Why Do We Call Him “Lord”?

This is from an email I received recently:

Our “moderate” churches have eliminated half of the Gospel by “spiritualizing” its espousal of the poor and weak. As a recent SojoMail observed, anyone who says what Maria did in the Magnificat without indicating clearly that he’s only quoting would be arrested for class warfare nowadays.

Well, if not “arrested,” very likely reprimanded and dismissed as extremist.

So what did simple, spiritual Mary (Maria, Miriam) say? Here’s what Luke thought appropriate to record as the point of view of the mother of Jesus. [Luke 1: 46-55]

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.”

Wow. Some of that does sound like what the political ‘right’ today calls “class warfare.” This reminds me of the theme of Howard Yoder’s book (from the ’70s, new edition in the early 90’s) The Politics of Jesus [p11].

I will … state the case for considering Jesus … to be not only relevant but also normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic.

That is, the teachings of Jesus (and his example) really are the standard for practical ethics in this world. It’s not enough to “believe” in His metaphysical status as Son of God or as Redeemer, or to “believe” that He is going to take care of you. In fact it is not possible to “believe in” him without desire to give careful attention to what he actually said and cared about.

As Dallas Willard once wrote,

“The first act of love is always the giving of attention.”

Jesus is to be taken seriously. It was he, after all, who asked, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ but do not do what I say?”

This is also a key concern of Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).

It is the failure to understand Jesus and his words as reality and vital information about life that explains why, today, we do not routinely teach those who profess allegiance to him how to do what he said was best. We lead them to profess allegiance to him, or we expect them to, and leave them there, devoting our remaining efforts to “attracting” them to this or that …

We just don’t do what he said. We don’t seriously attempt it. And apparently we don’t know how to do it. You have only to look honestly at our official activities to see this. [p.xiv]

If … we understand the kingdom of God to be simply what God is actually doing … then the “kingdom” passages in the Gospels all make sense, and yet leave plenty of room to deal with future dimensions of the kingdom, including a millenial reign of a political nature. [p.45]

So maybe the problem mentioned in the email – that if you quote Jesus’ Mother you need to clarify that you are only quoting, you don’t personally mean it – maybe the problem is that too many of us who claim to “believe in Him” do not actually listen to what he said, or to what those said who were most directly influenced by him.

We should change that pattern; because He is surely asking us – and not only the original disciples – something very much like, “Why DO you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not care about what I said?”

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  • Martin,
    Here’s a little background on the word.
    The name of Caspar Milquetoast, a cartoon character created by
    H. T. Webster in 1924 in his Timid Soul cartoon strip and named
    after the American dish milk toast. This is a dish one might call
    “kinderessen” oder “krankenessen” auf Deutsch! (Milchtoast?)The word means
    something that is so meak and mild that it is ineffectual.

  • Hi Richard,
    answer to that is coming up soon, under another thread.

    But please, first tell me – for I’m notoriously loath of missing a point – how can you explain this “milquetoast� thing to an ignoring foreigner? It’s something to do with my little confusion over sheep and wolves, isn’t it?

  • Martin,
    I think we have a word for the moderation you loathe. It’s “milquetoast”.
    By the way, have you found another spiritual home (ie church)?

  • Sorry, second essay counts:

    Thanks, Richard, for your reply. Yet, from the moment I read it, I kept on asking myself not exactly where, but WHAT is ‘metanoia’? I found a clue to the answer in John Howard Yoder: “The politics of Jesus�, which, some weeks ago, I read in German (passages cited hereunder are re-translated by myself). In chapter two, “The Kingdom arrives�, metanoia is briefly referred to as being part of the Lord’s promise for those who trust him: a “new consciousness�.

    In the opening parts of this chapter, Yoder describes how incontrovertibly political the expectations and demands of Mary (Magnificat) and John the Baptist (who preached in the direction of Herod, Sadducees, Pharisees, even while addressing to all) have been and how plainly Jesus took up their way of announcing the arrival of a very this-worldly new rule of behavior. A rule which is sociologically based on mutuality as much as it religiously and subjectively (i.e. in the minds of believers) enjoins people’s trust in God and Jesus.

    The relevant paragraph runs:

    We are to presume that Jesus, in the literal sense of his words, as well as Mary and John, announced the imminent rise of a new rule, which was to be recognized by these things: the rich give to the poor, the captives are freed, and men receive [or acquire, note of the re-translater, M.B.] a new consciousness (metanoia), if and as they believe in this message.

    It is not very easily derivable from Yoder’s book (at least in my way to think) how this ‘consciousness’ is to be understood. So, properly speaking, I cannot clarify Yoder’s stance on this. But as to my conception, what he means (or what he tells us Jesus meant) is to be approached by taking a look at the “debt problem�, which is clearly central in the gospel.

    All kinds of Christianity must, to some degree or other, recognize that this “forgiving our debtors� is the prime (social) commandment of the gospel, from which any other kind of (social) duty is derivative. It is not “to believe�, which God demands of us, but whether we believe is shown by our readiness to catch and apply the truth that love (agape) means basically to ‘retail’ (divine) forgiveness. Yoder, unlike most forms of historical Christianity, argues vigorously for trying to understand this “spiritual� centerpiece of gospel truth only starting from this point of issue: contemplation of its historical original. And this original understanding was very much social, political, this-worldly.


    The first argument in Yoders book is to show, by way of simple analysis of the biblical books of gospel, that the original message of Jesus, the “good news�, was the announcement of a Jubilee year. Especially to be found in Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth, as he referred to Isaiah (61:1-2):

    Luke 4:18f

    ’The spirit of the Lord is on me, beacuse he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

    Yoder asks at this early point in his book, whether this announcement was meant objectively (i.e. as enacting a new rule for subsequent ages to gather the nature of God’s will and commandment) or as a (subjective) proposition, the fruition of which ultimately depended on his audience’s belief – and thus finally failed to appear in history at all. I have not yet arrived at completely understanding how he answers this question in the subsequent parts of his book, but as far as I do understand him, I would say that he sees the material (social, political) interpretation of such mercy (‘freedom’, ‘forgiveness’ etc) as the gospel states and demands so copiously to be not only relevant for understanding the spiritual core of its meaning, but also, in some way or other (which every age must find for itself), imperious and indispensable for anyone’s partaking of the other, the spiritual one, the one deciding over personal salvation. But Yoder does not accept a communist reading of the gospel and positively states that the original intention of God to ordain this Jubilee year (which also considerably shapes the original wording of the Sermon on the Mount), passed by owing to people’s refractoriness.

    Now how do these observations matter for our question “What is metanoiaâ€?? There is a clue for this too. The gospel contains two passages which are hardly very much illuminated by commentaries following conventional lines of theology. The studies discussed by Yoder relates them to one another. Luke 20:47 sees Jesus charging the Pharisees for “devour[ing] widows’ housesâ€?, and Yoder explains that this can be understood as referring to the theologic-legalistic device of the so-called Prosboul, which the conservative Rabbis (including Hillel, the grandfather of Paul’s teacher Gamaliel) came up with as a “solutionâ€? for the problem imposed by the threat of depression in the credit system of ancient Israel’s economy which any looming Jubilee year must impose (when it’s as generally applied as – controversial?! – theological authority could enjoin it): The prosboul opened a backdoor to effectively circumvent remission of debts by turning the credit over to court, which might all the more ruthlessly sue it from the debtor.

    (Chapter III: The meaning of the Jubilee year; – Section II: Remission of debt and Releasing of slaves)

    As we all know or guess, Jesus opposed this hypocrisy in harsh notes, but he did NOT deny the underlying problem. He only insisted that it is not due to God’s intention – but to man’s and history’s distortion – that unvaryingly the law demands mercy of the rich and discipline of the poor, puts the poors at the mercy of the rich, and the rich at the mercy of their consciences being sharp enough to resist lulling them into self-righteous content. (For) God’s law (as expounded by Jesus) is ‘symmetrical’: Jubilee is intended for periodically giving society a “fresh start�, by way of breaking the monopoly-like grip which the winners of every age of wealth-generation finally, when wealth is allowed to make ist own laws, exert on those “public goods� as are apt to make up a feudal system, i.e. on ground, money supply, labour. Jubilee is not intended to give the profligates of society a chance to indulge in their vice every now and then in history.


    So, in order to try on a bit of creativity of my own (backed neither by Yoder, nor by scripture itself), I’d guess that Jesus, in delivering the second passage, which I will give you in an instance (see end of comment), meant to say that, of course, economic life, in the periods prior to any such Jubilee year, would have to rely on an ‘informal credit system’, based on mutual understanding. The well-being of society depends on the sanity of moral relations between different tiers of society, in such times. For, certainly, anyone making an economy in his personal household would rather lay on long-living goods of any kind than giving it away on credit as the Jubilee year draws close instead of putting the value of his asset at the mercy of a debtor to not dawdle till after Jubilee.

    The economy must languish unless informal kinds of lending, based on mutuality and, basically, on sheer thankfulness, would have replaced practices of more or less useless hoarding, – provided and given that formal kinds of lending, outlawed by Jesus, are ruled out or reduced decisively. On the other hand, the history of capitalist societies throughout the ages clearly demonstrates the tendency of politically and morally unregulated wealth to slip into feudalism and thus only temporarily put off general depression. These years, in our early 21st century, are full proof of it. Global recession, if not looming catastrophic economic collapse, is only fended off by a varnish of unsound monetary policy, which more and more ruthlessly crushes the debtors and enslaves the poor workers.

    (Around the world this enslaving has long begun, in the U.S. and Europe it is now underway, – unless a true moral and Christian awakening will encourage politicians to put an end to it in time.)

    So, even if the experts will jeer at it, I sincerely state that Jesus’ economic wisdom was (and is) by far profounder than anything you may learn from today’s tv-punditry. He saw that the final well-being of society is IN ANY CASE (and not just AFTER you have ‘indulged’ in granting the ‘gushing Jesus’ his ‘fad’ of demanding ‘socialist’ pratices out of ‘frivolous’ motives of thankfulness) dependent on non-juristical, moral and, finally, spiritual conditions in the hearts and minds of people. But this condition is imperiously prerequisite, and is named ‘metanoia’.


    So what is ‘metanoia’. I think it is nothing else but the very way to look at things which has imbibed that abuse, committed in distrust or retaliation against abuse, is no remedy, not even a counterweight against the original abuse. At least it is not in the final perspective of moral judgment, which is the judgment and perspective of God, against whom every sin is finally committed.

    In this vein, Jesus gives his second admonition concerning the practice of Jubilee, which I formerly (prior to reading Yoder) could not make any sense of in its context:

    Matthew 5:23-26:

    Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
    leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.
    Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. [prosboul, M.B.]. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may had you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.
    Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.


    The experiences with mutuality-based credit practices on every scale and in every country are far better and more encouraging than our inveterately money-adoring western consciousness will regularly assume.

    It’s only that they are smashing false securities and replacing them by faith, hope and love. Do we agree with that in our hearts? Or are we howling with the pack? We might detect that the true wolves will get hip to it, tear away our sheep’s clothing and eat us nevertheless with joy and relish. So, out of fear of God, – and metanoia, …

    Soli Deo Gloria!

  • So where is metanoia? We are all in the proceess of converting.
    I’ve become middle class, and am a member of a upper class church in
    a historcally wealthy denomination, and I know that we are trying to
    be both in and following Christ. Are we there yet, of course not! But our
    hope Is in the Triune God, and that we are, at least, going in the right direction.