Sunday, October 28, 2018

Semi-Random Musings (10)

When the question arises as to what God will do about the “good people” in our world who have never heard the gospel, it is almost always sick babies or hypothetical aboriginals in jungles half way across the planet the questioner has in view, as opposed to his own mother-in-law who declines to give a moment’s consideration to the lifetime of Christian testimony with which she has been presented.

We also hear many more sermons on Genesis than Ezekiel, so when complaints about God’s justice are raised, it is usually Genesis to which we resort in response: Abraham’s conviction that God does not “put the righteous to death with the wicked”; the salvation of Noah and his family from the flood; Lot’s deliverance from Sodom.

This is reasonable. The apostle Peter draws on the same two events when making a New Testament case for the character of God: that he “knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.” God does not need our help figuring out what “righteousness” means, Peter assures us. He’s got that sorted, even when a man’s visible testimony to godliness runs not much deeper than finding the immorality of his neighbors repulsive.

If Peter had been called upon to produce even more historical evidence of God’s justice, he could well have cited the prophet Ezekiel:
“And he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his waist. And the Lord said to him, ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.’ And to the others he said in my hearing, ‘Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark.’ ”
“Touch no one on whom is the mark.” 1,800 years after the floodwaters subsided, and 1,200 years after providing angelic deliverance for righteous Lot, God once again demonstrated how he operates in this world: he does not put the righteous to death with the wicked. It’s just not his style.

God has repeatedly displayed his fairness in his earthly judgments. Why do we so easily become concerned about the decisions he will make with respect to the eternal destiny of babies and hypothetical aboriginals?

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I finished up a recent series on the Apocrypha by pointing out ten ways pseudo-scripture differs from the word of God. I might have included an eleventh contrast between apocryphal literature and the Bible if I had thought of it at the time, and that’s TMI: Too Much Information. Books like Judith or Tobit are stories, and observe traditional story structure and content. They are complete in and of themselves, and they include everything you need to enjoy them: beginnings, middles and ends. The stuff that happens all has a point and contributes to the resolution of the drama the authors have created. There are few or no loose ends. These scribes do not lack the ability to write a coherent story; in fact, it is the very self-containment of these narratives that flags them as inauthentic to the seasoned reader of scripture.

Contrast this with the way scripture records its history. Genesis is notable as much for what it omits as what it contains. Wouldn’t you like to know more about the Nephilim or Cain’s wife? I would. Everybody would, so much so that very early on, insufficiently reverent religious people or outright frauds (take your pick) thought it useful to fill in the apparent gaps in Genesis for curious readers by publishing The Book of Jubilees.

In providing their readers with more rather than less, the writers of pseudo-scripture demonstrate their ignorance of the fact that God’s word is a unity. It does not really matter much to Christians that the gospel of Mark peters out rather than finishing with a bang, that Judges finishes without resolving the issue of Israel’s lack of a king, or that we never find out how Sarah felt about being called Abraham’s sister. These things are resolved, explained or accounted for in other books of the Bible. Questions about what Jesus did after he rose from the dead are answered in three other gospels, the king issue is addressed immediately we open 1 Samuel, and the nature of Sarah’s relationship with Abraham is commented on in Peter, but — and this is important — ONLY to the extent that there is a significant spiritual point to be noted.

Philemon rings true to me precisely because the apostle Paul makes no attempt at all to explain for the modern reader the story that made the letter necessary. After all, we are not his primary audience. Philemon is a personal letter to a friend, and there is much between the lines we will never know. If you and I don’t get it, well, too bad.

Why did the slave Onesimus run from his master in the first place? How did he end up with Paul? (There’s a fairly remarkable coincidence.) When Paul calls him “useless”, what is he referring to? Is the “Mark” who sends his greetings in verse 24, and whom Paul calls his “fellow worker” the same Mark who abandoned Paul and Barnabas at Pamphylia and over whom he and Barnabas parted ways? Was he the “Mark” who wrote the gospel of Mark?

The answers to these and other questions are not provided because while they may be of interest to us, they are either of no interest to Philemon, or else he already knows the answers. The letter reads perfectly naturally as correspondence between two believers.

Were the missive pseudepigraphical, it would almost surely read very differently; its author could not possibly have resisted filling in what he thought were blanks.

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