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!