The Scapegoating/Betraying of Jesus at Bethesda

Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda

 

 

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’ ‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’” (John 5.1–8)

 

This week, I’d like to revisit the story of John 5. Even if you are familiar with this story, I want to encourage you to give it a fresh look and see if you don’t see what I’m seeing here.

Let’s dive right in.

At first, the story appears to recount another run-of-the-mill healing by Jesus on yet another Sabbath day. But there is something else going on that a surface reading won’t catch.

Follow the story carefully.

“At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.’ But he replied, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Pick up your mat and walk.”’ So they asked him, ‘Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?’ The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.” (John 5.9–13)

It should be remembered that in Jesus’ day, those who were crippled, blind, or lame were not looked upon with compassion or viewed simply as less fortunate than others. This was a culture built on the assumptions of Deuteronomy 28, which states clearly that if you obey, God will bless you, and if you disobey, God will curse you. So if you are crippled, if you are blind, if you are a paralytic, you must be a sinner! What else could explain your current condition?

It should also be remembered that in Jesus’ culture, “sinner” was a very different term than it is today. Today, Christians are taught that we’re all sinners. “All have sinned,” Paul says. But before Paul and the early Christian movement developed the view that everyone is a sinner, this was not the case. The Jews belonged to a community to which certain promises had been made. And although you did not follow Moses’ teachings in order to earn a place in that community, you did follow those teachings, as well as the rules of the community, in order to put on display your decision to be a part of that community.  The term “sinner” was a label used for Jews who, despite belonging by birth to the covenant community, lived contrary to the Torah and rejected their place in that community. In short, the term “sinner” was not applied universally.

If you were a paralytic, in addition to suffering from your condition, you bore the stigma of being a sinner, for why else would God be punishing you? Being a paralytic (or anyone with a disability) in the time of Jesus carried with it the stigma of moral inferiority, the stigma of being a “sinner” and all that included for a Jew.

This is why the first thing Jesus says to the paralytic in Matthew 9 is that his sins are forgiven. Jesus sought first to relieve the guilt/stigma that accompanied being defined as a “sinner” in contrast to everyone else.

In John 5, Jesus heals the man. He sets him free! This freedom involves more than just the ability to walk. It is simultaneously a liberation from the “sinner” label. And what happens next? The man bumps into some fellow Jews who question him regarding why he is carrying his “burden” on the Sabbath day. Do you see what’s happening? He had just become free of the “sinner” label, and his new status is immediately threatened! He is at risk of being classified once again as a “sinner,” and he panics. He throws Jesus under the bus, saying, “The man who healed me . . . it’s His fault!” But the man cannot give his accusers a name, so the matter is dropped.

This next part is where things get interesting.

“Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning [hamartia] or something worse may happen to you.’” (John 5.14)

What the Greek actually says here is, “Behold you have been made healthy! Be guilty of wrongdoing no more or you will become something worse than a paralytic!

I want to remind you of John’s “Sin no more,” which we covered in our study on John’s use of hamartia in the eSight/podcast just a couple weeks ago. You can find it here if you need to refresh your memory: https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/06-02-2014/

John uses hamartia differently than some of the other New Testament authors. He uses the term to refer not simply to the behavior associated with sin, but also to the guilt that comes from defining yourself as a sinner.

This man in John 5 had been a paralytic for 38 years. According to the Intervarsity Press New Testament Background Commentary, “The man had been sick there longer than many people in antiquity lived.” This means that although the man was not a paralytic from birth, he might as well have been. He had become a paralytic sometime during infancy—so there is no way this man’s own sin caused him to be a paralytic. Jesus isn’t saying, “Listen, last time you sinned, this is what happened. Now go and sin no more, or next time, something worse might happen to you.” It wasn’t the man’s personal behavior that brought about his disability. He was an infant, for crying out loud. What Jesus is doing for this paralytic is exactly what He did for the paralytic in Matthew 9. He is seeking to set him free from the moral stigma to which paralytics were subjected.

“Go and be guilty of wrong no more.” (John 5.14; Mounce’s Greek Dictionary)

Jesus is setting him free, asserting that he no longer has to define himself as a “sinner”! You don’t have to define yourself according to the way others have looked at you, Jesus is saying. But if you don’t stop defining yourself this way, if you don’t stop allowing others to determine how you see yourself, your fate will be worse than that of simply being a paralytic. What is that fate? What is that something worse? It’s in the very next verse.

“The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.” (John 5.15)

Why would this man betray Jesus—the man who had just healed him—to the very people who had accused him of breaking the Sabbath?

The answer has to do with the nature of scapegoating. When a person is scapegoated the way this man was—both for being a paralytic and, afterward, for presumably breaking the Sabbath—that person becomes desperate. There are two ways enemies become friends. The first is to identify a mutual/common enemy (see Luke 23.12). The second is to cultivate forgiveness and reconciliation. The first is very similar to how scapegoats seek to escape being attacked by the crowd. When someone is being picked on, they will instinctively endeavor to deflect the negative attention onto someone weaker than themselves. The result is that now, rather than being picked on, they have gained their oppressors’ acceptance by joining them in picking on someone else.

This is the “something worse” about which Jesus was warning the paralytic. He could be free from the “sinner” stigma in two ways. He could embrace the new identity Jesus was giving him and no longer define himself the way his religious community had. Jesus would become that which defined this man and gave him a sense of worth. Alternatively, he could convince his community to scapegoat someone else—and join his community in the practice of scapegoating.  And who would this man choose to scapegoat? Who would he choose to throw under the bus? Who would he encourage his own oppressors to view as the real “sinner”?

He does exactly the opposite of the blind man in John 9, whom Jesus healed and whose story John is contrasting with this man’s. The man in John 5 chose the worse path. In an effort to be accepted by the crowd, he chose to betray, or scapegoat, the very Jesus who had just healed him.

“So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.’ For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5.16–18)

I want to draw attention to one more issue before we close this week. In response to the man’s attempt to divert the accusers’ scapegoating mechanism onto Jesus himself, Jesus does not refute the accusation, but embraces it. If he deflected the accusation, he would run the risk of turning the accusers’ attention back on the paralytic man. Jesus accepts the label of Sabbath breaker to save the man who had just betrayed him. He doesn’t deny that he broke the Sabbath. He doesn’t claim that “healing” is not a violation of Sabbath observance. On the contrary, Jesus quotes the Sabbath commandment of Exodus 20, in effect confessing that He was “working.”

In Jesus’ confession “I too am working,” the Greek word translated as “working” is ergazomai. It is the same word used in the Septuagint translation of Exodus 20.9: “Six days you labor [ergazomai] and do all your work.” Jesus is virtually saying, “Yes, I was working on the Sabbath, just as the commandment says not to.”

Just so you can get the truest sense of what Jesus is doing here, take a look at the way ergazomai is used in other New Testament passages.

Matthew 21.28: “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work [ergazomai] in the vineyard today.’”

Matthew 25.16: “The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded [ergazomai] with them, and made five more talents.”

John 6.27: “Do not work [ergazomai] for the food that perishes . . .”

Acts 18.3: “And, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked [ergazomai] together—by trade they were tentmakers.”

1Corinthians 9.6: “Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living [ergazomai]?”

2Thessalonians 3.8: “And we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked [ergazomai] night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.”

Revelation 18.17: “For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste! And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade [ergazomai] is on the sea, stood far off.”

And not only does Jesus embrace the role of scapegoat here, He actually drags God into it with Him.

“My Father is always at his work [ergazomai] to this very day, and I too am working [ergazomai].”

In John 5, God in Christ becomes the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. He, the innocent, embraces the label of “sinner,” of “Sabbath breaker.” Why?

The answer is found in the story of the unjust death and resurrection of God in Jesus. The resurrection proves that God is not to be found within the scapegoaters (whether political, economic, or religious). God is to found in the one hanging shamefully on the tree at the hands of those who put him there. This way of finding unity among ourselves by finding a common enemy and then justifying it by labeling them “sinners,” this way of organizing human societies around a common “evil,” this way of “making peace” among ourselves is capable of killing even God Himself.

We do it today. We do it economically with immigrants and foreigners. We do it politically with the Taliban. We do it religiously with the LGBTQ community. When are we going to stop? What we are doing led in the past to the unjust execution of God. We don’t see what we are doing. It is time for us to wake up.

When will we learn to abandon our preoccupation with “us” and “them”?

We are all children of the same Divine Parents. Jesus died for all of us. We are all God’s favorites. When will we learn that we don’t need to throw others under the bus to secure our place in this world?

 

HeartGroup Application

What does it mean to you that Jesus embraced the label of “Sabbath breaker” within a community that defined itself according to those who kept the Sabbath and those who didn’t?

In John’s contrasting story in John 9, the Pharisees say, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath” (9.16). When I was at the impressionable age of fourteen, I joined “God” in being “against” Sabbath breakers too. I was this paralytic, looking for the acceptance of God. And instead of receiving “acceptance” as a free gift, I found it in identifying a “common enemy.” God forgive me, not just for my gross ignorance of what God is like, but for my “baptizing” the way of the “accuser” rather than following the radically inclusive way of Jesus.

1. Sit with Jesus this week on the subject of scapegoating and defining others by their level of Torah observance. Jesus inaugurated a new community, centered on Himself. If there is any evaluation to be made, it is of one’s heart orientation toward Jesus. But what saves us from now  scapegoating others because we feel they lack a heart orientation toward Jesus? The answer is twofold: (1) only God really knows the heart, and (2) even if another person’s heart is not oriented toward Jesus, Jesus Himself commands us to love as indiscriminately as the sun shines and the rain falls (Matthew 5.45). And in so doing we will be like God. Yes, there are those whose hearts are turned toward Jesus, and there are those whose hearts are not. But we are called to love the latter just the same. No distinction. No scapegoating allowed. There is no us and them. The sunshine proves it. The falling rain testifies to the truth of it. We are all children of the same Divine Parents. And it’s time to learn the way of love once again. Defining others by “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” produces violence, bloodshed, death. It’s time to find our way back to the tree of life, which, remember, is for the healing of nations (Genesis 3.6 cf. Revelation 22.2).

2. Journal about what Jesus shows you as you sit with Him on these themes during your time in contemplation.

3. This upcoming week, share with your HeartGroup what you discover.

 

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. I love you guys. See you next week.

Not If They Are Wearing It Too

“And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.” (Matthew 22:12)

This week, I have to admit that I hate nametags. I’m often invited to an event to speak and I will, along with everyone else that attends, be handed a nametag to wear around my neck. I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what the big deal is. I mean, what is this aversion to nametag wearing? What is it that internally kicks and screams every time, refusing to allow me to hang this around my neck?

To the best of my understanding, I think there is something broken inside of me that always craves being different. If everyone else is doing something, I’m not interested. My kids are the same way. They will either love something before it becomes popular or when it ceases to be so, but they will never love something when everyone else is doing it too.

Okay, enough of this invasive introspection; I want us to consider this week a story in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus tells the chief priests and Pharisees.

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”‘ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

There is much that could be said on this story, but the last thing I want to do is turn this into another commentary. What I’d rather do is simply point out a few statements in this story for your contemplation and see if Jesus doesn’t show you the same thing he showed me here recently.

The first part, no doubt, is a prophetic warning concerning the fate that was looming before Jerusalem if her path was not altered. What happens next in the story though, is an affront to all of us.

“Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready . . . Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.'”

Everyone? Everyone gets invited? Yep, the story is too pointed to evade. Jesus purposefully makes sure to add, “both good and bad.”

What happens next we don’t want to encounter. We’ll come up with any convoluted and complicated theological exposition of what the wedding garment is to evade what Jesus is saying here, rather than letting the story speak to us.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.”

Don’t define the garment to have some spiritual application that allows you to evade the story’s point. The question I want to ask you this week is why did this guest refused to wear a garment? What was it about wearing that garment, along with all those “bad people,” that caused something inside of him to kick and scream in resistance, not permitting him to bring himself to wear it?

A friend of mine wrote a response to last week’s eSight/podcast on Jesus’ radical inclusivity, which I believe captures what was going on inside our guest this week most eloquently.

“[Last week’s eSight] is the Magna Carta. It should be the 95 Theses nailed to the front of every church in North America. It will be rejected, however. If history tells us anything, the world will hate it, reject it, blame it—and destroy it. We are in love with exclusive offers, private clubs, the top of ladders and those that are good at climbing them . . . [This is] the perspective that we must carry as our light burden—the cross we carry on the trail he has given us. But hard dang work. Thanks for putting it all together. And then Spirit, to figure out how to apply it, and strength to keep it, against the inevitable tide that is coming.”

What I love most about this statement is the keen perception that we are addicted to systems rooted in exclusivity rather than inclusivity. This is true of us whether we are speaking politically, religiously, or economically. What Jesus is whispering to the religious exclusivists of his day is that if any are lost at last, it will not be because they did not accept the invitation themselves. It will be because they could not accept those who were also “let in.” They could not accept the absence of distinction between them and the other guests. The rejection of the king’s garments by this guest is not a rejection of the garment for himself. It is a rejection of the garment for all of those in the room that he feels should be excluded, a radical inclusivity that he will have no part in. This is not a rejection of “clothes.” This is an inability to accept those whom we feel should be excluded. It’s as if this guest is saying, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to where the same thing as them!” (Think of the words of the prophet Jonah.)

“Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Gnashing of teeth is not torture. It’s anger. (See Luke 13:28; Job 16:9; Psalms 35:16; Psalms 37:12; Psalms 112:10; Lamentations 2:16; Acts 7:54, cf. Matthew 8:12; Matthew 13:42; Matthew 13:50; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 24:51; Matthew 25:30.) It’s anger that someone you thought should be excluded is actually included. And anger that for all your smug assurance that your place at the table was secure, you find yourself outside looking in through the window at those you feel are morally inferior to yourself while they are enjoying the feast and you are not. It is the ability to accept the invitation for oneself in one hand while holding on with the other to an inability to accept that someone you feel should be excluded was not merely invited, but is enjoying the party instead of you.

The exclusion that this man sought to stand up for backfires against himself. This man could have been simply protecting the purity of the “wedding feast,” standing up for what he felt was right, doing something he considered to be expected of him, but in the end, the only one that ends up being left outside is himself.

This is the older brother of the prodigal. This is the Jonah that would rather be dead than in a world alongside those Ninevites. (Jonah 4:2-3) It is the “The Pharisee, standing by himself . . . praying ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

The holidays are coming, and as we looked at last week, we are all children of the same Divine Parents. As we look around this world, we see our fellow siblings. And we are all going to have to learn what it means to sit side by side around the same family table once again.

The parable of Matthew 22 was not about a man’s rejection of a garment. It was about a man’s refusal to wear a garment along side of the others in the room who were wearing it as well. Clothing wasn’t being rejected . . . people were. If any are cast out in the end, it will not be because they didn’t accept the invitation themselves. The guest accepted the invitation for himself and showed up. But once he got to the party, he couldn’t stomach the lack of distinction made between himself and the kind of people who were his fellow guests (“Both good and bad”). If any are cast out in the end, it won’t be because of a failure to accept an invitation for themselves, it will be because they could not embrace the acceptance of someone else whom they felt shouldn’t have been invited along side of themself.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want you to spend some time in quiet contemplation within this story. Who is it that if you looked around the wedding hall and saw standing there dressed just like you, would make you take off your wedding garment? Is it someone from your past? Is it a group of people in our present? Is it someone who has hurt you, from which you still need Jesus to bring healing? Is it someone who maybe hasn’t hurt you, but is someone who has committed atrocities toward others? Think deep. Is it someone different than you? A political persuasion? Economic philosophy? Ethical standard? Or religious belief? Is it someone of a different color, gender, status, or orientation? Who is it, in this world, that to see them included would send you over the edge?

2. Now take that person and sit with them and with Jesus during prayer each day this week and ask Jesus to show you what they look like from His eyes. Journal what He shows you.

3. If you can, please share with your HeartGroup this upcoming week what Jesus did in your heart this week.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where love reigns.

I love you guys.

See you next week

We are all Brother and Sisters of the same Divine Parents

“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12.32)

I was caught off guard this past week by the convergence of multiple narratives like many streams meeting to produce a waterfall. In my heart, I was not expecting what I encountered. The strong currents of these narratives converged, lifted me off my feet, and washed me over the edge.

Narrative 1:

Two of my children (who will remain nameless to protect the guilty), were going at it over breakfast. One had sought to correct something the other was engaged in doing and the one being corrected was having none of it. What began as older-over-younger correction was quickly escalating to younger-under-older resistance and a verbal war was about to ensue. Being too early in the morning for these shenanigans, my wife Crystal broke in: “You are not his mother, I am! If you have a problem with something he is doing, you bring it to ME and let ME deal with him! Now apologize.” After a reluctant apology, Crystal then spoke to my son, “THIS is your SISTER! And although she was overstepping her place as your sister, she is still your SISTER and the words you said to her were unkind. You apologize to her now!” Another reluctant apology was given.

Narrative 2:

I had just picked up a copy of Brian Zahnd’s new book Farewell To Mars, which I was reading at the breakfast table while all of this was going on in the background. As Crystal was breaking up this rift between our children, I was reading these words concerning the beginnings of early Mesopotamian violence:

“This was especially true as conflict arose between the settled agriculture communities and nomadic shepherding communities who had differing understandings of land (which is one way of understanding the Cain and Abel story). In the Bible the genesis of homicide is told like this: Cain, the tiller of the ground, met his sheep-tending brother, Abel, in a field.” (Brian Zahnd, Farewell to Mars)

I went back to the narrative of Genesis 4 and checked it. And Zahnd was right on the money!

This could have been the “beginnings” of early land disputes.

“Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.”

Ancient societal wars between stationary “tillers of the soil” and nomadic livestock “herders” is documented. Place yourself within that culture. Think of the older sibling and younger sibling dynamic in every family. Now, fall into the narrative where the older is the oppressive land owner and the younger is the nomadic herder. Imagine tillers of the soil being the dominant group, and the herders being the hated and marginalized. Associate the older sibling dynamic with the “tillers” and the younger oppressed sibling with the “herders.” Put those glasses on and then go reread the story.

“In the course of time Cain [who represents the older, oppressive, stationary land owners] brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel [who stands for the younger, oppressed, victims, the marginalized] for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”

Just as with the crucifixion and resurrection narrative, God has regard for the victim of systemic injustice, over and against the often repeated “God is on our side” claim of the oppressors.

So Cain was very angry . . .”

“Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.”

The LORD said, “ . . . Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

And here is the kick-in-the-gut point! Cain must now trade places with Abel, and himself become a “nomad” to learn, from experience, what it is like to be marginalized.

“And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil . . . I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth . . .”

Narrative 3:

I left the breakfast table to discover that the next section of Luke’s gospel where I would be spending time with my morning contemplation was the narrative in Luke 12 that culminates in our passage above, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12.32)

The story starts out with a brother asking Jesus to be his “arbiter” dividing up an inheritance between himself and his brother. Jesus then embarks on a radical story that pulls back the thin veneer hiding the fact that this squabble between brothers was just another repetition of history, with “Cain” about to kill “Abel” once again. Jesus contrasts the narrative of human societal arraignments with the narrative of His Kingdom. Walter Brueggemann defines the narrative of this world as scarcity, anxiety, accumulation, territorialism, and ultimately violence. In other words, we believe that there is a limited amount of what we all need, and that there is only enough for just a few. This produces an undercurrent of anxiety that leads to competitive accumulation. Once our accumulation reaches a comfortable level, our anxiety changes now to territorialism over that which we have worked so hard to accumulate. We then turn to violence to protect what belongs to us.

As I look around, this is the water we are constantly swimming in. We do this politically with land, economically with commodities, intellectually with intellectual property, socially with relationships, and religiously with the “favor of God.”

Jesus, in Luke 12, in the place of our broken Cain and Abel narrative of this world, is offering the narrative of His Kingdom instead. Jesus’ Kingdom narrative is abundance (there really is enough for everyone) rather than scarcity. This, if believed, will create gratitude rather than anxiety, sharing rather than accumulation, giving “freely” rather than territorialism, and peace-making in opposition to violence.

Jesus ends with, you don’t have to fight others for your place in this new world that I’m creating. “It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” You don’t have to fight each other for it. There is enough for everyone.

The culture war in America is just another example of the narrative of scarcity (of power), anxiety, accumulation, territorialism, and violence. As within any war (whether political, economic, sociological or religious) both sides will always have their proof. Both sides will believe they are right. Both sides will possess high levels of certitude in their evidence that their cause is just. But which side is right? Which side should we choose?

To try and find out which side is correct is to miss the point. God is not asking us to discover which side is right and then take that side against the other. God is asking us to throw the whole system away. He will not give us certitude as long as we are only going to use the certitude we receive to simply become another Cain. We will first have to learn to love, to make room for those who are different from us. Only then is it safe for God to give more light.

This is also what Wendy VanderWal-Gritter calls Generous Spaciousness. Another book that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Notice Jesus’ words here:

“It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

Within the context of Luke 12, Jesus is saying, it’s the Father’s good pleasure to give it to you both. You don’t have to fight each other for it. There is enough room in Christ’s Kingdom for everyone. “Everyone?” someone might object. Yes, everyone. And it is this truth that transforms both Cains and Abels to no longer be a Cain or an Abel, but to be members of a radically new way of arranging life here on earth. In Jesus’ new world, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28). Notice that in each of these examples Paul is merely mentioning opposing sides (more “Cains and Abels” competing for a place in this world) that were vying for first place in the culture wars of his own day.

Our challenge today is to not be the “Older Brother” so smugly assured of the Father’s love for us. Our challenge is that we really cannot stomach our Father including those “Prodigals” whom we think should be excluded. (Go back and reread the parable of the prodigal son through the lens of the Cain and Abel narrative.) Jesus, over and over again, is whispering to us that if any are lost at last, it will not be because they could not accept God’s love for them, it will be because they could not accept God’s love for someone else that they thought should be excluded.

Can you imagine Paul saying today that there is no longer Republican or Democrat, Evangelical or Secular, Straight or Gay? No more “us and them,” for you are all one in this new world Jesus is creating? This is too much to stomach! No, No, NO! But Jesus is whispering, “Yes, yes, yes.” And it is the embrace of the “other” as a child of God too, that transforms all of us into the kind of people that will make up this new world. I’m not saying we are “allowed” into this new world no matter what we are. I’m saying that recognizing our enemies as children of God too, and giving them a place at the table beside us, whichever side you are on, changes us into the kind of people that will comprise this new world Jesus is creating. No one gets in without transformation. But the transformation is not to make them like us. The transformation is to see them and us as both, children of God.

If this causes Cain-like responses inside your heart space, I want to encourage you to spend some more time quietly contemplating this week’s passage in its context in Luke 12. It doesn’t matter whether the territorial accumulation is an inheritance between brothers (think Cain and Abel) or political power between ideologies, a chair position over intellectual ideas, or the coveted title that “God is on our side”; we are all siblings. We are all children of the same divine Parents. We spend our days, like my children at the breakfast table, in competitive relationships for top positions to “fix” the other, or in violent resistance to being “controlled.” In reality we are all children—sisters and brothers squabbling over which one is really favored by our “Parent.” Today our world is filled with Taliban Afghans verses American democracy; Republican corporate ideology versus Democrat social policy; or, closer to my daily world, Religious adherents arguing with each other to figure out which side is right in one religious debate after another.

Could it be that no new light will be given us if we are merely going to use that information as Cain, to just kill another Abel? For me this is a very present possibility. This is very real. I recently went through this myself. The evidence being touted by both sides of an “issue” looked convincing. Both sides had excellent points. I could not see. But when I sought to follow the Jesus story, to embrace the marginalized, to see those involved on both sides as people, with stories, as fellow siblings of our same divine Parents, clarity of understanding came. Things I had not seen before became overwhelmingly clear. I found the answers I was looking for. But only after I had learned not to use these new insights as weapons. Only when we learn to love our “enemies” is it safe to be given insights. And in the process, we may discover that the “enemy” is ourselves. (Think of the apostle Paul’s story.)

It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give the Kingdom to us all. We don’t have to keep fighting each other for it. It’s as if the holidays are coming, and it won’t be long until we have to take our seats once again around the same family table. Some of us, right now, are Cains, and some of us are Abels. It is our Parent’s good pleasure to give us both a place at the table. Will we take it? Will we take our place beside each other at the same family dinner table of our divine Parents once again? There are lessons we have to learn first. But those lessons are not who is right and who is wrong. The lessons we need to learn first are how to love our siblings who are different but who are nonetheless our brothers and sisters.

This week, making its rounds through the social media, was Matt Walsh’s rant against the Whittington family’s decision with their son. I have to admit, I wanted to rant back. I wanted to throw down an exegetical defense from the scriptures that would obliterate Matt’s position. I wanted go on a tirade that would make Matt’s rant look tame. Instead, I listened to Siri on my iPhone, read Zahnd’s new book, and the Holy Spirit whispered, “It’s time for ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ instead.”

Our Father in heaven, wherever Matt Walsh is at this very moment, I pray that you will bless him. That you will bless his circle of closest friends. That you will bless his wife, his children, and his family. Do good to him, good on top of good, Father. Bless him with an assurance of your love as well as a deep sense of your love for others. Bless him with tears also, Father, for those who suffer pain, rejection, and violence. Bless him with the capacity to reach out his hand in comfort toward those who are hurting. Don’t hold this against him. “Lay this not against his charge.” He doesn’t realize what he’s doing. And Father, help me too, because I don’t recognize when I’m doing this either. Each side “knows” their cause is just. They believe it. And they can prove it. Save us. Help us also recognize the way of Cain. Help each of us to respond in ways that will not leave the whole world blind. I pray for Jeff and Hillary Whittington, that you will give them the strength and courage to follow the way of forgiveness. Give them the courage to offer the left cheek, to go the second mile, and pour out on them the wisdom they will need to see how they might give their “himations.”

Your just and fair reign come, Father, when all oppression, violence and injustice will be put right. Your dream for restoring all of us be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us all, including Matt, and Jeff, and Hillary, and even little Ryland, what we all need for today. And may we learn to forgive, as well as be forgiven; to love as well as be loved; to restore and heal, as well as to be restored and made whole. May we not be dragged as scapegoats to unjust trials, but delivered from the way of the accuser.

For Yours is the Kingdom. And it is Your pleasure to give this Kingdom to the least of us. We don’t have to fight each other for it. Your kingdom come Father. Upon us all.

Some will say, “But HERB!!! You don’t know what ‘they’ are doing!” I know. I hear you. But what I also hear are the words of God in the words of my wife to our children around that breakfast table. “YOU are not their MOTHER! I am. If you have a problem with something they are doing, then you bring it to ME and let ME deal with them! They are your brother, or sister, and as your sibling, there is no excuse for you not to treat them as family. You are to LOVE them.”

I’ll close with Paul’s words in his letter to believers in Rome.

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse . . . Live in harmony with one another . . . Do not think you are superior . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath [think of Crystal’s words, “You’re not their mother, I am.”] for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.’” (Romans 12.14-20)

We are all children of God. You’re not their Parent. God is. And your job, as their sibling, whether you agree with them or not, is to make room for them within this family, realizing we are all on a journey; we are all in process. If they are doing something you believe to be wrong, don’t take the punishment of that wrong into your own hands. Take whatever it is they are doing to our heavenly Parent. And then cooperate with whatever our Parent shows you. It may be about them, or it may be about yourself. Whatever needs discipline will get it. But it is discipline, not punishment. Whatever the result, it is our first priority to listen to our divine Parent, and it is our second priority to love all, even our enemies, as members of our same family, as our siblings. Jesus redefined Moses’ “neighbor/kinship” bond to include the enemies of the Jews as well. No wonder they grabbed Jesus and tried to “throw him off a cliff” (see Luke 4.29).

“In light of the cross, we are to realize that if what we have built on Cain’s foundation is capable of murdering the Son of God, the whole edifice needs to come down.” (Brian Zahnd, Farewell to Mars)

Wherever this finds you this week, Jesus’ message to you is, “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give YOU the Kingdom.” You don’t have to fight anyone for it. There is enough manna for everyone. It belongs to all of us, as a gift.

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you consider which group in our world today frightens you the most.

1. I want you to take this group to Jesus while you and He, together, contemplate the narratives of Luke 12.13-32 and Genesis 4.1-14.

2. Write down what Jesus shows you.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what you have discovered.

Wherever you are this week, keep living in love. Keep following Jesus into the restoration of God’s original purpose for the human family. Until the only world that remains is a world where, once again, love reigns.

I love you guys,
See you next week.

Jesus Stops A Lynching and the LGBTQ Community

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery . . . (John 8.2-3)

This week I want to address a story from which most have only heard very conventional explanations and a traditional expounding. In my opinion, how this story is spoken of normally, does little more than allow us to continue on in our culturally conditioned lives unchanged. This story is most often used today (although there are exceptions) by one of two groups. It’s used by behaviorists, who say, “Yes, Jesus forgave, but he also said ‘go sin no more.’” And therefore this story serves to do little more than confirm them in their already-in-motion behaviorism. And this story is also used by those who have been deeply wounded by behaviorists as a treatise on how behaviorists are to not “judge,” reminding behaviorists that Jesus also said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” On this side, this story also serves little more than to simply confirm where someone already is.

I want to suggest this week that if these are our only two options in our search for understanding this story, then we miss the underlying point entirely. Something much deeper is going on in this story than what we see on the surface. This “something deeper” is what all of us (behaviorists as well as anti-judgmentalists alike) may be trying to avoid with our surface explanations, fearing that the deeper narrative could implicate us all.

Scapegoating

This story is neither about “anti-judgementalism,” nor is it about “loving the sinner, but hating the sin.” Instead, it’s about “scapegoating.” René Girard, whom some regard today as a veritable “Einstein” of sociology and theology, in his work on violence and the sacred, has discovered that societies, in times of crisis throughout human history, time and time again, are reunited by society unifying around a hatred for a common enemy. This enemy is selected as 1) different from “us,” 2) a minority whose absence would least affect the overall society, and 3) those upon whom the blame for society’s problems can be placed and whose presence must be removed. Various methods can be used (political, economic or religious) to characterize this minority as the “threat” to society. But they must be vilified. Scapegoating will not work to unify a society if that minority is seen as being victimized instead. Those being scapegoated must become villains or of moral disrepute. They must not be seen as victims, but as enemies of what is just and good and therefore they must be opposed. Thus, the society now possesses a common enemy. And the unity within that society, which was previously being threatened, is restored as they now rally together around this common enemy. (A great example of this is seen in Luke 23.12)

What led Girard to become a Christian was his discovery that the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is uniquely different. This Jesus uniquely sought to expose human society’s scapegoating mechanism. He sought to create a human community centered on love for our enemies (removing the exclusive lines of “us” and “them,”) rather than hatred for a common enemy. And finally, this Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat (politically, economically, and religiously) within the narratives of human history in order to, through his unjust death and then resurrection, put an end, once and for all, to our practice of “sacrificing scapegoats.” This is not only seen simply in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus spent His entire life pulling back the layers beneath which we hide the morally, monstrous ugliness of humanity’s continual sacrifice of innocent victims for the protection, advancement, and/or well being of the much larger population.

“The Gospels not only disclose the hidden scapegoat mechanism of human cultures, but witness to the God . . . who stands with the Innocent Victim and is revealed through him.” – René Girard, The Girard Reader

“The most important of these we find in the Gospel of Luke, the famous prayer of Jesus during the Crucifixion: ‘Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing’ (23:34) . . . Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.” – René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

Jesus called this the way of “sacrifice” rather than the way of “mercy.” It was to open our eyes and call us away from the way of sacrifice to the way of mercy that Jesus set all his energy in His teachings, His death, and His resurrection.

Jesus stops a lynching.

This is where we need to pick up our story in John 8.

The teachers of the Torah along with the Pharisees are feeling threatened by Jesus. Their place within their society is as risk. They must remove this threat (think Cain and Abel). But in order for it not to back fire, Jesus must not be seen as innocent. The sacrifice of Jesus must be justifiable. Jesus must been seen as a “sinner,” someone who disregards the “Law of Moses.” So they lay a trap—a woman caught in the very act of adultery.

What I find most appalling about adultery in the first century is that adultery laws did not apply to men unless the woman they were having an extramarital affair with was also married. The adultery laws of the Torah applied to both the man and the woman only if the woman involved was married. The culture was patriarchal, and the chief concern expressed in the underlying moral logic of their law was protecting the property rights of the man to whom the woman involved in the adultery “belonged.” We are not given the details of how this tragic mistake was made by the woman in this story. We are not told if she was lured by some pretense, or if this was rape. Either was possible within the patriarchal environment of first-century Palestine. Obviously, it was a trap set for Jesus, however the woman came to be there. She was now the chief, expendable pawn in their scheme.

The trap was then set: “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” It is at this point the story takes an unexpected turn. Jesus bends down and begins writing on the ground.

I’ve heard (and read) so many try in one convoluted attempt after another to show what Jesus was actually writing on the ground that day. All are guesses at best. My favorite is Shane Claiborne’s: “If this doesn’t work . . . run, woman!” Claiming to know what Jesus wrote that day is to miss the point. To get caught up in trying to figure it out, though, is the point itself. Let me explain. Jesus must get their attention off of being centered on this woman. He must draw all attention to Himself. He comes along side this woman and draws the attention of everyone away from her to Him. You see, scapegoating only works if the scapegoat (in this case, the woman) is “the center” around which everyone else can unite. Jesus begins disrupting this mechanism by doing something brilliant. He bends down and begins writing mysteriously, drawing the attention of everyone away from this woman to Himself. He slowly trades places with her, placing Himself now at the center of their attention as they each, one by one, begin to look down and try to see what Jesus is writing. We must not miss this. Jesus begins by slowly drawing their attention away from her to Himself.

If John had wanted us to know what Jesus wrote, he would have told us. John purposefully leaves the words out for a dramatic reason. John, in beautiful form, preserves this action in the manner in which he records the story for future readers as well. By leaving what Jesus wrote unrecorded, your attention, even right now as you read this, if you can be self-aware for just a moment, is on trying to figure out what Jesus wrote rather than focusing on the woman. Jesus, that day and in the beautiful way John has preserved this story, comes alongside the woman and draws our attention off her and onto Himself. If you’ll notice, you weren’t thinking about that woman at all until I mentioned her again. You were trying desperately, especially if you are OCD like me, to figure out instead “What is He writing.” We can focus only on one or the other, and Jesus knows it.

Jesus then takes a chance. This could have gone the other way very quickly. They could have chosen to stone them both: She as an adulteress, and Jesus as a blasphemer. But Jesus took the risk and stood in solidarity with this woman who was being sacrificed, scapegoated, or in reality, victimized. With one contemplative statement to the oppressors, (“You who are without sin cast the first stone”) He not only saved this woman from what was about to happen, He also won what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called a “double victory.” Jesus not only saves the woman, but He saves the perpetrators too of this act of violence. Jesus saw two sets of victims present, the woman and her accusers. Two parties were held captive to whatever you want to label it, systemic injustice, systemic scapegoating, systemic violence, or systemic “sacrifice.” And He saved both! Scapegoating, or “sacrifice” is the way of the satan, the accuser; Mercy is the way of God, the God we see in Jesus. Jesus interrupted the proceedings of the path of the accuser and set the entire group on the path of God. This story calls us to look at “scapegoating” from the perspective of the victim and of Jesus. The story ends in redemption rather than victimization. “Mercy rather than sacrifice.”

Go And Sin No More

Last, I want to address the much-misunderstood statement by Jesus, “Go and Sin No More.”

The word for sin here that John uses is hamartano, which is the verb form of the noun hamartia. In the ancient Greek world, hamartia was the term Aristotle used in Poetics. One of the ancient Greek story genres was tragedy. In a story classified as tragedy, a mistake, or error in judgment is made by the main character (the hero’s “tragic flaw”). This error in judgment is what leads to the hero’s/heroine’s tragic downfall. This definition fits extremely well with our story. If it were not for Jesus, this story would have been classified as a “tragedy” with the woman as our central character.

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood, hamartia can refer specifically to the tragic mistake itself. BUT DON’T MISS THIS. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words states that hamartia can refer to the “guilt of wrong doing” as well as the wrong doing itself. Hamartia can go way beyond the behavioral aspect of an action to the guilt or stigma associated with that action as well. In these next passages, John’s use of hamartia, which is very unique to the way other authors of the New Testament, is not talking about a behavior but guilt for that behavior; not the committing of the wrongdoing itself, but the guilt for committing a wrongdoing. This distinction is important if we are going to see how it ties back into our story. All of these examples are from John, who is the only gospel writer to use the phrase “go and sin no more.”

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned [Harmatia] this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2-3)

It would make no sense to look at hamartia as purely “behavioral” in this passage, for how could this man commit “hamartia” as a behavior before he was even born? If we take Mounce’s definition of the word as also being able to refer to guilt for behavior and not merely the committing of certain behavior, the text makes more sense. The apostles are asking, “Rabbi, who is guilty of sin? This man or his parents since he was born blind?”

These passages are from John as well:

“Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they CANNOT sin, because they have been born of God.” (1 John 3.9, emphasis added)

“We know that those who are born of God do not sin.” (1 John 5.18, emphasis added)

No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3.6, emphasis added)

In 1 John 3.9, John says, “cannot sin?” Really? Paul would never have said that followers of Jesus are incapable of hamartia! Because Paul uses hamartia behaviorally. John goes much deeper, using hamartia to refer to the guilt that is associated with certain behaviors. I’ve seen this verse cause much heartache and damage when “hamartia,” here used by John, is defined behaviorally rather than as guilt over one’s behavior. I’ve seen it rob multitudes of any assurance every time they make a mistake, leaving them to wonder if they were ever genuinely born again at all. On the other side of the spectrum I’ve seen gross sins being perpetrated against others while those committing such actions say, “This can’t be sin because I’ve been born again!” Is John saying that if you abide in Jesus you no longer make moral mistakes? Not only that you don’t, but that you CAN’T? Is John really teaching that when you choose to follow Jesus you achieve over-night, undefeatable moral perfection?

These verses are dangerous if you interpret them as meaning that a Jesus follower cannot ever sin again. BUT, if what John is saying is that once you are born of God the accuser loses his ability to entrap you with overwhelming feelings of GUILT over your sins then this passage from John becomes blessed good news of freedom from guilt, shame, and stigma. John’s use of hamartia (and John’s use, again, is unique in the New Testament) goes way beyond the behavior of sinning. John is saying in all of these passages that if you have been born of God, if you know Him, if you’ve seen Him, you are no longer enslaved by feelings of GUILT over your behaviors, and you cannot be. If God looks like Jesus, guilt loses its power over us to control our futures. To the degree that we believe that God looks like Jesus, to that same degree we will be free from guilt, shame and stigma over our mistakes. Paul actually says the same exact thing in Romans 8.1, “There is therefore no more condemnation to those who are in Christ.” (emphasis added.)

Now let’s return to our story.

“Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from this point forward sin no more.’” (John 8.9-11, emphasis added)

Here is the million-dollar question. Is Jesus siding with the accusers now implying that this woman really is to blame for all that took place that day? Is Jesus saying, “Yes, I don’t condemn you, but they are right, don’t do this anymore?” Having barely escaped with her life, do you think she would even need to be told this? Or on another note, is Jesus telling her to never sin again, setting her up for questioning her sincerity as a Jesus follower every time she failed from that day forward? Is Jesus really expecting this woman to never sin again? From this point, this initial point forward? Don’t get me wrong; Jesus DOES radically change the direction of our lives! But which of us after meeting Jesus for the very first time “sinned no more?” Which of us never sinned again? Yes, the direction of our life dramatically changed when we met Jesus, but haven’t we all still made moral mistakes here and there, from time to time, after our first encounters with Jesus? Following Jesus is much like learning how to walk. Following Jesus is an adventure in learning how to live a radically different life. It’s about being mentored by Jesus, not being perfect from an initial moment onward. None of us become Olympic-gold-medalists in our behavior after our first encounter with Jesus. Which one of us achieved overnight, “sin-no-more” moral perfection after meeting Jesus the very first time?

What John is showing us here is that Jesus is saying something to this woman that is much, much deeper. Jesus is saying go and be guilty of this tragic mistake no more? Certainly her life direction was changed that day. But Jesus wasn’t siding with her accusers here and he wasn’t setting her up for continually doubting her own sincerity either. He was setting her free, free from the guilt, the shame, and the stigma of what she had been involved with that day. Jesus was saying, “Woman, from this point forward, go forth, be guilty of this mistake [John’s use of hamartia] no more. You are free. I don’t condemn you, and I don’t want you to condemn yourself either. Don’t define yourself by this mistake this day, go and be guilty of this tragic failure no more! You don’t have to define yourself the way these people have defined you here today. You are not what they call a ‘sinner.’ You are a daughter of Abraham too!” (cf. Luke 19.9) Jesus looked at this woman and gave her a fresh start; “Go and be guilty of this sin . . . no more.”

Far from looking at this story through the lens of behaviorism or anti-judgmentalism, this is a story that contrasts the way of sacrifice with the way of mercy, the way of scapegoating with the way of redemption. We see Jesus coming along side this woman about to be scapegoated/stoned by His own religious community and Jesus turns the tables on us all and calls all of us to two new realities:

1) If you have been religiously scapegoated, you no longer have to define yourself according to the moral inferiority of how the majority has made you feel.

2) If you have taken part in religiously scapegoating others, it’s time to humbly submit to Jesus’ radically different way of looking at those we are presently rallying together against, calling them “sinners,” using Torah, once again, as our justification.

This was what converted the early apostles, especially the apostle Paul. And it’s what converts each of us. It is at least one of the central points of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection if not the center itself. Jesus has revealed God as being with those whom we are politically, economically, or religiously scapegoating, and we must come to terms with the reality that we are with God, when we with them.

The Jesus story calls us to recognize where we are participating in the way of sacrifice rather than mercy, the way of scapegoating minorities, for the certitude of the greater populous. It calls us away from arranging our lives where a “common enemy” is always needed. And it beckons us to, from this point forward, stand in solidarity with those we once scapegoated. Jesus calls us to abandon whatever sacrificial system we’ve stood in solidarity with up to this point, and to now stand in solidarity with those who are being victimized by those systems instead. We are to be like Jesus, coming along side of those about to be stoned, saying, “If you’re going stone them, then you’re going to have to stone me, too. But know this, whoever among you who is truly innocent in all of this, let them cast the first stone.” As followers of Jesus, we follow Him into the hope of a new world where the continual tides of sacrifice can be turned, and waves of mercy, rather than sacrifice, can wash over our human societies as the waters cover the sea.

HeartGroup Application

Actually, more than an application, it’s time for some confession. I’ve been asking you to sit with Jesus over the past few weeks, asking Him to show you a people group that is on His heart. The reason I’ve asked you to do this is because this is what He has, inescapably, done to me.

For me, this is really where the rubber meets the road. If the story of the Resurrection teaches us anything, it teaches us that the way of sacrificial systems that justify scapegoating innocent victims has come to an end. The Resurrections puts on display that the Presence of God is no longer to be sought within the most exclusive, most holy places belonging to those systems. The true dwelling place of God is now to be found in the ones shamefully suspended on crosses at the demand of those religious sacrificial systems. The Resurrection is the start of a whole new world where we don’t need to fear the consequences our nonviolent engagement with those systems either. We stand in the Victory of the Christ over all injustice, a victory that has already been won. So here goes.

My Confession

I’ve taken a lot of heat over what I’m about to write here over the past few months. I’ve even had a few of my meetings cancel over this. I’ve had those who have been my friends for years now shun me as I begin to take my place alongside those I believe are being scapegoated today. Rather than perusing dialogue and discussion, I have simply been written off. Yet there is a beauty in the pain of rejection when you are now standing along side those you yourself used to reject. Being on the receiving end myself of religious scapegoating now, it’s my prayer that Jesus uses it deep inside me to change me first and foremost.

Here are the responses I’ve gotten so far:

“But I cannot endorse their choice of lifestyle.”

Justin Lee’s continued passion to define the terms we are using is much needed in our discussions. Justin asks the question, “Would you agree with me that sex outside of marriage is wrong?” His audience responds, “Yes.” Justin continues, “Then would you also agree that heterosexuality before marriage is also wrong?” The audience scratches their heads. Heterosexuality is not about whom one has sex with. It’s about whom one feels attracted to. And we don’t choose whom we are attracted to, we just are. Attraction is not something one chooses, it’s what someone experiences whether they want those attractions or not. In the same way, homosexuality cannot be reduced to a sexual act. Homosexuality is defined as feelings of attraction, whether those feelings are wanted or not, to the same gender. I don’t know one of my gay or lesbian friends who chose to feel attracted to their same gender. For them, this is not a lifestyle that they chose. It is something they experience inside of them for which they cannot find an explanation. It would be most helpful if we stopped referring to homosexuality as a “choice of lifestyle.” Just as with heterosexuality, there are expressions of sexuality (both hetero and homo) that are very unhealthy. But it is unjust to group all homosexuals under one sweeping characterization. (Or heterosexuals for that matter.) The struggle for my Christian LGBTQ friends is to find the difference between what is a healthy expression of these same gender attractions that they are feeling and what is an unhealthy expression. And there is just as much debate on this subject among them as there is among my straight friends. Yet my friends in the LGBTQ community are left to struggle with this alone, being shut out from the support of their Christian communities, for even having these un-chosen attractions to begin with.

I have to humbly confess that I think we are completely missing the point of the Jesus story. We claim that this story is the center of all we are about. Yet this story is about a Jesus who met scapegoating in His religious community head on, and it cost Him his life for it. This is the story of a Jesus who encountered those who were being labeled as “sinner” according to the Torah, marginalized, and in John 8 even lynched, by the religious community of His day. This is the story of how Jesus loved these people, how He stood in solidarity with them, and having called them His own, He stood in solidarity with them all the way to the end.

As Girard said, those who scapegoat others “think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.” Jesus prayed, “They don’t know what they are really doing.” Scapegoating in the Jesus story appears in the form of giving greater value to a definition of Torah observance (even if they had to sacrifice a few among their community for that observance) over and above the value of those who were being sacrificed. (Scapegoating always picks an individual or a group that is a minority whose absence would least diminish the overall whole. Their absence really won’t cost us a thing. Scapegoating then finds a justifiable reason to unite together in sacrificing them.)

Scapegoating in the Jesus story possessed an air of “holiness,” but it was a kind of holiness that caused those who were being sacrificed to steer clear, and to keep their distance. Jesus, on the other hand, stood in solidarity with those being sacrificed. He valued people and the way of mercy, over and above the way of sacrifice, EVEN WHEN IT WAS ENDORSED BY THE TORAH. Jesus possessed a kind of holiness that actually attracted those whom the religious culture of His day, with the Torah in their hands, were scapegoating.

“But the Bible clearly condemns Homosexuality.”

Again, homosexuality refers to whom you find yourself attracted to, not whom you are having sex with. Whether or not the Bible addresses same gender attraction at all, or what exactly was the moral logic that undergirded the Biblical statements concerning same-gender sexual acts are topics that are hotly debated among scholars today. (See The Bible, Gender and Sexuality by James V. Brownson) And although I believe we need more discussions about these topics given the onslaught of such massive misinformation that is being promoted, to stop here also misses the point of the Jesus story. Even IF one does deem the act of same-gender sex as condemned by the Bible, a grave reality is staring back at us in the face. Why are our reactions to those within LGBTQ community so governed by our amygdala (fight or flight) and not Jesus? Why are my friends in the LGBTQ community, not being strangely attracted to us as they were to Jesus? We may claim to be following Jesus, but then why are our results almost identical to the results of those who were doing the scapegoating in the Jesus story? Why are our results so similar to those who actually crucified Jesus too? Why do we find ourselves getting caught up senselessly with the crowd, crying, “Crucify them, and anyone who stands with them!” We must let this contradiction confront us. Deeming same-gender sex as contrary to the Bible may make us feel more secure as Biblicists, but it gets us nowhere as followers of Jesus. We still have to confront the life of Jesus and how he taught us to relate to those whom any religious community in our day deems as living contrary to their sacred texts. We must be suspicious of any activity that blanket labels a minority as “sinners,” and then unites to rally against them. Scapegoaters never realize they are actually scapegoating until it’s too late. (Acts 2.37)

We have to let the Jesus story confront us.

“Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin.’”

Actually, Jesus never said that. What He actually said was that we are to get the log out of own eye before we can even hope to help others as they are trying to see through the dust that is in theirs. Until someone feels that we truly are their brother, sister, friend, until we’ve stopped and actually listened to their stories, it’s not that we don’t have the right to speak into their lives (which we don’t); it’s that we don’t even have the ability. Without first entering into relationship with those from the LGBTQ community, without entering into their struggles, their stories, until we stop talking about them and start listening to them and along side with them, even when we mean no harm and our intentions are pure, we will continue to do damage that we don’t even realize we are doing.

Here in West Virginia, we used to use canaries in the coalmines to warn the coal miners when the air had become toxic. When the canary died, it was time to run to the surface for purer air. Walter Brueggemann, the world’s foremost Old Testament scholar, has gone on record saying that those from the LGBTQ community are the canaries in our religious coalmines today. The way we as Christians have historically treated even Christian young people who begin experiencing same gender attraction has created an eight times higher rate of suicide among them than any other category of Christian or LGBTQ youth. This screams to us that in all our piety and holiness we have to be open to the possibility that we might have imbibed more of the spirit of scapegoating than we have the spirit of Christ. Seeing this only as a matter of whether this is sin or not sin grossly misses the point entirely. If sin is supposed to produce death, and how we are relating to those involved IS producing higher rates of death, we have to ask, where is the greater death-producing sin in actuality? Where is the greater sin? Is it in an orientation we are so deathly afraid of, or the way we are relating to those who posses this orientation regardless of how they got it? First, we must get the log of scapegoating out of our own eye, and only then will we be able to see clearly to be a source of life, a source of hope, mercy and redemption rather than death and greater damage as we try and “fix” them. (The percentage of people who have been irreparably damaged by reorientation therapy is significantly greater than any percentage of those who, by their own admission, say they now live lives that, on the outside, match the lives of straight people, even though they still experience same gender attraction.)

For the sake of every young person who is struggling with this right now as I write, for the sake of every phone call I will receive at 3 a.m. to talk someone back down off the ledge, it is time for change. If we are following Jesus, WHY IS OUR STORY SO DIFFERENT THAN HIS? I wonder if this is why Jesus was crucified by the teachers of the Torah in His day. Was it because He chose to stand in solidarity with those who were being scapegoated around him, too?

Stanley Hauerwas, for me, summed up what may be the underlying basis of our scapegoating of the LGBTQ community today. Notice the part I’ve italicized: “As a society we have no general agreement about what constitutes marriage and/or what goods marriage ought to serve. We allegedly live in a monogamous culture, but we are at best in fact serially polygamous. We are confused about sex, why and with whom we have it, and about our reasons for having children. This moral confusion leads to a need for the illusion of certainty. If nothing is wrong with homosexuality then it seems everything is up for grabs. Of course, everything is already up for grabs, but the condemnation of gays hides that fact from our lives. So the moral ‘no’ to gays becomes the necessary symbolic commitment to show that we really do believe in something.

If this isn’t scapegoating (gaining security, certitude and unity about our own moral “okayness” by the way we justify treating a minority), then I have to confess I am at a loss to know what scapegoating even is.

I know we feel as if we are simply standing up for what is right. Remember, those unknowingly caught up in the wave of scapegoating always do (cf. Mark 15.15). But it’s really not much different from a modern day lynching. (Even if we do it socially instead of physically.) Jesus stood in solidarity with and defended those who were being damaged by those who were “standing up for what is right.” And the servant is not greater than the master.

I know this will be misunderstood by many. I will be accused of throwing out the Bible, as well as other accusations. But I’m actually taking the Bible seriously. I’m leaning into the narratives of the scriptures not further away from them. I’m taking a hard look at what the central story of our scriptures (the Jesus story) is saying, and making the decision to stand in solidarity with my Christian LGBTQ brothers, sisters and friends. What identifies us, defines us, and binds me to them is our mutual love for Jesus, and our desire, together, to follow Him (not which gender we find ourselves being attracted to.) Granted, that discussion is always on the table given the culture wars that are always just circling above our heads. But I, like so many others, are leaving the culture war behind to follow Jesus instead. I know I may lose support, for standing up for them, my brothers, sisters, and friends (especially the younger ones) in the LGBTQ community. And honestly, that part has caused me to lose more sleep than I’ve gotten over the past few months. I’m banking on the hope that somehow God will provide and that there will be more manna tomorrow for my family. But I cannot, in good conscience, remain silent any longer about the abuse I’ve watched my friends endure at the hands of those who carry the name “Christian.” Brian Zahnd wrote recently, “You can’t un-know what you now know and still be true to yourself.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also said, “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.” Dr. King also said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I can’t stay silent any more. God please help me, “the servant is not greater than the Master.”

If you would like to further contemplate how, as a Jesus follower, we can learn to relate to those within the LGBTQ community, without throwing away our Bibles, the following resources are my top recommendations to aid you in helping you find your way. I cannot recommend these resources highly enough.

Seventh Gay Adventist, a documentary about faith on the margins by Daneen Akers and Stephen Eyer

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee

Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin

God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines

Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James V. Brownson