Category Archives: Christianity

The Gingrich Problem

According to exit polls in South Carolina, more than half of the people who voted in the Republican primary describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.  Most of those voters said that it is very important to them that a candidate share their beliefs.  Most of them voted for Newt Gingrich.

These polling data are strange.  To begin with, the only Protestant still running for the Republican nomination is Ron Paul, who is a Southern Baptist.  Gingrich is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism.  Santorum is also a Catholic.  Romney is a Mormon.  So, if South Carolina voters who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical want a candidate who shares their beliefs, Ron Paul would have been the better choice.  A few of them, apparently, made that choice, but most did not.

Of course, the more glaring problem is Gingrich’s personal life.  I won’t rehash it, as it is well known by now.  I do not understand how evangelicals in the Republican Party can overlook Gingrich’s indiscretions.  The reason that I do not understand it is that evangelicals, as a general group, were out for blood when Clinton’s affair with an intern came to light.  They wanted him impeached and found guilty and ousted.

Here’s the thing.  Everyone who was willing to overlook Clinton’s bad behavior has no business maligning Gingrich.  Likewise, everyone who wanted Clinton’s head on a platter has no business excusing Gringrich’s behavior and supporting him in the nomination process.  It is called hypocrisy and a lack of integrity.

I am speaking in generalities, which has its drawbacks.  Obviously each individual is responsible for his own actions.  I myself was against Clinton for his disgraceful conduct; therefore, I am against Gingrich.  My moral sensibilities do not change just because a candidate has a different party’s initial after his name.  In fact, a case could be made that Clinton is an overall morally superior person to Gingrich, since he has stayed married to his first wife and apparently–one can hope–has learned to be faithful to her.

It is probably unfair for nonchristians to judge Christians as a group; it is always unfair to judge individuals for the behavior of a group.  However, unbelievers will judge Christians, and the judgment will not be favorable.  As a group, the so-called Christian right acts hypocritically, excusing the sins of Republicans and hammering on the sins of Democrats.  (Of course, the same thing happens in the converse, but let’s not go there.)

Here’s the bigger problem.  Nominee Gingrich will carry a lot of baggage.  Faithful family man, Barack Obama, will be his opponent.  Not only will Gingrich’s moral failings come into play, but so will the ethics charges that were brought against him in the House of Representatives.  He might be well qualified to be President, and I believe he is, but his dirty laundry will be a huge liability.

It makes no difference to me who the Republicans nominate.  However, if they are smart and–more so–if they want to live up to their stated principles, Republicans who are evangelical will not help to nominate Gingrich, and they will not vote for him if he does get the nomination.


Dealing With Sin

Christians are notorious for dealing with sin in all the wrong ways.  There is always a tendency to deal with it too leniently or too harshly.  Sometimes a Christian deals with his or her own sins too leniently and with the sins of others too harshly.  Occasionally it’s the other way around.  A certain Christian might carry a heavy burden of guilt for his or her sins but be overly lenient on the sins of others.

A proper way to deal with sin is to take it seriously but not to treat it too harshly.  What does that mean?

1. Acknowledge that a certain sin–or that sin in general–is wrong and bad.  Don’t say, “It doesn’t really matter.”  It does matter–to God and often to other people who suffer from a person’s sin.

2.  Don’t minimize it.  Don’t say, “It’s not SO bad.”  All sin is bad and wrong, and in one way every sin is equally bad and equally wrong.  Every sin, even the “small” ones, is a failure to meet the standard set by God.   Jesus said, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  There is no point in saying that you are better than other people, since you are certainly not as good as God, and He is the standard.

3. Realize that committing one sin is as bad as committing all of them.  In the First Epistle of John it says that whoever is guilty of breaking one of God’s commandments is as guilty as a person who breaks them all.  So even if you have not murdered or stolen anything, you are just as guilty of disobeying God’s law as the people who have.

4.  Besides, it is likely that you have murdered or stolen in your heart.  Jesus said that if you have hatred or unresolved anger in your heart, it is as though you committed murder against the target.  I’m sure that makes most of us murderers.  If you covet what somebody else has, you have stolen it in your heart.  You are guilty of the sin of greed and selfishness.

5.  Recognize that all of the teachings on sin in the Bible leave us utterly helpless and hopeless on our own.  That’s why the Gospel is “Good News”–it’s literal meaning in Greek.  It is good news, because what we are utterly unable to do–redeem ourselves and atone for our own sins–Jesus did for us.  We cannot be perfect, but Jesus can make us perfect.  We cannot be sinless, but He declares us innocent of all sin.

6.  So, own up to your sin. Don’t blame somebody else or try to excuse or justify it.  There is not use in trying to hide it from God.  He knows what you did, so you might as well confess it to Him.  If the sin harms others, then confess it to them and make restitution if you can.

7.  Realize that being a sinner makes a person the same as everyone else.  You are no worse or better than anyone else, in the grand scheme of things.  Nor is your neighbor, ultimately, better or worse than you.  All of us are guilty of sin–some more dramatic or consequential than others.  Nevertheless, not one of us can claim to be without sin.  We cannot cast the first stone.  We cannot try to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye, because that beam in our own eye blocks our view.

8.  When someone else sins, we should be ready to forgive and restore that person.  We should remember that we are guilty of our own sins and could end up guilty of the same sin as the one that our brother has committed.  We mustn’t stand proudly before God and say, “I thank you that I am not like that person.”

9.  Jesus died on the cross to somehow take away the penalty of sin.  One version of it is that He paid the price that we owed.  Another is that He took our punishment.  Another is that He demonstrated perfect repentance, even though He had nothing to repent of.  Whichever way it is, because of His death on the cross, we can be free from the eternal consequences of sin.  It really is good news. 

10.  We should realize that every sinner, no matter how bad, may receive Christ’s offer of forgiveness and salvation.  No one is good enough to merit God’s favor, and nobody is bad enough to disqualify.  In fact, only bad people (which really means everybody) are qualified for grace, since the good people (of which there are none) do not need it.  Jesus said that only the sick need a doctor.

So, we should be hard, but not too hard on our own sins.  We should be lenient, but not too lenient on the sins of others.  If we are the sinner, we should confess our sin and make restitution and receive God’s forgiveness.  If somebody else is the sinner, we should forgive and restore that person.

The War on Thanksgiving

     We’ve all heard about the war on Christmas, but I think that there is also a war on Thanksgiving.  I have been reading a lot of things about Thanksgiving in the last few weeks, and especially during the last few hours.  What I notice is that giving thanks, at least giving thanks to God, has been taken out of most people’s understanding and most people’s celebration of the holiday.

     Some people call it Turkey Day.  That’s it?  We have a nationally recognized holiday about eating turkey?  If I were an outside observer from another planet, I would surely want to know why the eating of turkey was the sole subject of a holiday.

     I have heard people, including our President, say that it is a day to celebrate community.  That is partly right.  In the myth of the “The First Thanksgiving” the Pilgrims were celebrating community.  I have heard people say that it is a day to celebrate friendship.  That is also partly right.  The Pilgrims celebrated with their new friends, the Wampanoags.  However, there is no mystery about the true purpose of the holiday.  The name of it indicates that it is about giving thanks.

     I have heard people talk about what they are thankful for.  Some have been doing so throughout the month of November.  I applaud these people, but in some cases there is a missing element.  People are talking about what they are thankful for but not whom they are thankful to.  In the President’s weekly address he talked about being thankful, but did not say, as presidents before him have said, that we should thank God for our blessings.

     When you say, “I am thankful for my children,” what do you mean?  If you only mean that you are happy that you have children or that you are proud of your children, then say so.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But if you are thankful for your children, it means that you are thanking somebody for them, and the one who gave them to you is God, so thank Him.

     I have seen in a politically correct textbook the statement that the Pilgrims held a thanksgiving feast to thank the Indians for helping them.  What?  I guess that when we say we are thankful for our homes and our health, we should write a letter to the head of the Iroquois Nation and express our gratitude.

     No, thanks.  I’ll be expressing my gratitude to the God who is the ultimate source of all blessing.  I will be giving thanks, which is what Thanksgiving is obviously about, to somebody–not just for something.

Great Grace

There is already a song about amazing grace, so I wanted my title to be different.  The alliteration is pretty good, I think.

I have been thinking a lot about grace,  the Christian concept that is. 

There are a lot of songs about it, but it is not just something to sing about.  You can look it up in a glossary of theological terms, but knowing the definition is not enough.  Grace is something to be experienced and something to be acted out.

Jesus told stories about grace.  In one of them a man owed a debt to a king that was way more than he could ever pay back, and the gracious king cancelled the debt. But the man whose debt was cancelled went and demanded repayment of a very small debt that another man owed him.  The king heard of the man’s ungraciousness and had him punished.

Christians, who should understand grace better than anyone, should be willing to extend it to other people.  Alas, it is not always the case.  However, in light of the enormous debt that God has cancelled for us, we should be willing to forgive anything that anyone does to us.

Another story that Jesus told involved a son who demanded his inheritance early and then went out and squandered it away.  He headed back home, ready to beg his father to take him back as a servant.  Instead the father ran to him, embraced him, and did many things to honor him, including throwing a party in his honor.  The other son, the one who had stayed at home and had done what was right, was indignant.  He could not bring himself to be happy that his brother had come to his senses and had come back home.

The most amazing part of the story to me is that the father ran to the young man.  He did not wait for him to come crawling back in abject remorse.  He did not listen to his request to be allowed back in as a servant.  No, he took him back, forgave him, and restored him to his place as a beloved son.  That is grace.

Grace is free, but it costs.  It is free to the recipient; otherwise, it would not be grace.  It costs the giver.  For example, if I give my annoying neighbor a plate of brownies and expect nothing in return, it was a completely free gift to him.  But it cost me a lot, and not just the value of the brownies.  My desire to treat an unworthy neighbor kindly cost me my pride and my cost me my right for revenge.

God’s grace is his desire to treat us favorably, even though we do not deserve it.  It is free to us.  It cost God more than we could ever understand.  God the Father gave His son.  God the Son suffered and died a cruel death and endured the mocking and rejection of those He loved. 

When I think of God’s grace to me, I really am amazed.  It makes me want to exted grace to others.

Variants in the New Testament

     Let’s face it–textual criticism is a boring topic.  Who wants to read a list of textual variants in the New Testament, especially since they number in the thousands?  The lay person, then, or the non-expert must rely on what he or she reads–usually in the popular media.  Unfortunately the popular media are not always good at reporting on complex subjects involving scholastic work.

For anyone interested, here are a few examples of actual textual variants in the New Testament.  You can judge for yourself what their significance is.


In Revelation 1:5, some manuscripts read:

“. . .To him who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, . . .”

While others read:

“. . .To him who loved us and washed us from our sins by his blood, . . .”

The Greek words for freed and washed are similar, which might mean that a scribe could have misread the word or could have “corrected” it according to what he presumed the author meant or could have written it incorrectly from memory.

Does it matter?  The two versions mean roughly the same thing.  And in other passages of the Bible we find both the idea that Jesus freed us from our sins and the idea that he washed or cleansed us from our sins.  Therefore, neither reading contradicts other Bible passages.  Nor does either reading contradict any doctrine of the Christian faith. 


In Philippians 2:30 some manuscripts read:

“. . .because he almost died for the work of Christ. . . .”

While others read:

“. . .because he almost died for the work of the Lord. . . .”

And others read:

“. . .because he almost died for the work of God. . . .”

And still others read:

“. . .because he almost died for the work. . . .”

Does it matter?  “The work” is obviously the work of God, and according to Christian doctrine, that would be the same as the work of Christ, since God and Christ are united.  Both Christ and God are called “Lord” in the New Testament, so that reading fits as well.

I’m no expert, but it seems possible that it originally had no divine name at the end but later scribes inserted one or another divine name to be more specific.  There are many variants of the New Testament in which a name has apparently been inserted where there was a pronoun or nothing before.  Far from “corrupting” the text, the scribes were trying to make it clearer, and they did so. 


In Matthew 3:5, some manuscripts read:

“. . .People from Jerusalem went out to him. . .”

While others read:

“. . .The children of Jerusalem went out to him. . .”

And others read:

“. . .The Jerusalemites went out to him. . .”

And still others read:

“. . .All Jersualem went out to him. . .”

While the last one is a bit different in meaning from the others, all the versions are essentially the same.  The last one implies that every single Jerusalemite went out, which is probably an exaggeration.  The point is that none of the versions says the opposite–that nobody in Jerusalem went out to him.  None of the versions contradicts any Christian doctrine or any other passage in the Bible.


The few examples above are how almost all of the textual variants of the New Testament are.  In many cases the correct reading (the one most likely to be original) can be determined, and textual critics have established criteria for determining it.  Sometimes it is a matter of how many manuscripts attest to a particular variant, how old the particular manuscripts are, or how reliable the particular manuscripts are.  It is even more complicated than that, however.  Only an expert can hope to make the determination.

Many of our modern English Bibles do the reader the service of indicating in footnotes or brackets when a variant reading exists.  It is not some secret that fndamentalist Christians know but don’t want anyone else to know.  Neither is it something that only liberal Bible scholars know and that fundamentalists are ignorant of.  It just doesn’t faze the fundamentalists or shake their faith in God or their faith in the Bible as God’s word.

Misleading the Public

If somebody wants to talk about the text of the Bible, then he or she should realize up front that it is a complex and complicated topic and full of nuance.  It is not just as simple as waving one’s hand and saying, “Well, after all, the text of the Bible was tampered with and the books of the Bible were selected by those in power.”  There is much more to it than that, and even the experts are not in agreement on many of the particulars.

Think of textual criticism in the same way that you think of economics or psychology.  Two “experts” can reach contradictory conclusions even though they are both well-trained and highly knowledgeable of the subject.  They bring to their studies a set of biases and presuppositions that color their findings.

I have this subject on my mind because a friend of mind mentioned that he is reading Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman and that he finds it a “wonderful book.”  I disagree with him completely.  I think it is a terrible book–one that has the power to do much harm by misleading people. 

Ehrman is a former born-again, evangelical Christian who is now an agnostic.  He is a professor of religion who knows as much as, if not more than, anybody else about the subject of the text of the New Testament.  He has come to believe and to propagate the following ideas:

  1. Scribal errors have corrupted the text of the New Testament so much that it is impossible to treat it as authentic or reliable.
  2. Those Christians who held what was to become the orthodox version of Christianity inserted things in the New Testament to bolster their views.
  3. Other versions of Christianity were purposely stamped out, and their books were kept out of the Bible by those in power.
  4. Variants in the text make it impossible to discover anything close to the original text, which makes it impossible to discover anything close to the original intent of the authors.
  5. Without being able to determine what the original New Testament authors intended, it is impossible to claim that the Bible is God’s word and impossible to know if orthodox Christian doctrine matches it.

Other people, with more knowledge than I, have written reviews and critiques of Ehrman’s works that refute most of those points.  One good one is the book Misquoting Truth by Timothy Paul Jones.  Here is a quick run-down of some of the critiques of Ehrman’s works:

1.  Most, as in almost all, of the scribal errors are obvious and easy to correct.  They involve spelling errors, misuse of similar words (think of the difference between affective and effective), transposition of words, omission of words, and insertion of extra words.  The fact that these errors can be spotted also allows them to be corrected.  In fact, textual critics understand how and why such errors are made and have developed excellent techniques and methods for finding them and correcting them.  The discovery of more and more early manuscripts has helped a lot. 

2.  Most, as in almost all, of the variants are of little consequence to the reliability of the Bible or of the Christian faith.  For example, where some manuscripts have a pronoun he, others have the personal name Jesus.  In such a case, a later scribe decided to make the passage clearer by specifying the person speaking or acting.  Another example is the substitution of God for Lord or vice versa.  Obviously, these variants are not significant enough to debunk the Christian faith or to undercut the authenticity of the Bible.

3.  Even when there is a significant variation, such as in the last few verses of the Gospel of Mark, which might not have been in the original version, there is no destruction of the Christian faith.  Every Christian doctrine can still be supported by other passages in the New Testament.  The same holds true for the story of the woman caught in adultery, which might not have been a part of the original Gospel of John.  Its exclusion from the Bible would not eliminate a crucial passage for Christian orthodoxy.  In other words, if the disputed passages are removed, the orthodox Christian faith is still supported by what is left.

4.  There is no variant of any Bible passage that categorically contradicts a Christian tenet.  For example, there is no manuscript of the New Testament that contains a statement to the effect that there is no such thing as God or that Jesus did not really rise from the dead or that human beings do not really have a soul.

5.   The books of the Bible were not selected in the way that some people imagine.  It was not as if a king or a pope issued a decree and decided that among many rival books only 27 that he liked would be a part of the New Testament.  Rather certain books were highly respected and widely accepted by the majority of Christian leaders throughout the world for many years, and these books were eventually put together into the New Testament.  The books that were rejected were used by fringe groups and were not respected or accepted by most Christian leaders.

Probably the best way that I can rebut Ehrman’s arguments is to point out that lots of conservative scholars know all about the variants in the text of the New Testament.  They know all about the problems inherent in scribal transmission.  Yet, they retain their trust in the Bible and their faith in Jesus.  If Ehrman’s arguments were ironclad, lots of evangelical Bible scholars would renounce their faith and announce to the rest of the world that Christians have been wrong all along.  I’m not trying to prove that Ehrman is wrong, but only that he is not absolutely, unquestionably right.

Jesus and Taxes

People have used the story of Jesus and the tax question as a way to try to convince me to support government welfare.  For me, at least, they are barking up the wrong tree.

If you want to explore the subject a bit more, Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the story that includes the context and the various interpretations of the story.

The most important thing to understand about the story is that the question, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” was not asked sincerely.  The men who asked it were not trying to find out Jesus’ opinion of taxation; they were trying to verbally trap him.

Jesus’ enemies kept watching him closely, because they wanted to hand him over to the Roman governor. So they sent some men who pretended to be good. But they were really spies trying to catch Jesus saying something wrong.  (Luke 20:20, CEV)

Jesus’ answer, therefore, should not necessarily be taken as a categorical answer on whether it is right for government to tax people or on whether it is right to comply.  Much less is it proof that Jesus expected the governmetn to take care of the needy.  (I agree that people are obligted to pay taxes, but it does no follow from that that the government is obliged to redistribute money.)  Jesus’ answer was actually a clever way to dodge the trap that was set for him.

Jesus knew that they were trying to trick him. So he told them, . . . (Luke 20:23, CEV)

The trap was to work like this:  If Jesus said that the Jews should refuse to pay taxes, then his opponents could accuse him of rebellion and turn him over to the Roman authorities.  If he said that they should pay them, then the people, who resented Roman occupation and their taxes, would turn against Jesus.

“Show me a coin.” Then he asked, “Whose picture and name are on it?” “The Emperor’s,” they answered. Then he told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.”   (Luke 20:24-25, CEV)

As he often did, Jesus turned the trap around on them, exposing them as hypocrites.  By asking them to show him a Roman coin, he was pointing out that they used Roman money, and if you use Roman money, then you are obligated to pay Roman taxes.  In addition, the image of Caesar on the coin was considered idolatry to the Jews; therefore, Jesus showed that the Jewish leaders were willing to compromise their beliefs for financial security.

The Jewish leaders had a love-hate relationship with the Roman government.  They were unhappy that their country was under the rule of another.  However, they had worked out deals with the Romans in order to retain religious freedom for Jewish people and a semblance of power for themselves.  By retaining their positions of religious authority and limited civil authority, they were able to make a great deal of money as well as keep their power.  Jesus was exposing the embarrassing fact that they were financially in league with their Roman oppressors at the same time they supposedly opposed them on religious and political grounds.

Jesus’ question has very little to do with whether or not citizens should pay taxes to their legitimate government leaders.  Rather, it has to do with what citizens should do when an outside power is ruling and oppressing them.  Jesus’ answer seems to be, “If you are going to cooperate with the occupying force by accepting their currency, then cooperate with them fully.  Don’t pretend to be against them on the one hand, but use the benefits that they provide on the other hand.”

The second half of Jesus’ statement is the most stinging.  Since he is talking about the image stamped on the coin in the first half, he is talking about the “image” stamped on people in the second half.  In the book of Genesis it says that human beings were made in the “image” of God.  So Jesus is saying, “You belong to God, because his image is stamped on you.  Therefore, give yourselves to God and don’t fret about the demands of the Emperor.”

So, if you want to use this story to tell me to pay taxes, which I do, by the way, then I will use it to tell you to commit your life, body and soul, to God.  That is Jesus’s central message in it.  Are you doing that?  Are you consecrated to God?

Jesus’ command implies that the Jewish leaders were not already giving to God what belonged to God, that is, themselves, and apparently this would have rung true with the common people and endeared Jesus to them even more than before.  Thus, an attempt by Jesus’s enemies to poison the people’s minds toward Jesus ended up making Him even more popular.  His implied rebuke, on top of exposing their hypocritical ties to Rome, left the Jewish leaders bewildered and prompted them to slink away.  They saw that they were in the presence of a superior person, and they were embarrassed and ashamed.  They were not ready to do as he said and give themselves to God.

Divine Appointments

In a seeming coincidence I have had similar conversations with my daughter and with my nephew in the space of one month.  It seems that each of them, unbeknownst to the other, has been reading the epistle to the Romans in the Bible.  And each of them has questions regarding predestination and free will.  I believe that God put them and me in the right place at the right time.  In other words it was part of a plan and not a mere coincidence that these conversations happened as they did.

I am really glad that they asked me their questions, because I would not and could not give them some of the answers that I have gotten in the past–answers that confused and frustrated me.

The answer that I gave them was that the Bible teaches that God is sovereign.  The Bible also teaches that human beings have a will.  How those two things work together, I do not know.  I simply do not know.  I don’t really believe that anyone else does–or can–either.  If theologians have not been able to figure it out during all this time, then it is unlikely that I am going to.  And the fact that theologians continue to argue about it means that they have not figured it out.

I want to point out that it is not a problem within Christianity only.  Philosophers and adherents to other religions have also sought to reconcile fate and free will without arriving at a final, certain answer.

I used to be in the Arminian camp of Protestantism.  I am now closer to being a Calvinist.  However, I will not say that one “side” is completely right and the other “side” is completely wrong.  Above all I will not spend much time in arguments on the subject.  The side I really want to be on is God’s side, and I do not believe that He has spelled it out for us as neatly as we might wish.  We just do not know how God’s sovereignty and our will work simultaneously.

I am satisfied with that answer, because I can accept that I am unable to know or understand everything about a transcendant being and also  because I am willing to live with a paradox, or at least an ambiguity, rather than an unsatisfactory single answer.

I used to puzzle over it.  If I as a human being have any choice in the matter of salvation (or in any matter), then how is it true that God is completely in control of all things?  If, on the other, God is completely in control of every detail of every event, then how can it be that he lays out alternatives before us and commands us to obey?

I no longer spend any time wondering about it.  It just is.  God willed that I should be saved and He planned every moment of my life.  He also told me to willingly put my faith in Christ, and He calls me to willingly obey His Word.  I don’t know how both things can be completely true, but they are.

One thing that has helped me is to “pray as if everything depends on God but work as though evything depends on you.”  That’s not in the Bible, but I think it is a good way to deal with the paradox of God’s sovereignty and our will.  A similar way to understand it is “rely on God as if everything depends on Him but obey Him as though everything depends on you.”

Maybe in eternity we will be allowed to understand how it works together.  The utlimate answer may surprise all of us.  In that case, it is more important that a person gets to heaven than it is for him or her to know how much of it, if any, is their own choice, and how much of it is God’s predestination.

Women in the Book of Exodus

During my recent retreat, we participants studied the book of Exodus–well, part of it.  What I noticed, perhaps for the first time is how prominently women figure in the story.  It sometimes seems as thought the Bible focuses primarily on men, but the men are often the weak or evil figures in the Bible in stories in which the women shine.

The first important mention of women invovles the midwives of the Hebrews who spare the boy babies, even though the Pharaoh has ordered that they be killed at birth.  They show bravery in defying the evil order.  They are even given names in the Bible text, Shiphrah and Puah, names which mean brightness and brilliance.  The Pharaohs in the story are never named, but the seemingly insignificant midwives are, apparently because God wanted to honor them for doing what was right at very great risk to themselves.

The second important mention of women is regarding Moses’ mother.  Her name is given, too.  It’s Jochebed.  She hides her baby boy, Moses, for three months and then hatches a plan to save him thereafter.  She put him in a tar-lined basket and floated him in the river where the Pharaoh’s daughter would see him.

The next mention of a woman is Moses’ sister, Miriam.  She is the one who watches over baby Moses while he floats in the basket in the river.  She is the one who suggests to the Pharaoh’s daugther that she can find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby–who just happens to be the baby’s real mother.  Later Miriam figures greatly in the story of Exodus.  She is one of the three leaders, along with Moses and Aaron, when the Israelites leave Egypt.  She leads the women in a song of praise after they cross the Red Sea.  At one point she and Aaron challenge the God-ordained leadership of Moses and God chastises her.

Then comes the Pharaoh’s daughter.  She unwittingly rescues the future deliverer of Israel and enemy of Egypt, Moses.  God uses her to save the one who will save his people from the next Pharaoh, presumably her brother.

Then there is Moses’s wife, Zipporah.  She rescues Moses from the anger of God by circumcising their son and putting the foreskin on Moses’s feet.  She was more willing to obey the command that God had given to Abraham and his descendants than Moses was himself.

Ayn Rand and the Good Samaritan

Yesterday I wrote an analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Among other things it prompted a lengthy discussion of politics and economics, which was not my intention.  In fact, one of my intentions was to show that in that parable Jesus was not teaching about government welfare programs but about individual, voluntary charity–based on compassion for a person that one encounters who has a need.  Jesus was all about people.  He was about people as individuals.  The parable of the Good Samaritan was told in response to the question of an individual and was addresed to that individual.  The characters in the story were all individual people, not groups, although they represented groups or types.

The punch line of the entire thing was Jesus’ statement to the scribe–one man–to “go and do likewise.”  To be a good person you should help those people whom you encounter face to face in your daily life.  That’s not the same as sending your money to some group to distribute as they please.

What would Ayn Rand have said about the parable of the Good Samaritan?  It is possible that she commented on it, but I cannot think of anywhere that she did.  Several objectivists have commented on it in various ways, mostly in the negative when it comes to the general conception of “good samaritans” but mostly in the positive when it comes to some of the details of the story.  You see, neither Ayn Rand nor objectivists nor libertarians are opposed to private, voluntary charity.

What the Story Does Not Say

In order for me to reconcile objectivism with the Good Samaritan, I think it is necessary to show what the story does not say:

  • It does not say that the Samaritan took money from the priest or the Levite to pay for the injured man’s expenses.  He would not be good, in that case.
  • It does not say that he took the injured man to the inn and demanded that the innkeeper care for him without pay.  Again, he would not be good, if he did.
  • It does not say that the injured man demanded or expected the Samaritan to help him.

In other words, there is not a hint of collectivism or authoritariansim in the story.  The Samaritan is “good” precisely because he willingly and cheerfully helps the man in need without anyone compelling him to do so.  If the Samaritan made somebody else pay for the man’s needs, then how would he be good?  He would, in fact, be very bad.  If he did it because it was required, then you could never say that he himself was good, and whoever forced him to do it would certainly not be good, for the same reason that it would be wrong for the Samaritan to force somebody else to do it.

What Rand Would Have Said

Rand would only have considered the Samaritan a good example if two conditions were met:  the robber deserved to be helped and the Samaritan got something out of it.  She would not have liked the idea that the Samaritan fulfilled a religious duty or that his willingness to help is portrayed as categorically or necessarily better than the unwillingness of the other men in the story.

Rand was clear that it is evil to help people who do not deserve it–that it is wrong to sacrifice some greater value for a lesser value.  In any exchange, it is only fair and right if the trade is equal or nearly so.  I love my wife because she loves me, and she loves me because I love her.  We love each other for the virtue that we see in each other and because our relationship is mutually satisfying.

I would like to think that Rand would count the victim of the story as worthy of help because he had been treated unjustly by someone else.  She was a human being with natural human feelings, after all.  In such a real-life scenario, I believe that she would have felt outrage to see a person treated the way the victim of the story was treated (she was against all oppression and violation of rights, after all) and would have felt a desire to help.

(By the way, in such a real-life scenario, it would be right for the victim to offer to pay back his rescuer.  Then it would be up to the rescuer to accept or to refuse the reimbursement.)

By helping him, the Samaritan satisfied his own sense of justice and fulfilled his natural human feelings of empathy.  That’s the main thing that he got out of it, if you exclude the spiritual reward promised by Jesus.  The Samaritan also put himself in a position to receive help from other people if he were ever in such a situation, since people are always more willing to help those in need.  As I mentioned before, she would have been outraged at the crime that took place.  (She once said that her favorite show at one time was Charlie’s Angels because it was purely romantic entertainment.  It was a show about women tracking down criminals and bringing them to justice.)

What I Wish Rand Had Understood

First and foremost, I wish that Rand had understood that there really is a God, and that pleasing Him is our highest objective in life.  I wish that she would have understood the context surrounding the context of the story, which is that nobody is actually good enough to please God on their own.  The scribe who talked to Jesus wasn’t, which is what Jesus wanted him to see.  We are all at times like the priest and the Levite who refuse to be kind to others, and we can only really become like the Samaritan with God’s help, because He promises to change us–to make us better than we could ever be on our own.

Since Rand was all about rational self-interest, I wish that she could have seen that it would be the most self-interested thing that she could do to accept the Gospel, because the payoff is enormous.