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Monday, November 30, 2009

Excursus: If healing is so central to the ministry of the kingdom, why didn't Jesus teach the disciples any medical science?

This is not a new question. The Internet Monk
recently asked similar questions. Many smarter and more knowledgeable people than I have proposed answers to this question, I'm sure. I just don't have time or resources to track down their answers. So I'm bound to be repeating things somebody else already said or making stupid objections to other views that the proponents have already answered. Oh well.

So, what do we make of this? According to the gospels Jesus healed lots of sick people; he gave his disciples authority to heal sick people. The gospel writers sometimes make a big deal of his willingness to heal the sick, including the disobedient (Mark 1:40-45) and ungrateful (story of the 10 lepers). So, what has happened to all the healings? Sure, Christians still testify to miraculous healings, but not on anywhere near the scale testified by the gospel of Mark, for example. You can find a pretty involved set of -- mostly dodges -- to that question here.

Look, either the physical healing ministry portrayed in the gospels is an integral part of the kingdom of God or it isn't. If it is integral to the kingdom of God and the gospels are telling us the complete truth about Jesus's ministry, we should be seeing the same mass healings today. This is essentially the argument of the Pentecostals. According to them, we aren't seeing mass healings today because of the massive unbelief of both church and culture. Medical science may actually be more of a hindrance than a help because it weans us away from reliance on God. If we weren't so dependent on medications, surgery, and other therapies, we'd see more direct, miraculous healings and have better health over the long run. As far as I'm concerned this view has been falsified beyond hope of rescue.

Let's say the physical healing ministry is not an integral part of the kingdom of God. Let's say instead that it was chiefly intended to establish the truth of the gospel. Once that is established (to God's satisfaction, I guess), miraculous healings recede in frequency, lest they become a distraction to the essence of the matter: repentance, faith, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of eternal life. The close connection between physical healing and forgiveness of sins found in the early chapter of Mark is not meant as a paradigm for the immediate effects of entry into the kingdom. It serves as a sign to the new believer. Since his sins are forgiven, he has reason to hope for the elimination of all the consequences of sin, including any diseases, in the end. There are problems with this view. First, it brushes the compassion of Jesus under the rug. When he encountered a leper, he had compassion and "cleansed" him. Not only were the leper's sins forgiven, but his sickness was gone and with it all the social stigma he had borne. Today, a convert with bi-polar disorder has his sins forgiven and ... what? Does he get off the lithium? Usually, no. Where is the compassion of Jesus? About the only recourse left is modern medicine. Where did it come from, if not from the providence of God? I have a lot of sympathy with this approach, but it only sharpens the point of the question I raised in the title to this post.

If Jesus knew that a physical healing ministry of the type he exercised was not going to be a permanent part of the church's worldwide work, why did he not explicitly direct the disciples to begin developing its anticipated replacement? After all, modern medicine did not become a significant factor in the lives of most of the human race until the last 150 years or so. Almost nothing in the gospels or the rest of the New Testament suggests any effort on the part of Jesus or his early followers to develop any of the tools, techniques or underlying knowledge used by modern medicine to protect people from sickness or ease their suffering.

What does this mean?

1. Jesus and his first followers were profoundly ignorant of the natural causes and treatment of disease. They based healing on the direct, personal intervention of God and the faith of healer and healed, because they did not know of any other way to treat diseases more effectively.


2. Jesus did not want his disciples to learn about modern medicine. Why not? Maybe because it would become a distraction. But the miraculous healings were a distraction, according to John. And there are plenty of other central features of the kingdom that could become distractions. Take theology, for example. By the 400s that had become a huge distraction. Maybe, as the Pentecostals argue, it would tempt people to trust in man rather than God. But the persecution of the church tempted thousands to defect or compromise. Why didn't Jesus just eliminate the possibility of being persecuted? Maybe the early disciples were so woefully ignorant that even with direct teaching by Jesus they would not be able to maintain a responsible and effective research program for the long run. I suppose that would have been likely, if the initial results produced little benefit. But consider the good that could have been done with even the simplest advice and direction. Supposedly, these folks were committed to the divine authority of the Bible and took seriously its statements about things they would never see or hear even once in their entire lives. Could not Jesus have taught them about, say "unseen things" like bacteria, and how to avoid getting infected? Is this really more difficult for ignorant people to accept than the idea that God will raise the bodies of bad dead people to life and throw them into a lake of burning sulfur forever? I don't know what other possible explanations for Jesus's silence on this matter are left,


3. Jesus did not teach his disciples about modern medicine because he wanted unbelieving people to suffer sickness. The blessings of the kingdom ultimately are for believers. But it takes no faith to benefit from modern medicine. It is inherently subversive of priorities of the kingdom. Therefore, not only did Jesus not want his first followers to learn about modern medicine, he doesn't want modern Christians using it either. It is evil to resort to physicians, because the believing person does not need them and the non-believing person is wrongly protected from the consequences of his sins that would otherwise drive him to the Great Physician. I think this last explanation is a piece of pernicious bullshit. It also happens to be the kind of argument used by some theologians and preachers in past generations to stop the development of modern medicine. Don't believe me? Check out Chapter 13, section 10 of Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Yes people complain that White tends to exaggerate the extent of the hostility, but the examples he gives are still instructive. Or, ask Turretinfan. He's the best at patristics I've seen on the web. If he can't find Christian fathers who questioned or outright condemned the pursuit of medical science, nobody can. He might even be happy to find them for you, if for no other reason than to show in what way(s) their questions/condemnations were correct. Mind you, most of the folks in his camp believe medical science is a good thing, and I would expect Turretinfan is no different. Its up to them to figure out how they can do this without adopting option #1 above, which I think is the only option besides Pentecostalism that does justice to the descriptions of Jesus as "compassionate."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Introduction to the Kingdom of God: Mark 1-3:19

Some preliminaries about the text. Given that Mark's gospel is the shortest and packs a number of different themes about the kingdom into a very short space in the beginning chapters, I figured a sequential study of this section would make a worthwhile introduction to the kingdom of God. To my mind the kingdom of God is the best summary idea for understanding what one is getting into when he/she responds to the call to follow Jesus.

The ministry of John the Baptist. Mark starts the story of the good news with John's ministry. The combined quotation of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 and the quotation of John's words in v. 7 highlight an interpretation of John's ministry as an intentional preparation for the coming of Jesus, the Son of God. When John baptized people in the Jordan River, he was getting them ready for the appearance of the mightier one, who would follow up that baptism with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Regardless of how closely this approximates the intentions of the historical John the Baptist, it clearly links John's ministry with the coming ministry of Jesus: John prepares, Jesus fulfills. This is important because it encourages one to understand John's message and actions in light of Jesus's ministry, and not so much the other way around. The historical John has often been understood to be an eschatological prophet, perhaps gathering the people by baptism in preparation for a mighty act of God in judgment upon his enemies. Interpreting Jesus's ministry in light of John would then make Jesus the agent of that eschatological judgment and would suggest that we should place the prophecy of Mark 13 centrally in the story. The destruction of the temple and attendant disasters is key to Jesus's whole ministry. If we allow the influence to bleed the other way, however, John's message of impending eschatological judgment gets transformed. The judgment no longer falls immediately, visibly, or directly from heaven. In fact, John's message of eschatological judgment is muted in Mark's gospel. The focus instead is on his preparation of the people by baptizing the repentant. He readies the people to accept the preaching of the kingdom of God.

The story of Jesus's baptism not only links John and Jesus, it also links Jesus with the people of Israel. He is baptized with the other penitents, he receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit John promised the coming one would perform on the penitents, God calls him "my beloved son," a recollection of the sonship of Israel (Hosea 11:1), and then Jesus is driven into the desert to be tested by the devil for 40 days. This connects him to the wilderness wanderings of Israel by the timespan, the theme of testing, and the presence of wild beasts and ministering angels. The identification of Jesus with the people of Israel suggests that Jesus's own ministry not only effects the establishment of the kingdom of God, but that it is also a model for the continuing ministry of his followers to advance and maintain that kingdom.

Mark then skips ahead to the arrest of John and the subsequent beginning of Jesus's ministry. This further ties the two together. When John's public work is brought to a halt, Jesus begins his. Mark immediately introduces us to the main message: "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news."

It is extremely important to notice that Jesus begins his work by preaching a message. This is a significant departure from the surface language of Malachi 3 and 4. Where is the judgment? Where is the burning fire? Where is the consumption of the enemies? Not here. Instead, he calls the hearers to repent and believe the good news that the kingdom of God is near.

This is underscored by the story of the calling of the first disciples. He summons 4 fishermen to follow him with the announcement, "I will make you fishers of men." Now, we have no way of knowing if this is genuinely historical, nor do we have a lot of context. Did Jesus challenge all the fishermen he encountered along the shore, and we are only hearing about some who responded positively? Or, did he single out only these men? We don't know, but what we do know is that Mark is portraying Jesus as a fisher of men who catches 4 and tells them he intends to make them do the same. In short, Mark is portraying Jesus as the initiator of a recruitment movement for the kingdom of God.

The next story introduces us to the new power brought into the lives of the people by Jesus's public ministry. First, Jesus is able to teach in a synagogue. This fits in with what we just pointed out above. Jesus teaches because it is by this means that the kingdom of God is drawing near. Mark emphasizes that Jesus's teaching is marked by "authority" lacking in the teaching of the Jewish scribes. Then we have the encounter with the demon-possessed man, in which the demon recognizes and submits to Jesus's authority. So, we see that the kingdom of God drawing near includes the entrance of a superior spiritual power recognized by both the human and unseen worlds. And this is power is for the good: it impresses the people the people hearing it while sitting around the word of God, and it drives out the demons.

Next, we see another sign of the power of the kingdom for the good. After Peter's mother-in-law is healed, the people of Capernaum swamp Peter's house and keep Jesus busy healing the sick and casting out demons into the night. (Mark's mention of "after sundown" is significant, I'm sure, but the implication/allusion escapes me.) That Jesus remains with the people healing them indicates a significant goal of the kingdom: elimination of the evils afflicting the people. So it is not just a matter of the people getting ready for the kingdom by repenting, it is also a matter of God taking away the evils that plague the people.

Jesus rises early the next morning to pray in a deserted place. On the one hand, this is an indication already in the story that he needs to get away from the crowds to have time alone. Peter and some others find him anyway after a search and announce, "Everyone is looking for you." This is another significant mark of the coming of the kingdom, and of Jesus's role in it. The kingdom is attractive. This fits with the vision of the prophets which pictures the future as a time when the peoples would stream to Jerusalem. Mark may be including this story to indicate that the time of "streaming" in has begun with Jesus's appearing. This also distinguishes Jesus as the bringer of the kingdom. I firmly believe that Mark's portrayal of Jesus has two sides: Jesus is the unique Son of God/Jesus is the first among many. Here, we have an emphasis on the former, but with implications for the latter as well.

He responds to Peter with another key characteristic of the kingdom: "Let us go also to the surrounding villages so I can preach there; for I came for this reason." This is the reverse of the prophetic picture of the peoples "streaming" in. Now, the kingdom goes out to the peoples by means of a preacher. And so he went to the towns of Galilee preaching in the synagogues and casting out demons.

According to Mark sometime during this initial preaching tour Jesus encounters a leper. The exact terms of this encounter are somewhat in doubt due to some key textual variants. Specifically, did the leper kneel (v. 40) and did Jesus react to the leper's appeal with compassion or anger (v. 41)? The latter variant is more interesting because the "angry" reading appears to create difficulties. Why would Jesus be angry with the leper for requesting a healing and what does it say about his character? Some believe that the "angry" reading is an attempt to reconcile v. 41 with the strong rebuke Jesus issues to the leper in vv. 43-44. And there is some logic to this viewpoint. The language in vv. 43-44 is pretty strong and most translations tone it down. According to the "compassionate" reading Jesus felt compassion for the man when he healed him but then "speaking harshly to him immediately he cast him out." It is not immediately obvious why Jesus would have such a sudden change of attitude. The poor attestation for the "angry" reading suggests that it is a secondary attempt to make Jesus consistent. It could very well be that some scribe in the western tradition tried to smooth the tension between compassionate healing and violent expulsion. On the other hand, assuming Mark's text is the basis for Matthew and Luke's versions of the story, it is noteworthy that neither of them give any indication of Jesus's feelings during the healing. You could argue that this would make more sense if their Markan original had the "angry" reading, since neither of them would likely want to promote the idea that Jesus got angry with the people he was about to heal. In both versions, the harsh post-healing treatment disappears as well. Unless one wants to argue that neither Matthew nor Luke were interested in communicating Jesus's inner attitude in this text, their behavior would suggest that they found the "angry" reading in their sources. But, in fact, there are other cases in which Matthew and Luke's versions of stories shared in common with Mark lack reports of Jesus's emotions where Mark includes them, and some of these cases include descriptions of Jesus's compassion or love for someone. Conclusion? I reach the very tentative conclusion that the "compassionate" reading is original. I have no definite opinion about the "kneeling" variant.

So, the leper believes Jesus can heal him but appears to challenge or doubt Jesus's willingness to do so. The leper is not alone in this doubt. It was a commonplace of Jewish thinking at this time that sickness was a just punishment for sin. Consider the disciples' question to Jesus about the blind man in John 9: "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" It doesn't take much imagination to appreciate the social consequences of having a debilitating disease in a small village community with this kind of outlook on life. The OT regulations (Lev. 13:45-46) about how a person with a skin disease was supposed to act until healed would only make things worse. It is quite reasonable to suppose that some of the lament psalms, eg. Psalm 38, were composed based on this type of experience. The afflicted person of faith would be asserting his faith in God's goodness towards him in the teeth of almost universal condemnation. In fact, this combination of theological assumptions, ritual regulations, and personal reactions would suggest that sufferers would in many cases be more or less permanently alienated from their communities. Even after healing and restoration to their communities, they would possibly remain "marked" and retain suspicions of or resentments against their neighbors. If I am right about this, then Jesus's response to the leper is HUGE.

First, he touches the leper. The touching would appear to make Jesus "unclean, " if Lev. 15:7 should be applied to this case. The resulting "uncleanness" could be remedied relatively easily -- washing clothes and body -- and quickly -- till evening. The story passes over this issue in silence. I think this is a pregnant silence. Everybody knew that the OT regulations were designed to ensure that nobody touched the leper. Jesus ignores the regulations to help the man.

Second, he heals the leper. By characterizing the healing as cleansing, the story reverses the dynamic behind the OT purity regulations. Here, clean gets transferred. This event explodes the entire OT conception of clean/unclean. The holiness of God is no longer circumscribed within carefully defined limits and the people left standing outside, surrounded by a world of pollutants from which they must protect themselves in order for God to tolerate their presence. Nope, with the kingdom the holiness of God comes bounding out of the sanctuary and puts pollution to rout.

Third, he makes it very clear that he wants the leper clean. This affirmation resolves the leper's doubts and testifies to his acceptance with God. Now you can find plenty of commentary on the OT purity regulations that will explain how they taught the Jews about the holiness of God, his majestic offense at human sin, the consequences of original sin, the depths of human depravity, etc, etc, etc, ad nauseum. The fact of the matter is that all these purity regulations regarding "leprosy" were put in place because the ignorant legislators realized that the skin diseases were contagious but didn't have a clue what to do about it, except to keep the sick away. And what better way to do that than to put the entire condition in the category of an offense against God? The sufferings added by the purity regulations were the fault of the sick person anyway.

This brief exchange reveals the silliness of all these excuses. Jesus heals the leper, and kicks the whole clean/unclean configuration into the garbage. Don't even get me started on this. Too many people's lives were completely thrown away because so many IDIOTS CLUNG TO STUPID THEOLOGY WHEN THEY COULD HAVE MAYBE TRIED FINDING OUT HOW TO GET SICK PEOPLE WELL, HUH? Mind you, I'm quite aware that this story doesn't proclaim the germ theory of disease. But the point still stands: Stop trying to come up with reasons why God wants people sick. Get them well.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Outline of living for followers of Jesus

This post outlines an approach to teaching someone how to follow Jesus. Notice that this is absolutely NOT an introduction to Christian faith. Frankly, a lot of introductions to Christianity end up discouraging someone from following Jesus, or at least makes that a secondary or optional goal.

I'm not going to bother supporting that claim with evidence now. I'll leave it to you to compare the content of the following posts with other stuff out there and draw your own conclusions.

For this purpose, I am not gong to engage in criticism of the gospel texts. Instead, by and large I am going to accept the gospel writers' traditions about Jesus's ministry as a platform for developing a way of life. I will be attempting to deal with a notable inconsistency between the life settings of the earliest Christian communities as presented by the letters of Paul and Acts and the life setting of the disciples in the gospels. The early Christian communities consisted of large numbers of people who were tied to a specific community/locale and a much smaller group of itinerants who traveled between the communities, usually in a leadership capacity. The gospels focus attention on an itinerant Jesus and the disciples who travel with him. Much of the teaching given to the disciples fits this type of life setting. What does this mean for the life of non-itinerant Christians? I hope to include answers to this question.

OK, here's a basic approach:

Examine the kingdom of God and the role of Jesus's ministry in it drawing near.

Learning about the kingdom from Mark 1:

1. The kingdom fulfills God's promise of salvation for his people found in prophets. 1:1-3
2. As predicted by the prophets, John the Baptist prepared for the coming of the Lord Jesus by calling on the people to repent of their sins and be baptized to receive forgiveness. 1:1-6
3. Jesus will baptize the people with the Holy Spirit. 1:7-8
4. When John baptizes Jesus, God announces to Jesus that he is pleased with him as his son. 1:9-11
5. Unlike the wilderness generation, Jesus passes the test in the wilderness. 1:12-13
6. Jesus announces the good news that the kingdom is near and calls on the people to repent and believe the good news about the kingdom. 1:14-15
7. Jesus calls some men to follow him and become "fishers of men." 1:16-20
8. Jesus teaches the people about the kingdom with "authority." 1:21-22
9. Jesus casts out a demon and news about him spreads. 1:23-28
10. Jesus heals many people. 1:29-34.
11. Jesus begins an itinerant teaching/healing ministry, saying "that is why I have come." 1:35-38
12. Jesus heals a man with leprosy out of compassion for him and does so by touching him. The news of the man's healing draws large crowds to Jesus and he has to stay out of the towns. 1:40-45.

This quick survey highlights several features of Mark's presentation of Jesus:
1. He draws people's attention by the "authority" of his words and actions. This has been interpreted by many as "the kingdom is present because the king is present."
2. Despite his attempts to keep a low profile, people from all over are hearing about his deeds and are coming to receive the benefit of healing. In other words, the kingdom of God is attractive to people in trouble. It is something that draws people in to find help for their problems.
3. Jesus started out his public ministry calling out specific individuals to become "fishers of men."
4. Jesus is a healer who dedicates time, energy, and emotion to bringing relief to the distressed.

2. What Jesus's followers did:

- traveled with him
- assisted him in carrying out teaching ministry
- listened to his teaching and asked him questions when they didn't get it
- went out to preach about the kingdom and heal the sick
- faced many uncomfortable moments being confronted with their own incomprehension and even resistance to Jesus's plans for them.

3. Living in the kingdom

- Repent and believe the good news.
- Leave the old life behind and start a new one.
- Proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is near.
- Heal the sick.
- Serve your fellow disciples.

4. Kingdom relationships
- with those outside
- with your mentors
- with your peers
- with your "disciples"

This is a work in progress. Expect this outline to expand.