Matt 7:21-27 and the Tsunami

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This has been going around a while, but I haven't seen the most reasonable explanation clearly stated at the various sites talking about it, so I'm going to provide it. After the tsunami, Tom DeLay got up in front of the House of Representatives and read Jesus' parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand. When the floods came, the house on the rock stood, and the house on the sand came down. Eugene Volokh thought this sounded too much like blaming the victims, presumably because he thinks DeLay was pointing out the consequences of building near the shore.

Then he updated with a letter from someone giving an alternate interpretation of DeLay's point. DeLay wasn't blaming the victims but encouraging people to live according to Jesus' teachings, because that's what building on the rock symbolizes. Volokh responds that it still looks like blaming the victim, because the people who died, largely, were not followers of Jesus, and thus DeLay is saying that they died as a result of not following Jesus' teachings. I think Volokh is still missing the point.

I think the interpretation offered by this letter-writer is that DeLay's point was very straightforward. The tsunami is a the same sort of image Jesus used. Jesus used it to illustrate a point. According to this interpretation, DeLay wanted to make the same point because this image was fresh in everyone's minds. I don't think it had anything to do with explaining why the victims died. It was an analogy with why people will spiritually die. The only blaming of victims going on here is the same kind of blaming of victims that Jesus does throughout the gospels when he declares that no one will undeservedly go to hell. Some will of course hate that, because they hate the doctrine of hell, which was taught by Jesus more than by anyone else in the entire Bible, and in the most strikingly horrific terms, but I don't think DeLay is going to complain if people accuse him of saying something Jesus said repeatedly.

Now I don't know if this is what DeLay meant, but it's an interpretation that makes perfect sense, so it's a little premature to assume that DeLay was blaming the victims given a perfectly reasonable alternative interpretation.

19 Comments

Volokh's taking DeLay too literally. I suppose that's why Jesus instructed using parables, only those willing to consider changing or at least really listening and understanding, will get their meaning.

Maybe 'blaming the victims' is too strong a charge -- but if DeLay wasn't intentionally referencing the recent disaster, then he was being grossly insensitive and callous.

All the interpretations I discussed involved him referencing the recent disaster. It's just that the one that I find least problematic isn't talking about the disaster itself but is seeing it as an reminder of the kind of natural disaster involving water that Jesus was using in his a parable.

Maybe I just don't understand the interpretation you favor. You describe it thus: [Delay was] encouraging people to live according to Jesus' teachings, because that's what building on the rock symbolizes.

As I understand it, that pretty much the same point Jesus had in the first place, right? What does this have to do with the real-life tsunami? I'm just not seeing a way that it can both be related and not offend.

Here's an apparent parallel: consider the possible world where things are pretty much like they are in the actual world, except that in this possible world, in the Tower of Babel story, instead of just confusing everyone, God destroyed the tower and killed everybody who was working on it. (You can posit either that *in fact* this is what happened, and that's the difference, or that the fictional story was written differently, as you see fit.)

Now suppose that in this world, shortly after 9/11, a high-profile public official in another country had said, "we must all be careful not to exercise hubris -- for, as the book of Genesis tells us, if we become too proud, God will strike us down from our towers."

In this possible world, there would be a tremendous outcry against a person who so spoke. Would it do for a blogger to come in and offer the following defense?

The public official wasn't saying that the people who died in the World Trade Center were being punished by God, or that they were at fault for what happened -- he was just using the collapse of the towers to remind us of the Biblical story; collapsing towers just symbolize God's disapproval of human pride.

I don't think that in that possible world, a defense like that would exonerate the official. Do you? If not, what's the difference?

First of all, I don't think it would be immoral to say that God used the fall of the World Trade Center to strike a blow at human pride, and saying that is consistent with not blaming the victims.

In fact, there was an example much like this. Falwell and Robertson spoke out that 9-11 was a judgment on America for homosexuality and abortion. My criticism of them was not for saying that 9-11 was a judgment. I wouldn't go as far as asserting that it was, but I think a biblical position has to take into account that God uses such things as judgments for sin. That doesn't mean that every victim was morally to blame for the thing being judged anymore than Job was to blame for his own suffering, which served a point that he never even found out about yet was not to blame for it.

Falwell and Robertson were wrong, but their wrongness was in pointing out their pet sins that they don't struggle with. If they'd repentantly pointed out ways that they themselves have been sucked into the sins of western materialism of some such thing, then I see nothing immoral with pointing out that we all deserve judgment and yet many are mercifully spared it for now.

So I'm not sure I agree with your fundamental premise that speaking of something as a judgment amounts to saying that the victims were all the cause of the judgment. I do think you're right to point out that making this sort of point pulls you away from the point of the parable, which is that those who deliberately build in spiritually weak places are spiritually in a position inviting disaster, and to apply that woodenly here would require saying that every single person building, living, or vacationing near a shoreline where tsunamis could possibly happen is to blame is something bad happens. I don't think that was what he meant to say, though. I think he just meant to say that we could all die anytime soon and need to consider our lives. It's not the most careful exegesis of the passage, but it's also not necessarily blaming the victims.

Jeremy, I'm guess I didn't make my position clear. I agree that we don't have to interpret DeLay as blaming the victims -- I'm arguing that even if he's not blaming the victims, he's behaving inappropriately in that reading.

If you don't think that the person in my story is behaving inappropriately, then this explains why we feel differently about the real-life case.

I do think DeLay should have made it clear why he was reading that, and in doing so he should have explained that he's not blaming the victims. Would that have been good enough for you, or is there something worse about what he did that a public explanation of his point couldn't have canceled?

There is something a bit off in the application. While the parable of Jesus might refer to a disastrous water event, it doesn't refer in a way that bears likeness to a tsunami. It desn't represent higher ground, but fastening to a foundation, and the quality of the foundation.

In a tsunami, if you are in the pathway of that water you will be swept away and/or drowned, whether built on rock or sand. It is a different event than a storm (such as a hurricane).

While Christians are tempted to read the event as evidence of God's anger against Heathen nations, I think we must be careful of that... as I posted about in my blog. And,yes, I think it is safe to presume that is what underlays mentioning the scripture verse.

Most people miss the point of Jesus' parables. Jesus often used what is called "Parabolic Metaphor," which Psychiatrist and Hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson used when treating his patients. Like Jesus, Erickson used his Metaphors for the underlying message, which was picked up by the patient's unconscious mind. Erickson's methodology would lead to change and improved mental health.

Jesus used his parables to reach his listeners on a subconscious level. As the Scriptures tell us, not everyone responded. But many did. And they had a life changing experience.

Erickson was no Jesus. No one is. But all of us can learn form Jesus' parables.

I agree that Volokh was taking Delay too literally. Volokh was not truly listening to what Delay was saying. He heard what he wanted to hear.

Well, I think Volokh and Jonathan are on to something. If you apply all the aspects of the parable to the case of the tsunami, you do get the result they say. I'm just not convinced DeLay intended that. I think what happened is as follows. The tsunami reminded him of what Jesus said, and then he got thinking about what Jesus said, forgetting about the disanalogies between the two kinds of natural disaster. I don't think he intended to blame the victims of the tsunami. I do think he should have said what he meant. I don't think it was about heathen nations at all, at least no more than it was about non-believing Americans.

Maybe I'm wrong. DeLay has been known to say offensive things, knowing full well how people will take them. I'm just not sure that's what he was up to here.

Jeremy, I like what I read on your blog. I only wish all blogs were this informative. By the way, my previous post contains the wrong URL. Clicking on my name at the end of this post will lead you to the correct address.

Thanks. Your link is now fixed.

Jeremy, to answer your question, I think that if you are right about his intent, then Delay is not guilty of anything more than insensitivity. (Once we grant, anyway, that it is appropriate to be publically reading the Bible in front of the United States House of Representatives.)

I don't know the circumstances. I can imagine some when it wouldn't be appropriate and some when it wouldn't be any different from reading Native American poetry, Shakespeare, or James Taylor lyrics.

All I want to say is that what DeLay is probably trying to say is that if you don't build your life on the rock of Jesus Christ then you will crumble like the tsunami victims, your life will end. I'm not saying that that is why the tsunami happened. No one deserves to die in a tsunami but these things happen because of the sin on this world. Bad things happen to good people, to all people because of the sin in this world. I am also not saying that if we build our lives on the rock of Jesus Christ that bad things won't happen to us because we all know that God allows things to happen as the result of sin. The last thing God wants is for us to suffer but the sin in our lives gives us that suffering. Jesus died on the cross so we can live with the Lord for eternity and by choosing to not build our lives of the rock of Jesus Christ we are choosing to suffer in hell. DeLay wasn't trying to be rude or crude he was just trying to give us a glimpse of what will happen if we choose not to follow Jesus. People die everyday because of starvation, cancer, aids etc and I could say the same thing about those people. If we don�t build our lives on the rock of Jesus Christ then we will die. And what I mean by dying, I mean hell. Sin cuts us off from God and only through His son Jesus Christ we are saved. The purpose of this world isn�t for us it is for God. We are here to serve Him, but He allows us to choose and if we choose to not follow Him then we are choosing to die and stay separate from Him forever! Seriously read Matthew 7:21-27 and then John 3:16 then you might get it! God wants nothing but the best for you! HE LOVES YOU ALL SO VERY MUCH! SMILE!!

I am in agreement with "Jeremy"...Furthermore isn't it state in the Bible that 'The Lord is a Kind and Loving God not a punishing one?'

I suppose you will find a way to excuse Pat Robertson's equally callous comments on the Haiti earthquake, as well? To capitalize or proselytize on such human tragedy is cynical beyond belief. Call it what you will, these men are pure evil. I haven't the words to describe my shock at these blockheads who shame every genuine Christian with such ruthless and thoughtless comments. And to think that there are people like you who shill for them? Wow. The Christian community needs to censure this truly vile behavior, and people like you need to pull your head out of the sand. It's not a sin to think.

People don't normally spend years of their life working on a Ph.D. in philosophy if they think it's a sin to think.

I mentioned Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson's comments very soon after 9-11, which blamed homosexuality and abortion for 9-11. Since you apparently didn't read it above, I'll repeat it here:

Falwell and Robertson were wrong, but their wrongness was in pointing out their pet sins that they don't struggle with. If they'd repentantly pointed out ways that they themselves have been sucked into the sins of western materialism of some such thing, then I see nothing immoral with pointing out that we all deserve judgment and yet many are mercifully spared it for now.

So now Robertson comes along and again picks out a sin he doesn't struggle with (apparently voodoo or some other element of Haitian culture that he associates with devil worship) and then blames this natural disaster purely on that sin. What I said about the 9-11 comments surely apply here as well, right? So how could you possibly think I'd excuse what he said now unless you are the one who isn't bothering to think?

Now what I said is:

(1) There's an interpretation of a very different sort of statement by Tom Delay that doesn't seem as problematic to me as the one people were taking him to mean.
(2) I have no idea which interpretation is correct, so I don't know if the less-problematic interpretation is a good reason to excuse him, because he may have meant the worse thing.
(3) Though Robertson and Falwell were wrong to pick out their favorite sins they don't commit, it's correct to use such circumstances to evaluate our lives to see if there is some sin God wants us to repent of as a result of this incident, in which case it may well have been part of God's motivation for allowing it. It's hard to accept anything in the Bible without recognizing that sin can be a cause of natural disasters.

As for pure evil, I think not. Pure evil requires delight in badness for its own sake. Robertson wants people to live better lives and picks out disasters and says people's bad behavior causes them, but his goal is that people will end up living better lives. That's not pure evil, even if it's morally wrong to try to achieve it the way he does it.

I guess it's more than a vague assumption about voodoo. It seems to be based on some apocryphal story about the founding of the free Haitian government.

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