Of Pharisees and Tax Collectors

Reading Time: 2 minutes

From some of the stuff I’ve seen on Facebook recently, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector came to mind. To save you the time of looking it up, I’ve posted it below:

“Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people —greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

– Luke 18:10-14

The Pharisees were a religious sect within ancient Judaism. I think that they started out like a lot of us who would be called “fundamentalists” or “conservatives” today. As they read the Law and the Prophets they observed how God’s people were given over to the surrounding nations when they turned away from God. By bringing the people of Israel back into right relationship with God they probably hoped that God would send a savior to free them from the oppressive Romans.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, this is a very good thing! However, those who take the moral high ground are prone to lifting themselves up over others. In the case of the Pharisees, their pride inflated them to the point that when they met Jesus, God in the flesh, they had Him executed. I’m afraid that myself and some of my conservative/reformed brethren run the same risk.

The tax collectors were just the opposite. They were Jews who had sold out to the Romans by enforcing their taxes on the Israeli people. Not only were they traitors supporting the occupying power, but they were often dishonest- taking more than the Romans actually demanded. They were the lowest of the low- pond scum. I think of them as equivalent with those who sold out to the Nazis in World War II France.

Jesus’ parable was striking to His original audience because He points out how when representatives of these two groups comes before God, it was the scumbag who was made right with God instead of the holy man because he humbled himself.

So many of my generation have been so focused on fighting back against our ultra-conservative/Pharisaical past that we ourselves are adopting the very pride we hate. We walk around saying “Thank you for not making me like that hell-fire and brimstone preacher!” or “Thank you for not making me like that legalistic hypocrite.” or “Thank you for not making me like that guy on Fox News.” When we do this we essentially twist the parable so that instead of crying out to God for mercy, both sides are thanking Him that they are better than the other.

I probably haven’t earned the right, whether by age or friendship, to offer advice. But as someone who is having difficulty in this area himself, I would just caution you to check yourself if you ever start to despise someone as a religious hypocrite- you may have indeed just become one yourself.

How should the Modern Church use Acts?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This post stems out of a course assignment I received as part of a “Leadership” course that I’m currently re-taking. Currently the discussion is around drawing principles from Acts. The readings were “Acts – The Problem of Historical Precedent” by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, and “A Look Through Three Lenses” by Gene Getz. While the assignment was originally to write a 1-2 page essay, I felt the need to write two, this being the first. I would be interested in your thoughts.

The question which I shall attempt to answer in this essay is “How should the Church make use of the book of Acts?” While a full answer would itself require a book, I hope at least to address its primary use to the modern day Church.

I want to begin my argument as it were with the assertion that when applying any Scripture we must do so in the manner that the Author intended. To do otherwise by very definition would be to take the Author out of context. This would be akin to taking the answer belonging to one question and applying it to another. It may be the correct answer, but only incidentally.

What then was the writer’s intent? While Luke does not say explicitly, it appears to be the sequel to the Gospel of Luke (see Acts 1:1-3). As he was writing the series of events leading to Christ’s resurrection, so now he is writing an account of what happened after Jesus’ ascension for the benefit of the mysterious Theophilus (and later the other “lovers of God”- the saints).

What then was Luke’s intent? From the first three verses it appears that Luke was writing to Theophilus (and by extension the other lovers of God) to recount the events which took place after Jesus’ ascension. However, as Fee and Stuart point out, Luke is not simply recording Church history- he is being very selective of which events he includes in order to make a point. But what is that point?

I believe the answer lies at the very beginning in what Luke chooses to include from Jesus’ post-resurrection teachings. Out of all that could have been included out of what Jesus said, Luke only records Christ’s instruction to wait for the Holy Spirit, and the promise that “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.” Curiously enough, the rest of Luke’s account roughly follows this progression from Jerusalem (1:1-8:3) to Judea and Samaria (8:4-12:25) and onwards into lands belonging to the Gentiles. The book ends in Rome with Paul explaining how God’s work has progressed to encompass both Jew and Gentile.

On these and other grounds I would propose that Luke’s intent was to explain to Theophilus two things: First, how a Jewish sect spread and evolved to become the primarily Gentile religion we know today. Second, I believe that Luke wanted to point out how the Apostles’ witness had been guided by the Holy Spirit and empowered in Jesus’ name every step of the way. Third, I think that many of the stories that form this theme were selected to explain some of the Church’s “hot topics” (such as Simon the sorcerer). Nevertheless, this march from Jewish Jerusalem to Gentile Rome under the influence of the Holy Spirit appears to be the main theme of the book.

Now that we understand what this book meant to the Early Church, we must ask what it means to the Modern Church. Unlike the early Church, the vast majority of us are Gentiles and we are not so concerned with the issues that Jewish converts face (such as ceremonial cleanliness, unclean foods, and circumcision). Likewise, in the two thousand years after the writing of Acts our “hot topics” have changed many times. I am not saying that the issues Luke provides insight to are less important, but they are not as urgent or immediate.

At this point some would suggest that we look to Acts for patterns, principles, and precedence with regards to church structure, the sacraments, and the process of salvation. I will address this more fully in another post, but for now I would submit that based on what we’ve discussed so far, to look for these things in Acts would be inappropriate as Luke does not appear to be overly interested in them.

Instead, I propose the primary application of Acts for us today is encouragement.

First, Acts should remind us of our identity as representatives and witnesses of Christ. Acts begins and ends with the proclamation of God’s Kingdom, which is even more relevant in the midst of the issues the Church finds herself in today.

Second, Acts should comfort us by testifying that God is very near to us and is very involved in His Church. Luke’s account of how the Holy Spirit influenced the Apostle’s acts should blow any thought of deism out of the water.

Third, Acts should inspire us with the witnesses of the saints and the martyrs who have come before us. We may not be Peters, Pauls, or Stephens, but we are empowered by the same spirit.

With these three points in mind, let us read Acts with the knowledge that we are witnesses of the Living God who has guided His Church from the beginning, and will surely not cease to do so now. Amen?

Wanted: 13 Dwarves and a Wizard

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Last week I finally went with my family to see the third “Hobbit” movie- the Battle of Five armies. I am not a film critic (nor do I ever desire to be one), but I had a thoroughly good time. While the movie was nearly two and a half hours long, it never felt like it was dragging.

Walking out of the cinema, I felt just a little bit better for watching that film. I found myself walking out just a little bit taller and feeling just a little more alive.

Maybe it was watching Bard defend his family, or perhaps it was Thorin wrestling with the dark urges of Dragon Fever, or maybe it was the armies clashing in a battle of good and evil. For some reason I departed with the fantasy that there was some greater saga which I was a part of.

And then I reached my car, turned the key, and slipped back into the daily grind.

As I drove away I couldn’t help but feeling just a little like a Bilbo who had never been Good Morning’d by a wizard, who had never been swept along by a troop of dwarves, who had never had Adventures.

Certainly, such a life would have been comfortable- this Bilbo would never have had to face trolls, goblins or dragons. He never would have had to endure hunger, cold, and danger. He never would have had to watch friends die.

Then again, he never would have had such friendships at all.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are in my mind the pinnacle of High Fantasy, and I have reason to believe these stories contain elements that all of us can empathize with. However at the end of the day they are just fantasies that attempt to drain an ocean of longing for a life or purpose greater than what we now have.

As a Christian, I do know that there is a Greater Story that God has been unfolding since the beginning of time itself. And yet, from my comfortable chair in my little “Bag End” in Bothell, it seems like an ever-distant mountain that’s too far away to be completely real.

I suppose I’m still looking for my Wizard and troop of dwarves.

Game Ethics

Reading Time: 2 minutes[avatar user=”John” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /] I play a lot of videogames. Too many. At times it has reached a very unhealthy level, but that’s not the reason I mention it today. The reason that I mention it is that I’d like to call out a few games:

The first one is a game called “Divinity: Dragon Commander” in which you play a dragon with a Jetpack trying to unite the world through military conquest. I have yet to find another game with quite that premise.

The gameplay is OK, and as a real-time strategy game I would say that it is average. Where it really shines is that as the be-jetpacked dragon leader of multiple ‘races’ (including the Lizard-people, the elves, the imps, and the undead) you need to make choices as to how you will react to different situations ranging from whom you will marry to the legalization of drugs.

The way the game mechanic works is this: Someone from among your generals or the diplomats from each race will introduce an issue. You will then have the opportunity to talk with your other councilors before you rule on the issue (or decide to ignore it).

As tired as I was of the elves by the end of the game, I love this type of mechanic that forces me as a player to flex my emotional and ethical muscles. I may have settled this issue in my mind prior to playing, but now that I am confronted with it in a ‘more real’ way, do I still hold to that conviction?

Is the Undead’s religion sacred or silly? Are the needs of the many greater than the needs of the few? Are there things that are inherently right or wrong? I love games which make you answer these sorts of questions in a non-preachy way.

Video games are certainly overused. My 340 hours logged in Terraria testify to that fact in a very humiliating way. However, I believe that video games as can be redeemed to provide a greater awareness of political, social, and ethical issues in the way that I just described. Players can even experiment as the villain of the story and gain a completely different perspective.

Now I do not believe that games can replace other forms of media- for one thing it is much more difficult to reach the same intellectual depth in a game (whilst keeping it ‘fun’ and a ‘game’) than it is in a book. Nevertheless I think that this is an aspect of gaming that has not yet been tapped to its fullest potential.

Just some food for thought for those building games.



Hello World!

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a great writer. I suspect that it has something to do with not enough reading in my life, and not enough practice writing. In reading little (or reading much of poor material) I deny myself the opportunity to learn from superior writing. In writing too little I deny myself the practice which one needs to become proficient.

I believe that this principle holds true in other areas of life as well, whether that area is art or science, physical prowess or philosophy. To be great at something oneself requires both knowledge of what Good is, and hard work.

Does where I’m coming from make sense? Good, I’ll come back to it in a bit.

I am a man of habit. Every day I come home from work, turn on my computer, and check my email and Facebook to see what transpired in the great wide world while I was gone.

Every week or so, some occurrence in the news will set my Facebook feed on fire. This week it was the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hobby Lobby case. The next few days will be full of articles discussing why the occurrence is good, bad, or insignificant.

If I set aside my judgment of the subject itself and I look at the quality of the discussion surrounding that subject I find the quality to be lacking. Most of the responses I see are emotionally charged and poorly thought out. The articles being responded to quite frankly are little better.

This bugs me, because you would think that a society with such vast amounts of knowledge and leisure available to itself would be capable of so much more than those without. Yet if you take an article from the Huffington Post and compare it to an essay by C.S. Lewis or one of the Federalist papers, you will find that these older writers were thinking on a completely different level than the majority of what you see today.

The reasons for why this occurs are many and varied and I do not wish to go into them all this evening. One reason that I would propose at this time is the principle that I started with: We do not read/think/consider enough Good thinking, and we do not spend enough time practicing our thinking either.

Now I’ve been using the empathetic ‘you’ and ‘we’ throughout this post, but I recognize that right now I am really no better than the writers and bloggers that I criticize. However, I do hope to use this blog as an opportunity to fix that.

My goal for this website is to provide myself (and possibly others) with a sandbox for thought, where current issues and topics can be analyzed in a friendly environment- an environment where the goal is not just to propagate my opinions, but to gain a better understanding of them and the opinions of those who disagree with me. I may also have other projects of a more technical or scientific nature, but we’ll see how this unfolds.

I think it’s going to be a fun ride, and I hope you are willing to stick it out with me. I hope it’ll be interesting if nothing else.