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 But there are some laws and rules that are just pointless, silly, or outdated.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.

Choose Wisely

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Choose this day whom you will serve. Joshua 24;15

Who can forget the Holy Grail scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Indiana Jones and his Nazi opponents must choose the right cup among dozens on display. The knight guarding the Grail warns them to “choose wisely”, because although the correct choice will bring life, the incorrect choice will bring death. And that’s exactly what happens. After choosing an ornate golden cup, Donovan ages rapidly and crumbles into dust as the Grail’s guardian intones, “He chose poorly.” Indiana Jones chooses a plain, ordinary cup, which turns out to be the correct one, and uses it to save his father’s life.

In today’s Old Testament reading, an elderly Joshua gives his last lecture to the people he has successfully led into the Promised Land. He reminds them of all that God has done for them, beginning with the initial call of Abraham and the liberation of his descendents from slavery in Egypt. He tells his audience that the time has come to make a choice. They can either choose to serve God, or they can choose to serve other gods. But they must choose wisely. If they only give lip service to serving God but in practice devote themselves to other gods, there will be harmful consequences. And of course, that’s exactly what happens. The Israelites fell into idolatry again and again, despite the best efforts of prophets like Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah to warn them, until they ceased to exist as a nation. They chose poorly.

It’s easy for people today to laugh at the concept of idolatry as archaic and foolish, but I think it’s because they are looking at it from a literal rather than a metaphorical perspective. An idol can be anything you believe you can manipulate into giving you what you think you want. It’s whatever commands your ultimate loyalty, something you sacrifice your attention, time, resources, and even other people, toward satisfying. Unfortunately, we are just as prone to idol worship in the twenty-first century as those who lived in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Our pantheon contains many of the same gods, although we may call them by different names. The desire for more wealth, more pleasure, and more power has proved to be the downfall of many individuals and of whole nations.

Regarding the idolatrous pursuit of money, power, and pleasure, Jesus advised his would-be followers that “You cannot serve God and Mammon“; “the last will be first and the first last“; andwhoever seeks to save his life will lose it” These teachings, and others along those lines, were just as difficult for those who first heard them as they are for us today. In today’s Gospel passage, John notes that many of those who enthusiastically followed Jesus when he multiplied bread (not to mention turning water into wine) left as soon he started talking about self-sacrifice. It’s easy to follow someone, or something, that you think will give you whatever you want. It’s hard to follow someone, or something, that requires self-restraint and placing the needs of others above your own desires.That’s why idolatry has always been a popular choice, and I see little difference between ancient Baal-worshippers and modern proponents of the prosperity gospel. The Hebrew prophets and Jesus spoke with one voice in proclaiming that the idolatry of self-serving is not good for individuals or societies, and that it will inevitably lead to harmful consequences.

We are just as likely to be distracted by bright shiny objects as the fictional Elsa in the movie. Indiana Jones chose the right cup because he apparently understood the teachings of Jesus better than she did. That knowledge enabled him to choose wisely, and it can do  the same for us. 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.”

 

Joshua, Jesus, Constantine, and Christ

It’s interesting to me that Joshua and Jesus have the same Hebrew name (יְהוֹשׁ֫וּעַ in Hebrew; Ἰησοῦς in Greek, meaning “Yahweh saves.” The meaning of the name accurately describes both Joshua and Jesus, but their approaches to carrying out God’s salvation were quite different. Joshua is portrayed as a military leader who led the conquest of Canaan, killing every man, woman, child, and animal in cities under the ban, along with those of his own people who did not follow those instructions to the letter. Jesus is the suffering servant and good shepherd who  taught nonviolence  and demonstrated God’s love by “dying for us while we were yet sinners.” The two approaches seem quite opposite to me, and I wrote about this in an earlier post on the book of Joshua. How exactly does God save? Through power and control, or through love and service?

One of the reasons many first century Jews had such a hard time accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah is that he did not fulfill their expectations of a conquering military hero who would toss the Roman bullies out of Israel and re-establish a Davidic dynasty. Instead of using his divine superpowers to control people and perhaps strike a few of them dead, he healed the sick and fed the hungry. Instead of living in luxury in a palace and demanding obeisance from cowed subjects, he lived the lifestyle of a homeless itinerant teacher who told his followers that the first shall be last and “the greatest among you shall be your servant”   Instead of calling down ten thousand angels to rescue him and strike down those who tortured and mocked him, he prayed “Father, forgive them.” Paul makes the contrast clear in his letter to the Philippians when he describes Jesus as someone “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!

It’s pretty clear to me that most of the early Christians tried to apply the example and teachings of Jesus to their own lives and situations.  In fact, that’s where the descriptor “Christian” came from, and it was not originally meant as a compliment. “Christians” were people whose first loyalty was to Christ, not Caesar, and that was a very dangerous thing to do in the Roman Empire. “Christians” also tried to emulate the behavior of Jesus in their interactions with others, and that was considered a very foolish thing to do. In spite of, and probably also partially because of, continuing antipathy from those in positions of power, the faith continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire.

By the turn of the fourth century, political factions threatened to split the Roman Empire into East and West components, with several contenders jockeying for power on both sides. There were two schools of thought on the part of these would-be emperors on how to deal with the exponential growth of Christianity: doubling down on persecution, or assimilation.  In 312 AD,  legend has it that Constantine, one of the contenders for the Western throne, had a dream of a cross and the words “In this sign you will conquer”. He directed his soldiers to paint their shields with a sign of the cross, the battle went his way, and he converted to Christianity. Although the historical jury is out as to whether his conversion was genuine or practical, Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, and assimilation began. The persecuted were now the powerful, and Constantine was their Joshua, the hand of God who saved them and led them into the promised land.

However, in the retrospect of centuries, it seems to me that Constantine’s conversion was one of the most spiritually dangerous things that ever happened to the church. Those in power generally want to stay in power, and the threat of hellfire and damnation became quite a useful  tool to ensure forced obedience. Christianity and Christendom are not the same thing. Christians are followers of Christ, whose ultimate loyalty is to God alone. Christendom is a conflation of Christianity and empire, and its subjects have divided loyalties. The way of Christ is the way of love and service. The way of empire is the way of power and control. Where Christ transforms, empire compels. They are not compatible. There’s a (probably apocryphal) quote attributed to Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” I can’t help but think that the Christians to whom Gandhi was referring were more ambassadors for Christendom than ambassadors for Christ.

Joshua is recorded as saying in his farewell speech to the Israelite people, Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house I will serve the Lord.” Jesus warned his followers, “No one can serve two masters.” Which will it be, the way of power and control or the way of love and service? The way of Constantine or the way of Christ?

As for me and my house, I choose Christ.

 

 

 

 

Joshua: A Matter of Perspective

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on[b] its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.  There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

To be honest, the book of Joshua is the origin of my descent into apostasy (according to some of my more conservative friends, who think I have one foot on a slippery banana peel and the other in hell). In the Christian Bible, Joshua is considered a book of history, but in the Hebrew Bible, it’s one of the Former Prophets.  It was this book that first set me on the road of questioning the idea of Biblical literalism.  The idea that God would command his faithful followers to kill every man, woman, child, and animal in the cities the invading Israelite armies attacked was a huge theological problem to me, one which could not be resolved by all the traditional apologetic commentaries I consulted, Most seemed to invoke some form of dispensationalistic reasoning; i.e.; those commands were only for that time period and God gave different commands later. I could understand the idea of not wanting the nascent  God-worshiping community to be contaminated by Caananite religious practices, many of which were quite horrible. But killing all the babies? Animals? I cannot square that picture of God with the picture I see in other parts of the Bible, much less in the life and teachings of Jesus.

Then there are the archaeological findings from the excavation of Jericho, Ai, and other cities mentioned in Joshua, which do not support the destruction of those cities by any Biblical or extrabiblical calculation of the time of the conquest. And the book of Judges, which seems to indicate a gradual rather than sudden infiltration of the Israelite people into their promised lands. And the odd passage quoted above, which I do not think can be understood literally. The sun could not have stopped in the sky, because the sun does not orbit the earth. The earth could not have briefly stopped spinning, because the catastrophic geological events that would have followed would have given Joshua a lot more to worry about than the Amorites. I suppose God could have resorted to some kind of timey-wimey relativistic option, but I think there is a simpler explanation, and that is perspective.

From the perspective of Joshua, time stood still while the battle was raging. The brain does funny things to the perception of time when under stress, as attested by those who say “my whole life flashed before my eyes” during a traumatic event. I think that’s what happens a lot in the Bible. From the perspective of the writers of Joshua (which was probably written in hindsight hundreds of years after the conquest) God commanded the total destruction (herem) of everybody and everything in the conquered cities. God in fact punished Achan (and later Saul) for failing to totally destroy what was under the ban. I might point out that this perspective is exactly the one held today by Boka Haram, ISIS/ISIL, and other militant groups, and rightly condemned by the majority of Muslims as not being what God desires.

The way I have come to understand the Bible is that it speaks with many voices, some of them originating from a very primitive time in humanity’s cognitive, social, and moral development. God himself does not change, but the way humans understand God does change. The Bible is not record, but testimony, and testimonies always have an element of subjectivity.Not all the voices in the Bible have equal weight. The question for me is not “what does the Bible say?” for it says many things. Rather, it is “to which voices will I listen?”

As a Christian, the answer for me  is found in the person and way of Jesus, who I might add, was rather selective about the Biblical voices he chose to hear. Jesus is the lens through which I read the Bible. I like the way the writer of Hebrews puts it: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.” If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.

And I think that’s good news.