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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

 

 

 

Tablets of Stone or Tablets in the Heart?

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Monuments in public places, and what they represent, have become a subject of debate lately. Roy Moore, the current Republican candidate for Jeff Session’s Alabama senate seat, was removed from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying a court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments commissioned by him for display in the public square. There have been similar cases in other states. Moore, and those like him, think the Ten Commandments are an essential part of the law of our land, and therefore ought to be widely acknowledged, known, and publicized. Other people believe equally strongly that the Ten Commandments are primarily religious laws, and as such should be separated from the business of government. Despite having such strong opinions, most people don’t know the commandments well enough to list them, or identify what isn’t in them.

Exactly how the commandments are numbered varies a little by faith traditions, because the Bible was originally written as a running document, with the familiar chapters and verses added long after the canon was completed.  Here is a list of the commandments in Exodus 20, divided according to the Protestant tradition with which I am most familiar:

1. 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.

2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

5. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

-Exodus 20 (repeated in Deuteronomy 5)

Exodus 31 describes God as giving Moses what came to be known as the Mosaic Law orally, but the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets of stone by the finger of God, which God then gave to Moses. When Moses heads down from Mount Sinai with the tablets, he finds the people busily breaking several of the commandments, shatters them in anger, and makes the people drink a concoction made from their stone dust. God has to engrave a second set of stone tablets with the same commandments, which will be placed in the Ark of the Covenant and eventually be lost in the mists of time. Whether you believe that God literally used his finger to inscribe the Ten Commandments onto stone tablets, or understand this part of the story as metaphor is irrelevant to me. What I understand both to mean is that these specific commandments were set apart from other parts of the Mosaic law in a significant way. For some reason, these particular rules were given the highest priority.

Why were these particular commandments set in stone? Were they more important than the other laws recorded in the Torah? If so, it’s interesting to note what is and what isn’t included in the Big Ten, as well as how widely they are actually observed.  There’s only one sexual prohibition included in the Ten Commandments- unfaithfulness to one’s spouse. Prohibitions against theft and murder are enshrined in our legal system, but the commandment against creating images of any living thing (take that, Instagram!) seems to be pretty widely ignored in modern society, even by the most ardent proponents of Ten Commandment monuments in public places. The command to refrain from working every seventh day and to grant one’s employees and even one’s animals one day of rest out of every seven isn’t widely practiced, either. And “greed is good” seems to have become somewhat of a modern capitalist mantra.

Were they meant to be a concise summary, a sort of Cliff’s Notes of all the other laws?  The first four deal with the human relationship with God, and the remaining six deal with human relationships with other humans. The summary hypothesis makes sense when paired with these statements from Jesus: “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 whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The great Talmudic sage Hillel, who also lived in the first century, came to a similar conclusion: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it!”

Maybe the written law was meant to function as a kind of training wheels for human beings who were only beginning to understand who God was, and how he wanted people to behave.  The  prophet Jeremiah foresaw a time when God’s laws would be internalized: The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them”, declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Paul seems to concur with this understanding, Before this faith came, we were held in custody under the Law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the Law became our guardian to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”

James Fowler postulated that the development of faith goes through predictable stages, similar to Piaget’s and Erickson’s stages of cognitive and psychosocial development. One of the most important concepts in understanding any developmental theory is the realization that people in the earlier stages cannot understand what is going on in the minds of people in the later stages of development. An infant can’t understand that Mommy doesn’t cease to exist when she is not visible, while a toddler knows that an out-of-sight mommy is somewhere, and may go looking for her. Parenting young children is very different from parenting adolescents, because young children operate from a literal, concrete perspective while teenagers are becoming capable of abstract thought. I used to teach science, which often necessitated a review of algebraic concepts, and found that some of my students struggled with higher math, while others did not. Usually, it wasn’t a question of intelligence, but of developmental readiness. A good teacher understands that, and tailors lessons to be appropriate for students’ developmental levels.

When my son was a young child, I once had a conversation with him about his behavior in school. He informed me that since the Bible says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, his inappropriate behaviors were justified because of the inappropriate behaviors of others. I responded that Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and to do good things for them instead of trying to get even. He gave me a disgruntled look and said, “Well, anybody can be wrong!” He could not comprehend Jesus’s teaching, because he was not developmentally ready to understand it.

I think God is a good teacher, and is aware of our developmental levels. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way,  “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” In the “fullness of time“, when humanity had become developmentally ready to receive him, God sent Jesus to teach us how to relate to God, and to each other. There is only one law, the law of love, or as James describes it,  “the perfect law of liberty“, and if it is written on our hearts we will have no need to see it written on tablets of stone.

And that’s good news to me.

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21-28

The story of the Canaanite woman is both interesting and troubling. The way that Jesus behaves toward the woman seems out of character for him. At first he ignores her plea for help and then he tells her his mission isn’t to help “her kind” of people. He comes pretty close to calling her a derogatory name. Nevertheless, she persists, and seems to show more politeness toward Jesus than he does to her. Jesus responds by apparently changing his mind about who is deserving of his help, praises her for her faith, and there’s a nice happily-ever-after-ending to the story.  It reminds me of the parable of the unjust judge, which doesn’t seem to paint God in a very good light, either.

The traditional interpretation of the story- that Jesus was just testing his disciples and/or the woman in order to teach them a lesson- has always created cognitive dissonance for me. To put it bluntly, it seems cruel, and I see Jesus as being “never cruel or cowardly”.  I never have been very successful with explaining away things in the Bible which bother me, nor tossing out the bits and pieces of it that are hard to understand. Instead I wrestle with them, sometimes for a very long time, until I can come to a conclusion that makes sense to me. I often find that the struggle results in a quantum leap in my faith understanding. No pain, no gain. Like Jacob, I won’t let go without a blessing.

So here’s what I am thinking today about this passage. Orthodox theology teaches that Jesus was a paradox, fully human and fully divine simultaneously. I think that the description of Jesus as “He, being in very nature God” refers to the essential character of God, which is not omniscience or omnipotence, but love. I think that the human Jesus was a product of his culture, which taught him that the world was flat and that Jews were superior to their Canaanite neighbors. There’s a peculiar story in Genesis where Noah’s son Ham walks in on his drunken, naked father, and when Noah wakes up, he curses his grandson Canaan into slavery to his brothers.  The book of Deuteronomy has God commanding the extermination of the Canaanites inhabiting the Promised Land, which Joshua attempts to do as wholeheartedly and bloodily as any of the Game of Thrones characters.  The few who manage to trick Joshua’s invading armies into sparing them are sentenced to be “hewers of wood and carriers of water” in perpetuity. Saul loses his kingship for sparing  King Agag of the Amalekites (a subgroup of Canaanite). Jesus would have heard all these stories, and many more like them,  and I think up until this point he had not really examined them in light of his growing understanding of who he was and what his purpose was in God’s redemptive plan. I think that his encounter with the Canaanite woman was an “eureka moment” for Jesus. The persistence of the Canaanite mother changed the way he thought about insiders and outsiders.

Some may have difficulty with my explanation, arguing that Jesus was sinless and therefore could not have been prejudiced. Which is worse, prejudice or purposeful cruelty in the form of testing, even if it is supposedly “for the greater good”? Perhaps prejudice itself is not a sin; it is when we fail to question our prejudices, or when we act on them in harmful ways, that we fall into sin. I don’t think there is anyone who can truthfully claim to be completely free of prejudice, of making assumptions about people we don’t know. We are all products of our cultures, with a natural tendency to be tribalistic, to be suspicious of people who are not part of our group. But when we get to know an outsider, we begin to question our pre-judgements and assumptions about “those people”. Couldn’t that be what happened to Jesus?

I grew up a white person in the segregated South. My fourth grade history book, “Know Alabama”, imagined happy, contented slaves, portrayed the Civil War as a battle for state’s rights, and described the KKK as a necessary and good constraint on our carpetbagger oppressors. Many schools were named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other heroes of the Confederacy. My Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers applied the “curse of Ham” story to explain that those of African descent were meant to be subservient to those of European descent. My mother, who was progressive enough to be threatened with cross-burning in her yard, once hesitated before handing me the phone to talk to a black classmate who had called to thank my father for his help in getting a job. She hesitated, but she thought about it and handed me the phone.

At some point, I, like my mother before me, and I think like Jesus in this story, began to question what we had been taught. My elementary school was segregated, but my high school was not, and I met black people who were smart and funny and kind and not in the least inferior to me. I read widely from a variety of sources, and began to see history through different perspectives. I also read the Bible quite a lot, and began to notice things my Sunday School teachers hadn’t mentioned. For example, when Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses’s Cushite wife, God struck Miriam with leprosy as a punishment. I couldn’t quite follow the curse of Ham logic, either. Not only did it seem overly punitive to punish all of Ham’s descendents for what seemed to me to be a minor infraction, I didn’t see where Africa came into the picture at all. There were many other Bible stories involving African people in positions of honor and leadership, like the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Eventually my own observations and Bible study led me to the place where I decided my textbooks and Sunday School teachers were wrong. But my questioning of tradition began with my first contact with black classmates.

Jesus was no stranger to questioning authority. In fact, there are several examples of him doing that in the very same chapter in which we find today’s story. He rejects both (the misuse of) Scripture and traditional purity laws as the basis for living a life pleasing to God. So it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination for me to think that Jesus, when confronted by the Canaanite woman, might have begun to question what he’d been taught about the proper place of Canaanites. He might have started out holding the prejudices common to his culture, but that’s not where he ended up, and that’s not how he behaved. His essential character overcame his learned prejudices. He healed the woman’s daughter, and he praised her faith. The writer of Luke tells a similar story, this time involving the faith of a Roman centurion.

From what I can infer, at some point in his ministry, Jesus moved from an exclusionary to an inclusionary understanding of God’s grace. Perhaps it was a direct consequence of the unnamed Canaanite woman’s persistence, although we can’t know for sure. What we can be sure of is this: No one is outside God’s grace, and there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. This is made especially clear in the story John tells of the woman at the well.    Paul, whose letters predate the writing of the gospels, writes in soaring poetry, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

“Nevertheless, she persisted”. It’s a pretty amazing story to think that this woman played the role of teacher to the son of God and caused him to change his mind. I’m impressed…and encouraged. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today, lots of fear and prejudice and hate. There are people who think God’s grace is meant for them, not others, those who want to exclude rather than include.  It’s scary and depressing and overwhelming at times. But I believe that change can come, not by power and control, but by love.  Persist. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”