people in that generation. Jesus expected them to weep over their most highly prized attachments, and to find comfort in eternal things.

Who are “the meek”? And what does “meekness” have to do with inheriting the “earth” (or “land”, which is what the Greek word can also mean)?

According to the Scripture, the meek are the ones who shepherd Israel and receive abusive treatment from their sheep without retaliating unjustly, trusting that God will see and act justly in response (Num 12:3; II Sam 16:5-12). They are the ones who “refrain from anger, forsake wrath, and delight in abundant peace,” waiting patiently for YHWH to judge evildoers and vindicate the just in the land (Psa 37:1-10). They are the ones who believe YHWH laughs at the wicked. They quietly trust that a day of just judgment awaits their enemies who prosper in the land (Psa 37:11-13). 

This leads me to think that this beatitude reminded Israel to not retaliate toward their enemies throughout the coming trials within that generation and, like King David and his disciples, to patiently trust in God’s vindication for the injustices they would suffer for His name’s sake.

St Augustine, again, wisely said that “The meek are those who submit to iniquities and do not resist evil, but overcome evil with good. Let the haughty, therefore, quarrel and contend for earthly and temporal things. But, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land’—the land from which they cannot be expelled.”2

What does it mean to “hunger and thirst for righteousness”?  What is “righteousness” in this context? Protestants typically think “righteousness” refers to some form of forensic, or legal transition from God to man, making individuals “righteous” in his sight. I don’t think that’s at all what is being referring to here. The word in Greek can also mean “just-ness”, or simply “justice.” This is how St. Jerome and St. Hilary and St. Augustine all interpret it. This “righteousness” or “just-ness” throughout the LXX refers to doing “what is right” or “what is just.” Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for “what is just.” But whose justice?  Whose rightness is being referred to here? Is this “starving” for themselves to do what is just, for others to do what is just, or for God to do what is just? 

Jesus’ Sermon seems to describe a healthy fasting for all three:
  1. “For I tell you, unless your just-ness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20)
  2. “Beware of practicing your just-ness before other people in order to be seen by them… Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” (6:1-3)
  3. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His just-ness… Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (6:33-34)

Those who “hungered and thirsted” for justice were those, like the Apostle Paul, who desired that God would judge justly among the anti-Christian Jews and Judaizers infiltrating the Christian churches and dividing the faithful within them. When reviled, Paul told his Christian congregation not to take justice into their own hands, but rather to bless those who reviled them; when persecuted, they were told to endure persecution; when slandered, they were told to entreat God for justice (1 Cor 4:11-13). 

All of this leads me to believe that this beatitude prepared Christian Israelites to endure various trials and temptations from men. The Christians would seek justice among their Jewish brethren, but would not find it. Fortunate are those who, starving for justice, await satisfaction from God’s justice. 

In light of this, I found some comments from the Fathers insightful. In the context of Jesus' Sermon, St. Jerome said that “It is not good enough that we desire justice, unless we also suffer hunger for it.”3 

Likewise, St. Hilary of Potiers said that “The blessedness which [Jesus] appropriates to those who hunger and thirst after justice shows that the deep longing of the saints for the doctrine of God shall receive perfect replenishment in heaven; then “they shall be filled.”4

I think they were correct.

I’ll comment on the other beatitudes in the next post. 

1. Denis J. Kavanagh, trans., The Fathers of the Church: St. Augustine Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount with Seventeen Related Sermons (Catholic University Press: Washington, D.C., 2001 reprint) pp. 22-3
2. Ibid. p. 22
3. Thomas P. Scheck, trans., The Fathers of the Church: St. Jerome Commentary on Matthew (Catholic University Press: Washington, D.C., 2008) p. 76
4. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels (volume 1), John Henry Newman, trans. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012) p. 130

Friday, December 30, 2016

Suffering with Him

Jesus enters the world as we know it as it truly is. He enters a very human world, a world with human evil, human foolishness, and human suffering. He did not enter a sanitary world, or even a sanitized community of believers. If you've ever read the gospels, it's clear that the people of God and the land in the first century were both thoroughly polluted and in need of cleansing. Jesus came into that world--the world of evil, foolishness, and suffering as we still know it today. 

By entering this world, Jesus was willing to get his hands dirty in the muck and filth of humanity, and even suffer at the hands of the wicked. His suffering then led to scandal, exile, and death. From this paradigm, spokesmen for the Christian cause sometimes say that Jesus is connected with all of humanity's suffering, and that the incarnation gives meaning and purpose to "our" suffering. 

This is what I want to comment about.

I want to make very clear from the outset what Jesus did not do in making this "connection". What he did not do was suffer for the sake of suffering itself, or welcome scandals for the sake of being associated with the scandalous. He suffered because he preached repentance from sin and faith toward God in a world so perverse and lawless that God's very own people would crucify him for it. Jesus was scandalized because he exhorted his own people to forsake the perverse traditions of that generation and of their fathers. He was scandalized because he preached against the moral relativism of his generation, and led people to embrace the singular way of truth, justice, mercy, and peace. 

It is purported that Jesus wasn't afraid to hang out with the scandalous. Jesus was willing to "connect" with prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners. From this, allegedly, we learn that we who also live scandalous lives have this same connection with Jesus, because that's what his ministry was all about: connecting with the scandalous. He even suffered the shame of a scandalous life and death in order to show the world how purposeful and meaningful "our suffering" is.

Depending on what one means by that, that could be complete ethical nonsense.

Jesus' solidarity was not with fools or suffering-people in general, but rather the faithful first century remnant of his disciples who were willing to follow him and suffer for righteousness' sake, for the sake of the truth spoken by his prophets and just-ones. His solidarity is with those who turn away from evil and foolishness, and turn toward Him, never looking back. His solidarity is with those who have "washed their robes so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates" (Rev. 22:14). Their robes were bloody, and needed to be washed, because they were willing to be martyrs for the sake of the truth spoken by Jesus' prophets and just-ones. Their robes were spotted by the sins and injustice of others who hated Christ and his following of disciples. If our lives as Christians remain scandalous for the sake of actual injustice and falsehood and foolishness and evil, Jesus will say to us on the day we bow before his throne, "Outside with the sexually immoral and murderers and adulterers, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood" (Rev. 22:15). 

In other words, Jesus did not enter a very human world of evil, foolishness, and suffering in order to show perpetual solidarity with the lowliest of sinners. He stooped down to that low level to wash the feet of his disciples, not the feet of disciples of Apollo, Cybele, Diana, Baal, or even Caesar. He stooped low to wash his disciples, and to make better disciples. He stooped low and showed solidarity with the lowliest because he loved humanity, and wanted humanity to receive purification from him. Jesus did not and does not love sin, and by extension, those who habitually and unrepentantly sin (I John 3:6, 9). Sure, if we say that we have no sin at all, then the truth of Jesus Christ does not dwell in us (1 John 1:8-10). But the belief that we will not or cannot sin at all is a very different belief than the one revealed by Christ's apostles, that we ought not and are now able to not make a habit of it. The incarnation gives meaning and purpose to that very specific type of suffering--a cruciform one, one which looks like Jesus's suffering through obedience. If his disciples suffered for the sake of their own injustices, their own falsehoods, and their own foolishness, that suffering is their own fault, and Jesus wants nothing to do with it. But if we suffer in his name (i.e. as "Christians") for what is truly just and right, and for what is absolutely true, and for what God has revealed to be wise and good, then Jesus welcomes us to the tree of life.

But that's part of our problem, right? Instead of conforming our thoughts and our ethical standards to God's revealed standards, we question his revelation. In our own subtle, serpentine manner we think, "Did God really say that?" Instead of forsaking what God demands us to forsake--our foolishness, our relative and lax moral standards--we want Jesus to accept our foolishness and laxity. We want to remain what we are now, and we want Jesus to accept us for what we will always want to be, even if we want to remain infantile. When we read the gospels and think that Jesus wants solidarity with the foolish, sin-filled world he entered, we are the ones who are mistaken. He does not. Jesus entered this fallen world in order to raise sinners up with him, from death to eternal life. He stooped very, very low, not to "connect" with us where we are, in order to remain where we are, but to tell us face to face, eye to eye, in flesh and blood, "Repent!" and "Go and sin no more!"

That brings up the last problem I want to address: guilt and pity.

I can't tell you how many Christians I know who wallow in their own guilt and self-pity. They constantly sin and fall into foolish ways of thinking; and they admit it; they wallow in it. They think they can't escape it. And to claim otherwise--so it is thought--is blasphemy; it's allegedly contrary to "the gospel."

But is it really contrary to the gospel, to think and live as though you have been delivered from slavery to sin and foolishness? Is it really contrary to the "good news" that Jesus says to us, "Go and sin no more!", and he really expects us to do that? I don't think so. And I think that it's the height of spiritual arrogance to excuse ourselves from trying, as though no matter how hard we try we're not actually able to do so. 

But then one might respond: "Because we will sin in the future, at some point, we might as well rest content in being who we are, wretched fools saved only by the grace of God."

Here's what I have to say to that: Grow up. Stop thinking like a child, and forsake such childish ways of thinking. If he saved you from your sins, he delivered you from enslavement to sin. You don't have to wallow in some imaginary bondage to sin. If you're still enslaved to sin, as though there is nothing you could do to stop it, then Jesus did not save you. You don't have to remain a fool, and he doesn't want you to.    

Now, someone might respond to these claims of mine by suggesting that Jesus expects perfection from us. And to that I respond, "No". That, to me, seems like another excuse to rationalize away one's need to "sin no more." The truth revealed in Scripture is that Jesus expects us to grow up. Jesus expects all of his children to increase in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man, just as he did (Luke 2:52). If we have true solidarity with him, that's what our lives ought to look like. Once "saved" from bondage to sin, we mature from childish ways to mature, godly ways. Jesus expects us to become equipped for the work of ministering to other sinners in need of godliness, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of "mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Ephesians 4:12-14).