Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Purple Math

Part 1
Entertain me for a moment and join me in this psychological exercise.

Imagine for a moment you are a well-dressed, clean-cut, accomplished mathematician.  You work as a professor at an institution highly regarded by the academic world. You are at the pinnacle of arithmetic accomplishment. You begin to hear rumors swirling about of a new, controversial mathematician making their rounds in your industry. They are supposedly a great teacher and wise beyond anything the common understanding has perceived in recent history.

The day has finally come for you to meet this great new teacher. You are excited to possibly gain some new knowledge, but mainly anticipate satisfying your curiosity and seeing if this person is actually as wise as you are. You sit in your office filled with rich mahogany, books, and sip your brandy whilst taking puffs of your Cuban cigar. In walks this teacher, a little late to the agreed upon time, dressed, well, disheveled, at best, and smells terrible. They are younger than you, not as well put together, and carries them self almost diffidently. The first impression is not going well to say the least. Then the moment of truth, they speak, and ask you a simple question, something you almost scoff at.

“What is 1 + 1?”

Offended at such a simple question, nonetheless, you answer, “two.”

Then an unintelligible follow-up question, “What would be an incorrect solution to this equation?”

You think, pause, then confidently respond, “Well, 3, 9, 17, -1, any other numeric variable that is not 2.”

They respond with content and self-assurance that makes them seem mad, “No, the correct answer to 1 + 1 is simply, purple.”

You promptly do a spit take and blast a warm mist of your sweetly aged bourbon all over your rich mahogany desk.  You laugh in utter disbelief as this supposed great teacher provides you with what can only be described as an absurd proposition.

1 + 1 = purple

That’s insane, that is comically incorrect. You kindly escort them out of your office and return to your quarters thinking this teacher is mad.

If this was where the interaction stopped then you would only have a story of a mad mathematician who was a complete joke and not someone close to your composition and elite achievement in the field. 1 + 1 = purple is crazy, or is it?

The entire context of what is right and/or wrong, of who has achieved or not, who is powerful or not, is based around the ideology of numeric values. A number plus another number is the sum of those numbers. We have been taught this from childhood, there is a history of this context. Then along comes this new teacher who says that the entire context we understand is wrong and that a number plus a number is a color. 

As my favorite animated characters say, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa?”
This is a parable of Jesus and his relationship to the religious elite in the days of his ministry.

Part 2
During the time of Jesus’ ministry and his arrival on the scene a deeply historical religious society existed. Not only was this a historically religious culture, but they were also under the thumb of the Roman empire. In order to not be total slaves and miserable, the leaders of that time struck up a deal with Rome to operate under them but with some kind of autonomy. They collected their taxes for them and paid Cesar what he was due. They were able to practice their religion as well as benefit financially from this partnership. The who’s-who of that culture were the Pharisees. They were the leaders at that time.  They could read, they could write, they knew the sacred scriptures and laws well. They knew them well enough, to be the overseers of the society in general. There was a system in place from a historical and cultural stand point.  Historically, they had the Jewish back story and laws of Moses. Culturally, they had figured out a happy compromise with Rome. All was well, well, until this revolutionary new rabbi burst onto the scene, his name was Jesus.

If you study the law and the Old Testament you will quickly see there was a system in place that always demanded more. It was this unsustainable system that required from the people what they were ultimately unable to provide. The entire law was a preparation for the messiah to come, the brokenness of that system was to reveal the necessity for a redeemer. This culture was looking for that redeemer and all the power he would bring with him. Under the thumb of Rome, it was natural that the form this redeemer quickly took on in terms of expectations was someone who would become their king and free them from their oppressor. A great and powerful person. Powerful is the word that made Jesus so polarizing. What is power to some may not be power to others. In truth, power to the creator of everything is not power at all to his creation. Creation had come up with its own definition of what power was and Jesus came with a power they did not understand; his power was not what they had defined for themselves.

Here are things Jesus says to these powerful individuals and to those who view them as powerful. Jesus is speaking to a context of people who have this definition of power already established in their psyche. 
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:1-11).

When the disciples asked him who is the greatest in the kingdom, his response was,
Truly I say to you, unless you [c]are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3-4).

Then he tells this odd story about unfair wages and ends it with the statement, “So the last shall be first, and the first last (Matthew 20:16).

When he rides into Jerusalem in what is now Palm Sunday he doesn’t enter as a triumphant ruler as anticipated, he comes on a colt, or donkey, which was livestock, not a powerful vision they had at all (John 12).

Jesus did not play into or meet any expectations when it came to that cultures ideology of power. As a matter of fact, when the teachers of the law asked Jesus to give them a sign to show them he was who he said he was, meaning, show us you are powerful, he refused and told them they were an evil and adulterous people (Matthew 12:39). Basically, Jesus makes it clear he will not play their game, he will not submit himself to this structure of power they had made. Jesus came to break expectations and change the way everyone thought.

Part 3
I was always confused when I would see those street evangelists in a bar scene or at some drinking festival telling people to repent. Teshuvah is the Hebrew word used in our translation of repent in the Old Testament. It means to return. To the Hebrews it was spoken to it makes total sense, return to your God. But, what are they telling these people who may or may not have roots in the Jewish god? What are they telling them to return to? Words are important. This phrase will probably go on my tombstone because I say it so often. People say things without knowing the full meaning. Unlike the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament, the New Testament is written in Greek and the word we translate for repent is metanoia. Metanoi means change your mind basically. So Jesus comes telling people to change the way they think. The way we view power needs to be changed. Jesus offered so many contradictions to the worldview the people of that time had created. Jesus seeks to change our mind and how we view the world.

There is a dichotomy between the ideology of push versus pull or what I am proposing as do versus be. With religion back then and now there is a sense of the need to do to become. Be better, pray more, read more, don’t do certain things, and if you do or do not do these certain items you will be a fill in the blank, better Christian, etc.  Jesus came teaching to be and the actions will follow because of who you are. If we change our thinking, the way we see the world, the way we view power and status, then actions will happen because of that, not the other way around. Jesus told this complex parable that is commonly understood and used as a way to talk about how much Jesus loves sinners and those who are far from him. I’d like to offer this prodigal son parable (Luke 15) up in a different light, from a different perspective.

Both sons are viewing their relationship with their father as linear, as a point system, if you will. If you do good, you gain favor, if you do bad you lose favor. The younger son believed this so much that after he had squandered all the inheritance money away he finally arrived at the idea that he could return to his father as a hired hand. It even says he came to that decision and had a speech prepared for his father stating how unworthy he is, all because of his actions. He thought he lost all favor because of his actions, he lost points. The older brother contrarily believed his good actions had gained him favor and he deserved something. The father does something that blows both of their minds here, he accepts the younger son and celebrates his return, affirming his worth to him. Then he tells the older son, “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours (Luke 15:31)” He affirms the worth of his older son while at the same time deflating his pride. The mind-blowing, life-changing power of this parable and Jesus’ message is that there is no earning scale, there is no deserving.

Another parable Jesus teaches is about workers in a field (Matthew 20). The challenge in this story is that workers who worked say 8 out of 10 hours were paid the same as workers who worked 2 out of ten hours. Again, another way Jesus is pointing out that our math is all wrong and he is more interested in colors. When we think 1 + 1 = 2, he is inviting us to see the resolution as purple.
What would it mean if we woke up tomorrow and saw the world from the perspective that God loves us all equally? What would it mean for me to see someone as an equal regardless of their behaviors, abilities, or accomplishments? What would it mean for how I view myself if I were affirmed to be loved no matter what? Would I live more out of love than fear? What kind of life change would this change in mind lead to?

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