Last week Jacob examined the Genesis Flood.
What is the gospel? What does it mean to ‘believe’ or ‘have faith’? Was their ‘law’ in the Old Testament and ‘grace’ in the New Testament? Jacob looks at these questions through the story of Abraham
Last week Jacob examined the Genesis Flood.
What is the gospel? What does it mean to ‘believe’ or ‘have faith’? Was their ‘law’ in the Old Testament and ‘grace’ in the New Testament? Jacob looks at these questions through the story of Abraham
If you were to name some classic love stories you might suggest Helen of Troy & Paris (igniting the Trojan War dramatized in the Iliad), Cleopatra and Mark Antony (whose love entwined Rome in a civil war with Octavian/Augustus Caesar), Romeo & Juliet, Beauty & the Beast, or perhaps Cinderella & Prince Charming. In them, history, pop culture and romantic fiction come together in offering passionate love stories that captivate our hearts, emotions and imaginations.
Amazingly, the love that sparked between Ruth & Boaz has proved far more enduring and noble than any of these love affairs, and in fact, still affects the lives of all the billions of us living today – more than three thousand years after these lovers met. Their romance is also a picture of a mystical and spiritual love offered to you and me. The story of Ruth and Boaz deals with cross-cultural & forbidden love, immigration and the relationship between a powerful man and a vulnerable woman – applicable in today’s #MeToo era. It becomes a blueprint for us on how to establish a healthy marriage. By any of these measures the love story of Ruth & Boaz is worth knowing.
Their love is recorded in the Book of Ruth in the Bible. It is a short book – only 2400 words long – and is well worth reading (here). It is set about 1150 BCE, making this the oldest of all recorded love stories. It has been made into several films.
Hollywood movie depicting the Ruth Love story
Naomi and her husband with their two sons leave Israel to escape drought and settle in the nearby country of Moab (today’s Jordan). After marrying local women the two sons die, as does Naomi’s husband, leaving her alone with her two daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to her native Israel and one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, chooses to accompany her. After a long absence, Naomi is back in her native Bethlehem as a destitute widow accompanied by Ruth, a young and vulnerable Moabite immigrant.
Bereft of income, Ruth goes out to gather grain left behind by the local harvest crews in the fields. The Law of Moses, as a social safety net, had ordained harvesters to leave some grains behind in their fields so the impoverished could gather food. Randomly it would seem, Ruth finds herself picking grains in the fields of a wealthy landowner named Boaz. Boaz notices Ruth among the others working hard to gather up the grains left behind by his work crews. He instructs his foremen to leave extra grain behind in the field so that she could gather more.
Because she can gather plentifully in his fields, Ruth comes back to Boaz’s fields every day to gather left-over grain. Boaz, ever the protector, ensures that Ruth is not harassed or molested by any of his crews. Ruth and Boaz are interested in each other, but because of differences in age, social status, and nationality, neither makes a move. Here Naomi steps in as match-maker. She instructs Ruth to boldly lay down by Boaz’s side at night after he has celebrated the harvest gathering. Boaz understands this as a marriage proposal and decides to marry her.
But the situation is more complicated than simply love between them. Naomi is a relative of Boaz, and since Ruth is her daughter-in-law, Boaz and Ruth are kin by marriage. Boaz must marry her as a ‘kinsmen redeemer’. This meant that under the Law of Moses he would marry her ‘in the name’ of her first husband (Naomi’s son) and so provide for her. This would entail that Boaz purchase Naomi’s family fields. Though that would prove costly to Boaz it was not the biggest obstacle. There was another closer relative that had first rights to buy Naomi’s family’s fields (and also thus marry Ruth). So the marriage of Ruth to Boaz hung on whether another man wanted the responsibility to care for Naomi and Ruth. At a public meeting of the city elders this first-in-line declined the marriage since it put his own estate at risk. Boaz was thus free to purchase and redeem Naomi’s family estate and marry Ruth.
In their union they had a child, Obed, who in turn became the grandfather of King David. David was promised that ‘a Christ’ would come from his family. Further prophecies were given and finally Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, the same town that Ruth and Boaz had met in long before. Their romance, marriage and family line resulted in offspring that today is the basis for our modern calendar, and global holidays like Christmas & Easter – not bad for a romance in a dusty village over 3000 years ago.
The chivalry and respect with which the rich and powerful Boaz treated Ruth, the destitute foreign woman, is a model contrasting the harassments and exploitations now common in our #MeToo day. The historical impact of the family line which this romance and marriage produced, detectible every time we note the date on our devices, gives this love story an enduring legacy. But the Ruth & Boaz love story is also a picture of an even greater love – one you and I are invited into.
The Bible describes us in a manner evoking Ruth when it says:
I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ (Hosea 2:23)
The Old Testament prophet Hosea (ca 750 BC) used the reconciliation in his own fractured marriage to picture God reaching out to us with His love. Like Ruth who entered the land as one unloved, but then was shown love by Boaz, He desires to show His love even to those of us who feel far from His love. This is quoted in the New Testament (Romans 9:25) to show how God reaches wide to love those far from Him.
How is His love shown? Jesus, that descendant offspring from Boaz & Ruth, is God come-in-the-flesh and is thus our ‘kinsman’, just as Boaz was to Ruth. Jesus paid our debt of sin to God when he was crucified on the cross, and thus he
gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:14)
As Boaz was a ‘kinsman-redeemer’ who paid a price to redeem Ruth, Jesus is our ‘kinsman-redeemer’ who paid (with his life) to redeem us.
The way Jesus (and Boaz) paid to redeem and then win his bride models how we can build our marriages. The Bible explains how we establish our marriages:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wifeas he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:21-33)
As Boaz and Ruth established their marriage on love and respect, and Jesus’ care for the church is a model for husbands to love their wives sacrificially, so we do well to build our marriages on these same values.
As in all good love stories, the Bible concludes with a wedding. Just as the price that Boaz paid to redeem Ruth paved the way for their wedding, the price that Jesus paid has paved the way for our wedding. That wedding is not figurative but real, and those accepting his wedding invitation are called ‘The Bride of Christ’. As it says:
Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. (Revelation 19:7)
Those who receive Jesus’ offer of redemption become his ‘bride’. This heavenly wedding is offered to all of us. The Bible ends with this invitation for you and me to come to His wedding
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life. (Revelation 22:17)
The relationship between Ruth & Boaz is a model of love that is still making itself felt today. It is a picture of the heavenly romance of God who loves us. He will marry as His Bride all who accept His marriage proposal. As with any marriage proposals, His offer should be weighed to see if you should accept it. Start here with the ‘plan’ laid out in the beginning, here to see how serious He is, here how the Redeemer would pay the price, and here to see how it was predicted long beforehand so we can know it really is God’s Proposal.
Another adaptation of the Book of Ruth in a short movie
People around the globe today are commemorating Palm Sunday – the Sunday before Jesus was crucified when he rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey as the long promised Coming King. It is recorded in all of the Gospels as a watershed event which set in motion the crisis of that Passover Week.
I believe the Gospel for several reasons, but very high up on the list are the widespread, diverse and testable prophecies that, in spite of the vanishingly impossible odds, are fulfilled sometimes hundreds of years after the prophecies were first written down. I had shown how Daniel (ca 550 BC) had predicted the interval of time to the coming of this awaited King. This was fulfilled precisely on that Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Because of the long time span involved – over 500 years – this meant that the chance that his birth would even just fall in the proper time frame for there to be a chance that he could be around to ride into Jerusalem would itself be startlingly improbable. Jesus could not have humanly engineered the timing of such a scope.
But the gospel writers do not focus on this timing when they record the events of that Sunday. Instead they direct our attention to the book of Zechariah (ca 520 BC) and explicitly tell us that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey he was fulfilling the prophecy given in Zechariah that:
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt. (Zechariah 9:9)
Now this fulfillment that the Gospel writers trumpet had never really impressed me for the simple reason that it seemed too easy to plot a ‘fulfillment’. All that Jesus needed to do was to read Zechariah and recognize that to get a ‘fulfillment’ he would need to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. The timing of his entrance aside (which I think is impossible to explain naturally), it would be a simple matter for Jesus to plot his entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover festival and make sure he came in on the donkey as per Zechariah’s script. And being a lowly peasant it would be easier for Jesus to hatch such a plot than for him to procure a war horse – the steed of choice when kings make their entrances. So could that entry simply be explained as the plotting of a man using an ancient script to ride a Passover exuberance?
So let’s take the trouble to read the original Zechariah prophecy in its full context and consider such a ‘Passover Plot’ conspiracy. Here it is:
9 Rejoice, O people of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.
10 I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations.
His realm will stretch from sea to sea
and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
11 Because of the covenant I made with you,
sealed with blood,
I will free your prisoners
from death in a waterless dungeon.
12 Come back to the place of safety,
all you prisoners who still have hope!
I promise this very day
that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles. (Zechariah 9:9-12)
What jumps out is the bizarre change of scope that spans these few sentences. The king enters Jerusalem on a donkey (v9) and then his rule will extend to ‘the ends of the earth’ (v10). And God will seal a covenant ‘with blood’ such that prisoners of death will be freed (v11). Zechariah saw and predicted something of far greater scope than just an entry to a city on a donkey. According to Zechariah, tied with this entry would be a new worldwide program as well as a new destiny for ‘prisoners of death’.
And who might that be?
Today, the news outlets across Canada are reporting on the sudden and unexpected death of the recent Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. He was considered one of the most successful and influential finance ministers in Canadian history. He retired three weeks ago in the media spotlight to transition his career. Today he is dead and his sudden and abrupt death has shocked and saddened everyone. I submit that he is a ‘prisoner of death’. Though he had been chief of the finance department, his success and prominence there gave him no advantage in this department of death. And we too are all following along right behind him – not knowing when or how we will die. We all are ‘prisoners of death’! Zechariah was writing this 2500 years ago for you and me. He was telling us that someone was going to come who would free us from this prison. But how? Zechariah explained long before Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem that it would be done by God making a covenant ‘sealed with blood’ (v11) – echoing the sign of the Passover Blood and the release from death that Isaac experienced in Abraham’s sacrifice. A few short days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem atop his donkey on Palm Sunday he did indeed inaugurate a new covenant and then literally sealed it with his blood. And three days after that he rose from the dead. The doors of that prison which holds us all busted open. The fact that Zechariah could see it so long before it happened indicates that the entry of Jesus on the donkey was not the desperate plot of a pitiful man, but rather it was a key sign marking a Providential Program for the largest jailbreak imaginable – to spring all of humanity from the prison of death. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey was prominent for the gospel writers precisely because they saw it as a key sign marking that larger Providential Program that Zechariah had sketched out 500 years earlier.
But what about this rule that Zechariah wrote would go to the ‘ends of the earth’? Jesus never ruled – the prophecy is in error, critics will charge. But to think of ‘ruling’ solely in political or military terms is to miss the most powerful rule of all – the personal allegiance of a one’s heart freely given in worship. Though Jim Flaherty was a senior member of the party that ‘rules’ in Canada, he never had that kind of rule over one single person in the entire country. But Jesus at his trial calmly claimed that he would one day get this rule – worship – from people around the world. Here we are two thousand years later with Palm Sunday inaugurating Passion Week which will be celebrated in worship by people around the world, in all nations, in a multitude of languages. From that point of view Zechariah’s prediction of a rule ‘to the ends of the earth’ was indeed fulfilled by that peasant carpenter who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey so many Sundays ago.
But what about the removal of all weapons of war from Israel (v10)? That certainly has not happened. In fact today Israel is one of the most weaponized countries in the world! True enough. But that prediction is anticipating the conclusion in this Providential Program. We are not there yet. We are now at the stage exemplified in v12 where the plea and offer is going out to all us prisoners of death to come to his place of safety. The news and offer of the ‘jailbreak’ is going around the world and many are choosing to take it.
In the context of this larger Program, Zechariah predicted that this King would make another entrance. He wrote
“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died. (Zechariah 13:10)
The one that had been pierced and had died, and in so doing had sealed that covenant with his blood, will come back! It is a hope I have, and some may charge me with naïvity for keeping it. But given that Zechariah was bang on with both the details and the outworkings of that entrance on a donkey, it is simply a reasoned leap to trust that this Second Entrance in this greater Program of Providence will also one day come about. And when it does, I want to be part of the jailbreak.
Jesus came to give himself as a sacrifice for all peoples – so that we could find God. This message was announced at the beginning of human history, emblazoned with a Divine signature in the sacrifice of Abraham and in the Passover sacrifice, with further details predicted in various prophecies in the Old Testament. The echo of this primal promise was even remembered in the ancient Chinese and South Asian histories. Why was his death so important and emphasized? How does it show anything about the goodness of God? Or about the love of God? These are questions worth considering.
The Bible declares something akin to a Law when it states:
For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23)
“Death” literally means ‘separation’. When our soul separates from our body we die physically. In a similar way we are separated from God spiritually. This is true because God is Holy (sinless) while we have become corrupted from our original creation and so we sin.
This can be visualized in this illustration where we are on a cliff with God on another cliff separated from us by this bottomless chasm. As a branch that has been severed from a tree is dead, so we have severed ourselves from God and become spiritually dead.
This separation causes guilt and fear. So what we naturally try to do is build bridges to take us from our side (of death) to God’s side. We do this in many different ways: going to church, temple or mosque, being religious, being good and helpful, meditation, trying to be more helpful, praying more, etc. This list of deeds to gain merit can be very long for some of us – and living them out can be very complicated. This is illustrated in the next figure.
The problem is that our efforts, merits, sacrifices and ascetic practices etc., though in themselves not bad, are insufficient because the payment required (the ‘wages’) for our sins is ‘death’. Our efforts are like a ‘bridge’ that tries to cross the divide separating ourselves from God – but in the end cannot span the chasm. This is because though religious or moral efforts are not bad, they will not solve our root problem. It is like trying to heal cancer (which results in death) by eating vegetarian. Eating vegetarian is not bad – but it will not cure cancer. For that you need a totally different treatment.
So far this Law is all Bad News – it is so bad we often do not even want to hear it and we often fill our lives with activities and things hoping this Law will go away. But just as cures for cancer become meaningful to us when the diagnosis that we really have cancer sinks in, so the Bible emphasizes this Law of sin and death to awaken our interest in a cure that is simple yet potent.
For the wages of sin is death but… (Romans 6:23)
The small word ‘but’ shows that the direction of the message is about to reverse, to the Good News of the Gospel – the cure. It shows both the goodness and love of God.
For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23)
The good news of the gospel is that the sacrifice of Jesus’ death is sufficient to bridge this separation between us and God. We know this because three days after his death Jesus rose bodily, coming alive again in a physical resurrection. Though some people today choose to disbelieve the resurrection of Jesus a very strong case can be made for it as shown in this public lecture I did at a university (video link here). Jesus’ sacrifice was prophetically acted out in Abraham’s sacrifice and with the inauguration of the Passover sacrifice. These signs pointing to Jesus were put there to help us find God.
Jesus was a human who lived a sinless life. Therefore he can ‘touch’ both the human and the God sides and span the chasm separating God and people. He is a Bridge to Life which can be illustrated as below
Notice how this sacrifice of Jesus is given to us. It is offered as a … ‘gift’. Think about gifts. No matter what the gift is, if it is really a gift it is something that you do not work for and that you do not earn by merit. If you earned it the gift would no longer be a gift! In the same way you cannot merit or earn the sacrifice of Jesus. It is given to you as a gift. It is that simple.
And what is the gift? It is ‘eternal life’. That means that the sin which brought you and me death is now cancelled. Jesus’ sacrifice is a bridge which you can cross to connect with God and receive life – that lasts forever. This gift is given by Jesus who, by rising from the dead, shows himself to be ‘Lord’. God is inviting us to Life like when Pinochio became a child of Geppetto. God loves you and me that much. It is that potent.
So how do you and I ‘cross’ this Bridge of Life that is offered to us? Again, think of gifts. If someone comes and gives you a gift it is something you do not work for. But to get any benefit from the gift you must ‘receive’ it. Anytime a gift is offered there are two alternatives. Either the gift is refused (“No thank you”) or it is received (“Thank you for your gift. I will take it”). So also this gift offered must be received – simply that. It cannot simply be mentally assented to, studied or understood. This is illustrated in the next figure where we ‘walk’ on the Bridge by turning to God and receiving his gift he offers to us.
So how do we receive this gift? The Bible says that
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:12)
Notice that this promise is for ‘everyone’. Since he rose from the dead Jesus is alive even now and he is ‘Lord’. So if you call on him he will hear and extend his gift to you. You need to call out to him and ask him – by having a conversation with him. Perhaps you have never done this. Here is a guide that can help you have this conversation and prayer with him. It is not a magic incantation. It is not the specific words that give power. It is the trust like Abraham had that we have in his ability and willingness to give us this gift. As we trust him He will hear us and respond – we will find God. The Gospel is potent, and yet so simple at the same time. So feel free to follow this guide as you either speak out loud or silently in your spirit to Jesus to receive his gift.
Dear Lord Jesus. I understand that with the sins in my life I am separated from God. Though I can try hard, no effort and sacrifice on my part will bridge this separation. But I understand that your death was a sacrifice to wash away all sins – even my sins. I believe that you rose from the dead after your sacrifice so I can know that your sacrifice was sufficient. I ask you to please cleanse me from my sins and bridge me to God so I can have eternal life. I do not want to live a life enslaved to sin so please free me from sin. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for doing all this for me and would you even now continue to guide me in my life so I can follow you as my Lord.
Here is the account of how a prostitute – a person with a background such that we would dismiss her – clearly illustrates the Gospel for us, and demonstrates why it is Good news.
This is a video of a presentation where I explore the person of Rahab. And then we use the Biblical image of grafting dead branches unto live ones to flesh out what Jesus in the Gospel is offering to us.
Tonight as I write this post the world sits on the eve of the largest one-day sporting event ever. Everyone’s attention is being drawn to the Super Bowl on Sunday and the drama that will be ours given that the Super Bowl features two brothers who are coaching the opposing teams. This Super Bowl will be a family feud! And then there is the anticipation of the Beyonce half-time show. So much excitement abuzz in the air.
It is amazing to think that with all the attention focused on it now, the Super Bowl will be largely forgotten in just six months. What the world is taking great note of now will quickly be forgotten as we move on to other amusements, entertainment or political events. The rage one day quickly becomes ancient history the next. Chances are, when you read this you won’t even know which Super Bowl or which teams are the rage just now.
We saw in our last post that this same pattern was true in the really ancient history of Abraham’s day. The important and spectacular contests, achievements and drama that captured the imagination of people living 4000 years ago are now totally forgotten, but a solemn promise spoken quietly to an individual, though totally overlooked by the world back then, is growing and unfolding before our eyes. I pointed out the obvious, but usually overlooked fact, that the promise given to Abraham about 4000 years ago has literally, historically and verifiably come true. This should give us reason to recognize that at the very least this Promise to Abraham provides an opening case for the existence of the God of the Bible. The story of Abraham continues with a few further encounters with this Promise-Making God of the Bible. Abraham (and we who follow his journey) learn much more – even to the point of seeing this promise move from the realm of history to that of The Everlasting. The story of Abraham is not a trendy but quickly forgotten event like the upcoming Super Bowl, it is one of an overlooked man setting a foundation to understand the gaining of eternity, so we’d better take note.
Several years have passed in Abraham’s life since the Promise recorded in Genesis 12 was spoken. Abraham had moved to Canaan (the Promised Land) in what is today Israel in obedience to that promise. Other memorable events then occurred in his life except the one that he anticipated – the birth of the son through whom this promise would be fulfilled. So we pick up the account with Abraham’s complaint:
After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3)
Abraham had been camping out in the Land awaiting the start of the ‘Great Nation’ that had been promised him. But nothing had happened and by this time he was around 80 years old. He complains that God was not keeping that Promise given to him. Their conversation continues with:
Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:4-5)
So in their exchange God basically reiterates His initial Promise by declaring that he would get a son that would become a people as uncountable as the stars in the sky – many for sure, but hard to number.
The ball was now back in Abraham’s court. How would he respond to this reiterated Promise? What follows is a sentence that the Bible itself treats as one of the most important sentences in the Bible (since this sentence is quoted several times later on). It lays the foundation to understand the Gospel and reveals the way to The Everlasting. It says:
Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
It is probably easier to unpack this sentence if we replace the pronouns with names, thus it would read:
Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
It is such a small and inconspicuous sentence. It comes and goes with no Super Bowl fanfare and so we are apt to miss it. But it is truly significant – and it contains the seeds of The Everlasting. Why? Because in this little sentence Abraham obtains ‘righteousness’. This is the one – and the only one – quality that we need to get right standing before God.
From God’s point-of-view, though we were made in the image of God something happened that corrupted that image. So that now the Biblical charge is that
The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)
The visual images that have helped me better understand this were the corruption of elves to orcs in the Lord of the Rings saga as well as the ‘missing’ the mark analogy used in the Bible. How this corruption occurred is explained in the account of Adam which I looked at here. The bottom line of all this is that we find ourselves separated from a Righteous God because we have no righteousness. Our corruption has taken and launched us into a Brave New World of autonomy from God and a propensity to not do good – reaping futility and death in its wake. If you doubt that just scan some news headlines and see what people have been up to that last 24 hours.
In fact our corruption has made us rather repulsive to God in the same way that the decaying body of a dead rat would be repulsive to us. We would not want to go near such a thing. The sight and stench would impel us to keep our distance. We are separated from the Maker of Life and so the words of Isaiah come true
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
But here in the conversation between Abraham and God we find, slipped in so unobtrusively that we can almost miss it, the declaration that Abraham had gained ‘righteousness’ – the kind that God accepts. So what did Abraham ‘do’ to get this righteousness? Once again, so unassumingly that we are in danger of missing the point, it simply says of Abraham that he ‘believed’. That’s it?! We have this insurmountable obstacle of being corrupt ‘orcs’ and so the natural, and dare I say universal, tendency of mankind down the ages is to look for sophisticated and difficult religions, efforts, ethics, teachings etc., – illustrated before our very eyes with the efforts of the devotees of the Mela Kumbh festival – to gain righteousness. But this man, Abraham, gained that prized righteousness simply by ‘believing’.
But what does that mean? And what does this have to do with your righteousness and mine? Everything! We take it up in our next post.
The largest gathering ever in human history officially started this week – the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival which is celebrated only once every 12 years. Organizers expect a staggering 100 million people to descend on the city of Allahabad by the shores of the Ganges River in India through the 55 day festival season, with 10 million having bathed in the Ganges just on the opening day alone. Organizers expect 20 million bathers on the peak bathing day of February 15, according to NDTV. I have been to Allahabad and I can tell you it is a dusty place, with a small-ish town feel because of limited infrastructure. I cannot imagine how these many millions can be there at once without all functions seizing up. The BBC reports huge efforts being made to bring things like toilets and doctors to meet the day-to-day needs of these people. These Khumb Mela numbers dwarf that of the annual Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca that Muslims make – a ‘mere’ 3.1 million in 2012.
So why will 100 million people spend 120 billion rupees ($2.2 billion dollars) to bathe in the Ganges river, one that has high levels of pollution (When I was there it certainly did not look appealing to jump into)? One devotee from Nepal reported to the BBC that
“I have washed off my sins”.
Reuters reports that
“I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,” said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold.
NDTV tells us that
Worshippers, who believe a dip in the holy waters cleanses them of their sins,
In the previous 2001 festival I noticed on the then-BBC interview that pilgrim Mohan Sharma reported that “the sins we have created are washed away here”.
In other words, these multiple millions of Hindus will spend money, travel on crowded trains, endure congested situations and bathe in a river that, from a purely ecological rather than spiritual perspective, is very dirty – in order to have their sins ‘washed away’. Many westerners will miss the significance of this in their quick dismissal of such a ‘superstitious’ idea. Because it is not their solution that should draw our attention, but the fact of the problem that these devotees are trying to solve – their sins.
Many people I talk to do not like the Gospel because they think that it is the Gospel that is their foremost accuser of sin. No one likes being told they are a ‘sinner’ – it is something that makes us uncomfortable and guilty. Many think that it is the Gospel (and Bible) that is the source for this and they think that if they dismiss the Bible then they can get rid of the idea of ‘sin’. It is true that the Bible declares that we are sinners, which can be seen as missing the mark in a marksmanship metaphor, or as a corruption of our nature as in an orcs of middle-earth metaphor. But the Bible itself clearly says that it is not the source of this accusation. It says
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Romans 2:14-15)
The Bible is saying that it is not the source of the awareness of sin. It is also not a function of a certain faith or religion, but rather it is a function of simply being human – of Adam. It is our human moral compass – our conscience – that is the source of the moral allegations against us. It is we that condemn ourselves.
And it is festivals like the Kumbh Mela where multiple tens of millions of Hindus, who have never read the Bible, but are trying to grapple and make peace with their ‘sin’ that should alert us to the truth of this Biblical statement. The ‘bad news’ of the reality of our sin is shown in the Kumbh Mela Festival. You cannot wish your sins away by ignoring the Gospel, because it is not the Gospel that is first accusing you – it is yourself.
You may think that perhaps these Hindus have a very different idea of what ‘sin’ is compared to what non-Hindu westerners have. Here are some moral teachings from a Hindu guru, Sai Baba, whose books I have read. Ask yourself as you read them “Is what he says is ‘good’ and ‘right’ really ‘good’ and ‘right’ according to my moral compass”?
“And what is dharma (Our moral duty)? Practicing what you preach, doing as you say it has to be done, keeping precept and practice in line. Earn virtuously, yearn piously; live in fear of God, live for reaching God: that is dharma” Sathya Sai Speaks 4, p. 339
“What exactly is your duty?…
- First tend your parents with love and reverence and gratitude.
- Second, speak the truth and act virtuously.
- Third, whenever you have a few moments to spare, repeat the name of the Lord with the form in your mind.
- Fourth, never indulge in talking ill of others or try to discover faults in others.
- And finally, do not cause pain to others in any form”
Sathya Sai Speaks 4, pp.348-349
“Whoever subdues his egoism, conquers his selfish desires, destroys his bestial feelings and impulses, and gives up the natural tendency to regard the body as self, he is surely on the path of dharma” Dharma Vahini, p.4
As I read these I find that I cannot argue with Sai Baba. I agree with him that these are good precepts to live by. But when I turn from judging these precepts to having them judge me I recognize that I am not measuring up. And thus, like these millions of Hindus who have never read the Bible, I am conscious of falling short of this standard. It is just like the Bible says
all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)
When you become aware of ubiquity of our moral compass (what I called the Tao in previous posts) you can find it in more and more seemingly unlikely places. For example, Christopher Hitchens, in attacking the Ten Commandments, in a back-handed way agrees with both the universality of our moral conscience as well as our inability to live it (i.e. our sin). After discussing the first of the Ten Commandments he writes:
“…Only then comes the four famous ‘shalt nots’ which flatly prohibit killing, adultery, theft, and false witness. Finally there is a ban on covetousness, forbidding the desire for ‘thy neighbours’… chattel. … No society ever discovered has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai. Finally, instead of the condemnation of evil actions, there is an oddly phrased condemnation of impure thoughts…. More important, it demands the impossible: a recurrent problem with all religious edicts. One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions…, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much…. If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species” Christopher Hitchens. 2007. God is not great: How religion poisons everything. P.99-100
Here he tells us two important things. First he agrees that every society ‘ever discovered’ had similar moral teachings as the Ten Commandments. They are universal and ‘self-evident’ as he says, thus showing that they do not get their authority because of the Bible. Hitchens mistakenly thinks that the Bible is making the claim to a distinct moral authority that is unique from other morals, and is simply grounded in itself. When he finds similar moral laws everywhere else he then thinks he has dismissed or disproved the Biblical claim. That Categorically Imperative moral authority comes from something deeper than the Bible – it comes from within ourselves – and it will not go away simply by evading Biblical authority.
Second, Hitchens takes particular issue with the Tenth Commandment against coveting, but the principle applies as he notes to ‘all religious edicts’ – we simply cannot actually live them. He falls short – just like the Bible says. These are two fundamental observations that we can make about our Morals and our behaviour.
When it comes to our sin the Bible is simply a Messenger, trying to make us see the reality of our situation. And as such, its message can fall like ‘bad news’ on our ears. Hitchens responded to this by choosing to shoot the Messenger. The devotees at the Kumbh Mela festival are choosing to respond to the Bad News of their sin through bathing and ascetic sacrifice – without ever knowing if their efforts will be sufficient. But the irony is that the Good News of the Gospel is exactly what Hitchens mockingly cried for. The Good News of the Gospel is precisely God taking the initiative – to use Hitchens words – ‘to invent a different species’, by – to use Kumbh Mela devotee words – ‘washing our sins away’. The effect of that washing is to transform sin-infested ‘Pinochios’ into real children of God – a different species. Followers of the Gospel can then rest in the sufficiency of God’s work of ‘washing our sins away’. The words of Hitchens and the efforts of the devotees show this message of the Gospel is Good News indeed, in the wider backdrop of the bad news of our sin.
Recently I had the chance to crash a Christmas dinner dressed as Santa Claus, and after being exposed by the kids, embark on a short but thought-provoking discussion about Christmas entitled What’s so Merry about Christmas? A friend videoed it all and since it fits with this series of Christmas posts I thought I would share it in this one. (15 min)
For more in-depth treatment of historical and prophetic aspects of the Christmas story see the following posts