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Cain / Abel, Mary / Martha Etc


JenellYB
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It has occured to me that many of Jesus's teachings presented through parables and stories echo the theme of the Cain/Abel story, that of salvation through one's own works/salvation through grace. The former being devalued, the latter being the humble held up as in God's favor through grace.

Examples, Martha/Mary, Pharisees/publicans and harlots..

 

In the story of the rich man to which Jesus said, sell all that you have and give to the poor, etc, I think that to comprehend meaning here requires as simply shift...notice that the "riches" the man lists are not his material wealth, but his wealth of religious works and prestige. So that the 'riches' Jesus tells him to sell and give to the poor isn't material goods, money, but recognition that his religious based riches are worthless, his perfect sinless life as a priviledged person in society isn't worth more than the best someone of lesser means and social status can do.

 

Jenell

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It seems to me virtually the entire bible was written in the form of allegory, metaphor, and narrative parable. If that is true, then many meaning can be assigned to the text, as you have noted Jenell.

 

I think the bible becomes problematic when its read in a wooden literal context. That, at least from my perspective, is when it becomes inconsistent, contradictory, and occasionally incoherent.

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The stories you mentioned are pretty diverse. For me, before we get to a commentary on works and faith and salvation, these stories have to do with two distinctions: legalism vs. love, personal vs. impersonal. Whatever ethic we formulate will inevitably have rules, but these rules must be 'animated' by ... something... whether we call it agape, care for the other, virtues... something. Impersonally following the rules in a rote fashion and expect righteousness is a bit problematic for me. Things only get worse when one notes that blind & rote obedience sets the stage for hypocrisy and exploitation. For me, this is what is meant by Jesus fulfilling the law. I'm a gamer, and one thing gamers know is that there isn't a ruleset on earth that a munchkin can't min/max. If one expects to have all good things happen by mere rote obedience, bad things will occur.

 

I think it is obvious how that fits the Pharisees.

As for Mary and Martha, I do not take that as a general story about how being a hard worker is bad or anything else. Rather, my take-away is that there are moments in life where you really need to suspend everyday activity. If the Son of God visits, you stop the chores. Max Weber said that instrumental rationality and the concern for efficiency is something people should be able to pick up or drop as easily as a coat (the fact that it's more like an iron cage rather than clothing, he notes, is not a virtue of the modern world).

 

As for Cain, that's a bit different. God didn't like Cain's offering, but the story doesn't say why (though there are plenty of implications NT scholars have come up with regarding why God prefers meat to vegetables). What it does say, however, is that God essentially told Cain to not be angry, just relax and give a better offering to God. Cain, too busy being angry and jealous, hauls off and kills his brother, and then lies to God about it. This isn't, at its core, a story about legalistic rules, even basic ones like "don't kill your brother out of spite & jealousy." Cain's problem started because he believed he deserved better, and that festered into hate. The law was broken because love was lost.

 

 

Now, obviously the discussion of salvation / justification is related to those stories, and considering I lean in a Reformed direction, I'm ok with justification by faith. But it's messy & complicated. I enjoy ranting about the evils of Pelagius, because he's a great foil for the types of ethics and Christianity I prefer. In Pelagius, because we are masters of our own fate, have the tools of salvation already, and are all truly responsible for our salvation, his theology is devoid of grace. And because it is devoid of grace, love doesn't have as central of a role. This causes problems for me.

 

That isn't Catholicism (though some fire-and-brimstone Calvinists claim otherwise), which believes in a combination of faith and works. Faith and grace are necessary to start you on your way, and then it's up to you (in part) to keep going. It's important to note that the more faith-centered theologies of justification, like Calvin, still have a place for works. In Calvin's case, faith creates works, and he calls it sanctification.

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What I'm refering to here is not that 'works' themselves are in any way bad or wrong, whether it was Cain's physical efforts in tilling the ground, Martha's busy-ness, or Pharisee's toeing the legalistic line. It is that thought or attitude that by their own works, their own efforts, they are more acceptable before and to God. As noted, "deserve" God's favor, as in they've "earned it". Which negates grace.

 

Jenell

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It is my understanding that when Paul writes of justification by works, he means compliance with the Jewish law (dietary, circumcision, sabbath observance, etc.) and was not referring to what we mean today by good works (charitable giving, helping others, etc.). He wasn't making a contrast between being a good person (works) and being a good believer (faith). If this is incorrect, maybe someone can correct me.

 

George

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Just a few meandering thoughts on this interesting topic:

 

I sometimes wonder if the early Church did the right thing in labeling their scriptures “The New Covenant” and relegating the Hebrew scriptures to “The Old Covenant.” What this effectively did was to separate Jesus from the line of prophets that came along at towards the end of what we call the OT, and we see Jesus as bringing a totally different message from the OT prophets. Towards the end of the OT, it seems that the central message of the prophets to Israel was this, “God is disgusted with the way you are treating each other. You go through all of these religious rituals, but God wants you to have mercy with each other and to do justice. You want God’s kingdom here on earth? Then get your act together and start acting like the people who exist to bless others that God has called you to be.”

 

But with the church-imposed separation between the scriptures, Jesus is often thought to bring this message, “God has given up on expecting you to ever get your act together and to treat each other rightly. He knows that you can’t do it. So God is sending a human sacrifice that, if you believe in his death and resurrection, will put you in right standing with God regardless of how you treat each other.” Imo, this is a severe distortion in reading Jesus’ message and ministry. I think Jesus stood in the line of the OT prophets that were calling Israel back to acting as the people of God on earth. I don’t think he was trying to start the new religion we call Christianity, but to reform Judaism. Imo, salvation, for Jesus, primarily meant deliverance. If we read Jesus’ Inaugural Speech from the book of Isaiah, we can discover what he thought salvation was and what his ministry and message was. It had nothing to do with getting people into heaven.

 

But the church has shrunk salvation down to “how to go to heaven when you die” and justification down to “how to get into right standing with God.” It’s my conviction that our standing with God was never in jeopardy. We are created in God’s image and have always been and always will be God’s children, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. In this context (see NT Wright for further explanation), justification is not about our standing with God, but about our participation in the community of God’s people on earth. There is not a certain amount or a certain kind of “good works” that we must do in order to enter into God’s community on earth, it is by faith alone. But “good works” are and should be part of what that community does.

 

So as God’s new prophet, I see Jesus saying, “God loves all of you and because that is so, he cares about how you treat each other and even your enemies. You want God’s kingdom here on earth? The message has not changed – have mercy and do justice. The Spirit will enable you to do this if you follow its leading. I’ll show you how that looks. I’ll show you how to live in such a way that your life is a blessing to others.”

 

I don’t know if “The New Covenant” is a good thing or a bad thing. But I think the church has misinterpreted it as “substitutionary atonement” that reduces Jesus to a blood sacrifice that insinuates that what God wants is belief in the sacrifice without following the teachings of Jesus on how to treat one another.

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I sometimes wonder if the early Church did the right thing in labeling their scriptures “The New Covenant” and relegating the Hebrew scriptures to “The Old Covenant.” What this effectively did was to separate Jesus from the line of prophets that came along at towards the end of what we call the OT . . .

This is an interesting thought. Jesus should not be divorced from the Jewish prophetic tradition of calling for social justice. This was a link not missed by Martin Luther King.

 

On the other hand, by binding all the various books under one cover and calling it all 'the word of God' leads to some very awkward harmonization and apologetics. It is difficult, if even possible, to theologically reconcile the God in Joshua to that of Jesus.

 

George

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It is my understanding that when Paul writes of justification by works, he means compliance with the Jewish law (dietary, circumcision, sabbath observance, etc.) and was not referring to what we mean today by good works (charitable giving, helping others, etc.). He wasn't making a contrast between being a good person (works) and being a good believer (faith). If this is incorrect, maybe someone can correct me.

 

That's my understanding as well.

The tweaked version of works used by western mediaeval Christianity gets closer to "be a good person" in some ways, but it's a kinda-sorta statement I'm not going to defend too hard.

 

Alister McGrath has a book on the history of justification as a theological concept in Christianity. I would love to one day read that, but it probably won't be for a year or so, minimum.

 

EDIT: And I'll add to the chorus about Wayseeker's post being quite good.

Edited by Nick the Nevermet
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Wayseeker, you expressed it very well. That continuity between God's messages to the people in the OT and as expressed through Jesus in the NT is the point I'm working on in this thread, That the message was the same, from Cain and Abel right on through Jesus' teachings.

 

By the 'works for salvation' or to make one's self pleasing to God, through one's own superior efforts, to 'earn' God's favor, so as to personally "deserve" it, is the 'works point' I am on here.

 

I know that those self-saving 'works' have commonly been through of as religious or legalistic works, but I am differing here from that idea. I am suggesting that after one has taken a step away from the belief that salvation can be earned through religious rituals and practices, and even "having 'right' beliefs", there is a tendency to then elevate into their place other kinds of "works", in this context, Cain's labors, Martha's busy-ness, the Pharisees giving alms to the poor, etc...not that any of those things are contrary to or inconsistent with what would be pleasing to God, what God might expect of us, but that those things are in and of themselves, by our doing them, seen as of "saving value."

 

On this point, Cain considered his hard work (itself) to produce what he offerred in sacrifice added some superior value to his own sacrifice as compared to Abel's, who, as a shepherd, he saw as having just sat around under a shade tree, watching the grass grow for the sheep to eat, offerring to God a sacrifice of something he had recieved through God's bounty that he didn't have to work so hard for. Or with Martha, that her busy-ness, her own efforts at hard work in providing for Jesus and the others' meals and comfort had some superior value over Mary just sitting there doing nothing at Jesus' feet. Or, the Pharisees that publically gave alms to the poor, out of pride in their superior works of charity, rather than out of any compassion for the poor.

 

It is not the 'doing' of any 'works', or the quality and nature of the works, but that there be any 'saving value' or result in enhanced standing before God, for doing them.

 

Jenell

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On the other hand, by binding all the various books under one cover and calling it all 'the word of God' leads to some very awkward harmonization and apologetics. It is difficult, if even possible, to theologically reconcile the God in Joshua to that of Jesus.

What is bound is a conversation among competing voices. Jesus does seem to follow those who sought social justice. But there were other prophets who would not be interested in expanding the circle to include a diversity of people. They stand in juxtaposition in the Hebrew scriptures.

 

Dutch

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What is bound is a conversation among competing voices. Jesus does seem to follow those who sought social justice. But there were other prophets who would not be interested in expanding the circle to include a diversity of people. They stand in juxtaposition in the Hebrew scriptures.

 

I think you're right about this, Dutch. Despite the claim by some Christians that the Bible comes "from God" and is therefore monolithic on any particular subject, I, too, see many competing conversations or "voices" in the scriptures. To my understanding, even in Jesus' day there were at least 5 voices within Judaism about how to be the people of God:

 

1. The Essenes seemed to sanction separation. They thought that Jews faithful to God should withdraw from any Roman influence.

2. The Zealots seemed to want a violent revolution against Rome and perhaps expected the messiah to lead such a revolt.

3. The Pharisees seemed to exhort people to hold tighter to the Mosaic Law and covenant. Israel couldn't be God's people until they kept the law.

4. The Herodians seemed to just want to make the best of things with Rome.

5. The Sadducees seemed to just want to keep the Temple religion going and to not make waves.

 

It would be interesting to consider which of these groups appealed to Jesus or was he a horse of a different color altogether? Nevertheless, I recall a scripture where even Jesus said not to go to the Gentiles with the gospel, but only to the house of Israel. It seems that Jesus is quite malleable in that we (and the Christian religion) can find in him a plethora of interpretations and applications. It does make it rather difficult to try to condense things down to one and only one truth, doesn't it?

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It does make it rather difficult to try to condense things down to one and only one truth, doesn't it?

I don't think those who gathered the writings together into the Hebrew Bible were interested in "one truth." In one lecture Prof Hayes suggests the Hebrew Bible is a discussion about theodicy. Some of the final voices, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah look to ends times for fulfillment of God's promises and a balancing of the scale. Not in this life but the next.

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The works -vs- faith competition is all quite meaningless to me. I see both approaches an attempt to appease a disapproving god - a relic of our prehistoric past when we schemed varying ways in which to gain the upper hand.

 

Hopefully, we can evolve enough to glean from holy writ "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— we ought to think of such things."

 

NORM

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I think the salvation by works has gotten an unfair rap by the Christian church throughout the centuries. While some criticism of salvation by works may be warranted, the problem with salvation by grace is that it ends up turning faith into a work itself. For example, at the risk of committing Godwin's law, if Hitler repented of his sins to Jesus just before he died, he would get to go to heaven anyway in spite of all the horrible things he did to the Jews, the Romani, and gays. But according to salvation by grace, Anne Frank is going to burn in hell for all eternity even if she was a good person all her life just because she didn't accept Jesus into her heart. This to me seems like an unjust system that places an unfair emphasis on holding "correct" doctrines and excusing immoral behavior if you happen to have the "correct" beliefs when it makes more sense to me that people should be judged by how they treat others over what they believe.

 

You can say you believe in love and forgiveness all you want, but if you don't actually put those beliefs into work, it means nothing. Jesus himself never condemned salvation by works in the synoptic gospels. The doctrine of salvation by grace comes more from the epistles of Paul. When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he doesn't say to believe in the inerrancy of the bible or even to believe that he died on the cross for your sins. He said the greatest commandment was love, which is an action, not a belief. The Greek word used in the NT for faith itself is "psitis" which more accurately means commitment or trust. In her book Paul Among The People, Sarah Ruden describes the concept of psitis as being like a legal contract you make between business partners as opposed to a belief. In the story about the sheep and the goats, Jesus separates them in response to their good works and how they treated other people, not what they believed. I think the issue at hand isn't over doing good works but what your motivation for doing good works is. In the case of Mary and Martha, I don't think Jesus is saying cleaning your house is a sin, but your reasons for it matters.

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I think asking what the consequences of a doctrine are is an important question. No matter how logically consistent or historically grounded, if a doctrine seems to encourage bad things, then people should take a moment and start asking questions.

 

Justification by faith alone as it developed during the Protestant Reformation wasn't really a product of people meditating on systematic theology. Rather, it was motivated by the question how a doctrine of works was being used, at that point in time. Luther believed the corruption he saw in the form of indulgences were directly linked to the church's works doctrine. Calvin worried people would obsess about whether they've done enough good works recently, causing paranoia rather than piety (his solution - promotion of double predestination instead - is worth more than a few comments though). EDIT: It is a reasonable debate to ask how much Luther was right vs. wrong, and how relevant that question is when the real reason the Reformation succeeded as much as it did was due to political realities (nobles vs. the church) than any doctrinal truth.

 

I also think that history and society keep changing, and a particular wording or doctrine may work at one time and not at another. (Just pretend I made a rant about postmodernism here ;))

Edited by Nick the Nevermet
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