Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Rich Young Ruler

When we read the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Mt 19.16-26), the red lights really go off for the Lutheran when, in verse 20, the young man says, "All these [commandments] I have kept; what am I still lacking?" This is a boast that no Lutheran would dare to make. Moreover, it shows that the rich young ruler really doesn't understand either law or Gospel.

For years my approach to this passage centered on making sense of v. 20, then interpreting the rest of the passage around v. 20. The only problem, however, is that doing so doesn't seem to me to do justice to the passage. I think that post-Reformation sensitivities have led us askew here.

Not that anything absolutely critical hangs on it: I think the center of the passage is about idolatry; that's what Jesus is dealing with here, both respecting the rich young ruler, and the ability of God's power to break through that idolatry, as well as (re)focusing salvation specifically on the person of Christ.

To be sure, that doesn't mean that the passage doesn't present a puzzle to post-Reformation Christians: After all, Jesus says, "if you want to enter life, keep the commandments" and the rich young ruler does say, "all these I have kept."

But there is no reason at all to think that Jesus and the rich young ruler are not talking within the context of a shared faith. The Lutheran confessions are absolutely clear that good works are necessary for Christians. They issue out of faith and should not set in opposition to faith. So the rich young ruler asks Jesus what good works he needs to do. Jesus tells him to do all of them. Again, the rich young ruler's response doesn't need to indicate that he never broke these commands. The law itself, after all, provided a route for forgiveness, and the Bible speaks of obedient behavior in similar terms at several points, Lk 1.6, Phil 3.6, Mt 1.19.

Or perhaps I'm letting us off easy. Perhaps it's not post-Reformation sensitivities after all, perhaps it's the sensitivities of modern, affluent Americans that are being spared by refocusing the passage.

The first crescendo in the passage is Jesus' statement to "go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." This striking and challenging command is muted when the focus of the passage becomes a criticism of works righteousness rather than a criticism of the idolatry of riches. After all, modern Lutherans can all give a hearty "Amen" to the proposition that works do not save. I think the "Amens" would be a bit more reserved if we were asked to Amen Jesus' line about selling everything we have. At the very least, we would have a lot of additional questions about what following Christ entailed.

Thinking about Civil Government, Part I

I meant to get back to Wayne's question a lot earlier than this. I mean, sure, I've been busy, but my reluctance is also a result of not having entirely settled opinions right now. I'm unsure, however, whether my unsettledness reflects any change in what I think about God and government, or whether it stems from a general disgust with politics at the practical level of governance in Washington and other places.

As an abstract matter I concur unequivocally with the Augsburg when it states: "It is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts" & etc.

At the same time, as a practical matter, I am repulsed by everyday politics, by most Christian involvement in politics, whether from the bitter and hateful anger that, in my opinion, provides much of the motivation to the Christian Right in America, or the smug self-righteousness that, in my opinion, motivates much of the Christian Left in America. And, of course, I am not at all immune to these motivations as I try to think some of these things through, so I'm repulsed by that as well.

Beyond this, I'm disgusted by what I think is the entirely cynical use of Christians by politicians of the left and of the right. I've been close enough to this to know it personally -- by and large, those in power scorn and mock Christians as clueless boobs, even (or especially) those who hold power by ostensibly appealing to Christian sentiment.

Further, while I agree that someone needs to pay attention to civil matters, and that those who do so doing God's work in doing so, I can't help also but to believe that what really matters is the spiritual war against spiritual forces. Hence my criticism of the Wrightian argument that much of the New Testament is written with a backdrop of struggling against Rome's imperial cult. While I agree that Christ is a threat to the imperial cult, I just don't see that the imperial cult threatened Christ. The spiritual powers of this age -- the worldly system -- are what the Church wars against through the Gospel, and that that's the only thing that is really important. Caesar is just a piffle.

So I just want to follow Jesus by going to church, going to prison, going to work, and hanging out with and discipling my family. And I want to say to hell with the rest of it. I'm exaggerating, a bit.

So I've been pretty happy just fighting the local demons -- I think it was Ignatius of Antioch who said that every time the church celebrates the Eucharist the dark powers are shaken. The world will go on as it is whether I nail down the right application of God and government to this age.

So it seems to me that the corruption of power is a real threat to Christians and to the church. From the idolatrous sermons from Whig pastors at the time of the 1776 revolution (idolatrously gliding from freedom in Christ to political freedom), to the idolatrous equivocation of American with the "city on the hill," to the idolatrization of power, to the almost ubiquitous presence of American flags in sanctuaries.

Nonetheless, I can't help but be interested in the abstract question of God and government, and I've wrestled a bit with what the Lutheran confessions have to say. So I want to post a few observations, and hope to do so every now and then over the coming weeks. Wayne (and others) might have to help me out by providing links or comments about the invocation of the "two powers" doctrine in current Reformed controversies. I am of course aware of the dispute over the "New Perspective on Paul" and related (or not so related) issues, but I haven't heard of use of (or responses to) the two-powers doctrine in that argument.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Busy, busy, busy

I'm a baaad blogger, but I have a lot of work right now. When I get on top it (ha, ha, ha) I want to post on the rich young ruler and start talking about Wayne's question regarding the two kingdoms. But first I'm scheduled to give a talk at Princeton on Thursday, then I'm back for Jack's birthday and church Sunday morning, then off to the National Science Foundation for a panel meeting on Sunday afternoon. Pfew!