Matthew 26 – Destiny or Free Will?

God has provided the framework within which we can make our own decisions.

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.”

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

14 Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests 15 and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver.16 From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

17 On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

18 He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.

20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.21 And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”

23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered, “You have said so.”

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

30 When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”

35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

50 Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

55 In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

57 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled. 58 But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome.

59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. 60 But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.

Finally two came forward 61 and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’”

62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent.

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?”

“He is worthy of death,” they answered.

67 Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him 68 and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?”

69 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.

70 But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”

72 He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”

73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.”

74 Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”

Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Jesus talks a lot about fulfilling destiny in this chapter.  In vv. 2, 12-13, 20, 23-24, 31, and 34 he tells his disciples events of the future.  He specifically says “as it was written,” (v. 24), “the Scriptures be fulfilled” (v. 54), and “that the writings of the prophets be fulfilled” (v. 56) when referring to Judas’ betrayal and his own imminent death.

Destiny – or fate, or predestination, or whatever you want to call it, even God’s Plan – is a funny thing.  Sometimes it’s comforting to believe in it.  When things are all going wrong, we can ease our troubled minds by saying, “this is all part of God’s Plan, things happen for a reason.”  I wonder about poor Judas a lot in this respect.  In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Judas seemingly acts out of his own greed.  In Luke and John, the text says Satan took control of Judas and made him betray Jesus.  If we are of the mind Judas had to betray Jesus, that it was his destiny, believing he was possessed to do so makes him a much more sympathetic figure.  But regardless of what moved him to betray Jesus, Jesus himself seems forgiving of Judas, calling him friend until the very end.  Perhaps Jesus knew Judas could not escape his role as the betrayer, just as Jesus could not escape his role as sacrificial lamb.

But if we believe in destiny, what of free will? Put yourself in Judas’ shoes for a moment.  In a world governed only by destiny, then if we were Judas, we’d have to betray Jesus, too, right?  We’d have no choice but to – we may even be possessed by Satan in order to get the job done.  No one wants to believe their personal choices are out of their control.  We want to believe that we have some agency, some ability to influence the course of our own lives.  We want to be able to say, “No, if it were me, I would not have betrayed Jesus!”

So which is it guiding the universe? Destiny or free will?  We really have no way to know, but I’m going to be super wishy-washy and say it’s probably somewhere in the middle.  Ready for yet another parenting analogy?  I plan my day with the girls.  For example, I plan to take them to the playground.  When we get to the playground, I know the girls will play, but I let them chose what to do instead of issuing a hard order of swings-slide-sandbox.  I may encourage them towards one thing or another, or stop one activity if it’s becoming a problem (such as sand throwing in the sandbox), but by and large they have their own agency within a framework I’ve designed.  And that is what I’m comfortable believing in when it comes to God, destiny, and free will:  God has provided the framework within which we can make our own decisions.  God may course correct if we make too many decisions out of line with the overall plan – taking us out of the sandbox, if you will, but we still get to make those decisions.

All of this is why I think we will still meet Judas in heaven.  He played a critical, if unenviable, roll in the Passion of Jesus Christ.  God chose him for this task because he knew it was probably the course of action Judas would take.  It was still possible for him to resist – resist greed, resist Satan, resist whatever it was that made him do it – but unlikely.  Do I love my children any less because they can’t help but act out when they’re over-tired? Or stop eating an open bag of chocolate chips left in their reach? Or even when they hit or bite each other and pull each other’s hair?  Of course not, I know they’re children, and unable of acting better…yet.  I’ll keep working with them to improve, but I’m not going to hold it against them.  It’s not a perfect analogy for Judas – I’m not encouraging my girls to hurt each other to fulfill some sort of destiny for either of them, but I think the sentiment still holds true.

So, if destiny normally makes you feel uncomfortable, think of it not as a prison, but more as the playground fence: just there to keep you safe and know your boundaries.  If free will makes you feel like you’re playing dodgeball on a playground with no fence and no parent in the median of a major highway, know that the fence and parent are there, you just can’t see them.  There’s a quote from Lisa Bevere (a Christian writer of whom I know nothing about, other than this quote) I’ve seen circulating lately, and I love it because it implies both God’s overall power but also our power to make decisions, even bad ones.  The quote is this: “If you think you’ve blown God’s plan for the rest of your life, rest in this.  You, my friend, are not that powerful.”  So go out there, make decisions.  I hope they are good ones, but, being human, you’re bound to make some bad ones, too.  Even if they are, God will still love you and is keeping an eye on what you are doing, and how it ties into the bigger picture.  And thank goodness for that, right?

Psalm 32 – What is Sin?

The greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Lent seems like a good time to have a discussion about sin, since we’re supposed to be doing a little spiritual cleansing in preparation for Jesus’ return.  But what, exactly, is sin?  I want to make absolutely clear that this is just my own opinion.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, a little praying about it, and minimal reading about it, other than Bible passages such as this one.  All that being said, let me give you my ideas on sin, repentance, and forgiveness:

In order to discuss sin, I think we first need to (re)establish what I see as the greatest purpose, the greatest commandment asked of Christians.  And that is unconditional love for each other.  In John 13:34 Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  I think all other commandments stem from this basic principle of love.  Resting on the Sabbath?  That is self-care, and when we take care of ourselves we can better care for others.  Honor thy mother and father?  Just another way of saying show filial love and respect.

So what is sin, then? It is a failure to love one another to the best of our ability.  So yes, we are all sinners, because we all fall short in that.  Personally, I fall short when I get frustrated with the kids, when I speak out of annoyance to my husband or parents, when I buy clothes without knowing where they’re made (because they could potentially come from unsafe or underpaid workers), when I don’t recycle (because poisoning the world with plastic is not an act of love for future generations).  As a society we fall short when we don’t welcome refugees clamoring for help, when we turn a blind eye to the harm we are doing to the earth that future generations will inherit, and when we deny the basic humanity of someone based on their skin color or because they pray differently than us.

So how do we repent, how do we change our ways?  It can seem futile, at first – one person cannot stop the all wars, pollution, and hate that is rampant in the world.  And even on a smaller level, we know that we ourselves can’t promise to never get frustrated, never get tired, and never give into less than loving impulses.  So what is even the point?  Let’s return to the parenting analogy I’m so fond of.  I want my girls to be the best they can be.  Just this week Marienne seems to be getting the point of “please” and Betty has been super helpful, cleaning up her playdough and putting her boots away.  My heart bursts with pride at these little accomplishments, and I do all I can to encourage that sort of behavior.  However, they also just today fought over a toy fish and had a hair pulling moment at the rice table.  I corrected them (redirecting for the hair pulling and a “reset,” which is like a pre-timeout, for the fish).  I was not pleased with that behavior, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them, or that I don’t think they’re capable of more good moments.  And that is how I think God must view us.  Of course Xe is going to get angry at us making a mess of the beautiful earth he has given us, for fighting with and oppressing our brothers and sisters. Xe may even punish us for it.  But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us, and think us capable of good.  Nothing melts my heart more than Betty’s little “sowwy, Mommy.”  That’s all we have to do, too.  Turn to God with a heart-felt apology, a vow to do better, and we are forgiven.  Yes, we will mess up, we will “sin,” if you will, but that’s only part of being human.  Xe expects that.  But we can do well by God by earnestly trying to be better.

I admit – acting out of love seems simple, but it can get murky.  There’s lots of different ideas of what is good or bad.  I probably let me two year old do more things than some parents (play outside under minimal supervision, taste the dog food, wear lipstick on her eyebrows) because I think that it’s a safe way to let her learn and grow.  I probably also let my two year old do less things than some parents (I’m still terrified of her eating nuts and lollipops, and I still can’t let her cry it out for more than a few minutes at night).  Am I a “bad” parent for sometimes too lenient or sometimes overprotective?  Some might argue I am, even though I think I’m acting from a place of love.  Scale that difference of opinion up to larger debates like deciding to go to war (are we really promoting democracy or are we propping up an oil friendly regime?), or climate change (are we hurting small business owners by imposing stricter environmental standards?) and you’ll find good people on every side of those opinions.  The important thing is to really search your heart and examine your actions, and if you find you are acting out of greed, distrust, or even laziness instead of love, then it may be time to change your course.

So to recap: the greatest commandment is to love one another.  The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.  We can strive to act out of love all the time, but, being human, we will fail in that from time to time.  But God loves us with a love stronger and more pure than anything we can ever know, and because of that, no sin is beyond Xyr forgiveness.  It’s not a free pass – we need to keep trying to be better and not repeating our mistakes, just like my girls will keep getting time outs each time they bite each other.  But they will also be forgiven afterwards, and we, too, can always turn to God with a contrite heart, ready to be forgiven and start fresh.  Going into Holy Week, the last week of Lent, I encourage you to stop and examine your heart.  Is there anything that’s been bothering you lately?  If so, I encourage you to pray.  Pray to God for forgiveness, if you feel you need it, and pray that Xe will show you the path of love, and pray for the strength of spirit to follow it.  And then keep doing that any time you feel you stray, come up short, or “sin.”  God will always, always welcome you back, because God’s love is greater than any sin.

Job 14 – Truths vs. Greater Truths

Seeing the forest through the trees.

“Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
    like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Do you fix your eye on them?
    Will you bring them before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
    No one!
A person’s days are determined;
    you have decreed the number of his months
    and have set limits he cannot exceed.
So look away from him and let him alone,
    till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.

“At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
    he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
    or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
    till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
    or be roused from their sleep.

13 “If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
14 If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal to come.
15 You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
16 Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
17 My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.

18 “But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
    and as a rock is moved from its place,
19 as water wears away stones
    and torrents wash away the soil,
    so you destroy a person’s hope.
20 You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
    you change their countenance and send them away.
21 If their children are honored, they do not know it;
    if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
22 They feel but the pain of their own bodies
    and mourn only for themselves.”

There are some who think v. 12-14 are at the very least innocently mistranslated, but possibly even changed completely and intentionally, to more fully support the idea of resurrection.  Indeed, I got excited when I read that passage – “I will wait for my renewal to come.”  Isn’t that what we’re taught, as Christians, to wait for?  I mean, the return of Jesus is the renewal this whole Christian “thing” is all about, right?

So let’s say that this passage has been manipulated.  I can totally believe that: before they were codified into a collection we now call “the Bible,” these stories (especially a really old one like Job) were oral traditions that were retold and later written down in a centuries-long game of telephone, if you will, so things were bound to change, at least a little.  But does that mean we should totally scrap it?

In short, no.  But this is a good time to plug in a little reminder about reading the Bible in context, which can be easy to forget, especially in a project like this with a laser focus on one chapter at a time.  Is it true that the key passage of this chapter has been manipulated to fit an agenda?  Quite possibly yes.  But how does it, and this chapter at large, fit into the greater truths the Bible is trying to convey to us?

Taken as a whole, this chapter – and most of Job’s three-chapter speech here – aren’t really about renewal and allusions to resurrection, but about God’s infinite power and the insignificance of humans in the face of such an almighty force.  I think two verses from chapter 12 could serve as Job’s thesis in this three-chapter speech: “To God belong wisdom and power, counsel and understanding are his…to him belong strength and victory, both deceived and deceiver are his.” (13:13, 16)  So, even ignoring the potentially problematic passage, we have our first greater truth: God is great.

The second greater truth takes a little inference, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch.  The second greater truth is that even though we are “like a fleeting shadow” in our mortality, we are important to God, God sees us.  In this chapter alone Job mentions God watching man three times: in vv. 3, 6, and 16.  In all of Job’s the chapters making up Job’s speeches so far, God watching man is mentioned nine, possibly ten times (in v. 7:8 he could be referring to his friends or to God when he says “you will look for me but I will be no more”).  True, it is mostly in a negative sense, more like a kid with a magnifying glass over an anthill than a beneficent Lord, but we must remember the place of pain and lack of understanding from which Job is speaking.  In fact, because of his suffering Job is extra important to God.  Remember, the cause of all this suffering was a wager between God and Satan – so Job’s actions through his suffering are of keen interest to the celestial court of this story, even if Job’s days are just as fleeting as the rest of ours.

So if God is great (Greater Truth One), why are we important to God (Greater Truth Two)?  I honestly don’t know.  But perhaps the key to that mystery lies in the Greatest Truth: that God is love.  We may not understand all of God’s ways, but even with all the suffering we see in Job, all the suffering we see in the world, we can know that we, our insignificant, flawed, mortal, fleeting selves, are important to a power much greater than our own.  God is watching us, all the time.  Xe sees our successes, and rejoices with us, Xe sees our failures, and mourns with us.  One, or even hundreds, of controversial translations in the Bible cannot dissuade me from that fact, because I can see the forest through the trees, or in this case the truth through the words, and it bears repeating one more time: God loves us. God loves you.  Praise be to God.

***

I’m going to switch gears here because we’ve reached a good stopping point in the cycle of speeches between Job and his friends. I’m setting aside the Book of Job until next Lent and reading Psalm 6 and Psalm 32 in the remaining time before Holy Week, which starts a week from today.  During Holy Week I’ll read corresponding Gospel passages, specifically Matthew 21, 26, and 27.  Then for Easter I’ll read Matthew 28, if you want are reading along (or ahead) as we go.