Original Sin?

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. Jeremiah 2:13

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. Sirach 10:12

.For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:10

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “original sin”? Usually, the term is applied to Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden by eating its forbidden fruit. Some theologians, beginning with Augustine in the fourth century, have postulated that original sin is related to sexual desire. (I don’t agree with that particular theory…after all, God commanded Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” before their fall from grace, and I doubt IVF was a thing back then) As I read today’s readings I notice a common theme: they center around the harmful consequences of hubris. With that in mind, I wonder if “original sin” doesn’t go a bit further back than Eve’s first bite of the apple.

Why did Adam and Eve decide that it would be a good idea to disobey God? In the story, a talking snake persuades Eve by telling her that “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Did you catch that? Eve thinks that by eating the fruit, she will in some way become God’s equal. Her behavior echoes the story of Lucifer’s fall from heaven as imagined by Milton in Paradise Lost, who understood Isaiah’s prophecy against the king of Babylon as applying to a more primordial fall: How you have fallen from heaven, O Morning Star, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the ground, O destroyer of nations. You said in your heart: “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.

The first law God gave those who would be his followers was “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord, the Lord thy God is one and thou shalt have no other gods before me” Too often when we read the first commandment, we apply it to other people rather than ourselves. It must apply to those idol-worshipping neighbors of Bronze Age Israel, or to those in our day who understand God differently than the American Protestant tradition teaches. But when you think about it, you realize that thinking of oneself as somehow better than or superior to other human beings is the worst kind of idolatry. Whenever we act like the universe ought to revolve around us and our wants and needs, whenever we denigrate other human beings made in the image of God in order to elevate ourselves above them, we are essentially imagining ourselves as gods. We are as foolish as Adam and Eve if we think doing that makes us in any way God’s equal. In fact, such thinking is completely opposite from the nature of God as modeled by Jesus, “who, being in very nature God,did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

As the great Hebrew prophets and Jesus understood it, the commandment to put God first was closely entwined with what we have come to call the Golden Rule. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” and “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We can’t claim to follow the first commandment if we routinely violate the second, because all humans are made in the image of God. If we think that we are superior to other human beings for whatever reason, we will most likely behave in harmful ways toward them.

Thoughts precede actions. As I see it, “original sin” wasn’t the act of eating the forbidden fruit, but the thought “I deserve to be on equal footing with God’. But I don’t believe God insists on having first place because he has a huge ego that needs to be stroked. Amos and the other 8th century prophets were pretty up front about that. “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” That particular brand of bad theology has recurred again and again throughout time and space, probably because people have a tendency to anthropomorphize God. They imagine God would do what humans would do if they were in God’s place, but fortunately God is not human. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”

Instead, I think God forbids humans from assuming the place of God because God knows that when humans try to do that, other humans get hurt. Humans have an innate tendency to think of life as a zero-sum game, where some are winners and others are losers. God didn’t plan this world to be a giant game of king-of-the-mountain, where a few winners battle their way to the top by trampling on the masses of losers beneath them. God planned for all humans to live in a shared world of abundance. But that only works when humans don’t try to be gods flexing their muscles against other humans, wasting the earth’s resources on things like war and hoarding possessions. As Gandhi observed, “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

This world doesn’t need a lot of little would-be gods running around ordering their fellow human beings around and mistreating them. What this world needs is more human beings who understand and accept their place in the created order, who “love thy neighbor as thyself” and who take care of the rest of creation in a responsible way.

Whether this is good news or bad news depends on your perspective. It’s good news for those whose lives are being made miserable by petty would-be human gods. It’s bad news for those who would be gods, because God won’t put up with that kind of hubris forever. Jesus began his ministry by quoting these words from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because 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 favor. “

I think that’s rather good news. How about you?

Advertisements

The Reason for the Rules

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. Luke 13:10-17

“We are a nation of laws”. How many times have you heard that statement, and in what context? Too often it is cited as justification for behavior that causes harm directly or indirectly to human beings created in God’s image. It’s against the law to cross the border without permission, even when fleeing persecution or famine. “Urban camping” is against the law, even if you are homeless and have nowhere else to go. In Arizona, members of a faith group are being prosecuted under littering laws for leaving jugs of water in the desert for travellers who might otherwise die of thirst.

The reason we have laws and rules is to serve and protect people. It’s against the law to murder, to rape, to steal, and to commit perjury, and for good reason. It’s against the law to run red lights, to speed, and to drive under the influence, and there is good reason for those too. But there are some laws and rules that are just pointless, silly, or outdated. Unfortunately there are some laws that are applied in ways that cause more harm than good, as the heartbreaking story of the death of Eric Garner attests. And also unfortunately, laws and rules are often applied unequally. Rich and powerful people get away with things that the poor and powerless are punished for doing, which is a pretty blatant violation of levitical law.

The passage from Luke above is just one of many where Jesus disputed with those who believed that people exist to serve and protect rules, rather than the other way around. God’s purpose in instituting the Sabbath was so that people and animals would not be worked to death. It was meant to be a blessing to people, not a burden, but over many years Sabbath-observation evolved into an absolute rule that must be followed regardless of the harm it might cause. Jesus believed that”The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” I don’t long for a return to the “blue laws” of the recent past, but I do long for a restoration of the principle of Sabbath. When people have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet, when workers in poultry processing plants are forced to wear diapers because they aren’t allowed bathroom breaks, when factory and warehouse workers have their every move followed and critiqued for efficiency, there is something profoundly wrong.

Jesus wasn’t the only one who got into trouble with those who prioritize rules over people. Peter and the other first apostles did too. When they were commanded to stop telling others about Jesus, they responded “We must serve God rather than human authority.” Too often rules serve to protect those in power, rather than all people. Paul got into trouble in Ephesus for cutting into business profits by sharing the message of Jesus.”God’s Smuggler”, Brother Andrew, who famously smuggled Bibles across the Iron Curtain, followed the same rationale when he wrote “The Ethics of Smuggling

“The law” does not have ultimate moral priority. Once upon a time in Europe, Hitler’s “Final Solution” was the law of the land, and it was illegal to shelter Jews. Once upon a time in America, slavery was legal and harboring runaway slaves was illegal. Once upon a time in South Africa, apartheid was legal and racial mixing was illegal. Once upon a time in the fictional universe, Jean Valjean was relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert for stealing bread to feed his starving family. And in many places today, publicly identifying as a follower of Jesus is prohibited by law and violators are prosecuted and punished.

Ultimate moral priority is of divine, not human origin, and I agree with Jesus and Paul’s interpretation of God’s moral priorities: In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets” and ” For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Our ultimate loyalty should be to serve God’s moral priorities, not human ones. “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD ” Depending on the time and place in which one lives, that kind of loyalty can be scary or even dangerous.

Good news? That’s where faith comes in. I believe that by following God’s moral priorities, God’s followers have the power to transform the world into the kind of place God intended when he created it. And that is good news to me.

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness: Be Careful, Little Lips, What You Say

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Exodus 20:16

“Be careful, little lips, what you say. Be careful, little lips, what you say. For the Father up above is looking down in love. Oh, be careful, little lips what you say”
Children’s song; author unknown

It seems that “fake news” and accusations of fake news are ubiquitous these days, especially on social media. People see items on their news feeds and pass them on  without thinking about whether they are true, whether they are helpful, whether they are kind. Sometimes these are silly, entertaining, and innocent fun (cute pet videos anyone?) but other times they are a form of character assassination that can have very harmful consequences.

“Bearing false witness” is not really synonymous with “lying”, as I was taught as a child. In some translations, it reads “give false testimony”. Essentially, the commandment is prohibiting perjury. It is accusing someone of a crime they did not commit, and it was treated very seriously in Mosaic law. “If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime,  the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time.  The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite,  then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you.  The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.  Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Both bearing false witness and lying in general are listed as abominations, right up there with murder, in this proverb:  “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.”

Jesus often broadened the meaning of the commandments rather than applying them in a strict legalistic sense. For example, the commandment against adultery didn’t just mean having sexual intercourse with someone else’s spouse: it meant thinking about it. The commandment against murder didn’t just mean lying in wait and killing someone; it meant harboring hatred against someone. Jesus looked beyond overt behaviors to the attitudes that led to them. As another proverb goes,  “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  Jesus wasn’t too impressed when people used legalistic interpretations of the commandments to get away with doing something that was counter to the intent of the commandment. For example, he condemned the practice of declaring something “corban” so as to avoid responsibility for caring for parents. He condemned the practice of using verbal technicalities to get out of keeping one’s promises. Rather than specific rules that could be cleverly twisted to one’s advantage, Jesus taught principles. For Jesus, the principle underlying all the commandments was what we know as the “Golden Rule:” In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets.”

Paul echoed the same principle when he wrote to the Romans, “The commandments “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and any other commandments, are summed up in this one decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law. If you apply the principle “love does no wrong to its neighbor” to the rule “thou shalt not bear false witnesss”, you will realize that its meaning goes far beyond refraining from perjury. Propaganda, gossip and spreading rumors also violate the spirit of “thou shalt not bear false witness”. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,  “Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.”

James had some strong words to say about the power of the words we say about others: Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

I can’t help but think of how well James’ words describe the harm caused when social media is used to spread lies, rumors, and gossip. It is a forest fire indeed.  In India, there have been several incidents of mob killings of people who were falsely accused of crimes against children. In the United States, there have also been incidents of people being misidentified as perpetrators of terrorist attacks or other horrible crimes. Young people who have been targeted by bullying peers on social media have committed suicide.

Bearing false witness extends to stereotyping entire groups of people in harmful ways too, such as saying that all Muslims are terrorists, all homosexuals are pedophiles, all undocumented immigrants are violent criminals, all gun owners are irresponsible, all Christians are anti-science. All Republicans do not despise the poor. All Democrats are not atheists. Such blanket statements are very harmful and sometimes deadly.  In Arizona, shortly after 9/11, a Sikh man was killed by a stranger who saw his turban and beard, assumed he was a terrorist, and shot him. 

If this principle of causing no harm is applied to the commandment against false witness, it’s not enough to avoid committing perjury. Don’t deliberately spread misinformation with the intent of harming someone. Be very, very careful when sharing derogatory “information” about someone on social media, especially when you do not personally know the person and did not witness the purported act. Pictures can be photoshopped. Videos can be selectively edited. Memes are almost always simplistic. Prefacing something with “if this is true” does not get you off the hook. I’m aware that many people who share such items believe they are being helpful, warning others of danger like a modern-day Paul Revere. But the actual results too often turn out to be more like the instigator of a figurative or (heaven forbid, actual) lynch mob.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” It’s still good advice today.

 

 

 

 

 

Love is an Action Verb

” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

On the fourth Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of love. A day later, on Christmas Eve, we lit the Christ candle in the center of the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Love seems to be pretty important to God, and that’s a consistent theme throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy we read, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.  

Leviticus commands the nascent Israelite community, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Later, Jesus would affirm that these two commands were the essence of the Hebrew scriptures. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love isn’t a feeling, but an action, and that’s a pretty consistent theme throughout the Bible too. God gave the dearest part of himself to the world in the person of Jesus. The ancient Israelites showed their love for God by their loyalty to him, by forsaking all other gods, following God’s commands, and teaching their children to do the same. The Levitical passage is pretty specific about what love of neighbor looks like, as were the great prophets of the Israelite monarchy. Jesus, Paul, James, and John all taught that love is not a feeling, but an action directed toward the well-being of others.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

Love is not a warm fuzzy feeling toward someone. Love is more than sending “thoughts and prayers”. It is a behavior. Or as Doctor Who once observed, “Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a promise”.

Nobody’s Above the Law

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. 2 Samuel 11:27

James I of England is generally given credit for developing the theory of the divine right of kings,  and arguments for and against the idea came strongly into political play during the time of the American Revolution. King Louis XIV of France is reported to have coined the phrase, “L’état, c’est moi.” Some might argue that Jeff Session’s recent public interpretation of Romans 13 uses the concept of divine right to justify the policy of family separation for those who have crossed the US border without official permission. However, the idea that powerful people can do anything they want and are above the law has been around much longer than that. It was certainly commonplace practice during the Bronze and Iron Ages.  Perhaps that’s what David was thinking when he arranged for Uriah’s death in order to acquire Bathsheba for himself.

You can read the whole sordid story in 2 Samuel 11-12 but here’s a quick summary: David has been having a pretty successful run after the death of Saul, assuming first control of the southern territories, and then expanding his rule over the northern tribes as well. He wrests control of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, gets the Ark of the Covenant back from the Philistines, builds himself a nice palace, makes plans to build a temple for God, has a number of significant military victories, and acquires several wives. But for some unknown reason,  one spring “at the time when kings go off to war” David decides to stay home and send the Israelite army off without him. Late one evening he becomes restless, goes up onto his rooftop, and spies on his neigbor Bathsheba, whose husband Uriah is away with the rest of the army. In any event, he decides that he wants to have sex with her. Like many women in the “Me Too” movement, Bathsheba is hardly in a position to say no. When she becomes pregnant as a result of  David’s blatant violation of the seventh commandment, he unsuccessfully tries a number of ruses to get Uriah home to bed his wife before the pregnancy becomes obvious. Uriah is too scrupulous to do that during wartime, so David asks his trusted deputy Joab to arrange a battlefield “accident” for Uriah. Now David is guilty of  blatantly violating the sixth commandment as well as the seventh. He quickly marries Bathsheba; problem solved, or so he thinks. And that’s where today’s reading picks up:

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul.  I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.  Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” -2 Samuel 11:27-12:13

There are several thoughts that come to my mind when I read this passage. David may have thought that because he was king, he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. As absolute ruler, I suppose David could have made everything legal by making an official proclamation to that effect. But what is legal is not necessarily kosher, and that’s not how God thinks. I believe God wove his moral law into the fabric of the universe, and no one is above that law. If it’s not okay for a commoner to rape and kill, it’s not okay for a king either. The rules are supposed to be applied equally to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. Justice is one of the main themes of the Hebrew Bible, along with strong admonitions that rulers are to use their power and wealth to benefit others, not to please themselves. David wasn’t above God’s law, and God let David know that by sending Nathan the prophet to tell him so.

To me, the hero of this story is Nathan, not David. Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s health, so I admire Nathan’s courage and cleverness as well as his moral clarity. It is Nathan, not David, who comes across as  “a man after God’s own heart”   here. Nathan understands how God expects humans to behave and he knows that David has missed the mark by a wide margin. But how can he communicate this in a way that he will be heard, while avoiding the personal repercussions from the wrath of an angry king who doesn’t want to be told what to do? Nathan goes about his goal obliquely, by telling a story. He crafts his story so well that David can’t help but be sympathetic for Nathan’s fictional poor man. It is only after David expresses his anger at the rich man’s outrageous behavior that Nathan delivers his punchline, “You are the man!” I think writers and storytellers and playwrights are often more important in God’s eyes than we know. They can say things that would never be heard otherwise, and if they are in tune with the heart of God they can be a very powerful force for good.

David’s life, at least as recorded in 2 Samuel, went rapidly downhill after the Bathsheba affair. Despite David’s public acts of contrition,  the child of his illicit dalliance died. I have to wonder if being a terrible role model for his other children didn’t have something to do with the fulfillment of Nathan’s prediction, which followed the Amnon/Absalom/Tamar debacle. Just as David felt he had a right to take Bathsheba because he was king, Amnon thought he had a right to take Tamar because he was a prince. Just as David plotted Uriah’s death, Absalom plotted to kill Amnon, and to take David’s throne. In my thinking, that’s how the business of the sins of the parents being visited on succeeding generations usually works. For example, absent divine intervention, therapy, or a combination of both, children of abusers often grow up to be abusers themselves.

Today’s reading also includes Psalm 51, which David is said to have written after his encounter with Nathan, and in which he expresses deep repentance for his behavior. It’s beautiful, emotionally expressive poetry, but I have a problem with those who derive theological implications from David’s declaration that “against thee and thee only (God) have I sinned”.  I think David sinned against quite a few others, including to begin with Uriah, Bathsheba, and the unnamed child who died, but also against Joab by giving him an order to kill. Then there were the loyal soldiers who were collateral damage in the ploy to get rid of Uriah, along with David’s other wives and children. I see the phrase as hyperbole expressing David’s conviction that sinning against humans pales in comparison to sinning against God. The problem I have with that kind of theology is that there’s plenty of evidence in the rest of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, to indicate that when you sin against human beings, you  are sinning against God, If all humans bear the image of God, then how you treat other human beings is how you treat God. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind” is irreversibly yoked with “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  Eighth-century prophets like Amos railed against those who were careful to observe the ritual law while ignoring the moral law. “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells his listeners that  whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Paul summed up the moral law in one commandment: love your neighbor as yourself., as did James: “If you really keep the royal law stated in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors“.

God doesn’t have one set of rules for the rich, powerful “winners” and another one for the poor, vulnerable, and forgotten “losers”. God cares about justice, and is still using courageous voices to remind us that God’s moral law is part of the design of the universe, and applies to everyone. And that’s good news to me.

 

How Not to Impress God

Ash Wednesday 2018

Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:1-11

As a relative newcomer to the liturgical tradition, I’ve found the tradition of Lenten fasting rather an alien concept. Several years ago, I was asked to preach on the subject of fasting but wound up declining the opportunity when I learned that I was expected to talk about the spiritual benefits of going without food rather than what I wanted to talk about, which was more along the lines of what Isaiah says in this passage.  I don’t mean to denigrate those who have found fasting a helpful spiritual practice, but as Isaiah observes, there’s a great deal more to the concept of self-denial than not eating. In some cases, I think “giving up something for Lent” can be rather self-serving. Nobody seems to give up vegetables for Lent. The most common options seem to be less healthy choices like sweets, alcohol, and meat.

Isaiah says that God isn’t impressed with fasting when it is self-serving. If one does a little reading between the lines, it seems that the Israelites are fasting in an attempt to manipulate God, trying to perform a sort of magic ritual that will get God to do what they want. They dress and act the part they think God wants them to play, but God is not impressed. God wants to see transformed lives, not actors playing the role of true believers. Isaiah goes on to give specific examples of what God is looking for in the lives of those who claim to worship God.  Don’t use people in pursuit of your own ends. Stand up for those who cannot or dare not speak for themselves. Don’t just say you oppose injustice; do something to stop people from being unjustly treated. Help those who are in need instead of blaming them for their mistakes. Stop the hate speech and rumor-mongering, which all too often culminate in violent acts. God isn’t impressed by empty words and rituals. In fact, God probably thinks it is blasphemous to claim allegience to God when you ignore God’s consistant commands to seek justice and demonstrate kindness. God would rather see you doing the kinds of things that might demonstrate your ultimate loyalty is to God and not yourself, such as treating other people the way you would like to be treated if you were in their place.

Isaiah isn’t the only Hebrew prophet relaying such a message from God. They are pretty unanimous on the subject, along with the Psalmist and the collector of Proverbs. Today’s reading also includes Joel’s plea to “rend your hearts and not your garments” Amos, never one to mince words, understands God to be saying “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Micah puts it beautifully by asking and then answering his own question: With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul  He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  Hosea, in speaking for God, proclaims “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” which is quoted by Jesus several times.

Speaking of Jesus, he didn’t have very many nice words to say for the spiritual descendents of the Israelites whose empty religion the prophets condemned. “You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Neither did his brother James, who bluntly informed members of the early church that “faith without works is dead” and that “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” James used the example of someone who encounters a cold, hungry person and instead of giving them a coat and something to eat, says “God bless you! Stay warm and eat well!” For James, words without corresponding actions were useless. It rather reminds me of the careless “thoughts and prayers” offered by many public figures in times of national tragedies. If thoughts and prayers don’t result in helping actions, what good are they?

I think that God is much more interested in how we treat other people than he is with a lot of things we think God wants. There are a lot of arcane laws and strange rituals described in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but Jesus told his followers, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Paul echoed this idea when he wrote to the Galatians,  “Serve one another in love. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s easy in retrospect to point fingers at the foolish Israelites who believed they could bend God to their will by reciting the right prayers and observing the right rituals. It’s easy to point fingers at the Pharisees who thought God is more concerned with rigid behavioral codes and rituals than transformed hearts. It’s harder to see the eighth-century Israelite or first-century Pharisee in ourselves. But I think it is critical that we do so, and not just individually. but corporately. It is sobering to me to see so many parallels and know that history repeats itself for those who will not learn from it.  Some very bad things happened to Sodom and Gomorrah because, as Ezekiel puts it, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” Some very bad things happened to the nation of Israel when as a society they did not heed the words of the prophets. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, knowing the very bad things that would happen to them because they would not listen to the words of the prophets or to him. The  apocolyptic books of Daniel and Revelation use the graphic imagery of dreams as metaphors for the fall of entire nations.

I am afraid that in today’s world, religion has been similarly emptied of meaning in too many ways to discuss in one post. Like the ancient Israelites, we try to use God to get what we want. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, we mouth the words and perform the rituals, but our lives are not transformed.  It seems to me that although holding onto a form of Judeo-Christianity, many people’s loyalty is not really to the one God we see revealed in Jesus. Rather, we give our hearts and minds and souls to a pantheon of other gods including Mammon, Ares, Dionysius, Aphrodite, Narcissus, Caesar, and Trithereon, along with the gods we have created in our own image. I don’t think the real God is any more pleased with this kind of idolotrous synchronism than God was pleased when the Israelites tried to cover all their bases by adding the worship of Baal and Astarte to the worship of Yahweh.  I don’t think the real God is particulalry impressed when people act more like followers of the Pharisees than followers of Jesus. And from what I understand from studying the Bible and from history, our society is in a very dark place right now and the outlook for its future is not good. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Lent is a reminder that humans are mortal and neither they nor the societies they build will last forever.

The good news is that God never gives up on us.  Isaiah 58 goes on to say that if only Israel will change her ways, things can be different. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Even Ninevah, which was about as high on the axis-of-evil badlist as they come, was spared when they changed their ways. The arc of the moral universe is long, but God is bending it inexorably towards justice. We can either help or find ourselves pushed out of the way.

 

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me: Just What do You Mean by “Gods”?

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. Exodus 20:2-3

The first commandment in the Decalogue as presented in Exodus 20 doesn’t really establish monotheism. It simply reminds the newly freed Hebrew people that Yahweh was responsible for freeing them from slavery, and that he deserves the highest priority. “YHWH” was the personal name for God, and the vowels are really guesses, because Biblical Hebrew doesn’t include them. In addition, out of reverence the name of God was not to be spoken. I committed a major faux pas once in the presence of a nice Jewish lady who was attempting to teach me to read Hebrew. As I painfully sounded out the letter sounds for each word, I came to the tetragrammaton and said the name of God aloud. She was horrified; and immediately corrected me. When you come across the letters YHWH you are supposed to read the word as “Adonai”, or Lord., which is also how most English-language Bibles translate the word. YHWH was the special god of the Hebrew people, just as Baal was the god of the Canaanites, Dagon was the god of the Philistines, and so on. (“Elohim” was the more generic name for a god or gods, and is usually translated as “God”.) As the Hebrew people entered the Promised Land, they might be tempted to worship some of the local deities, probably in order to hedge their bets and ensure that they lived long and prospered.

It wasn’t until much later in Hebrew history that true monotheism emerged. Deuteronomy 5 repeats the list of Ten Commandments found in Exodus, but Deuteronomy 6 goes a step further by recording what has come to be known as the  beginning of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus as confirming that this is the most important, or primary commandment. “Now one of the scribes had come up and heard their debate. Noticing how well Jesus had answered them, he asked Him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “This is the most important: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The command to “have no other gods before me”  has morphed into a command to “love God with all your being”. There is only one God, and that’s the God who revealed himself to the Hebrew people as “I am”. And it is to that God that we are commanded to pledge our ultimate loyalty.

Just what does the word “God” mean, anyway?  It certainly seems to mean different things to different people, then and now. To ancient peoples, the gods seemed to have been powerful beings responsible for controlling nature, but who could be controlled by human beings who would careful to perform the correct rituals in the correct way.  Many modern atheists seem to have a similar understanding of the word, and I can joke that I also don’t believe in the same “angry sky god” they don’t believe in. I also don’t believe in a god like the ones depicted in the Greco-Roman pantheon. Those remind me quite a lot of the character of “Q” in Star Trek: extremely powerful and long-lived beings who tend to get bored and play with mortal beings for their own amusement. Some people seem to think that God is some kind of cosmic vending machine: offer up the right prayers or do the right things, and you will be rewarded with your choice from a selection of blessings. I don’t believe in that kind of god, either.

By definition, I don’t think you can define God, nor can you control God by your behavior. When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he asked God “Who are you?” and received the rather cryptic answer, “I am“. When you start to try to define God, you are putting God in the box of your own understanding, and God has a tendency to break out of boxes. Although God can’t be defined, I think we can begin to understand what God is like in the human person of Jesus, “the visible image of the invisible God“. According to Genesis, all human beings bear the imprint of God’s image, but the image of God can be seen most clearly in Jesus. Using Jesus as my reference point, I understand the nature of God as a creative and redemptive force for good.

Why would it be of such importance to God to “have no other gods before me”? I think the commandment is more for our benefit than for God’s. God is not a narcissist who constantly needs us to tell him how wonderful he is. God doesn’t need anything from us, as Captain Kirk observed when he asked a god-pretender “What does God need with a starship?”  Rather, I think that God is aware of all the bad things that are caused by the messed-up priorities that result from messed-up conceptions of God. What you think is important to your conception of God becomes what is important to you. If Moloch is your god, you think child sacrifice is not only acceptable, but desirable and necessary for the smooth functioning of society. I doubt that there is anyone alive today who literally worships Mars or Venus or Bacchus,  but there are many whose goals in life are to exert power and control over others by any means necessary. There are plenty of people who are obsessed with sexual conquest, who see people not as people, but objects for their own gratification. There are lots of people who think that maximizing their own pleasure is what’s most important, even when that causes harm to others. And I won’t even get into the worship of Mammon and its credo that greed is good and the one who dies with the most toys wins. We like to think of ancient peoples as primitive and foolish, but when we think of what those gods represented to them, we see that they were not so different from people today. We still tend to place our confidence and direct our attention toward the wrong gods- things like money, power, and desire.

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is still pretty relevant today. How different the world would be if more people dedicated their time, talents, and energies toward the kind of God we see in Jesus!