In Romans 5 Paul tells what it is like to live “between the times;” between the “already” of being justified by faith” (5:1-2) and the “not yet” that consists of present sufferings (5:3-5). Paul does not embrace a view of present glory where heaven overtakes earth, where weakness and heartache and failure are all in the past. Faith does not grant exemption from woe and pain, spiritual ecstasies do not overcome all agonies of soul and body. Yet, while Paul does not embrace an escapist “theology of glory,” he does affirm that faith transforms the way affliction is encountered so that it can now be met with confidence and even joy.
This positive orientation towards suffering is not a form of Christianized Stoicism, however. It does not deny or minimize present pains, but is instead built upon certainties about the future. Such certainties have their origin in the God who justifies the ungodly and makes enemies, friends. This is the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
After laying a foundation of certainty concerning the future for believers at the beginning of Romans 5 (“we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” Rom 5:2 – RSV), Paul goes on to affirm the universal benefits of Christ’s work (5:15-19). He does so by comparing the universal effects of Adam’s transgression with the similarly universal effects of Christ’s act of redemption.
Paul’s reference to Adam reminds us that Adam’s story (Genesis 2-3) is our story; his name in Hebrew means “man” or “human being,” and so includes us all. “Adam” represents or embodies all of us. And Adam’s tragic biography (in Genesis) prefigures humanity’s failure so that his fall from glory becomes the recurring theme of human history, where the promise of “what could have been” has been replaced with the disappointment and sadness of “what has happened” and “what now is.”
Sin’s consequence in Adam’s case, death, has also become the destiny of every human who is born, just as each person exhibits the same moral flaw with the same disastrous outcome. Mortality is now our common fate, and unlike other creatures, we must live with the knowledge that we all sin and that we must also surely die. And we are aware that death is more than a natural event; it is an evil power that rules over us as a fearsome foe.
Paul refers to Adam (in Romans 5; see also 1 Corinthians 15) because it allows him to speak about universality. The story of Adam tells us how we are all alike, all made of the same stuff, all subject to the same temptations, all living an exilic existence, all coming to terms with “paradise lost.”
Although we see hints of Eden even now about us, we know that we do not live in paradise any longer. Like the first couple, Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3), we have, as it were, also been escorted from the garden, made to live in a harsher, crueler world, with only faint memories of what was once ours. And, despite our noblest intentions and loftiest ideals, our day-to-day practice is disappointing. We “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23, NRSV). “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—“ (5:12).
Adam’s transgression (Genesis 3; Romans 5) is the prototype of all subsequent sin. Time and again we ourselves prove to be Adam’s clone, repeating in our own lives the same acts of self-assertion, the same mistrust, the same grasping for what is not ours, and thereby also reaping the same sense of alienation and fear, as well as the knowledge that we also live under the same sentence of death. As Adam’s children, we are all now on death row, awaiting the fulfillment of our sentence (though we may try to deny it). And such death is not merely biological, but is a spiritual power by which we are alienated from God, the source of life. Thankfully, though, the apostle Paul goes on to articulate how through Christ, the second Adam, we may receive eternal life. Romans 5 ends with the statement, “just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:21). In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (15:22).
In Romans Paul goes to the bedrock of Genesis not only to identify Abraham as the exemplar of one “justified by faith” (in Romans 4), but also to find in that primeval man, Adam (in Romans 5), a human being who unites the human family in a solidarity of sin and death (Rom 5:12). He does this before telling how Jesus, like a second Adam (5:14-19; see 1 Cor 15:45), has created a new, though contrary, human solidarity, this time a solidarity of life and salvation. Jesus and Adam are corresponding opposites. Adam has bequeathed to us sin and death; Jesus has left us with an inheritance of righteousness and eternal life. Just as the impact of Adam’s sin is universal in scope, so Christ’s act of redemption contains the promise of universal restoration. “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18, NRSV).
Luke 10 contains a well-known passage about the sisters Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. In this gospel vignette, we see how Martha becomes irritated when Mary sits listening to Jesus, leaving her to do all the work. She complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me” (10:40). But instead of telling Mary to help her sister, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (10:41-42).
I have always liked this passage of scripture. Perhaps I have liked it because I have especially identified with Mary rather than Martha. I am naturally quiet and reflective, and like sitting still. But I must also admit that I have a lazy streak and so often find it easier to do nothing instead of laboring at burdensome tasks. How easy it is to simply sit in my easy chair in the evening and watch hours of mindless television! To my shame I must say that in weaker moments I have seen myself like Mary, and my energetic, hard-working wife, Elaine, like Martha! Yet this gospel account can hardly be used to praise laziness and to denigrate hard work. Furthermore, countless scriptures can be cited that extol the value of work. The apostle Paul admonishes believers in Thessalonica “to keep away from believers who are living in idleness” (2 Thess 3:6) and even bluntly says that, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10). Jesus is not promoting laziness in his comments to Martha.
More recently I have begun to see Luke 10 quite differently and now see how I more naturally resemble Martha than her sister Mary. That is, like Martha I am “worried and distracted by many things.” Jesus is not criticizing Martha for her industriousness, but for her worry and distraction. My dictionary (Wordsworth) defines worry as, “to be unduly anxious, to fret.” I so often fret and am unduly anxious. When this happens, I often find it hard to care about others the way that I should. I need to learn to become like Mary and sit quietly at the feet of Jesus, listening carefully to what he has to say to me. To do so I must surrender the grip that my worries and distractions have on me.
Evidently welcoming Jesus into our lives has a bearing on how we deal with anxiety. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus speaks about anxieties that may arise from poverty. He says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt 6:25). Jesus indicates that worries are related especially to the future, saying, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt 6:34). Jesus invites us to a life in which we give up our worries! What a concept!—worry-free living.
I recently read on a website that P.T.S.D. (post traumatic stress disorder) is often characterized by persistent experiences of anxiety, fear, and depression. Apparently life’s traumas often heighten feelings of anxiety and fear. As I read what was on this website, I wondered if my ongoing struggle with such feelings was due to various traumas that I have experienced in my own life. This may be the case, but I also understand that such emotions are common to all people, and that Jesus’s words apply to me nonetheless.
Readings from various Christian theologians, along with scriptural passages such as the one in Luke 10, help me to consider the relationship between anxiety and my life with Jesus. In his book, The Nature and Destiny of Man (vol. I), Reinhold Niebuhr (referring to Søren Kierkegaard) describes anxiety as the precondition for sin. That is, anxiety is not itself sin, but is a condition in which one is especially vulnerable to sin, especially the sin of unbelief. When we are anxious, we are tempted to give up on God, to turn away from God, to even commit the sin of despair as we surrender completely to our worries. As we see in the gospels, fear and faith do not easily coexist. After calming a storm which threatened to destroy the disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40).
Niebuhr says, “The freedom from anxiety . . . is a possibility only if perfect trust in divine security has been achieved” (p.183). Ted Peters puts it this way: “the person who trusts has what it takes to render anxiety powerless. Faith as trust provides us with a sense of security even if the situation seems threatening. . . . Faith manifests itself in us as courage” (Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society, p.66).
Anxiety is a universal human experience. It derives strength from our creaturely vulnerability and mortality. It can either lead us away from God to unbelief, or else it can lead us to God as the only reliable source of peace and joy—or as Peters says, of courage.
Rather than being held a hostage to my worries and cares like Martha, I wish to give these up as I with Mary choose the one thing needed and sit at the feet of Jesus.
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
In my last post I discussed the theological challenge presented by unexpected defeats or setbacks in life. I used Psalm 44 as the basis of that discussion, a psalm containing Israel’s prayer of bewilderment after suffering military defeat at the hands of her enemies. The psalm ends without an explanation of Israel’s plight. The final verse of the psalm is simply a cry to God for help: “Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” (44:26).
In Psalm 44 God is said to be treating Israel like sheep to be slaughtered. “You have made us like sheep for slaughter. . . . Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (44:11, 22). Evidently Israel’s recent bitter defeat involved much loss of life, and raised the poignant question, Why didn’t God rescue his people? The Psalmist cries out to God, “Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (44:24).
Many centuries after this psalm was written, the apostle Paul quotes it (in Romans 8) as he deals with a similar theological problem, the problem of human suffering. Paul is here referring to both the suffering due to the persecution of Christians, as well as to the suffering endured by humans generally. Suffering due to persecution is indicated by such words and phrases as, “suffer with him (Christ)” (8:17), “persecution” (8:35), “sword” (8:35), and by the quotation from Psalm 44: “For your sake we are being killed all day long” (8:36). The general suffering of humanity is referred to in Paul’s discussion of the troubles inherent in all of creation in Romans 8:18-23.
What is surprising in comparing these discussions of suffering in Psalm 44 and Romans 8 is the different tone of what Paul says in comparison with the psalm—even though Paul quotes the psalm (44:22) in what he says (Rom 8:36). In contrast to the psalm, what Paul writes is not at all somber or dark, but is thoroughly positive, even triumphant. Psalm 44 gives voice to one who is disheartened and bewildered following defeat at the hands of enemies, while Romans 8 exudes a confident spirit that proclaims victory over all actual or potential foes. Paul takes a verse from Psalms that sounds bleak and pessimistic (“we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” – Ps 44:22 in Rom 8:36) and places it in a context that is thoroughly positive and hopeful. Paul introduces the Psalm quotation with rhetorical questions—“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword?” (8:35)—and then follows it with a resounding “No!” He writes, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37).
Psalm 44 highlights the problem of the suffering of the righteous by posing unanswered why questions of God (44:23-24), while Romans 8 responds to the problem of suffering with a series of confident assertions. Paul’s principal assertions are the following:
Present suffering is offset by future hope (Rom 8:18-25). Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Paul says something very similar to this in 2 Corinthians 4:17. The supreme goodness of our future hope in Christ outweighs by far the troubles of this present life. Our Christian hope puts sufferings in proper perspective.
We meet present sufferings with prayer (Rom 8:26-27). Prayer is God’s provision for us to deal with suffering in our lives. Further, Paul defines as prayer here as that which transcends the sort of prayer that involves verbal petitions in which we ask God for certain, specific items. That is, this prayer consists of our expressions of pain and need that cannot be adequately expressed in words. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
Paul has said that just as “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains,” so we too
“groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23), a
“groaning” that may be another way of referring to our prayers consisting of “sighs too deep for
So prayer is the prescribed way for believers to find relief from the pain of their sufferings. Elsewhere Paul refers to the way in which God comforts us in all our affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3-11), the principal means of such comfort likely being prayer (note 1:11).
3. We can have confidence in God’s ability to bring about good in the end (Romans 8:28-30), that is, to bring good out of bad. Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). (Some ancient Greek manuscripts indicate that Paul may have written, “God makes all things work together for good” or “in all things God works for good,” making God’s role in bringing about the good more explicit.)
Paul’s subsequent discussion of God’s plans for the people of Israel in Romans 9-11 provides an example of how God may bring about good from a bad situation. The bad situation concerns the failure of the vast majority of the Jews of Paul’s day to accept Jesus as their messiah and the salvation offered through him. It is clear that the Jewish rejection of the gospel of Christ has caused Paul considerable personal anguish. Paul writes, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom 9:3).
It is surely impossible for non-Jewish (gentile) Christians today to appreciate what the Jewish rejection of Christ would have meant for a first-century Jew like Paul. It was a situation that was unthinkable. If God was accomplishing his plan of salvation for the world through the Jewish people that climaxed in the coming of the Jewish messiah, what sense did it make if Jews as a whole had failed to accept Christ? This seemed to suggest at some level that God’s plan had failed, or that God had failed (see Rom 9:6).
In what follows in Romans 9-11, Paul shows how God’s good purposes are being accomplished even when it may appear otherwise. For example, he writes, “Just as you (gentiles or non-Jews) were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their (Jewish) disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom 11:30-32). As Paul sees it, human disobedience and unbelief are ultimately unable to thwart God’s good plans for humanity. Even Paul must admit, though, that in the end the working out of God’s good plans will always transcend human comprehension. “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33).
Paul confidently affirms that nothing in our present lives, no matter how horrible or bleak, is able to separate us from the love of God (8:31-39). Paul gives a list of potential threats—such as, hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, things present, things to come (8:35, 38)—and proclaims that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37).
While Psalm 44 described the horror of defeat at the hands of one’s foes, Romans 8 boldly proclaims that through Christ we are “more than conquerors” such that nothing, absolutely nothing in heaven or on earth, will be able to bring about our ultimate defeat. This is because nothing will succeed in cutting us off from “the love of Christ” (8:35), that is, from “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). Bad things may indeed happen to us, but Paul assures us that we will be just fine because the love of God will always keep us and remain with us. Evidently the love of God is such a powerful force in the lives of believers that no imagined or real horror of this life can undo its effects. If God’s love for us is the most fundamental truth of our lives, if it is the bedrock upon which we build, and if this can never be taken from us, then we will be alright no matter what life may bring our way.
Negative human experiences, especially those that involve tragic events, not only cause sorrow and anguish, but for people of faith raise theological questions, questions about God.
Why did God allow this to happen?
Where was God?
Does God even exist?
Psalm 44 deals with the tragedy of defeat in battle by raising theological questions, questions put to God. “Why do you forget our affliction?” (44:24).
Romans 8 illustrates how Paul’s faith in the crucified and risen Christ (see 8:1-17) has transformed the way he views suffering.
can never remove us from the realm of God’s love (8:31-39),
is endured through prayer (8:26-27),
is relativized by the realization that present suffering cannot be compared with the goodness of our future hope in Christ (8:18-25),
and believers holds onto the confidence that God is even able to bring about good through seemingly tragic circumstances (8:28).
Modern atheistic worldviews cannot resolve the tragic dimension of human life. If there is no God, life in the end is a tragedy. But while the scriptures of the old and new testaments acknowledge the tragic element within the human story, they also bear witness to a message of hope grounded in a God of steadfast love who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Such news is about one who delivers from every evil, including sin, death, and the power of the evil one. Those who hear and believe this gospel find comfort in sorrow, hope instead of despair, and hearts buoyed up with an unmistakable and uncanny sense of joy.
Faith in such a God affirms the words of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
In a recent post I protested against the modern, secular idea of the absolute randomness of everything that renders life absurd and meaningless. Christian faith affirms that life is meaningful since it is defined and determined by God. Yet, as the Christian scriptures also bear witness, humans are often unable to perceive the meaning behind much that happens in life. This failure to discern God’s purposes and providential involvement in all that takes place can shake one’s faith in a good and trustworthy God.
Many of the Psalms in the Bible express the existential crisis arising from situations that do not make sense and in which God seems absent. Psalm 44 is just such a psalm that expresses consternation at the apparent absence of God.
We have heard with our ears, O God, our ancestors have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old: 2 you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free; 3 for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory; but your right hand, and your arm, and the light of your countenance, for you delighted in them.
4 You are my King and my God; you command[a] victories for Jacob. 5 Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants. 6 For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. 7 But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us. 8 In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever.
9 Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies. 10 You made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil. 11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations. 12 You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. 14 You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples. 15 All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face 16 at the words of the taunters and revilers, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17 All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant. 18 Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way, 19 yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god, 21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. 22 Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! 24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? 25 For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. 26 Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
This Psalm begins by recounting divine acts of love toward the ancestors of old in rescuing them from their enemies and in granting them a land of their own. But in 44:9-16 the writer describes the present situation of military defeat at the hands of Israel’s enemies. Such a situation does not make sense theologically. Though those described in the psalm have remained faithful to God, God has abandoned them.
“8In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. 9Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies.” Verse 11 goes on to say this to God: “You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.” The Psalmist protests to God, “All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant” (44:17).
Israel had learned to expect that God could be trusted to protect and keep her so long as she in turn remained faithful and obedient towards God. Moses had said, “If you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you on high above all the nations of the earth . . . . The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 7). The blessings for obedience extended beyond matters of military security to include prosperity in a fruitful, productive, and peaceful land (28:4-6, 8, 11-12). There was a logic to Israel’s faith; it granted meaning to life. Obedience to God brought abundant blessings; disobedience to God brought terrible curses.
Against the background of faith’s assertions of meaningfulness, Psalm 44 protests that Israel’s present military defeat at the hands of her enemies contradicts the promises of her scriptures and raise fundamental questions regarding God and the meaningfulness of faith.
Can God be trusted?
Is God reliable?
Does the life of faith make sense?
Near the end of Psalm 44, the question of meaning is raised as indicated by the threefold use of the word “why.” Verses 23-24 are addressed directly to God:
“23Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression.”
The word “why” is asking for an explanation regarding the meaning of what has happened. To say that our faith (the Christian faith) makes life meaningful is to say that we reject any assertion that life is merely random and without meaning, that is, absurd.
What is significant, though, is that Psalm 44, like many other Psalms (see, for example, Psalms 10, 22, 74, 88), does not provide God’s answer to the question, “why?” What we may conclude from this, I suppose, is that while faith does make life meaningful and does answer many of the deepest questions and hungers of the human heart, there will also be faith-testing times in our lives in which questions will go unanswered and when the nature of God’s involvement in our lives will remain hidden from us.
Psalm 44 is prayer to God awaiting God’s answer. I suppose many of our questions in life will remain open-ended prayers to God. Such prayers will be characteristic of the life of faith, and may either be answered throughout our lives in a multitude of ways, or may await God’s final answer in the age to come. While this Psalm expresses the faith-challenging questions of present troubles, it ends with a faith-affirming reference to God’s steadfast love. “Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” (44:26).
“. . . Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, . . . “ Gen. 1:2
Beginnings: formless, empty, dark.
Infinite, random possibilities.
One wrong move and I could cut myself off from ultimately winning the game of life.
Every choice limits outcomes until I’m left with the consequences of being the master of my own universe.
Eliminate God from the equation and this is all we are left with.
My daughter had a dialogue with my husband that illustrated this point. She had been listening to an atheist speak about the freedom of seeing the universe as random. Hence illness and suffering were simply inexplicable events devoid of meaning.
I heard an author speak about the randomness and probabilities of life. He is talking about how people want to make meaning in life, actually it is just very random. I think that our search for meaning has to do with our search for God. What do you think?
I agree with you. I think our longing for meaning is itself telling. Human longings may correspond to the object of our desires, just as physical desires correspond to that which satisfies these desires (C. S. Lewis). It seems to me that if randomness and purposelessness define all that is, then life is totally absurd and tragic.
The gospel affirms a good and joyous message which addresses the deepest longings of humans. Atheistic materialism faces profound problems of its own. Popular atheists have not been honest and upfront about the essentially tragic and gloomy character of their worldview. As I see it, it does not provide the basis for fundamental and enduring happiness and joy.
Exactly. If there is nothing more than random moments, why bother living?
Genesis 1 without God.
At the beginning of a new year, I renew my understanding of grace as revealed in scripture:
Creation – Extravagant love
The Fall – Brokenness and Alienation
The Promise – God will make it right
Christ – God with us: birth, death and resurrection
The Future – Return to the Garden
I choose to begin the new year by including God in Genesis 1.
“If we really trust God, we don’t have a care in the world.” (Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O.)
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. . . And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. . . What then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. . . For I am convinced that neither death or life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:22-23, 28, 31-32, 35, 38)
This is not mindless optimism. There are good and sufficient reasons to believe in God.
Arguments with Materialismby Paul R. Knudtson, Ph.D.
It seems to me that contemporary atheists are generally materialists; that is, they typically define reality in purely material terms. For them, nothing exists outside of the material realm; only that which is material, that is that can be perceived with the senses (or technical instruments of some kind), can be said to exist. There is nothing besides matter (“stuff”) in the universe. The existence of a spiritual realm—including God—that can be distinguished from the physical, material realm is denied.
But as I understand it, materialists (atheists) have difficulty accounting for the following:
Human thought and consciousness (including self-consciousness). Though there is obviously a direct connection between what is happening in the brain (neurons and synapses) and thought, human thought and especially consciousness transcend material categories. The human mind (and brain) differs in this regard from a computer. A computer is not conscious, and does not perceive itself as an “I” (a person), while humans are conscious of themselves as individual persons who have thoughts, desires, self-awareness, memories, feelings, and certain unique traits, and so forth.
Human will and the ability to make decisions. Materialists (like Richard Dawkins) tend to embrace a deterministic view of human decision making. That is, according to these materialists, what appears to be a freely made decision is actually the result of minute chemical and electrical events in the brain that determine what a person will do or think. But again, it would seem to me that humans really do make decisions and can even exercise a degree of free will. This challenges a materialistic worldview which seeks to understand everything in a material and mechanistic fashion.
Good and evil. How can materialists (atheists) legitimately classify human behaviors as good or evil? “Good” and “evil” are non-material concepts. And I would argue that these terms accurately describe reality, and that “good” and “evil” are more than individual judgments or social conventions. For example, I think it is self-evidently true that the holocaust was an evil event in human history and that such a characterization is not simply a personal opinion or the opinion of many people, but that this event is rightly and properly and necessarily described in this way. For example, the holocaust really was evil. It is as if we appeal to some non-material, objective category when we say that something like this was “evil.” But on what basis can a materialist say that Adolf Hitler’s attempt to exterminate all European Jews—men, women, and children—was morally wrong, that it was really and essentially and undeniably evil? How can a materialist/atheist argue about what “should” or “should not” have been done? Is not the claim that something is “good” or “evil” a claim that uses non-material categories?
And if the theory of evolution is based on the reality that the stronger survive, does this not suggest that “might makes right,” that whatever the strong are able to do to the weak is simply the way things are and therefore legitimate? Yet, even modern people, in line with the ethic of Jesus and the prophets, sense that it is wrong to disregard or abuse those who are weak and lowly in society, the widows, orphans, and foreigners. How can materialists (atheists) make a convincing case regarding the full equality of all people—without regard for their gender, intelligence, or ethnicity? On what basis can a materialistic atheist say that what Hitler did was morally wrong, or that it is ever wrong for the powerful to oppress the weak? On what basis can a materialist say that such action is “wrong”? “Right” and “wrong,” it would seem to me, are non-material categories.
Beauty is another non-material category that catches my attention and seems to call into question materialistic assumptions, as do human emotions like love or sadness or joy. Nature continues to evoke feelings of wonder and awe in us, reactions which are difficult to reduce to merely material categories.
The Anthropic Principle: the laws of nature (constants, such as gravity) provide exactly the right conditions for the emergence of life. The anthropic principle has been described by people such as John Polkinghorn (see below*) as a kind of “Goldilocks Principle” such that conditions are “just right” in our universe for the kinds of biological and human life that thrive on earth. Dawkins and company appeal to the idea of a multiverse in order to explain how it is that our particular universe has evidently been hospitable to biological life. Since it is unlikely that any single universe should just happen to provide the precise conditions necessary for the emergence of life, it is reasonable to think that there were many universes (thousands? millions?) in which at least one provided the precise conditions necessary for the emergence of life. But such an idea—for which there is no empirical evidence as far as I am aware—seems to me like grasping at straws. The anthropic character of the universe (and especially of our world) implies design, a category that transcends what materialism will allow.
The items listed and described above (1-5) are intended to challenge or raise questions regarding the worldview known as “materialism.” Clearly this matter has great significance for those who believe in God. If materialism is right and there is indeed nothing more to reality than physical, material stuff, then there is no God. Now it is not necessarily the case that the alternative is true; that is, it is not necessarily the case that if one can speak of a non-material dimension to reality that God (or, a god) necessarily exists. But if one allows for any kind of non-material aspect to what is, then one has at least opened the door to a spiritual dimension that may include God.
What I have written here should be considered in relation to such scriptural passages that indicate that God’s reality has been made known through creation. See, for example, Romans 1:19-21 and Acts 14:15-17.
11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Grace has Appeared
Titus is a letter written by the apostle Paul to an individual, a pastor by the name of Titus. This letter is usually grouped together with Paul’s two letters to Timothy—they are the only letters of Paul in the New Testament addressed to individuals. They are called “Pastoral Epistles,” because they are written to two pastors, Timothy and Titus.
Appearance or Epiphany/ Grace – Gift
Our reading from Titus 2 begins with the phrase, “For the grace of God appeared.”
This “appearance” is a way of referring to the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth. The birth of Christ can be expressed in Paul’s words, “the grace of God appeared.” Just as a person’s love for someone is revealed through their deeds, so the love or grace of God toward us is shown through what God did in sending his Son to be born in Bethlehem all those years ago.
In another of the pastoral epistles, 1 Timothy, Paul summarizes how this grace was manifested in Jesus Christ:
“He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Tim 3:16)
Christmas is about what God has done to make his love for this world and for each of us tangible in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Titus 2 reads, “the grace of God appeared. . . .”
In parallel fashion Titus 3 says “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared . . . .” (v.4).
Both texts use the same verb, “appeared.” The word in Greek is the word from which we get “epiphany.” To experience the true meaning of Christmas is to have an epiphany, to gain insight into something wondrous and life changing—the grace of God.
The word “epiphany” refers to something that we would not have known if it had not been revealed to us.
The gospel readings in for Christmas in Luke and Matthew also highlight this idea of “appearance” or “manifestation.”
Luke 1:78-79- “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light (e0pifa~nai) to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Luke 2 describes how some Galilean shepherds see the glory of the Lord at the birth of Christ.
“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” (v.9).
Accompanying the angelic appearance is this message about the grace of God: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
There is a connection between love and gifts. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
At Christmas people show their love by giving gifts.
How deep an impression it made on me as a small boy to search for all the presents under our Christmas tree with my name on them printed so neatly by my mother—“To Paul”—and wrapped in such colorful, attractive paper.
I certainly received those gifts as a tangible sign and proof of my parents’ love for me.
God gives us his very best to us in the gift of his Son as a proof of his love toward us.
Love is made tangible through gifts.
The word “grace” in our Titus text—“the grace of God appeared”—highlights the gift quality of love. My Greek dictionary includes these definitions of the word “grace” (xa/rij in Greek):
“favor, grace, gracious care, goodwill . . . gracious deed or gift” (Bauer, p.877).
Titus says it this way: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all . . . .” (2:11)
Christmas is about believing in “the grace of God,” and that this grace is greater than anything in the whole world, that it undergirds and defines our reality, and that we therefore have a firm basis for fundamental joy.
This grace or love of God means that we can affirm what the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich said: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
So God’s love is not simply a disembodied, invisible idea, but is a reality that became tangible, or visible when he sent his Son into our world. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The “grace of God appeared”, that is, it became visible, something that could be witnessed in a certain place (Bethlehem), in a certain time (“In the days of King Herod of Judea” and of “emperor Augustus”), and to certain people (people like Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Zechariah).
Our childhood delight in receiving gifts bears witness to a more profound gift that we will never tire of as children quickly do of their toys.
This is because God’s gift to us with the coming of Christ is nothing less than God’s gift of himself to us. As Matthew’s gospel tells us, Jesus is “Immanuel, God with us.”
To know the grace of God in Christ is to know salvation.
Titus 2:11 – “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”
To know God, to know Jesus, is to know one who is Savior. In fact, the name Jesus (Greek; Joshua in Hebrew) means “savior” or “salvation.” There terms are prominent in the pastoral epistles.
Salvation in the Bible includes deliverance from all sin, sickness, death, and evil.
In Matthew we read how Joseph is instructed by an angel to name his child, “Jesus.” “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” the angel tells him. (Matt 1:21)
To be saved from sins means to be delivered both from the practice of sin and from its consequences.
Our scriptures from Titus emphasize salvation from the practice of sin, together with the hope of the life to come.
Salvation in Titus, then, means freedom from one’s old life, which is the way of death, so that one can live a new life characterized by good deeds and by the hope of eternal life.
This salvation contrast between the old and the new is illustrated in both Titus 2 and Titus 3.Titus 2:
“He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” The “from” and the “for” speak of the division of the old and the new.
The old life is portrayed in Titus 3:3 – “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.”
The next verse introduces the contrast between our old life and our new life. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . . through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:4-5)
“Rebirth” and “renewal.” These words describe how the new replaces the old when one experiences the “grace of God” in Christ.
In Christ a new, spring breeze begins to blow in our lives and transforms us. “Spirit” in Greek can even be translated as “breeze.” “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
It is unbelievable to witness each year how spring transforms a landscape and brings new life to the earth. The crocuses bloom, the snow melts, green grass sprouts from the earth, Robins return and sing from the treetops, fresh, green leaves appear on the branches of the trees, and flowers bloom in our gardens and bees buzz about.
So God’s breeze, the Holy Spirit, like a zepher, a warm, gentle breeze, causes a “rebirth” and “renewal” within us. What seemed dead, springs to life.
Christmas, the coming of Christ, means that our lives need not be like a perpetual winter. In Christ there is springtime of rebirth and renewal.
The new springtime of God’s salvation produces fruit in people, fruit that Titus describes with the phrase, “good works.”
And while God does not save us “because of our good works” he clearly saves us “forgood works.”
Titus 2:14 speaks how God saves us from our old lives such that we become people who are “zealous for good works.” (2:14)
The Greek words for “good works” here–“kalon ergon”—can also be translated as “beautiful works.” When people behold the beauty of God (the grace, goodness, and lovingkindness of God) they in turn become beautiful people, performing beautiful deeds.
The English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once travelled to Calcutta in India to meet Mother Teresa and to witness her work among the poorest of the poor. He wrote a book about this entitled, “Something Beautiful for God.” Mother Teresa and her sisters of charity are known by their “good deeds,” their “beautiful works.” In Greek, their kala\ e2rga. Today there are about 4,500 such Missionaries of Charity.
I wonder what sorts for “beautiful deeds” God wishes to work in each of us. Christmas means that we are saved so that we may do “something beautiful for God.”
Titus speaks of two epiphanies (or appearances) in our passage. The first epiphany is that having to do with the birth of Jesus the Messiah. This coming is indicated in the phrases, “The grace of God appeared. . . . “ and “the goodness and loving-kindness of God appeared.”
The second epiphany or appearance has to do with our hope of Christ’s return and of the life to come.
Titus 2 describes the second (future) epiphany this way: “while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation (“epiphany” – e0pifaneia) of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (2:13)
Titus 3 describes the second (future) epiphany this way: “having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (3:7)
The timebetween these two epiphanies—between the epiphany of Christ’s birth and the epiphany of his second coming—is described in Titus as “the present age.” “The grace of God appeared . . . training us . . . in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly . . .” (Titus 2:12-13).
This is our time to live out the drama of our faith as we put away our old life and become “zealous for good deeds” as we await “the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13).
The words “blessed hope” can be translated “happy hope.”
If there is grace (xa/rij)—“the grace of God has appeared”—then there is also hope (e2lpij), “a blessed or happy hope.”
Hope means having something good to look forward to.
For our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Elaine and I booked our very first vacation to Europe: 17 days in England and France. We booked our tickets and hotel reservations at Co-op Travel. We had a folder that included all our tickets and reservations.
And then after that, all we could do was to wait with anticipation for the day when our trip was to begin. Like the verse in Titus, we “waited for our happy hope.” We counted the days.
We couldn’t wait. We spent our time dreaming about and reading about and talking about our European vacation. Our only fear was that something would prevent us from getting on that airplane. But we did get on the airplane and go on our vacation. It was so worth the wait! It was so good—like a second honeymoon!
I remember one moment as we climbed the stone steps of a medieval monastery on the coast of France, and as I looked at the green moss on the outside walls of that monastery and then looked out over the English channel, I felt that I was in another world, and had to almost pinch myself so that I would know that it was real. It felt almost too good to be true.Our expectations for our trip did not disappoint—and so it will surely be with “the blessed hope and the manifestation of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Without Christmas, without the coming of Christ, there is no gift with our name on it promising unending joy.
Without Christmas, there is no springtime for us, only winter. Without the coming of Christ, our lives and our world are like Narnia without the coming of Aslan the lion in C. S. Lewis’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Without his coming, it is always winter in Narnia.
Without Christmas, there is insufficient motivation for people to do truly good works that create hope in an often bleak world.
Without Christmas, we have nothing ultimately to look forward to, only death, darkness, and despair.
Christmas is about a wondrous gift for us to receive and open and enjoy, a gift with our name on it, a gift of God and his love for us. This gift brings us salvation, which produces a new springtime in our lives that brings an end to winter. Part of this new life includes good or beautiful works that God inspires us to do. And ultimately this gift brings us hope for the future.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all.” (Titus 2:11)
“But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . . though the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:4-5)
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes[a] with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God,[b] who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit[c] intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.[d] Romans 8:26-27
For years I have listened almost every day to the chants of Cistercian monks (“Chant: Music for the Soul”). Since prayer expresses the deepest longings, sorrows, and joys of the heart, it is not surprising that there should be a connection between music and prayer. We’ve also been listening to a choral music playlist which also helps one pray (Apple music). Music speaks to our souls, apart from the words.
Elaine and I have been enjoying a group called “The Sons of Korah” (who sing the psalms). I am used to reading a psalm or two every day and find it nice to hear them sung as well. The psalms, as well as music/singing, help me to pray. Our son-in-law preached a sermon on the importance of singing as a spiritual discipline in remaining in Jesus. Sometimes at night, when words elude us and the “terror of the night” enshrouds our hearts, music alone can soothe.
I just ordered a book by Henri Nouwen (“The Beauty of the Lord”) about icons and prayer. This has not been part of my prayer life coming from my Lutheran tradition, but I have long felt that I have underappreciated beauty as a way to God.
Pope Benedict XVI addressed artists in the Sistine Chapel in November 2009, linking beauty, truth and God through transcendence. As explained by Michael Schrauzer in “Toward the Transcendent”:
“Beauty and truth are inseparable because they both come from the same divine source, God, and so can lead back to Him. Because God is One, they are in some sense interchangeable, as Keats instinctively understood.
Along with goodness, beauty and truth are aspects of God’s perfect Being, which means that He is not just their author, or that He is “beautiful” or “truthful” in the way created things are more or less full of beauty or truth, but that God is Beauty itself and Truth itself.
It seems to me that most of North American public culture does not address the depths of human experience–it is often superficial and preoccupied with what is trivial. But there is a lot going on within us; we are like a deep well. Something needs to address those depths, most of which we may feel but not be able to put into words.
Beauty speaks to our heart, much like music, “with sighs too deep for groaning”.
“Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die to get there.” (anonymous)
Every once in awhile life throws us a curve ball. We remember these moments because they are rare and game-changing. It is never easy to face these challenges; we work hard at avoiding them, but life happens. At times like these, it is helpful to remember that there is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday.
God is more interested in developing our character than in providing us with a smooth journey. By experiencing difficulties we learn that “we hold these treasures in clay pots to show that the absolute power belongs to God and not ourselves. We are often troubled but not crushed, sometimes in doubt, but not despair. There are many enemies, but we are not without a friend, and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed.” 2 Cor. 4:7-9.
None of us choose to walk through the “valley”, but I once heard that it is in the valley that the fruit grows. Great testimonies all come out of the crucible of life and they guide us on our way as we learn from each about the faithfulness of God.
And that’s what it’s all about—God’s faithfulness. When we come to the edge of the cliff, and there is no way forward but to jump, we need to know that God is there to catch us. Here He proves His love and surrounds us with supernatural peace that is above our circumstances. It is ironic that some of our greatest moments with God are found in the midst of our greatest disappointments.
If we could see the end from the beginning, it would perhaps be easier to trust and have faith. We would know that ultimately “all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” Rom. 8:28
Because we do not have that perspective, we have to let the Shepherd guide us through the deep waters to green pastures. “He makes me lie down in green pastures” Ps. 23:2 He carries us through the flood.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
The flames will not consume you.” Is. 43:2
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jer. 29:11
But it comes at a cost—death. Death of a dream, a hope, even our own lives.
“Resurrection” by Elaine Knudtson
The eternal “No” silences my hopes.
I crawl into a ball and weep for a dream that vanished like a sunset in the darkening sky.
Why? I can’t even ask. I sit in silence. No words come.
To think is too painful; the wound too deep, the scab too fresh.
But I’m surrounded by this death.
The stench of the wound fills my nostrils and I can’t smell the fragrance of the flowers.
My tears cloud my eyes and I can not see the smile of a child.
My hands are tightly clenched and I cannot feel the softness of your touch on my cheeks.
I cannot hear, “I love you” when I am deaf to life because of my pain.
Coldness, tightness, intensity;
It will never end.
I faint away and release the pain.
I feel nothing.
Then, I forget my hurt for a moment and laugh.
I notice the silver on the willow in the rain.
I hear the harmony of the birds and the river as if for the first time.
An unexpected visit, a text from a beloved friend or a distant relative, a kind gesture from a stranger—angels unaware.
The infinite time gives way to the rhythm of the day and I inhale the cool air once again.
Slowly hope returns, and the way through the fog emerges.
When I turn and look back, I can see that I was not alone.
At times, I can even see that the diversion sent me on a new path far better than the one I had set for myself.
But even so, at times I can’t look back because it is dark and will always be dark and there will never be anything there but pain.
I have heard your voice in the night.
The warmth of your love caresses me,
I see your pain in the midst of my own as we
Walk through the baptism of death into the light of new dreams
8 – “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.”
9 – “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.”
10 – “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his degrees.”
12 – “Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose.”
Life is not static—we are going somewhere. We are on a journey. But we have never been at this exact place before, and we do not have a precise map. Often we feel that we are headed into the fog. “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.”
Sometimes we may feel like that—that the road or path that we have been following disappears and we don’t know which way to go. So we pray, “Make me to know your ways, O LORD.”
The path changes along the way, and often takes us into unfamiliar territory:
Path of childhood and growing up
Path of getting married and raising a family
Path of becoming empty nesters and of retirement
When the path takes us into new country, the old maps we have relied on are no good. We may be helped by fellow-travellers that we meet along the path, but no one has been on this exact path that I am on.
John of the Cross (Dark Night of the Soul): “To get to an unknown land by unknown roads, a traveler cannot allow himself to be guided by his old experience. He has to doubt himself and seek the guidance of others. There is no way he can reach the new territory and know it truly unless he abandons familiar roads. (Christine Valters Paintner, The Soul of a Pilgrim)
“Alone” by Paul Knudtson – Written upon retiring
Alone. That is how I feel.
No one knows that I am here.
Where is my place?
What if I have no place to be?
What if I’m no longer needed?
What if meaningful work is done?
My 90 year old mother said, “Well, I guess I’m not good for anything anymore.”
How does one live a meaningful life if one is “good for nothing?”
I’ve gone through school
I’ve gotten married
I’ve raised 4 kids.
The kids are gone.
I no longer earn a paycheck.
I have nothing to justify my existence.
I feel alone.
I am standing on an empty road in a barren landscape, with no direction signs,
with no obvious destination.
I am lost–except that I don’t even know where I am supposed to be.
How can I answer the question, “Are you lost?” If I don’t even know where I am headed?
I have never been here before.
I am seeing everything for the very first time.
There are no familiar landmarks,
no signs that point the way.
And so I wander aimlessly, with open prairie before me; no roads, no fields, no fences, hearing only my own footsteps on the gravel.
When I stop, it is so quiet.
Not a noise anywhere.
Not a breeze.
No evidence that humans have ever been this way before.
Perhaps one day I will find someone to join me on this path,
must I walk it alone?
Lord, I do not know which way to go.
Thus says the LORD: “Stand at the crossroads and look, and ask for ancient paths; where the good way lies; and walk in it and find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16
“Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. . . “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.”. . The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.
Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.
Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4: 9, 10, 13-20 NIV)
The parable of the sower and the seed tells us that the kingdom of God does not come through human activity,
not through doing something,
but through doing nothing, through passivity,
through being like good soil,
through hearing, listening.
The farmer does not improve the soil conditions by cultivating the beaten path,
nor does he pick the rocks or pull out the thorns.
The parable is not cast in imperative language, “Be good soil!”
But simply uses the language of description—this is the way things are with the kingdom of God.
The parable is about the kingdom, the mystery of the kingdom. It comes early in the gospel and becomes a kind of interpretive key for understanding the gospel as a whole. As in the parable, so in the gospel it looks as though there is little promise of a harvest. It appears that the kingdom of God, as presented by Jesus, is destined to amount to nothing.
Jesus is rejected by his family and by those from his home at Nazareth.
The love of wealth chokes the word in the case of the rich man who, though he likes what Jesus has to say, is not able to surrender his “many possessions”.
The Pharisees and temple authorities are the hardened path, rejecting Jesus outright.
And most disturbing of all, even his own disciples prove not to be good soil.
Peter, the rock, turns to sand in the time of danger and denies Jesus.
Judas betrays him,
Peter, James and John fall asleep in the garden.
In the end, when Jesus is arrested, all of the disciples desert him and flee for their lives. One looks in vain for much of anything in the gospel that puts them in a positive light. They are known for their little faith.
At one point, Jesus refers to Peter as Satan and indicates that the disciples are spiritually blind and deaf.
Yet, the parable tells us that in spite of evidence to the contrary,
There will be a great harvest.
The Son of Man will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31)
Through suffering and endurance, the kingdom comes to us all.
And though it is “hard to enter the kingdom of God” (10:23), especially if one is rich, “all things are possible with God” (10:27). In spite of ourselves.
And those who have “left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields . . . will receive “a hundredfold now” and “in the age to come, eternal life” (10:30). Though like the prophets of old, they may never receive what had been promised (Heb.12:39) until eternity.
Postscript by Elaine
“Through Gates of Splendor” and “The Shadow of the Almighty” by Elisabeth Elliot are classic biographies that recount the martyrdom of her husband and four other missionaries in 1956 at the hands of the Huaorani people of the rain forest of Ecuador. They are must reads for those who need to be reminded that God works through tragedy. A favorite of mine in the 90’s, it recounts the events leading to the death of the five missionaries and the subsequent return of Jim Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth and Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel, to live amongst the Huaorani along with the Summer Institute of Linguistics several years later. (Wikipedia)
It is our work to show God’s love in the barren places; it is his work to make it grow.