Friday, December 21, 2007

John the son of Zacharias (Luke 1:1-25)

Luke chapter one is interesting in that it tells the accounts of two supernatural births. I've often mused on the fact that if you look into the fine details of the Gospel accounts, there happen to be a lot of connections between the people of the early church that aren't always as well-known as they should be, starting here where we find out that Jesus and John the Baptist are actually cousins of some sort. A careful examination of the Gospels reveals that actually several disciples were extended family of Mary, but I don't know if the SAB tracks that and has commented on it, I'm sure there's room for some interesting speculation on the matter.

John's parents are described as being "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless". As is so often the case, the SAB uses this statement to bring up the question "Has there ever been a righteous person?" along with a question I don't think I have yet addressed, "Does righteousness come from following the Law?" Although I have addressed the first question before, I don't think it will hurt to revisit it here, especially in light of the second one. In the question of whether or not there was ever a righteous person, I think one could actually fairly dismiss the verses quoted from Isaiah as possibly being specific to the time and place in which he was writing, but of course, the Romans passage seems much more clear and blanketing, and it's also a pretty well-known Christian doctrine that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." How can we say that John's parents are righteous? A lot of the problem in dealing with the Bible is the confusion of terminology and difficulty of exacting translation. Most people understand the gist of what's being said, but the details can be tough to sort out. Being "righteous" doesn't mean that you're perfect, but rather means that you strive to do what is right. What does that imply, and how does that fit with Paul's claim that there are no righteous people? Paul is quoting (with slightly different wording) from Psalm 14, which uses the phrase "doeth good". I admit it's sometimes hard to sort all of this out, but there is doing good, striving for goodness, and depending on God, each of which could be referred to as righteousness at one time or another. I do believe that what Paul is saying and is said elsewhere along these same lines is that there is no such thing as someone who does what is right all the time. Additionally, there is perhaps a uniquely Christian understanding that nobody even tries to do good with the pure motive of pleasing God unless they are divinely inspired to it by the Holy Spirit. This is a strange concept that has many different forms of understanding among Christians of varied theological stripes, and I certainly don't fully understand every position on the matter, nor necessarily agree with all of them. (I don't know if any of this is making great sense, I've got a cold...)

Oh yeah, and as for righteousness coming from following the law, the answer is No. That John's parents happened to be righteous and followed the law is really two different (although admittedly related) facts. There are a LOT of issues in the Bible that can be confusing if you misunderstand the proper chain of cause-and-effect, the most common being the dichotomy of faith vs. works. Here what we see is not people who are righteous because they follow the Law of Moses, but people who follow the Law of Moses because they are righteous. Even in the Old Testament, the concept is there--although not so explicitly stated--of the true following of the law being something that comes from the inherent righteousness of the heart, and not simply out of obligation to fulfill righteousness.

God tells Zacharias that John is to never touch alcohol in his life, prompting the SAB to ask, "Is it OK to drink alcohol?" This is a good topic in itself that I thought I had already addressed, but apparently not. There are a few general guidelines for understanding the Bible's view on alcohol, and I think they are for the most part pretty common-sense. In general, alcohol is a good thing, in moderation. A glass of wine or two at a party, maybe a beer when out with friends? That's just good times; I myself had a couple beers at my birthday party (and was glad to not have to drive home, my alcohol tolerance is apparently way down from what it was in college!) What the Bible says against alcohol fits into one of two categories, of which this story is the latter. One, that alcohol to excess is a bad thing, and can ruin your life; I hope most of us know that to be true and are on our guards. Two, some people, due to the station they have in life, really ought to avoid alcohol altogether for the sake of personal purity. The verse quoted from Numbers 6 is about a person who decides to make a special vow of purity, and it may be that this is another case of God ordaining a "Nazarite" from birth, as He did with Samson. There are a number of interesting similarities between Samson and John that would suggest this.

Several times in this chapter, Luke says that someone was filled with the Holy Ghost. While yes, it may be a bit silly that John was filled with the Holy Ghost as a fetus, we do have to deal with the issue of when the Holy Ghost was given. I actually addressed this in chapter two, which I really don't remember why I did it before this chapter, but there it is. Basically, the giving of the Holy Ghost after the resurrection of Jesus was a special event, but not at all the first time the Holy Ghost was given, with various events going way back in the Bible to even to perhaps Genesis.

Verse 17 refers to "the wisdom of the just", prompting the SAB to inquire as to whether there has ever been a "just" person. I wish I had the Greek knowledge to dissect this verse, as the English translation does not make it clear whether this is singular or plural. If it were singular, I would suggest that it refers to God, who is surely just (at least in Judeo-Christian theology, skeptical opinions aside) but I can't tell. Still, it doesn't matter, because I believe the answer is Yes. While the Bible talks a lot about how there are no "good", "righteous" or whatever sorts of people, and requires some confusing discussion like that which I gave above for righteousness, I don't think the same can be said about people being "just". While yes, the Ecclesiastes passage exists, the book of Ecclesiastes is highly poetic, and is full of hyperbole. Some of it is nonetheless true, but in general, most of the ideas in that book are very abstract, like the claim that there is "nothing new" in the world. Surely there is new stuff every day, but in a sense, nothing is really new. When I post this far too long entry to my blog, it will be a "new" blog entry, but I create nothing, as all I am doing is shuffling around electrons to regurgitate ideas that no doubt exist on other blogs, websites, and even books printed well before I was even born. I think Solomon is saying that it's hard to find someone who is just, and even if you do, they're probably not just all of the time. Ecclesiastes is a good source of wisdom, but I don't tend to think of it as a good source of doctrine, myself.

Zacharias ends up being struck dumb because of his unbelief. Yes, it's strange, and it may seem a little bit unfair, but there it is. I think the real problem is the reconciling of this story with Mary's in the second half of the chapter. We'll see about that.

1 comment:

Brucker said...

Because nobody but myself cares, no doubt, I'll just comment here that I asked someone who knows Greek, and the word translated "just" is indeed plural.