Sunday, August 2, 2009

Math: God knows inequalities...

I teach math. It is one of the most challenging things that I do, and as a result, I'm always on the look out for math in the real world. I found some recently as I was re-reading the Gospel according to Matthew. Gospel means good news, and it is essentially a mini-biography of Jesus. The bible has four of these mini-biographies/gospels.

I re-read things. I re-read the posts of fellow bloggers. I re-read most of my own posts. I see things on the second, third, or thirty-seventh pass. I'm on about my 60th trip through the Gospel according to Matthew.

This time, I saw inequalities. In math, an inequality is usually stated in terms of greater than or less than. It stands in contrast to things being equal. Two fourths is equal to one half: an equality. Nine tenths is greater than one third: an inequality.

Now it's one thing to compare numbers and quantities: that's math we learn in school. (Or, at least they teach it. Learning it is more hit-or-miss.) But in Matthew, Jesus uses inequalities to do moral and spiritual mathematics.

For example: Jesus talks about being "least" or "greatest" in the kingdom of heaven. He speaks of a righteousness that exceeds (is greater than) the scribes and Pharisees (the religious zealots of the day). Just before Jesus gave the so-called golden rule, he said, "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, HOW MUCH MORE shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" Apparently there are degrees of inequality.

I saw more astounding comparisons/inequalities: "Verity I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city." Here, Jesus is doing a cross-cultural, cross-historical moral comparison of two cities. Wow!

Jesus even made cross-species comparisons of worth: "Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows." Or, "How much then is a man better than a sheep?"

Not only does Jesus compare cultures, cities, and species, he compares people: "Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." Double wow!

As a math teacher, and as one who studies levels of moral reasoning, I am impressed.

My last post contained a list of life lessons from Regina Brett. At the top of her list is "Life isn't fair, but it's still good." Life isn't always equal: inequalities exist. But life is still good. Life is still good, in part, because God understands and measures the inequalities. The Moral Head of the Universe knows math.

That's why #8 on Regina's list makes sense: It's OK to get angry with God. He can take it. You can get angry and argue with God, in fact He invites it: "Come let us reason together..."

Even Jonah, the swallowed one, needed a lesson in moral inequalities. Jonah was upset because his shade producing gourd/vine had died, but Jonah was not concerned over the destruction of a whole city, so God said, "Thou has had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: and should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more that sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" God cared about the plant, the people, and the cattle. He also cared about Jonah -- a single man. Wow.

Each culture and time has its own sticky moral dilemmas, and so do each of us. I don't pretend to understand the inequalities, but it gives me great peace knowing that Someone does. It also makes me glad that I've put my "hand in the hand of the Man who stilled the waters." He knows stuff!

He understands the moral issues regarding prejudice, racism, sexism, genocide, abuse, war... and the list goes on. Jesus rebuked the moral experts of his day with these words: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." Judgment, mercy, faith... weightier (more than)... arguments about tithing.

In reading the Gospel according to Matthew, I also saw that Jesus' exam questions are real soul searchers: "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?"

A person's soul is of greater worth than... the whole world! Wow. Amazing mathematics. Amazing Moral Mathematician.


  1. I love how you explore Jesus' invitation for us to reason together. Really great post! You made some very good scriptural observations here today. I like the title, Moral Mathematician. Very well written, Don!

  2. Don, I don't know if you remember, but the first time I came to your blog I marveled at how I really needed to read the post that I did. And here, almost a year later, you're still doing it. This post could be, and should be, a sermon. There's a lot to chew on, and what's really nice is that I needed to read it. I know you get lots of accolades, and usually I'm pretty cavalier when I comment, trying to be funny and all...but I think you were led to blogging to help people.

    Just my humble opinion. But thank you. :')

  3. @septembermom: Glad you liked the post. The thought's have been percolating for several weeks. I've been following the Prof. Gates/Officer Crowley drama... in Boston. Time marches on... but the moral puzzles remain.

    The Moral Mathematician is an original title: Perhaps God grinned today? ;-)

    @Saphron: Some of the best sermons captured in the gospels were spoken to an audience of one. One of my aims in writing is to inspire others. Inspire means to give breath. I'm glad you are in my audience, and I'm glad if I put some wind in your sails. As always... you are welcome.

    What was John the Baptist called? "The voice of one, crying in the wilderness..." That's a lot of what blogging is about for me. My voice? Musings and Misc. Thoughts! ;-)

    Thanks for the comment. (Mordecai said to Esther, "And who knows but that you are come to the kingdom for such a time as this..." Maybe this blog is a chapel... for you.) Thanks for dropping in, again.

  4. Now this is the kind of Math I could get into. My Biola logic professor would be proud. Maybe, he didn't much like my work at the time...and I don't much generally like Mathematics. Funny how that works out.

  5. @Chase: One of the nice things about being done with college... you are free to follow your own interests... and to enjoy the journey as a life-long learner. You could even take a week-end course on Faye Blais! The Final Exam could be optional, including a short write up... perhaps... in the form of a blog post? (Oh, you did that.)

  6. I like the image of God the Moral Mathematician. You ought to write a poem about it.
    Also there is another mystery involved in this. Even though the "more/less" vocabulary does not appear, the second chapter of Philippians applies, where we find the self-emptying of God in Christ. He sort of hallows all the inequalities by participating in them himself, redemptively.

  7. Thanks, Don. It gives me great comfort to think that God takes into consideration all the inequalities. I never thought about these passages in quite this way, but it sure is heartening.

  8. @Dennis: Probably no poem forth coming. Glad the post made you see the math in other Scriptures.

    @Deedee: Glad to supply some comfort. I read a book once that had a chapter called The Consoler. It was about... the God of all comfort. Hmmm...