Openness to Advice

According to the Book of Proverbs, one of the key differences between sages and fools is whether they are open to advice. Sages are; fools are not.
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
but he who hates correction is stupid (12:1).
The way of a fool seems right to him,
but a wise man listens to advice (12:15).
A wise son heeds his father’s instruction,
but a mocker does not listen to rebuke (13:1).
Advice, here, is more than words. It is a parental activity, words followed up with disciplinary consequences. For the proverbist, then, “advice” is parallel to “discipline,” “correction,” a “father’s instruction,” and “rebuke.” (See also 15:5, 12; 17:10; 19:25).
Why does biblical advice include the possibility of disciplinary consequences? Because the stakes are so high! Those who heed advice, who respond positively to discipline, will lead good lives. Those who don’t, won’t.
He who scorns instruction will pay for it,
but he who respects a command is rewarded.
The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,
turning a man from the snares of death (13:13-14; cf. 15:10, 29:1).
He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame,
but whoever heeds correction is honored (13:18).
One of the most important benefits of heeding advice is growth in wisdom.
He who listens to a life-giving rebuke
will be at home among the wise.
He who ignores discipline despises himself,
but whoever heeds correction gains understanding.
The fear of the Lord teaches a man wisdom,
and humility comes before honor (15:31-33; cf. 18:15, 21:11).
By contrast:
Stop listening to instruction, my son,
and you will stray from the words of knowledge (19:27).
Some people are so incorrigible, unfortunately, that not even extreme discipline will undo their stupidity:
Though you grind a fool in a mortar,
grinding him like grain with a pestle,
you will not remove his folly from him (27:22).
What makes some people open to advice but others resistant to it? Pride or humility!
Pride only breeds quarrels,
but wisdom is found in those who take advice (13:10).
A fool finds no pleasure in understanding
but delights in airing his own opinions (18:2; cf. 23:9).
Here, as in other proverbs, pride leads inexorably to a life of folly. Humility, on the other hand, opens the door to a life of wisdom and wellbeing.
The trick, then, is to learn to love the advice of the wise:
Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold
is a wise man’s rebuke to a listening ear (25:12).
And not merely their advice, but also their painful, constructive critiques:
Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses (27:5-6).
With all this in mind, two questions remain: (1) Are you open to good advice? And (2) are you willing to give it?
He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor
than he who has a flattering tongue (28:23).

Easter Sunday

Seven Stanzas at Easter

by John Updike (b. 1932)

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Holy Saturday

Modern Americans reckon time differently than first-century Palestinian Jews. For us, a day begins at 12:01 a.m. For them, a day began at sunset. We need to keep in mind this difference in time-reckoning in order to keep the days of Holy Week straight.
According to Mark 14:17, Jesus’ passion began sometime in the “evening,” that is Thursday evening. According to Mark 15:25, Jesus was crucified at “the third hour,” roughly 9:00 a.m. on Friday morning. According to Mark 15:34, he died sometime around “the ninth hour,” or 3:00 p.m. According to Mark 15:42-43, he was buried prior to sunset, which marked the beginning of Sabbath. And according to Mark 16:2, his tomb was discovered empty on Sunday morning, just after sunrise (approximately 6:00 a.m.).
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul writes that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” How should this “third day” be reckoned? If Jesus died at 3:00 p.m. on Friday and rose again by Sunday morning at 6:00 a.m., then he was only dead 39 hours or so, less than two full days. That’s a modern American way to look at it.
A first-century Palestinian Jew would have reckoned the days differently. (Remember, after all, that they didn’t have clocks or wristwatches.) Day 1 ran from Thursday evening to Friday afternoon. This was the day on which Jesus was betrayed, tried, crucified, and dead. Day 2 ran from Friday evening to Saturday afternoon. This was the Sabbath, during which everyone rested and no one visited Jesus tomb. Day 3 ran from Saturday evening to Sunday afternoon. The women who came to the tomb therefore came on the “third day” after Jesus’ death.
Another problem comes from a prophecy Jesus uttered in Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” This is a simile (“just as”) and probably should not be pressed too literally. However, if we reckon events from Thursday evening, when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, then we have three nights (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) and three days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday). But, as I said, Jesus’ simile in Matthew 12:40 probably should not be pressed too literally.

Good Friday

Today is Good Friday, the day on which we commemorate the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. On this day, according to Mark 15:1-47, in addition to being abandoned by his disciples, Jesus was condemned by Pilate, scourged and crucified by soldiers, and then mocked by Jerusalem’s religious establishment.
Was he also forsaken by God?
The only word Jesus uttered from the cross, according to Mark, seems to give an affirmative answer:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (verse 34)
To properly interpret Christ’s forsakenness, we must set his words in their proper context. As an observant Jew, Jesus was intimately familiar with the Psalter. He used it, as all observant Jews used and continue to use it, as the prayer book by means of which he interpreted all his experiences, whether good or bad.
In this case, Jesus’ cry of dereliction is the opening line of Psalm 22. In that psalm, David plaintively asked God why he did not answer his persistent, agonized prayers. David went on to contrast God’s silence with the way he had treated Israel in the past and with the way he had treated David himself. But toward the end of the psalm, David offers a word of hope:
For [God] has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help (verse 24).
There are at least two reasons to think Jesus had the entirety of this psalm in mind during his crucifixion, even though he only quoted its first line.
For one thing, he quoted its first line. This in and of itself establishes the point that Jesus was praying Psalm 22 on the cross.
Second, the setting of the psalm almost exactly parallels Jesus’ condition on the cross. Compare these verses:
And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get (Mark 15:24).
They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing (Psalms 22:18).
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” (Mark 15:29-30)
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
“He trusts in the Lord;
let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him” (Psalms 22:7-8).
On two occasion, someone from the crowd witnessing the crucifixion offers Jesus something to drink (Mark 15:23, 36). Psalm 22:15 speaks to this thirst: “my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” Crucifixion involved nailing the wrists and ankles of the victim to the cross. Psalm 22:16 says, “they have pierced my hands and my feet.”
These points, in my mind, establish that Jesus intentionally prayed Psalm 22 on the cross because it so exactly paralleled his situation. But if that is the case, then his cry of dereliction must be interpreted in light of that psalm as a whole. And the psalm – as noted above – ends on a note of hope.
Jesus’ cry of dereliction, then, is not the cry of the damned, who are eternally forsaken by God because of their lack of repentance. Rather, it is the cry of the redeemed who, finding themselves in the grip of evildoers, hope for their eventual rescue by God, whether in this life or the life to come. It is this hope that sustained Jesus on the cross.
Hebrews 12:2 gets the last word: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday. The day derives its name from the “command” (Latin, mandatum) Jesus gives his disciples to love one another (John 13:34). Unlike John, however, Mark records neither the command nor the footwashing that so powerfully exemplified it. Rather, he focuses on six events: the Last Supper (Mark 14:12-26), Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial of him (14:27-31), his Gethsemane prayer (14:32-42), his betrayal and arrest (14:43-52), his Sanhedrin trial (14:53-65), and Peter’s denial (14:66-72). In this post, I would like to focus on Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial of him (14:27-31).
It is amazing how self-deceived we all can be about the true state of our spiritual vitality. In verse 27, Jesus makes this prediction, backed up by a prophecy from Zechariah 13:7: “You will all fall away, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” Amazingly, and somewhat arrogantly, Peter replies, “Even if all fall away, I will not” (verse 29).
This is an amazing reply on a number of levels. First, like the crowds that welcomed Jesus at his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Peter believed that Jesus was Israel’s long-expected Messiah (Mark 8:29). One is amazed at the easy impudence with which Peter contradicts his king. Second, according to the passage just cited, Peter has already been rebuked by Jesus for contradicting him about his crucifixion. One would think that Peter might have learned to hold his tongue on matters pertaining to Jesus’ future. Amazingly, however he does not.
And that brings us to why this is such an arrogant reply. “Even if all fall away,” Peter says, “I will not.” Peter has such a high view of himself that he contradicts Jesus and distances himself from the other disciples at the same time. Given Jesus’ rebuke of him as “Satan” (Mark 8:33), you would think Peter might talk with a bit more humility, but he doesn’t.
It’s easy to pick on Peter, all too easy. But if twelve men who had been with Jesus for three years, heard him say what he said, watched him do what he did, and had performed similar actions themselves at his command – if these twelve men couldn’t stick with him through his trials, what makes us think we would have?
As I said, our capacity for self-deception about our own spiritual vitality is amazing. What is the remedy? Several things, it seems.
First, we must be humble. Why, according to John, did Jesus wash the feet of the disciples (John 13:1-17)? In order to set an example which they should follow (verse 15). After three years, it seems, the disciples still did not understand the intent and motives of their Master. So he had to paint a picture in vivid colors and bold relief of what he wanted them to do.
Second, we must be sympathetic. If Peter and the others could not withstand the test of Jesus’ passion, then perhaps we should be sympathetic about their failures and the failures of others. This does not mean that we excuse anyone’s failures, but it does mean that we not stand in judgment against them. We have the same failings as they do, after all.
And third, we must be forgiving. Jesus’ was realistic about the low spiritual vitality of his disciples. He knew they would fail. But he also knew they could be restored: “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (Mark 14:28). It was as if he was planting a seed of hope in their minds. After failure, redemption; after Jerusalem, Galilee.
This is a promise to us too.

Holy Wednesday

Holy Wednesday is a crucial day in the events of Holy Week. From Palm Sunday through Holy Tuesday, Jesus acted in the public eye, performing significant actions and speaking startling words. These actions and words spiked the ire of Jesus’ enemies, who – according to Mark 14:1 – “were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him.”
But Jesus’ enemies had no way to get at him, protected as he was by the sympathies of the crowds (verse 2). No way, that is, until one of his own resolved to betray him. “Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over” (verses 10-11).
Mark does not tell us what prompted Judas to betray Jesus. He mentions that the chief priests promised Judas money, but this was after he approached them, not before. We simply don’t know what prompted Judas to go to the chief priests in the first place – not from Mark, at any rate.
What we do know is that between verses 1-2, which report the chief priests’ intent to murder Jesus, and verses 10-11, which report Judas’s intent to betray him, we find the story of an unnamed women and her broken jar of expensive perfume.
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head (verse 3).
In his laconic telling of this event, Mark fails to answer two key questions: Who was this woman, and why did she do it? What he does report is the grumbling this action provoked from some of Simon’s dinner guests:
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly (verses 4-5).
Because of his pronounced sympathies for the poor, Jesus might have been expected to join the criticism of this lavish waste of money. But – and isn’t amazing how Jesus rarely conforms to our expectations – he didn’t! Instead, he drew attention to himself:
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (verses 6-9).
With these words, Jesus outlines two distinct forms of spirituality. One focuses on helping the poor; the other focuses on loving Jesus.
The spirituality that focuses on helping the poor seems so right. Jesus himself was an advocate for the poor, their friend and provider. Yet, in this instance, Jesus saw that the guests’ focus on the poor detracted from their focus on him. The most important thing is to love Jesus. If you love Jesus, you will help the poor whom Jesus loved. But it is also quite possible that a cause – even a praiseworthy one like helping the poor – can lead you away from loving Jesus.
Perhaps this was the reason for Judas’ betrayal. He loved a cause more than he loved Christ.

Holy Tuesday

On Holy Tuesday, according to Mark 11:20-13:37, Jesus taught his disciples and disputed with his enemies. He addressed so many topics on that day that it’s difficult to know which one to focus on. But since I must choose one, I choose the words with which Jesus’ closed the day. They are found in Mark 13:32-37:
No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”
These words are the conclusion to the Olivet Discourse, which Jesus delivered Peter, Andrew, James, and John while looking at the Temple from the Mount of Olives. These four disciples commented on the massiveness and magnificence of the Temple, but Jesus prophesied its impending destruction. No doubt astounded at Jesus’ words, the disciples asked, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” (Mark 13:4).
In response, Jesus said many things, which many later commentators have interpreted in many different ways – to no one’s general satisfaction. Was Jesus prophesying the impending destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70? Or was he looking farther into the future, to an event that is still yet to happen? I don’t know. The debate between preterists (the A.D. 70 crowd) and futurists goes on and on with no sign of abatement. Perhaps only Jesus himself can settle the debate when he returns.
Too often, the theoretical debate about the timing of these events overshadows the practical application Jesus himself drew from his prophecy. And that practical application is fairly straightforward: “Watch!”
Jesus reminds us in the verses I quoted above that our ignorance about the future is great. “No one knows about that day or hour,” he tells us. Astoundingly, he includes himself (“the Son”) among the ignorant. God has his own plans, his own timing, and he hasn’t made them to known to us. We don’t know when Christ will return, only that he will return.
Because of our ignorance, we must pay constant attention, like the servant “at the door” in Jesus’ parable. The opposite of watchfulness is sleep, inattentiveness, disobedience, and unpreparedness for the master’s return.
In the early years of the Twentieth Century, there was a keen sense among Bible-believing Christians of the imminence of Jesus’ coming. Some, perhaps, took it too far – like my great-grandfather, who refused to buy life insurance because Jesus would return in his own lifetime. But we lose something spiritually when we stop watching for Jesus’ return, when we lose the edginess of imminence.
If at any moment Jesus might return, how should we then live?
That’s a good question to ask yourself today, and everyday.

Holy Monday

Today is Holy Monday, the second day of Holy Week. According to Mark 11:12-19, Jesus performed two significant actions on this day: he cursed a fig tree, and he cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem. Let us look at each action in turn.
First, Jesus cursed a fig tree.
According to Mark, “Jesus was hungry.” Because we read the Gospels from the vantage point of Easter, we often forget that Jesus was human. He suffered the same pains and pangs as we do. Jesus saw a fig tree in the distance and approached it in order to reap its fruit. Mark tells us, however, that “it was not the season for figs.” So Jesus’ hunger went unsatisfied.
What Jesus did next is a bit astonishing: He cursed an out-of-season fig tree for not bearing fruit. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Assuming that Jesus was an intelligent man and that he knew it was not fig season, why did Jesus curse the tree? Because he was trying to make a spiritual point to his disciples and through them to us!
What is the point? We must be prepared, in season and out of season, to minister to the pains and pangs of the hungry. Every day, the physically hungry and the spiritually hungry stand before us with their needs. There is no time to delay help. Now is always the right time to serve them. Unfortunately, on the first Holy Monday, Jerusalem was not ready to serve, either the hungry or their Master.
And that brings us to the second significant action: Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem.
In Jesus’ day, the Temple Mount contained a vast plaza, subdivided into several courtyards. The outermost courtyard was the Court of the Gentiles, which anyone from any nation could visit. In this courtyard, moneychangers set up table to exchange the world’s currencies for Temple currency, which was then used to purchase sacrifices. So much commercial activity took place in the Court of the Gentiles – and sacrifices were sold at such inflated prices – that no spiritual activity could take place in this court. So, Jesus “began driving out those who were buying and selling there” and “overturned the tables of the money changes and the benches of those selling doves.” It seems that this took place all day, for Mark goes on to note: “Jesus would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.”
Jesus justified his action by quoting Isaiah 56:7, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The larger context of this passage is a prophetic promise to non-Jewish people groups that God would save them, bring them to Jerusalem, and “give them joy in my house of prayer.” Jesus also cited Jeremiah 7:11, which refers to the Temple as a “den of robbers.”
There is a place for commercial transactions, of course. I don’t think Jesus meant to deny that. But the Temple was not a place for buying and selling, especially not when those activities hindered Gentile prayers.
As we reflect on these two significant activities – the cursing and the cleansing – we should come to see that they spring from the same motivation, namely, openness to God. If we are open to God, we will be prepared to meet the needs of the hungry among us, whether they thirst for bread or thirst for spirituality. And if we are open to God, we will create space where people can connect with him.
May our churches – both the people and the buildings – always be open in this way!

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Throughout this week, we remember and celebrate the acts of Jesus Christ by means of which God saved the world. The story of those acts is a Divine Comedy: after great sorrow comes a happy ending. And like most comedies, the story of Holy Week begins with the Triumphal Entry of our Hero (Mark 11:1-11).
Several details about that entry are worthy of note:
First, the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is a planned event. Verses 1-6 set the scene. Jesus instructs his disciples to go into the village ahead of them and retrieve a colt for him to ride. Although it is possible that Jesus had miraculous foreknowledge of where the colt would be, it is more likely that he had arranged for its use beforehand.
This is interesting, for throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has told people to keep quiet about his true identity as the Son of God and Messiah of Israel (e.g., 1:32-34, 44; 3:11-12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:29-30; 9:9-10, 30-32). But now, Jesus is casting aside all reticence about himself and openly declaring himself as “Lord.” Why now? We’ll come back to that question is a moment.
Second, the Triumphal Entry is a symbolic event. In verses 7-10, Jesus rides a colt that has never been written. Although Mark does not point out the messianic significance of Jesus’ action, Matthew 21:5 does: “This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet [Zech. 9:9]:
Say to the Daughter of Zion,
“See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The crowds who witnessed Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem clearly understood what he was doing. Listen to the words they proclaimed, which are a theologically rich paraphrase of Psalm 118:25-26:
“Hosanna!” [meaning, “Save!”]
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
Hitherto reticent to openly proclaim his Divine Sonship and Messianic Kingdom, Jesus now speaks and acts clearly. No one witnessing this event – not the crowds, not the Temple leadership, and most definitely not the Roman overlords – will interpret it as anything other than a victorious king entering his capitol city.
And that brings us to our last point: The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is an ironic event. On the first Palm Sunday, no one seeing Jesus doubted that the Kingdom of God was imminent. Here was Jesus, the miracle-working, demon-exorcising, hypocrite-exposing preacher from Nazareth, finally exercising his rightful powers as Israel’s king. But, nearly two thousand years on, we no longer read the story with such naiveté. We know what happens to Jesus on Good Friday. The king’s Triumphal Entry becomes regicide. The crowds stop shouting, “Hosanna!” and start shouting, “Crucify him!” An inglorious end to a glorious beginning! (Of course, we should not forget that even this inglorious end is but the beginning to the most glorious ending!)
What we must realize is that Jesus planned the totality of this event all along, both the symbolism and the irony. He had been reticent to openly proclaim his Divine Sonship and Messianic Kingdom precisely because he knew that we would interpret those things in terms of what Martin Luther called the “theology of glory.” A king, according to that theology, always succeeds, always lives, always sends his enemies to their crosses. But Jesus proclaims what Luther called the “theology of the cross,” by means of which the king goes to the cross instead of his enemies and – this is most important! – for their salvation.
So yes, with the crowds, let us shout, “Hosanna!” for we desperately need to be saved. But let us not think that salvation comes easily to us. No cross, no crown – either for Jesus or for us.

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