Christians Getting Tattoos, Piercings and Other Silly Controversies IV: Stumblers beware?

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This is part of a series of blog posts about silly controversies and the logical objections against certain practices. The ongoing debates about many such issues just demonstrate the utter biblical and theological illiteracy of many evangelical Christians.

 

Let me review the usual answers thus far, and I had already dealt with three of them in previous posts.  First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.”  Second, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. The problem is why someone is getting ink.”  Third, “the body is the temple of God. By inking it, the owner shows disrespect towards God’s creation.”  Today, we deal with the fourth objection, “someone may stumble.” Oh, gasp!

 

One conservative evangelical pastor was preaching one day, and afterwards, a listener told him that his tie had distracted him from his listening experience simply because of the fancy patterns. The preacher never wore that tie again in fear of stumbling someone who’s trying to listen to his sermon. This logic is alive and well.

 

“Someone may stumble” is the magical key that stops everyone from doing anything you don’t want him/her to do in a church setting. It’s a phrase the denote unspiritual disposition of the accused, albeit without trial of scripture or common logic. It’s a phrase that is bound to cause the ignorant to be completely paralyzed in fear, unless you aren’t ignorant. It’s the weapon of choice for the church police. Well, I hope my readers aren’t ignorant when it comes to this idea of stumbling.

 

In the NT, the Greek word for “stumble” is where we get our word “scandal” from, but it doesn’t have the same meaning. Although some usages seem to point towards a “positive” aspect to this word, let’s look at some cases of negative usage of that word before looking at the positive aspects. My list is brief and space doesn’t permit me to deal with each passage in exegetical details. Anyone interested in exegetical details can either read my books or other scholars’ commentaries.

 

The most negative usage of this word “stumbling” in the Greek language has to do with deliberately setting a trap, but there’re other less negative usages. In Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 13.41, 16.23, and 18.7, the word denotes something that causes sin or causing the messianic mission to fail (i.e., the failure to go to the cross). In Paul, the word could denote a kind of blindness to truth (Romans 9.33) possibly even caused by God (Romans 11.9). Hmmm, God caused stumbling? Wow, that’s a novel thought, no? In Paul’s ethical teachings in Romans 14.13, the word could mean that certain action would cause a fellow believer to sin in a religious and ritual manner (e.g., food laws) or falling on bad doctrines (Romans 16.17-18). In order for such a stumbling to happen, REAL (and NOT imaginary) sins and weaknesses had to exist first.

 

Contrary to popular Christian preaching (gosh, how I despise so much of what passes for popular preaching), stumbling can be less negative where the responsibility doesn’t fall on the one who causes stumbling but on the one who stumbles. Paul had stated in 1 Corinthians 1.23 that the gospel could be a stumbling block. The cross indeed was a stumbling block (Galatians 5.11).  In Peter’s letter, Jesus himself became the stumbling block in his mission because of the offense he caused (1 Peter 2.8). I’m by no means comparing all the people with tattoos and earrings to Jesus, but it is not enough to just appeal to stumbling as a principle to stop people from doing so. The problem isn’t whether stumbling happened, but what kind of stumbling happened and whose responsibility the stumbling is.

 

I recall meeting with leaders of this one conference who were extremely distressed by my earring. In desperation to get me to take it off, one pastor (poor guy) uttered the above magical phrase, “Someone may stumble.” Certainly, IF my wearing an earring or someone sporting a tattoo would cause someone to sin by falling into false doctrines or sexual immorality (really? Do I even need to go there? Do women ACTUALLY lust MORE towards guys with earrings and tattoos? Some are even concerned about my bald head.), the problem shouldn’t be ink or earring.  The problem ought to be solved by either psychologists or at least a heavy dose of pastoral counseling. That, in fact, was what I told the distressed pastor.

 

Well, in light of the above brief study, perhaps a bit of positive stumbling is what we need because I’m fairly sure no one was being prevented from going to the cross.  Perhaps an indignant person (or perhaps that pastor himself) ought to do a bit of positive stumbling and then examine why such a trivial matter becomes an essential of the gospel. The church doesn’t have enough positive stumbling these days.  Maybe someone’s tattoo or my earring had inadvertently become a kind of avant-garde performing art as part of our gospel preaching!  If my earring or someone else’s ink causes some positive stumbling, thank God! Maybe after the hypocrites pick themselves off the floor, they can do a little thinking with their Christian minds.

 

As I always say, scripture is not the problem but the interpreter often is. Many interpretations are possible but not all interpretations are beneficial!  As for that evangelical preacher with that fancy tie at the beginning of the sermon, I suggest that he goes tie-less next time. That would eliminate all the problems. Oh, wait! Maybe that won’t because surely someone will fault him for NOT wearing a tie and “stumbling” someone else in the process of listening. With knit-picking hypocrites in church, you simply can’t win. Church life can be a dog-eat-dog world!

 

 

Christians Getting Tattoos, Piercings and Other Silly Controversies III: Why can’t Paul say what I want him to say?

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This is part of the blog series on silly controversies that really shouldn’t occupy our energy, but Christians occupy so much of their energy debating them that such topics deserve a series.  Almost all such controversies boil down to the simple objections below.

 

As a matter of review from last week’s blog, the Christian response to tattoos, piercings and other fashion controversies are as follows.  First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.”  Second, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. The problem is why someone is getting ink.”  Third, “the body is the temple of God. By inking it, the owner shows disrespect towards God’s creation.”  This week I will deal with the third objection.

 

Usually silly Christians would quote 1 Corinthians 6.12-20 at me.

 

12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”17 But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

 

Quite often they would compare smoking cigarets or cigars are parallel examples. The problem is both exegetical and logical.  First, the exegetical problem.

 

In the chapter 16 of my book, Right Texts, Wrong Meanings, I’ve dealt with this passage extensively, but I’ll apply it to the present situation. By the way of exegetical observation, 6.15 reads, “Do you know that your bodies (plural) are (should be “is” in singular) members (plural) of Christ himself?” The plural combined with singular has much to do with how each member affects the overall health of the Body of Christ. 6.19 reads, “Do you (plural) not know that your (plural) Body (singular) is a temple (singular) of the Holy Spirit, who is in  you (plural), whom you (plural)  have received from God?” The combination of the plural and singular here goes further than the affect the action of one’s body has on the Body of Christ, but the singular “body” here points to the Body of Christ being the singular temple. The whole idea that each individual Christian being a temple is total nonsense. No Christian individual is a temple. It’s the combined church Body that is the temple. So, before arguing this or that, silly Christians ought to read their Bibles (or necessarily have their pastors who know Greek explain to them the intricacies) first before quoting the text. Yet another example of using the text to further one’s morally hygienic ideology!

 

Now to the context! 1 Corinthians context deals with the situation of Corinth where one problem exists in its various forms.  1 Corinthians, at the start tells us that there’s division in the church. Thus, unity was the problem. Now, what causes disunity? Surely, not all causes of disunity are bad. For instance, Paul’s letter to the Galatians clearly told the Galatians to separate from the agitators! No, unity isn’t the absolute good. Paul in 1 Corinthians showed various illegitimate causes for disunity. One of them was having sex with prostitutes in 1 Corinthians 6.15-17. But Christians are just THIS silly in misquoting the passage and inadvertently equating tattoos, piercings, smoking and drinking with soliciting a prostitute. A little silliness isn’t harmless. A little silliness makes light of a very serious issue of degrading another human being (i.e., prostitution) via the vehicle of sexual objectification.

 

It almost sounds silly, but I think my approach to Scriptures is more conservative than many so-called conservative Christians. Sadly, the problem doesn’t end there. Let’s, for argument’s sake, say that the logic of “not harming my own body via tattoos and piercing or even smoking because the individual Christian body is God’s temple” is true. Let’s examine the utter lack of logic of such claimants.  Most people eat three meals a day. Most people eat less than optimal when it comes to sound nutrition. In Asia, there’s also the bad habit of midnight snacking. This is very true for many. In the US, there’s the habit of eating chips in front of prime time TV. All these habits do horrible harm to the body. If you’re an Asian reader and you love to eat rice, do you know that white rice does great harm to the body? How about quit eating rice? Most of us could lose a few pounds or could lose our skinny fat dad bod’s (even for young folks). I can put people on a weight training program with good diet and cardio to help them achieve their physical shape. Why don’t Christians denounce the lack of exercise in their preaching and their writings? I’ve yet to see anyone using the above logic to denounce such habits. Maybe I ought to start blogging about eating more vegetables and less McDonald’s while getting rid of white rice from our diet.  Maybe we should stipulate this or that diet for Christians to make sure they take care of their precious little temples, but we don’t. Why tattoos? Why piercings? (Certainly, my ear is fine and I’m doing great health-wise) Why those? Is it merely because we don’t like tattoos and piercings and want to use the Bible to bully those who do?

 

As I always say, Scripture is never the problem. Its interpreters are! Many interpretations are possible, but not every application is constructive!

Christians Getting Tattoos, Piercings and Other Silly Controversies II: the Christian Fetish for Self-Justification

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Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive.    1 Corinthians 10.23

 

 

As a matter of review from last week’s blog (inspired by some needlessly heated and tangential debates on one of my friend’s Facebook updates), the Christian response to tattoos, piercings and other fashion controversies are as follows.  First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.”  This is what I call “preference legalism” which has the mentality of “I prefer this lifestyle and if you don’t follow my preference, you’re certainly not spiritual enough.”  It is also a kind of idolatry towards one’s own preference. The second objection to tattoos, piercings and other silly things is, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. Why else would someone be getting inked.”

 

 

This week, I’ll deal with the second objection, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel.” My future blog posts will deal with the other ones. This second objection makes zero logical sense, not even in our everyday living.  Tattoos and piercings are fashion statements.  Do we ever get up everyday to go to work and ask, “Which tie should I wear so that I can dress for the gospel?” We don’t. Neither do we put shoes or suits on while asking the same questions.  Neither do we do most things asking the same question.

 

 

I recall people first hearing about my shaved head and earring. The ill-intentioned homophobes would question my sexual orientation (no, I’m not gay. I love my pretty and elegant wife) or whether I had switched ministry direction by working with homosexuals (nope, haven’t felt the same call as some of my other friends). Well-meaning people began to ask (behind my back of course), whether I’m having a mid-life crisis or some other unpleasant experience. I assure everyone I’m not. I love my life. I’ve pretty much accomplished everything I had set out to do professionally. I enjoy my family, and I feel that I married well. When I told them that I just like to change my fashion around, many seem puzzled (of course I have other reasons for sporting this look, but this is not the place to explain that). Do I really need to give reason for changing what color, what brand or what material of suits I wear? Nope!

 

 

This leads to the more basic question, “Why do Christians have to justify certain things that are neutral?” Isn’t just living our lives (and not acting like holy roller weirdo’s) enough for expressing the gospel? Why do we have to justify neutral things?  It is because by justifying, we feel holier than everyone else who doesn’t justify himself. This is Christian self-rightesouness at its best. WE’RE OBSESSED ABOUT SUCH SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS because we want to appear better than everyone else, but we aren’t. Someone might object, “Everything we do is for the gospel and for the glory of God.” Oh, okay, would that include trivializing the gospel in such a way?  Would that include saying that the gospel is more about what God did than what we did while contradicting ourselves with a focus on what we do or don’t do? I would settle for Christians glorifying God by not being anal retentive on such trivial matters because such misplaced focus takes away rather than enhance God’s glory and the gospel.

 

 

Many who observe this phenomenon compare such people to the caricature Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who states in Luke 18.11-12, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (NIV). I propose that the people we see are much worse than this caricature. The Pharisee had reason to brag because he was talking about real righteousness and real sins here. He just didn’t have the right to brag before God. What we’re talking about with people who harp on silliness isn’t really about real righteousness or sin.  It’s bragging about trivial personal preference, and THIS is precisely what’s wrong with evangelical Christianity. Trivia!

 

 

The trouble with such controversies is that it’s all about how the objector feels.  It’s all about the good or bad feeling my fashion sense makes someone feels.  It’s as if all the objectors’ feelings are the very content of the gospel.  It’s as if the objector’s feeling is so fragile that a mere change of fashion would totally offend or crumble that fragile feeling. The faith community then becomes a therapeutic place for those who really NEED to feel good because they have unshakeable egos and wobbly feelings. I’m not talking about real mental patients here. I’m talking about those whose feelings get bunched up in a  wad just because someone does something they don’t like.  The faith community isn’t the place for such dysfunctional therapy for those who feel that they’re healthier than everyone else while they themselves personify narcissism.  Somehow such people also feel that they’ve got the god-given right to intrude on how everyone else lives.  They’ve become the fashion police of the church. One of my preacher friends compare them to the Judaizers (or whatever name you wish to name them) in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I think that’s an insult to the Judaizers.  At least they had real debates about scriptural things with Paul. In the present scenario, they’re basing their own moral foundation out of their overactive and legalistic imagination that isn’t even from the Bible. By living according to their preference, somehow they make other people’s preference unholy, thus making themselves holier than everyone else.

 

 

Someone asks me whether I pierce my ear for a reason, implying it must be for the gospel. I can answer in a few ways. What if I choose NOT to answer? What if I have no reason other than to look cool? What if I have the same reason as I give for putting on a pair of True Religion jeans (notice I cleverly slip in the word “religion” in there?)? Does that make me less Christian or less spiritual?  The need to justify ourselves indicates that we have this huge need for self-righteousness.  The answer to such question indicates more about how far we’ve drifted from the gospel than why I wear an earring (By the way, my wife loves the hoop earring on me as pictured more than the shiny stud. What do you think?). I always see my earring as the mirror to bring out all the dysfunctional Christians instantaneously, because this sort of triviality makes Christians look petty and stupid, but I’m guessing a lot of Christians who seriously debate the issue don’t notice. Those who won’t invite me to speak because of a piece of rock in my ear probably won’t be ready to listen to my message anyway.  From the discussions with many people and watching the debate among some, I propose that many hardly understand what it means to be spiritual or even to be Christian any more in our faith community.

Christians Getting Tattoo, Piercings and Other Silly Controversies I: My preference should be the only preference?

Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive.    1 Corinthians 10.23

Recently, I’ve seen on a friend’s Facebook about a former gang member turned preacher.  This preacher has tats. The conversation soon drifts to whether Christian should get ink or not. As soon as I saw the topic, I know all the crazies would crawl out of the woodworks. And sure enough, I was right.

Before I can say “boo”, someone quotes 1 Corinthians 10.23.  In the next series of blogs, I’m going to talk the common logic and tact Christians use when dealing with stuff they perceive to be “wrong” (for them). In so doing, we will see that our average Christian is ill-equipped in theology, biblical interpretation, biblical literacy and ethics.  I suppose with a failure in all the aforementioned areas, I wonder if Christians can deal with any real life situation at all or whether they’re still living in a spiritual ivory tower.  My conclusion from just looking at some of the responses is that faith and culture won’t connect any time soon, especially among certain conservative circles of evangelicals.

When running into such controversies, the Christian response takes on the following forms. First, someone would say, “I don’t like it. Therefore it’s wrong.”  I’ve literally seen this silly response.  Second, “Maybe he’s doing it for the gospel. The problem is why someone is getting ink.”  Third, “the body is the temple of God. By inking it, the owner shows disrespect towards God’s creation.”  Fourth, “someone may stumble.” Fifth, “the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible says that getting tats is wrong.” Sixth, “It’s a cultural problem … you don’t understand what tattoos and piercings mean in our culture.”  Seventh, “Everything is permissible–but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible–but not everything is constructive.”

Since getting my earring, I’ve literally heard every single objection above.  How would one respond to them? I will write a series of blog posts dealing with each kind of objection.

In this blog, I’ll start with the first one, “I don’t like it. Therefore, it’s wrong.”  I start with this apparently silly objection to ease my readers into bigger issues in my coming blog posts in this series. The problem with this silly answer is that it really is more profound than stupid.  I believe this is the very root of objections and we’ll come back to this. Let’s face it, piercings and tats on men aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, whether you’re Christian or not. That’s a fact.  “I don’t like it” is a perfectly fine response to something that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  Yet, there’s something entirely wrong and unChristian about such a sentiment because of the second part, “Therefore, it is wrong.”  Who is to say that WE get to decide what is right or wrong for our brothers and sisters on things as trivial and cultural as piercings and ink?  I appreciate this frank objection simply because it’s the honest objection that underlies the other five objections, but honesty doesn’t make it right.  To object in such a way makes the objector himself “God”. Whoever among us can take such a high and mighty place?  I dare say, “No one.”

Troubles these days is that many Christians think they speak for God, but they don’t. Many think that they’re the moral police, except no one cares about their law enforcement.

The Rich Man and the Lazarus in Luke 16: a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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We have now come to the story of the rich man and Lazarus story in chapter nine in Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. This chapter is one of Levine’s best chapters. She first talks about the tension of whether or not to read eschatology into the parable. She leans on the side of reading the parable both eschatologically and economically.

 

I agree with Levine that the parable IS about economy as well as eschatology, though the detail of sitting at the side of Abraham was probably symbolic of being a friend or child of Abraham. Was the rich man moral or immoral? Was he deserving of being sent down to eternal punishment? These are the questions Levine attempts to answer.

 

In agreement with her, I would say that the man was immoral in his failure to give to the poor man. His privileged position allowed him to order Lazarus around to be sent back to his family even in the afterlife. Obviously, this is a hypothetical situation to illustrate his callousness. Was he deserving to be sent to eternal punishment? Of course, that’s why the parable has him down there. This may not sit well with our theological sensibilities but Jesus isn’t about fitting our grid.

 

One important observation she makes is about indifference. The rich man didn’t hate Lazarus. He just didn’t pay attention enough to even muster up sympathy. That is the real tragedy. While the Bible SEEMS to be against riches, at the end, this parable seems to indicate that the Bible is against apathy. Those who love money like the Pharisees who sneered at Jesus in Luke 16.14, had to be apathetic to the wealth all around in order to love money that much.

 

Levine writes movingly, “Some people, we learn, will never change. They condemn themselves to damnation even as their actions condemn other to poverty… the parable also asks about what the average person should do… Do we dream of the rich man’s clothes and food? Do we fear becoming destitute? The parable interrogates our priorities as well…Ironically, what the rich man asked Lazarus to do – to warn his brothers of the threat of hell – the parable does for the readers.”

 

Matthew 20 and Fairness?: a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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We shall continue to explore Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. Levine turns to the topic from Matthew 20 in chapter seven. This story is a puzzle because none of it has anything to do with normal operation of a farm.

 

 

Levine in her usual humorous style calls this the parable of the complaining day laborer or the parable of the surprise salaries. She starts by taking apart the anti-Jewish reading that typifies the owner to be God and the early workers to be Jews and later workers to be gentiles. This is one common interpretation based more on ideology than exegesis. Some go further to suggest that the last hired are the rejects like those who were poor and oppressed. Levine also points out that today many see the potential to read this parable as part of the practical social problem of labor. The parable has every potential to denounce unfair labor practice or so thinks the new crop of revisionist readers.

 

 

There’s much agreement between Levine and me. One consistent method she uses is a careful reading of symbolism. She claims that not every master can represent God, and I tend to agree. We simply can’t make the unfair master God. It’s already a strange enough story without the master being God. There’re also places where I disagree with Levine. She points out that the workers were at fault for denying the last crop of workers a living wage. The generosity of the owner than became exemplary. Without a doubt, I agree that the owner at least claimed to be generous. In her collection of evidence, Levine shows that impressively such an outcome was entirely possible in Galilean life of Jesus’ day. Now, even if this were typical, I don’t think it was fair which was the point of the complaint by the workers. I also see Levine struggling to not make the owner symbolic of God while trying to say that he’s analogous of God. In this way, the generous owner (analogous of God) was a role model for the rich. His equal treatment for all the workers and his unexpected generosity (or grace) set a standard for other rich people of Jesus’ day. So Levine claims.

 

 

Levine’s focus is clearly on the workers and I think she’s right, but is the role modeling for the rich really Jesus’ purpose? I do not think so. Matthew 20.1 starts with “for” which explains what went on before when the explicit audience was Peter and not the elite or the rich. Jesus was explaining to Peter what it meant to follow him and Peter responded by talking about rewards. The parable addresses directly Peter’s concern by asking Peter to identify with those who worked in the vineyard.

 

 

To me, interpretations that don’t address Peter’s concern won’t be right. I’ll deal with this in greater details in my Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories book. For those who are interested, they can purchase or borrow the book. I’ve also addressed this in one of my lectures for the Faith in Practice Lectureship in HK Baptist University. The lectures can be purchased through the university chaplain’s office.

 

The Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow in Luke 18: A Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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We have now come to the story of the unjust judge and the persistent widow story in chapter eight of Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. Levine quickly asserts that the traditional unsympathetic view towards judge and the persistent is wrong. She first objects to Luke’s domestication of the widow as someone who would be subservient and on her knees much like the stereotypical poor woman of Jesus’ day while Jesus’ parable gave the widow immense power. Jesus in fact empowered her so much that she was the antagonist against the judge who became her victim. The pugilistic imagery of her pestering the judge shows her powerful demand against the judge.

 

 

How then did Luke domesticate Jesus’ parable according to Levine? Luke did so by adding to the simple core of Luke 18.2-5. In other words, with the core of Luke 18.2-5 as originating from Jesus, Luke added the rest. Sure, if Luke 18.6ff was indeed Luke’s edition, she has a strong case that this story had turned Jesus’ social commentary into some other thing.

 

 

In Levine’s estimation, Luke probably didn’t have the right to add to what Jesus said. It’s hard to know whether Jesus actually didn’t say those words and that Luke had put “words in Jesus’ mouth” so to speak. Levine tells a story about a pestering and powerful widow. Surely, this was a possible story, but if Luke’s frame originated from Jesus, then Jesus told a story different from Levine’s. The fact is, if Jesus did talk in such apocalyptic terms, then the parable does make comparison between unjust judge and widow on the one hand and God and His children on the other. The way Luke framed the story is indeed important because such a story represents for Luke’s audience something else to the inaccessible historical Jesus.

 

 

What implications does this parable have for modern day believers? The modern believer prays. The parable moves beyond prayer to God’s character. When we demand things of God beyond just persistent prayer, we treat God as the unjust judge. When the Son of Man comes, will he find those believers trusting in a good God or will they trust in the other image of God.

The Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18: A Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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We shall continue to explore Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. Levine turns to the topic from Luke 18 in chapter six where the Pharisee and tax collector appear in the parable. In her typical sensitive fashion, she denounced the typical model of interpreting the Pharisee as being just a horrible hypocrite. She’s right in her caution because in reality, the Pharisee was a righteous person who followed the Torah. In fact, we must do well to notice that Jesus never said that following the Torah was a bad thing in this parable. Certainly, the tax collector was a sinner. There’s no denial of the sin of the tax collector in a stereotypical fashion. The Pharisee was stating the obvious. In arguing her case, Levine makes a thorough investigation of the tax collectors in Luke’s Gospel. Even at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the tax collectors were trying to do better. Now, were these typical tax collectors? Probably not. Thus, we simply must assume that Jesus was talking about an unusual case here.

 

 

Based on what she said and what we know, the Pharisees were accomplished in righteous deeds, and the tax collectors were despised and wealthy traitors the Jews. The Pharisees had every right to be proud of what they did. They were after all, the caretaker of God’s law and lived exemplary lives. The tax collectors though were unrepentant sinners who made a living off ripping off fellow Jews.

 

 

What then was the parable about? Based on the beginning in Luke 18.9, we must ask that hard question instead of working off our stereotypical understanding of the hypocritical Pharisee and the horrible tax collector.

 

 

In reading this story, we can be sure of its ethical relevance. Jesus was addressing those who were confident of their righteousness while stepping on others. If we were to reflect on the current state of Christianity, both conservatives and progressives were equally guilty at time of committing the same trespass. Many think that their job is to be prophetic against the society and in so doing, feeling satisfied with our own righteousness. Levine lays out a very convicting scenario that these days, we could well thank God that we aren’t the Pharisees. Well, that’s a blind spot! To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being righteous and doing a lot of good. We must note what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say that good works were bad in the parable. The problem is when we feel superior to others in our denouncement, and we celebrate how we aren’t like our inferiors before God. Surely, all things we do as believers are before God. This, above all, was the problem Jesus was addressing.

 

Mustard Seed and the Kingdom in Matthew 13: a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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We have come to chapter 5 of A-J. Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. She starts with the hilarious statement, “the parable … has put forth so many branches of interpretation that the birds of heaven could build multiple nests and still have room for expansion.”   She then elaborates on the two major branches to interpretive tendencies: the contrast between the small (seed) and large (other plants) and the allegorical symbolic value of seed, tree, birds etc. These are obviously unacceptable tendencies with the first one being not necessarily the point of comparison and the second not necessarily symbolic of everything in our lives. After all, Jesus didn’t point out the symbolism.

 

The first interpretive tendency of comparing smallness to greatness can be a comparison between the smallness of Israel to the greatness of gentile incorporation; the smallness of ministry in Israel to the greatness of the church; or smallness of this life to the greatness of eternal life. The second interpretive tendency of allegory can create all sorts of wild symbolism from the dangerous seed causing the demise of the great garden (i.e. the empire or Judaism); the upper class causing the demise of the poor and other similarly negative interpretation of the seed.

 

Levine points out that the seed in later rabbinic literature does point to fertility. This is a good place to start when we talk about growth. It is probably not wise, according to Levine, to see the seed as the cause for a weed as the shrub which the seed produces is a vegetable fit for human consumption. She then sees the seed and its growth as being part of the good world God gave to humans. God through Jesus gave an invitation to partake in this goodness.

 

 

When reading this little parable, I agree with Levine that just because mustard seeds grow easily, it doesn’t make them weeds. These are vegetables. Even less does it have to do with impurity in Judaism. Like the yeast parable, it lines up well with the emphasis on smallness growing into a comparatively big size plant. She also points out that the birds are often allegorized for no good reason. I admire her patience in dealing with all sorts of allegorical interpretations about the birds. Unfortunately, patience is not one virtue I possess. I usually just dismiss such fantasy to the realm of fairy tales. I think the birds are there to show the size of the plant, but they themselves shouldn’t occupy our attention too much.

 

Here’re some areas where I explore in my Right Kingdom Wrong Stories book that Levine has only started exploring. There’re good reasons for people to see the plant as weed not because it isn’t fit for human consumption but because of its common growth. Such a small seed gets carried everywhere, often without an intention from an owner. Yet, it benefits those who eat the plant. In this parable however, the planting of the seed is intentional by a sower. In other words, if this is compared to the kingdom, Jesus was talking about the strangeness of the kingdom starting from its smallness but also from its undiscovered purpose. No one who saw the plant would think, “Someone just have taken the time and care to plant this.” In the same way, the kingdom has its undiscovered aspect that grows to bigger benefits. Even when these results look accidental, they are intentional. Bigger isn’t always better. Smallness also has potential.

 

In the light of our love for bigness, Jesus’ story about the kingdom being intentional and small has so much to teach modern believers.  We live in an age where “bigger is better”.  Let’s think about the last time you want to go to a church because it lacks the facility, the large size congregation and the empty building.  Not very likely!  We measure success in terms of size.  Only the book sells the most is considered book of the year here in the US.  Only the church with the most members are considered successful.  Jesus’ parable goes directly against our pragmatic and short-sighted worldview.  Smallness has potential.  Its impact may not be immediate. In fact, Jesus only had twelve disciples on top of his seventy two others in his lifetime.  He had huge crowds but at the cross, he only had a few women and one disciple.  Such is the outworking of the kingdom.  Bigness isn’t always best.

The Pearl of Great Price: a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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We have come to chapter 4 of A-J. Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. She now talks about the pearl of great price parable in Matthew 13.45-46. It is a very small saying. She first points out the common consensus of interpretation: the pearl of great price as an allegory of discipleship. The pearl is the gospel, the good news of the kingdom, or Jesus, the savior of humankind. The merchant is sacrificing everything for the good news. The other interpretation she points out is the merchant representing God or Jesus seeking out the lost sinner like a precious pearl.

She then points out that the merchant originally was not only a merchant but also a man (based on the Greek language of Matthew 13). The man surely can’t be Jesus or God. Levine sees the merchant as a type of negative character in view of first century readers. Citing Rev. 18.3, she connects merchant as one who sometimes had dubious connections with questionable people. In other words, according to Levine, a merchant parable casts the whole parable into a questionable scenario. Her further objection to the popular interpretation is that if the kingdom is the pearl, it ought to be proclaimed other than withheld. So, she wishes to connect pearl with something negative much like the way the merchant is negative. In proving her point, she cites 1 Tim. 2.9 where the author told Timothy to tell his people not to wear jewelry. She also cites Rev. 18.12-13 where pearls were signs of extravagant corruption. While jewels were good to look at, they had very little practical value other than being put up to be looked at. Only the richest of the rich had the luxury of having such jewels while still having enough to live off. Apparently, this merchant wouldn’t after he sold everything. Levine sees the picture as the merchant redefining himself as being no longer a merchant but someone who could afford the luxury of a great pearl.

Levine’s proposal has a lot to commend it. I’m unsure whether we should read merchant positively or negatively. I think Jesus was using merchant class as an illustration of how crazy this story is. A merchant who tried his best to gain a useless pearl so that he had nothing to live on but an admirable pearl pretended to change his status. He acted like he had much more to live on. When people saw him, they also saw that he was no longer a merchant but an aristocrat now. How was the kingdom like this whole story? First, the kingdom isn’t like a pearl. Second, the kingdom is no longer about selling and buying much like the fact that the merchant had bought but didn’t resell even though it seemed good to resell.

While I agree with Levine in the above two implications, I think we need to read the parable in light of the parable of the hidden treasure. While hidden treasure was acquired as a matter of luck, the pearl was acquired as a matter of circumspection. The merchant had looked and looked. This is something I think Levine could have developed. Furthermore, the search for pearls would cause comparison with other types and options. I believe Levine is strong here when she insists that the parable was about priorities. Certainly, there’re other valuable things the merchant could’ve bought, but didn’t. Others besides himself have bought instead. So, the merchant had considered what was the ultimate priority by comparing the pearl with other options. Thus, the kingdom was about choosing the right priority that Jesus had presented throughout Matthew instead of other good but not best options.

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