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Something Funny: Paul’s Conciliatory Ways With Jerusalem Powers

March 20, 2010 3 comments

I don’t think this is meant to be funny. Although, perhaps if Luke, the author of Luke and Acts (and probably not a physician, but maybe), anticipated that a good portion of his audience would have prior knowledge of Galatians and other letters of Paul, then maybe some intended irony exists. Indeed, I do strongly suspect that the author of Luke-Acts has a deep understanding of Post-Messianic theology; Which, if that is true, then much of Acts 15 is intended to create a hyperbolic disparity between what the reader understands and what is said by the church leaders.* I have just changed my mind. I am pretty well convinced that parts of this are meant to be humorous, including parts in Acts. Some are just me finding something funny in something that was never meant to be funny. Such is my life.

In Acts 15 there is an interesting problem in the church. It’s a long passage, so I’ll try to condense it:

Some men came from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabus into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabus were appointed… to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question… they came to Jerusalem…

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

Obviously, this is a major question. Most grown men don’t really want to get a chunk cut off their penis if they don’t have to. Peter addresses it tremendously well (with a little bit of his own ignorance thrown in… can you find it?).

“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yolk that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved, just as they are.”

Peter speaks very powerfully about this in a way that theologically lines up almost perfectly with Jesus and Paul. He shows that it is not the Law that saves nor is it necessary for either salvation or the gift of the Holy Spirit. Essentially, completely without the Law, the gentiles were saved. The Messiah, by fulfilling the law, provided a way to God that transcended the Law. And its not as if the Gentiles were merely saved from hell or 2nd class followers of God, the evidence of the Holy Spirit revealed them to be full participants in the kingdom, proving the Law of Moses unnecessary.

So… the great solution proposed by James (the leader of the church in Jerusalem)? “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

You know what he just did? He paraphrased a few commands found in Leviticus 17 and 18 about how the aliens that were amongst the Jews were to live. It’s funny because Leviticus is one of the books of the Law. We just saw that the Gentiles don’t need the law to be full participants in the kingdom, so why are you saying that they have to follow the law as if they were aliens living amongst God’s chosen people? They have become God’s chosen people by the power of the Spirit as Peter pointed out, so James’ ideas about having them follow the law are quite absurd. And his reasoning for having these restrictions on the Gentile believers is equally absurd: “well, uh, even though God planned on the Gentiles being part of the kingdom for a long time and we’ve seen that they are God’s people even without being under the Law, they have to follow these rules that we find in the Law, because, um, the Law of Moses has been taught for a long time in multiple locations.” Good point James, good point.

Paul thought it was an excellent point too (in the same way I do). The things that he teaches in his letters related to Acts 15 make me laugh because he so casually dismisses those who think themselves to be authorities. Here are some funny things Paul says:

What does Paul think about the Judaizers who want Gentiles to get circumcized? As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves. (to which all the Eunuchs responded, “low blow Paul, low blow” *pun*) – Galatians 5:12 Of course that would make great sense. If cutting off a portion of the penis is so important in honoring God through holiness, then how much more righteous is one who doesn’t stop at the tip, but glorifies God with all his manhood.

What does he think about the leaders in Jerusalem? As for those that seemed to be important — whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance — those men added nothing to my message… James, Peter, and John, those reputed to be pillars… Galatians 2:6, 9a He doesn’t really think they are that important. He doesn’t make a direct statement about their importance, but he implicitly states that they have no special authority whatsoever. So, while these authorities make authoritative statements in the book of Acts that seem like they are supposed to be normative for all Gentile believers, Paul doesn’t really care what they think Gentiles should do. And he shows this.

What does Paul say about how the Gentiles should live? In Acts he is quiet and by his silence appears to consent to decisions made by the elders in Jerusalem, but when Paul speaks for himself he is much less conciliatory. Eat anything sold in the meat market, without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. 1 Cor 10:25-26 Paul here says that it is okay to eat meat sold in the local markets which almost all have been sacrificed to idols before being sold. He says that it’s okay to eat the same food that James commanded Gentiles not eat. Paul does give 2 situations in which it would be inappropriate to not eat food sacrificed to idols: if the meal is eaten in the context of a religious ceremony in which one would be participating in the ceremony through consumption and if by eating the food another’s conscience will be compromised. But whether or not the food has been sacrificed to idols. In Romans Paul says, Accept him whose faith is weak… As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if ayone regards something as unclean, the for him it is unclean… All food is clean… We who are strong(those that realize nothing is sinful about any food) ought to bear with the failings of the weak (those that think certain food is unclean). Paul considers people to be weak who think like the leaders in Jerusalem! He basically calls James weak.

This whole thing is funny to me because it calls into question the authority of James or any of the other figureheads of the faith. While they send out a letter that Paul in Acts seems to consent to, Paul contradicts what they say in his writings and is explicit that he doesn’t think the words of these people need to be listened to. It feels like the Peter and James crew assumes that they are powerful people whose decisions others must follow, but other parts of Scripture make their power grab seem absurd. Know what happens to James and Peter in the book of Acts after they give this command to the Gentiles using the Law that has died in Jesus? They are basically done. James is mentioned 1 more time, and only because Paul came to see them. It is as if their final silly power grab resulted in their departure from the story. Acts makes a joke out of those who assume that they are in authority and exercise their supposed authority to micromanage behavior.

*I understand this statement needs explaining, but I feel that this statement needs a book (or a proper conversation) to adequately explain if you’re not familiar with basic concepts of a realized eschatology and the death of the Law through the embodiment of it in Jesus. It’s not super complicated, but I’m not a super good explainer-man-person.

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Something Funny: Those Poor Cows!

March 11, 2010 2 comments

I’m in Florida. I’ve got plenty of time to blog here, but I don’t really want to think. So I’m gonna blog, but nothing that requires too much thinking. What I’m saying is, I care about you readers, just not very much. I’m starting a brief Floridian blog series entitled, “Something Funny, Something Beautiful.” Humor is something I do well and tend to find humor even in some of the most complex ironic associations. I think I’m more inclined to find humor than a lot of people even in areas where no humor was meant or intended. Here’s something intended to be humorous that has made me laugh out loud before.

To preface the forthcoming Scripture, Jonah was already pissed at God before this scene because God had compassion and forgiveness for the people of Ninevah when they repented. Jonah was so angry at YHWH’s keeping His hand from destroying the Ninevites that Jonah thought it would be better to die than to live. The following passage about the vine is God’s crystalline metaphor to reveal Jonah’s heart to himself.

Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

But the Lord said, ” You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend to it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Ninevah has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.”

Frick you guys, this thing is so funny on so many levels and I’m not going to get to all of them. #1: Jonah’s previous reaction to God’s mercy on the Ninevites (wanting to die) seemed like it may have been related to his sense of justice and somewhat sensible. But Jonah uses the exact same words to describe how he feels about the lack of shade as he does about God’s mercy, “it would be better for me to die than to live.” Really Jonah? Really? God does a miracle to give you shade and then you lost it, and now you want to die because you’re really hot? Do you really think it’s better to die than to be too warm? Oh, you do? And you think you have a right to be angry about God taking away the shade he gave you? It’s such a childish reaction. The level of drama his words convey about the horror of his plight of being overheated is absurdly funny.

Oh, I have an idea Jonah, why don’t you walk back into the city! The Scriptures just prior said that Jonah went to sit down east of the city after God asked him if Jonah had a right to be angry about the mercy of YHWH. So Jonah, pissed off about Ninevah’s repentance and lack of imminent destruction, goes to sit down somewhere away from the people that are an object of his anger. But God never told him to go there. There’s no reason Jonah has to be there, and it seems the deeply repentant Ninevites would gratefully welcome their prophet into their city. I’m sure there’s plenty of shade there too. But the stubborn little man-child Jonah sits there angry that God didn’t wipe out Ninevah and just as angry that he’s too hot. All he has to do is walk back into the town. It’s just silly how angry he is.

God then verbally exemplifies Jonah’s absurdity with a zinger. God noticed that Jonah is very deeply concerned about a single vine that is only around for a day, and seemingly wonders why Jonah doesn’t care about Ninevah. After all, Ninevah has a lot of people in it that were about as aware of the potential brevity of their existence as the vine was. The kicker is the “and many cattle as well.” At first read, it feels a little like an arbitrary and unnecessary statement about the simple fact that there are cattle in Ninevah. What God is doing is humorously illuminating Jonah’s selfish heart. If Jonah cares about one shade vine so much that he wants to die, then imagine how much more dramatic his response would be if multiple cattle were in danger! The horror of those poor cows dying!

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