Consider the Raven

Today I was reading one of my favorite (and most challenging) of Jesus’ teachings: do not worry.

Here is what Leon Morris has to say about Luke 12:24:

Jesus reinforces this [teaching] with an appeal to the ravens (or ‘crows’, Goodspeed, GNB), mentioned here only in the New Testament (they are the objects of God’s care in Ps. 147:9). Birds do not engage in agricultural activities, but they do not lack for all that. God feeds them. There is possibly significance in the fact that ravens were unclean (Lev. 11:15). God makes provision even for these unclean birds. And Jesus goes on to remind his hearers that they are of more value than birds (cf. v. 7)

Here is a poem I wrote about a parallel passage, Matthew 6:34:

Matthew 6:34

It’d be too easy to assume
You were talking to me, so
Who? Your disciples? They
Seemed to worry more about
Fish than God (then anyway).
The crowds, hungry and poor
And the soldiers stealing their cloaks?
Maybe. And maybe yourself,
Reminding yourself of what
You already knew: the times
Were short, the work was long
From Capernaum down to Judah, and
The coming trial must not
Darken the day too soon.

Each day has trouble enough.

Photo credit: Raven and the First Men at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, by bRONTE dIGITAL

Trust in the Lord

Today, I read two passages that bookend well together.

The first, Psalm 125, which begins:

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,

which cannot be shaken but endures forever.

The second, is from Luke 5.  After beginning his public ministry, Jesus calls Simon Peter, James, and John to follow him. After addressing a crowd from Simon’s fishing boat, Jesus commands Simon to put out his net.  Simon responds:

Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.

The nets are lowered, an enormous number of fish are caught, and Simon falls at Jesus’ feet, leading to this exchange:

“Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!.”  For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Psalm 125 promises that those who trust in the Lord (lit. YHWH) will be like Mount Zion, and Luke 5 depicts Simon – who would be called The Rock – trusting in Jesus.

A couple of side notes.  I appreciate the egalitarian spirit of the TNIV, which I am currently using in my personal reading, but “you will fish for people” simply doesn’t have the rhetorical strength of “thou shalt catch men” from the King James. Also, did Simon’s entire fishing company disband and follow Jesus?  The text has an interesting change of person: Jesus calls Simon to follow him, then concludes “So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything, and followed him.” The change of person is also their in both the King James and NIV.

How does it change our perspective of this scene to think of any entire company of men – a small business, really – following Jesus together?  Were they following Jesus, or were they following Simon Peter, their boss, who was following Jesus?

Milton's 400th Birthday

This year is John Milton’s 400th birthday, and Stanley Fish has written a post about Ninth International Milton Symposium in London, which touches on the many things to appreciate about Milton.  Here are a couple of good quotes.  First, about why Milton matters:

Rather than being employed for its own sake, the poetry is always in the service of ideas and moral commitments, and it is always demanding that its readers measure themselves against the judgments it repeatedly makes – judgments about the nature of virtue, about the proper mode of civil and domestic behavior, about the true shape of heroism, about the self-parodying bluster of military action, about the criteria of aesthetic excellence, about the uses of leisure, about one’s duties to man and God, about the scope and limitations of reason, about the primacy of faith, about everything.

Apparently, the ghost of Shakespeare hangs over Milton studies constantly.  Another good quote, about the difference between Milton and Shakespeare, referring to the debates over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays:

Jonathan Rosen was getting at something like this when he said in a recent New Yorker piece, “No one would ever wonder whether Milton was really the author of his own work.”

Milton went blind in his mid-forties, prior to writing Paradise Lost: the magnificent epic that Milton is best known for was composed mentally and dictated to a series of secretaries, including one of his daughters and the poet Andrew Marvell, who wrote the poem “To His Coy Mistress,” a standard of English textbooks.

His blindness led him to compose one of the greatest poems in the English language, “On His Blindness,” which I memorized while I was unemployed following graduate school, wondering whether my long education would ever result in productive employment:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly.  Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

A quick explication: Milton despairs at going blind, feeling that his one “Talent” (his ability as a writer) is now wasted, and, referring to the parable of the talents, fears that Jesus will return and question him as to why he has not put his talent to work.  (The work “fondly” here means “foolishly” – Milton’s retort that he can’t work because he’s blind, in other words, is a pretty stupid thing to say to the Lord of Heaven and Earth.)  The poem turns as Milton comes to realize that God does not “need” his work or “his own gifts” (i.e. Milton’s talent was a gift from God to begin with).  Instead, what God demands is his readiness to serve.  The image changes to a royal court: thousands of courtiers speed to and fro in their service to God, but “They also serve who only stand and waite.” Milton’s readiness would soon be repaid; a few years after this poem, Milton began work on Paradise Lost.

The Miracle of the New Testament

I am amazed at the miracle of the New Testament. To me, it’s mere existence is one of the touchstones of my faith in God.

Let’s assume for one moment that Jesus was not the Son of God, and that there is no Holy Spirit. Jesus wrote nothing himself; all of the records of his life and teaching come from his followers and his followers’ followers. According to some scholars, we can’t even be sure that he really said what his followers say he said. According to some other scholars, the rest of the New Testament after the Gospels – the letters of Paul, Peter, et al., the Revelation of John – are dramatically different than what Jesus “really” taught. Again, I’m not endorsing these thoughts, but just telling you what some people think.

What then are we left with? The text of the New Testament has spurred on some of the most profound moral achievements in the history of mankind: Augustine’s philosophy, the great monasteries, the life of Francis of Assissi, humanitarian projects like hospitals and orphanages, the dramatic rise of literacy in the West, the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa. The list could go on and on. Not bad for a group of smalltown fishermen and merchants.

The New Testament was written by a small group of people, mostly from a couple of villages in Galilee. Luke and Paul probably had the equivalent of a university education, but the rest were tradesmen. Yet their writings triggered not only dozens of moral revolutions over the last 2,000 years, but also radically reinterpreted the Hebrew Scriptures, completely transforming an entire religion. Assuming that authorship is correct, then we have, at minimum, seven of the world’s greatest moral geniuses – the 4 Gospel writers, plus Paul, Peter, and James. I would argue that the work of any one or two of them would be enough to found a religion, yet we have at least seven, not even counting the anonymous author of Hebrews, or considering whether any of their attributed writings were written by someone else. And remember: most of these “geniuses” were Galilean tradesmen, considered uneducated by their neighbors. All of them were contemporaries with one another, and their collected works were written over a span of no more than 50 years. Along the way, they created from scratch a new literary genre (the Gospel), wrote the highest achievement in all of Jewish apocalyptic literature, and redefined the possiblities for letter writing.

Either this is the greatest coincidence that history has ever seen, or there’s something to this idea that Jesus is the Son of God and sent the Holy Spirit to teach and inspire his disciples.

Greatness in the Kingdom of God

In my work with the Emerging Scholars Network and Faculty Ministry, we call Christian students and faculty to be “redemptive influences within higher education.”  People often ask me what that means, and it’s tempting to paint a picture of thousands of C.S. Lewises, spiritual giants at every college in the country.  First of all, that would be unrealistic – someone like C.S. Lewis comes along once in a century.  But more importantly, it would give a distorted image of what a faithful follower of Christ in the academy looks like.  C.S. Lewis is famous because of his many acclaimed books, now being made into blockbuster movies, and his justified fame as both an apologist and scholar. However, as Lewis himself pointed out in The Great Divorce, greatness in heaven is very different than greatness in the world.  Worldly success, such as that enjoyed by Lewis, is not a guaranteed result of faithfulness to Christ.  The very opposite may be the case. Continue reading