Sunday, September 28, 2008

Evil Woman

Revelation 17

By Daniel Harrell

Revelation 17? The Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth? Nice passage there, Reverend! What can I say? It’s in the Bible and we here at the Park Street Church are committed to preaching the entire word of God for the people of God. Of course it may help to know that this morning’s sermon is not totally random, but part of an ongoing Revelation series I’ve been preaching since 2006 during my turns in the morning rotation. Revelation is a book everybody says they want to study until they actually get into it. You’re attracted to its vivid imagery, symbolism and predictions: Those crazy creatures that look like nothing found in nature, mysterious numbers that don’t quite add up and funny looking angels with scrolls and horns and bowls that do battle against evil mythical enemies with bizarre names like Gog and Magog who all end up cooked up into a final grim soup of burning flesh. As those who’ve been following along since 2006 know, it can get pretty gruesome. But mostly it’s just confusing. So much so that in the end, nearly everybody is happy to put Revelation back on the shelf. Martin Luther thought that it shouldn’t even be in the Bible.

Revelation’s language belongs to that Biblical genre known as apocalyptic where fantastical images and events are employed sort of like special effects at the movies. The graphic descriptions get your attention; they are literary devices used to drive home literal truth. Tradition holds that Revelation was recorded by an exiled John towards the close of the first century AD. He wrote just as the Roman emperor Domitian was commencing his persecution of the church. Like the Caesars before him, Emperor Domitian decreed that his subjects worship him as lord and god. Christians who refused to go along got themselves targeted as traitors and sentenced to death. Revelation gave these Christians courage to bear witness to Christ as the only true Lord and God, even as they were being executed. Apocalyptic assurances of ultimate victory emboldened them and gave them hope as the God who rules in sublime majesty would avenge their blood in perfect justice. And in the meantime, as the crucified Lamb, the God who rules in sublime majesty would suffer their injustice with them.

Still, Revelation can be gruesome. Chapter 17 picks up from where chapter 16 left off. Last time we were accosted by malignant boils covering the skin, oceans and rivers turned to blood, demonic frogs, hundred-pound hailstones pounding down on people’s heads, darkness and thunder and cosmic war. This third and last set of judgments in Revelation were announced as “the third woe” back in chapter 11. The third woe commenced with the terrifying appearance of a dragon—Satan the ancient serpent himself—along with the fabled beast and false prophet: an unholy trinity of deception and destruction. Standing up to their menace was Jesus the Lamb, slain and risen, along with those saved by his sacrifice. An angel flew air support overhead, warning all who remained on the fence that time was up, “the hour of God’s judgment has come.” In the angel’s wake rode a “son of man” seated on clouds and crowned with gold—Jesus again—only this time wielding a sharp sickle with which to separate the wheat from the chaff; those who remain unashamed of the gospel from those who succumbed to the serpent.

Yet more than merely determining the fate of humanity, God’s final judgment dealt doom to evil too, meting out his righteous vengeance against all wickedness and injustice. No act of oppression would get overlooked. In verse 19 of chapter 16, we read that “God remembered Babylon the Great.” And not fondly, mind you. Recalling her tyranny and brutality, God makes her “drain the cup of the fury of his wrath.” Babylon, located in modern day Iraq, was that ancient empire under King Nebuchadnezzar that ransacked Israel and deported the chosen people out of their promised land. How could the Lord allow a pagan nation to kick his own people off their God-given property? Because of their persistent idolatry and refusal to act as his chosen people, the Lord removed his protective cover from them, effectively letting them have what they wanted. He let them have it by unleashing idol-loving Babylon on them. King Nebuchadnezzar and his armies served as an instrument of God’s justice. However in doing so they also overreached, presuming that their power to conquer was permission to coerce and exploit. Because justice accomplished unjustly is not justice; the prophet Daniel (from whom Revelation borrows much of its imagery) predicted Babylon’s own doom.

God remembered Babylon alright. Who could forget someone who looks like she does here in chapter 17? In chapter 16, God thundered from heaven that his judgments were done, yet details remain. Because John wants to paint the whole picture, he circles back in chapter 17, a common tactic throughout Revelation. Seven bowls circle back to reiterate the seven trumpets that reiterate the seven seals—all as a way of underscoring the final outcome: victory for God. New Testament theologian NT Wright describes this victory as the return of God to his people, their real return to him out of exile and the final defeat of evil—all accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ. (I should remind you that NT Wright will be preaching for us in November 16 as a preseason kick-off to our Sharing the Journey bicentennial celebration. Mark your calendar and invite a friend.). His mention of “the real return from exile” adds understanding to the mention of Babylon here in Revelation. Just as Israel’s original return from exile foreshadows the real return; so Israel’s original captivity to Babylon foreshadows further captivity to come.

Israel did return from its Babylonian exile—rescued by God. But things between Israel and God never returned to normal. God sent more prophets—Zechariah among them—but as Gordon preached last Sunday, the people refused to heed. They went through the motions of piety, putting away their pagan idols and statues, but behind this façade of obedience they went on treating each other as contemptuously as they had back when prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah tried knocking some sense into them. God’s people refused to administer true justice or show mercy and compassion to the widow, the fatherless, the alien or the poor as Zechariah commanded. Therefore once again God removed his protection and in time the Romans rolled in and rolled over Israel, making them captives within their own country. And thus in Revelation, Babylon stands for Rome, evident in the allusion to seven hills in verse 9 (Latin poets such as Virgil and Cicero had long described Rome as being built on seven hills). Furthermore, in verse 18, Babylon is named “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” Like Babylon, Rome also overreached, oppressing its subjects with vicious cruelty, inciting afresh the wrath of God’s justice.

Yet John calls for wisdom in verse 9; he invites the reader to see beyond the obvious. John is not engaging merely in a polemic against ancient Rome; instead, Rome is but the current and best example of mythic Babylon and her evil. God’s justice would in time topple Rome too, but there would rise up more sinister Babylonian manifestations in its place. Every powerful government, including our own, has been a candidate for inclusion in the Babylonian parade of evil. Theologians have suggested numerous other entities throughout history as well. For some this Harlot of Babylon was apostate Jerusalem. During the Protestant Reformation she was the Catholic Church and the Pope. During the Catholic Counter Reformation she was the Protestants. For one of my Facebook friends, who noted my status this week as “wondering about the identity of the harlot of Babylon,” she is Paris Hilton. For commentator Gregory Beale, formerly of Gordon-Conwell seminary, the harlot represents “worldly economic forces in collusion with the state”—which if your 401K looks anything like mine these days, would make the Harlot of Babylon Wall Street.

She is a seductress who has succeeded in seducing us all. From the lowliest house-flipper to the highest-flying hedge fund manager, we all put our common sense in a box and buried it for her. Columnist Timothy Egan observed how, thanks to the deregulatory demons released by Republicans and embraced by lobbyist-greased Democrats, Wall Street was green-lighted again to act like a casino. Banks in the heartland passed on subprime mortgages to Wall Street, where they were sliced and diced in hundreds of largely incomprehensible ways. Assets were financed with a growing volume of credit and with ever higher leverage. The word “credit” derives from the Latin crederi, which means to believe. And everybody believed. While few people understand how those investment giants made money, this much is clear: it was a killing. In 2006 alone, Wall Street firms paid out $62 billion in bonuses as naïve homebuyers took on 100% mortgages and the treatment of credit as assets exposed taxpayers to the inevitable losses. Babylon overreached again. And as always when Babylon overreaches, judgment comes. It is no surprise that the current financial doom is being described by almost every news outlet as “global economic apocalypse.”

Now I am not trying to suggest that our current financial crisis is the fulfillment of Revelation 17. I am not one of those Biblical prophecy bloodhounds who scrutinize every geopolitical development, technological advancement and social crisis for clues as to the exact time of Christ’s return. Jesus said not even he knew that. But I am one who’s willing to view world events through a Biblical prism; which means I’m willing to see the forces that led to this extraordinary economic calamity as another example of mythic Babylon and her evil.

In verse 2 we read that with the harlot of Babylon: “the kings of the earth committed adultery and the people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her adulteries.” “Adultery” in common parlance is cheating on your spouse, but in apocalyptic parlance it’s cheating on God. In the Old Testament, Israel’s relationship to God gets compared to a marriage in which God is the husband and Israel the bride. In the New Testament this same imagery applies with the church described as the bride of Christ. In the Old Testament, unfaithful Israel committed adultery whenever they practiced idolatry; whenever they worshipped other gods. By the time we get to the New Testament, God’s people had rid themselves of their idols, but not their idolatry. Their adultery continued, but took a subtle, more familiar form. “No servant can serve two masters,” Jesus said. Though given the marriage analogy he could just as well have said “no woman can have two husbands. Either she will hate the one and adore the other, or she will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot love both God and Money.”

On a recent episode of the PBS show Religion and Ethics News Weekly (which I mention in part because this same show is filming here this morning as part of a feature on the Living Leviticus experiment I led here at Park Street last winter), the topic was the morality of the market. Dr. Rebecca Blank, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was asked to what extent greed was responsible for the current financial crisis. Dr. Blank replied, “Greed is clearly responsible for where we are right now. However, greed is good to most economists. It’s greed that makes people work harder, be more productive, and helps the economy grow. Greed has economic advantages.”

Greed is good. This is the seductive tune of the harlot’s siren song, her tantalizing cup of lies. Verse 2: “The people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her adulteries.” Does this mean that the people who are not of this world but who love God and belong to Christ are immune to her allure? We should be. But just in case we’re not, Revelation lampoons the harlot—portraying her as gaudily clad in outrageous clothing and ostentatious jewelry, riding the notorious and nefarious seven-headed demonic beast that everyone recalls as having arisen out of the stormy sea, apocalyptic code for the dominion of chaos. And she’s in the desert too, Biblical code for temptation. And if that’s not a sufficient turn-off, the beast is scrawled with blasphemous graffiti, and the harlot herself has a flashing billboard on her forehead: YO! I’M BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF WHORES AND ALL EARTHLY ABOMINATIONS. And just in case this is not repulsive enough, Revelation has her showing up drunk on the blood of saints and martyrs, your own Christian brothers and sisters murdered for their faith. John stares at her and says, “I was greatly astonished.” The Revised Standard Version has him saying, “I marveled greatly.” The verb is one commonly used to mean, not revulsion or surprise, but awe and admiration. In the King James Version, John says, “I marveled with great admiration.” The harlot had John under her spell.

“Watch out,” Jesus cautioned. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. …Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up treasures in heaven. …You cannot serve both God and money. …It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Of the 500 plus references to evil in the Bible, none explicitly mention its origin save one. 1 Timothy 6:10: “the love of money is the root of all evil.”

Hard words. So hard that many Bibles attempt to lessen the sting by rendering the word for all as all kinds of evil. Though I’m not sure that helps. Another attempt was made in 2002 by Calvin College professor John Schneider in a book I’ve cited before entitled The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth, a follow-up to his book Godly Materialism: Rethinking Money and Possessions. Schneider writes that because modern capitalism is a relatively new phenomenon, much of the Bible’s admonition against wealth doesn’t apply anymore. Moreover, according to his study of Scripture, the poor didn’t have it so bad in Biblical times. “The peasantry was always on the losing end of things,” he explains. “Manipulated inflation (price fixing) by the rich actually created better prices for poorer landowners simply by artificially raising prices for their commodities.” Sounds like a conversation you’d imagine at Lehman Brothers. Professor Schneider goes on to point out how by spending time with tax-collectors and publicans, Jesus in effect validated their money-making schemes (though a similar argument is not ventured in regard to prostitutes). You can get this book on Amazon. It’s currently selling for .94 cents.

“Watch out,” Jesus cautioned. In verse 7, John’s angelic escort smacks him upside his head. “Snap out of it! Why do you marvel? Let me tell you who this evil woman really is!” The angel then proceeds to describe the beast she rides as the one who had come out of the Abyss, who “once was, now is not, and yet will come,” a parody of the same phrase used to describe God. Evil is a parody—a parasite that gets its energy from the good it perverts. Satan is a perverted angel, the beast is a perversion of Jesus, greed is perverted love. Chapter 13 had the beast looking “as if it had been slain,” which is the exact same expression used to describe Christ the crucified Lamb in chapter 5. People who thought the beast dead marvel at his mock resurrection, forgetting the catastrophes he’d wrought before. Their memories are short.

I ran across a letter to the editor last week where the writer bemoaned the stock market and housing meltdown. He wrote: “Did anyone really believe that real estate could continue to sell at the crazy prices of recent years? … Yet as bad as it all is, the crash may bring us back to our senses. Perhaps we’ll start over and find our way to a healthier, stronger, and sane economy.” The date of this letter? November 8, 1987.

Memories are short. The angel identifies the Harlot of Babylon as Rome to demonstrate that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The angel does so in outrageous fashion to persuade first century readers to resist being seduced by Rome’s power and wealth; to persuade them to not cheat on God by compromising their loyalties to Christ and the Christian community. If you can be persuaded that what appears impressive is really ridiculous, that what seems glamorous is actually garish, and that what look desirous is in fact ludicrous, you will be more able to defy it—more able to resist running up credit card debt because you want more than you can afford or need, more able to resist taking out an irresponsible mortgage or maxing out a student loan or chasing the latest stock or fund craze; more able to resist the way our culture puts a price on everything thereby reducing everything to a commodity to be bought, possessed and spent.

“Snap out of it!” says the angel. “Guard against all greed,” Jesus warned; if for no other reason than greed, like every evil, self-destructs. Verse 16: “The beast and the ten horns will hate the harlot. They will turn on her, bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” What if Wall Street is an example of mythic Babylon and our government an example of the beast? Verse 16’s description would fit. Bailout is just a fancy word for burn up. This past week the FBI initiated criminal investigations into Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers and AIG. 24 cases are underway, targeting lenders who knowingly wrote bad mortgages, investment bankers who sliced up loans and resold them as mockingly-labeled “securities” without disclosing risks, and executives who recklessly heaped questionable investments onto their books. Wall Street is being stripped naked. And it is all God’s doing. Verse 17: “God put it into their hearts to perform his purpose.” God executes his will through both the righteous and the unrighteous; through both Israel and Babylon; through both the church and the world.

And what is God’s will? God’s will is victory: his return to his people, their real return to him out of exile, the final defeat of evil—all in the person of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain for greed and all sin—the greatest captivity. Thinking such a wounded lamb weak, the mighty beast and his horns constantly try to take him down, waging war in verse 14. “But the Lamb will overcome because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and those with him are called, chosen and faithful.” And so it is with all who are called, chosen and faithful—who trust in the Lamb and not lucre—who being generous toward God and your neighbor, store up their treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal, where debts do not consume and greed does not entice. For where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is too.

Family Guy

Mark 3:31-35

by Daniel Harrell

Getting to the “real Jesus” is a constant concern for Christians since to be a Christian means to follow Jesus. This concern always leads us to the gospels and particularly to the sayings of Jesus, printed in some of your Bibles with red ink. These red-letters have been the topic of my sermon series this fall, a series I began back to last May, inspired in part by a recent book entitled Red-Letter Christians by sociologist Tony Campolo. Campolo asserts that the sayings of Jesus carry important political implications, appropriate for this presidential election season. As world financial markets wobble due to over-speculation and greed, as war and violence persist and disease and disaster take the lives of thousands each day, the outcome of this fall’s election does carry grave implications. Concerns over the election is the reason you see members of our church outside tonight inviting you to sign cards asking candidates to remember the poor amongst their political priorities. The hardest-hit victims of financial crisis, war, disease and disaster are always the poor. The real Jesus came as an poor man proclaiming good news for the poor. Whether through political or religious means, to follow Christ is to care about the poor.

Granted, there are those who prefer that politics and religion not mix, even if the cause is the poor. Nevertheless, I’ve done a fair share of mixing these past couple of Sundays. I’ve asserted that faith and politics are inseparable, but not for reasons we’d like to think. We’d like to think that our beliefs shape our politics, but more often than not, politics shape our beliefs. We see it in the current presidential campaign, we see it in Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees here in Mark. Jesus preached that “the kingdom of God is near,” but kingdom meant different things depending on your politics. The politics of Rome were the politics of power by military force. The politics of the Pharisees were the politics of power by militant morality. By contrast, the politics of Jesus were the politics of power by love and submissive obedience; a power that looked more like weakness. To the Pharisees, it looked like it came from hell. Sure, Jesus performed some impressive miracles, but by doing them on the Sabbath, he betrayed their source. The miracles came from Satan and not from God because God would never work on the Sabbath.

Jesus warned the Pharisees that taking pot shots at him was one thing, but demonizing God put them on very thin ice. “People will be forgiven for all sins, even for all the blasphemies they utter,” Jesus said. “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, they are guilty of an eternal sin.” While I haven’t had much email about mixing politics into my sermons, I did get some email about this unforgiveable sin. Some people were worried. “Have I committed it?” Categorically speaking, I really don’t think there is such a thing as “the unforgiveable sin.” As long as you repent and ask forgiveness, there is no sin God will not forgive. Even if you “blasphemed the Holy Spirit,” as long as you recognized your error and asked for forgiveness, God would forgive you. No one blasphemed the Holy Spirit worse than the Pharisee Saul, but Jesus took a hold of him and turned him into the apostle Paul, a move of extraordinary grace that put Paul on his knees and humbled him into the chief example of a repentant sinner mightily used by God.

We get the idea of a categorical sin immune from grace whenever we take Jesus’ warning out of its context. The context is Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees over his real identity. The Pharisees agreed that “profaning the name of God” carried eternal consequences. They knew that attributing the work of God to Satan was a flagrant foul. What they refused to acknowledge by demonizing Jesus, was that they were bad-mouthing God. Jesus labels what they do “unforgiveable” in order to underscore its severity. The idea was to scare some sense into them. But they refused to heed the warning. Their were just like their Old Testament forebears. From the golden calf in Exodus to the Exile in Babylon, Israel’s religious leaders refused to acknowledge the “real” power of God in their midst. This stubborn refusal, their certainty as to their own righteousness, their proud hardness of heart left no room for repentance. If anything it is this refusal to repent that made their blasphemy unforgiveable. You can’t receive grace if you reject it.

If you’re worried you’ve committed an unforgiveable sin, you haven’t. To worry over sin is to repent of it. God always forgives whoever repents. However, if God’s forgiving you never translates into your forgiving others, you do have something to worry about then. Jesus is pretty clear that if you receive God’s grace only to keep it all for yourself, then you might as well have rejected it. He makes this point by telling a disturbing parable about a servant who was forgiven a huge debt by his master, only to then turn around and refuse to forgive a comparably meager debt of a fellow servant. Outraged by the lack of gratitude for the compassion the servant was shown, the master threw his ungrateful and unmerciful servant into jail to be tortured. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you,” Jesus warned, “unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’” If there is such a thing as an unforgiveable sin, this is it.

But how do you forgive when the hurt is so deep? How do you forgive when the ones who have hurt you are those closest to you: literal brothers and sisters, our own mothers and fathers? Some of you sitting here tonight know such hurt. If you’re like me, you’ve had people in your life, members of your own family, people you trusted and whom you thought loved you and had your best interests at heart—people who then for reasons and motives known only to themselves—willingly betrayed you and abused your trust. For others, rather than outright betrayal, the hurt is the humiliation of ridicule or the chronic guilt of reminded unmet expectations. You have brothers and mothers who marginalize you, sisters and fathers who treat you as if you’ll never measure up: “When are you going to get a real job?” “When are you going to get married?” “When am I going to get some grandchildren?” Or maybe they just treat you as a nutcase for following Jesus. They hear you talk about your faith and shake their heads in despair. They tell their friends and each other that you’ve “lost your mind.”

If you were here last Sunday night, then you know this is how Jesus’ family felt toward him. Verse 21 has his family arriving on the scene in order “to take charge of him.” It’s a word that means “to restrain” or “take into custody.” Are they embarrassed of his homelessness? Or are they ashamed of his defiance of religious authority? Mark doesn’t tell us exactly. He simply quotes what Jesus’ kinfolk said about Jesus. They simply said: “He’s out of his mind.” The same Bible that instructs us to forgive also instructs that we have an obligation to our families. It never says that blood is thicker than water, but “honor your father and mother” still applies. As the son of God, we expect Jesus to be perfectly obedient. We expect him to honor his own mother by heeding her wishes, even if she does think he’s crazy. Yet in tonight’s passage, when informed that his mother and brothers are waiting for him outside, Jesus acts as if he doesn’t even know who they are. Verse 33: “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

Jesus is preaching to a packed house when his family rolls into town. Unable to squeeze through the door, they get a message to Jesus saying that they’re looking for him. As readers we know their true intentions. This is not some friendly visit from the relatives. They want to haul him off to the funny farm. Does Jesus know this too? Mark doesn’t say. What Mark does say is that Jesus responds as if his blood kin are of no import. As if Mary going through nine months of pregnancy and having to give birth in a barn meant nothing! As if all the scandal and shame she endured didn’t matter, not to mention all those shepherds barging in on her just after she’d given birth, and then having to put up with his running off and leaving his aging father to fend for the carpentry shop by himself. Is this any way to treat your mother?

Bad enough that Jesus asked, “Who is my mother?” He then turns to the ones seated in a circle around him: poor fishermen and prostitutes, despised tax-collectors and outcast sinners, people who had left their own families to follow him. Jesus points to them and says “Behold my mother and my brothers.” Mary must have fainted on the spot. Jesus then said, “Whoever does the will of God, that’s my brother and sister and mother.” (He leaves out mention of Father for obvious reasons: Jesus has but one father, God in heaven).

But isn’t it God in heaven who commands we honor our mothers? What’s going on here? Is Jesus upset for being called crazy? Is he refusing to forgive? Is he being disobedient? No. He’s actually calling for obedience. Here in chapter 3, the account of the Pharisee’s blasphemy happens right in the middle of Jesus’ conflict with his family. By grouping Jesus’ family together with the Pharisees’, Mark accentuates their shared disbelief, their shared refusal to acknowledge the presence of God. As much as the Pharisees refused to recognize the holy spirit of God in Jesus, so did Jesus’ mother and brothers. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus’ mother and brothers should have known better. Mary had endured nine months of a scandalous pregnancy, had witnessed angels and joyous shepherds and wise men bearing gifts. She’d heard Simeon at Jesus’ circumcision say how he could now die in peace for he had seen the savior of the world. How could she ever say her son begotten of God had lost his mind? Maybe it was because Jesus disappointed her own expectations of what a son of God should be like. And now he’s not even acting like her own son.

Even if blood is thicker than water, faith is thicker than blood. As the apostle Paul will make clear later, it is faith that saves you, not your gene pool. The Pharisees insisted that being a descendent of Abraham was what made them righteous. But as the apostle Paul discovered, that was only true if you also had Abraham’s faith­—a faith in God’s promise that found fulfillment in Jesus. By warning the Pharisees of blasphemy, Jesus calls them to this faith. By disregarding his mother and brothers, he calls them to the same.

Now do not make the mistake of thinking that Jesus’ disregard of his mother and brothers grants you permission to disown your own family. Even if they’re the ones who have disowned you. To have faith in Jesus is to do the will of God, and to do the will of God is to forgive those who’ve hurt you. Now mercifully in some cases, this made easier because the people who’ve hurt you confessed their wrong and asked for forgiveness, making the burden of forgiveness light. But so many times there is no repentance and the burden of forgiveness is unbearable. Is this fair? No. Is this something you deserve? No. So why should you bear it? Why must you forgive? Because this is what it means to do the will of God. Repentance may be the condition for accepting forgiveness, but it does not cause forgiveness. Forgiveness is given as free gift. And we can give it because we’ve had it given to us. It was while we were yet unrepentant sinners ourselves that Christ died for us. It is Christ’s forgiveness of us that makes our forgiveness of others possible. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” And therefore, “it is no longer I who forgive, but Christ who lives in me.” Jesus in us forgives through us, and that is why we can forgive.

When Jesus said as he hung on the cross, “Father forgive them they know not what they do,” this surely included his family. But unlike many of the Pharisees also in Christ’s crosshairs of grace, his mother and brothers responded. Repentance does not cause forgiveness, but forgiveness can cause repentance. By the time we get to the book of Acts, Mary is numbered among the disciples. The same with Jesus’ brother, James, who ends up leading the first church in Jerusalem and goes on to pen a book of the Bible.

But what about those family members from whom your forgiveness elicits no repentance and no reconciliation? Those, who like the Pharisees, remain resolute in their own righteousness despite your gifts of grace? For you, Jesus provides a whole new family. “Behold my mother and my brothers,” he says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” And they, we, are your mother and sister and brother too. The blood of Jesus and not genetics makes us the family of God—a family of faithfulness and love that stretches into eternity.