Saturday, August 30, 2008

Millennials and Church

My niece wrote a little piece on Millennials in the church. I really liked it so I thought I would post her introduction. I think it really captures the flavour of this next generation of Christians: passionate about God but disappointed with the institutional church.

I called my brother this week.

A freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, he’s the epitome of this generation’s busy youth. Besides his studies at this Ivy League school, he’s involved in the gospel choir, the running club, the science department’s research lab, and a local church. When I called, it was one in the morning (Eastern time,) but he laughed when I scolded him for being awake: “Alison, this is early!”

Despite his age, my brother is one of the wisest persons I know. I often call him to get advice, to complain about my boy problems, to discuss politics, or to debate theology. This time, though, he was more reserved. And, after our unimportant small talk, he spoke with an exasperated sigh.

“I don’t know if I can do this much longer,” he said.

"Do what?” I asked.

“This, this - church thing,” he replied. “It’s so boring – the same thing every week! Will it be like this for the rest of my life? Can I put up with it for that long?”

At that moment, I didn’t know what to say. I knew I should encourage him, tell him it would get better, push him to “stay strong”… but I couldn’t. Frankly, it’s because I feel exactly the same way. And, I’ve felt this way for a while.

If the truth were told, I’m tired of going to church. In fact, I dread Sundays. To me, they represent three hours of boredom. I’m tired of listening to a pastor speak at me for 45 minutes (from my 20+ years of attendance, I can usually predict the outcome of his message.) I’m tired of “dressing up” to worship. I’m tired of wearing a plastic smile. I’m tired of seeing our corrupt leaders on the nightly news. I’m just tired.

And, I’m not alone. Besides my brother and I, there are millions of people in the United States today who are fed up with the state of the American church. Statistics show that people aren’t interested in traditional Christianity – both inside and outside of the church. Most importantly, there’s a generational gap that’s growing increasingly larger as time goes on. 

The millennials (the generation just hitting adulthood) are the least churched generation in this nation’s history. And for some reason, institutionalized churches have been unable to successfully attract or retain most of them. Current church programs aimed at the millennials are not working. If the American church wants to survive into the future, they must be flexible enough to re-shape their current structure to be more relevant and applicable to this generation’s youth and the next generation’s leaders.

Thus, young people are leaving the church and turning to other sources for spiritual satisfaction. Within Christianity, three new trends have evolved: Churchless Christians, the Emerging Church Movement, and House Churches. By engaging in these options, some people have found the satisfaction lacking from their typical church attendance. The American church must learn to be open to such new ideas if it wants to survive in the future.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ancient Hebrew Stone Tablet Affirms Resurrection

Here’s an interesting piece. In the midst of discussing scripture and issues about the Messiah with my Jewish neighbours there comes this announcement about the nature of the Messiah – that is actually already eight years old. Inconvenient truths travel slowly. It comes from a number of reports in newspapers (Haaretz, Israel Today and The New York Times, The French Press and the Jewish Journal) and was reported in Joel Rosenberg’s blog

Ancient Discovery Challenges Tradition

At an event marking the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Israel Museum unveiled an ancient stone tablet that had been unearthed in the region of Jordon, eight years previously. The tablet, likely dated shortly before the birth of Jesus over 2000 years ago, contains 87 partial lines of ancient Hebrew, which may well provide authentic evidence substantial enough, because of its pre-Christian reference for suffering, death and resurrection, to challenge traditional Judaism as it relates to Jesus Christ and Christianity. Although the tablet requires more scrutiny, initial extensive examinations are proving to be very encouraging. Messianic believer and New York Times best-selling author Joel Rosenberg, widely acclaimed for his prophetic insight, said that the discovery “strongly suggests that religious Jews of the day were expecting the coming of a Messiah who would suffer, die, and be resurrected three days later. Most Rabbis and other Jewish scholars have long argued that the death and resurrection of a Jewish Messiah was a “Christian” invention, not part of long-established Jewish thought or Biblical teaching. But [this news] has a lot of [Jewish] people asking: Are Jews really supposed to believe their Messiah will actually die and rise again, and was this really Orthodox religious thinking before the time of Jesus?”

The tablet’s text will help to validate, according to leading Israeli Bible scholar, Israel Knohl, that: “a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus….[the tablet proves that] what happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and His followers based on an earlier messiah story.” Notably, Mr. Knohl’s lecture at the anniversary event is entitled: “The Gabriel Revelation and the Birth of Christianity.”

Tsvi Sadan, an Israeli theologian and also a Messianic believer said, “One can agree or disagree with Knohl’s conclusion, but the persistence of one of the leading Old Testament scholars in Israel today [Israel Knohl] to prove that the death of the Messiah for Israel’s sake is not a Christian innovation is commendable in light of the tenuous relationship between the Jewish people and Jesus.”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Addendum)

Someone has questioned my assumptions about the role of stewards in the first century CE in the post I just published.  I make the assumption that the steward in the parable can actually be be commended or held responsible for good behaviour because although he was actually using someone else’s money he still had the authority to make decisions about rents and profits. Therefore an explanation is in order concerning how much authority the steward actually had as he took charge of the rich man's accounts.  I believe that he did have the ability and responsibility to act – and with almost complete autonomy. It would have been the steward who set the rents and collected the debts – or actually overcharged the tenants in his desire to make his master wealthy and increase his master’s honor (and therefore his own). That situation was common in first century well-to-do households. A quote from another source (a real book and a first century expert) might help my position here.

I have been reading Ritva William’s book Stewards, Prophets and Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA 2006). It has provided a wealth of insight on the patriarchy and patronage system in place in the first century. A few quotes should make the situation with the steward and his master’s money more clear. First she quotes from another author:

"In the "limited good" world of the first century Mediterranean ... seeking "more" was morally wrong ... Because the pie was "limited" and already all distributed, an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Honorable people, therefore, did not try to get more and those who did were automatically considered thieves. Noblemen [like the rich man] avoided such accusations of getting rich at the expense of others by having their affairs handled by slaves [the steward]. Such behavior was condoned in slaves since slaves were without honor anyway.”
Malina, Bruce and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 2003 p.124

Williams continues with these comments:

"Here we see one reason why the majority of private and public oikonomoi [the Greek word for steward] were of servile origin. Slaves were not only regarded by their elite masters as lacking the appropriate sensibilities for honorable activities, they were also actually encouraged to develop the money-grubbing attitudes and behaviors that their masters despised. Slaves and lower status persons (clients [or tenants]) were socialized to believe that their “well-being was completely wrapped up in the well-being and benevolence of the patron. Slaves and freedmen who had been put in charge of their patron’s wealth were proud [and honored] when they were able to increase it.  (p.58)

The unjust steward actually does have significant control over the financial debts owed by the tenants. Others have also asserted this as well - but for different reasons.  I believe Williams gets it right when she asserts that the first century stewards were more like "high roller" profit maximizers [fund managers?] as opposed to hesitant, obsequious "go-fers" [domestic staff like a butler or cleaning lady].

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Christian in America (and Canada)

In light of the American election race a couple of things came up that I thought I would share.  I have been comparing Canadian approaches to church and Christianity and politics with American attitudes and approaches and some of my musings I posted here while I was in Boston.

The first little thing was this hilarious picture that my son sent me.

Producing a card that said "Keep Jesus Canadian" just wouldn't make sense and just wouldn't be funny. But in so many ways Americans really do have their own Jesus.

This comes to light in the second thing I saw this week. In the latest issue of Time Magazine both McCain and Obama share a bit of their faith journeys. Barack Obama is pictured praying while holding hands with Rick Warren. John McCain has a picture of him reverently bowing his head. They also make a few personal comments. Allow me to quote a few lines.

McCain Relates a story from his time in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp: "On Christmas Day I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw that same guard approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me not looking or smiling at me. Then he used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas, even in the darkness of a Vietnamese prison camp."

This is a great story celebrating the cross of Christ and the true meaning of Christmas. But if a Canadian politician shared the same story he/she would be censured for their exclusive statements about religion - implying that he/she would not be inclusive or fair in their treatment of people of other religions.

Barack speaks of his own faith story this way: "I began my Christian journey over 20 years ago, as a young man fresh out of college. And since that time I've been serious not only about deepening my relationship with Christ but also about the way that all Americans can live together in our diverse, pluralistic society. Faith shows us that the weak and defenseless are not a problem but rather a priority, and a chance for us to live out the message of the Gospels."

Wow! I commend both of them for speaking frankly about their faith. To be honest, it sounds like Obama has a more personal faith - more in line with what Evangelical Christians would affirm whereas McCain's faith sounds a bit more "mainline Protestant." But that's only my view from a distance.

The sad thing is that in Canada comments like that would have marginalized both candidates. I honestly think that many Canadian journalists and more left leaning politicians believe that a strong faith makes you incapable of running for government positions. Actually it is only strong Christian faith that disqualifies you. Being Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or a devotee of Wicca would be acceptable options.

Parable of the Shrewd Manager

We discussed this parable during church this past Sunday. It’s a tough one to understand and we didn’t quite resolve it so we decided to give it another week and take a fresh look at it next Sunday. It seemed like a good way to get back to the blogging. I’ve gone around this parable a few times and looked at it from different angles but I think I figured out a very good interpretation (if I do say so myself).

Unfortunately I didn't have it figured out last Sunday and had made a number of wrong assumptions.  For the Hills gang I apologize.

If you want to look at a couple of other guys who took a stab at it you can check them out here or here or here - not that I necessarily agree with any of them.

The Passage

Luke 16:1-15
The Parable of the Shrewd Manager
1Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions.  2So he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.'
3"The manager said to himself, 'What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg— 4I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'
5"So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'
6" 'Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. 
 "The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.'
7"Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?' 
 " 'A thousand bushels of wheat,' he replied. 
 "He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'
8"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
13"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.

The Characters

The Rich Man
– he is the householder, the landowner, the patriarch, the patron, the “paterfamilias”
The Steward
– the household manager (oikonomos), a slave elevated to a position of responsibility in the rich man’s household – in a less wealthy home the wife would normally have been the household (and therefore financial) manager
– this steward is called unjust ("dishonest" in the NIV but more properly translated "unrighteous")
- it was the job of the steward to make money for his master - so it was often the steward who determined rents, collected them, reinvested them, etc.
The Tenants/Debtors
- they owe oil and wheat (in the two examples given) to the householder which means that they could be paying back loans or actually paying rent - it was also likely that they were paying too much rent

The Story

Jesus tells a parable about a rich land-owner, his manager who had complete responsibility for the estate, and certain tenants who owed rent to the land-owner. The land-owner accuses his manager of dissipating or squandering his wealth, and tells him to give an account for his work as a steward in his household. The steward (whose position as a slave was precarious even at the best of times) realizes that he is about to become jobless and homeless, but he’s not prepared to do manual labour or beg, so he hatches a cunning plan. He calls in each of the tenants. (Although only two are specifically listed they are only representative of the many more he went to. The KJV says “every one of his lord’s debtors.”) He takes out each one’s contract, filled out in the tenant’s handwriting and signed by himself. The manager gets each tenant to reduce the amount owed, signs it himself, and feels thoroughly satisfied that although he may have lost his home and his job, he has made some new friends who now owe him substantial favours. He has also made life much easier for these lower income, lower class families. He may actually have extended to them justice.

The Problem

The Parable is difficult to understand.
On the surface it seems like the Rich Man commends his steward for cheating his master out of what he is owed to save his (the steward’s) own skin. And then Jesus commends him for using money (actually someone else’s money) to make friends. It seems that the dishonest (more properly “unrighteous”) steward is being commended for his dishonesty. It becomes even more difficult when Jesus instructs his hearers to use worldly money (actually it’s “unrighteous" mammon the same word "unrighteous" or "unjust" used to describe the steward) to make friends here on earth so that they will have eternal dwelling places. The problem is that it seems like Jesus is telling us to be dishonest and to use someone else’s money to buy our way into heaven. But that is only a problem when we make personal application too quickly without understanding the point of the story.

The Explanation

To make sense of this parable, we need to be able to understand a number of issues. We begin by trying to understand the context in which Jesus is speaking this parable. We have to transport ourselves out of our 21st Century understanding of stewardship and into the first century situation of Jesus hearers.

The main clue to understanding the parable is near the end of the section in verse 14 where it says “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” Jesus is speaking the parable to the Pharisees and challenging their lifestyles of power, wealth and influence.

It is important to understand who the steward is and what his job is. The steward’s job was to manage the affairs of the household or the estate of the rich man. This estate included people who worked the land or operated a business under the patronage and protection of the householder (the rich man). Through the rich man’s benevolence (or patronage) the tenants were able to ply their trade and in return they paid him rent (in the form of oil and wheat and other things that they may have produced). The steward was the manager – like Joseph in the book of Genesis - second in command only to the householder himself.  He was the communication hub, the leadership conduit for the entire operation. He conveyed the wishes of the master to the tenants and implemented them. The steward was able to bring blessing and justice to the debtors – even though he was a lowly steward – essentially a slave with an office job – because he had the resources of the master under his control.   It was just as easy for him to direct the resources of the estate to his own selfish ends – which he was accused of doing.

The parable is a stinging indictment of the Pharisees, who could be seen as the rich man in this parable – the ones with power, wealth and influence. They had religious authority, political authority and financial authority. They were in effect the local government and had significant influence in all affairs concerning the Jewish people – and could enforce the law in every area including the death penalty (two examples: the woman caught in adultery and the stoning of Stephen). They loved money and placed heavy burdens on the Jewish people – not only with the keeping of the Law and the religious traditions but also in the area of taxation. The peasants (the tenants) were required to bring the firstfruits, their tithes and offerings, and were required to pay a temple tax. They also were required to bring proper offerings to the temple but since many came from great distances they purchased their offering animals in the temple courts. They were of course required to pay for those offerings with the official temple currency which was only available – for a small fee - through the temple moneychangers.

The Real Explanation

However, the real key to the parable is seeing the Pharisees as the steward – for they were actually God’s stewards (only using God's authority, privilege, influence and wealth). God is the landowner and the people of Israel are the tenants. God is the provider, the landowner, the patron and the Father of the children of Israel. The priests were the go-between, the brokers and stewards of God’s blessings and provisions. They were to exercise godly stewardship – to manage well the responsibilities of God’s household. However they were consistently found not to be faithfully exercising their stewardship.  They wasted the Lord's estate using it for their own selfish desires.  They placed unnecessary burdens on the tenants and had become "unrighteous" the very opposite of what they claimed to be.

Jesus is using this parable to contrast the unrighteous steward (who acts shrewdly or wisely) with the Pharisees (who do not). Their Master (kurios =Lord) has heard that they (the Pharisees) have been squandering His resources and so He calls them to give an account of their stewardship. The steward in the parable acts wisely (shrewdly) and blesses the tenants in order to find favour with them. He is commended by his Master. Jesus says that this unrighteous steward (a child of this age) is wiser than the “sons of light” (a term used to refer to the tribes of Levi, Judah and Benjamin and therefore referred to the priests and rulers). The Pharisees are condemned by Jesus for squandering God's "stuff" - the things that belonged to God - when they should have been good stewards bringing honour to their Master and managing the rest of the household (the tenants, relatives, livestock, land, etc.) well.

In that light the rest of the teaching of Jesus in this passage lines up and makes more sense. The steward is not commended for being dishonest. He is being commended for blessing the tenants and for wisely reducing the burden upon them. The key of the parable is in its comparison (don’t be like an unjust steward – be a good steward! But in comparison to the Pharisees even an unrighteous steward deserves more commendation than they do.)

The Rest of the Parable

The rest of the teaching in the parable works out like this:
Verse 9:  I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The Jewish priests and rulers (Sanhedrin) should be using their wealth and influence (even though it really belongs to God) to be blessing others (making friends) so that they are able to secure eternal blessings (literally an eternal dwelling place) not just to be comfortable here on earth. The wealth of God is to be used to lavishly bless people not to hoard it to yourselves or to be stored in barns – even if the barn is the temple.  The Jewish rulers needed to reduce the burden placed upon the people. Jesus says this about them in Matthew 23:4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

However, Jesus instructions to the people were:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

Another interesting application might be that we need to be reducing the sin burden that other people carry by forgiving them.  This may be what it means when Jesus says to his disciples that as they forgive other's sins they will be forgiven, 21Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." John 20:21-23

Verses 10-12: "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
This is clear. Jesus is condemning the Pharisees for the fact that they have been unfaithful in their dealings with worldly wealth (the small things) so how can they be expected to administer the true riches of spiritual life and heavenly dwellings? The Pharisees have been unfaithful by demanding such a heavy burden from the people. They have squandered the tithes and offerings (worldly wealth) given by people in worship to God. They "dissipated it like the prodigal son did his inheritance. So how could they possibly effectively communicate the love and grace of the landowner or graciously minister that love to the people? The phrase "property of your own" seems to be a direct reference to the eternal dwellings mentioned in verse 9.

Verse 13: "No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
If they were truly serving God the Pharisee stewards would not have placed such a heavy burden upon the tenants (the Gospels call them “the multitude.”) It is impossible for your goal to be to gather up worldly wealth for yourself and to also serve God. The true calling must always take pre-eminence.

Verses 14-15: 14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.
No matter how we might justify it to ourselves, bad stewardship is always seen in heaven. Selfishness and dissipation can not be hidden from God.

The Application

We have become God’s stewards in Jesus. The apostle Paul says that we are stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). How are we exercising our stewardship? Are we using our worldly wealth (the wealth that comes from God for He supplies all our needs) to bless others? Or are we squandering it or merely storing it up for our own use? This wealth will not make any difference in heaven (we can’t take it with us and we can’t spend it there anyways). It only bears eternal fruit if we use it wisely here while on earth.

How are we stewarding the mysteries of God? Are we being faithful to reveal the Lord's desires and purposes with our stewardship - i.e. those around us - those "under our jurisdiction?" Are we faithfully sharing the abundance of spiritual wealth with those around us - with our family, our neighbours, our co-workers, our household?

We have to recognize the humility of our role as stewards. A steward is a slave with some extra responsibility. We must not think too highly of ourselves. We must remember that all the riches we manage are only in our hands because of the benevolence of the Master. They don't belong to us. We are not more exalted than the tenants - in some cases we may even be of much lower status. 1Corinthians 4:2 states: "Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful." Have we been faithful?

There are a number of other ways to make application but that can be up to you.
Let me know what you think.