Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good Eye / Bad Eye (Matthew 6:22-23)

The following is a short article that I was asked to write for the January 2009 edition of New Hope magazine. It's aimed at a lay magazine audience, so it simplifies things a bit. I need help on the last paragraph - as it stands, it is too trite. Any suggestions?

Good Eye / Bad Eye
What I love most about being a professor at Pacific Rim Bible College is the opportunity to help young leaders learn how to better interpret and apply the Bible. Today in class, a student asked about a difficult passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “… if your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23). What did Jesus mean?

It turns out that having a “good eye” or a “bad eye” was a common manner of speaking when Jesus taught. The phrase “bad eye” is often translated as “stingy” or “greedy” in other places in the Bible (Deuteronomy 15:9, Proverbs 23:6, Proverbs 28:22, Matthew 20:15). And the word for “good” in this verse is translated as “generous” in some other passages in the Bible (1 Chronicles 29:17, Romans 12:8, James 1:5). So Jesus was using the ordinary language of his day to point out how much better generosity is than stinginess.

If you read this whole section of Jesus’ sermon (Matthew 6:19-34), you can tell that Jesus is giving several key principles about handling our money. First, he tells us that an act of generosity is like making a deposit in heaven (6:19-21). Then he tells us that having a “good eye” (being generous) lights up our whole lives, while having a “bad eye” (being stingy) makes our whole lives dark (6:22-23). Next, he warns us that we must choose God as our master, not money (6:24). Finally, Jesus teaches us how to avoid worry so that we will use our money generously to advance God’s purposes (6:25-34).

We ended our discussion not only with a good Bible lesson, but also with a challenge: am I being generous with the resources God has given me? Do I have a “good eye” or a “bad eye?”

I'm looking forward to your comments and suggestions on the wording of the final paragraph.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Trinity for Toddlers

A conversation overheard between Ian, our seven-year-old, and Andrew, our three-year-old (of jelly bean fame). (At right: Caleb, Andrew, Ian)

Ian: No, there's only one god.
Andrew: Oh!
Ian: Actually, there are two gods, God and Jesus.
Andrew: Yeah, God and Jesus.
Ian: Actually there are three gods: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
Andrew: Yeah, he's the bad guy.
Ian: No! They are all good guys. The Holy Ghost is a good guy.
Andrew: Yeah, all good guys.
Ian: Actually, there are four gods: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, and Satan. He's the bad guy.
Andrew: Yeah, he's the bad guy.
Ian: Andrew, you know why the world isn't perfect? It's because of Satan.
Andrew: Oh.
Ian: That's why grass is so itchy, because of Satan.
Andrew: Yeah.

The picture: The Trinity, 1414, from the workshop of the Master of the Gerona Martyrology. It follows the pattern of a gnadenstuhle, or "pillar of grace," which includes a cross, the Son sitting in the Father's lap, and the Spirit as a dove (usually resting on the cross or descending towards it).

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Restoring a Fisherman (John 21:15-17)

In a recent post, I pointed out that we should not read too much into the variation of Greek words (such as agape and phileo) in the account of Simon Peter's restoration in John 21:15-17. The passage is very poetic, and uses a number of synonymous words for stylistic reasons.

One of my beefs with Bible professors (and I am one of them) is that sometimes we take a perverse delight in skewering common misinterpretations of Scripture, but then we leave people with nothing. We take away meaning, rather than adding understanding. My goal, as a professor who regularly skewers bad interpretation, is to replace bad interpretation with better - and that better interpretation is (or ought to be) more attractive because it is truer and more powerful.

In John 21:15-17, there is much to learn after we remove bad interpretation. First, we find seven disciples fishing. Since fishing was not primarily for recreation, it seems that Peter is returning to his old career. Nothing wrong with fishing for a living - but Peter had been called to be a full-time disciple of the rabbi. Peter probably felt that his failure disqualified him to serve or lead.

The miraculous catch of fish in John 21 is a reminder of Peter's initial call to be a "fisher of men." (Nerd note: this version of Peter's initial call is found only in Luke 5:1-11, and not in John. But I think that we have here an example of what Johannine scholars call "interlocking," where John refers to things that the readers would only know if they were familiar with the Synoptic gospel stories, and especially Luke). The repeat of the miracle puts Peter in a state of mind to be re-summoned to service.

The miracle also contains a minor allusion to an OT prophecy about the new covenant age. Ezek 47:1-12 describes a river of healing water flowing from the Temple (compare to John 7:37-39, where the river comes from Jesus), which bring a multiplication of fish. Some ancient rabbinic sources specifically located Ezekiel's multiplication of the fish at the Sea of Tiberias (cp. John 21:1).

Jesus further prepares Peter for restoration by cooking breakfast over an anthrakia, a charcoal fire, perhaps in a metal brazier. The only other time that anthrakia occurs in the Bible is in John 18:18, where Peter denied that he knew Christ three times. This explains the repetition in John 21. Peter now has the chance to do it right. Just as three times he denied Jesus before enemies, he now can affirm his love for Jesus three times before friends.

Jesus' goal is to restore Peter to self-sacrificial service, to help him become a shepherd like Jesus (see John 1o). Part of the reason that Peter had denied Jesus was that he had wanted to die with Jesus, and followed Jesus into a place where he was unable to remain loyal. He was more concerned with his own personal loyalty to Jesus, and less concerned with shepherding his brothers.

Peter took his re-appointment to shepherding seriously. Thirty years later, he wrote this to church leaders: "Shepherd the flock of God among you, not grudgingly, but willingly, as God wants you to... be examples to the flock. Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive a glorious and unfading crown." (1 Pet 5:2-4)