Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. Exodus 20:12

What does “honor” mean? The Ten Commandments were originally written in Hebrew, and English translations don’t always give a complete understanding of a word or phrase. Here, the word used is “kbd”,which interestingly enough has an etiology related to the words “heavy” and “liver”. That isn’t particularly surprising considering that in ancient times being heavy meant that you were rich enough to afford a surplus of food. Eli was described as being “heavy“, which is why he broke his neck when he fell over backward. When a king or other prominent person gave a banquet, honor might be shown by the host to a particular guest by sending choice morsels to the honoree’s table.  Think of Joseph sending his half-brothers portions from his table and giving an extra-large serving to his full brother Benjamin.

So the idea of “honoring father and mother” meant first of all seeing that their physical needs were taken care of. In a time when there was no Social Security, no Medicare, pensions, or 401Ks, it was up to one’s (adult) children to provide for their aging parents’ needs for food, shelter, and clothing. Jesus criticized certain religious leaders of his time for using God as an excuse to weasel out of this responsibility. “For Moses said, ‘Honor your Father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever you would have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift committed to God), he is no longer permitted to do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.

But the concept goes further than merely seeing that the physical needs of one’s parents are attended to; the attitude in which these services are performed are just as important. I like this reference to a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, which says that it is possible to feed one’s parent succulent hens and still inherit hell, while a person can make his parent work on a grindstone and still inherit paradise. The passage continues to explain that the child gives a father succulent food, but when the father asks where the food is from, the son answers “Quiet, old man. A dog eats quietly, so you eat quietly.” This son inherits hell. However, the second case involved the son who worked at the grindstone. When the king summoned grindstone workers to the palace to endure back-breaking work, the son told the father to take the son’s place at the family’s own grindstone and to work, so that the father would not suffer or be treated in an undignified manner before the king. This son inherits paradise.”  A better translation for “honor” might be “treat with dignity”. Don’t treat your parents in ways that demean them.  Or as my Asian friends might express it, don’t cause them to lose face.

Honoring one’s parents doesn’t necessarily mean doing everything they say, or agreeing with them about everything. There’s the story of the twelve-year old Jesus in the temple, who got so interested in theological conversations with the rabbis that he forgot where he is supposed to be. Apparently, when Jesus started his ministry, his family did not think it was such a good idea. Mark relates an incident where his mother and brothers came to get him, because they worried he was having some kind of mental breakdown. When told that your mother and brothers are asking for you” he responded, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” . Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”Jesus also used some rather strong hyperbole when he talked about the cost of discipleship, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” There was clearly some family conflict going on at this time about what Jesus was doing and where it would eventually lead. Yet despite the disagreement, Jesus honored his mother. He did not ignore her, demean her, or neglect her. One of the last things Jesus did before dying on the cross was to ask one of his best friends to take care of her.

“Honor thy father and thy mother”. Exactly what that looks like may look different in modern times, but the principle still applies. Food, shelter, and clothing may be less of a concern than they were in ancient times, but emotional needs such as love and belongingness and self esteem are perhaps more important than ever. Now, go call your mother.

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Honor the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 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. Exodus 20:8-11

It’s interesting that the primary requirement of the fourth commandment is not to go to church, but to rest. It’s also interesting that the prohibition against working on the Sabbath was extended to slaves, resident aliens, and even animals. The ancient Israelites seem to have been quite serious about the observance of this commandment and its violators were to be put to death. (A list of all capital crimes in the Torah can be found here.) By Jesus’s time, there was quite a body of law  which elaborated in detail just what was considered “work” and therefore prohibited. Religious people didn’t want to go anywhere God’s red line, lest they accidentally stumble across it. “The Rabbis decreed that one not only should avoid forbidden acts but also must not do anything that (1) resembles a prohibited act or could be confused with it, (2) is a habit linked with a prohibited act, or (3) usually leads to performing a prohibited act”.

When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, blue laws were widely observed. These Sunday prohibitions affected most places of work and stores. Sometimes restaurants, grocery stores, drugstores, or movie theaters would open after noon on Sundays, which when you think about it, doesn’t match with the concept of a full day of rest for everyone. And what about Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and others who observed the Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday? Blue laws seem to me to have been designed to encourage everyone to go to church and after that obligation was taken care of, it was back to business as usual. Even after most of the blue laws began to be repealed, there would often be prohibitions on the selling of alcohol, sometimes only until noon and sometimes all day Sunday. Where did that come from? It’s not in the Bible, and not even in the Mishnah. In fact, there is a special blessing which is said over the wine as Shabbat begins. And by the way, the Sabbath as described in the Bible begins at sunset on Friday, not at dawn on Sunday.

Jesus often found himself crossways with the most religiously observant people of his time about the meaning of the commandments, and this one was no exception. The gospels relate several instances where he healed people on the Sabbath, as well as one where he and his disciples plucked themselves a snack as they walked through a grainfield. Jesus explained his controversial actions by saying that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.It was appropriate to do good on the Sabbath because demonstrating love of neighbor took precedence over strictly observing the Sabbath rules. For Jesus, the one rule to rule them all was the rule of love. The reason God gave Moses the fourth commandment  was not to make life difficult, but to make it easier. People are not machines, and should not be used and abused as such. Extended periods of rest are essential for human well-being, and God cared enough to give a commandment instructing that they receive them. Unfortunately, then as now, people have a way to interpret rules in ways that follow the letter of the law while violating the spirit in which it was given.

I am sorry to say that I think in modern society, we violate the spirit of this commandment all the time, to our detriment and that of others. Recently, I saw a news article about a Japanese woman who literally worked herself to death by putting in massive amounts of overtime. A few years ago there was a similar case by an investment broker, as well as a rash of suicides in the financial sector.  The medical profession is notorious for demanding grueling schedules for interns and residents On the other end of the pay scale, there are many jobs which do not pay a living wage, forcing people to work two and three jobs in an attempt to make ends meet. Many retail employees do not have predictable schedules, much less a regular day of rest.  In addition to the human damage caused by unrelenting work, there are the animals who live out their brief and unhappy lives on factory farms. The Fourth Commandment prescribed a day of rest for farm animals, too.

Honor the Sabbath Day to keep it holy“. I think we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water on this one. We’ve not only tossed out the rulebook, we’ve abandoned the principle behind it as well. I’m not proposing a return to the “blue laws” of the fifties and sixties, nor of trying to follow all the detailed rules of the ultra-Orthodox. We no longer live in an agrarian, pre-industrial society, so I think God expects us to adapt the rules to our place in space and time. But the principle underlying the rules still applies, just as much now as it did thousands of years ago.

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!

 

 

 

“Believe” is an Action Verb

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

“God prefers kind atheists to hateful Christians”- Internet meme

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew 21 contains another one of Jesus’s parables which is puzzling if taken out of context, but becomes more obvious when read in the context in which Matthew chose to place it.  Matthew 21 begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree. The religious powers-that-be are disturbed by these events, which makes me think they knew exactly what Jesus meant by his actions, and didn’t like it. They try posing a “gotcha” question to Jesus, only to find themselves successfully deflected. If that weren’t annoying enough, he then proceeds to tell two stories which make the same point as his actions, only one of which is included in today’s reading. You really should read the whole chapter, which I’ve hyperlinked above, but here’s today’s portion:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” Matthew 21:23-32

The Pharisees have a pretty bad reputation among most Christians today, but when I try to place myself in their shoes, I can not only understand where they were coming from, but see their counterpoints today. Most of the narrative parts of their sacred scriptures repeatedly conveyed the same message: God chose the nation of Israel to be his special people, and Moses gave them the laws God wanted them to follow. When they obeyed, good things happened and when they didn’t, bad things happened. Eventually God became fed up with their disobedience, and allowed their nation to be conquered by foreign powers, who exiled many of their people and occupied the rest. Through the crucible of the Exile, a faithful remnant decided that this must never happen again. They would be very careful to observe all the laws of Moses exactly, and make sure others did the same. Just to make sure no one got anywhere near stepping over the red lines they understood God had drawn, they would “build a fence around the Torah“. (An interesting article on the Men of the Great Assembly can be found here)

Thus it comes as no surprise that most, although not all, of the Pharisees of Jesus’s time saw him as a dangerous and heretical figure. While the Pharisees taught rules, Jesus taught the principles underlying the rules. “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it”.  The word “fulfill” might better be translated “complete”. There were two great principles underlying all of the law: love of God and love of neighbor. “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” And pushing the envelope a bit further, he doesn’t even mention God when he equates living by the Golden Rule as God’s overriding principle for living a righteous life: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Where the rules conflicted with the principle of love behind the rule, Jesus taught that the principle rather than the rule should be followed. He got into trouble several times for healing people on the Sabbath, for one example see the incident described here. Then there’s the incident John described, where Jesus intervened in the execution of a clearly guilty woman in direct contravention of the death penalty prescribed by Moses.    Jesus seemed to have spent a great deal of his time hanging around with the marginalized, the outcasts, and the forgotten, who flocked to his side. His harshest words were not directed to “sinners”, but to those religious zealots who drove people away from God by their words and actions. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” 

As I understand the parable of the two sons, one son represents the Pharisees, and the other son represents the motley crew of misfits Jesus seemed to attract. It is a conflict between the “old time religion” of the Pharisees and the  “new wine” religion of Jesus. Tradition has it that Mosaic law, and the oral traditions that elaborated on it, proscribed  613 rules to follow. Although the Pharisees were careful to follow the letter of these laws, they often managed to violate their spirit in self-serving ways. That’s why Jesus cast them in the role of the son who says “I obey” but whose actions don’t match his words. I have to think Jesus had people like Zaccheus and this “sinful woman”(who is often identified with Mary Magdalene but probably wasn’t) in mind in the role of the son who says “no” with his words but “yes” with his actions.  Today, I can still see those who say “No” to the demanding, punitive God portrayed by the Pharisees, but will joyfully say “Yes” to the loving, forgiving God personified by Jesus. Which one does the will of the Father? The one who says “yes, Lord” and then does as he pleases, or the one who says “no” to ossified religion and then works to bring to fruition what God wants to happen in the world?

Does God prefer kind atheists to hateful Christians? I have a number of atheist friends who are very kind, and I know some self-identified Christians who are quite mean. Or to put it another way, there are some atheists who live as though God is, and some self-identified Christians who live as though God is not. And quite a few of my atheist friends have come  to the conclusion that there is no God because of the behavior of self-identified Christians who act more like Pharisees than Jesus, and I don’t that makes God very happy. The parable implies that what you do is more important than what you say, which Jesus says clearly here:  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, it seems that there will be some surprises in the end about who’s on God’s good side and who’s on God’s bad side, and again the criteria isn’t what you say, but what you do. Going further out on a limb that some may see as heretical, I find it interesting that Jesus says, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven before you“. It’s interesting not only if you substitute today’s preferred scapegoat sinner groups for the tax collectors and prostitutes, but also because of the bit about those people entering “ahead of you“, implying that both groups eventually get in, although not in the expected order. Perhaps the doors to the kingdom of heaven are never slammed in anyone’s face.

The core message of both John the Baptist and Jesus was “Repent, and believe the good news“. “Repent” isn’t a feeling; it’s a change of mind and direction. “Believe” isn’t intellectual assent to a creed, but a commitment to a different way of life. As I understand the teachings of Jesus, the change of direction that is required is away from mindless dedication to rules and toward conscious application of the principle of love of God and neighbor. The commitment is not to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but to act on the belief that Jesus knew what he was talking about when it comes to the meaning of  life, the universe, and everything, and in response to follow him. And the good news is that by the grace of God personified in Jesus, the kingdom is near and here and available to all.

 

 

 

 

 

Jonah, Jesus, and Grace

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“We’re all stories in the end, eh? Make it a good one.” -The Doctor

I love stories and those with the imagination to tell them, for stories often convey deep and lasting truth in ways that couldn’t be communicated in any other way. Because stories approach the truth obliquely, I’m often left remembering and pondering and wondering long after they have reached their conclusions.  There are certain books and movies that I enjoy reading or watching repeatedly. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve read the Harry Potter series (especially Deathly Hallows) or watched Star Trek IV, or certain Doctor Who episodes. The new Wonder Woman movie will probably wind up on my repeat list, too. But it’s not because I believe that there is a parallel wizarding world, or that time travel is possible, or that superheroes with fantastical powers walk among us. Those parts of the stories are just window dressing on the truth, and if you are distracted by the curtains, you will miss the main point.

This week’s lectionary readings contain two stories that I see as using different window dressings to communicate the reality of God’s grace. The first story is from Jonah and as I wrote last year, isn’t primarily about a big fish.  God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and warn them if they don’t change their ways, they will be destroyed. Jonah doesn’t want to do this, and takes some convincing to go, but eventually does what God asks. The people take his warnings seriously, which makes him mad because he wanted to see them destroyed. That’s where today’s reading picks up the story:

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.  But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

The second story is one Jesus tells his disciples, but if taken at face value it is difficult to understand and makes little sense.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I can certainly understand why the day laborers who worked twelve hours would be resentful of the ones who only worked one. And wouldn’t the landowner be setting a bad precedent for next year’s harvest hires? Isn’t this kind of treatment akin to (gasp!) socialism? What exactly was Jesus trying to tell us?

The traditional interpretation of the story is that it’s about heaven: the one who makes a deathbed confession winds up in the same afterlife as someone who has been a faithful follower since childhood. I don’t disagree with that thinking, but I think there must be something more to the story. Jesus talked about “the kingdom of heaven” quite a lot, often using stories and metaphors. In most of these instances, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t talking about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by; he was talking about something that was immanently present. So how does this story fit in with all the other stories Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven? And how is it similar to the Jonah story?

If you take away the draperies from the stories of Jonah and the laborers in the vineyard, you can see God’s grace through the window. The truth of the Jonah story is that God’s love is for everyone, even those who we think must be God’s enemies because they are our enemies. The truth of the laborers in the vineyard story is that God’s love isn’t something we can earn. It doesn’t depend on us, but on God. In both stories God’s faithful servants aren’t particularly portrayed positively. They whine that God is unfair and they are not appreciated for their efforts. They expect God to think and behave like human beings usually do: quid pro quo, tit for tat, and you shouldn’t get something for nothing. Sometimes, God’s most faithful servants are the least aware of God’s grace. Like the proud Pharisee in another story Jesus tells, they think that God’s grace is something they earn through good behavior. But it doesn’t work that way, and following that line of reasoning leads you farther away, not nearer, to God. God’s grace is for Jonah and the Ninevites, for the early and late workers in the vineyard, and for Pharisee and publican alike. And it’s only when you realize that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace that you can begin to really experience it. Or as Jesus put it, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

God’s love, demonstrated through God’s grace, is beyond rational comprehension and stretches to infinity and beyond. And that’s good news to me!

 

 

Good News, Bad News

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt,  “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat.  The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.  Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.  Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.  That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.  Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs.  Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it.  This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.  The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

Today as Hurricane Irma lumbers toward the Florida coast, I’ve been anxiously (obsessively?) checking for the latest news on its projected trajectory. My mother lives on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and as the predicted landfall inches northwestward, my concerns intensify.  A few years ago, another “I” hurricane, Isaac, battered down her windows and the storm surge extensively flooded her house. I don’t want her to have to go through that again. I want the hurricane to pass over her, and go somewhere else. But I know that wherever it goes, it will cause extensive damage to somebody’s home. So how then should I pray? If my prayers are answered in the way I want them to be answered, somebody else’s prayers won’t be.

Let me make this clear: I don’t think that God is in the business of micromanaging the paths of hurricanes. I don’t even like the term “acts of God”, which I think was invented by insurance companies in order to mitigate their financial losses.  I am embarrassed and angered by the shoddy and shallow theologies postulated by those who say God sent Katrina to punish New Orleans for its licentiousness, or Sandy to punish New York for its secularism. Not only do I not think God works that way, I think these people make themselves look foolish, because hurricanes also strike morally rigid, religiously observant communities. Job was a pretty good guy, yet underwent terrible undeserved suffering;  the writer of Ecclesiastes observed that sometimes the wicked prosper and the good die young; and I think Jesus was pretty clear that bad things sometimes happen, and they aren’t always the result of bad behavior.  Instead of assigning blame, Jesus taught, we should try to help. But an uncomfortable  truth remains: what is good news for some is often bad news for others.

Today’s Old Testament reading commemorates the origins of Passover, an event which was good news for some and bad news for others. The background story is familiar, but here’s my brief synopsis: During an extended time of famine, the patriarch Jacob, aka Israel, and his entire extended family emigrated from Canaan to Egypt. The immigrants were initially treated well, but over the years the relationship between native-born Egyptians and alien proto-Israelites deteriorated. The Egyptians became increasingly concerned about the Hebrew fertility rate, which they tried to manage in horrifying ways.  Perhaps they felt Egypt should be for Egyptians, not Semitic sheepherders. Perhaps they were concerned that their culture and way of life would be lost to these monotheistic interlopers. At any rate, the Hebrews found themselves mistreated, used, and abused for several centuries. By the time Moses came along, Rameses was in full make-Egypt-great-again mode, mainly by the use of Hebrew slave labor. But, the story tells us, God was not happy with the way Egyptian exceptionality was being advanced. He heard the cries of his enslaved people, and entrusted Moses with the task of doing something about it. Through his messenger Moses, God sent sign after sign to Pharaoh that he ought to “let my people go”. But no matter what Moses said or did, Pharaoh managed to explain away, often with the assistance of advisors currying his favor. He blamed his victims, accusing them of not working hard enough, and made life even more difficult for them than it already was. Finally, God had had enough. He would send one final plague, the death of the first-born, which the Hebrews could escape by marking their doorposts with blood. The angel of death “passed over” those homes, and Passover was commissioned as a permanent reminder of God’s intervention on their behalf.

That first Passover was good news for the enslaved Hebrew people, and bad news for the Egyptians. What is understood as deliverance by the Hebrew slaves comes across as a cruel and devastating loss to their Egyptian masters. What’s especially sad to me is to think of the collateral damage. I imagine the average working-class Egyptian was unaware of the escalating Moses vs. Pharaoh drama, much less of the dangers posed by the concern of an unknown god for his chosen people. Some of them may have even been friendly with their Hebrew neighbors, as they asked for and were given valuable parting gifts. But, according to the story, they still suffered tremendously from the plagues. Their tragedy is often commemorated symbolically in many Passover seders, as drops of wine are spilled as each plague is mentioned. The joy of the freed Hebrew slaves is tempered by the sadness of the bereaved Egyptian families, for God cares about both. There’s also a Talmudic teaching about God’s reaction when the Hebrews began to celebrate the drowning of Pharaoh’s army; “How can you sing as the works of my hands are drowning in the sea?”

This story says several things to me about God. First of all, it’s pretty obvious that God takes the side of those who are oppressed over the ones who are doing the oppressing. The love of God and the wrath of God seem to be two sides of the same coin, and your perspective determines which side you see. If you’re the one being rescued, you see God’s love. If you’re the cause of the need for rescue, it’s likely that you see God’s wrath. I don’t know that the Hebrews were morally superior to the Egyptians, as their various bad behaviors in the wilderness later proved. Their deliverance wasn’t based on their merits, but on God’s empathy for their suffering. God seems to care more about how people treat each other than some of the things some people think he is concerned about.

Second, God uses human beings to bring about positive change, as he did through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The usual way God seems to work is to change human hearts so that their thoughts and desires are more in line with God’s thoughts and desires. I’m not discounting the possibility of direct divine intervention, but most of the time I think God chooses to work through people. Why did God wait so long to rescue his people? Maybe God wanted to intervene much earlier, but Moses was the first person to pay attention, hear God’s voice, and respond to it. Imagine what the world might be like if more people were willing to pay attention enough to see, and the desire to do something about, human need.

Finally, we must acknowledge the reality of collateral damage, not as a result of God’s actions, but of ours. All of us, if we are honest, know that we make many mistakes, some intentionally and some unintentionally. We all fall far short of God’s desire that we love our neighbors as ourselves. As the Book of Common Prayer phrases it, “we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved thee with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Awareness of that reality ought to cause us to be more compassionate toward others, but unfortunately instead we often want to blame others for their own misfortunes. We attempt to cover our own nakedness, not with fig leaves, but with pointing fingers. If we don’t get away from that kind of thinking, we may find ourselves looking at the wrong side of God’s coin of love and wrath.

No, God doesn’t steer hurricanes toward particular communities as punishment, but it does seem highly likely to me that human actions may have been a contributory factor in the ferocity of this year’s hurricane season. As ocean temperatures inch upward, they provide a fertile breeding ground for hurricanes. As sea levels rise, more and more coastline is vulnerable to inundation. As we destroy more and more wetlands in our quest to build bigger and bigger barns, we remove the layers of protection they might have provided. If we are willing to pay acknowledge that there might be a problem with the way we have cared for God’s creation, we can work together to find a solution. If we don’t, we may find ourselves in a position eerily similar to that of Pharaoh”s pursuing army, overwhelmed by forces of nature we cannot control.

Good news or bad news? God’s deliverance or God’s wrath? God’s love or God’s justice? It’s more complicated than some make it out to be. But I’m pretty sure on which side I want to be.

 

 

 

 

How to Live in “Interesting Times”

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:9-24

This week’s Romans passage has been on my mind a lot this week, particularly the verse about “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It seems I’ve been antagonizing, and being antagonized by, Facebook friends left and right a great deal during this past week. My discomfort with my friends on the right had to do with the “Nashville statement”,  much of with which I do not agree, and my discomfort with my friends on the left had to do with the aggressively violent components of antifa, with which I also do not agree. I find these “conversations” extremely emotionally distressing because I’m a peacemaker by nature. I try to make connections with people, and to find common ground. But I also am a person who believes it is important to stand up for love, kindness, justice, and fairness. Like Jeremiah, I find it impossible to keep my mouth shut (or typing fingers still) at times, because it becomes “in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” It might make my life easier if I stuck to posting only cute kitten pictures and happy thoughts, but I just can’t remain silent in the face of injustice or unkindness. I get especially upset when I see people expressing thoughts and exhibiting behaviors that drive people away from God, for I think that having a relationship with God is of great benefit.  I have quite a few friends who have been driven from the arms of God into the arms of atheism by those who think they are “watchmen” doing God’s work.  I don’t think that barring the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven to all who do not agree with a particular understanding of God, or of scripture, is doing God’s work. I think we are supposed to be witnesses to what God has done in our own lives, not watchmen telling other people what they are doing wrong in theirs. And so, I really appreciate Paul’s acknowledgement that no matter how hard I try, it may not always be possible to get along with all people at all times.

We live in “interesting times”, but the times the Roman Christians to whom Paul wrote this passage were no less “interesting”, challenging and dangerous. They lived under the whims of a succession of dangerously megalomaniac emperors– Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. They were looked upon with suspicion and distrust by the dominant established religious, political, and cultural systems, who invented all kinds of wild “fake news” stories about the nascent Christian movement. Rumors were spread that Christians practiced cannibalism during the Lord’s supper; that their “love feasts” were orgiastic; that they started the Great Fire of Rome. Given their precarious circumstances, it seems quite reasonable that Paul would have urged them to keep their heads down and not go looking for trouble, as he does later in Romans 13. Don’t make unnecessary waves. When in Afghanistan, wear a burqa. Perhaps those survival practicalities also lay behind his admonition to attempt to “live peaceably with all“. But I also remember the words of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who contended against “those crying ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” I don’t think it’s okay with God to pretend everything is good when it’s not, especially when remaining silent might cause harm.

So how do we strike a balance between “living peaceably with all” while living lives that are a faithful testimony to the Way of Jesus? How do we apply Paul’s words to the Roman Christians in our own place and time? I think the key is in what Paul calls “genuine love”. Everything we say and do ought to demonstrate love. If there is to be any competition between followers of Jesus, it ought to be in showing love. By showing love to others, we are serving God. When Paul talks about holding fast to the good and hating evil, I don’t think he was talking about strict observance of the Mosaic purity laws or the Greco-Roman household codes.  I certainly don’t think he was talking about passing moral judgement on those who violate those laws, for that goes counter to the overall message of both Jesus and Paul. Jesus’s harshest words were not for “sinners”, but for the Pharisees who were careful to observe all the laws of Moses. His highest praises were not for the religiously observant, but for those who worked to improve the welfare of others. Paul was once the epitome of a good Pharisee, not only in his strict personal adherence to the Mosaic laws, but also in his zealous persecution of the early followers of Jesus. He hounded, imprisoned, and was a party to the murder of the first Christians precisely because he believed their theology was dangerous, wrong and harmful.  In hindsight he came to consider all his previous “godly”behavior less than worthless. (“Rubbish” in the RSV; “dung” in the KJV; “garbage” in the NIV)  When Paul talks about “good” and “evil” here, I think he is talking about doing things that help people versus doing things that hurt people. “Do unto others as you would like for them to unto you.” as Jesus phrased it, which is entirely consistent with the teaching of  Hillel, the grandfather of Paul’s mentor Gamaliel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”  Paul goes on to give several concrete examples of what this kind of genuine love looks like in action in his time and place. Here’s what this passage says to me in my own time and place.

First, be optimistic about the future. There is a God, and he is working to bend the arc of the moral universe toward his design of justice and love. How quickly he is able to do that depends a great deal on whether we work with him or against him in the bending process. We’re not there yet, not by a long shot, so suffering is inevitable. When suffering comes, “why did this happen to me?” is the wrong question to ask. Attempting to answer that question will most likely lead to assigning blame to God, self, or others. Instead of looking for someone to blame, be patient.  Patience is not endurance for endurance’s sake; rather it is active. Patience asks, “How can I best get through this?”, and “What can I learn from this”, and “How can I use this to help others?” Instead of cursing the darkness, patience sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and actively struggles to reach it.

Acknowledging that “stuff happens”, and refusing to assign blame for it, leads us to do what we can to mitigate the suffering of others. Offer thoughts and prayers for those caught in the midst of tragedy, but let those thoughts and prayers lead you to assist in material ways. As James put it, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that?” When bad things happen, we shouldn’t ask if someone is deserving of our help; we should ask how we can help. I think Jesus was pretty clear about that in his  conversation about the man born blind. Prevailing religious thought in the time of Jesus was that God rewarded the good and punished the bad. If someone was sick or poor, they must have done something to deserve their fate. Therefore, either the blind man had somehow sinned prenatally (original sin?) or his parents had done something wrong. This thinking is not dissimilar from some of the “blame the victim” and “prosperity gospel” theologies popular in some circles today. Rather than assign blame, Jesus took the opportunity to help, showing us by his example that we ought to do the same.

Have empathy: put yourself in another’s shoes and feel what they are feeling without overwriting their experience with your own thoughts and feelings. Share in the joys and sorrows of others without being jealous or judgemental.   You can’t raise yourself up by bringing others down, either by blaming them for their own misfortunes or by shaming their joys. I think blame can be a form of magical thinking, and shame a form of arrogance. This happened to you because you did x, y, and z. Since I do a, b, and c instead, what happened to you will never happen to me. Or: I’m morally superior to you because I did m, and you did n.  Judas objected to Mary’s waste of an expensive perfume, telling her it could have been put to better uses, but Jesus praised her.

Be humble:  Don’t think that you alone have all the correct answers, and it is your responsibility to convince others to come around to your way of thinking. I get especially tired of people using the phrase “the Bible clearly says” in an attempt to “correct” someone else’s thinking. First of all, using the Bible as an argument doesn’t work with people who don’t believe God speaks through it. Secondly, “the Bible clearly says” arguments have been used in defense of all kinds of horrible things in the past, including slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples by European invaders. Cultivate the ability to listen and learn from others and from history. If the Bible were completely clear as some like to think it is, there wouldn’t be thousands of different denominations. Humility doesn’t mean self-abasement, but neither is it condescending to others. It takes humility to understand that the lenses through which you understand the Bible or see reality are unique to you, and quite possibly do not yield perfect vision. For now we see through a glass, darkly, I also like the way Doctor Who phrased it, “Nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

Don’t try to get even. It doesn’t work,  and remember that the means are equally as important as the ends. Those who use evil means with the intention of achieving a good result are in danger of becoming just as bad as the evil they oppose. I’m reminded of the last lines in “Animal Farm: ““The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” The only lasting way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. Because I believe the image of God is stamped indelibly on every human soul, I do not believe that certain people lack a conscience, even when they behave as though they don’t have one. Even Darth Vader found redemption in the end, and I might point out that his conscience was not awakened at the point of Luke’s lightsaber, but through their relationship.  As Martin Luther King observed, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Of course, all this is easier said than done. But I’m going to keep working on it.