Saturday, June 12, 2010

280: You're Not Meant to Understand

Matthew 13-14
"This is why I speak to them in parables: 'Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.' " - Matthew 13:13

So many people are following Jesus at this point that he has to go out on a boat to stay away from the crowd. From the boat he tells the crowd a parable about a farmer planting his crops. His disciples come to him and ask him why he speaks to people in parables. Jesus tells them that he's fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah which says "You will be ever hearing but never understanding". So Jesus, to fulfill this prophecy, is making sure the people don't understand what he's talking about? Then what's the point of him talking at all?

He then goes on to explain the parable to his disciples. How can Jesus get mad at the people of Israel for not turning their life around if his words mean nothing to them? Maybe they just think he's miraculously healing people because he's a nice guy. If they don't know what he's talking about then they wouldn't know that he's giving them an obligation to be righteous.

Jesus goes on to give the crowd yet another parable. This one is more than a little disturbing. The only reason I know what it means, though, is because Jesus explains later in the chapter. The parable is about another farmer that plants his field of wheat. One of his enemies comes in the night and plants weeds in the field. The next day, the farmer's servants ask if they should pick the weeds from the field. The farmer says no because they may uproot the wheat. They wait till the harvest, and pick the weeds and wheat together. The weeds are burned.

This, Jesus explains, means that the good and the bad people will be allowed to coexist till the "harvest". At the end of days, the good and the bad will be separated. The bad people will be burned alive. I guess Christians ignore the fact that this violates all modern standards of human decency. I guess when God does it, it's not cruel and unusual punishment. When God does it, it's somehow "loving" and "righteous". I'm calling bullshit.

Jesus gives the crowd yet another parable about yeast and mustard seeds. He says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or yeast. Though the mustard seed starts small, it grows to be the size of a tree. And though yeast starts as a small amount, it grows and becomes enough for a loaf of bread. As Jesus predicted, I have no idea what he's talking about. Why does the kingdom of heaven start out tiny? I don't even have a clear idea of what the kingdom of heaven is.

Jesus then tells a parable about a man that finds hidden treasure on someone else's land. After finding this hidden treasure, he reburies it. He then uses all of his money to buy that land (and thus the hidden treasure). The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like the hidden treasure. I still don't get it. I guess Jesus is hiding the treasure from us? And then he's going to buy the land?

Jesus finally goes back home. Upon arriving, the people of his hometown question where he got his powers. They list the names of his brothers and sisters (yes, Jesus has brothers and sisters now), apparently noting how unremarkable they are. Jesus is so upset with this, that he refuses to perform any miracles in his hometown. A few random guys say your full of shit so you won't help people in need? I thought Jesus wasn't supposed to be doing his righteous acts for other people anyway. I hope nobody was in serious need of medical attention while Jesus was pouting.

At the beginning of the next chapter, John the baptist is beheaded. Jesus, upon hearing about this, goes into his boat for some privacy. The people of the town hear that Jesus is having a private moment, and apparently find this unacceptable. A crowd of over 5000 people comes to see him. Jesus comes out to them (we never hear any more about Jesus being sad about John the baptist), and begins healing their sick.

That evening, Jesus's disciples tell Jesus to send the people home because this is a remote place and the people need to eat. Jesus says that they can feed them there. The disciples object, saying they only have five loaves of bread, and two fish. Jesus takes the bread and fish and passes it around to all the people. All 5000+ of them eat from the bread and fish. The disciples pick up twelve basketfuls of bread and fish pieces (the people of Israel aren't very efficient eaters).

Why are we only given the shady details of this miracle? What happened between the five loaves of bread being passed out, and twelve basketfuls of bread crumbs? Was it a magic growing loaf? Were people exclaiming in awe as the bread asexually reproduced in their hands? There are so many details that are conspicuously left out.

Jesus then puts the disciples on a boat and sends them on their way across the lake while he dismisses the crowd. Why? Why couldn't they have just waited for him? By the time Jesus is done dismissing the crowd, the boat is already a considerable distance off shore. Jesus isn't scared of a little water and walks across it to the boat.

The disciples, upon seeing him, are terrified because they think he's a ghost. Jesus exclaims "Take courage! It is I". For some reason, the disciples don't believe him. Peter says that if it's really him, Jesus should tell him to come across the lake to meet him. Jesus does tell him to come meet him. Then Peter too walks on water and begins making his way toward Jesus.

Peter, however, isn't as good at the whole walking on water bit and begins to sink. Peter yells "Lord save me". Jesus saves him, then accuses him of having little faith. How was Peter having little faith? It didn't appear that Jesus was moving to save him, so he yelled for help. Is Peter supposed to somehow know that Jesus will save him at all times?

I can't pass up a good "atheists are really religious fundamentalists" article. This one's textbook.
Atheists remain a tiny minority, but they're far more vocal and combative than they used to be, an approach advocated by Dawkins and others. They have every right to state their views.
Minorities standing up for their beliefs? How terrible. It's only proper to be vocal and combative when you have a church behind you.
The irony is that this current brand of aggressive atheism is just another form of fundamentalism. These particular atheists are zealots on the subject of faith who see no shadings of gray, only black and white. They're dead-set against religion but weirdly obsessed with it.
I don't think being against believing things without evidence (faith) is fundamentalism. It's rational. If I said I had faith that there are pink unicorns living amongst us, you would surely ridicule me. But replace "pink unicorns" with "virgin born, resurrected God-man" and that's suddenly something we can't talk about with anything but respect.

I'm not sure what atheist doesn't see everything as a shade of gray. Where did the universe come from? I don't know. That's about as gray as it gets. Do I know there wasn't a God that created the universe? No. But I can't prove there isn't a Santa either. I would still consider myself an atheist on the subject of Santa, in the same way I consider myself an atheist on the subject of God. Again, I'm making no assertion that there is no God.

Now lets contrast this with the religion this pastor proscribes to. I've never met a Christian that said "well, I'm pretty sure there's a God". Only, "there is a God, you must believe". That's as black and white as it gets.

I will concede that I'm mildly obsessed with religion (hence this blog). But not necessarily dead set against it.
The "new atheism," as it's called by its adherents, is itself a kind of church. An anti-church church, granted, but a form of lockstep belief nonetheless. It reminds me of Hazel Motes' Church Without Christ in Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood.
First, I've never met someone that called themself a "new atheist". More importantly, I don't know how atheists could be any less of a church. Atheism only implies a general disbelief in God. Nothing else. You could believe that we are all descendants from people who used to live on mars. But as long as you don't believe in God, you're an atheist. Are most atheists rational/intelligent people? Maybe. But that has nothing to do with calling yourself an atheist. If holding one belief in common makes you a church, then yes, atheists are totally a church. But then there's also the church of speed limits should be higher.
Even as a longtime Christian minister, I still have days when I wonder whether this whole God thing is a figment of my imagination. I can't denigrate those who don't believe at all. That's between them and their maker — or, if they might prefer, them and their rational senses or their artistic sensibilities. My objection to the new atheists isn't that they're atheists.
Then what are you talking about? That's like saying "I don't object to Jews because they're Jewish, I just don't like that they're so cheap". You're blatantly stereotyping a group of people. But stereotyping is ok as long as you're talking about dreaded atheists.
It's that they strike me as hypocrites, which is the charge they unfailingly level, with mixed justification, against the religious. In opposing religion in the manner they do, they betray themselves as possessing the traits they profess to loathe.

They're smug, dogmatic and mean-spirited. They trot out tired, half-truthful stereotypes, and they cherry-pick historical examples of religious wrongdoing while ignoring the innumerable instances in which the faithful have performed great acts of decency and charity.
Please excuse me while I bash my head into something...

Ok, I feel better. You call atheists hypocrites, now lets look at some of the terrible traits you list. Smug. By writing this article you have to have some level of smugness. Trotting half-truthful stereotypes. You're trotting completely non-truthful stereotypes. Please, if you're going to call me (or atheists in general) hypocrites, at least get your own hypocrisy under control for a few paragraphs.
Christianity is a big, organic, complex system of beliefs with a long, diverse history. It's not just one thing.
I haven't even mentioned the varying theologies, contradictions and contributions of Judaism, Islam or Hinduism.
Paul, have you ever considered that all the atheists you meet seem angry because you make them that way? You claim that I'm lumping all Christians together, while you're lumping all atheists together. I'm sorry if I'm fitting the atheist stereotype, but I have to call you a hypocrite.

Atheists, as well as Christians, are not just one stereotype.


  1. Gotta love those articles.

    "Even as a longtime Christian minister, I still have days when I wonder whether this whole God thing is a figment of my imagination."

    What, you mean all of those "personal experiences" and "historical facts" and "answered prayers" and "logical arguments" don't convince you too? And people wonder why we don't believe...

  2. Matt 14:1-13 (and Mark 6:12-30), on the death of John the Baptist, is one of my favorite illustrations of how Matthew altered Mark's storyline, and messed some things up in the process. I have been withholding my comments on comparing the Gospel accounts with one another until the later of a pair is covered, but I'll make an exception in this case.

    First of all, in Matt 14:1, it is stated that Herod has heard some reports about Jesus, presumably the miracle and healing stories (cf. Matt 14:2), or his speeches, and this reminded him of John the Baptist. Why is not entirely clear, since there was no mention of John having performed healings or miracles, and Jesus isn't depicted as a baptizer.

    Remarkably, Herod thinks that Jesus is John risen from the dead! Was resurrection so common them? Was the idea that Jesus was John resurrected what led to the idea that Jesus was resurrected, too? And Jesus was contemporary with John, with both of them being seen together, as adults, so how could anyone think that one had been born after the other? (We'll see that Mark's fuller version is even stranger on this point.)

    Note that in Matt 14:1 Herod (Antipas) is referred to by his correct title, Tetrarch, not King (the King Herod in Matt 2 is this Herod's father), but in 14:9 Herod is called "the king." Here Matthew has forgotten that he was changing the word "king," as it says in Mark 6, to "tetrarch" in this section.

    In Matt 14:3, following Mark, it states that Herodias was the wife of Philip, the brother of Tetrarch Herod, but in fact she was the wife of a different brother, Herod II, which we know from Josephus. This error in Matthew and Mark was corrected in some later versions of the manuscripts. Luke, who used Josephus as a primary source, knew enough not to make this mistake. Interestingly, it was the daughter Salome of Herodias who was the one married to Philip.

    In Matt 14:9 it is not clear why Herod was distressed to have John executed, considering that he had a motive for wanting him dead. Mark 6:20, however, makes this more clear: Herod feared to harm John because he knew him to be righteous and holy, but also because he liked to listen to him.

    Matthew's big temporal blunder occurs in 14:13. It helps to look at Mark 6:12-30 to understand the time sequence. First Jesus sent out his disciples to preach, drive out demons, and heal the sick. Immediately afterward, Herod hears about this activity on the part of the disciples and it reminds him of John, whom Herod has already had beheaded. This execution is then told in a flashback. At the conclusion of the flashback, it is stated that John's disciples buried his body. Then, in Mark 6:30, the story returns to the present time, with Jesus' disciples reporting to him about their activities.

    In Matthew, OTOH, it is not the activity of the disciples but of Jesus himself that reminds Herod of John. The death of John, which has occurred earlier, is then recounted in more or less the same way, but after his execution, it is Jesus' disciples who bury John. However, it is at this point that Matthew slips up, because he has Jesus' disciples then come to tell Jesus about John's execution (instead of their own missions), and the story continues from there in the same place that Mark's does. In other words, Matthew goes back in time to John's death and then continues from that past time point instead of first returning to the present time to continue the story. Oops.

  3. Matt 13:12: "Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."

    I guess God really is a Republican.

    Matt 13:10-15. I don't think you appreciate how offensive this part really is. Jesus is deliberately being obscure so that people will not understand him, so that they cannot be saved. ("Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.") Jesus is actually intentionally making sure that many people who would be willing to follow him go to hell instead. This might be the most fucked up thing we've seen in the Bible so far, and that's saying something.

    Matt 13:29-30. Maybe it would be difficult for humans to pull the weeds without uprooting the plants simultaneously, but surely this is not impossible for God. Why couldn't He just eliminate the bad weeds as they arise, rather than waiting?

    Matt 13:44. Apparently Jesus doesn't believe in full disclosure when making financial transactions. He must be a fan of the Vampire Squid.

    BTW, don't worry if you have no idea what the Kingdom of God is. The evangelists couldn't agree on this either. Is it at the end of the world? On earth or in heaven? Among the disciples now? You can find all of these different possibilities expressed in the Gospels, with different alternatives present even within a single Gospel.



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