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The common lectionary: antisemitism in John’s Gospel. Surprise? Not really.


Like most Christians who went to church last Sunday,  I found myself listening to the  familiar story of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9,  But for the first time this jarring line leaped out at me:

“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”  (John 9:22) NRSV

Now, in Protestantland most people are probably reading out of the NIV, which has politically sanitized this verse to say “Jewish leaders” rather than just the “Jews”.   But in the ever popular King James bible it is even worse than my NRSV:

“These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue.”

Just in case anyone missed it, the Early English authors used the words “the Jews” twice,  to ensure that we all understand who the bad guys were.  You could almost forget that the blind man and his parents were Jewish too.  Or that everyone in this particular passage were Jewish, last but not least, Jesus himself.

Am I nitpicking here?  Is this just a bit of trivia?  Well, not when you consider that throughout the centuries this is how Jesus, his disciples and his adversaries have been depicted, I don’t think you can deny that this Johannine depiction of  “the Jews”  has shaped much of the Christian world view. Even to this day, as seen in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” or the Millinialist’s championing of Israel for the purpose of advancing Armageddon,  antisemitism is thread throughout the fabric of the church.  To the detriment of all Christian and, of course, to the detriment of our Jewish neighbors. And to the detriment of world peace.

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Found Jesus? Try looking in Hell


“Hell is the absence of God”.  This is a pithy definition that many Christians find attractive. It shoves under the rug any suggestion that God might have created Hell as a place of eternal torment and punishment for human disobedience.  Since God will not force us to love ‘him’, we must make the choice ourselves, or so it goes.  And what Christian would not choose  the presence of God in Heaven?  If God is omnipresent, if “he” is everywhere, then his absence is ‘no where’.  Hell is the last death, annihilation.   This makes the bitter pill of damnation a bit easier to swallow.

But Jesus is suggesting something else, that God is not in Heaven but may actually spend a lot of time in Hell.  Many of his followers readily choose to spend time in Hell, living with and helping those who cannot escape, at least not on their own.  Classic examples are Father Damien,  Dorothy Day, Albert Schweitzer, Corrie ten Boom, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa.  Thousands, if not millions, of others, have forfeited comfortable Sunday church meetings, choir practice and Bible study to devote their time and energy in the service of the sick, the poor and the imprisoned.  This is where they find God.  This is where they lead others to God. Not through pseudo-evangelical proselytizing about Hell and Heaven.  Not through fear and intimidation, but through self-sacrifice and love.

The other day I suggested that,  to many Evangelicals, both progressive and fundamentalist, if you took away Hell you would take away their vision of Jesus.  Hell may even be a more important tenet of the Christian faith than Jesus, because without Hell what is there for Jesus to save us from?

But maybe there’s another way to look at Hell, a way that is not so doctrinaire but more holistic.  Maybe the closest we can get to God is in Hell, though not by reflecting on our own pain but through focusing on the pain of others.  No gains or rewards, no divine pats on the back.  Just encountering the beauty and presence of God in some of the vilest and most horrifying cesspits of the world.  Why else would anyone willingly live their lives with those people, in those places? A love of God that I can only imagine.

Perhaps this points us to what Heaven ( or more accurately, the Kingdom of God ) might look like.  It’s not a place where we go when we die and it’s not a return of the mythical Garden of Eden.  It’s not something God gives to us for being good, but a world that we must earn by working towards eliminating our man-made Hells.  Of course, the chances of this happening does not look  good, but some amazing people are busy making it happen, one piece at a time.

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How Jesus came to preach on Hell (a parable)


At that time Jesus and his disciples entered a prosperous land.  Hearing of his arrival, many of the people came to hear him speak.  Thousands gathered around him.

” I bring you good news.  God loves you, all of you.  You have no need to fear or worry. Eternal life is yours.  Peace and happiness are at hand. ”

The crowd began to murmur. They didn’t understand what he was saying.

“How is this possible? How do we get this eternal life you speak of ?” they asked.

Smiling, Jesus spread his arms wide. “Just follow me. I am living this life right now.  I have come to share with you  the Way of eternal life  and how to be in tune with God. You may hear all kinds of people on television pitching their self-help programs,  but there is good reason there are so many of them. They don’t work. Not for long. But follow me and I can assure you of eternal life.

” OK, so what’s the catch? How much does this cost? What kind of sacrifices do I have to make?” a man asked.

“There is no catch” said Jesus. “This life is free. No fees. No purchase necessary. No sacrifice.”

“Alright”,  another shouted.  “Tell us. What is this secret?”

“Simple” said Jesus. “Love each other as much as you love yourself and love God with all your heart.  The only way to love God is to love others.”

“How do we do that?” someone asked

“Always put the needs of others before your own” Jesus said. ” Visit the sick and  imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked.  Take in the homeless.  And -very importantly – forgive everyone, especially your enemies.”

“That’s crazy!” someone shouted.  “We don’t live in some sort of dream world. We have families to take care of – we can’t just bring bums and vagrants into our homes!”

“I have to worry about my kid’s college tuition!” another shouted “I can’t buy clothes for a bunch of slackers. Let ‘em get jobs and buy their own.”

A woman stood up, shaking her fist. “What kind of fuzzy-wuzzy crap is this? Love your enemies?! I guess you expect us to love all those elitist god-haters that want to destroy this great nation?  You just want us to open our arms to foreign heathens as they pour into our country, taking our jobs, speaking their own languages, praying to the wrong gods and plotting violent revolution?  You’re just a sissy wing-nut that hates his own country!”

The angry crowd turned their backs and began to leave, grumbling and shaking their heads.  Nervously, Jesus glanced  around. Looking up,  he smiled and suddenly  jumped on a nearby boulder, waving his arms frantically.

“Wait! Wait!” he cried. “There is another way! A better way! Come back. Give me another chance.”

Most ignored him but some turned back.  “This better be good”, they said. They sat down on the grass and waited.

Jesus  sat down in the middle of them. ” OK, the other stuff was good, but that was only half the story. This is the real deal. You see, there are these two places called Heaven and Hell….

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No Hell = No Jesus


As long as I can remember  my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is  there.”  This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine.  Though she didn’t know it,  this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy  that says all of us,  even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing:  Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.

Not long ago Rob Bell was  in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics)  because his recent book, “Love Wins”,  suggested that no one goes to Hell.  He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.

The ensuing progressive  Christian defense of Bell was great.  Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers  busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of  Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine  obscures a lot of the Gospel message.  But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.

Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable.  Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy  of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation.  Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God.  As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.

I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality,  Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus.  Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?

No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in.  Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

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When prayer becomes an obstacle to faith


I have my fair share of physical troubles, almost all the result of entering middle age after a lifetime of unhealthy living. Not that my living was particularly hedonistic or any worse than most Americans, but when you are dealt a certain genetic hand you need to be a bit more careful than I’ve been.

Anyway, it’s not that I am ill or remotely disabled.  Just the poster boy for metabolic syndrome. I’m never in any real pain and suffer no problems with mobility, but for some time now my doctors have called me a “high risk” for….some bad stuff, I guess.  Just like over half of the Americans out there who are over 50.   So I  keep popping my pills, watch what I eat (kind of ) and tend not to worry. Too much.

But last week was somewhat trying.  Persistent head aches, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness. And my BP was going crazy, higher than it ever had been before.  Being the alarmist hypochondriac that I am, I prepared myself for inevitable admission to the O.R. for major chest surgery…or worse.  As it turned out, my doctor only had to play her voodoo shell-game with my prescriptions and things are looking a lot better.  For now.

My point here is not to whine about my health or my ailments.  I just wanted to set the stage for my thoughts of last week, particularly some of those about God.  Because I really, really had to work hard to keep myself from praying.

I was disturbingly aware of a desire to ask God to protect me from whatever might be coming my way physically.  I really wanted to revisit my old penchant for asking God to extricate me from whatever predicament I found myself in and I desperately wanted to recapture the opportunity of asking God to cure me.

But I hadn’t believed in those types of prayer for some time now and I knew that it would be wrong to allow myself a little relapse into what I now believe is religious superstition.  Why would God deign to reach down inside of me and fix the relatively minor physical problems that I am troubled with? When there are so many millions who are really suffering, from hungry children to the mentally institutionalized to severe burn victims to the paraplegics whose prayers for healing have apparently not been heard?  I don’t think God would fix my problems.  I am not sure that God even could.

I did pray, though not in that way.  Instead I prayed prayers of thanks, that I  made it this far, with the wonderful people I have known and loved.  My wife, my children, my friends, family and students.  I was still  tempted to ask for another 50 years (or 30 or 20 or 10 or even 5).  But  I didn’t.  Instead  I prayed for peace and for courage, for acceptance of whatever might come.  Surprisingly, my prayers were answered, almost immediately.

If I had prayed for physical healing or a change in my material circumstances,  I would still be waiting for the that big shoe to drop.  Playing the long odds against the house, yet holding out hope for something ‘miraculous’ to take place. Anticipation. Unneeded anxiety.  And if the cards looked good this time, if it seemed as if God had answered my prayers, this too would pass. Until I met the next low hanging branch on the path.  A relentless cycle of beseeching, worry, thanksgiving and then more worry.  This was my old pattern.

Over the years I’ve seen some friends die.  A few were young, tragically young. Most were pretty “old” I guess.  A lot of them were in their eighties.  My Dad is in his eighties and he’s been struggling a bit.  The thing is, if we are lucky, we will get old and die.  Sometimes it looks easy, more often it can be painful. But I’ve seen that  it can also be peaceful.  Should we be wasting what time we do have by asking to live longer? “ Please, just a little bit more of this good stuff “ (even if it looks as if there isn’t enough “good stuff” to go around for everybody). Where’s the peace in that?

I like it better this way.  I’m not asking too much from God and God’s not asking too much from me. I just have to resist asking for the deck to be loaded in my favor. Instead, maybe God could provide me a with just a little help playing the hand I’ve already been dealt.

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The Bible is not The Good Book or a bad book. It is just a….book.


The Bible is a collection of diverse ancient Hebrew writings by many authors who never intended their works to be collected between the bindings of a book.  It is full of spiritual stories, poems, myths, biographies and various historical accounts. It may or may not include recorded attempts at predicting the future. Wisdom and beauty abound within its pages and the reading of this book has helped millions of people, in many spiritual ways,  to encounter God.  By this definition alone, it is a sacred book.  But as St. Paul  once said, the scriptures are useful for instructing a person in the ways of God, implying that they are only some of the tools at our disposal and not the sole repository of spiritual wisdom.

The common thread that runs through this assortment of writings is how a particular group of people interacted with their God over a very long time, in ways that were both moral and immoral.  Inspired by a sense of wonder, the authors attempted to understand God’s nature, God’s will and how, why and if God works in their lives, often depicting God as speaking and acting within the natural world.

The second, smaller part of the Bible concerns Jesus of Nazareth, his life, crucifixion and resurrection. It also includes his teachings and the teachings of some of his disciples.  These teachings have undoubtedly inspired generations of people to live lives of peace, mercy and love while at the same time championing justice.  At the same time,  different interpretations have helped others to rationalize behavior not so commendable.

The Bible had no release date, there was no publishing date. At some point, around 1700-1800 years ago, powerful religious men decided what Jewish scriptures would be included in what we call the Canon and the Apocrypha.  Everything else  (probably more than what was included) was discarded or destroyed, though some of these manuscripts survive today. Throughout its history the Bible has been translated in different ways and there have been a few cases where it has been altered to serve a religious agenda, but these were rare occurrences.  There has always been a very active, and often heated,  debate over what many portions of the Bible actually mean.

The Bible may, or may not, be relevant to us today.  The stories and poems and letters within have been used as a guide for morality, compassion and self sacrifice.  They have also been  used to justify genocide, torture, slavery, misogyny, bigotry and war.  If God has spoken through the Bible then some have certainly heard the voice of Satan as well.

Although a great work of historical literature and sacred to millions,  it has no magical qualities or powers. It needs to be interpreted contextually, framed within the time and circumstances of the people who populate it, lest whatever lessons it might contain remain hidden.   It is undeniably a very, very important book.  It is certainly a great book, one of the world’s greatest.  But it is not the GOOD book any more than it is a bad book.  In the end, with all that it has to offer, it is still…just…a…book.

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