The Brief Joy of Falling Back

(reposted with minor edits from a Sunday morning FB post)

“How small of all that human hearts endure, That part which laws or kings can cause or cure Still to ourselves in every place consigned, Our own felicity we make or find. With secret course, which no loud storms annoy, Glides the smooth current of domestic joy.” – Samuel Johnson

By setting the clock back this week I get a bit of joy from an extra hour of sleep, an idea originally suggested by Ben Franklin to preserve candles. But the benefit will last only a few days. Laws or kings cannot give us lasting rest, or joy. But…

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30

May He refresh us for the week and work ahead.

He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs (Part 2)

Hulk trying to Smash!

As someone who collected comics years ago, I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.  The decades of characters and stories created in the comics combine with modern special effects to create the ultimate “popcorn” events.  Thor: Ragnarok, released in 2017, was one I really looked forward to since I had read the original Ragnarok story line that culminated in The Mighty Thor issue #353 in March 1985.

(Caution: Mild movie spoilers follow!!!)  The movie’s conclusion is significantly different than the comic version, with a twist that the heroes decide victory lies in not fighting the “Big Bad” of Surtur, a massive fire demon.  However, after realizing this, they must convince the Hulk to follow the plan, resulting in one of the funniest exchanges in any of the MCU movies:

Thor: Hulk, no! Just for once in your life, don’t smash!
Hulk (in sullen voice): But big monster!

You can watch the scene here.

Hulk logic is simple.  Big monster is here.  Hulk must smash big monster.  That’s the plan.

In Part 1, Jesus was pictured in Psalm 2:4 as being enthroned in heaven, laughing in derision at the rulers of the world who sought to break free from His “bonds” and “cords”.  This description of Jesus is a reassuring reminder to us that no worldly kingdom is a threat to Him, and we can trust in His protection.  The post ended with a question of whether we also laugh as Jesus does?  Do we hold our (and His) enemies in derision?

Peter Smash!
Here we began with a Marvel movie scene, because in a way, Thor convincing Hulk that fighting fire with fire wasn’t the answer is like Jesus’ rebuking of Peter for fighting back against the mob that arrested Jesus, and soon delivered Him to be crucified.  In John 18:1-11, Judas leads a “band of soldiers and some officers” to arrest Jesus, and Peter (possibly thinking “Big Monster!”) drew his sword and cut off the right ear of one of the high priest’s servants, named Malchus.  Jesus says “Peter, no!  For once in your life, don’t smash”, or as more accurately rendered in the ESV: “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

Matthew’s account (26:52-54) adds: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?’”

Jesus knows that He can beat any “Big Bad” the world has to offer at any time with an “appeal to my Father”.  In Psalm 2:5-9, right after He laughs, the Psalmist writes:

“Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
            and terrify them in his fury, saying,
‘As for me, I have set my King
            on Zion, my holy hill.’
I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
            today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
            and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
            and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

But rescuing His people must come first, and until then final judgment is delayed.  Jesus knew when Psalm 2 was written that He would eventually judge all the nations, but He also knew what sort of death He would die to accomplish salvation for His people.  Jesus does not laugh because His enemies can be taken lightly – He is fully aware of the evil of the world.  His enemies cause real pain and suffering on earth, and He takes each offense personally.  But if He decided to spend all of history laughing in heaven, we would all be without hope.  Fortunately, He lived among us, and suffered terribly as a servant, knowing “that he had come from God and was going back to God”[1]

At the time of Judas’ betrayal, Jesus had told His disciples multiple times, citing Old Testament prophecy, that His plan required being rejected, suffering, and dying, then rising again[2], but when the mob came for Jesus, Peter didn’t make the connection.  He did not understand the plan, but later he would.  We are not alone when we don’t understand God’s will for us.  The twelve disciples were constantly out of step with Jesus.  When asked to do something against our natural impulse we sometimes drop our shoulders, and our voice becomes sullen like Hulk’s.

But we have hope.  Years later, Peter would write about his progress from his early impulsive days in 1 Peter 1:13-15:

“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”

The “passions of Peter’s former ignorance”, may include the time Peter cried “big monster!” and cut off someone’s ear.  None of us are immune from the same Hulk logic when threatened.  But it might also be said that Jesus looked at Peter in derision when he did this[3].  But for the grace of God, there go I.

Peter writes of the implications of understanding Christ’s mission on the cross, that Christ’s followers are part of the plan, as active participants in the mission.  He calls the church to be holy, set apart for God’s purposes, to pursue the mission of the church, most succinctly spelled out at the end of Matthew’s gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (28:19-20).  In this kingdom, the two most important commandments are: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[4]

To answer to the question at the end of Part 1, the prescriptive truth that is like Proverbs 14:21[5] is love.  Love defines how subjects in the kingdom of the One who laughs should behave.  A love more thoroughly defined in 1 Corinthians 13 as patient and kind, and not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude[6].  Or, as Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:1: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.”  Paul adds in Rom 12:14 – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Jesus laughing in heaven is only a comfort to us if He is our King, and if He is our King, we seek to follow the laws of His kingdom.  The laughter of Jesus is not a model for us, but is a source of comfort and strength if we are His.  In contrast, the nations, kings and rulers of this world refuse the “bonds” and “cords” of the Lord, which are these laws of love.  They make up their own system of “righteousness” by laws, and therefore “the Lord holds them in derision.”  Their earthly rules and systems cannot measure up to His righteousness and are at best narratives and at worst tyrannies.

Love When Bad Things Happen
Jesus’ laughing is precisely what enables us not to hold people in derision, and to not mock and laugh at them.  It is a key to achieving the “Us for Them” ethic described in an earlier post.  Jesus laughing tells us that there is no monster scary enough to make His plan to love the wrong answer.  Whatever your circumstance, “Love God”, “Love your neighbor” and “Love your enemies” apply to it.

To illustrate this, consider Jesus’ prophetic speech in Mark 13:5-23 from the framework of descriptive vs. prescriptive truth.  I paraphrase and categorize some of the points below:

Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’See that no one leads you astray
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, and nation will rise against nationDo not be alarmed
Earthquakes and famines in various locationsBe on your guard
You will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sakeBear witness before them and do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say
Brother will deliver brother over to death and you will be hated by allEndure
False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wondersBe on guard

To Jesus, none of the things in the descriptive column are new information.  All were included in the plan.  The actions He recommends are not new information either.  The “Prescriptive” column means keep doing what you were doing before these bad things happened – Love God, love your neighbor.  Even if your neighbor is “bad”.

False christs and prophets will cry “But big monster!” and offer to save us.  But the true Christ calmly says “be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand”. (Mark 13:23). The false prophet takes the descriptive of evil in the world and creates their own false prescriptive.  They recommend an incomplete and inaccurate narrative as an ultimate solution.  Their own Babel which God must “come down” from heaven to even see (Genesis 11:5).  The true Christ comes down from heaven and demonstrates how to create a true ladder all the way back to heaven, offering forgiveness to all, even those who refuse to accept it or practice love.  He will be thoroughly and eternally glorified by manifesting His kingdom as the only eternal kingdom, ruled by love.

God doesn’t turn our Muerte into Morty by having us laugh at him and beat him up with a stroller (although that might be fun).  He doesn’t tell us to Smash!  Every time we try to follow the plans of the world to fight the battles of God’s kingdom, we are testifying that the world’s kingdoms are greater than His.  Our rage will be futile and our plotting will be in vain.

Witness to the Cross
Note that the presence of false prophets, national rivalry, and natural disaster provide an opportune backdrop for proclaiming the superior kingdom of God in Christ, where none of these things will occur!  We testify to the imagined utopias of the world – which are all at best narratives and at worst tyrannies – that the real utopia is one where people love so much that they are willing to die for specific others, not one where the “Pax Romana” is illusory and pointing that out is a crime.    Jesus even died for the tax collector Zacchaeus, described by his Jewish peers as a traitor and cheat, a representative of a secular enemy power.  Everyone He died for was once His enemy, and His sacrifice enables a paradigm shift from “Us vs Them” to “Us for Them”.

In our ability to do this, we all lie somewhere between the impulsive Hulk, the Peter of Matthew 26, the Peter of his New Testament letters, and Jesus’ obedience on the cross.  We each are a narrative of our own “intricate matrix of beliefs, at different levels of truth and of conviction on every possible topic.”  We all cry “But big monster!” at different things, at different times, and for different reasons, but Jesus guarantees our destination is holiness when we follow Him.  Jesus cares about His people more than he cares about all the kingdoms of the world, and “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:10.

But His blessing is not granted under all types of persecution.  Persecution is not evidence of righteousness, but a result of it.  Christians are not blessed when persecuted for unrighteousness, which sadly they often are.  They are blessed when persecution comes from testifying to, and striving to live, a righteousness that is unachievable by any earthly kingdom.  Jesus did this on the cross, and we do it by bearing the cross He assigns us.  When we do this, His kingdom comes, because his will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.[7]  Logically, earthly kingdoms do not like this.

Therefore, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Don’t accept the cross anyone other than Christ assigns to you – it may crush you.  The specific work God assigns for you is enough and comes with His power.  Our cross will not kill our soul; it will enable us to truly live.

For the last enemy to be defeated is Muerte.  Which means death[8].

Next post: a “minor’ prophet finds peace

Post Script
To close out the discussion of Psalm 2, the last verses (10-12) describe the Psalmist pleading with the kings and rulers:

“Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
            be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
            and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
            lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
            for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

Finally, as Paul urges us in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we should pray for our rulers to God, who is sovereign over the nations: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

[1] See John 13:3, and a previous post about this idea.
[2] Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22 and elsewhere
[3] As in Matthew 16:23, where Jesus refers to Peter as Satan for saying suffering was not necessary for our Lord.
[4] From Matthew 22:37 and 39
[5] “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor”
[6] 1 Corinthians 13:4-5
[7] Adapted from Matthew 6:10
[8] 1 Corinthians 15:26

The Narrative Doesn’t Know It All

This morning many were learning of the passing of Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state, at 84.  No human other than Jesus is perfect, but Powell was in more than one way an important figure in U.S. military and government matters for years.  Many, including myself, mourn his passing.  In my case, an experience in undergraduate journalism school involving Powell was a huge lesson to me on the use and power of narrative, of storytelling, often as a way of simplifying the world to make it digestible, but also as a way of influencing.

This news also provides an opportunity for a timely detour before continuing the “He Who Laughs” post.  Soon, God willing.

Loose Ends
This blog began with a post, “42 is Not the Answer”, about mankind’s search for answers to “life, the universe, and everything” in a fictional supercomputer called Deep Thought.  They were left with “42”, or not much of a narrative.

As I wrote in “Godly Offspring”: about the story of Genesis 38, “Judah had created his own narrative to explain his misfortune as Tamar’s fault, when it was really God’s judgment for the sins of Judah and his sons.”  However, Tamar’s children became ancestors of Jesus!

In “Man in Need of an Ally”, Zacchaeus was condemned based on being reduced to a representative of a narrative used to simplify a complex social and political situation.  Jesus loved Zacchaeus, forgave him, and now he has eternal life!

Narratives are everywhere and are enticing and powerful.

Some of my favorite quotes deal with the danger of narrative and the need to be aware of it:
“It’s not what you don’t know that kills you, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t true.” ― Mark Twain
“Beware of single cause interpretations – and beware the people who purvey them” – Jordan Peterson
“In my experience, the more I know about a subject, the less I’m impressed with related media coverage” – Howard Marks

The examples below are not intended to show that one political party is good or the other is bad.  That would be an unhelpful, divisive narrative.  Politics is a sometimes-dirty game, and the media are sometimes enablers – on both sides.  The point is that people often believe in, and act on information they believe is reliable but that is always incomplete and sometimes inaccurate.  Also, sometimes the information is intentionally incomplete and inaccurate.  The dots of the pointillistic narrative are never the full picture and sometimes aren’t the right color.  I confess this applies to everything I write, but perhaps particularly to some of this post.

Narratives push us to forget that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes, not through states, not between political parties either, but right through all human hearts.”

Influencing the Blame Game
In 1995 and 1996 the U.S. government, just as they are now, were fighting over more spending and how to pay for it, resulting in two “shutdowns”, one for 5 days and the other for 21.  Around this time, a member of the White House staff came to our journalism class to talk about the experiences of an “insider”.  One thing he shared with us was that Bill Clinton was on the verge of backing down from the shutdown confrontation but decided to continue digging in when Colin Powell announced he would not run for president in 1996.  Powell had bi-partisan support as a man of character and military expert and was expected by many pollsters to win.  However, he had no desire to be president, citing a lack of passion for it, and an unwillingness to put his family and friends through the potentially painful process.  Clinton, knowing the other Republican challengers weren’t as strong, knew the political damage of continuing the government shutdown would be minimized.  Clinton also knew he had help in managing that.

The other thing shared by this guest speaker was that the reporting of polls about attitudes regarding the shutdown was being misrepresented.  Many media outlets were reporting that most voters “blamed” the Republicans for the shutdowns of the government.  What we were told though was that the question – as presented to those answering the poll – was about who is “responsible” for the shutdowns.  So, if you answered “Republicans” to the poll because you were convinced that they were doing the right thing by protesting either the amounts or specifics of the spending proposals, the poll reported it as “blame”, not as a conscientious objection.  By changing one word, “responsible” which is less of a value judgment, with “blame” which assigns a clear, negative, value judgment, public opinion was swayed.

As noted in an earlier post, More Than Truth, I saw very few examples of outright lying while in school, but there were some.  In this case, the public had no idea of these two things, which were told openly to a classful of future journalists.  The narrative was created, put on the hook, and swallowed by many voting fish.

All of the Above
Another example is narratives around the “Global Financial Crisis” of 2007-2008.  This was an extraordinarily complex series of events, set up by years of blunders by possibly millions of people, yet still some pin the blame on just a handful of “bad guys” who represent the Bogeymen of “the rich”, “deregulation”, “regulation”, “big banks”, “house flippers”, etc.   But what if the answer could be “all of the above”?  The best evaluation I’ve read is a memo called “Whodunit” by Howard Marks, a widely followed investor who is known as a balanced thinker.  It’s 13 pages and you can read it here (memo link), but who reads 13 pages of anything anymore?  Especially something designed to extinguish partisan fury-inducing narratives, rather than inflame them?  I’ve summarized Marks’ memo in the past as saying “regulation tied the gas pedal to the floor, while deregulation disabled the brakes,” but really any explanation vastly oversimplifies one of the most complex sagas in financial market history. Something like a Global Financial Crisis was not caused by the butler.

This does not just happen with once-in-a-lifetime events.  In the financial press, billions of dollars of daily transactions in the stock and bond markets are reported as “Markets were Mixed Today on Wall Street”.  Never mind that much of modern trading doesn’t even take place on Wall Street, or that all days could be called “mixed”.

A common topic today is “what’s wrong with the labor market?”  Like the Global Financial Crisis, there are competing narratives and the truth is probably a combination of “all of the above”, rather than any one cause.  One reason less people are working is because we’ve had a pandemic, and many, many workers have passed on, or remain sick.  That’s difficult to talk about in a “professional” meeting.  Government policy plays a part, but which government caused, or sustained, a global shortage of workers?  Does U.S. policy explain other countries’ shortages?  Many workers simply retired earlier than planned, helped by higher housing prices and stock market values.  For some, day care is not available. For some, they have prioritized other things.  The list goes on and on.  “All of the above.”

These are just samples from my experience, but referring back to the Howard Marks quote above -“In my experience, the more I know about a subject, the less I’m impressed with related media coverage” – I expect you have many more examples based on your knowledge of other subjects.  And here we must be careful about Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Love Requires Humility
Like many topics on most days, much of today’s media coverage of Colin Powell’s death will be a battle of narratives.  Exactly how much integrity did he have?  What do they mean he “died of Covid complications”?  Who is to blame?  What kind of president would he have been?   This discussion is good when it is done in the right Spirit, but unfortunately it often isn’t.

I’ll chime in on the debate with “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and note that only God has a full picture of Powell’s life.  I pray he found his hope in Jesus and for comfort for his family and friends.  No person deserves to be treated as an incomplete narrative.

I’ll also follow that up with a twist – all narratives are flawed and fall short of the glory of God.  Only God has a full picture of every life, and I pray we find our hope in Jesus.  No person deserves to be judged based on an incomplete narrative that they get shoe-horned into.  As they say, Be Kind, you never know what someone is going through.

Each of us is an intricate matrix of beliefs, at different levels of truth and of conviction on every possible topic.  In my examples, I’ve shown some of my own biases. Forgive me.  Here Ephesians 4:1b-2 has guidance for us, where Paul, writing from prison, urges “you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In humility we seek to view other’s biases and narratives as different than ours, not worse.  In addition, sometimes we might view something as a flaw just because it is a difference.  Just as we are not perfected instantaneously in this world, neither are others and we must be patient.  In love, we walk as God has called us, putting other’s needs above our own, because this is how we grow in unity and fruit of the Spirit.

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – 2 Cor 4:6

Jesus is the Answer and He does not fall short of the glory of God.  Inject Him into your narrative as you would a grain of salt.

He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs (Part 1)

Sometimes you watch a movie and years later only remember one or two things about it, and the rest is just “meh”.  In Undercover Blues, released in 1993, Stanley Tucci’s character Muerte, a mugger, is the best part of the movie.  He growls lines like: “My name is Muerte…it means death!  Remember my name!” before or after attacking his victims, with Mariachi guitar accompaniment.  It’s a bit silly, but Muerte isn’t to be trifled with – he brutally takes out multiple guys in the movie.

Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner play a married couple of ex-spies (their last name is Blue) on maternity leave in New Orleans who are harassed by muggers, including Muerte, along the way.  Unfortunately for Muerte, Jeff Blue is an experienced and confident fighter who isn’t intimidated by Muerte’s speech, and just says: “Well I’m pleased to meet you Morty.  My name is Jeff”

Then Jeff Blue beats up Morty and his crew with a stroller!  Evil Muerte had met his match.  Watch the video – I’ll be referring back to it later.

A Conspiracy of Muertes
While Muerte picks up his lost tooth, here are key verses for this post, from Psalm 2:1-3:

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
            against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
Let us burst their bonds apart
            and cast away their cords from us”

The Psalm refers to the rebellion of nations, peoples, kings, and rulers against the “bonds” and “cords” of “the Lord” and “his Anointed”, or God the Father and God the Son.  Nations are rivals, not just with each other, but also with the kingdom of God.

The ultimate example of this rebellion is referenced when the first two verses from above are quoted in Acts 4:25-26, followed by: “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and our plan had predestined to take place.”  The crucifixion of Jesus was the result of a massive conspiracy, including possibly six separate trials by both Jewish and Roman authorities, resulting in the death of Jesus, who was not guilty of what He was charged with, but also is the only human to never participate in insurrection against His Father.  The Jews hated Him because He was not the political messiah that would lead an insurrection against Rome.  The Romans, led by Pilate, answered the call to crucify Him, to avoid a Jewish riot that would result in their punishment or removal by higher Roman authorities.  Jesus was a threat to their authority and had to go.

So, they literally succeeded in killing God.  Brutally.  But then Psalm 2:4 tells us:

“He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.”

A Surprising Victory
Surprising even His followers, on the third day, He was resurrected from the dead, and after a few weeks, was raised “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”  (Ephesians 1:21).  This Jesus is the one laughing in heaven, and He can laugh because in a way He is like Jeff Blue in the scene from Undercover Blues.  At the 27 second mark of the video, after Muerte draws his switchblade, Jeff smiles and says “This is a really bad idea Morty.”  Muerte rages and plots in vain, however is no threat to Jeff.  Likewise, Jesus knows all nations are no threat to Him and His kingdom.

In “More Than Truth”, I wrote about how some truth “describes the world as it is”, such as Proverbs 14:20: “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.”  Jesus knows all of the descriptive truth about the problems of the world, including subjects of earlier posts:

  • That since the Fall in Genesis 3, “mankind became inclined to make things that glorify themselves, rather than God,” from the tower of Babel to kingdoms such as Edom
  • That “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” – Pr. 14:12 and 16:25
  • That every “Pax Romana” is just a narrative designed to make the state appear to be more than it is
  • That mankind is incredibly creative in attempting to thwart God’s purpose in creating His kingdom, populated by His family
  • That even the “religion” of the Old Testament Bible could not produce righteousness

However, all rulers and nations opposed to God are doomed to fail, because even killing God was not good enough to keep Him down.  Jesus laughs because He knows His plan will work.  In Matthew 16:18, Jesus told Peter that “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

In Acts 4 above, Peter and John quote Psalm 2 after they were released by the religious rulers of Jerusalem, and they testify that Jesus’ enemies only do “whatever your hand and our plan had predestined to take place.”  Peter and John were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus, and knew that all the powers of the world could not keep Him down.  His plan would not fail.  They did not quote verse 4, but they knew that Jesus was exalted and laughing at the opposition to them.  They rejoiced that the same God who had resurrected Jesus had freed them from prison!

Therefore, take comfort that Jesus, knowing all the evil and rebellion of the world that we may feel threatened by or anxious about, laughs.  All who challenge God are Morty, not Muerte, even if they once “succeeded” in killing Him.

I read Psalm 2 if I am feeling stressed or threatened by the political state of the world, about the political state of my country, or about the 24/7 barrage of bad news online and on TV.  “He who sits in the heavens laughs” reminds me that Jesus is laughing at the cause of my stress – He is not threatened and He is in charge.  In some ways we are like the baby in the movie scene.  We would be helpless against Muerte, but Jeff Blue does not let anything happen to his child.  At the 34 second mark of the video, Jeff even checks in on the baby, who slept through the whole thing.  In our case, we are tethered to our forerunner[1], Jesus, our King laughing in heaven, who says: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” – John 10:28-29.

I’ll end this post here on a note of confidence, but there remains a trickier and important question…

Do we also laugh?  Is the laughter of Jesus descriptive, or prescriptive?  What is the truth that is like Proverbs 14:21: “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor”?

What defines how subjects in the kingdom of the One who laughs should behave? More in Part 2, coming soon.

[1] See “The Sure Eternal Path” for more on this metaphor from Hebrews 6:20.

Found! A Man in Need of an Ally

Do you hate paying taxes?  Maybe you think you pay too much.  That others don’t pay enough.  Maybe you don’t like what its being used for.  Maybe the system is just too complicated and a hassle.

In Jesus’ day, people also hated paying taxes.  As noted in a prior post, Jesus lived and ministered during the “Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, which was announced by Roman Caesars in “gospel” messages telling the people they benefited from unprecedented peace and prosperity due to the godlike powers of the Caesars and their Roman government.  Of course, these benefits could be expensive and had to be financed.

Worse than Turbo Tax

Enter the tax collector, or as some historians say: the tax “farmer”.  Instead of collecting taxes themselves, the Roman state sometimes sold the right to collect taxes to individuals at contracted rates.  Tax farmers collected required taxes, including “ground-, income-, and poll-tax. The ground-tax amounted to one-tenth of all grain and one-fifth of the wine and fruit grown; partly paid in kind, and partly commuted into money. The income-tax amounted to 1 per cent.; while the head-money, or poll-tax, was levied on all persons.”[1]

On top of this, the tax farmer invented other taxes for his own benefit, “such as on axles, wheels, pack-animals, pedestrians, roads, highways; on admission to markets; on carriers, bridges, ships, and quays; on crossing rivers, on dams, on licenses”.[2]  These taxes the farmer would keep for themselves, usually making them incredibly wealthy.

Adding insult to injury, they sometimes would use Roman soldiers to enforce payment, or if they were especially well-off, they had their own private enforcement squads, subjecting citizens to the “vexation of being constantly stopped on the journey, having to unload all one’s pack-animals, when every bale and package was opened, and the contents tumbled about [and] private letters opened.”[3]

Not Religious Freedom
Now enter Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria, who later presided over the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Pilate was the man in charge of maintaining the hypocrisy of the “Pax Romana” while the soldiers under him harassed citizens for taxes.  He had a history of provoking the Jews and reminding them of their powerlessness, including seizing money from the Jewish Temple treasury to build an aqueduct, and by prominently posting Caesar propaganda within Jerusalem.  Both instigations are recorded by first-century historian Josephus[4].

Therefore, to many Jews of Jesus’ day, tax payments were seen as not only supporting the corruption of the tax collector, but also as financing an oppressive government and its pagan gods.  Often, the tax collector was Jewish himself, putting themselves forward for the job, then being appointed by their province.  In them, Jewish leaders saw not only a symbol of their contempt for “Pax Romana”, but also traitors and cheaters, representatives of an enemy power.  “They were a criminal race, to which Lev 20:5 applied,”[5] which says “then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.[6]  All tax collectors as a group fell under the Rabbinic ban, or their version of excommunication.  Under the ban, a person or group of persons became “like one dead”, not allowed to socialize with other Jews, who could not even give them directions.  “It was forbidden to eat or drink with such a one.”[7]

Zacchaeus Has No Friends
In Luke 19, we meet one of these chief tax collectors, Zacchaeus, who appeared to be having a mid-life crisis.  He was a very rich, successful man because of the abuses described above, but was trying to reform.  Luke 19:8 records Zacchaeus’ words when he met Jesus: “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.[8]’” Comically, he had to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus at all, who was surrounded by crowds.

Excommunicated from the Jewish faith, and probably less popular with his Roman bosses due to collecting less tax, Zacchaeus was looking for anyone to accept him.  We don’t know for sure what led Zacchaeus to search for Jesus, but maybe he knew about John the Baptist calling tax collectors to “Collect no more than you are authorized to do”, as recorded in Luke 3:10-13.  Later, maybe Zacchaeus heard Jesus’ teaching about taxes and tax collectors as did Matthew, another tax collector and eventually author of the first book of the New Testament.  In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus contrasted the obnoxious self-righteousness of a Pharisee to a humble tax collector begging for forgiveness.

When Jesus saw Zacchaeus in the tree, he called out “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”[9]  Then came the complaints of the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders, who “grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’”  See, the Pharisees were right that Zacchaeus is a sinner.  They were right that he was an oppressor.  The Pharisees divided the world into “us” and “sinners”, and expected Jesus to do the same.  After all, the Rabbinic ban applied to the entire class of tax collectors and if Jesus wanted to be a Rabbi, he had to enforce the ban.  If they were Mandalorian, they would have said “This is the way!” [10]

In contrast, earlier in Luke 6:27-32, Jesus taught:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.  And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.  If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”

The first part of this seems to be describing precisely the actions of tax collectors and their thugs, and saying “Love them!”.  The latter part sounds like a rebuke to the Pharisees.  What the Pharisees did not understand is that from Jesus’ perspective, all are sinners and all are enemies of God.  Fortunately, He does not leave it at that: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” – Romans 5:8. If Jesus had not loved His enemies on the cross, we – including the Pharisees – would all be without hope, like Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree.

Jesus announced “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” – Luke 19:9b-10. In saving Zacchaeus, Jesus was proclaiming a new paradigm, where there is no “Us versus Sinners”, but in His death and resurrection He created a church that is “Him for Them”, and then “Us for Them”.  He elevated Love above “truth”, letting the Pharisees know that although their accusations against Zacchaeus and all tax collectors were “true”, that truth was not good enough.  The truth of the Law condemns because we are all sinners. Jesus is the Truth we need, that brings peace and sets free.  Zacchaeus was excluded from church and state, but Jesus offered a third, superior kingdom that would accept him.  By disowning his sin (Luke 19:8 above), Zacchaeus didn’t become perfect, but he acknowledged Jesus as the Savior and King he needed and relied on His grace.

Ripple Effects
The Pharisees continued longing for a political messiah who would get rid of traitors like the tax collectors and overthrow Rome.  Their worldview pointed back to the reign of King David, who oversaw a sovereign Jewish nation governed by the laws of the Pentateuch[11], with a “pure” system of Jewish law centered around worship and sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Rather than being reformed by the Zacchaeus episode, Pharisees later tried to force Jesus to take sides between church (as the Pharisees saw it) and the occupying Roman state in Luke 20:19-25, asking “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”  Jesus deftly replied, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Jesus did not condemn paying taxes even though he knew fraud and corruption was involved, but he earlier demanded that those responsible for corruption repent.

If you feel like a Pharisee in this story, break the stereotype of “Us vs. Them.”  Find a Zacchaeus out there and bring the love and forgiveness of Jesus to them.  I guarantee you know one.  The nightly news or your social media feed are probably very good at identifying enemies.  However, “Blessed are the peacemakers”[12], because they are like Jesus.

Zacchaeus probably continued to collect taxes, but as a reformed man.  He would refuse to be a cog in a corrupt machine.  As a chief collector, he may have influenced subordinates to be less corrupt, and therefore his conversion was good for the citizens while also making Pax Romana look more like its propaganda and less like what the Pharisees hated.  A bit of the righteousness and justice of heaven was injected into Pax Romana because Jesus saw Zacchaeus as a person, and not as a category or type, beyond redemption under the ban.

If you feel like Zacchaeus in this story, cast out and rejected with unforgiving enemies on every side, turn to Jesus.  Perhaps you feel like the religious establishment doesn’t like you or your kind.  Jesus is not the religious or political solution the Pharisees and Romans wanted, but He is the solution – the Answer[13].  For you.

The Right Side of History
When people say they are on “the right side of history” they’re implicitly claiming to know the future and also claiming the right to judge the present based on that knowledge.  However, they often ignore the One who actually does know the future.  When Jesus met Zacchaeus, saving him from slavery to the kingdom of sin was more important at that moment than overthrowing Rome and saving the Jews from state oppression.  Jesus knew that Zacchaeus’ soul was eternal, but that Rome and all its institutions and culture were temporary.  Only in hindsight do we know what Jesus already knew at the time: in AD 66, Rome would invade and level the city of Jerusalem, including desecrating the temple.  In 410 AD, Germanic tribes would sack the city of Rome and eventually overthrow the empire of Pax Romana.

What was Zacchaeus’ fate in AD 66?  We don’t know, but if we are Christians, we know we will meet him in heaven.  He was rescued, spiritually, just days before Jesus went to the cross for him.  Jesus overcame the temporary power of the world – the oppressing power of sin and darkness that enslaves us – by offering Himself and the radical power of forgiveness.  Zacchaeus was a state oppressor of the Jews as an agent of Rome, and also religiously oppressed by the Jews who tried to keep him from God, but he will outlast both systems.  He overcame, in Jesus, the Oppressor that cuts across all categories of people – sin.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28

From the perspective of eternity, being on “the right side of history” is when the oppressor loves the oppressed and the oppressed loves the oppressor.  Isaiah 11:6-9 describes the future from which Jesus will judge our present actions and whether we are on the right side:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”


Post Script
This post is the first of what might be an intermittent series of “Found” posts, and also the first in a short series about finding peace and strength while temporarily living in the kingdoms of the world.  Next (God willing) is a post where God laughs at death, followed by a post about a “minor” Old Testament prophet, a re-post from my decade-old defunct blog about a TV show, and concluded by a full-post Coda.

[1] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1886). P. 357
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Josephus. The Jewish War (2.9.2) (AD 75) and Antiquities of the Jews (18.3.1) (AD 93). Cited in Wikipedia entry on Pontius Pilate.
[5] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. (1886). P. 357.
[6] Molech was a god of the Ammonites, whose followers sometimes sacrificed their children to him by fire. Ammonites were descendants of Abraham’s brother Lot, through his younger daughter who got him drunk and seduced him. (Gen 19:38)
[7] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. (1886). P. 602.
[8] Possibly referring to Exodus 22:1 – “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”
[9] Luke 19:5
[10] In the Disney+ series, The Mandalorian, the title refers to a tribe of bounty hunters who use this phrase when referencing their shared code of conduct.
[11] The first 5 books of the Bible, or the “books of Moses”
[12] Matthew 5:9
[13] See my first post, “42 is Not the Answer” for more on how Jesus is the Answer.

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