Thursday, November 26, 2015

Churching the State to Justify the Samaritans

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the Good Samaritan and Syrian Refugees:  

Q:  Does the Bible offer any principles about what the U.S. Government policy should be on whether to take refugees from Syria and the Middle East?  Are the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Old Testament laws regarding treatment of foreigners relevant to the question?

While many people might read the parable of the Good Samaritan as a moral lesson about charity and how a person should respond to others in need, it is actually about much more.  While it certainly is good to help those who are suffering (which other passages of Scripture reveal), the parable is, first and foremost, about Jesus Himself.  In the parable, the character of the Good Samaritan is not a president or a senator.  In fact, the character of the Good Samaritan is not even any ordinary human.  The Good Samaritan is Jesus!

And the character in the parable that represents humanity is not even the priest or the Levite, but instead, the victim is the character in the parable which plays our role.  Jesus, the Good Samaritan, comes down into our uncleanness to cure and heal us, completely apart from our worthiness or ability to repay.  Understanding this reality completely changes how we approach the parable and rules out its application to a government’s acceptance of refugees, unless we want to suggest that the Government or the president are our savior. 

Many who have attempted this application have also made reference to a handful of Old Testament laws regarding the treatment of foreigners.  The difficulty with this attempt is that those laws were not universal laws given to humanity, but rather, they were given particularly to the nation of Israel.  So, if we were to suggest that these laws carry over into the present day, rather than being fulfilled in Jesus, we would have to apply them not to the United States Government, since it is not constituted by God or committed to serving Him, but rather to the Church. 

Probably the most relevant passages of Scripture in relation to this issue are the New Testament sections that describe the role of government, particularly in Paul’s Epistles.  In these passages, the role of Governments which are not Ancient Israel is consistently described as being to provide safety and stability to their citizens.  The Church, then, has the role of helping those in need under the umbrella of that stable and secure nation. 

So, in the present circumstances, the Government’s role is to do whatever is in the best interest of our nation’s security, even if it is not the most humanitarian choice for those outside of our borders, because its duty is to its own citizens.  If it comes down to helping people from other parts of the globe with the result of incurring a substantial risk to its own citizens’ safety, or providing security to its own citizens while denying help to non-citizens, our government’s Biblically-mandated priority is to protect its own citizens. 

The Church’s role, on the other hand, is to help those in need.  So, if our government should choose to allow the entry of refugees, then Christians are called to demonstrate the Lord’s mercy by helping those who arrive on our shores.  If the government determines the threat to our security is too great, then we are still able to provide help through the hands of our fellow Christians and their Churches in the parts of the world where the refugees find a home. 

The government has its own particular God-given role, and the Church has its own, but as we address these circumstances, it is important to distinguish those roles and apply the proper scriptures to the proper roles as we seek Biblical answers to the questions at hand. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Does Paul contradict Jesus?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the alleged contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and Paul:

Q:  Do St. Paul’s writings in the Epistles of the New Testament contradict the things that Jesus said as recorded in the Gospels?  Did Paul add to or alter Jesus’ message when he was writing to the churches, and what gave him authority in those churches if he was not a follower at the time of the Resurrection?

This is a recurring accusation during the most recent two centuries of Christianity:  That Paul’s teachings in the epistles do not align with the things said by Jesus during our records of His earthly life and ministry.  The exact accusation often varies, with those on one end of the spectrum accusing Paul of being too doctrinal in comparison to their perception of Jesus as a free spirit whose ministry centered on helping people, and those on the other end of the spectrum accusing Paul of being too lenient regarding matters of the Law—whether those found in the Old Testament or matters of personal holiness—while they believed Jesus to have been more strict about these things. 

Usually this kind of response to the content of the New Testament results in a person diminishing portions of the New Testament in favor of others, rather than trying to reconcile the statements and understand the original intent of Jesus speech or Paul’s writing to discover that they actually do agree.  When it falls short of outright rejection of Paul’s epistles or other New Testament books, this kind of approach to Jesus and Paul usually results at the very least in some imaginative story-telling to explain how the early Church came to a unanimous consensus regarding Paul’s letters if they are actually so far removed from Jesus’ teachings. 

One way in which it is often quite simple to reconcile the teachings of Jesus and Paul that seem to contradict on the surface is to dig deeper into what they are actually communicating.  Since most readers in this part of the world are limited to reading Scripture in English, we sometimes forget that Jesus did not speak and Paul did not write in English, but we are reading a translation of their words.  In translation, there are often not direct equivalents for the words being translated, and English often cannot convey the time and duration as precisely as Greek did.  So, even if we have the most accurate translation possible, a reader might understand the English word differently than the translator intended to use it, or we may miss that a particular statement was made only for a particular circumstance while another was made as a standing, universal proclamation.  The majority of contradiction accusations I see can be solved in this way, and even for those who do not have access to original language training, looking at a verse in multiple reliable English translations sometimes clarifies the intent of the passage. 

Another difficulty for those who propose a contradiction is that the New Testament itself describes that the 11 original disciples of Jesus had access to Paul’s letters, and they examined him and his message, ultimately endorsing him and approving that He was proclaiming the same thing as they had learned from Jesus.  Likewise, we have no record that any person at the time of the writing or in the following century ever proposed that there was a problem between Paul’s teachings and the things said and done by Jesus.  Instead, it was universally understood that Paul was writing explanation to the churches about what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus accomplished and how they were to apply this to life in their congregations. 

When the New Testament is read with care to understand the original meaning the authors intended and the history is taken in full perspective, it becomes exceedingly clear that Paul was, in fact, proclaiming the same message as Jesus and pointing people to the authentic Jesus and not to some new formulation that was hijacking Jesus for other goals. 

Questions may be submitted by email to or sent to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA  50522.

Rev. Jason P. Peterson

Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church – Burt