Day 216: Matthew 24:28

Wherever there is a dead body, the vultures will gather.

 [This is the one of 15 scriptures in which Jesus provides his disciples with some details about the Second Coming of Christ.  For more on the Second Coming see Day 150.  For more on the Messiah see Day 145.  For more on the End of the Age see Day 128.]

This one is long.  Sorry, but I didn’t want to chop it up.  Oh well.  Yesterday’s was super short so they even out.

Clue #11: There will be vultures.  Or is it eagles?

First of all I can’t help but mention that the Greek word here is “aetos” which at that time meant both “vulture” and “eagle.”  I find it interesting that the Greeks didn’t see any substantive difference between those two kinds of birds.  Even though we classify both of them as “raptors” they look and behave quite differently.  In this scripture and a parallel one in Luke it is translated as “vulture” but the references in Revelation are translated as “eagle.”  I used the Google translate tool and it seems that the Greeks have a different word for vulture now, and aetos is used only for eagles.  It just highlights the problems with having a holy book that was written in another time, another place, another culture, and another language.  Actually, when it comes to the words of Jesus it’s two languages removed.  Aramaic to Greek to modern English.

 Back to the scripture.  It seems like a slam dunk that Jesus meant a scavenger bird, not a predatory bird.  So vulture it is.  And indeed they do gather when they smell death.  I remember that from the old Westerns I grew up with.

Jesus wanted to be known.  He wanted to be followed and tested and examined (See Day 76).  He was humble and accessible.  At first, I think this was the way that his followers and those who knew him probably remembered him.  But then Saul, who became the Apostle Paul, came along and that perception changed.  While I don’t think it would be fair to call Paul a vulture, I do think that he corrupted the essential essence of Jesus’ ministry in the process of trying to market the new religion that he and the other apostles were busy establishing.

Paul never met Jesus. Like Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, he had his own personal revelatory experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus when he was struck blind (Acts 9).  He joined up with the other Apostles (Jesus’ disciples), but his teachings were not the same as those of Jesus.  He promoted the idea that abundant, eternal life is given by God through “belief in the Jesus as the Son of God”, not by emulating Jesus’ actions and following his teachings.  Paul came up with a lot of his own teachings, many of which have nothing to do with anything Jesus said or did. It’s a little bit vulture-ish.

And that reliance on “belief in Jesus Christ” had a ripple effect.  It made Jesus the source of our “salvation,” the one who saves us from an angry, vengeful God.  It turned people away from the fundamental understanding that God is the true source of our salvation and everything else that is good.  The Jews wanted a human Messiah to protect them from their enemies and rule over them justly, but they didn’t need a savior.  The Jews already had one and his name was God (just a couple of references here):

The Lord is my light and my salvation; I will fear no one. The Lord protects me from all danger; I will never be afraid. (Psalm 27:1).

You are my hiding place; you will save me from trouble. I sing aloud of your salvation, because you protect me. (Psalm 32:7).

May all who come to you be glad and joyful. May all who are thankful for your salvation always say, “How great is God!” (Psalm 70:4).

I will tell of your goodness; all day long I will speak of your salvation, though it is more than I can understand. (Psalm 71:15).

The development of Christology, or the concept that Jesus was a divine being as opposed to a human being (or even God himself), was introduced by Paul.  He introduces the title “Son of God” and never refers to Jesus without appending it with either “Christ” or “Lord.”   Jesus always called himself the “Son of Man” (an ordinary person) and stressed that others could do everything that he did.  Instead, Paul in particular changed it all up and strengthened the spiritual authority of the movement by teaching that Jesus was God himself.  All this from a man who never actually talked to Jesus, never actually met him.  To him, Jesus was just a symbol.  He never met the man or shook his hand or looked him in the eye. 

The Gospel of John further muddies things up by identifying Jesus as a divine manifestation of the Word (or Law of Moses) and in the Book of Revelation he is identified as “the Alpha and the Omega”, a title previously reserved for God.  I do not think Jesus wanted anyone to call him God.  He would have been very glad to serve as our role model and teacher. He implied that he might be the Messiah who would usher in a new age.  But he never, never, ever said he was God.   It’s important to know that a lot of these things, like the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the identification of Jesus as the Messiah, the depravity of man, original sin, substitutionary atonement (Jesus died for our sins), etc. were concepts that evolved over time and were eventually cast in stone by the Church of Rome as though they were the new Law.  As though they are truth.

The problem is that by promoting Jesus as a divine being, a manifestation of God himself, people like Paul diverted the emphasis away from his teachings.  While Jesus spent his whole ministry trying to empower the masses, Paul and others put Jesus on a pedestal to elevate his importance.  A very big pedestal indeed.  A God-sized pedestal, in fact.

The Apostle Paul.

The Apostle Paul.

And in the process Paul certainly gained his own claim to fame.  Jesus’ death was Paul’s gain. Most people would not know the difference between the words of Jesus, whom they claim to follow, and those of Paul, who never even met the guy.  Paul’s words are treated with the same reverence and authority.  Unfortunately I believe that a little vulture-ish scavenging went on.  Or regurgitating or something.  The tasty Good News that Jesus shared with humanity begins to sour when it is reframed by Paul.  Legalism, misogyny, pride, institutionalism, idolatry, bragging, and lots of other questionable stuff that Jesus hated in the Pharisees start to sneak back in when you get to Paul’s letters.

I wonder how many people know that Jesus never made any recorded statements about sexuality or sexual practices.  This statement made by Paul in the Book of Romans are the primary fuel for today’s anti-gay movement:

And so God has given those people over to do the filthy things their hearts desire, and they do shameful things with each other.  They exchange the truth about God for a lie; they worship and serve what God has created instead of the Creator himself, who is to be praised forever! Amen.

Because they do this, God has given them over to shameful passions. Even the women pervert the natural use of their sex by unnatural acts.  In the same way the men give up natural sexual relations with women and burn with passion for each other. Men do shameful things with each other, and as a result they bring upon themselves the punishment they deserve for their wrongdoing.

Because those people refuse to keep in mind the true knowledge about God, he has given them over to corrupted minds, so that they do the things that they should not do.  They are filled with all kinds of wickedness, evil, greed, and vice; they are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deceit, and malice. They gossip and speak evil of one another; they are hateful to God, insolent, proud, and boastful; they think of more ways to do evil; they disobey their parents; they have no conscience; they do not keep their promises, and they show no kindness or pity for others.  They know that God’s law says that people who live in this way deserve death. Yet, not only do they continue to do these very things, but they even approve of others who do them. (Romans 1:24-32).

If Paul had not made this statement, then the Old Testament laws about homosexuality would have been given the same importance as the other 600 Levitical laws.  I am sure that most people attribute these words to Jesus, not Paul.  They don’t know the difference.  When I read the words of Jesus I feel encouraged and empowered.  When I read these words of Paul I feel guilty, ashamed, dirty, and worthless.

Jesus befriended and love society’s outcasts, even sexual deviates like prostitutes, but Paul creates outcasts with his hateful, evil, condemning language.  Through both his language and his actions Jesus emphasized that humanity is essentially good.  He never said anything remotely like this to his followers.  Yes, yes, I know that Biblical scholars say that Paul himself wasn’t really saying these things.  They say he was quoting others.  But I don’t care.  They ended up in the Bible and they are arrows have launched a thousand condemnations.  They have turned many people away from the teachings of Jesus and back to the kinds of teachings and practices that Jesus so vociferously chastised the Pharisees and the entire religious community about.  He hated that kind of talk.  So just because I slimed you by quoting the words of Paul, here are some words of Jesus from Day 16 to wipe away the guilt, cleanse your emotional palate, and set you back in right relationship with your Father God:

You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead it is put on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.

In today’s scripture Jesus warned the disciples that they must shoo away the vultures, pick up the mantle of leadership themselves, and faithfully carry on his ministry.  Peter and the other original disciples did the best they could.  And I am so grateful that Mark and Matthew gave their eyewitness testimonies which were written down and preserved so that the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth are available to us today.  They still serve as a guidepost for those of us who are trying to find the real Jesus and separate him from all the hype.

Wikipedia reports that Albert Einstein once said, “I seriously doubt that Jesus himself said that he was God, for he was too much a Jew to violate that great commandment: [The Shema: See Day 193] “Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God and He is one!’ and not two or three.” Einstein lamented, “Sometimes I think it would have been better if Jesus had never lived. No name was so abused for the sake of power!”

Sorry, Paul.  I know you did your best.  And it isn’t your fault that the church began to treat your personal advice to individual churches with the same reverence as the historical record of Jesus of Nazareth.  No, not your fault at all.  I know I certainly wouldn’t want anything that I say or write to be confused with the words of Jesus.  You were just a blogger like me who loved God and wanted to make the world a better place.  OK I take it back.  Even though I would never, ever be one of your followers I shouldn’t have called you a vulture.  Now that I think about it you were really an eagle, sharing unto death what you believed to be true.  Even though it differs from what I believe.  Maybe it was the theological dictators who inappropriately elevated the importance of your personal reflections for their own advantage who were the real vultures.

What does this scripture say to you?