A positive reading of the New Testament

Oct 12, 2017 by

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There are some standard assumptions that Christians tend to have about the Bible — the Old Testament is old, outdated, primitive, problematic, violent and judgmental. And the New Testament is new, fresh, merciful, useful, peaceable and about forgiveness.

I have spent a lot of time over many years trying — in sermons, classes, discussions and writings — to show that the Old Testament is actually pretty good, that it’s an asset for faith and a guide for our quest for peace and justice in our hurting world. I know I have not persuaded everyone of this, but I’ll keep trying.

The New Testament’s dark side

The other side of the coin, though, is that the New Testament itself also has a dark side. It’s much shorter and not nearly as detailed in its accounts of political struggles. It covers just a short bit of time, unlike the hundreds of years the Old Testament has to do with. So the dark elements are perhaps a bit more subtle.

But we have things such as Jesus’s sharp, dare I say, even violent, dressing down of the Pharisees: “You blind guides, you white-washed tombs, you children of hell, you brood of vipers!” And his threats about God sending people to hell: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

And then there are the writings of Paul and of the book of Revelation. It is kind of uncanny that three times, just in the past couple of weeks, I have gotten into fairly intense arguments with friends — good, pious Mennonites — about whether Paul is an asset or a liability for Christian faith. I defend Paul, but apparently not very persuasively for my friends. And those of you who sat through what probably seemed like interminable sermons that I preached on Revelation here several years ago know that I go against the stream and present Revelation as a book of peace, not a book of judgment and violence. But the New Testament does present challenges.

One other difficult New Testament text is the story in the book of Acts about the early Christian married couple, Ananias and Sapphira. They are struck dead when they are caught lying and not giving the church the full price of some property they sold.

These are all challenging texts that complicate our easy affirmation of the New Testament as a book of peace and mercy. There is another kind of issue with the New Testament, as well, that actually challenges fairly profoundly the kind of approach I want to take concerning God and faith and the Christian life.

Love all the way down — or not?

In a sermon I preached a year ago, I talked about the difference between a jubilee-oriented view of God and a debt-oriented view. And then, a little later, I developed that thought more and introduced the idea of a certain way of thinking about God’s disposition toward humanity. We may think of God’s disposition as love all the way down rather than as love resting upon a more fundamental bedrock of God’s retributive justice.

The Christian tradition has been more oriented toward the bedrock of retributive justice sensibility in its treatment of the message of the New Testament. The basic idea is this: Human beings are fundamentally alienated from God due to our innate sinfulness that renders us unacceptable to God as we are. God is a holy God, this view would say, who, due to the moral character of the universe, must punish and even destroy that which violates holiness. That is, we humans are bound for hell if something is not done. Well, something has been done — the argument continues. Jesus lived a sinless life as a human being and then gave up his life as a sacrifice that satisfies God’s need for retribution. This sacrifice allows God to offer salvation for those who trust in Jesus. That is, God needs this violent death in order to save.

The great peace activist and New Testament scholar Walter Wink saw this kind of theology as deeply problematic — and critiqued it with quite a rhetorical flourish: “The nonviolent God of Jesus comes to be depicted as a God of unequaled violence,” he wrote. “The view is that God first demands the blood of the victim who is closest and most precious to him. And then God holds the whole of humanity accountable for this death that God himself required. Insofar as it rejects such an image of God, the revolt of atheism is an act of pure religion.”

Now, Wink does not actually advocate atheism — nor do I. He thinks what we need is to hold fast to the God of Jesus — and to reject the idea that God needs a violent sacrifice. And I agree. But it does seem important to recognize that there is a big tension here between an understanding of God where God simply offers mercy for all who turn (or repent) and where God requires some kind of satisfaction or payment in order to accept us.

It makes me think of the time when I was in the third grade and got into a fight with my friend Tom. Our teacher got upset with us and sent us to the principal. Our principal was not a real creative guy — his way of dealing with problems, not uncommon in that time and kind of place, was to get out the paddle. I didn’t like the idea of getting a spanking, but I knew that it would only hurt for a bit and then be over. I wasn’t too worried. But Tom dissolved in tears, even before he got smacked. I was kind of scornful at the time, but I realized later that what terrified him was knowing that his parents would condemn him. The physical pain wasn’t the problem; it was the emotional pain of fearing rejection from his parents and a sense of shame at his unworthiness of their love — that wouldn’t be over quickly. I suspect, the problem was living in a moral universe where love rests on the bedrock of retributive justice rather than it being love all the way down. There can be a lot of fear in that kind of moral universe.

Putting the story of Jesus at the center

So, how do we get to a positive reading of the New Testament? Of mercy, not sacrifice. I suggest that we let the story of Jesus be the center. What do Jesus’ life and teaching, at their core, show us about God, about salvation, about human flourishing? It’s a good thing directly to challenge some of the less than merciful materials in the Bible — perhaps to see that maybe they have been misinterpreted, perhaps to see that they are counter-testimonies that are secondary to the core message of love all the way down. But sometimes it is good simply to be reminded of what Jesus cared most about.

There is a remarkable chapter at the center of Luke’s gospel that, as well as anywhere, I think, gives us the heart of Jesus’s message. In chapter 7, Luke is describing Jesus’s ministry. This ministry — to quote Matthew’s account of these events — involved going “throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Jesus’s teaching is summarized in a long sermon (Luke’s version is a bit shorter than Matthew’s) that includes this fundamental statement given at Luke 6:27-36:

I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you….If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Parent is merciful.

And, then, in chapter 7, Luke tells us how Jesus puts these words into action:

After Jesus had finished speaking, he entered Capernaum. A Roman military officer there had a servant whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. He sent some messengers to Jesus, asking him to come and heal his servant. Jesus went, but when he was not far from the house, the Roman sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at the Roman’s faith. When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant in good health.

Soon afterwards, he went to a town called Nain. As he approached, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

The disciples of John the Baptist reported all these things to him. So John sent two disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. He answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”

Then a Pharisee asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house. A woman in the city, who was a sinner, learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, went to see him, and took an alabaster jar of ointment with her. She stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw it and said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner. Jesus said to the Pharisee, “Simon, Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”

What are some words that you think describe Jesus here?

A series of healing acts

I hadn’t really noticed before how all these events happen right next to each other in Luke, and, I think, help interpret each other. We have Jesus drawing his community together and giving them their marching orders (love radically, like God does). Then he immediately proceeds to show what this radical love looks like, one moment after the other.

First we have a leader in the military of the Roman Empire, the power that was occupying Jesus’ home area of Galilee — without the people’s permission and often with great violence and injustice. The Romans were enemies. But this officer is presented as a human being, one who has acted justly toward the Jewish people in the area, who loved his servant who is deathly ill, and who treats Jesus with great respect. So Jesus offers healing.

On the heels of that moment follows another healing opportunity, at almost the opposite end of the social spectrum. A young man has died, leaving his vulnerable, extremely needy widowed mother behind. With first her husband and then her son dead, she had few resources to move ahead in life, facing a very difficult future. Jesus offers healing, giving the son his life back and the mother her future back.

In these two quick stories, we see that what Jesus taught — God’s love for enemies and for the vulnerable — is embodied in his practice. As with most of Jesus’ miracles, he makes a deeper point beyond just his extraordinary power. It matters whom he heals — in giving life to the Roman’s servant and the to widow’s son, Jesus shows God’s love to be indiscriminate. There really was no way either the enemy Roman or the destitute widow could earn God’s favor or repay God’s generosity. “Do good and give, expecting nothing in return.”

Of course, these kinds of deeds by Jesus drew attention — a little later we will learn that they drew the attention of Herod the ruler, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ arrest and execution to come. Such violence is the way that status quo power responds to indiscriminate generosity. Here, in Luke 7, it’s a different kind of attention that is discussed — but also attention that foreshadows Jesus’ ultimate fate. The great prophet, John the Baptist, Jesus’ former mentor, has been imprisoned and soon will be executed by this same Herod, the son and namesake of Herod the Great who had unleashed great violence when he learned of Jesus’ birth.

John sends some followers to ask Jesus what he’s about. Are you the Messiah? Jesus’ answer is to point to the deeds he was doing. Healings and bringing good news to the poor. That is, Jesus in effect says, what truly matters in my work are these expressions of God’s overflowing mercy and love. Make of that what you will. As readers of the gospel of Luke, though, we know what to make of it. Jesus is the Messiah, the king. He witnesses to the genuine kingdom of God — a kingdom of healing, of love of enemies, of resistance to the ways of domination and empire.

And, then finally, as a kind of capper comes the amazing story of Jesus offering unconditional forgiveness to a woman who, it is said, had committed “many sins.” What’s remarkable here, to show the nature of Jesus’ “love all the way down” moral universe, is that there is no hint of satisfaction, of payment for debts, or of necessary sacrifices. What happens is an expression of the great insight seen in a Bruce Cockburn song: “If you love love, then love loves you too.”

Three core affirmations

Luke 7 shows us the heart of the entire message of the New Testament (and, I would say, of the entire Bible). I would boil it down to three main affirmations.

First, God is merciful — and we are called to imitate that mercy. God loves even God’s enemies — and we are called to love even our enemies. God looks at the person; there is no othering, there is no holding back until one shows one’s worthiness. As Paul wrote, no slave, no free, no Jew, no Gentile, no male, no female. None of those distinctions is to become a reason to withhold love.

Second, the very core of Jesus’ ministry (which, again, is our model) is an affirmation of abundance versus scarcity. Healing is for all kinds of people, from the Roman military officer’s servant to the widow’s son. Jesus’ message is good news for the poor — which does not mean bad news for everyone else but good news for even the poor, especially the poor. No one is left out. The test of whether the news is truly good is that it reaches to the most vulnerable, to the ones most likely to be left out.

And, third, the consequence of God’s mercy and Jesus’ abundance is a call to welcome others without qualification. Jesus embodied that kind of welcome in a radical way when he embraced the so-called sinful woman, the one the respectable people scorned.

I believe these three affirmations can be seen throughout the Bible — including in the Old Testament, including in Paul’s writings, even including in the book of Revelation. God is merciful; Jesus’s is a ministry of abundance; the call is to welcome. Now, obviously, the Bible displays many messages — and some are in tension with these affirmations. But the message that God’s moral universe, ultimately, is about love all the way down is the truest message — and the message about love all the way down is what we most need to hear; it’s what we most need to put into practice.

If we say we are Christians and that we want to follow Jesus and his way, I think we do well to recognize that these stories in Luke 7, and the teaching in Luke 6 that precedes them, tell us what we most need to know. And that they challenge us to read the rest of the Bible — and the rest of life — in light of this message: “Be merciful, just as your Parent is merciful.” Amen.

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He blogs at Thinking Pacifism, where this post first appeared. This post is adapted from a sermon preached Oct. 8, 2017, at Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Va., the fifth in a series on salvation and human flourishing.

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