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?

Job 12 – A Warning to Those at Ease

“Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.”

Then Job replied:

“Doubtless you are the only people who matter,
    and wisdom will die with you!
But I have a mind as well as you;
    I am not inferior to you.
    Who does not know all these things?

“I have become a laughingstock to my friends,
    though I called on God and he answered—
    a mere laughingstock, though righteous and blameless!
Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune
    as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.
The tents of marauders are undisturbed,
    and those who provoke God are secure—
    those God has in his hand.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
    or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
    or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every creature
    and the breath of all mankind.
11 Does not the ear test words
    as the tongue tastes food?
12 Is not wisdom found among the aged?
    Does not long life bring understanding?

13 “To God belong wisdom and power;
    counsel and understanding are his.
14 What he tears down cannot be rebuilt;
    those he imprisons cannot be released.
15 If he holds back the waters, there is drought;
    if he lets them loose, they devastate the land.
16 To him belong strength and insight;
    both deceived and deceiver are his.
17 He leads rulers away stripped
    and makes fools of judges.
18 He takes off the shackles put on by kings
    and ties a loincloth around their waist.
19 He leads priests away stripped
    and overthrows officials long established.
20 He silences the lips of trusted advisers
    and takes away the discernment of elders.
21 He pours contempt on nobles
    and disarms the mighty.
22 He reveals the deep things of darkness
    and brings utter darkness into the light.
23 He makes nations great, and destroys them;
    he enlarges nations, and disperses them.
24 He deprives the leaders of the earth of their reason;
    he makes them wander in a trackless waste.
25 They grope in darkness with no light;
    he makes them stagger like drunkards.

The Bible is full of warnings for the “big guy” to get their act right.  One of my favorites is in Isaiah chapter 32, his warning to “complacent women.” Basically all of the prophets warn for those in power to stop being so corrupt and turn back to God.  And it’s a warning that still needs to be heard today.

In this warning, Job once again gives voice to the downtrodden the world over.  “I am not inferior to you,” Job tells his friends in v. 3 (and again at the beginning of the next chapter).  And I think v. 5 might be my favorite line of this whole book so far, where Job calls them out on their sanctimonious bullshit: “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.”  Basically, “you don’t know what it’s like, I’m over here drowning and you’re trying to offer me swim lessons. Throw me a freaking life saver!”

The whole second half of this chapter can be read as a warning to Job’s friends, who are a stand-in for people in power just as Job is a stand-in for the downtrodden.  “To God belongs wisdom and power,” (v. 13) Job declares – something his friends have been quoting at him the whole time.  But the difference is they were using it to try and suppress Job while upholding their own righteousness, while Job is reminding them – and us – that even our own righteousness is not enough to stand up to God.  “He leads priests away stripped and overthrows men long established, He silences the lips of trusted advisers and takes away discernment of elders [v. 19-20]….He makes nations great, and destroys them [v. 23].”  This is one big reminder that even those who have the appearance of power and security, like Job’s friends, are not immune to correction from God.

I feel I am blessed, because I stand between two worlds: a world of privilege and a world of need.  I am white, cis-gender, able-bodied, and middle class.  I am also female, the mother of a special-needs child with crap insurance (goodbye, $700 every time we go to the developmental pediatrician), and a farmer whose livelihood is directly tied to the vagaries of climate change, predators, and agricultural policy.  So while I have certain comforts–certain privileges, if you will, I never feel fully secure.  Why is this a blessing? Because it helps me to remember others in need, just as Paul’s affliction kept him grounded in reality. (You can read about Paul’s thorn in his side, as he calls it, in 2 Corinthians chapter 12.)  It is easy for me to identify with people who are suffering.  Are you struggling to pay your medical bills? I feel you – reference my developmental pediatrician statement above.  Are you struggling with a condition some people don’t even recognize – such as an “invisible” disease like MS or fibromyalgia or a little-heard of (and therefore dismissed) disorder like Executive Dysfunction?  Again, I feel you – even nowadays not everyone recognizes that Autism is a real thing.  I found a hateful blog post recently where someone claimed individuals with ASD are “retards” who are “possessed by the devil” because their parents are sinners. I just pray that man never has any grandchildren who get diagnosed and have to suffer though his vitriol.  Even being in a interracial marriage has helped me be more empathetic.  It is one of the main reasons I’m such an avid supporter of gay marriage.  Not that long ago – I’m talking 1967, when my dad was a teenager and Chris’ dad was already in his mid-twenties, interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia.  (They even made a movie about it.)  If two people care for each other, want to build a life and a family together, want to spread love in this world that so desperately needs it, why would we stop it? To borrow Job’s words, they are not inferior to me, and I will not have contempt for their misfortune.

I’ve talked about examining your privilege before, but I’m going to mention it again, because Lent is a great time to do it, and it’s actually a great practice in gratitude, too.  Think about all the things you’re grateful for.  Some examples could be good health, your family, or a new job. And then, just think about those who lack that particular blessing.  Counterpoint examples could be those suffering poor health or mental illness, children of all ages in the foster care system, and those struggling with unemployment.  None of these seem particularly controversial on the surface, but dig a little deeper and our society often has contempt for these groups:  I can’t afford insurance that would cover mental health services for my (otherwise healthy!!!) daughter with ASD.  Funding is being cut for Health and Human Services, the government agency responsible for the Administration of Children and Families, Head Start programs, and TANF (all which benefit foster children and children in at-risk situations).  The stigma against unemployed people has been documented in a controlled study by UCLA.  None of these are actions of love, but actions of contempt.

I get it, not everyone is going to be a social justice warrior.  Some just don’t have the time or inclination, but that doesn’t make them bad people.  There are lots of legitimate reasons a person may not be active in implementing change: raising a family, starting a business, caring for a sick loved one, struggling to make ends meet themselves.  But even little actions make a difference.  What if everyone made just one (more) phone call to their representatives about an issue that they heard on the news?  What if everyone donated just $10 (more) to a charity of their choice? What if everyone bought one less thing made of plastic, or one more thing from a female entrepreneur?  I don’t know what would happen, but I bet it would be good.  So today I’m challenging you to do a little more to make a difference. I know it’s hard, with everyone and everything asking “more” of us, but like I said, the steps can be little to start.  I’d love to hear what little steps you’re taking to make the world a better place, perhaps you might inspire someone else to do the same thing.  Above all else today, let us not have contempt for other’s misfortune, for they are not inferior to us.  Let us not be too at ease, for then we ourselves are at risk of the greater misfortune of God’s displeasure.  We have the chance to be agents of God’s love for all mankind – let’s take it.

Job 11 – The Endurance of Job

Job really isn’t very patient, but he does endure.

Then Zophar the Naamathite replied:

“Are all these words to go unanswered?
    Is this talker to be vindicated?
Will your idle talk reduce others to silence?
    Will no one rebuke you when you mock?
You say to God, ‘My beliefs are flawless
    and I am pure in your sight.’
Oh, how I wish that God would speak,
    that he would open his lips against you
and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom,
    for true wisdom has two sides.
    Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.

“Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
    Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
    They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
    and wider than the sea.

10 “If he comes along and confines you in prison
    and convenes a court, who can oppose him?
11 Surely he recognizes deceivers;
    and when he sees evil, does he not take note?
12 But the witless can no more become wise
    than a wild donkey’s colt can be born human.

13 “Yet if you devote your heart to him
    and stretch out your hands to him,
14 if you put away the sin that is in your hand
    and allow no evil to dwell in your tent,
15 then, free of fault, you will lift up your face;
    you will stand firm and without fear.
16 You will surely forget your trouble,
    recalling it only as waters gone by.
17 Life will be brighter than noonday,
    and darkness will become like morning.
18 You will be secure, because there is hope;
    you will look about you and take your rest in safety.
19 You will lie down, with no one to make you afraid,
    and many will court your favor.
20 But the eyes of the wicked will fail,
    and escape will elude them;
    their hope will become a dying gasp.”

The more I read Job (and read about Job), the less I think it is about theodicy – the justice of God existing alongside the existence of evil – and more about endurance of faith.  I think this seed was planted long ago.  The same pastor I mentioned two posts back also told me she thought that “the patience of Job” should really be “the endurance of Job,” because he really isn’t very patient with his loud complaints and bitter responses to his friends, but he does endure through his whole ordeal.

Then, a week or so ago, I was perusing through online writings on Job. I’m sorry I can’t remember if it was on Instagram with the hashtag #bookofJob, or a blog article, or what because I’d really love to link to it and give the author credit (to that person: if you find me, holler!), but the thrust of their message was, Job’s suffering was all worth it because it meant (spoiler alert) he got to meet God.  Yes, he gets his stuff and family and everything back, too, but even more than the worldly goods his faith is rewarded by the presence of God.  So, is Job’s test more of a quest, almost like a knight? Job didn’t get to pick his quest quite like a knight does, but just like a King Arthur style tale, he is tried and tested and faces hardship but wins a glorious prize for his endurance in the end.

Finally, earlier this week, I came across an article in my favorite academic journal, Vetus Testamentum. In it, author Andrew E. Steinmann argues that the central theme of Job is not theodicy, but rather Job’s “struggle to maintain his integrity and his battle to hang onto his trust in God, rather than the problem of his suffering.”  Steinmann goes on to argue that the theme of theodicy is secondary and the only safe conclusion we can draw, again to quote the author, is that “theodicy is an irrelevant exercise for human beings.  They cannot explain God’s actions because they do not have access to God’s wisdom in the heavenly court. They can only dangerously attempt deductions that are as unreliable as the deductions made by Job’s friends.” (All this from “The Structure and Message of the Book of Job, Andrew E. Steinmann, Vol. 46 Fasc. 1 of Vetus Testamentum, Jan. 1996)

Following this theme of the endurance of Job, or the endurance of the faith of Job, we can see his friends test him with their false piety, impatience and indignation.  This speech of Zophar’s is the most impatient and indignant yet.  Add his wife to the mix when she says “curse God and die,” (2:9) and we have temptation (it’s a morbid desire, but still, Job desires the grave above all else at this point – and his wife is saying he will die if he just curses God).  So Job’s faith is tried in every manner: loss, suffering, trying attitudes, and temptation.  But he endures, his faith endures.

I find this a much more satisfying explanation of the book of Job than one based solely on theodicy, exactly because there is suffering in the world.  The truth is, we don’t know why God allows suffering.  But that doesn’t mean Xe doesn’t love us, it just means we lack a full comprehension of God. I think I’ve used this analogy before: but it helps me to think of it like kids on the playground.  When I take my girls to the playground, I am watching over them, helping them.  But even under careful guidance, they occasionally hurt themselves.  It’s not that I don’t care about them, it’s just part of growing up, learning their abilities, and striving for the next monkey bar.  I patch up their boo-boos, give them hugs and kisses, and send them back out there.  If Earth is our proverbial playground, could God be doing the same for us?  Watching over us, maybe even letting us make some mistakes, in the hopes that we are growing, not just individually, but collectively? I like to think so.  I know I’ve mentioned this before (maybe multiple times), but my all-time favorite church sign is “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  This encapsulates what I think is the most important takeaway from Job:  That all of life is a quest, just like Job’s suffering was.  It is a quest of faith, a battle of endurance in which we must hold fast to God.  We may get scraped up from time to time, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon our faith.  Stay faithful, and the reward is everlasting peace in the life to come.