bible blog 766

This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:

Breivik: evil, madness or both?

Romans 2:25-3:8

25 Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.26So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?27Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law.28For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.29Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.

3Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?2Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews* were entrusted with the oracles of God.3What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?4By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true, as it is written,
‘So that you may be justified in your words,    and prevail in your judging.’*
5But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)6By no means! For then how could God judge the world?7But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?8And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’? Their condemnation is deserved!

If God planned it all, should we be punished?

Let me just follow the track of Paul’s mnd as he writes this passage:

He starts off with the Jewish religious practice of male circumcision, which of course he himself has undergone. It means that a man (not a womwn obviousy!)  belongs to Israel. But he reasons, if a man disobeys the Torah he does not belong to Israel and might as well be uncircumcised; whereas if a Gentile (as some did) obeys the Torah, he belongs to Israel and might as well be circumciesd. So true circumcision, Paul concludes, is a spiritual rather than a physical condition.

So what’s the point of being a (circumciesd) Jew?  The Jews were entrusted with God’s orcales, he says, meaning the Torah and the promises given to the prophets. Yes, it’s true, says Paul, that as whole people the Jews have been unfaithful to God, but God has still shown himself as faithful to them and to his promises. In fact God’s faithfuness shines all the brighter by contrast.

Here a stray thought strikes Paul. If human faithlessness allows God to show up well, what has God got to complain about? Indeeed what right has God to punish people for sins that allow him to demontsrate his divine justice? Paul plays around with this question for  a moment or two before rejecting it out of hand: evil always deserves condemnation.

We’re dealing here with a mind so fertile that it’s always questioning what has been given to it (e.g. circumcision) and even what it has invented itself (that human sin sets off God’s goodness). This has annoyed some scholars so much that they have refused to believe that Paul wrote all the material here and have postulated additions and corrections by editors. My guess is that there has been a degree of editing of the letter, usually because an editor failed to understand Paul’s mental agility. Mostly however, I think the twists and turns come from an author who can hardly formulate an argument before he sees its refutation.

In this passage, although he ultimately rejects it, Paul stumbles upon a real and lasting question in theology: the responsibility of God. If this creation is all his doing why should He get all the credit and humanity all the blame? Didn’t He know what he was doing? Did the hand of the potter shake? (as Omar Khayyam asks). And if it didn’t shake, and God intended this mess, how can it be just to punish sinners?

To be aware of that question is the beginning of theological wisdom. Paul gives a brief answer here, namely, evil is still evil even if it is part of God’s plan; but his real answer involves a profound change in his way of thinking about God, as we shall see.

Matthew 18:21-35


21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.”

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents* was brought to him;25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;* and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.”29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt.31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?”34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister*from your heart.’

builders at work

The so-called “parable of the unforgivng servant” is very well known and easily interpreted as a story about the forgiveness which God shows to sinners and which he expects us to show to each other. Clearly Matthew interprets it in this way. But we should perhaps see just a slight mismatch between the “economic” langauge of the story and the “emotional ” (forgive from the heart) language of the words given to Jesus in verse 37.

“Economic language” is central to Jesus’ vocabulary of salvation: the measure you give will be the measure you get / where your treasure is, there will your heart be also/forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors- the parable before us might be a commentary on that petition of the Lord’s prayer. Where does this langauge come from? In general the answer must be that Jesus saw in the give and take of financial transactions a fundamental image of human relationships with each other and with God. If indeed he was a village builder (“carpenter”means what we would call a builder), he would have known the economics of a small business intimately, including agreement on prices, demands for payment, unpaid debts, and so on. But there may be a more specific source: the commandments for the “Year of Jubilee” in Leviticus 25, in which liberation is to be proclaimed throughout the land, slaves set free, land and property returned to its ancestral owners, and debts cancelled. I think it’s likely that Jesus used this passage as a template for his own ministry.

With that in mind we can return to the parable and see that it deals with a common evil in Jesus society, the complete impoverishment of a man because of unpayable debt. Out of what the Jewish bible calls “a saving justice” the creditor cancels the debt and frees the man. But the man sees this as simply as good fortune and proceeds to exercise a merciless justice on his debtor. He hasn’t understood that his creditor’s generosity is part of a “Jubilee Justice” which is required of all people. God is in the business of cancelling debts, Jesus is saying; and those who want to live in God’s way must imitate his saving justice in all their relationships, economic, social and personal.

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