Thursday, February 18, 2016

Matthew 18 - Looking out for the little ones (vv. 15-20)

Matthew 18:15-20 begins,

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother.” (NET)

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (ESV, italics mine)

A quick survey of some of the most popular English translations show that the latter form is slightly more common. However, margin notes and commentaries reveal that the former (without the “against you”) is probably the original reading. I think that this better fits the overall context. When “against you” is included, the text suddenly introduces a thematic dichotomy: whereas the context thus far has been about community relationships as a whole in the kingdom of heaven, this addition marks an awkward and strange shift toward an individual grievance toward another individual – it would mark a drastic shift from concern about how others are treated, especially the “little ones,” to concern about how I’m treated. I think that the omission of the gloss keeps the context of these texts consistent with the thematic whole of the chapter.

The addition of εἰς σέ, “against you,” at this point in the majority of MSS and versions changes an altruistic concern about a brother’s spiritual danger into a personal grievance. That personal concern will be appropriate, and is made explicit, in Peter’s question in v. 21 (εἰς ἐμέ), which leads into the discussion of forgiveness for personal wrongs, but to introduce it here, where it is the brother’s welfare, not “your” interest, which is in focus, is premature; it is probably due to a mechanical reading back of the phrase from v. 21. The shorter reading of א and B (in agreement with the parallel in Luke 17:3, where there is less support for an added εἰς σέ) is thus to be preferred… (New International Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, verse footnote)

Verses 15-17 have also traditionally been used as instructions for church discipline; i.e., if a church member is observed to be, or have been, committing a sin then these verses describe the procedure for confronting the offending member, up to and including a full church censure with a possible final result of excommunication (or disfellowshipping, depending on denominational tradition). While this may be a possible application, it is not the primary intent, once again returning to the observation that no “church hierarchy” or “church authority” has been invoked in the chapter thus far. Moreover we have already seen that such hierarchy or authority is discouraged and even denounced in earlier verses.

The singular pronouns of this paragraph make it very unlikely, however, that these verses should be understood as guidance specifically for church leaders… Commentators who use the formal language of ecclesiastical discipline or even “excommunication” in connection with v. 17 seem regularly to fail to notice the singular “you.” The person at risk is described as “your brother or sister” (adelphos, see 689, n.). This family language imports a note of personal care rather than objective censure… In view of such language we should be cautious about speaking in this context of “discipline,” if that term is understood to connote one person exercising authority over another… In view of such language we should be cautious about speaking in this context of “discipline,” if that term is understood to connote one person exercising authority over another. (NICNT: Matthew)

These texts might also be seen to speak to the sheep that is going astray in the immediately preceding verses. In other words, when a believer sees another member of the family going astray, these current verses are instructions on how to make the one going astray aware of their sin and to bring them back. And I think that is a more appropriate application than as the previously discussed “manual for church discipline.” But is this the only or the best way of reading this text?

Given the above, what then shall we make of this text?

The theme and context in the line of argument of this chapter is how some in the kingdom of heaven think they are greater than others, having more power, privilege, and authority, and in particular over the “little ones.” This very attitude and the actions based on them are “stumbling blocks” that have caused some of these “little ones” to go astray. Who is at greater fault here? Who has committed the greater sin? The warning given was that these would be better to cut off offending parts of themselves than to end up destroyed, and what they deserve is a millstone to be hung about them and they drowned than for them to destroy relationships in God’s kingdom.

I believe that the primary application for verses 15-20 is on those who are destroying others within the kingdom through their pursuit of “personal greatness.” These very same frequently intimidate those around them into saying and doing nothing about such sins. I think these verses are speaking to those who observe relationship destroying attitudes and actions happening, but are afraid to do anything about it. I think these verses are giving us permission, command, and authority to confront those who are power-seeking and abusive. These verses remind us that Christ himself will accompany those (c.f., vv. 19, 20) who actively look out for the welfare of the “little ones” to make sure they are not led or driven astray.

Yet in confronting those with self-aggrandizing and power-seeking attitudes, the goal is not to drive them away either. The ultimate goal is for all to be reconciled with one another. But we can’t make reconciliation happen if the offending party isn’t willing. In that case it is better for the parties to separate. Depending on the nature of the offense, further interaction may not be possible or desirable. Ultimate judgment is left to God.

Book Review–First Bite: How We Learn to Eat

First Bite: How We Learn to EatFirst Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating and detailed discussion about how humans learn (or as the case may be, fail to learn) to eat. Bee Wilson uses research from medicine, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, economics, and sociology to explain how we learn to eat what we do, from prior to birth all the way to the twilight years.

Wilson's focus is primarily on the years of infancy through childhood, as good eating and dietary habits formed during these years can last a lifetime. But she describes how poor and harmful habits can be corrected later in life, to improve both health and enjoyment of life.

What is found inside this book may be of great value to parents. What is provided here is research-based information (Wilson doesn't call it 'advice') that can help parents place their children (and themselves) on a good trajectory of life, as far as eating and food go. Quite a few of the ideas presented go against traditional advice, but are supported by recent research.

The book may also be of value to those in medical and dietary fields. It provides a good overview of the current state of research findings.

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Book Review - Reading Genesis: Beginnings

Reading Genesis: BeginningsReading Genesis: Beginnings by Beth Kissileff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of essays from a Jewish perspective about how the text of Genesis speaks to a 21st century audience. Within this focus, the disciplines are varied - religion, history, law, science, cooking, poetry, and more.

Many of the reading and interpretations offered are novel and unique. They engage tradition, but seek to go beyond it, to see how perspectives from non-traditional disciplines might shed different light onto the ancient text and its meanings.

I found all of the essays interesting to read. Some connected with me more than others. Some were more thought-provoking than others. For me, coming from a Christian background, reading this collection was quite eye-opening. A Christian reading of the Bible is usually with the understanding that there is a "right interpretation" to be found, but in this Jewish collection the emphasis is on variety and possibilities of meaning. I think there is a great deal of value in discovering new ways of reading and seeing familiar texts, and can open eyes to the value of interfaith and interdisciplinary conversations in engaging the sacred.

(This review is based on ARC of the book supplied by the publisher through NetGalley.)

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Matthew 18—Sheep Going Astray (vv. 10-14)

The next four verses (yes four – verse 11 is absent in most translations) is framed by an inclusio about “little ones” and contains two verses frequently referred to as The Parable of the Lost Sheep. However, this heading or title is more appropriately applied to a similar parable found in Luke 15:1-7. In the Matthean account, the sheep is not said to be “lost” but to have “gone astray.” In the Lucan account, the rejoicing is over the sheep that is found, represeing a sinner that repents, whereas in Matthew there is no mention of repentance on the part of the sheep. The context of the Lucan account is “sinners” who are being welcomed by Jesus, whereas in Mathew the context is about those who already are part of God’s kingdom but where some “little ones” are being “disdained” or “despised.”

But among the various differences in wording there is one which may be significant: in Luke the sheep is already “lost,” whereas here it is “wandering away” (the word is repeated three times). This may be no more than an idiomatic variation, but the contexts in which the two parables are set, and the audiences to which they are addressed, suggest that it may indicate a different focus… To oversimplify the difference, Luke’s parable is evangelistic, and Matthew’s pastoral. (New International Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew)

I think that what sometimes (and perhaps frequently) happens in interpreting this parable is that it (the Matthean account) gets combined with the Lucan account and is read through John’s Good Shepherd passages (John 10:1-18) leading to a confused amalgamation that does disservice to all three and mises the intent of each one.

In this series so far, I’ve discussed the pursuit of power and status as antithetical to the kingdom of heaven. This frames the entire discussion of Matthew 18. In the next set of verses the issue of believers placing “stumbling blocks” in the path of “little ones” was discussed. Since the “little ones” remains the subject of our present text, we would do well to continue the line of argumentation that is being put forth by the author. We should not isolate the parable of the sheep from what comes before and after.

For me, the key question to understanding these four verses is

“Why does the sheep go astray?”

Is it because the sheep sinned in some way that caused them to not want to stay with the shepherd? Or did they become distracted by “the world” so that they wandered off? These are common interpretations and I don’t necessairly think they are wrong, but perhaps they are better off being assigned to the Lucan or Johannine accounts.

I think the key to the answer is found in verse 10 which is the reason for the parable. The opening sentence states, “See that you do not disdain one of these little ones.” [NET]. The whole line of argument so far in Matthew 18 is how some in the kingdom (the church) in their pursuit of and/or holding to power and status (vv. 1-5) are placing stumbling blocks in the path of other believers (vv. 6-7). Drastic measures must be taken to “cut off” such evils found among those who claim to be in the kingdom of heaven (vv. 8-9). The reason for this is found in our present text, verses 10-14: The “little ones” are infinitely esteemed by God.

The sheep go astray because those who ought to be looking out for them have failed.

They have failed through neglect and by their own power-seeking; they have “despised” the “little ones,” the ones that God has particular concern for.

To “despise” is the opposite of the “welcome” in v. 5. It is the natural way of the world to “despise little ones,” in the sense of not taking them seriously or giving their interests priority. Here, as so often, Jesus attacks the values of the rat-race. (NICNT: Matthew)

It is critical to note that no fault is ascribed to the sheep for going astray, and unlike in Luke nothing is the Matthean version of the parable indicates repentance on the part of the sheep. “But,” some might object, “don’t the next verses speak of restoration of a fellow believer that has sinned?” Yes they do, and I understand how these verses have been traditionally applied. But could there be a different way of reading and interpreting it that continues what I believe to be more consistent with the line of argument that is being developed in this chapter? I think there is, and that will be the subject of the next post.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Matthew 18—On Stumbling Blocks (vv. 6-9)

This post looks into Matthew 18:6-9. I use the NRSV version this time because its translators consistently translated the key word that ties together these verses. The word? Skandalizo (Gk. σκανδαλίζω and variants) found in each of these verses. The NRSV translates the various words as “stumbling block” and “stumble.” (The NASB and NIV are also consistent.)

Unfortunately many translations use and mix multiple English phrases so that the unifying thread is often lost. These other translations include –

  • “trip and fall”
  • “fall into sin”
  • “to sin”
  • “causes you to sin”

Is it such a big deal to remain consistent and so favor “stumble” (the more literal translation) vs. “to sin”? I believe it is. In the modern English context, the phrase “to sin” brings to mind much more of a immoral and evil behavior and action – it connotes concreteness and offense to a legal code. Causing another “to sin” (v. 6) connotes a deliberate evil and malicious intent by one leading their victim toward committing a crime or immoral action. When verses 8 and 9 speak of things in one’s life “causes you to sin,” that too connotes violations of legal codes and moral order. As a whole, when “sin” is the translation of skandalizo the focus seems to turn to an external code and norm that is violated.

But if we take the entirety of Matthew 18 to be about how to live together as a family with God as its head, the translation “stumbling block” and “to stumble” seem better ones. These give me far broader sense than breaking hard-coded laws or performing immoral actions. The terms are also more difficult to define and pin down as to exactly what they might mean, and I think that is precisely the point: what is a stumbling block might be quite different from one person to another, from one context to another. What causes a person to stumble may change from one time to another.

I think it is important to retain the more amorphouse “stumble” and to keep it consistently throughout these verses because what Jesus is speaking about here is far more than “doing bad things.” It is about anything and everything that might cause a person to leave God’s family. These certainly include actions, but I believe far more crucial are things like attitude and value priorities that are experienced within a community of believers.

… The “stumbling” envisaged is much more drastic than simply “being offended” or even “scandalized.” It appears to envisage fatal damage to the disciple’s relationship with God. They are caused to “trip” so as to be in danger of falling out of the race altogether. (New International Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew)

Perhaps most important is how a Christian community (as smaller and larger units) look upon those who are powerless, weak, and despised.

The “despising” of the little ones in v. 10 is the attitude which promotes such damaging behavior toward them. (NICNT: Matthew)

How are you and I, our local church community, our denominations, and the Christian world at-large addressing racial, gender, economic, and social inequalities, especially within their midst? Vv. 1-5 already revealed that hierarchy, and authority and power inequities have no place in the kingdom of heaven, aka God’s family. By maintaining them, through appeal to tradition or even because an interpretation that supports it seems to “be biblical,” those that do are placing stumbling blocks in God’s family. And those who do have much to answer for. We would be better to cut off our hands, feet, and gouge out our eyes – perhaps one metaphorical application for this “hard saying” is for removing even those very things that might be seen as “bliblical” but violates the law of love and equality – than to be complicit in the loss of “a little one” from God’s family.

(Made a few minor edits to the last paragraph since initial publish. Changing “their” to “our” because we are all blind in one way or another.)

Friday, February 05, 2016

Matthew 18—Power and status (vv. 1-5)

Matthew 18:1-5 begins with a phrase translated as “At that time…” and continues “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” A footnote on this verse in the New International Commentary New Testament: Matthew suggests that this question implies “So who is the greatest…?”

The particle ἄρα normally indicates some inference from a previous statement (as in 17:26, “Well then;” cf. 7:20; 12:28; 19:25, 27).

Taken together this unit is connected to the question of paying temple tax immediately preceding in 17:24-27. Jesus has just expalined to his disciples that even though they were not recognized as such by the priesty and religious establishment, they are familial members of God’s royal household and not required to pay the temple tax. Jesus’ reasoning on this was based on the the familiar privilege extended to earthly royalty and their families.

It is in this context of family that the disciples ask Jesus about hierarchy, status, and power within the family. After all, in earthly royal families the king or emperor stood at the head, his eldest son typically held the next position of power, others sons with increasingly diminishing status, daughters with even less, and so on down the line. But as a family they held power and privilege over all who weren’t family. The disciples assumed the same kind of arrangement in God’s family and kingdom. (Note also that within this context, God’s kingdom is not a location or reward, but a set of relationships in the present.)

Usage so far in this gospel indicates that “the kingdom of heaven” here refers to the new values which Jesus is inculcating, and the communal life of those who embrace them, so that in effect the question means “Who is the top disciple?” (NICNT: Matthew)

Jesus’ response to this question and with everything else that follows in chapter 18 is that in God’s family, God is head but beyond that there is no hierarchy and no power or status differentials. No member of God’s family has the benefit of more privilege or power over another member.

As an illustration and parable, Jesus calls a child (an actual child) to him. He tells his disciples that they must “turn around and become” like this child, and is quite emphatic that if they do not, they “will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The phrase “turn around” (Gk. στρέφω) is sometimes translated “converted” (e.g., KJV). I think “turn around” better captures the intent: the disciples are to figuratively and literally “turn around” their hierarchical assumptions! The harmony of relationships in the kingdom of heaven depends on this. And I think that it can be extended to say that without this harmony, there can be no kingdom of heaven, and what I hear Jesus saying when he says “will never enter the kingdom of heaven” is that heaven can’t exist if there is ongoing strife and contending for power.

To abandon human thoughts of personal status and to accept or even seek a place at the bottom of the pecking order implies as radical a change of orientation as our term “conversion” involves. (NICNT: Matthew)

Sometimes verse 3 has been taken sort of by itself and its admonition “become like little children” has been taken (out of context) to mean that Christians should strive toward childlike innocece, dependence, etc – about adopting and growing childlike qualities and attributes. That is not what Jesus meant when we understand that the context is about power and status.

Jesus goes on to say that his disciples must “humble [themselves] like this child” and if they do so, they will be “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” We begin to see what Jesus wants to communicate about status-seeking: that there is no place for it in God’s family.

The instruction to “become like children” is thus not about adopting some supposed ethical characteristic of children in general (innocence, humility, receptiveness, trustfulness or the like) but about accepting for oneself a position in the social scale which is like that of children, that is as the lowest in the hierarchy of authority and decision-making, those subject to and dependent on adults…

Its meaning [“humble themselves”] is thus closer to “humiliate”, so that to “make oneself tapeinos like this child” (the literal translation of the expression here) does not mean to attempt to gain the mental virtue of humility which is supposed (by whom?—not by most parents or teachers!) to be characteristic of children, but rather to accept the low social status which is symbolized by the child, who in an adult world has no self-determination and must submit to the will of adults who “know best.”
(NICNT: Matthew)

The irony and paradox presented is that those who make themselves lowest and most dependent, are in fact, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. What does it really mean then, to be “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”?

Verse 5 begins a transition in the discussion. The discussion remains on status and power, but moves from what we should seek for ourselves to how we view those who have no apparent status or power; those who are marginalized and powerless according to earthly, human standards. This gets to the heart of the remainder of Matthew 18: power, status, and relationships within God’s family, aka Church.

Perhaps the most important point to note in verse 5 is that Jesus identifies himself with the child. To welcome (not just tolerate, but to fully accept and include) those that the world casts out, that tradition and culture (both secular and religious) considers “outside”, is to welcome Jesus himself.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Book Review - The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the BibleThe Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How each of us chooses (consciously or not, but we all do choose) to read the Bible has a direct impact on how we end up applying its text.

One of the first things Dr. Scot McKnight brings up is that "we all pick and choose" when it comes to the Bible and its application to our lives. The important thing is to become aware of it and learn how we pick and choose. By becoming cognizant of our way of reading and our biases, we can become better interpreters of the text and have a rationale for why we interpret the way we do.

Dr. McKnight details how he believes the Bible ought to be read. His is a balance between all-tradition and all-individualism. Each person needs to read the Bible and think through applications as individuals, but it must be done as part of both historical and contemporary communities of faith. He describes this as "reading with tradition" as opposed to "reading through tradition". The difference is that with tradition values what tradition brings, but leaves open the room to question it and revise it, if necessary. Reading through tradition places it on a pedestal; it is a fixed norm that cannot be changed. While Protestants, and particularly Evangelicals, might protest that they don't put tradition on a pedestal, Dr. McKnight argues that is in fact what has happened in many churches.

He suggests that we would do ourselves great service to learn to read the Bible as a Story, where there was the original intent for humankind, how things went wrong, God's efforts to bring restoration that culminates in Jesus, and ends with a final restoration of all things. This is in contrast to the many ways of contemporary Bible reading that looks to the Bible for isolated principles, maxims, promises, and applications. Dr. McKnight writes that contemporary Christians have often turned the Bible itself into an object of worship (idolatry) by conferring upon it authority and infallibility that belongs only to God himself.

The final section of the book is a case study of what Dr. McKnight discusses in the first two sections. The case study is on the role of women in ministry. He looks at the Old and New Testaments to see What Did Women Do? as found in the biblical text. He places this inside of the greater Story framework of the Bible and God's redemptive plan. He uses this as the framework to interpret some of the "hammer" passages that are frequently cited by traditionalists to bar women from full inclusion in ministry. It is not a full and exhaustive discussion of women in ministry, but provides key points and highlights.

He writes the following, which I see as summarizing his position:

Now for the troubling irony: seeking to control or limit the applicability of the WDWD passages by appealing to the silencing passages illustrates the fall, not the new creation. When men seek to control women by silencing them permanently in the church, we stand face-to-face with a contradiction of the very thing the new creation is designed to accomplish: to undo the fall. What we see in this desire to silence women is the desire to rule over women, a desire that pertains to the fall, not to the new creation. What the Spirit does when the Spirit is present is to release and liberate humans from their fallen condition so that God’s will can be completely done. The Spirit creates mutuality. Always.

I see Dr. McKnight as a progressive conservative: he is progressive in his approach to interpreting the Bible, but he is very much conservative in accepting Bible as inspired by God and is critical in apprehending God's revelation to humankind.

While not all may accept Dr. McKnight's position on women in ministry, he cannot be accused of not having a sound rationale for it. And it would do well for all who claim that the Bible has some degree of authority over them, to read this book and have a clearer idea of how they have chosen to read and interpret the Bible. To that effect there are a couple of quizzes found in the Appendices to help guide the reader.

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Monday, February 01, 2016

Matthew 18–Seen as a complete unit

Matthew BannerI once again came across Matthew chapter 18. This chapter is noteworthy, famous, and well-used. It is subdivided into smaller units that are frequently the basis for sermons, essays, books, and standalone doctrinal points:

  • You must become humble as children (vv.1-5)
  • If any part of you causes you to sin, cut it off (vv.6-9)
  • Parable of the Lost Sheep (vv.10-14)
  • Instructions for church discipline (vv. 15-17)
  • Efficacy of prayer (vv. 18-20)
  • How many times must I forgive? (vv. 21-22)
  • Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (vv. 23-35)

This time though, I noticed a few key words and themes that made me think that this entire chapter really is a single unit and we’ve done much disservice to it by taking smaller units out of it and using them in standalone ways. What words and themes did I see?

  • “Kingdom of heaven” – vv. 1-4, and again in v. 23. My thought: the concluding parable might have something to do with the initial question of the disciples and Jesus’ immediate response.
  • “Children” and “little ones” – vv.1-14. My thought: the intial question and Jesus’ answer extends all the way through verse 14.
  • The theme of going astray tied to a fellow Christian sinning and going astray – vv. 10-20. My thought: the theme of “little ones” earlier overlaps and morphs into the entirety of Christian community and individual responsibility to one another.
  • The theme of forgiveness – vv. 21-35. My thought: This theme follows directly from what to do when a Christian who has gone astray returns, when a sheep returns to the fold, when someone who has caused a “little one” to stumble repents.

As can be seen, to take any smaller section of this chapter and apply it directly to a church context brings danger of anachronism and misuse. The entirety of the chapter appears to be providing Matthew’s perspective on how members of the kingdom of heaven are to behave toward one another, particularly when tensions, frictions, and offenses arise.

While it is convenient to divide the text into sections for the purpose of commentary, apart from the second question which divides the discourse at v. 21 all other such breaks are relatively arbitrary (see especially comment on v. 6) and should not be allowed to obscure the connected flow of the discourse as a whole… To take this corporate focus of vv. 17–20 as the leitmotif of the whole discourse, thus constituting it a manual for church leaders, is to get it out of proportion. The “community” aspect of the discourse consists not primarily in that it prescribes corporate action, but that it guides the individual disciple on how to live in relation to other members of the community to which he or she is assumed to belong. (New International Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew; C. Living Together as Disciples: The Discourse on Relationships, 18:1-19:2)

Jesus' concern for the feelings and needs of others lays the groundwork for the discourse that follows on how the church is to live together as a family. (Reading Matthew, 17:24-18:35)

I plan to take a closer look at each of the sections and see what they say in relation to the whole.