Theoretical Christians

The fellow in the New Testament who buried his one talent worries me. The whole of this story is found in Matthew 25: 14-30. Basically, a rich merchant was going on a long trip. The merchant was entrusting a significant amount of his fortune to three servants. (A talent was the most valuable coin in New Testament times. It was worth a lot of money. There is disagreement on exactly how much money a talent was worth.) The three servants each in turn receive five, two and one talent respectively. Eventually, the merchant returns and asks for an accounting of the use these talents were put to while he was away. The first two servants had each doubled the value of the money given to them. The third servant had buried his one talent and handed that talent back to the merchant. The merchant was very angry with the third servant. He expected the servant, at a minimum, to have invested the one talent at a bank to draw interest. The merchant took the one talent from the third servant and gave it to the first servant. The conclusion of the story in verses 29-30 is “29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

The situation in this story isn’t totally clear. Merchants did go on long trips. They did leave their local funds in the stewardship of trusted servants, if no family was available. There doesn’t seem to be clear instructions about how the money entrusted to the servants should be used. The punishment for the third servant is extreme. And that’s what worries me. I wonder if I fall into the group of people (assuming there is such a group) who deserve this radical punishment.

The Gospel of Matthew continues a discussion of behavior that gets people that causes people to deserve ‘eternal punishment’ in Chapter 25:31-46. The story in verses 31-46 has the Son of Man separating sheep from goats. The separation criteria is simple. The sheep ministered to people who were least capable of doing something for themselves. The ‘goats’ were right there with Jesus but they had no ministry. The goats get eternal punishment.

The Gospel of Matthew forces me to conclude that theoretical Christianity is not an acceptable spiritual path. It’s not enough to go to church each Sunday, sing the posted hymns and make the appropriate responses. If I’m going to be a Christian, I have to have a ministry. I have to have a ministry that brings Christ into the world.

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Love and Marriage

It was supposed to be a sermon on marriage. I looked up and read about twenty-five scriptures on marriage. I looked at a couple of sermons on marriage. And then, I thought of the sermon preached at my own marriage about twenty years ago. In that sermon my wife’s pastor, Bob, described an almost infinite list of actions my wife and I would have to perform for each other over the span of our marriage. The intellectual weight of those two lists (one for me, one for her) is very daunting. Then pastor Bob said that the only way to satisfy the list of actions without being driven crazy by the continuous requests was to engage the lists with the love my wife and I each have for the other. When I look at my list with the love I have for my wife the length of the list doesn’t matter.

Remembering this sermon triggered a memory of a parallel concept in scripture. A scripture search brought me to Romans 13:8 and following.

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

This scripture caused me to re-consider the overall topic of the sermon. I’ve been studying the Bible a long time. That study has had a preconceived idea that the Bible, being a book, should be studied like any other book – as if I were reading it. I suddenly had a new way of looking at the Bible. I laid the Bible on my desk flat on one side with the spine facing me. In this mode, I began to consider how the individual ‘love quotes’ in Holy Scripture stacked up. And I did stack some of those quotes up, one on top of the other, like a stack of pancakes.

The great commandment

For me the great commandment has to be the first scripture in this vertical stack.

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:34-40)

Why did the lawyer ask this particular question? There were 613 mitzvot in the Torah. These 613 commandments (although there is some disagreement over the exact content of the 613 commandments) are what every “righteous” Jew of Jesus’ time felt compelled to keep. These same 613 commandments are what St. Paul is talking about in Phil. 3:6 when he says “as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless”. And the same righteousness under the law is what the Pharisees where talking about when they said “…we know that this man is a sinner.”

The first part of Jesus’ reply in verse 37 is a repetition of part of the ‘Shema’ found in Deut. 6:4. The Shema Yisrael (or Sh’ma Yisrael; Hebrew: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל“Hear, [O] Israel”) are the first two words of a section of the Torah, and is the title (sometimes shortened to simply Shema) of a prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services.

It would be very difficult for any devout Jew to propose any other solution to the lawyer’s question. The lawyer and his Pharisee friends were intimately involved in keeping the law. Keeping the law as the Pharisees did required a significant investment of time and energy. Jesus was invested in living the law. He had a different point of view.

The great commandment and who is my neighbor

The second scripture in my vertical stack is the story of the Good Samaritan.

In Luke’s gospel, the discussion with the lawyer continues with the lawyer asking another question.

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

(Luke 10:25-37)

Jesus leaves no wiggle room here. The priest and Levite were among the best society had to offer. The Samaritan was among the most despised. The priest and the Levite had good excuses for their behavior. Their position in society required them to be “ritually” pure. If either one of them touched the man who was attacked, in particular if either touched the attacked man’s blood, their ritual purity would be compromised and they would have had to go through a re-purification process.

The Samaritan, free from all such constraints, performed a splendid act of charity. The Samaritan’s actions have echoed down the centuries as each Christian tries to define who comes within the reach of a neighborly care.

Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is one of the most loved scripture selections in the whole Bible. I’m putting it third on the vertical stack of scriptures. This selection needs no explanation.

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

To hear the love in the 23rd Psalm, it’s not necessary to go beyond the end of the first verse. “I shall not be in want” pretty much says it all. The Lord is going to take care of everything.

Hosea and Gomer

In terms of popularity similar to the 23 Psalm, Hosea and Gomer are are at the other end of the scale. Hosea’s story is fascinating. Hosea is fourth on my vertical scripture array.

Hosea was a prophet. His story is found in the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament. Hosea heard the Word of God and spoke that word to his contemporaries with a fearless abandon.

The situation with Hosea and Gomer is that Hosea married a woman who was a prostitute. The Lord told Hosea to marry Gomer. When she started having sex with other men, Homer asked the Lord to let him divorce Gomer. The Lord said “no”. The relationship between Hosea and Gomer has been compared to God’s relationship with Israel. On a more general level, this relationship can be compared to God’s relationship to human beings. We wander. He’s constant and faithful.

Love and discipleship

A description of how Christians are supposed to enter into relationships with one another is my fifth vertical scripture selection.

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

(John 13:34-35)

One of my continuing interests has been the nascent Christian community. My ministry partner pointed out the other day that before they were called Christians, members of the early Christian church were called disciples. Christian disciples love each other. This is the New Testament Greek word (agape) for self-sacrificial love.

We’re supposed to love each other with the kind of love Christ demonstrated on the cross.

Jesus redeems Peter

My final selection for the vertical scripture array is the story of the resurrected Jesus asking Peter to ‘tend my sheep’.

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” 16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.…

(John 21:16)

This scripture tells the story of Jesus’ interaction with Peter after Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected. It’s also important to remember that Peter denied Jesus three times before Jesus went to the cross. Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. It’s hard to make sense of this scripture without a little New Testament Greek.

There are three words for three different types of love used in the kind of Greek found in the New Testament. Eros is sexual love. This term for love isn’t found in the New Testament itself. Phileo, the word used by Peter to respond to Jesus is the word used for brotherly love. Agapao, the word Jesus uses to talk to Peter is the term for self-sacrificial love.

Once again, we have that statement of an unequal love. It doesn’t matter that Peter can’t come up to Jesus’ level of love. Jesus replies all three times by pointing Peter toward the ministry that Jesus wants Peter to take up.

Peter did take up the leadership role in the early Christian church. He also died on a cross, in Rome some thirty years later.

Our understanding of God’s love is expanding

A former pastor of mine once pointed out that the Christian church changed it’s corporate mind on the topic of slavery. St. Paul has two differing scriptures on slavery. One says “Slaves obey your masters”

(Col. 3:22). Another says “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 3:27,28)

It’s took the Church almost 1900 years to come to the conclusion that slavery was wrong. But we did reach that conclusion. This was the first time that the Church didn’t take the Bible as written, but it chose one interpretation over another.

In our current age Christians are struggling with issues of human sexuality. The Episcopal church has decided that homosexual members can participate in all levels of ordained ministry and are eligible to receive all the other sacraments as well, including the sacrament of marriage. It’s not clear how much longer the world wide Church will take to see the wisdom of these actions. Hopefully, it won’t take 1900 years. There are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God.


These vertical scripture selections don’t in any way begin to exhaust the descriptions of God’s love for the human race. Three scriptures not mentioned immediately come to mind – John 3:16, I Cor. 13 and 1 John 3:8. Looking at some of the scriptures about love in the Bible from this different perspective opens a new insight into how wonderful and deep God’s love is for us.

It seems appropriate to return to the subject of marriage. The scriptures describe marriage as “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) And “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9)

Without these two very strong scripture references, we somehow instinctively know that marriage is different from all other human activities. The popular press is full of ideas on how to meet the right person to marry, how to stay married once married and how to survive a divorce.

Our instincts tell us there is a potential for a profound love in marriage — love that deepens and broadens as the days and years go by.

Marriage is another gift from God that shows us how God loves us and how we should love each other. The horizontal scripture concept and marriage say the same thing.

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The Mustard Seed

The thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew contains a number of parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. Elsewhere, this kingdom is described as the Kingdom of God, a term that will be used in the continuing discussion. The Kingdom of God came to the front of some modern theological discussions due to a group of theologians who started a seminar that was supposed to bring progressive and conservative points of view together on the nature of Christ. This seminar has since been named the ‘Jesus Seminar’.

Among other things discussed by the Jesus Seminar was the application of a double attribution rule to the gospel record. The double attribution rule is the same rule used by newspaper reporters. If a reporter can find two different sources for the same story that provide the same information, the reporter can make a reasonable assumption that the information is true. The double attribution rule was proposed as a method to determine the ‘true’ words of Jesus. Things went downhill from there.

My background is in computer science, specifically in database design and implementation. From a database perspective, if the New Testament is the data source, the double attribution rule is simply a filter. Filters are used every day on databases to make sense out of vast amounts of data. When the application of the double attribution rule to the New Testament brought the Kingdom of God concept to the fore, I was very interested.

In my mind, the Kingdom of God is Jesus’ practical efforts to create a new social system. All the descriptions of the Kingdom of God are in parables. The use of parables keeps Christian disciples from putting the Kingdom of God in a box and marketing it. In my experience these parables apply to the modern life of Christians in wonderful, liberating ways.

The mustard seed parable in Matthew 13:31-32 is as follows:

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

At the beginning of my jail ministry, it seemed that my ministry partner was going to preach and I was going to pray for him and the inmates as he preached. I thought I could add something to our chapel service by bringing some simple songs that wouldn’t require a hymnal or even written words. One such song is this:

Bless the Lord my soul
And bless God’s holy Name
Bless the Lord my soul
Who leads me into life.

One day as my ministry partner and I were coming into the room in which the chapel service is held, one of the inmates, named John, just started singing this song to me. He stopped me in my tracks.

John is the mustard seed.

I felt the Holy Spirit was asking me to take up a song leader ministry. And I have done so. I print out the lyrics of an old Baptist hymn and take it with me to the jail. We’ve sung ‘On Christ the Solid Rock’, ‘Amazing Grace’,’Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Sweetest Name I Know’ and ‘Higher Ground’. This week we’re singing ‘Standing on the Promises’.

The community of inmates singing hymns is the mustard tree.

I have an aural memory.
I can hear my mother singing these songs from back when I was a child.
She has a unique voice, a very high soprano.

My mother and I don’t get along very well. She wants me to be a Baptist and I’m not.
She seems to have a number of other agendas that I also don’t feel good about.

But, yesterday I called her up and told her that I was taking her into the jail in my heart because I have all these old Baptist hymns with her singing them in my aural memory.

Taking my mother into the jail in my heart is the birds making a nest in the mustard tree.

Dr. Menninger, the one of the most famous psychiatrists of the previous century, is reported to have said that he wished he could bottle up the essence of choir practice so he could use it when he practiced therapy. Something wonderful has happened to our jail chapel service as a result of the singing.

John, the inmate that started the whole process, has a horrible voice. I, myself, have never lead the singing in any church that I’ve ever attended. My mother is a painful presence in my life. And yet, something wonderful has happened.

The Kingdom of God is not a theory. It’s not a piece of the Apocalypse – as in ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth’.
The Kingdom of God is among us.

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Truth in the Jail

The brazen truth
The painful truth
An inconvenient truth
The whole truth and nothing but the truth
The absolute truth
A hard truth
The peaceful, prescient, lovely truth
The truth that passes understanding
The unfiltered, unadulterated truth
The ultimate truth

Jesus said “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Pilate said “What is truth?”

I tend to look for ultimate truth in religious sources. Religious sources appeal to me because of a mystical experience I had at age twenty. The problem with religious truth is that it’s not completely rational. Religious truth feeds the soul. For someone who is trying their best to live a rational life, religious truth is not the truth.

We do have people making valiant efforts to explain mystical realities in rational terms. In my opinion that’s a effort doomed to failure. A large number of Christians look for truth in the Eucharist. I like Richard Hooker, a famous Anglican theologian of the reformation years who said that neither transubstantiation or consubstantiation gave a satisfactory explanation of the Eucharist. And, that in any case, we should be looking at the effect the Eucharist has on peoples’ souls, not the accuracy of a definition.

Hooker wrote this opinion when Lutherans and Roman Catholics were killing each other over the difference between these two definitions.

I’m a Christian. I look to Jesus for the truth. I don’t look for black and white categories. Jesus was a human being. The very best of us can answer the same question in nearly opposite ways depending on the context. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the context of Jesus’ ministry. I do get glimmerings of rational insight from time to time.

I pray a lot. I find peace and certainty in prayer. Spiritual certainty is not the same as rational, intellectual certainty. I do have glimmerings of mystical insight from time to time.

My hope is that the glimmerings I have and the grace of God will keep me on the path that leads home.

In the chapel service at the 4th Avenue Jail, the inmates are serious about the truth. My years of searching are directly applicable to this ministry. The inmates have a seriously different set of ultimate concerns based on their life experiences. They are hungry for the truth. A hunger for the truth is something they and I share.

The inmates and I are a good match.

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Jail Ministry

I am trying to come to a place where a new essay is posted every month. February is missing in action as far as publishing some new material. I did write an essay about the Blessed Virgin Mary, mostly writing in February. Writing is hard work. Next to going to the jail to minister to inmates, writing is the hardest thing I’ve done that I do on a regular basis.

The jail ministry is very different from anything I’ve ever done – and I’ve done a lot of different things in the last fifty years. It seems there is always a group of inmates who want to hear the Word of God. But when the Word requires them to change their lives, such change is not acceptable on a personal level. An inmate who makes a spiritual change in his or her life becomes vulnerable while that change is being integrated into their personality. A person who demonstrates vulnerably in the jail will be assaulted one way or another. All the inmates have found a way to exhibit an external toughness that defends them against attack.

My ministry partner is a very charismatic preacher. He has a spiritual way of getting around the inmates’ defenses. There is no doubt in my mind we are providing spiritual food for the inmates.

For myself, there are yet more strange events going on in my spiritual life. I’ve had some kind of ‘Yes’ about every ten days since beginning this ministry. I’m used to special coincidences that raise my level of spiritual consciousness. I see these coincidences as evidences of God working in my life. These coincidences usually happen about once every six months — not every ten days. I asked The Virgin what was going on with the special coincidences and She said that these were meant as encouragement.
The jail ministry has taught me things about prayer that I didn’t know. Since I’ve been serious about my prayer life for almost fifty years I was surprised that I had new things to learn. Such new knowledge is a fact of life for anyone who seriously takes up teaching.

I gave my inmate brothers a very simple prayer.

Bless the Lord my soul
And bless God’s Holy Name
Bless the Lord my soul
Who leads me into life

I pointed out that there are no bars on the vertical, holy dimension. I told them they didn’t have to say this prayer out loud. It works perfectly well as a quiet soul-prayer.

And then I realized that while I use this soul-prayer all the time, I’m just saying the words, I haven’t been connecting on that vertical dimension. The words have served me well. They are powerful words. But now I say the words and connect. It’s a very different prayer.

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A Story From the Jail Ministry

I have a story I’ve told to the inmates in the jail about a young man who lived in South Central Los Angeles. This young man’s name was Miguel. Miguel’s older brother was the head of a local gang and was very successful as a gangster. He was so successful that his gang territory was slowly expanding. The head gangster in the neighboring territory decided Miguel’s older brother had to go. Shortly after that decision Miguel’s older brother was shot and killed. In addition, Miguel himself was marked for execution. There was some justifiable fear that Miguel would grow up and look for vengeance.

Miguel’s grandmother heard that Miguel had been marked. She gave Miguel some money and told him to leave. Miguel got on the bus, rode over to the beach and sat on a bench looking at the ocean for several hours. Then he got back on the bus and went back home. Within a year Miguel was dead.

Miguel’s story has an obvious conclusion. If I’m an inmate in the jail and I get out of jail and go back to the same neighborhood, hangout with the same guys and do the same things that got me into the jail the first time, I’m coming back to the jail as a repeat offender.

The repeat offender issue isn’t the most interesting fact that falls out of this story. The most interesting fact is that Miguel went back home. I asked the inmates why Miguel went back. They said he missed his home, his friends and his grandmother. My bet is that Miguel’s grandmother was the only point of sanity and love in his life.

I suggested to the inmates that Miguel had put his grandmother in the place in his heart that God had created for Jesus. If an inmate wants a new life, Jesus needs to be in that special place in a person’s heart.

One very positive result of putting Jesus in that special place is freedom. This kind of freedom can’t be taken away – ever.

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Open Commensality

There’s more about my personal journey in the ‘About’ section. I’ve flipped the order of that section so that the newest input is at the top.

An essay written in July didn’t make it past the editor for a variety of reasons. That essay was about ‘Open Commensality’. I first ran into this idea in John Dominic Crossan’s book ‘The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant’. Basically, commensality is the formal, theological and anthropological name for how people eat.

It seems my interest in this subject has been well investigated elsewhere. See the following link.

My conclusion is that Jesus used commensality to further his spiritual goals. That matches the rest of what has been reported about how he lived his life. A very simple explanation for Jesus’ behavior at dinner time is that he wanted to meet people.

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