Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jesus Sells?

Driving down the street today, I noticed a sign I've noticed and ignored many times before. It is a terribly busy sign and I'm positive most people can't read the whole thing as they are driving by, unless they are stopped to turn at the intersection.

The sign is on a white background with black and red letters. The sign's main gist is advertising a local plumber. On the sign is the man's or the company's name, the question, "Need a plumber?", and a phone number. Probably a few other scattered statements are on the sign--perhaps any specialty services this specific plumber does.

This sign is a rectangle, like every other sign. But it goes outside of the box. On top of the sign is a wooden cross, also painted white. On the cross are the words "Jesus loves you" criss-crossing with the directions of the cross.

I cannot tell you why the plumber put that cross and those words on his signs. Guessing at his intentions are a judgment I do not want to make, lest I, too, be judged. But, I can tell you a few different outcomes for that cross.

First, community and alterity are produced--the "us" and "them," whether fortunate or not, whether positive or negative. The plumber asks the reader to think, "Hey, that plumber is a Christian," either "like me," or "not like me."

If you are not a Christian, you may care less whether or not your plumber is a Christian, especially when your sink won't shut off and is flooding your second-floor bathroom. But you'll remember after you call, if not before, that your plumber is the plumber with the cross above the sign. Your plumber is the Christian. Any mistake that plumber makes, any attitude, any pricey charges will not reflect simply that plumber, but Christianity as the customer knows it. No person is perfect, Christians included, but when we go over the top to identify ourselves (literally), those who perceive will go over the top to associate us with Christianity.

If you are a Christian, you might end up comparing your flavor of Christianity with the plumber's (as I did, unfortunately). You may seek out another plumber, for any number of reasons, from "witnessing" to price and quality of work. Or, you might choose the Christian plumber, because you and the plumber are part of the Church. You want to support other Christians, to be one with them, to show them love. You'll call the Christian plumber even if the price is a little steep, the quality not the best, or the manners not the kindest.

Now, the plumber might be one of the best, kindest, cheapest plumbers ever. But if the plumber carries the cross, then I don't understand why the sign needs to. I said I wanted not to judge, but I can barely keep myself from guessing that plumber has genuine, loving intentions, however misguided.

You see, whatever the plumber's intentions, the advertisement bears the cross, not the plumber. Instead of a Jesus who saves, we see a Jesus who sells. In some cases, Jesus sells shoddy work and a bad reputation. In other cases, Jesus is an unwilling marketing tool for an unwitting plumber. Jesus is no gimmick. Jesus is not an advertisement. Jesus is the Christ.


Now, friends, what are we to do when we approach such a situation? Jesus walked into the temple and was outraged when he saw people using God's name in vain by forcing people to be cheated of their money. He overturned their tables. When Jesus saw injustice, he called it out. "What would Jesus do?"

As I'm sure you're aware, I'm no messiah. It doesn't seem my place to call the plumber and ask to discuss religion over coffee. I have no relationship with the plumber and, therefore, no basis upon which to have a meaningful discussion.

Meanwhile, that sign is trying to carry the cross of my Jesus. And Jesus told his disciples they would do greater things. Does that statement include me?

I feel justified to be upset. Could I leave a large note on the sign? Could I send a letter? Could I have a discussion over coffee? Or do I allow the plumber to interpret Christianity without my input and I with the plumber's input (as discussions happen two-ways, after all, and I do not pretend to have the only right interpretation).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's a Mystery to Me

I've heard people condemn some theologies as vanity, because the theologies claim to know too much about God. Further pressed, these accusers might simply say they disagree with those theologies, but if unquestioned, they sometimes say God is meant to be mysterious. They don't want to study too much, because their God is a god of mystery--it is what allures them to worship.

I cannot fall into that camp. If God is infinitely complex, then mystery will always be part of the game. The more I think I understand God, the more I do not understand God. "Finiteness does not limit infinity; on the contrary, finiteness should give it its expansion and its truth" [1]. As we find out more about what is finite, we understand more and more how large infinity is--although it still lingers hazily beyond us.

The more of God we uncover, the more we find covered up.

If you want mystery, friends, then study God.


[1] Jean-Luc Nancy. Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity. Trans. Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Tattoo

After reading the title, you might think I have a tattoo. Alas, I do not. But, I've got everything all planned out. And I'm so excited, I want to tell you about it!

You can see the image below.

It was presented to me as an illustration of a theological term: "perichoresis." In the image you might be able to decipher (through the Latin) the Parent at the top is neither the Son nor the Spirit; the Son to the right is niether the Parent nor the Spirit; and the Spirit to the left is neither the Parent nor the Son. However, the Parent is God in the center, as is the Son and the Spirit.

The image and the understanding are ancient. By tattooing this image on my body, I will place a visual representation of a large part of my history in the Christian trinitarian camp. Whatever I may come to believe, a part of me will always be trinitarian, even if it isn't the current part. (I'm not saying I am or am not currently trinitarian, but rather that I cannot tell the future. If you wonder about my current leanings, you'll have to ask sometime.)

The image and the idea also represent community, with an emphasis on unity, a unity I one day hope to enter and a unity I yearn to share, echoing the prayers of Jesus (John 17, esp. vv. 11 & 21). I know not whether we'll ever reach that community this side of the kingdom, but I know we must try and keep our eyes on that goal.

Along these same lines, my tattoo will remind me of Revelation 3:12: "I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name" (cf. Rev. 19:16). That kingdom, that new Jerusalem is how I envision perichoresis. It is not a real city descending onto earth, but rather our God, whose name I will be written on me,

written on my inner thigh.

Awkward? Sure. I won't go around showing everyone. I probably won't post pictures on facebook (more in consideration for the comfort level of others). But my tattoo isn't for other people to see (although I'll show people who want to see it). It is highly aesthetic, but personal aesthetics are about beauty beyond what people can see.

My tattoo will be in the right place for a vow. When Abraham wanted his son to have a wife (and, in turn, children), he asked his servant to swear by placing his hand on Abraham's inner thigh (Gen. 24; cf. Gen. 47:29). We make this connection etymologically in English, too. The word "testimony" comes from the Latin "testis," meaning "to witness." That same Latin word gives us the English, "testicle."

In the Genesis examples, the oaths were done at the brink of death, but taken by the source of life, as they understood it. I don't think I'm making any oath I haven't already made: a commitment to God, a commitment to love, and a commitment to social justice--these commitments and many others, but all the same one.

I've been telling people the inner thigh was used for blessings. I was incorrect, I guess. When I started looking at my Bible, I found out the text only says the inner thigh was for oaths. However, I wouldn't be surprised if some of those blessings had the hand on the inner thigh, since they were often for progeny. But, I am speculating. Still, I like my tattoo's location reminiscing of an oath (or blessing), for instead of having children, I want to help God's children. Instead of leaving behind the fruit of my loins, I want to leave behind the fruit of God's love in my life.

My tattoo will not be a reminder. I don't want a reminder on my body. My commitment is written on my heart. My tattoo will be the love and passion I cannot contain inside. The Spirit flows out of me--although I too often suppress it--in my actions and words, but soon it will also change my permanent appearance just as it changes who I am becoming and how I am becoming that person.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sell Your Possessions! An Imperative for One, for Some, for All? For You?

Matthew 19:16-22
Mark 10:17-23
Luke 18:18-23

I find importance in retelling stories, because much of our unspoken interpretations are lain bare in the retelling. So, let me tell you a story.

Jesus is on the outskirts of Judea, beyond the Jordan River. A young guy comes up to Jesus and asks him a question. In the Markan account, this man actually gets on his knees to ask this question, invoking (I assume) urgency and humility on the man's part and greatness and a lack of obligation on Jesus' part. The anonymous man asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life.

The word "inherit" is pretty telling. As far as I know, an inheritance implies family. Being a rich man, I'm sure this guy knew a thing or two about inheritance. Perhaps he had received an inheritance in his life, knowing how the inheritance is obligatory on the father's behalf, but not guaranteed for the child. If the man was Israelite (not a bad guess), he may have been familiar with his ancestors Jacob and Esau who had a rivalry concerning inheritance and blessing. Even if the rich man didn't know about Jacob and Esau, we will do well to remember Israelite history in our reading of the gospels.

Still, I doubt this guy expects to pull a Jacob in order to inherit eternal life from his heavenly parent who possesses it. Or, maybe he is trying to trick Jesus. He could be tempting Jesus, getting on his knees, calling him good, and seeing what he can do to take Jesus' rightful inheritance from him. Any guesses are filling the gaps in the story, of course, as intriguing as they might be.

In two of the accounts, the man calls Jesus good and in one account he doesn't call Jesus good, but asks what good deed he can do. Whatever it modifies, Jesus picks up on the word "good." Whatever the premise of this conversation, it has something to do with God the parent and possessor of eternal life, the child or children of God who receive or have received their inheritance, and Jesus' and the rich man's identity in relationship to God and each other.

The man seems to think Jesus is God's son, since he expects Jesus to know something about inheritance. Jesus brings attention to this assumption by saying only God is good. Jesus could be denying the status of God, claiming equality, or highlighting the man's assumptions in the question. Jesus draws attention, but doesn't make a big deal. He moves on from the statement about "good" to answer the rich man's question.

Jesus answers the questions by telling the man to keep the commandments, specifically a few he lists. The man tells Jesus he's already done so (this time the man does not use the word "good"). In Mark, the narrator says, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." In Luke: "When Jesus heard this, he said [...]." Matthew has no narration. I wonder why Luke needed to include, "when Jesus heard this."

"Well, a-well, a-well, a-well, huh! Tell me more, tell me more," like was Jesus surprised? "Tell me more, tell me more," was he telling the truth? Grease aside, I want to know what Jesus was thinking (don't we always?). What did the guy mean when he said he had kept the commandments? Did he mean he the Law as a whole (which, as far I as understand it, you can obey by sacrificing after you transgress a part of it, thereby keeping the Law)? What made Jesus love this man? Did Jesus believe the man was honest and earnest? Did Jesus love the man like we love children--because of their innocence? Did Jesus see a trickster--a Jacob--in the eyes looking up at him beseechingly?

And did the guy have any clue what was coming up? I hesitantly guess he didn't think keeping the commandments was "enough." Did he expect something more from Jesus? Was he disappointed in Jesus' first answer? Why would Jesus give the first answer if it wasn't enough? Is the answer different, depending on where the person is on their journey?

After the man's response, Jesus utters some infamous words:
"You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Mark 10:21

"There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Luke 18:22

"If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Matthew 19:21
Jesus' statements are directed at the rich man, not the Law and not Second Temple Judaism. But for this man, the commandments were not enough or, more likely, his interpretation of the commandments were not enough ... not enough for perfection, which implies completeness (hence the other Mark and Luke mention a lacking whereas Matthew mentions perfection).

In Mark and Luke, Jesus tells the man he lacks something and then tells him what it is. In Matthew, the man knows he lacks something and asks Jesus about it. It was in Matthew's account that I first thought the man might already have eternal life waiting on him. But the man and Jesus knew there is more to life than eternal life. The man knew something was missing and Jesus told him it was treasure in heaven. Outside of Matthew's account, the same interpretation works, but Jesus points out the difference instead of the man explicitly mentioning it.

I'm not sure what treasure in heaven is. Will we want anything other than God and each other? Will we want hundredfold of everything we gave up in this life? Should we even want something in heaven? I try to achieve a Stoic approach to things, because I don't want to be tied to possessions. But, am I to detach only to attach in the kingdom? And if I give up "possessions" as the interpretation of treasure, I'm not about to think of Ray Boltz's song, "Thank You," either.

So, I'll stick with Jesus' response to refer to treasure in heaven--which we should want, I guess--not eternal life. I just don't happen to know what treasure in heaven is. But, I'm OK with some ignorance. I don't know if that man knew exactly what Jesus was talking about either. I don't think he processed as much of the words as we did. Then again, he was there and probably knew a lot more about the situation than we do. So, I feel safe in investigating the conversation a bit.

After the conversation, the man left, forlorn. He was rich. Selling his things would mean selling a lot. It would take time. It would mean a lot of sacrifice. He would have to get rid of things he loved for reasons ranging from sentimentality to novelty and prestige. We don't know what the man did. He may have never sold his things. He may have stopped upholding the commandments. He may have sold everything and then followed Jesus. The story doesn't tell us. The author of the gospels didn't include the story because they were interested in the rich man. Instead, they were interested in the teaching of Jesus on eternal life and riches in heaven.

It is a really interesting teaching. Normally, you receive an inheritance when someone dies. I doubt neither Jesus nor the rich man expected God to die and leave one of them eternal life in the divine will (whether they were at the center of it or not). And whatever Jesus' response meant and/or means, Jesus had one very important thing to tell the man. That man needed to follow Jesus, a journey leading to the death of a God (a death of the God?).

It is at the cross where we can link Jesus' death as Christ with our own self death--which includes a death to possessions--as God's children.

As it turns out, our inheritance and our treasures come not from God's death, but our own.


To state it in a less artistically pleasing way than my ending before the "===," I do think this command is for all of us. We literally need to get rid of possessions. I'm not prepared to say everyone needs to sell all their possessions (even though I think every Christian could sell their possessions and there would be enough people to buy everything). Neither am I prepared to say we do not need to sell all our possessions. I am very prepared to say we should all struggle with this command, though. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But you should struggle with it--and more than once. Never settle in your interpretation for too long. Be prepared even to sell your interpretation and gain new ones in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.