Are we not supposed to even talk about immoral things?

Q.  Paul says in Ephesians, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” I’m confused. Does this mean we’re to mention/expose bad things, or not? Or is he saying both? Like, gossip is bad but whistle-blowing is sometimes necessary?

In this section of Ephesians, Paul is offering practical teaching about what it means to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” as a follower of Jesus.

The specific part of this teaching that you’re asking about takes up the topic of how believers talk among themselves and what kinds of actions this talk inevitably leads to.  Paul says that “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (ESV).

One thing we see here is that “the ‘putting off’ of a destructive behavior is actually accomplished through the ‘putting on’ of a life-giving one that displaces it,” as I note in my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters.  “Filthiness” and “foolish talk” and “crude joking” are replaced by thanksgiving, “a positive appreciation for what is excellent and praiseworthy in any situation.”

But another thing we see is that immorality and impurity have two ways of getting a hold over us.  This can happen if we glamorize them as the subjects of supposedly entertaining jokes or stories.  But it can also happen if we give them an alluring cachet as secretive and exclusive practices that only the initiated are in on.  In other words, we can give these things unwarranted power in our lives if we talk about them too much or in the wrong ways, or if we don’t talk about them enough, in a cautionary way.

Paul is saying, in other words, that in our conversations as followers of Jesus, we need to walk a fine line.  We need to acknowledge and expose the “works of darkness” so that they cannot continue under the cloak of secrecy and draw in unsuspecting people by the allure of their supposed exclusivity.  But we need to do this in a way that doesn’t sensationalize or glamorize these activities, or that will end up promoting them.  Whistleblowing without gossiping, to use your terms.

This is why there seems to be a tension in Paul’s words here between speaking and not speaking about these “works of darkness.”

(Incidentally, I would translate the end of the statement you quoted in your question this way:  “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, because everything that is visible stands in the light.”  The Greek says literally that it “is light,” but the meaning is that it “is lighted.”)

Why did Jesus say we should hate our families?

Q.  Some of Jesus’ teachings have puzzled me over the years.  While some may have been part of a parable, others were definitely spoken directly to people as instructions.  Take this one:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”  I thought we were supposed to love even our enemies.  So why does Jesus say we should hate our families?

In this earlier post I explain that when Jesus says we should love our enemies, he doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to feel a warm and delighted attraction to people who have hurt or betrayed us, a feeling that makes us want to be in a close relationship with them.

Rather, we should understand “love” in this case to be a commitment, not a feeling.  We commit to doing whatever is in that person’s best interests, in the hopes that this will help them realize that they’ve done wrong and lead them to pursue restitution and reconciliation.

It’s just the opposite when Jesus says that we should “hate” our families.  He’s not saying that we should be committed to doing whatever is most harmful or hurtful to them.  Rather, in this case, he’s talking about a feeling, not a commitment.

Jesus is saying that we should be so devoted to him as his disciples that if anything or anyone should ever threaten to come between us and him, we would react to this with a strong feeling of antipathy and revulsion that makes us choose Jesus over that person or thing, without hesitation.

In the culture in which Jesus lived, family loyalty was probably the thing that was most likely to come between a would-be disciple and Jesus.  (The same is still true in many parts of the world today.)  And so Jesus is saying that if your family members try to keep you from following me, you have to react with such horror and revulsion that you’re prepared to lose your relationship with them in order to become and remain a disciple of mine.

Beyond this, however, Jesus told his followers to be very careful to follow the commandment to honor their parents.  This included doing such things as providing for them in their old age.  Jesus’ earliest followers similarly taught the importance of caring for family.  So Jesus’ words about “hating” family must be understood only in the context of never letting anything come between us and our loyalty to God.

To state the matter simply, when Jesus says we should love our enemies, he’s talking about a commitment, not a feeling.  When Jesus says we should hate our families (if they would come between us and him), he’s talking about a feeling, not a commitment.

Why did Jesus entrust His mother Mary to John’s care?

Q.  When Jesus was dying and entrusted his mother to John, does that mean Joseph was dead?

Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care. Chapel Nosso Senhor dos Passos, Santa Casa de Misericórdia of Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Yes, most interpreters believe that Joseph had died and that Jesus, who had been responsible to care for his mother as the eldest son in the family, was asking John to take on this responsibility.

This shows us two remarkable things:

(1) Even at his time of greatest suffering, Jesus was thinking of others, not himself.

(2) The family of the kingdom of God takes precedence over human families. Jesus had at least four brothers whom he might have asked to take on this responsibility, but instead he gave it to a “brother” in the kingdom.

To explore this episode a little further, one fascinating and beautiful aspect of the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in John’s gospel is the way it’s arranged as a seven-part chiasm:
A: Jesus is Brought to the Place of Execution
B: Pilate Refuses the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Change the Inscription
C: The Soldiers At the Cross Cast Lots for Jesus’ Clothes
D:  Jesus Entrusts Mary into John’s Care
C: The Soldiers At the Cross Give Jesus Wine to Drink
B: Pilate Grants the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Break the Legs of the Crucified Prisoners
A: Jesus is Taken from the Place of Execution

As I note in my study guide to the gospel of John, the central placement within this arrangement of the episode in which Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care “shows that Jesus was a person of compassion who extended mercy and care to others right to the very end of his life.”

“But,” I also observe, “it’s interesting that an account of the crucifixion would not have Jesus’ actual death at its center.  John may have an additional purpose for including this episode and placing it where he does.  He may be putting his central focus on the effects of Jesus’ death.  John may be portraying how Jesus’ death is for ‘the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.’  Through his death, believers in Jesus become part of a new family, which is their true family.”

I then ask in the guide:  “Are there some other followers of Jesus who are ‘just like family’ to you?  What creates the bond between you?”

What would you say?

Why does Jesus say to “make friends with the unrighteous” in the Parable of the Shrewd Manager?

Q.  This is one I’ve always wondered about.  In Luke 16 Jesus tells a parable about the shrewd manager.  I think he shouldn’t have charged the creditors less just to start the cash flow, but the part that I don’t get is Jesus’ last remark—something like, “Make friends with the unrighteous, so that when you fail, they might accept you into everlasting homes.”  (Huh? scratching the head).

This is definitely one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables.  It seems as if the master represents God, and the manager stands for a typical servant of God, so it’s pretty shocking to hear Jesus say, “The master commended the dishonest manager . . .”

To understand what’s going on here, it’s helpful to realize that when Jesus tells a parable, there’s typically one single point of correspondence between the story he tells and something he wants us to understand about the kingdom of God.

For example, in the parable of the persistent widow a little bit later in Luke, Jesus talks about a judge who “neither fears God nor honors man.”  Yet somehow this judge represents the God who hears our prayers!  Jesus is making only a single point:  we are called to perseverance in prayer.  (There’s actually an implied contrast at the end:  If perseverance pays off even with such a judge, “Will not God bring about justice?”  So Jesus clearly isn’t making a further point about the character of God when he describes the judge.)

In the same way, the parable of the shrewd manager is making only a single point:  Soon the money we now have in this world will be no longer at our disposal.  (That is, our lives are shorter than we realize.)  So we need to use our money while we can to “make for ourselves friends” who can receive us into “eternal dwellings.”

In other words, use the money you have on earth to make friends with God.  Invest your money in ways that advance God’s purposes, and then God will take care of you when you leave this earth and “can’t take it with you.”  (As I say in my Luke-Acts study guide, the manager “provides for his future by using resources he’s just about to lose.”)

Jesus isn’t praising dishonesty or cheating.  He’s simply encouraging us to take the right attitude towards the money we have.  But he does this through some startling language, another common characteristic of his parables.

As he wraps up this story, Jesus describes the manager as practicing “unrighteousness” (adikia) when he cheats his master.  He then describes the money of this world as “the mammon of unrighteousness” (adikia).

He’s not saying that wealth is intrinsically evil.  He wouldn’t call us to invest our wealth in God’s work on earth if it were.  But he is saying that in this world, money is often used to manipulate other people (just as the steward does here) and to undervalue or overvalue things compared to their true worth in God’s eyes.  In that sense it’s the “mammon of unrighteousness.”

But we can also use our for God’s purposes, and if we do, this will show that we belong in “eternal dwellings.”  We will have made friends not “with the unrighteous” but “with the unrighteous mammon.”  That is, by means of the corruptible and often corrupted money of this world, we can make friends who are really worth having.

Does God let us use deception for a good cause? (Part 3)

So far we’ve seen how biblical characters such as Rahab and Samuel used deception to protect themselves and others from oppressors who held a significant power advantage, so that God’s purposes could be advanced.  Here’s one more example of God apparently using deception as a tool against his opponents.

Ahab is such a wicked and oppressive king that God has decided his reign must end. God asks the hosts in heaven around him, “Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?” A spirit volunteers to “go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets.” “You will succeed in enticing him,” God replies. “Go and do it.”

A godly prophet named Micaiah sees all of this in a vision. When Ahab asks him for advice after all the prophets of Baal have promised victory, Micaiah goes along with the heavenly deception and answers, “Attack and be victorious, for the Lord will give the city into the king’s hand.”

Johann Christoph Wiegel, Micaiah’s Prophecy

Ahab isn’t buying it. Micaiah has never told him before that God will bless him. So why should he say so now? Ahab replies, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” Micaiah may be prepared to use deception, but he’s not prepared to swear to it in the Lord’s name. So he admits to everything, describing the vision he saw and confessing that it’s all a ruse to lure Ahab to his death.

And no one believes it. One of Baal’s prophets slaps Micaiah in the face for lying. Ahab throws him in prison to await his triumphal return.

Then, even though Ahab goes into battle disguised as a common soldier, he’s killed by an arrow “drawn at random”—in other words, not aimed anywhere in particular.  The deception accomplishes its purposed, aided by a little providential intervention.

If someone is so hardened against God that they don’t believe the truth even when they’ve exposed a deception, are they the kind of person God might strategically withhold the truth from? Is it possible for followers of Jesus to discern the extremely fine line between lying to benefit themselves and legitimately employing misinformation for God’s sake?  The Scriptures invite us to ponder these questions and then live faithfully in light of the answers we find to them.

Does God let us use deception for a good cause? (Part 2)

We asked last time whether it’s all right to use deception to further God’s purposes when we are up against powerful oppressors. Here’s another example from the Bible in which God actually seems to command the use of deception.

God has rejected Saul as king of Israel. He tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem and anoint one of Jesse’s sons instead.  Samuel, knowing that Saul has become a ruthless tyrant who will hold onto power by any means, protests, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.” God says in response, “Take a heifer with you and say ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’”

Samuel isn’t really going to Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice, that is, to host a fellowship meal that the townspeople can share as an act of devotion and celebration.  He’s there on a subversive mission to anoint a new king. Samuel’s cover story, the heifer he brings along, and the religious ceremony he conducts are all a pious fraud to keep Saul from discovering the real purpose of the trip.  And God seems to command it all.

Matia Preti, Samuel Anoints David

Is this the best we can do in a situation like this? Why couldn’t God keep Saul from finding out about Samuel’s trip? Why couldn’t God protect Samuel from Saul if he did find out about it?  Sure, there’s a great power differential between Saul and his subjects, but isn’t God vastly more powerful than any earthly ruler?

When we read the whole story of the Bible, not just isolated verses here and there, we discover that in some places and times God does keep enemies from seeing or hearing things. He often delivers his people by his own great power. But in this and similar places, we also see God allowing or even authorizing the use of deception against opponents.  This suggests that deception, under carefully controlled conditions, might be a valid means for followers of Jesus to use today against oppressors when there is a great power differential, like the Christians who sheltered Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust.

We’ll take one more look next time at how God apparently uses deception against His opponents.

Does God let us use deception for a good cause? (Part 1)

A friend of mine was taking a college ethics class. The professor told the class that there are some times when we don’t have to tell the truth.  My friend is a follower of Jesus who’s read the Bible often, and he said a verse immediately came  to his mind that suggested he should always tell the truth:  “You must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor.”

But then he got to thinking about this a bit more. He realized there are several places in the Bible where God’s people don’t tell the truth, but even so, they aren’t criticized or punished.  In fact, their actions sometimes seem to advance God’s purposes.

My friend thought of Rahab, for example, who lied about the spies to the men sent by the king of Jericho.  She said they’d already left her house, when really she had hidden them on the roof.  This saved their lives so they could report back to Joshua and he could plan the conquest of Canaan. Rahab is actually celebrated in the book of Hebrews as a hero of the faith because she sheltered the spies—but this involved not telling the truth.

James Tissot, Rahab and the Two Spies

So the issue really was more complicated than the “verse” that first occurred to my friend suggested.  But he was well on his way to “understanding the books of the Bible,” because he was reflecting on important questions in light of the whole message of the Bible as told in its individual books and stories, not relying on simple answers based on proof texts.

But what about Rahab? What’s going on in cases like hers? As we talked over her story, we recognized that lying is one thing—not telling the truth in order to cover up wrongdoing or to get an unfair advantage over another person.  Deception is quite another thing—using misinformation to protect people from violence and oppression in a situation where you don’t have the power to help them in any other way.

Unfortunately in the Bible we sometimes see even God’s people lying, and destructive consequences result. But we also see God’s people using the tool of deception or misinformation to further God’s purposes when powerful oppressors would otherwise thwart these purposes.

Is this sometimes the right thing to do?  When there is a great power differential in favor of the oppressors, and God doesn’t step in miraculously to overcome that differential (as happens in other places in the Bible), is deception an acceptable tool for us to use?  I’ll explore that question further in my next post.

Why would God give how-to instructions for things He didn’t want people to do?

polkadots

Q. I read your recent posts on slavery.  I appreciate how thorough they were, but I just can’t understand how God would give special instructions on how to buy and treat slaves if He really didn’t want the Israelites to own them.  He brought them up from Egypt and He could have just said, “Don’t do this to others.”

I think the analogy to divorce that I drew in my earlier post helps answer your question.  The Pharisees asked Jesus why the law of Moses commanded men to give their wives certificates of divorce.  Why give special how-to instructions if people weren’t supposed to get divorced at all?  Jesus explained that Moses hadn’t commanded this, he had permitted this, because of men’s hardness of heart. “But from the beginning,” he insisted, “it was not so.”

I think Jesus himself shows us by this teaching that the Bible is not “flat.”  That is, not every statement in the Bible equally expresses God’s intentions for human life.  The degree to which individual biblical statements should determine our conduct today varies. We need to assign them different weight, like the different sizes and shades of the dots in the design above (from Zazzle).

Some statements in Scripture express God’s highest and best intentions for us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But other statements are concessions to the way we insist on living: “Your male and female slaves” (if you have any) “are to come from the nations around you.”

So very careful discernment among statements is required.  Jesus sets an example for us of distinguishing between things that are positively commanded and things that are merely permitted.  He also provides the basis for making this distinction by teaching us that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor.  Everything else needs to be measured by these positive expressions of God’s highest intentions.

I hope these further thoughts are helpful and I appreciate your concerns about this difficult issue.

“I can’t tell you when I’ll be there, I need to be like the wind.”

In the gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” I’ve heard people say that this means followers of Jesus shouldn’t let themselves be pinned down to appointments or commitments, but should live as freely and spontaneously as possible, because they never know where the wind of the Spirit might take them next.  What do you think of this?

Jesus’ interview with Nicodemus is discussed in Session 4 of the John study guide.  To answer your specific question, when Jesus said that people who are born of the Spirit are like the wind, I don’t think he meant that they’re unpredictable and spontaneous, and don’t make or honor any regular commitments, so that no one will ever be able to tell where they’ve come from or where they’re going.  I think Jesus was talking instead about his own origins and destiny, and by implication the origins and destiny of anyone who chooses to follow him.

Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by saying, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Jesus replies to this assertion, which is a little too confident, by saying in effect, “Do you really think you know where I’ve come from?”  An incident later in the gospel illustrates how Nicodemus doesn’t know where Jesus has come from even from an earthly standpoint.  Nicodemus tries to stand up for Jesus when the Jewish leaders accuse him, but they argue that Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Messiah because he’s from Galilee, and the Scriptures don’t say the Messiah will come from there.  If Nicodemus really knew where Jesus was from, in the most basic sense, he’d reply that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, right where the Scriptures say the Messiah will come from.

But much more importantly in terms of the theological concerns of the gospel of John, Nicodemus doesn’t realize that Jesus is the eternal Word who has come to earth in human form. So Jesus talks about the wind: you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.  The earthly Jesus can be seen and heard, but most people don’t realize his divine origins, and they don’t realize the divine destiny he’s come to fulfill.

Amazingly, anyone who is born of the Spirit will be like Jesus in this same way.  I think that’s what Jesus really means when he talks about those who are born of the Spirit being like the wind.  He’s not endorsing or recommending a spontaneous, unpredictable behavior pattern.  Rather, he’s saying that his followers will be endowed with the same heavenly origins and destiny that he has.  Pretty amazing!

Is it all right for Christians to get tattoos?

Q. In your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, when you get to the end of Romans you ask about outward ways of identifying as a follower of Jesus. When we discussed this question in our group, the subject of tattoos came up.  Most of the group members didn’t have a problem with them.  But I thought Christians weren’t supposed to get tattoos.  Doesn’t the Bible say, “Do not put tattoo marks on yourselves”?

I personally don’t think this one verse can be used as a proof-text against tattoos.  The particular commandment you’re describing is found in Leviticus. It says in full, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.”  The concern is with cutting or marking oneself as a pagan worship practice designed to appease or cultivate the spirits of the dead. (A similar commandment is found in Deuteronomy, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.”)  So this is not necessarily a prohibition of using these practices for other purposes, including identifying oneself as a follower of the true God.

However, we need to be careful here.  There are other things that are mentioned in the Bible only in the context of pagan worship, such as human sacrifice, that we shouldn’t conclude are acceptable in other contexts.  We really need some indication that a practice can be used positively to honor God before we decide that any prohibition against it is really aimed only at pagan worship practices.

In the case of marking the body, in one of his visions Ezekiel sees a man with a “writing kit” whom God tells, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  This image is echoed in Revelation when God “seals” the 144,000; later in that book we learn that they had the Lamb’s name and his father’s name “written on their foreheads.” Jesus also says in Revelation, in his letter to the church of Philadelphia, about anyone who remains faithful, “I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God . . . and I will also write on them my new name.”  So Ezekiel and Revelation use the symbol of God marking or writing on his servants as a positive sign of protection and identification.

However, these passages really can’t be used as proof-texts in favor of tattooing, any more than the one in Leviticus can be used as a proof-text against it.  This isn’t just because Ezekiel and Revelation are highly symbolic books and it’s often difficult to know how literally to take their imagery. Rather, it’s because those two books, like Leviticus, are recording the warnings and encouragement that God gave his faithful people over the centuries as examples and instruction for us today.  We’re not supposed to turn any of this into rules, but rather use it to become familiar with the ways of God so that we can discern how to follow those ways in our own place and time.

On questions such as whether followers of Jesus can get tattoos, we do well to be guided by the counsel in the very part of the Scriptures that prompted your group’s discussion—the end of Romans.  Paul writes there, “I am convinced . . . that nothing is unclean in itself.  . . .  Let us . . . make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.  . . . Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

In other words, a tattoo is really just ink on the skin, not something spiritually dangerous in itself.  But a person who’s deciding whether to get a tattoo should ask how this would build up other believers and how it would make for peace within the community of Jesus’ followers.  And whatever a person decides on a question like this, they should have a well-considered position that they keep mainly as a private conviction between themselves and God, and grant others freedom to follow their own convictions.