Feelings – Thoughts on Mark 6:10-12

The following started as an e-mail reply I made to someone on the Internet. This letter is representative of many I receive and of many articles posted on the USENET from sincere individuals who look at the “God of the Bible” who see a deity who is arbitrary and violent, and who look at Jesus and see someone preaching hell fire and brimstone belying all the Christian talk about Love. Because such persons contact with Christianity is with Biblical literalists and inerrantists, it’s difficult for someone like me to credibly defend my faith with scholarship and a kinder, gentler way of interpreting scripture. The original writer commented:

Still, I think you missed my point slightly, which is my personal serious stumbling block with Christianity, for which I asked these questions in the first place, so that I might be given an answer that would soothe me:

Jesus said (severely paraphrased): “If you go to a town and they reject me, shake the dust of that town from your shoes and be off; because it would be better if that town were Sodom when I get through with it!” He also said: “No one is saved except he comes to know the Father through me.” (He said MANY more things in this same vein than this, either.)

This does not leave open much possibility for a “way of life characterized by love and trust” to all, only to a limited few who believe in Jesus, right?

You raise some good points. The answers I have are not all that clean or simple, but I will share them.

The first passage you site is a good one to start with as it goes to the heart of the matter. It comes from Matthew 10:14-15. The same incident is found in the first three Gospels and I’ll include the entire text for discussion (Mark is generally thought to have been written first, so I list it first):

(Mark 6:10-12 NRSV) He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. {11} If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” {12} So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

(Matthew 10:12-18 NRSV) As you enter the house, greet it. {13} If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. {14} If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. {15} Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. {16} “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. {17} Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; {18} and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.

(Luke 9:3-6 NRSV) He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money–not even an extra tunic. {4} Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. {5} Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” {6} They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

The immediate thing you may notice is that the phrase “more tolerable for the land of Sodom” appears only in Matthew. Mark is generally recognized as the earliest Gospel to be written and most of Mark’s words are included in Matthew, indicating Mark was a source for Matthew (and Luke). If Mark is first, then either Matthew embellished the saying or he drew from other sources.

Now look at the Matthew passage, at verses 17 and following. What you see there is a description of the persecution of the Christians as it happened long after Jesus had died. The fundamentalist would call this prophetic. Non-fundamentalist scholars would say that it is the words of Matthew (put in the mouth of Jesus) based on the events which were actually happening in Matthew’s time – maybe 70-something AD.

There is an interesting book out, The Five Gospels: What did Jesus really say? which discusses in great detail the subject of why we might conclude that various passages are not the authentic voice of Jesus. I didn’t consult the book in writing the above, but it is obvious to me that the words come from a time not contemporary with Jesus.

About this point in the discussion, someone usually asks, “if the Bible is not literally accurate, what good is it?” To which I reply something like: since when does something have to be perfect to be valuable? Since the Bible was written by humans, we would expect that human weakness would be part of what was written.

From the texts above, I also point out the universal nature of the preaching: “proclaimed that all should repent”, “bringing the good news…everywhere“.

You also cite some of the “exclusive” language of Jesus of which there are a fair number of examples. The one you cited is from John 14:6.

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6]

There are a couple of ways to look at this verse. First, since John was written around 100 AD (or later) and has little correspondence with the other Gospels, the authenticity of virtually all of its sayings are in doubt. However, I would not dismiss it so lightly because even if Jesus didn’t say it, it was a product of the community he founded. In a sense I believe the statement is true, but not in an exclusive way. Jesus told parables (thought to be authentic) which often focused on the generosity of God. If, as Jesus taught, the nature of God is generous, loving and merciful, then an approach to God characterized by anxiety, compulsive attention to the details of the laws and condemnation of others would NOT be a way to come to God. So if Jesus truly characterizes God (or is God in human form) then he is the way. It may be true that there is validity, insight, truth and value in many religions. However, it is the aspect of those religions which characterize God as “good” and generous and loving which are true.

And for this reason, many Christians do not believe in the doctrine of “hell”. You might point out that Jesus mentions the word often, but you have to keep in mind (beyond the fact that every saying of Jesus is not necessarily authentic) that what gets translated as “hell” in the King James bible is actually several different words in the Greek. There are endless examples of the poetic device of the “hyperbole” in the Bible (for example, “you must hate your father and your mother”) which are exaggerations for emphasis. When Jesus says, “it’s better for you to pluck out your eye than for your whole body to be cast into hell” this is an emphatic, hyperbolic statement, but probably not a literal teaching about the afterlife. And generally, when Jesus says “hell”, the Greek word is Gehenna,Valley of Hinnom in the Old Testament which was a notorious (for human sacrifice) geographical place where they burned garbage. So one might paraphrase Jesus as saying “It’s better to do without some one thing you want, than to mess up your whole life”. But the way Jesus says it has greater power. The e-mail writer said to me:

–to point out alternate verses that say the opposite e.g. “judge not lest ye be judged”, “many are the sheep of my fold”) is merely to invalidate Jesus’ teachings via incorrect transcriptions, or to paint Jesus as an inconsistent, maybe slightly crazy, prophet/teacher….

There’s nothing wrong with the translations. The conclusion is that either Jesus is crazy or inconsistent, or what we have in scripture is filtered through his followers writing 35-70 years after his death. (Or that we don’t recognize a figure of speech when we see it.) Living without absolute authority is no problem at all for me; it is for some. But the important point is what happens when you actually live the way that Jesus taught. When you do that, your life changes and the abstract term “salvation” means something.

I don’t really know how to answer you. A person’s religious faith (or the decision not to have any) is a very personal thing. In one sense a religion is the expression of a group’s highest ideals. It codifies the potential we see in ourselves. If Christianity does resonate with the highest ideals you see in yourself, then embrace it. If you feel you would be sacrificing these ideals, avoid it. I would only hope that your decision would be made on the most enlightened and well-informed view of Christianity.

As I see it, being a Christian is something you choose to do with God’s help (or not). Use whatever framework to make that decision you think is valid.

You know the game, “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”? It’s a strategy game where you can choose to cooperate or not. The reward you get is based on both what you and your opponent does. Your opponent can shaft you and you lose. But you can both cooperate and both come out ahead (although not as far ahead as you can by shafting a trusting opponent). Anyhow, game theory shows that a good strategy in the game is “tit for tat” meaning if you cooperate, so will I, but if you shaft me, I’ll shaft you.

Following game theory, you can use “tit for tat”, but somebody gets hurt. There is a loser. If you always cooperate (which is what Jesus taught “turn the other cheek” etc.) then you might not win. But if everyone played that way, everyone will come out ahead. The Christian strategy is to allow oneself to suffer defeat with the knowledge that their strategy is more humane, that it is “right” and that if everybody followed it, everyone would benefit. Following such a strategy is an act of faith.

Faith is a decision you make. Feeling is one factor that you might consider in making a decision.

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