Posts tagged with: Bible and Theology

In his recent lecture “Christian Poverty in the Age of Prosperity,” Rev. Robert Sirico reminded us that “We should not minimize the demands of the scripture but we should embrace them.” The quote was in context of caring for the vulnerable among us. He also talked about the need to be wholly devoted to the Lord despite the distractions of technology and prosperity in our midst.

At the same time, Rev. Sirico also admonished religious figures who offered superficial exegetical statements condemning all wealth. A great example being a topic I previously covered on the PowerBlog, “The What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. In my devotional reading this week, I came across a very appropriate quote by 17th century English Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs. The words compliment the pastoral tone Rev. Sirico set during the lecture, and reminds us just how woefully inadequate superficial pronouncements are when it comes to the gospel call. Burroughs words are below:

Suppose a man had great wealth only a few years ago, and now it is all gone-I would only ask this man, When you had your wealth, in what did you reckon the good of that wealth to consist? A carnal heart would say, Anybody might know that: it brought me in so much a year, and I could have the best fare, and be a man of repute in the place where I live, and men regarded what I said; I might be clothed as I would, and lay up portions for my children: the good of my wealth consisted in this. Now such a man never came into the school of Christ to know in what the good of an estate consisted, so no marvel if he is disquieted when he has lost his estate. But when a Christian, who has been in the school of Christ, and has been instructed in the art of contentment, has some wealth, he thinks, In that I have wealth above my brethren, I have an opportunity to serve God the better, and I enjoy a great deal of God’s mercy conveyed to my soul through the creature, and hereby I am enabled to do a great deal of good: in this I reckon the good of my wealth. And now that God has taken this away from me, if he will be pleased to make up the enjoyment of himself some other way, will call me to honor him by suffering, and if I may do God as much service now by suffering, that is, by showing forth the grace of his Spirit in my sufferings as I did in prosperity, I have as much of God as I had before. So if I may be led to God in my low condition, as much as I was in my prosperous condition, I have as much comfort and contentment as I had before. – Jeremiah Burroughs, from his book Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

During my seminary days at Asbury Theological Seminary, Tony Campolo spoke at a chapel service and offered a litany of denunciations of greed and corporate America. However, one thing he said especially caught the attention of a professor of mine. During his talk, Campolo equated material poverty with spiritual righteousness. Later in the day during class, while the rest of the campus was still gushing over Campolo’s visit, the professor rebuked Campolo rather harshly. He said he stood with him until he started declaring the poor were righteous because of their poverty. We were of course reminded eloquently and emotionally that our righteousness was in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).

In Campolo’s zeal for building a new kingdom for the poor on earth, perhaps he did not mean to imply that righteousness is found apart from Christ, but he gave a window for a wise professor to impart correction.

Having graduated from a Wesleyan seminary, I was fortunate to hear many stories about the holistic care for the poor that is at the heart of Methodism. Nevertheless, John Wesley always understood first that the spiritual condition must be changed if the social condition was to be improved. Even when Christ heals somebody physically, there is a deep spiritual symbolism with somebody like a paralytic. Paralysis in the gospel represents the crippling power of sin and the inability for man to change not just his physical condition, but his spiritual condition as well. Blindness, leprosy, death, the woman with the issue of blood, deformities, deafness, sickness, and Jesus’ healing of those maladies all carry deep spiritual symbolism about mankind.

Just as I talked about the problem of reducing Christ to political activist in “Jesus as Budget Director?,” there is also a danger in reducing “poverty” to just the material and stripping it of its spiritual components. This is especially true with a glib and partisan quote like “What Would Jesus Cut?”, in a budget-cutting context.

Many Great Society programs point to the unintended consequences of ignoring the spiritual components of poverty for the material. One such example being the crumbling of two parent homes, especially modeled by what has occurred in American inner cities over the past forty plus years. It is always essential to think holistically and spiritually about poverty. The state is unable to do so, and is ultimately not able to address any deeper needs. At the Acton Institute, we understand the main way that poverty is alleviated is through enterprise and access to markets. We also understand that there are important moral foundations for a society and that it is essential that one is a moral agent within the market.

During our discussions last week in the office around some of the issues of “What Would Jesus Cut,?” I also posed the question “What Would Judas Cut?” It was in part for humor, but there is an important lesson there too. It was a question I formulated with the help of my pastor when we were discussing the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. If we strip the Gospel of its spiritual source in addressing these issues and hardly discern the holistic need of the poor, we are making demands for the poor with the wrong intention (John 12:4-8).

In his evangelistic fervor across 18th century England, John Wesley brought the Gospel to the poor and marginalized. The man who encouraged him to take his ministry outside of church walls was the fellow Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. There is a story about Whitefield that is one of my favorites. Whitefield first took the gospel message to the poor working class coal miners of Kingswood, England. They were disliked for their rowdy unclean ways and disdained by society. After preaching from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Whitefield recorded the scene in his journal: “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One miner declared, “I never knew anybody loves us.”

Jesus is the “Bread of Life” and a social gospel without him or one that dilutes his saving power ultimately leads back to the same spiritual maladies symbolized so well in the scripture.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, March 17, 2011

Below is the full-length version of “The Rich Young Man: The Law Versus Privilege,” an essay published in the winter 2011 Religion & Liberty. John Kelly’s essay was shortened because of space limitations for the print issue. He was passionate about sharing the full version, which he edited himself for readers of the PowerBlog. Mr. Kelly, a financial advisor, also authored a piece in 2004 for Religion & Liberty titled “The Tithe: Land Rent to God.”

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THE RICH YOUNG MAN: THE LAW VERSUS PRIVILEGE

by John Kelly

As Jesus conducted his public ministry, he drew considerable crowds. Within the throngs were, of course, the peasants of the neighborhood, along with longer-term disciples. There were many who wished to see miracles, many who wished to hear his sayings of peace, love, hope and promise. There were those who wanted reinforcement of the Law and those who wished to see some of the Law abandoned. And within all these groups were many who were troubled by personal doubt.

Jesus spoke with these people, engaging them, answering their questions, asking them questions, all the while proclaiming the authority and the efficacy of the Law. He said, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish – but to complete them.” He then goes on – he’s trying to make sure his listeners understand: “In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved.” (Matthew 5:17-18 – NJB)

Some of Jesus’ most engaging images come from these conversations. Rich and poor, titled and powerless, legalists and apostates, disciples and strangers all had encounters with Jesus that fleshed out for them his view of the Law. However, our lack of knowledge regarding the economic, political and cultural environment in which Jesus lived and preached sometimes hampers our understanding of his message.

One of the more famous of these encounters was with the rich young man. This story is found, in almost identical versions, at Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23. He approached Jesus and asked what was necessary to be saved. “Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied that the young man should keep the commandments. “I have kept all these,” stated the rich young man, “What more do I need to do?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor … then come, follow me.” This was too much for the young man. Scripture says that he “went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”

This story seems too hard for most of us. What is fundamentally wrong with being rich? Preachers try to make sense of this passage by assuming that the rich young man was too materialistic, and that the story is a warning to us about that failing. That much may be true, however, that interpretation is about the young man’s reaction, not about Jesus’ words. Jesus instructed him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Why? (more…)

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Friday, November 16, 2007

“If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.” Proverbs 21:13

I remember being very young and hearing a minister dramatically describe the flames and fires of hell in a sermon. I know I was somewhere between the age of six and seven. At this time, I also had little knowledge of salvation in Christ, so I worried about my eternal destination. Couple this thought with a dream I remember having even earlier as a child, where in the dream I was being chased by a devil with a pitchfork. Wrapped with fear by just the possibility of damnation I was drawn to scripture that talked about heaven and hell.

The allegory of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel offers several important teaching lessons. Just as the prodigal son provides a look into the great depth of love, grace, and forgiveness of God the Father, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus points to the coming wrath. Additionally, it reinforces the seriousness of sin, and that there will be many who will not believe despite a believable resurrection account. Note, the indirect tie to Christ and resurrection in the parable is intentional.

We know from the Gospel account Lazarus suffers immensely on earth and the rich man is comforted with wealth and earthly pleasures. In the first-century Judean culture at this time, the common belief among religious leaders was if somebody was sick or lame it was because they were wicked. This belief is just as misguided as a literal reading of this parable might seem to declare the rich are damned and the poor are righteous, solely because of their poverty. Unfortunately, there are preachers who are teaching this falsehood, just as their preachers who shamelessly preach God wants us to be blessed with material abundance and comforts. Remember, we are made righteous by Christ alone (Romans 3:24).

The parable turns or reverses itself with the death of the beggar and the rich man. Now, Lazarus is comforted by the bosom of Abraham in heaven and the rich man is tormented in hell. Lazarus literally means “he whom God helps.” Jesus told several parables in the 16th chapter of Luke, and the account mentions that the Pharisees overheard and sneered at Christ. Christ responded by saying, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”

This parable ultimately tells us little about heaven and hell, because a strict literal reading is to miss the point entirely. Revelation is a much better book to examine for descriptions of the afterlife. Even so, there will indeed be separation from the righteous and unrighteous. It does tell us however, that the compassionate are heard by God. Compassion also deals with responding to the message and teachings of Christ and his Good News.

In addition, the parable is a powerful reminder of the question, “What are you doing with your blessings bestowed to you by God?” In this Thanksgiving season, as in all seasons, it is essential for us to transform our minds beyond the here and now. The parable teaches us about sin, selfishness, and greed, but it also teaches us about our spiritual condition. The rich man represents one who has turned away from trusting God and is trusting his lineage (Abraham) and trusting himself, or his own wealth. Lazarus, throws his trust in the charity and compassion of God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a reminder to be authentic and charitable to our neighbors, just as Christ is. It also reminds us real charity and authentic charity is in knowing God and walking with God. Those who know the Lord will have compassion. Especially since they so easily recognize their dependence and need of God.

In a bit of an addendum to my review of the HBO series Deadwood in the current issue of Religion & Liberty, “A Law Beyond Law: Life Together in Deadwood,” I couldn’t help thinking of this bit from Clement of Alexandria when describing George Hearst, the über-robber baron of the Old West.

In that piece I write, “Hearst fancies that he is doing his fellow man a service in his devotion to mining gold, to acquiring ‘the color.’” There’s a patina of “other-directedness” in Hearst’s self-understanding. Indeed, Hearst’s influence isn’t entirely without its merits, but at bottom his explanation of his task seems more like self-rationalization to cover for a deep-seated greed than the righteous employment of a man divinely called.

Aunt Lou, who is Hearst’s cook describes him thusly: “George Hearst, he do love his nose in a hole more and ass in the air and back legs kickin’ out little lumps of gold like a badger.”

Clement of Alexandria describes that same human condition with a bit more theological insight: “But he who carries his riches in his soul, and instead of God’s Spirit bears in his heart gold or land, and is always acquiring possessions without end, and is perpetually on the outlook for more, bending downwards and fettered in the toils of the world, being earth and destined to depart to earth,—whence can he be able to desire and to mind the kingdom of heaven,—a man who carries not a heart, but land or metal, who must perforce be found in the midst of the objects he has chosen? For where the mind of man is, there is also his treasure.”

George Hearst: ‘The-boy-the-earth-talks-to’

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that “religion is less likely to be central to the lives of individuals in richer nations than poorer ones” (HT).

Given the Bible’s many warnings about the danger presented by wealth, specifically the temptation to no longer rely on God and his providential care, that probably isn’t surprising. But what might be more surprising is that “the United States, the wealthiest nation, was ‘most notably’ an exception, scoring higher in religiosity than those in Europe. The level of religiosity in the United States was found to be similar to less economically developed countries such as Mexico. Americans tend to be more religious than the publics of other affluent nations, the survey stated.”

But what upsets the seeming iron law connecting wealth to irreligion?

If wealth is less of an idol in the United States than elsewhere, it’s due in large part to the penetration of the Gospel message into people’s hearts and minds. An example of this message is clearly evident in a recent CT column by John Piper, “Gutsy Guilt.”

Piper takes apart the myth of prosperous comfort that Satan propagates. Piper writes with regard to sexual sin, perhaps the most difficult class of sins to conquer, “The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.”

Material prosperity can be an occasion not only to stop relying on God for the provision of earthly goods, but can also be an opiate that dulls our awareness of even greater grace, the gift of justification. “Therefore, God, out of his immeasurable love for us, provided his own Son to do both. Christ bears our punishment and performs our righteousness. When we receive Christ as the Savior and Lord and Treasure of our lives, all of his punishment and righteousness is counted as ours (Rom. 4:4-6; 5:1; 5:19; 8:1; 10:4; Phil. 3:8-9; 2 Cor. 5:21). Justification conquers fornication,” writes Piper.

Here we hear echoes of Martin Luther: “At once a righteous one and a sinner! Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”

If the Pew survey is reliable, it speaks greatly to the cause of Christ in America that great wealth has not resulted in the level of apostasy and practical atheism present in other countries. Only when rightly and appropriately valued does wealth occupy a morally praiseworthy place in the world, as a means of glorifying God through service to our neighbor.

Folks like John Piper and Craig Gross (whose efforts in an anti-pornography ministry is profiled at length here) have done a great deal to keep American Christianity from accommodating sexual guilt that lies unforgiven in cultural appeasement. We are of course and by no means blameless or perfect, and our “success” relative to other countries is less important than our failure relative to God’s demands of holiness.

But what these things do show is that the Gospel and the extent to which God remains a vital reality in the lives of people does matter greatly in this world, not least of which in how it affects the way we relate to the culture around us and begin to use penultimate things rightly.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, November 9, 2007

This Sunday, November 11, is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

A prayer “For the Persecuted” (BCP 1928):

O blessed Lord, who thyself didst undergo the pain and suffering of the Cross; Uphold, we beseech thee, with thy promised gift of strength all those of our brethren who are suffering for their faith in thee. Grant that in the midst of all persecutions they may hold fast by this faith, and that from their stedfastness thy Church may grow in grace and we ourselves in perseverance, to the honour of thy Name, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost art one God, world without end. Amen.

For more on how you can help the persecuted church, visit The Voice of the Martyrs.

In the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, the character of film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, declares, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” I watched Sunset Boulevard for the first time last night, thanks to the recommendation from a friend in Virginia. As a fan of classic films, I had high hopes for this film, which was directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder also directed one of my favorite classics films, Stalag 17.

William Holden starred in the film, playing a Hollywood script-writer named Joe Gillis. It is evident Gillis is an out of work and down on his luck kind of guy. Gillis meets Desmond when he is trying to flee the men attempting to repossess his automobile. He has a blowout and parks in the garage of what appears to be an abandoned mansion, which is owned and inhabited by Desmond and her butler. The dark, sinister, and shady side of Hollywood takes off from there. Desmond is a former silent movie super star, now washed up and forgotten. She hires Gillis, in the belief he can help launch her “return” to Hollywood glory by editing her movie script. If you are interested in an overview of the entire plot, check out this film site.

Sunset Boulevard masterfully portrays the emptiness of self love and selfishness gone mad. It is equally a haunting look at spiritual emptiness and decay. I was drawn in by the dramatic acting of Gloria Swanson, who turns into a warped and pathetically sad individual as she continually plots her return, which is in reality only in her mind. The dramatic scene at the end is a captivating portrayal of this madness at its pinnacle. The film was obviously controversial, because it exposed such a negative and dreary portrayal of Hollywood in its heyday.

The film is packed with powerful imagery and symbolism. In addition, the powerful use of black and white was phenomenal, which was made all the more haunting when coupled with the musical score. What is also powerful, is that the film is so relevant for today’s audiences. One look at Hollywood gossip shows, Hollywood worship television shows, and the self love, narcissistic culture, makes this clearly evident.

As a Christian, the film scores big as a reminder of the decay and shallowness of a life that pursues vanity, greed, and narcissism. It also reminds us that sin has consequences. Many of us are aware of people who are locked in the prison of their shallow, self-loving world. The probing question being, are we a community that seeks to be saved, and sacrifice for others, or a society seeking instant gratification? The vexing question has even found its way into the Church, in the form of prosperity gospel theology. But those who know the power and truth of real freedom, know Christ. We are made whole and complete in the sacrifice, suffering, and resurrection of Christ. The Apostle Paul said in 2nd Corinthians, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Paul also notes in Romans , “We share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Here’s a definition of freedom worth noting:

The Word of God teaches that the Christian is a free man and should “stand in the freedom which Christ has made him free.” What is meant by Christian freedom? What is freedom in general? We answer: it is not the right and the ability to do as one pleases, but the ability to move without constraint in the sphere for which God made us. Freedom therefore is not inconsistent with limitation and law. The bird is free only when it can move in the air unhindered. A worm is free when it is not prevented from moving in the ground–in a sphere which would mean bondage and death for many other creatures. A locomotive is not free unless its motion is confined to the two rails on which it was made to run. Man was made in the image of God to be like Him and to reflect his holiness. Consequently he is free only when he moves without constraint in the sphere of holiness and obedience to God’s law.

–”Christian Liberty,” in “Report of the Committee on Worldly Amusements,” Agenda: Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, To convene June 13, 1928 at Holland, Mich., p. 22.

The biblical text cited above is Galatians 5:1.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Regarding John Armstrong’s insightful post yesterday, I want to pass along some related wisdom on the subject from Richard Baxter from his 1682 treatise, How to do Good to Many. Writing on the text of Galatians 6:10, he writes about the problem and responsibility of passing along wealthy estates to heirs:

III. The Text plainly intimateth that it is a great Crime in them, that instead of doing good while they have opportunity, think it enough to leave it by Will to their Executors to do it. When they have lived to the flesh, and cannot take it with them, they think it enough to leave others to do that good, which they had not a heart to do themselves: But a treasure must be laid up in heaven before-hand, and not be left to be sent after, Matth. 6. 20, 21. And he that will make friends of the Mammon of Unrighteousness, must now be rich towards God, Luk. 12. 21. It’s no victory over the World, to leave it when you cannot keep it: Nor will any Legacy purchase Heaven for an unholy worldly soul.

IV. Yet they that will do good neither Living nor Dying are worst of all. Surely the last Acts of our Lives, if possible, should be the best; And as we must live in health, so also in sickness, and to the last in doing all the good we can; and therefore it must needs be a great sin, to leave our Estates to those that are like to do hurt with them, or to do no good, so far as we are the free disposers of them.

The Case, I confess is not without considerable difficulties, how much a man is bound to leave to his Children, or his neerest Kindred, when some of them are disposed to live unprofitably, and some to live ungodly and hurtfully. Some think men are bound to leave them nothing, some think they ought to leave them almost all: And some think that they should leave them only so much as may find them tolerable food and raiment. I shall do my best to decide the case in several propositions. (more…)