Be Careful

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.[a] A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:1-12 (NIV)

One of the blessings and curses of the time in which we live is the internet. With the introduction of the worldwide web and search engines, we have all types of information available to us almost instantaneously. Being able to search for answers to our questions and having access to all kinds of news from throughout the globe is indeed a blessing. The curses with this are the overload of information bombarding us every second of the day, and the accuracy of the information and news we receive. Human bias and interpretation are always at play. Even media outlets which used to be reliable sources of information insert opinion and slants to all of their reporting these days. But as we see in the verses from Matthew today, this danger is nothing new.

Jesus has another exchange with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They are clamoring for a sign which they hope to use against him. He refuses because he tells them they cannot even understand the signs which are now before them. Then leaving in a boat with his closest disciples, Jesus gives a warning to the disciples to be careful of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The disciples misinterpret Jesus’s warning because they are focused on the bread which they forgot. After Jesus addresses their worry, he reiterates his warning. Now the disciples understand that the yeast which Jesus mentioned in his warning was actually the teachings and information. The ability of this information to change and inflate a person’s thinking can be a problematic influence.

There is a lot of information readily available in the world today. In the midst of all that information is truth and lies. The warning which Jesus gave the disciples is even more important for us today. We have witnessed how information can impact the way people think and act. When this information is designed to mislead or misinterpret, it can have a damaging result. Jesus’s warning reminds us to be cautious when receiving information. Know the source of the information. Crosscheck what you read or hear. Discuss the information with others, especially some who have a different point of view. If what you are receiving is in regard to faith and theology, make sure that it is in agreement with what you understand to be the nature of the Lord. Heed Jesus’s warning today and take the time to be cautious.

Living In the Grey

When we are young, we are taught about life in black and whites. Good versus bad, it is or it is not, right or wrong, are all ways we gain understanding of the world around us. When we are younger and have family to help guide us and watch over us, these black and whites make sense and provide us a clear boundary. However, as we get older and experience more of life outside of our homes, the black and whites are not so clear cut. Our world appears to us to be more grey in some areas. This can create times of confusion and tension. Yet through this process we grow and mature.

One area where this becomes clearly true is in relation to our faith. Young Christians are taught Bible stories and given examples of how God chooses us to live our lives. When we are young, these are given in very black and white terms. However, as we mature in our faith and in our lives, we start bumping up against details which cause us to question the clear black and white understandings. We learn more about God and realize that God is much more complex than black and white.

There are some individuals who never seem to make the transition from looking at the world solely in black and white to understanding a world filled with grey. These people have definite views which create an either/or dynamic in their lives. They cannot accept that life can be a both/and situation. Often they experience life on the extremes. Compromise is difficult. Uncertainty creates anxiety for them. They only see two options and determine which is the right option. Easily they can become judgmental of others. In regard to faith, they often ignore other possible interpretations outside of their chosen perspective.

I often tell people that if you truly study the original languages and cultures from which our modern day Bible emerges, you will soon discover that there is a lot of grey. First, it is difficult to truly grasp the ancient civilizations from which the stories and words of the Bible are generated without years of in depth study. Even if a person is a scholar in these ancient cultures and languages, there still are unknowns. Second, since the modern day Bible has gone through a multitude of translations and interpretations, the words we read are filtered through the experiences of Bible scholars and then refiltered through the experiences of us, the readers. Finally, there are multiple versions of the Bible today and in some cases, the words vary greatly depending on which version you are reading because of different word choices available during translation. This all points to the reality that there is grey in the main written source of the Christian faith.

Life is not black and white. There are choices based upon interpretation, experiences, culture, and new understandings which we make every day. These choices can change as we gain new insight. Understandings can be redefined as new revelations occur daily. Throughout all our life this is reality. When it comes to our faith, I believe in a living God who continues to reveal God’s self all the time. As God reveals more and more, we are moved from one interpretation to another. The grey is there because we do not fully understand God. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this when he says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV)

Is It In There

One of the areas of confusion among people which I encounter frequently is the number of items individuals accredit to the Bible but are not actually written in Scripture. An example is, “God helps those who help themselves.” This phrase is recorded nowhere in Scripture but instead is a popular statement based on the interpretation of various passages. Some Christians argue that it even stands against the concept of grace which is prominent in our understanding of God. As a line from Kermit the Frog’s song, Rainbow Connection, reminds us, “Somebody thought of it, and somebody believed it, and look what it has done so far.” Unfortunately, because this type of confusion prevails, too often people get a very inaccurate perception of God and God’s expectations.

The Church has unwittingly, or at least I hope it has been unwittingly, propagated this confusion. What I mean is that the Church has established rules which the leadership has determined are beneficial for the well-being of humanity. These rules are based upon the Church’s interpretation of Scripture at a specific time and place within its history. Some of these rules truly are beneficial and should be followed to the best of one’s ability. However, some rules over time have changed as the Church reexamines Scripture and determines a change in interpretation is in order. Since we understand that the Bible is the Living Word, and we know that the Spirit continues to reveal God’s truth in the world, this change of interpretation is in order. Just as science continues to discover new understandings of creation, the Church discovers new understandings of what God’s message was and is now.

The key here is that people take the time and make the effort to differentiate between what is in the Bible and what is a rule that the Church has established because of an interpretation of the Bible. It is also very important to understand the context in which the rule is adopted. The reason that all this is important is because we know that our interpretations of Scripture are not absolute. They are the best understanding of God’s humanly recorded interaction with humanity at a certain time and place. These interpretations give us some insight into the nature of God and how we are to respond to God. Yet as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other great reformers of the Church have shown us, these interpretations need to be reviewed, revisited, and reformed.

Next time someone tells you that you should or should not do something because this is what God wants, make sure that you clarify whether it is truly in the Bible or if it is someone’s interpretation of the Bible. The Spirit will guide you in your interpretation at that given moment and your response to God.

Evil

Evil is one of those words which we attribute to a variety of people and situations, but I am not sure any of us have the ability to give a full definition of this word. Some definitions on dictionary.com which caused me to pause are these:

morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked

harmful; injurious

the force in nature that governs and gives rise to wickedness and sin

There are aspects of each of these definitions which resonate with me. They easily fit within my understanding of this word. Yet there are also some questions which these definitions raise. Questions like…

Who defines “morally wrong”?

Is there one understanding of harmful or injurious?

Where does this force in nature come from?

Here is where deriving a definition for the word evil becomes a difficult task. As you can see by the questions I raised, there is some degree of subjectivity here. There is also a need to grapple with the spiritual aspect of the word. Add to these the historical impact of the interpretation and use of the word. Maybe this was not a wise subject for me to tackle in a blog post. In fact, you can find volumes of books and papers dealing with this subject.

Yet I am drawn to say something about this word. I have seen it used in a variety of ways and in a variety of contexts over the last few months. Each time I have read it or heard it on television, I have paused to consider what the writer or speaker was trying to communicate when using this word. The application of the word was definitely not consistent. I had to ask myself how I understood this word and would apply it.

Remembering the struggles in creating a definition which I raised earlier, I caution you that my definition is far from being fully encompassing. I am sure there will be noticeable gaps you can find in my definition. You may have questions that arise like those I listed above. However, I am going to make an attempt.

My definition: Evil is the absence of the recognition of God in an action taken by a human being.

Let me unpack that definition a little. First, I want to point out the last two words. These are important words for me because it states that evil is attributed to a person or persons not to some spirit. One can argue that the state of mind of a person who does evil can be somewhat spiritual in nature. A person who does evil may have some physical or psychological issue which prompts them to act such as a chemical imbalance in their body or the impact of experiences in their lives. What remains is the fact that evil is done by a human being.

Next is the phrase, “the absence of the recognition of God.” I am stating here that God is not absent at the time an evil act is committed but that the perpetrator of the act does not recognize God at that time. The reason I state it this way is because I have a strong belief that God is always present so stating that evil is the absence of God does not align with this belief. Since God is love as I understand God, anything which is harmful to any of creation is inconsistent with God. So there must be an absence of some sort here. For me the absence lies with the person committing the act. Whatever the reason, this person does not recognize God in the particular setting and so is destructive in some manner. If the person recognized God in the situation, the person would refrain from a destructive behavior.

Another important point concerning evil is that a person is not evil. Every person is created in the image of God and God is not evil. In fact God is the antithesis to evil. Because of this, the other vital word in my definition is action. The evil exists within the action and not the person. So often we wish to portray a person as evil but that is inconsistent with my understanding of who we are as a creation of God.

There you have it. My current working definition of evil. I would love to hear your viewpoints on this definition. I would also like to hear how you define the word evil. We can learn from each other.