On our quick trip there and back again, Matt and I took a whole day in the car to listen to a book released just this last week—The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr. Then, even though we were in the car, we watched the launch zoom with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Barr, and Scott McKnight. I’m going to be writing a review of the book post haste, and, indeed, there was so much to discuss that I’m thinking seriously of doing some more methodical long form pieces about it. This morning, especially as it is Good Shepherd Sunday, I had hoped to just think lovely peaceful thoughts about Jesus rather than getting into any theological fights with anyone. Unhappily, glancing about at the lections for the day—which are about Jesus, of course—I see I must once again face his anger at those, both in the New Testament and the Old Testament, who lead the sheep astray. Ezekiel, for example, decries those who “devour” the sheep, who “feed themselves” not only instead of the flock, but on the flock.
And then, painfully, there is this bit from John’s first letter:
Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
I can’t help but notice a couple of points. First, of course those who devour and abuse the sheep—whether for power, for stupid selfishness, out of ignorance, or even out of that more usual Dunning-Kruger way of trying to do good but of being so blind and unthoughtful as to end up doing evil—are always and everywhere wrong, bad, and will be judged far more harshly by the Lord on the Last Day than those who didn’t have anything at all to do with the sheep, but were just ordinarily wicked. If a pastor abuses members of his congregation, it will not go well with him, though he may get away with it now.
Second, one of the ways that pastors abuse their sheep is by lying to them. They might lie because they do not know the truth, which again, I think is more usual. But sometimes they lie because they want power and status, and because they can’t be bothered with the delicacies of true, deep, and difficult theology. The difference between the pastor who is power hungry and abusive, and the pastor who is lying and abusive, is that the one who has lied to the sheep keeps those sheep from finding eternal life by not even telling them about it. So, while all badness is bad, the badness that sends people to hell is really really bad.
Third, observe the very stark distinction St. John makes between those who are “of the devil,” and those who “practice righteousness.” He isn’t saying that the good people will go to heaven, and the bad people will go hell. Rather those who have been “born of God,” are so sealed, so held in place by the Lord that they cannot “keep on sinning.” Eventually they will stop, because of the word that abides in them, which chiefly causes them to “love” their brothers, and also sisters, for the sake of Barr. (Can’t help using the ESV, not just out of spite, but because I love it so much.)
Finally, let us take this stark distinction between those who are “of the devil,” and those who “practice righteousness” and apply it to a little problem that Barr brings up—as so many do—about Jesus being instructed by the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21–28. Barr says this woman “won an argument” with Jesus. I imagine her manuscript was done and to the printers long before that tictoc of the young man explaining that Jesus was racist, but submitted himself to this woman and “did the work” of seeing his own prejudices and coming out better. Go and do thou likewise—be like Jesus. Even poor Jesus occasionally had to learn things. And what are you? Better than him? Under the guise of humility, many Christians might think that this is very compelling, and that they should go and examine themselves and repent of their sins of prejudice and racism.
But there are two big problems with this reading of the text. The first problem is that Jesus was often accused by the Pharisees of being “of the devil.” Whenever he did some mighty work that authenticated his preaching—that he was the Son of God come into the world to save sinners, that he spoke the very words of God, and that he, as the Son of God never did or said anything that the Father didn’t want him to say or do—they accused him of being literally Satan, or at least in league with him. All of the mighty works of Jesus, they said, were done because he was “of the devil,” and not in himself the very measure of righteousness.
If Barr and that tictoc pastor want Jesus to be instructed not to be racist by the Syrophoenician woman, they only have two choices. Either Jesus is not God, or God himself is racist. And this brings me to my second and real trouble, not only with Barr’s book, but with the whole conversation. That trouble is that I don’t think that anyone thinks racism is really that bad. It is not really a very grave sin, because God himself (or at least Jesus) can be guilty of it, and also can also be saved from it by a mere correction from a mere woman. In other words, you, likewise, could just read White Fragility, go to some protests, spread the good news of whose lives matter, and be saved from your racism. That’s all it takes.
Whereas, that’s just not true. Racism is a grave and terrible sin. It is a sin so deep—and the little exchange in Matthew shows how deep it goes, not in the heart of Jesus, but certainly in the hearts of his disciples, the religious establishment, and all the hangers on in the crowd—that Jesus had to go to the very cross and die so that the “seed of righteousness” could be planted in the dark, ruinous soil of the human soul. Not just racism, of course. He died for all the sins of those who repent, but the one of racism is right in there.
The problem with human solutions to sin is that sin has to be made in the same moment both far worse and far better than it really is. Sin has to be cast as so terrible that there is no solution except the one offered by the hireling (walk up this mountain, wear this denim skirt, indulge in “ethical” porn, read this book, attend this conference, buy local), but also, it is not a big deal. Once you have “known better” by consuming the salvific product on offer you will be able to “do the work” or at least “do better.”
Whereas, according to the Jesus in the Bible, the Son of God himself had to die and you have to die to yourself in him and be made into an entirely new person. Your wickedness is so deeply embedded in your heart, mind, and soul that you will perish in your ignorance and sin if he doesn’t step in. It is, to put it mildly, rather a more dire picture. Indeed, you are so hopeless that you can’t stop being racist or misogynist after reading the book or putting up your “hate has no home here” sign. God comes along through the Holy Spirit and does it for you. Gradually—very gradually—your racism dissipates and you begin to “love your brother” and sister. But it won’t be just a matter of reading a stack of books, having an epiphany, and then going on to the next fad.
And now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to church, and I suggest you do the same—though try going to a good one, where the preacher neither lies nor abuses, where the Scriptures are preached in their glorious fullness, and where Jesus, that Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, reigns in the hearts and minds of all who believe.