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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Jesus at the Feast (John 7:10-24)

 After his relatives went to the feast, Jesus also decided to go. He wanted to observe it, but he didn't want to be the focus of all the attention. You can see it in the way people were talking about Jesus, that he would have been the focus. Also, there may be a mystery in the Father's plan, which meant that he had to go to the feast slightly later than he might have otherwise.

Whatever Jesus hoped to avoid by not announcing himself came to pass anyway, when he taught in the temple. His opponents had to wonder where he got his knowledge, because they knew he wasn't trained like they were. Even though Jesus's knowledge is special and supernatural, we should take this as a lesson, that none of us has to be a trained expert to have knowledge of God. And our knowledge is meant to serve the love of God.

Jesus grounds what he is saying in the fact that he was sent by the Father. His opponents wanted to get him on a technicality of breaking the Sabbath. Jesus appeals to the spirit of the Sabbath, more than the letter. And then he notes that the boys were circumcised on the Sabbath, in order to keep the covenant. No one would say that circumcision--which was the covenant sign of being part of Israel--was somehow an unnecessary work that could wait. Jesus called them out on their pretended devotion to the Law. He doesn't say that we should never judge anything, but he is telling us to judge carefully, and with wisdom.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Unbelief and Rising Opposition (John 7:1-9)

 One of the reasons to prefer the translation "Judeans" in verse 1--besides guarding against anti-Semitic attitudes--is that it better gets across who Jesus's opponents were. The main groups that were his opponents were the Pharisees, a group devoted to strict observance of the Torah (the law of Moses), and the Sadducees, who were picked by the foreign power of Rome to manage the worship of the temple. As a rule, they weren't particularly religious or observant; it's a bit like today, when we read about some country that has a state church. Most people realize that the people long since abandoned those convictions. In defense of the Pharisees, all the tragedy of the Old Testament--especially the sacking of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and the takeovers by foreign powers--convinced many people that it had all come about because people had not observed the Law closely enough. But again, even the receiving of the Law had at the heart of it God redeeming his people from slavery in Egypt. We were never intended to keep the Law for its own sake, but for the sake of loving God.

Jesus comes along, and tells these leaders that they're all missing the point. He can do this because he is God, and mysteriously, he gave the Law to the Israelites in the first place. He told his disciples to go to the Feast of Tabernacles without him. He says his time has not yet come, and he is speaking spiritually there, basically saying that going to Jerusalem at this time is not in the Father's plan. We should note that the word "brethren" is broader in this culture than it is in ours. These people were cousins of Jesus, both close, and not so close.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Do You Take Offense at This? (John 6:60-71)

 There were two parts of what Jesus had just said that were offensive: first, he invited people to eat his flesh and drink his blood, which would be a violation of the law of Moses in several respects. Second, Jesus talks about God the Father in a way that no one would do. It sounds like blasphemy, to call God your own father.

He knew they were offended, on both counts. He essentially asked them, "Do you want me to leave?" Then he says the Holy Spirit is empowering everything that he is saying. Even if the idea of Jesus being God is a bridge too far, people have enough information from the Old Testament Scriptures to know that the Spirit of God can be trusted. Nobody could quite have known that He would be given to all kinds of people, but Jesus is saying, "If you don't believe me, believe Him, and the works that He does." And again, Jesus says that everything that is happening is according to the Father's will. We cannot believe anything concerning the Father, Jesus the Son, or the Holy Spirit, without a power given to us by the Father.

It must have really made Jesus sad, to see so many of the people who had begun to follow him start to go away. Then again, he knows who will leave, and who will stay, even as he asks. This gives Peter one of his many opportunities to confess his faith in Jesus, which is a big reason why St. John records this for us. There is a mystery in the fact that Jesus calls one of his closest disciples, the apostle Judas Iscariot, knowing that he is the one who will betray him. Why did Jesus do this? If you find a good answer, feel free to let me know. One thing he does want us to know is that everyone can choose. Nothing is inevitable, even if it seems like we can't avoid doing the bad things we want to do. Sin is never the best option, or even a good one, as tempting as it often is.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Privilege Of University Education

 As Providence would have it, I know a lot of university professors. I admire them. I've often wanted to be a university professor. My life path perhaps makes that somewhat unlikely at this juncture, but I wanted to tell you why I felt so privileged to be among those who attended and completed university education. I have also completed graduate work, so I am doubly lucky.

I can't write anything like this without lamenting the fact that the purpose--and the very existence--of colleges and universities is in doubt. I do not intend to go too much into that, but it makes me sad when I think about it. What a noble profession, to be a teacher! It's not a surprise to me that so many aspiring teachers have big dreams about making a difference, because even if reality invades to show them that it's more difficult than they thought, the heart of teaching at any and every level, is the sharing of truth, and wisdom. If that doesn't inspire you, you shouldn't even think about being a teacher.

Honestly, I think the core of who I am was actually formed at the University. I've always been curious, and a good university education pairs curiosity with purpose. Knowing something doesn't matter, unless that knowing matters.

There were professors under whom I struggled. There may have been one or two that I thought I might not like, if we met outside of class. But to truly be a student is a great privilege. The tragedy is that some who teach do not enjoy and relish the role of teacher. There are some people who probably should have done something else. That lack of fit for the role can be a deficit in temperament or skill, but it is a tragedy in every case.

A professor of mine literally changed the course of my life. There's no way he could have known that his advice was so crucial, and it is possible that what he said should not have been so memorable to me, or to have carried so much weight with me, but we can't know the path we're going to take until we take it. If I had never returned to St. Louis, I would never have met some of the dearest friends which I now possess. Knowing that my first adventure in graduate school was aborted, sometimes I regret that experience, but then, would I be here in this place if I had not first been there? All signs point to "no."

Even beyond the human elements of being a student, the great usefulness of a university education is to possess the tools--both mental, and physical--for finding out the truth about almost any matter under the sun. Many people think that students are told what to think. That may be true in some places, but in my experience, the knowledge I gained fits into a context, the meaning of which to some extent I must decide. It is my view of the world that everything I claim to know fits. I know few if any people who believe exactly the same things as all of their professors, but even if I did agree with all my professors, my pursuit of truth, and my obligation to the truth, is mine and no one else's.

Much of the joy of being a student is in sharing the struggles of learning with those who are also struggling to learn. There is always a kinship in difficulty; there is a kinship in overcoming shared obstacles. There is a kinship in growing up, while also learning about the adult world, and trying to find one's place in it.

I suppose we will always have those who complain about the extended adolescence of young people, but I am fortunate that I'm not the same person that I was when I was 22, or even 25. That we have created spaces for people to make mistakes without undue catastrophe to themselves or others, and hopefully to learn from them, strikes me as something positive, not negative. It also strikes me that if the acquisition of knowledge gained at a university is a privilege that separates classes in our society, it means that we have lost a shared culture between the educated, and the skilled trades. We have lost that shared culture because we don't pay anyone enough to do anything. The resentment between them is probably caused by economics, but very few alleged conservatives are willing to do anything to prevent rich and culturally distant enclaves from persisting. There may be so-called "liberals" who are similarly resistant, but less economic stratification would lead to more cultural interactions of a healthy sort. The apparent dominance of numerous "progressive" absurdities is exacerbated by the economic stratification upon which it rests.

Anyway, I'm grateful for the continued success and advancement of my friends in their careers, and I believe that what they do is noble, and worth preserving. I'm especially thankful that in the end, I did not attend university to "get a job," though there is nothing wrong with that. Universities are about teaching and learning, and those things persist, and ought to persist, irrespective of the bottom line.

I'm Going To Need A Better Argument

 You know, there are things that we might disagree with, but if we hear good arguments in favor of a certain position, we can at least say, "That argument makes some sense, or is defensible."

I would not say that I love to catalog bad arguments on my own side, but that is mainly because I don't know what "side" I'm on, anyway.

One of the bad arguments for the death penalty is this, and it's not even an argument: "Some people I don't like, and who probably don't even believe in objective truth, are opposed to the death penalty. Therefore, I am in favor."

What sort of intemperate mental gesture inspires someone to ask me if I believe in objective truth, at the mere mention of the fact that I oppose the death penalty? Yes, I believe in objective truth; that's why I oppose the death penalty.

I am tempted to say that entire sectors of ideological camps operate according to these intemperate mental gestures, as if I must be some sort of pot-smoking hippie who attended the University of California-Berkeley.

And in fairness, I made some assumptions about my interlocutor, based on the quality of his responses. Even so, is it really so crazy to imagine that someone who believes that God spoke definitively in Jesus Christ would be against the intentional killing of convicted murderers? I think I could give arguments on behalf of the death penalty that would be more convincing than the ones I've heard lately. Let us hope so.