Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Take My Sister... Please !"

I have long fancied that the Book of Genesis was written in part to discourage the Israelites from the practice of ancestor worship.  Although the Patriarchs of the Old Testament are certainly regarded as Heroes of Faith and great men, they had their bad days and Genesis does not always show them at their best.  It’s embarrassing enough when, as in the case of David and Bathsheba, a prophet of the Lord comes along to point out their ethical lapses; it’s even worse when they get called out by a heathen.

One such instance --- or  three, depending on your point of view – is the story of Abraham and Abimelech.  Well, actually Abimelech doesn’t come into it until later.  I just like the saying the name Abimelech.  The story starts out in Egypt.

A severe famine has hit the land of Canaan.  Abraham, still called Abram at this point, has not quite settled down into the land God has promised to him and his descendants, so he takes his family and livestock south to Egypt.  We tend to think of Egypt as all desert and pyramids, but the fertile Nile River valley was an important agricultural center of the region in ancient times.  This will not be the last time that the people of Israel will go to Egypt fleeing famine, war or political problems.  But Abram has a potential problem ahead of himself as well.

As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai [Sarah], “I know what a beautiful woman you are.  When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’  Then they will kill me but will let you live.  Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated will for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.’  (Genesis 12:11-13 NIV)

Is Abram crazy here?  Keep in mind that Sarah would have been in her mid-60s at this point.  But ancient Jewish Tradition assures us that, yes, Sarah really was That Hot; even when she was pushing 70.  She was the original Matriarch I’d Like to… um… Fool around with.

At least Abram thought so; and he wasn’t alone.  The Pharaoh’s flunkies are also impressed by her beauty.  Jewish tradition expands on the story to say that Abraham hid Sarah in a box when he entered Egypt, but she was discovered when he tried smuggling her through Customs.  The border officials were so struck by her beauty that they tried to out-bid each other for who would get her.  Pharaoh hears about her beauty and has Sarai brought to his palace to add to his collection.  After all, single chick and all, she’s fair game, right?  Oh, and Pharaoh gave favor to the Hot Babe’s brother Abe and gifted him with more livestock, but the fact remained that Abram’s wife is now stuck in the Pharaoh’s harem.  I guess he didn’t really think that part of the plan through.

Shortly afterwards, Pharoah’s household is struck by serious diseases.  Obviously this must be Divine Punishment for something, but what?  Pharaoh puts things together pretty quickly.

So Pharaoh summoned Abram.  “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to by my wife?  Now then, here is your wife.  Take her and go!”  (Genesis  12:18-19)

Abram gets booted out of Egypt.  He does get to keep all the sheep, cattle, servants and camels that the Pharaoh had given him earlier, but still it departure is not a dignified one and I can’t imagine Sarai was very happy about the whole situation.

Some years pass.  Abram has other adventures.  He receives a covenant with God and changes his name to Abraham, “father of nations;” and his wife takes the name of Sarah.  He lives for a while in the Negev, an arid region south of Canaan and at one point moves to the city of Gerar, just a few miles southeast of the city of Gaza.  And when they get to Gerar, Abraham starts worrying again about Sarah fatal beauty.

Once again he tells people that she’s his sister; and once again the local king, a guy named Abimelech, decides to take her for his own.

In this case, God comes to Abimelech in a dream and spells out the situation:  “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”  (Genesis 20:3)

Abimelech freaks.  He protests innocence; that he had no idea the chick was already taken.  “Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘His is my brother’?  I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”  (v.5)  Well, today we would observe that he could have asked if Sarah actually wanted to become one of his wives, but she didn’t really have that option at the time.  Abraham could have refused to give her to Abimelech if he had more of a spine, but if that were the case he wouldn’t have lied about his wife in the first place.

God is unusually understanding about the whole situation.  In the dream, God tells Abimelech that he knows the king did not intend this transgression and that for that reason God saw to it that Abimelech has not yet had the opportunity to bed her.  But now God is telling him to give Sarah back.  “…return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live.  But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die.”  (v. 7)

Abimelech is pretty angry about the deal.  He summons Abraham and asks him what the hell he was thinking of.  “How have I wronged you that you have brought such a great guilt upon me and my kingdom?”  (v.9)

Abraham replies with what has to be one of the lamest excuses in all of Scripture:

Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’  Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife.  And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother,”’”.  (Genesis 20:11-13)

Oh, so technically, she really is his half-sister; so technically, he was telling the truth.  It all depends on how you define the word “Is”. And the reason Abraham employed this misleading half-truth is because he was sure that Abimelech was immoral.  Abraham, you jerk.

Abimelech turns out to have more class than expected.  He gifts Abraham with cattle and slaves and grants permission for him to stay wherever he likes on his lands.  This is pretty magnanimous of him, but perhaps Abimelech figured that since Abraham was obviously favored by the Divinities, that he ought to be nice to the guy.

Then Abimelech does something really remarkable.  He apologizes, not to Abraham, (who doesn’t deserve it), but to Sarah.

To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver.  This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”  (v. 16)

It is unfortunately rare in Scriptures that we see a woman publicly acknowledged to have been wronged and publicly vindicated.  And the guy who did it was not prophet or a follower of the God of Abraham, but a heathen king, a guy who, Abraham thought, had no respect for the laws of God.  As I said, Abimelech in this story is a much classier guy than Abraham.

As a weird coda, the text mentions that Abraham does pray to God, and the Lord heals Abimelech and his household.  Apparently, the Lord had stricken Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls all with infertility because of the Sarah business, but now he fixed that all up.  Since Sarah hadn’t been in his household all that long, I’m not sure how Abimelech would have known this was a problem, but in any case, God put it all to rights.

You’d think that would be the end of it.  But no.

Many years later, Abraham and Sarah have died, and their son Isaac runs the family business.  Once again, famine strikes the land, and as before, Isaac relocates to Gerar.  The king at this time is also named Abimelech; possibly the grandson of the previous one.  The text describes him as “king of the Philistines”, who ruled the coastal regions of Palestine for much of this period.  Presumably Abimelech père was a Philistine too; the earlier story doesn’t say.

Like father, like son.  When the men on Gerar notice his wife Rebekah and ask who the cute girl is, he panics and says she is his sister.  In Isaac’s behalf, let me say that this does not seem to have been a premeditated fib, as in Abraham’s case, but something Isaac said on the spur of the moment.  And fortunately, the king does not right away say, “Hot puppies!”  And immediately drag her off to his harem as some other randy kings might.

But some time later, Abimelech happens to look outside his palace window and spot Isaac and Rebekah canoodling, and he figures out the truth.  (My NIV translation notes that the word in Hebrew, which the NIV renders as “caressing” and the KJV as “sporting” is a form of the verb “to laugh” or “to mock”, from which Isaac’s own name was derived; so the text is essentially making a pun).

As before, Abimelech rebukes Isaac for misleading him.  “One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.”  (Genesis 26:10)

What are we to make of these three narratives?  I’ve always had the suspicion that the writer who compiled the Book of Genesis found himself with three different versions from different sources of the same story, and didn’t know which ones to throw out, so he included them all.  The fact that two of the stories include guys named Abimelech and are set in the town of Gerar, suggests that they are the same story.  And after all, you would think that after the first incident in Egypt that Abraham would have known better than to pull the same bonehead stunt a second time.

Or would he?  Remember, in the lame-o excuse he gave to Abimelech, Abraham claimed that “… when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother,”’”.  (Genesis 20:13)  This suggests that Abraham was passing his wife off as his sister all the time and that in these two instances it came back to bite him.  And if Isaac grew up in a family where Dad was always telling strangers that Mom was his sister, maybe it’s not that surprising that he would do the same.

Nevertheless, whether it’s three stories or just one told three times, the Man of God winds up looking pretty cowardly and the Foreign King with the Harem by comparison looking virtuous and moral.

Funny how that works out.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Sleazy Embezzler

There are some passages from the Gospels which are referred to as the “Hard Sayings of Jesus”; sometimes because they are hard to put into practice, as in the case of his admonition “If your eye offends you, pluck it out” or his remark about camels and needles; sometimes because they’re hard to understand and run counter to what we think we know.

The last is the case with a story Jesus told in Luke chapter 16, sometimes called The Dishonest Steward, but which I am going to call the Parable of the Sleazy Embezzler.

A certain rich man has learned that his steward, the servant hired to manage his business affairs, has been doing a crappy job of it.  The way Jesus puts it is that the guy “was accused of wasting [the Boss’s] possessions”, so he might not have actually been dipping into the till.  He might have just made some really bad decisions with the Boss’s money.  The Boss tells him that he’s going to audit the books to find out exactly what he’s been up to.
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now?  My master is taking away my job.  I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg…” (Luke 16:3 NIV)
Fortunately, our embezzler comes up with a Cunning Plan.  One by one, he calls in everyone who owes something and restructures their debt. 
“So he called in each one of his masters debtors.  He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “’Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’  (v.5-6) 
He hasn’t been fired yet; he still has the authority to conduct business in his master’s name; and so he uses that authority to forgive a portion of the debt each man owes his boss.  That way, he figures, when he does lose his job, he’ll have plenty of people grateful to him who will be happy to help him out.

The Boss sees exactly what he’s done.  Since the debts were restructured in his name, he can’t very well go back and demand the full payment without looking like a jerk.  The most he can do is fire the dishonest steward – which he was going to do anyway – and it will look to the manager’s new friends that he was fired because he had done each of them a favor.

Some men might be pissed at the way the steward had outwitted him.  This boss seems to have had a sense of humor.  At least he was capable of recognizing the servant’s cleverness.  Jesus says, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  (v.8)

Commentators have puzzled over this parable for centuries.  Why is Jesus holding up this cheater, this crook, this embezzler up as an example?

Some interpreters have made excuses for him, saying that Jesus only said that the guy was accused of malfeasance, not of actually guilty of it.  Others have speculated that maybe his master had been overcharging his debtors in order to get around the Mosaic prohibition against charging interest, and that the steward was only converting the balance to what it should have been.

Both views are over-thinking things and missing the point.  If the manager had been guilty of wrongdoing, the audit would have exonerated him.  He knew it wouldn’t.  He knew he was toast.  And Jesus repeatedly calls him “dishonest.”  No, the fact that he’s a cheat who got caught and what he had to do to cover his butt is the whole point of the parable.

Another interpretation is that the steward’s reduction of what the debtors owe his master reflects him forgoing what his own commission of the transaction would be, deliberately sacrificing his own cut in order to do the right thing.  Once again, I think this is over-thinking the situation.  Jesus was telling the story to make a point, and if the point was the manager making amends for his misdeeds, Jesus would have said so.

The master does not commend his soon-to-be-ex manager for his virtue, but for his shrewdness.  In effect he’s saying, “You’re still fired, but I gotta admit, you’re a clever scoundrel!”

“For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”  (Luke 16:8)

Elsewhere Jesus tells his disciples, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”  (Matthew 10:16)  Or putting it in D&D terms, just because you’re Lawful Good in alignment doesn’t mean you have to be Lawful Stupid.

This next part gets even more confusing, because it seems to say one thing, and then Jesus does a complete 180 turn.  Or does he?  I think this is largely a translation issue.  The King James Version renders it this way:
“And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.”  (Luke 16:9 KJV) 
This makes it sound like we’re supposed to suck up to wealthy and ungodly people in order to gain… what?  Heaven?  This is the exact opposite of what Jesus says elsewhere, and of what he says in the following  verses for that matter.  Other translations, I think, are a little more clear:
“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9 NIV)
This makes it a little more clear that the “mammon of unrighteousness” referred to in King Jim is simply our own secular, material wealth.  As a matter of simple Enlightened Self-Interest, we ought to use our wealth in such a way to “make friends”.  Another commentator goes back to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 in which the Son of Man judges the people gathered before him based on how well they treated their neighbors, because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  (Matthew 25:40)

Jesus concludes this discourse on money with a more famous remark: “No servant can serve two masters …  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Luke 16:13 KJV)  Mammon is a Semitic word for money or riches, and Jesus uses it as a personification of materialism.  In the Middle Ages the word was used as a name for a demon of greed.

And if this sounds like a bunch of anti-capitalist hippie crap, the Pharisees thought so too: 
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.  He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts.  What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.  (Luke 16:14-15)

I guess even a sleazy embezzler can be smart enough to keep an eye on the changing exchange rates.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Statue Got Me High

The prophet Daniel has a lot in common with Joseph from the book of Genesis.  Both were exiles who found success working as civil servants for a foreign king; both became important administrators in their new homes; and most importantly, both were skilled at interpreting dreams.

We last left Daniel and his friends at the end of Daniel chapter 1 studying at the University of Babylon where they are being trained to serve in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. The king was impressed by their wisdom and understanding, which greatly surpassed that of any of the magicians and enchanters in his kingdom.

Which brings up a curious side question:  What exactly was Daniel and his friends studying?  The implication I see is that they were studying Astrology and Divination, disciplines which our modern age would call superstition and which the Babylonians would call science and which many Christians would call Satanic. 

Now the text is scrupulous about always crediting Daniel’s wisdom and insights to God; but it still seems highly likely to me that if they Babylonians were going to be teaching him stuff, they would have been teaching him their cutting-edge science.  It may seem strange to call the study of horoscopes Science, but in defense of the Babylonians, the underlying premises of Astrology may be faulty, but they took it damn seriously, and the data they compiled in their study of the stars became useful and important as their system of Astrology developed into the science of Astronomy. 

(I once read an economist remark that many of our sciences started out as superstition; that Astrology became Astronomy and that Alchemy became Chemistry; and that someday we might find out what science will come out of Economics.)

But the point of this that I see is that those who fret that secular learning is dangerous because it isn’t rooted in the Bible forget that Daniel managed to emerge from a thoroughly non-Jewish course of study with his faith in God intact.  I know that my own interests in history, science and fantastic literature has given me perspectives that have, I think, deepened my understanding of my own beliefs. I dare say that gaining an understanding of Babylonian history, culture and laws, as well as Babylonian religion and science, gave him insights which enabled him to better relate to the king and to the members of his court.

But back to the story.  In the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, the king became troubled by dreams and unable to sleep.  And here we have a discrepancy.

In chapter 1, we are told that Daniel and his friends came to Babylon in the first year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and underwent three years of study, entering the king’s service after graduation.  But now this story is taking place during the king’s second year.  What’s the deal with that?  Some critics have tried to explain the discrepancy by saying that the second year mentioned here is dating from the consolidation of his empire after Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Egyptians a couple years after he ascended to the throne.  Or it could be that this story took place while Daniel was still an undergrad.  Or it could be sloppy editing of individual stories which originally came from diverse sources.

Nebuchadnezzar calls together all his magicians, enchanters, sorecerors and astrologers, (“Chaldeans” in the original text; the region of Chaldea in southern Mesopotamia was so identified with the development of astrology that the name became synonymous with “guys who study the stars”).  He commands them to explain his dream.

Then the astrologers answered the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever!  Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”  (Daniel 2:4 NIV)

Why does the text make a point of mentioning that the astrologers were speaking in Aramaic?  Well, there’s a reason.  Because at that point, the narrative switches from Hebrew to Aramaic, and continues in that language for the rest of the story and for much of the rest of the whole book.

Aramaic was a language related to both Hebrew and Phoenician, spoken in the region of present-day Syria.  Abraham lived for a time in that land, which is why it is said in the book of Deuteronomy, “My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deut.26:5).  Aramaic was the language spoken in Assyria, which was a dominant political force through much of the Old Testament period, and the language was important even after Assyria became absorbed into the Babylonian Empire and when Babylon was in turn conquered by the Persian.  It’s generally believed that during the Babylonian Captivity, the Jewish exiles adopted Aramaic, the lingua franca of the empire, for their everyday speech, even after they returned to Judea. They continued using Hebrew in their Scriptures, but had become a language of lore and of religious ritual rather than one of every day conversation.  Although the Gospels were written in Greek, Jesus did most if not all of his teaching in Aramaic, and some of the Gospel writers quote snatches of that language in their narrative.

It is believed that the narrative portion of the Book of Daniel consists of stories written during this Post-Exilic period, and for some reason, the author of the book left them as is, rather than translating them into Hebrew.  The last half of the book, consisting of a series of prophetic visions, shifts back into Hebrew again; perhaps because Aramaic was just to mundane a tongue to do justice to the full weirdity of Daniel’s visions.  But back to the story.

The magicians and professional wonder-workers ask the king to tell him his dream so that they may interpret it, but Nebuchadnezzar isn’t having any of that.  He seems quite testy with his staff seers; perhaps he doesn’t really trust them; perhaps it has occurred to him that if his psychic friends are all that hot, he shouldn’t have to tell them what he dreamed.  Or perhaps, according to some interpretations, he can’t remember what the dream was about and it’s driving him crazy.

The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided:  If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piled of rubble.  But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive form me gifts and rewards and great honor.  So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.”  (Daniel 2:5-6)

Ouch.  And I thought the James Randi Challenge was tough.  The astrologers admit that what the king asks is impossible.  “What the king asks is too difficult.  No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men.” (Daniel 2:11)

This angers Nebuchadnezzar, and he orders the execution not just of his court astrologers, but also of all the wise men of Babylon.  This includes Daniel and his friend.

Daniel has the opportunity to speak with Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, who has been tasked with the responsibility of gathering up all these wise guys.  He speaks to Arioch “with wisdom and tact” and learns the whole story.  Daniel asks for a little more time so that he can try interpreting the dream himself.

Daniel goes back to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, (better known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) and they pray asking God for mercy and enlightenment so that they can answer the king’s riddle and save their own lives as well as the lives of the other magi.

In the night, Daniel also has a dream and in it the mystery is revealed.  The ghost is actually the shady banker in disguise.  Wait.  Wrong mystery.

The narrative pauses here for a moment as Daniel utters a psalm praising God as the source of wisdom and power, who reveals deep and hidden mysteries.

Although in this story, Daniel receives the solution to a mystery by Divine Revelation, there are other stories involving Daniel, the canonicity of which are disputed, in which Daniel actually employs deductive reasoning to uncover crimes, making Daniel the only detective in the Bible.  I hope to tell some of these other stories another time.

Daniel is brought before Nebuchadnezzar to explain it all.

“No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.  He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the days to come.”  (Daniel 2:27-28)

The king’s dream was of a tremendous statue, the head of which was made of gold, the chest and arms of silver, the belly and thighs of bronze, the legs of iron and the feet and toes of iron mixed with clay.  As the king observed the statue in his dream, a large rock was cut out, not by human hand.  The rock struck the feet of the statue, causing them to crumble and the entire statue to collapse in a ruin.  The rock then grew to the size of a mountain encompassing the whole earth.

That was the dream; but what did it mean?

The golden head of the statue, Daniel said, represented Nebuchadnezzar himself and his glorious kingdom, given to him by the God of heaven.  The silver torso represented the kingdom which would succeed him, spiffy, but not quite as impressive as his own.  Then a third kingdom, one of bronze, which would rule over the whole earth, and finally a fourth one, as strong as iron, but not wholly so; a mixture of strength and weakness which would not remain united. (And yes, this is where the expression “Feet of Clay” comes from, meaning an underlying character flaw in an otherwise admired figure).

Finally, the rock cut out of a mountain but not by human hands represented a kingdom which God would someday establish which would not be destroyed but would endure forever.

Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by Daniel’s revelation of his dream and by the interpretation of it.  “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery” (Daniel 2:47)  The king gave Daniel a high position in his court in charge of his staff magi, and appointed his friends to posts as administrators.

But looking back with historical hindsight, did Daniel’s prophecy come true?

The traditional interpretation of both Jewish and Christian scholars is that Four Kingdoms of the statue represent (1) the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar; (2) the Empire of the Medes and the Persians which conquered Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar’s death; (3) the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world, and of his successors, specifically the Seleucid Dynasty which ruled over the former Babylonian territories and which squabbled with the Ptolemies of Egypt for control of Palestine; (4) Rome, the mightiest empire of all, but one which eventually fell to internal weakness and division.

Christians like to interpret the carved by no human hand as the Christian Church, established by God and outlasting the kingdoms of men and growing to fill the whole earth.  Some later Christian groups with a more eschatological bent, interpret the mixed feet of the statue as representing a later successor to the Roman Empire and the rock as the Millennial Kingdom to be established once Christ Comes Again.

More modern scholars have been skeptical of Daniel’s prescient visions, and assume that the kingdoms described in the dream are ones the writer would have been familiar with.  Because much of Daniel is written in Aramaic, and because some of the later prophecies in the book seem to specifically refer to the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler who incited the Maccabean Revolt, it’s generally thought that the Book of Daniel was written, or at least compiled in its final form, during the time of the Maccabees.  Under this interpretation, the golden head remains Babylon, but the silver torso becomes the kingdom of the Medes, and the brass belly that of the Persians.  The iron legs then become the succeeding period of Greek rulers.  Except that the Medes and the Persians did not rule one after the other; they were ethnic divisions within the same Empire.  I don’t know how this interpretation regards the rock; perhaps as a hopeful anticipation of a Messianic Age.

These two interpretations are based on the assumptions that either (A) Daniel was writing about future events revealed by Divine Revelation, or (B) Daniel was written later using 20/20 hindsight and pretending to make predictions about things that had already happened.  Another possibility occurs to me.

It doesn’t take either divine foreknowledge or historical hindsight to know that Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom wouldn’t last forever.  Eventually it would pass and be superseded by something else, and that this new kingdom too would fade away.  So how do Daniel’s predictions about these future kingdoms compare to what really happened?

In some ways, the historical record of Empire in the Middle East is the exact opposite of that predicted in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.  He dreamt of four kingdoms, each succeeding one inferior to the one before.  As it turned out, the Persian Empire was larger and lasted longer than the Babylonian; the Greek Empire, (if we count the Seleucid Dynasty) lasted even longer, and Rome longest of all.

True, the Empire of Alexander covered pretty much the entire world that Nebuchadnezzar knew about; and the Roman Empire was renowned for its strength, yet ultimately became divided, so those points match… sort of… if we squint at them in just the right light.

Or perhaps Daniel was framing his interpretation in such a way to make Nebuchadnezzar look good.  “Here are the kingdoms which will succeed your own; but none of them will be as glorious as yours.”

And what about the Rock?  I have to admit, I like the interpretation that the Rock is Christ and the kingdom which he told Pilate was “not of this world.”

In the latter part of the book, Daniel revisits this prophecy; recounting a vision of four beasts, once again symbolizing four kingdoms to come, and here he gets even more apocalyptic; but that is another vision for another time.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Daniel Diet Plan

The prophet Daniel is best known for hanging out in lion’s dens, (where, presumably, he watched Detroit football games), but there is much more to him than that.  He is similar to Joseph, in that he was an exile who rose to success working as a civil servant in the bureaucracy of a foreign king; but where the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis had a pretty unified narrative arc, the book of Daniel is episodic, a grab-bag of material, much of it weird.

Most of the book is believed to have been written in the Post-Exilic period, and a lot of it deals with the themes of maintaining your religious identity in an alien society.  For this reason the very first story in the book is sometimes used as an example to young people leaving their religious homes for the first time and going out into the Big Bad Secular World of College.  And whenever I undergo a major life change like that, one of the first questions I always ask is, “Is there anything to eat?”

Some time previously, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians and absorbed into that nation.  Now Assyria had fallen, and Babylon and Egypt were fighting to fill the power vacuum, with Judah, the Southern Kingdom, in the middle.  Judah picked the wrong side in the Battle at Meddigo between the Egyptians and the Babylonians, (That plain is where the word “Armageddon” comes from) and wound up having to pay tribute to Babylon.

As part of that tribute, King Nebuchadnezzar ordered some of the young men from the noble families of Judah brought to Babylon.  This was not an uncommon practice in ancient times.  To a certain extent, the men would serve as hostages, to ensure that their families back home would behave and not make trouble.  But these young men were not just prisoners, they were investments.  The ones chosen were not only healthy and handsome, they were also selected for their intelligence and aptitude for learning.  These men were educated in the language and laws of Babylon so that they could serve in the Babylonian court; and in doing so, would eventually serve as emissaries of the king to their own people and would also represent their own people before the king.

Among these Best and Brightest of Judah were Daniel, and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.  The Babylonians changed their names to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; presumably because they found their Hebrew names too hard to remember.  Maybe they were right.  The three friends get their own story later on, and are only remembered by their Babylonian court names; but Daniel’s new handle didn’t stick, and thankfully not.  Who would want to read about Belteshazzar and the Lion’s Den?

Since these young exiles were being trained up to serve as royal courtiers, they were given the best of everything; including food from the king’s table.  And this was a problem.  Nebuchadnezzar didn’t keep a kosher kitchen.  And much of the food that would have been kosher under the Mosaic dietary laws had been ritually offered to the gods first, making it all unclean.  Daniel did not want to defile himself with the king’s unlawful victuals.

Fortunately, the court official in charge of the students liked Daniel and was sympathetic to his situation.  But he had a responsibility for the young men’s well-being.

“I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink.  Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age?  The king would then have me head because of you.”  (Daniel 1:10 NIV)

Daniel offers a reasonable test.  He suggests a ten-day trial period in which he and his friends go on a diet of vegetables and water.  At the end of those ten days, the guard can compare their health and appearance to those of the other students.

We aren’t given any details of the diet.  The King James version says “let them give us pulse to eat,” meaning beans and legumes, staple foods of the Fertile Crescent region.

Some vegetarians have used this passage to claim that the Bible endorses the vegan lifestyle.  I think that’s stretching things; but in any case, whether Daniel’s diet really was healthy or whether God blessed his obedient servants, when the ten days were up, the results were plain to see:

At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.  So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.  (Daniel 1:15-16)

Daniel’s supervisor gave him no more hassles about following the official menu.  Daniel and his friends continued their studies and, with God’s blessing, became quite adept in the laws, languages and sciences of Babylon, which included astrology and divination.  Daniel in particular showed an aptitude for understanding visions and dreams, which became useful to him later.

In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better that all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.  And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.  (Daniel 1:20-21)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

All Agog

The French President was frankly puzzled.  He had received a call from the American President who hoped to enlist his country’s aid in America’s Global War on Terrorism.  The American appealed to their common Christian faith, and then added:

“Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East.... The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled.... This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

The French President made polite diplomatic noises to the American, but as soon as he got off the phone he had his staff contact one of the top Biblical scholars at the University of Lausanne with an urgent question:

Who the heck are Gog and Magog?

The answer he got probably didn’t help him much, because I remember wondering the same thing when I first encountered those mysterious names and was frustrated by the lack of useful information.  This is one of those annoying places in the Bible where the text makes a throwaway reference to something the original readers were probably very familiar with, but then later readers spend the next couple thousand years speculating on what it meant.

Depending on who you ask, Gog and Magog could be giants, or demons, or chieftains, or symbolic personifications, or harbingers of the Apocalypse.  Or all of them at once.  Take your pick.

They first turn up in the Book of Genesis in one of the many genealogical lists that pop up in the first few chapters.  This particular genealogy lists the descendants of the sons of Noah, and is sometimes called “The Table of Nations”, because it purports to show how all the nations of the region known at the time descended from Noah’s sons.  Broadly speaking, the Sons of Japheth settled in Europe and the North; the sons of Ham moved South to Africa, and the sons of Shem, the Semetic people, got the Middle East and Asia.  A lot of the assumptions classifying humanity into three “races”, (Black, White and Asian) owe their own genealogy to the Sons of Noah.

But back to the list:

The sons of Japheth:  Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras.  (Genesis 10:2 NIV)

Yes, this passage is where Gomer Pyle got his name from.  We aren’t told if Gomer ever settled in Mayberry, NC, or joined the Marine Corps.  We are told even less about Magog; we’re just given his name.

Some ancient Greek text associate Magog with the kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.  The First Century Jewish historian Josephus said that Magog was the ancestor of the Scythians.  A later medieval writer said that Magog moved to Scandinavia and became the first King of Sweden, (which the Swedes thought was actually kind of cool).  Irish chroniclers also claimed descent from Japheth through Magog’s Scythian children.  Other writers blamed Magog for begetting the Goths, the Finns, the Huns and the Slavs.  Still later, others equated the descendants of Magog with the Mongols and identified Gog and Magog as provinces in the legendary Kingdom of Prester John.

Note that these are all northern tribes; (Japheth’s descendants were thought to have spread out north, remember); and that all of them were considered barbaric, and in most cases unusually war-like.

Gog does not turn up in the Table of Nations, but there is a guy named Gog mentioned in 1 Chronicles chapter 5 as one of the descendants of Reuben, one of the twelve sons of Jacob.  He has no connection to the Son of Japheth as far as I can tell.

Magog might have just remained just a name on the Table of Nations and a source for 1960s sitcom characters but for the wacky prophet Ezekiel.

The word of the LORD came to me:  “Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal; prophesy against him and say:  ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.’” (Ezekiel 38:1-3 NIV)

It could be that this “Gog” is a descendant of the tribe of Magog; but the prefix “ma-“ in Hebrew can also mean “place of”; so perhaps Ezekiel is talking about “Gog, from the Land of Gog.”  Which would be redundant, but since Ezekiel is using the names as code words for an otherwise unnamed enemy and other names from the descendants of Japheth as its allies, I suppose it really doesn’t matter.

The prophecy goes on to describe Gog as commanding vast armies and predicting that he will sweep down from the north with his hordes to conquer all the lands to the south.  Barbarian hordes from the north, remember?  This is why later readers liked to associate Gog and Magog with Scythians and Huns and Visigoths and Swedes and such. Then, in his pride, Gog will attack the land of Israel; at which point God will say, “enough is enough, butt-head!”

“I will summon a sword against Gog on all my mountains, declares the Sovereign LORD.  Every man’s sword will be against his brother.  I will execute judgment upon him with plague and bloodshed; I will pour down torrents of rain, hailstones and burning sulfur on him and on his troops and on the many nations with him.  And so I will show my greatness and my holiness , and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations.  Then they will know that I am the LORD.”  (Ezekiel 38:21-23)

Hoo-hah!  Real apocalyptic stuff.  And that’s just a sample; chapters 28 and 29 of Ezekiel are full of stuff like that.  At the time he was writing, Ezekiel was one of the exiles carried off to Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar  conquered the Kingdom of Judah.  Shortly before this particular prophecy, he and his fellow exiles had learned that the city of Jerusalem and its Temple had finally been destroyed.  So in this section, Ezekiel is anticipating a day when the people of Israel have returned to their land; and when “the Nations”, future enemies of Israel, will again try to attack it.

Not surprisingly, this and related passages of Ezekiel have been regarded as prophecies of the End Times.  Nor is it surprising that John, in writing his Book of Revelation, evoked Ezekiel in his own psychedelic imagining of the End of the Ages:

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth – Gog and Magog – to gather them for battle.  In number they are like the sand on the seashore.  They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the comp of God’s people, the city he loves.  But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.  (Revelation 20:7-9)

Here Gog and Magog have been split into two different guys, but John is essentially summarizing the prophecy in Ezekiel, except where the earlier prophet has Gog representing a foreign nation or group of nations arrayed against Israel, John seems to have Gog and Magog symbolizing spiritual and moral evil assaulting God’s people from within as well as from without.

In the Qur’an, Gog and Magog are referred to as Yajuj and Majuj; and there is a story of how a righteous king named Dhul-Qarnayn built a huge wall to hold back their hordes from attacking. The name Dhul-Qarnayn means “possessor of two horns”, and some scholars have identified him with Alexander the Great, who portrayed himself on his coinage wearing ram’s horns.  The story of the Great Wall holding the barbarians back is doubtless what led some scholars to think of the Mongols and the Great Wall of China.  Regardless of who built the wall and who was behind it, the Qur’an states that eventually that wall will crumble and the imprisoned hordes unleashed to bring destruction on the earth.

In British tradition, however, Gog and Magog are neither nations nor kings; they are giants.  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain tells a story about a hero named Corinus who wrestles a giant named Gogmagog and chucks him off a cliff.  There is a group of hills just south of Cambridge called the Gog Magog Downs, said to be the transformed body of a giant who had been rejected by a river nymph.  I guess rejection will do that to a guy.

But the giants Gog and Magog also appear in British legend as downright benign characters in London, where an old tradition names them as guardians of the city.  Images of them are carried in the annual Lord Mayor’s show.

But for the most part, Gog and Magog are associated with destruction and battle, which is why George W. Bush invoked them in his conversation with Jacques Chirac.

Interestingly enough, though, when Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, was in college, his nickname in Yale’s Skull and Bones club was “Magog”.

Just sayin’, is all.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Simon vs. Simon

He was a sorcerer and a charlatan; he was demonized as the source of every heresy to trouble the Early Church; he loved the most beautiful woman in the world, and it is said he was the arch-enemy of the first pope.  And he had his very own sin named after him.

But who was Simon Magus?

He appears very briefly in Acts chapter 6; a man named Simon in the city of Samaria who boasted great powers.  He was one of many prophets and would-be messiahs who popped up in Palestine during the First Century.  The text tells us that he practiced sorcery and had attracted a wide amount of attention in the region.  He billed himself as “The Great Power” and people attributed his magic to divine power.  Then Philip showed up.

Philip was a follower of Christ who, like many others, had fled the city of Jerusalem fleeing the attempts by the Temple authorities, (and by later convert Saul in particular), to suppress the Church.  He was one of the seven deacons, chosen by the Twelve Apostles to perform administrative functions and organize the Church’s charitable mission while the Apostles themselves devoted their attention to teaching.  (One of Jesus’ original disciples was also named Philip, but this seems to have been a different guy).

The name “Philip” is Greek, so perhaps he was a Greek convert to Judaism who had become a follower of Jesus.  Or perhaps one of his parents was Greek and the other Jewish, as was the case with Paul’s student, Timothy.  Or possibly Philip was just the name he went by among his Gentile friends. 

Philip came to Samaria and began preaching the good news of the kingdom of God.  The text tells us that many were baptized, both men and women, including Simon.

Was Simon sincere?  The text tells us that he “believed and was baptized” and offers no judgment on this, although it does remark that Simon was impressed by the “signs and miracles” he saw Philip performing and that he followed Philip everywhere.

It seems very likely that Simon saw Philip’s message as The New Thing, and rather than denouncing it, as the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem did, he sought to latch onto it so he could incorporate it into his own schtick.  Or perhaps he really was moved by Philip’s preaching, and his initial acceptance of the message was sincere.

The Apostles back at the Home Office in Jerusalem heard about Philip’s success, and sent Peter and John to take a look.

When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.  Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.  (Acts 8:15-17 NIV)

This deserves a little more attention.  Frequently the Book of Acts refers to believers “receiving the Holy Spirit” but does not go into great detail about what this means. It was an intense, ecstatic religious experience in which the person felt full of spiritual power and excitement.  In some cases, the text describes them speaking in different languages, “speaking in tongues.”   The church tradition in which I grew up doesn’t like to talk a whole lot about this aspect of the Primitive Church, because we Lutherans tend to be wary about things like enthusiasm; but other churches, coming out of the Charismatic Movement and other churches of the Pentecostal tradition, make the expression of the Holy Spirit central to their worship.

Whatever the specifics, what Peter and John did had a noticeable effect on the Samaritan believers, and Simon was impressed.  Afterwards, he came up to the apostles with a bag of cash and asked them how much it would cost to teach him the trick.  Bad move, Simon.

Peter answered:  “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!  You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.  Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord.  Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.  For I can see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”  (Acts 8:20-23)

Did Simon repent?  According to the text, he backs down, and contritely says “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”   (v.24)  So maybe his heart was in the right place, but he just didn’t fully grasp the Gospel message.  Lord knows that Peter certainly missed the point on more than one occasion during Jesus’ ministry. 

Some historians have suggested that Simon was actually Paul of Tarsus and that the story in Acts 8 is based on disagreements the two had early on, but that the name was changed after the Pauline and Petrine factions of the Church resolved their differences.  I don’t think I can buy that interpretation, though.  The picture we get in Acts 8 of the opportunistic charlatan trying to buy magic powers jibes with neither fanatical Pharisee we get in Saul’s earliest appearances, nor the driven Apostle for Christ we see in the rest of Acts and in his epistles.

The Book of Acts makes no more mention of Simon and we have to turn to other sources to learn what happened next.

In his book Antiquities of the Jews, the Jewish historian Josephus makes mention of a sorcerer working for procurator Felix, the Roman administrator in Caesarea at about this time.  Some Latin texts of his work call the sorcerer “Simon” and identify him with the Simon of Acts chapter 8; but the guy mentioned by Josephus was a Jew from Cyprus, not a Samaritan.  Simon was not that uncommon a name; Peter’s name was originally Simon for that matter.

About a century later, the Early Christian writer and apologist Justin Martyr and later on Bishop Irenaeus added to the story of Simon Magus.  Both men associated Simon with the Gnostics, a sect of Christianity which grew up during the Second Century and which the orthodox Church Fathers considered heretical.

I can’t really do much justice to the teachings of Gnosticsim, partially because their precise doctrines varied from branch to branch, and partially because they wrote very little that has come down to us, and much of what we know about them comes from hostile sources like Justin and Irenaeus.  The Gnostics claimed to possess an oral tradition of Secret Knowledge derived from Christ himself in addition to the plain vanilla Gospel taught by the Mainstream Church.  Among other things, they taught a form of dualism where Matter is inherently corrupt and on the Spirit is wholly good and that the only way a fleshly human can attain the Realm of Perfection is through the pursuit of gnosis, or knowledge.

According to Justin and Irenaus, Simon Magus was the founder of Gnosticism. Simon taught the existence of what he called the Ennoia, or the First Thought of God, a divine emanation which took on an existence of its own.  This Ennoia became bound to a human form as a mortal woman of exceptional beauty, who was re-incarnated many times through history.  Helen of Troy was one of her incarnations.  Another was Simon’s girlfriend, who also happened to be named Helena.

It occurs to me that this might have been the origin of part of the mediaeval Faust legend, another dabbler in Dark Arts who desired the Helen whose face did launch a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium.

The Church Fathers took a dim view of Simon’s girlfriend.  The Third Century writer Hippolytus said that she was a prostitute from Tyre and that Simon made up the Ennoia story to justify shacking up with her.  Oh, and that the Gnostics were big on Free Love.  Damn Gnostic Hippies.

Simon also, it was said, taught that he himself embodied all three aspects of the Trinity, appearing to the Jews as the “Son of God,” mediating for sin; to the Samaritans as the “Father” and Creator; and to the Pagan world as the “Holy Spirit”.

He supposedly went to Rome, where he was opposed on several occasions by Peter.  Finally, according to Hippolytus, Simon told his disciples to bury him alive, promising that he would rise from the dead on the third day.  They did.  But he didn’t.

The apochryphal Acts of Peter, written in the Second Century gives a different version of Simon’s death.  It describes the running duels of Magic vs. Miracle between Simon the Sorcerer and Simon Peter in greater detail.  In order to prove himself a god, Simon levitates high over the Forum in Rome.  Peter prays that God stop him, and Simon plummets to his death.  That pisses off the Emperor Nero, who had bet five bucks on the Magus, so much that out of spite he crucifies Peter upside-down.

That’s the ending that legend and popular tradition gives to Simon.  But I prefer to leave him the way the Book of Acts does:  apologizing for his foolish request and asking for forgiveness.

Simon did leave one other legacy behind him.  Traditionally, the sin of selling church offices, and profiting off the selling of spiritual functions, has come to be called simony.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Goofus and Gallant in the Vineyard

My parents never subscribed to Highlights for Children -- I preferred Children’s Digest because it ran Tintin adventures – but occasionally I would read the magazine when I was little in the waiting room of the doctor’s office.  On for the regular features that use to run in Highlights – (and probably still does; Highlights will exist as long as there are pediatrician clinics) – was a cartoon called “Goofus and Gallant”.

If you’ve ever read Highlights, I’m sure you’ve seen it.  Gallant and Goofus are two brothers; at least I’ve always assumed they are related.  The first panel would show Gallant doing something polite and respectful; say, helping an old lady across the street; and the second panel would show Goofus in the same situation doing something stupid; like taking cell phone video of the old lady getting hit by a car to post on YouTube.

There was no plot to these cartoons; just the salutary example of the Good Boy contrasted with the deplorable example of the Bad one.  Sometimes Goofus would go first, sometimes Gallant; but the strip always gave us this nice contrast between the Right Way and the Wrong Way.

This kind of dualism is a natural way to convey a moral message: Good vs. Evil; Virtue vs. Vice; Minneapolis vs. St. Paul.  It’s not surprising that Jesus used this kind of comparison in one of his parables.

What is surprising is that he did it wrong.

“What do you think?  There was a man who had two sons.  He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing.  He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.” (Matthew 21:28-30 NIV)

That’s not how it’s supposed to go!  He mixed the brothers up!  It’s as if Goofus set the table for dinner and Gallant stuck lima beans up his nose.  How could Jesus make such a mistake?

Maybe because Jesus wanted to convey a different message.

Let’s back up a bit and look at the context.  On the occasion he told this parable, Jesus was teaching in the temple courts in Jerusalem, one of the plazas within the walls of the Temple, but outside the building itself.  There he encountered some of the chief priests and elders of people who wanted to know where the hell he got the idea he could set himself up as some kind of a prophet.  “By what authority are you doing these things … And who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)

Perhaps they were genuinely curious as to the source of his teachings, but given Jesus’ response, I suspect they were hoping he’d say something they could use against him.

Jesus answers with a question of his own:

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question.  If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism – where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men?”  (Matthew 21:24-25)

He threw the “Gotcha” question right back at them.  John the Baptist had died only a year or two before and was widely regarded as a prophet.  If the authorities agreed that he was a messenger from God, Jesus could reasonably ask why they ignored him.  On the other hand, if they said that John was just a guy with no divine mandate, they’d be going against popular opinion.

Unwilling to commit themselves, they replied “We don’t know.”  And so Jesus said “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”  (Matthew 21:27)

Now, at first glance, this exchange doesn’t seem to have much connection to the parable Jesus tells immediately afterward; but considering who his audience at the time, it’s pretty obvious whom Jesus intended the second son to represent:  the religious elites, the self-righteous ones who uttered pious platitudes, but whose lives reflected neither God’s justice, nor his compassion.  And if the priests saw this pointed at themselves, well, if the funny hat don’t fit, you don’t gots to wear it.

At the end of his parable, Jesus asks these priests, which of the two sons did what his father wanted?  They had to answer, “The first.”

Who, then, does the first son represent?  Jesus tells them, and brings the parable back to the point he made earlier:

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.  And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”  (Matthew 21:31-32)

“Prostitutes and tax collectors” are often used in the Gospel as a shorthand for people considered social outcasts for their wickedness:  prostitutes because they lived outside the approved sexual mores, and tax collectors because they were essentially collaborationists, private contractors hired by the occupying Romans to collect taxes, who profited by collecting more than Rome required and pocketing the difference.  The Gospels often lump “sinners and tax collectors” together in the same group.

TO me this parable says two things.  Most obviously, it condemns the hypocrite who talks the talk, but who shows far less nimbleness in the walking department.  Christians like to call this type of behavior pharisaical, although that’s grossly unfair because it paints a simplistic view of what the Pharisees taught and because it lets the Sadducees, who also opposed Jesus, completely off the hook, not to mention the Herodians.  Singling out the Pharisees also lets us pretend that we today aren’t also guilty of obsessing about the letter of the Law while blowing off the spirit.

But Goofus and Gallant are all about compare and contrast.  While the Parable of the Brothers in the Vineyard condemns the hypocrite, it also commends the person who outwardly seems to be ungodly, at least by the prissy, external criteria of the hypocrite, but who nevertheless strives to be charitable, decent and ethical in his personal life.

I have to admit that a lot of Christians have trouble with this.  I was raised in the Lutheran tradition, which emphasizes that we are saved by God’s Grace, not by our own Good Works, and which regards the doctrine of “Works Righteousness” as an anathema.  We like to quote the passage from Isaiah that “… all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6)

But I think we make too much of that verse.  My own Good Works may indeed be worthless – for the purposes of buying my way into Heaven – but they have value in other respects.

For one thing, we are told that it pleases God when we do his will, even if we don’t wholly succeed in our attempts.  That in itself is a biggie.  For another, the Good Works that we do are how we respond to God’s love for us.  As James puts it:  “Show me your faith without deed, and I will show you my faith by what I do. … As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:18,26)

But perhaps most importantly, from a strictly practical point of view, doing Good Works makes our world a better place.  You don’t need to believe in the Gospel of Christ to understand that; you don’t even have to believe in God.

I’ve heard some Christians express the perverse notion that Good Works are only virtuous when they are performed by Bible-believing Christians, and that works performed by anybody else, no matter what the intention, is self-serving and sinful.  I can’t agree.  An act which helps my neighbor helps my neighbor and this is true whether I am trying to follow God’s Law or the promptings of my own conscience.  It certainly makes no difference to my neighbor.

“But surely,” one might say, “it is better still to respect God AND to obey his Commandments!”  Well, there is that.  That’s the problem with dualistic examples like Goofus and Gallant; they provide two contrasting examples with no gradations of nuance in-between.  But by focusing on this particular contrast in this particular parable, Jesus is telling us to look at the results rather than what color jersey a person is wearing and if they’re on “our team”.

“By their fruit you will recognize them,” Jesus says in another place,  (Matthew 7:20)  That’s how you can really tell Goofus from Gallant.