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.






By Whose Authority?

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 
The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”  News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28

As I’ve mentioned previously, Mark doesn’t waste any time. His sense of urgency is palpable, and his writing is densely packed. We’re only about halfway through the first chapter in today’s reading, and Mark has already covered John the Baptist’s entire career, Jesus’s baptism and temptation, as well as the core teaching of his message and the calling of his first disciples. In the rest of the chapter, Mark details some of the things Jesus became known for doing: teaching, healing, and praying. Today’s passage is concerned with two of these. Most people will tend to fixate on Mark’s account of a successful exorcism, while overlooking the part describing Jesus as an extraordinary teacher. The exorcism is certainly spectacular, but I think the description of Jesus as one who taught “with authority, not as the teachers of the law” is perhaps more significant.

I might as well get what I think about the exorcism out of the way first, because Jesus’s ability to drive out demons seems to be one of the things that attracted people to him, and the synoptic gospels have many other references to demons and demon possession. In most cases, the symptoms described seem to indicate the person suffered from epilepsy or mental illness, and I can certainly see how ancient peoples might have attributed strange behaviors caused by brain dysfunction to demons. The important thing to me is not what caused the sufferers such distress, but that Jesus healed them. He didn’t ostracize or blame them or declare them particularly sinful for falling prey to powers beyond their control. He helped them to the full extent of his abilities.

We know a little more about brain chemistry today than they did in the first century, but there are certainly still many cases of people who suffer from what pre-scientific societies might have called demon possession. They are not in control of their own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, and they may endanger themselves or others. People with mental illnesses often suffer greatly and may cause great suffering to those around them. Certainly anyone who has ever dealt with an addiction, or an addicted family member, can identify with the concept of someone being controlled by something they are powerless to resist. The question we should ask ourselves is not why are they like this, but what can we do to help? We may not be able to effect instantaneous cures in the way that Jesus did, but I think we ought to have the same attitude Jesus had. We ought to see them as suffering human beings to be healed, not lawbreakers deserving of further punishment. And I am afraid that, unlike Jesus, we are not doing all that is within our power to help. Too often our jails become holding pens for mentally ill people whose behavior spirals out of control, where they do not receive the medication or treatment that might help them. We have learned a great deal about addiction, even developing medications which work to effectively suppress the desire to get high, but instead of viewing addiction as a sickness to be cured, we see it as a crime to be punished.

That’s all I have to say about that right now. If we focus too much on demons and whether they are literal or metaphorical, we miss Mark’s very important statement that “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” There was something about the way Jesus taught that was really different from the rest of the Bible teachers of his time. In addition to the written Law and Prophets with which we are familiar in our Old Testament, there was a large body of oral commentary on it, After the destruction of the Second Temple, these commentaries came to be written down in what came to be known as the Mishnah.  The predominant Bible teaching methodology of the time seemed to have heavily relied on quoting from these oral-traditions; that is, quoting what other religious scholars thought about a particular passage. Instead of quoting a respected authority to make his points known, Jesus says what he himself thinks. He is his own authority, and often puts a completely different spin on a familiar passage. “You have heard it said…..but I say unto you…”

I don’t think that it’s an accident that Mark juxtaposes a story about an exorcism with an observation about Jesus’s unique nature. “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” Mark wanted to offer proof of Jesus’s authority to his readers, and for those readers, being able to cast out demons was pretty convincing proof that Jesus was not just your average itinerant rabbi. Of course, if you’re familiar with the rest of the story, you know that what was proof to his followers didn’t prove anything to his opponents, some of whom accused Jesus of being possessed by a demon himself! And in the very pointed parable Luke records of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus observes that some people won’t be convinced of the truth by even the most spectacular of miraculous events.

Paul later writes to the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom” and both are tripped up by the foolishness of the cross. Faith can’t be proved; it has to be lived, and the best way to live it, then as now, is to follow Jesus in our attitudes and actions. And we often find that in the living we have all the proof we need. And that’s good news to me.


What is the Good News?

Third Sunday After Epiphany

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Mark 1:14-15

“What we have here is a failure to communicate” Cool Hand Luke

What is the gospel, or the good news? In Greek, the word is “euaggelion“, from which we get our word “evangelism” But I’m afraid that when most people hear the word “evangelism” or “evangelistic” today, the associations that comes to mind are certainly more in line with the “turn or burn” fire and fury of John the Baptist than the way Jesus seemed to have understood the word.

Although the New Testament uses the word translated as “gospel” 76 times, its use in the ancient world wasn’t restricted to religious applications. It was a general term used in a variety of contexts, and was commonly used (by the victors, of course) to announce a military victory. There’s a very interesting reference to Augustus Caesar which says in part, “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him” So at least for some first century readers, the association with the word “gospel” might have been to the Pax Romana! If you’re interested, here’s a link to a lengthy, but fascinating article about the use of the word, as well as information about emperor worship, in the time of Jesus.

First-century Jewish people had been looking forward to the coming reign of God for a long time. Although their forced exile in Babylon was over, they were still a subjugated people at the mercy of both their Roman overlords and collaborators like Herod. The glory days of Israel during the time of David and Solomon had long passed into legend. Where was the promised new David, who would free them from captivity and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity, where everyone could sit unafraid under their own vine and fig tree? Of course, the “good news” that the first century Jews were longing to hear would be bad news for the Romans, who would be defeated and stripped of their power. Israel would be restored under the leadership of a wise and good king, and take Rome’s place as the dominant superpower, respected by all the other nations of the world.

Into this eclectic mix of cultural expectations and longings came Jesus, who used the same announcement of “good news”, but seemed to have understood the meaning of the word very differently. Luke gives a few more details than Mark about the content of Jesus’s initial proclamation. In his home synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus quoted the words of Isaiah, but added a twist of his own:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.

It’s interesting to read the whole passage from Isaiah 61 and note what Jesus chooses to include in his selection, and what he leaves out. He ends his reading with proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, but leaves out the next line equating that time with God’s vengeance on Israel’s oppressors. God’s reign on earth begins not with a powerful military leader like David crushing his enemies, but with Jesus, who went about doing good” and “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!

Furthermore, Jesus goes on to say that the good news of the kingdom of God (kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) isn’t just something that will happen in the future.  It is here, beginning now. Time and time again, Jesus tries to explain both the immanence of the kingdom of God and how it differs from preconceived ideas about it. The Kingdom of God is found not by looking for easily identifiable external realities but is within you. Often Jesus resorts to metaphor: the kingdom of God works  like yeast in bread dough and grows slowly like a mustard seed. Like treasure hidden in a field, it may not be readily apparent to the casual onlooker.

I’m afraid that in today’s world, the “good news” has become misunderstood as much as it was in Jesus’s time, and the message of Jesus has been distorted just as much as it was in the Middle Ages prior to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Franciscan renewal. As NT Wright puts it in “The Day the Revolution Began“, we have “platonized our eschatology, moralized our anthropology, and paganized our soteriology” to the point where we no longer really understand what Jesus was trying to tell us. Most of  today’s “evangelism” is geared toward convincing people to make a one-time choice between spending an eternity in heaven or hell. That choice is made by intellectually accepting certain theological principles, saying the right words in prayer, and then presumably (although those being evangelized are not generally told this) adhering to a behavioral code heavily dependent on “thou shalt nots” which may vary depending on the group doing the evangelizing. Not surprisingly, many recipients of this kind of proselytizing do not think what they are being told is “good news”, and they never really hear the radical message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is not just some future apocalyptic dream, nor is it primarily about what happens in the afterlife. The kingdom of God is among us, and like the mustard seed in the parable, has the potential to grow into a great sheltering, nurturing tree. But as Jesus said, we have to change our hearts and lives to make it so. The kingdom of God will not come if we keep on thinking that life is a zero-sum game and behaving accordingly.  We have to give up self-centered ways of thinking and behaving and start acting more like Jesus. We have to make Jesus our Lord in practice, not just in words. If Jesus is really Lord, then we ought to be putting a great deal more time, money, and effort into loving other people and a great deal less indulging our self-centered desires for more pleasure, wealth, and power.

Imagine what the world might be like if everyone in it who identifies as a Christian actually acted more like Christ. Imagine the majority of the human race treating everyone with whom they come into contact with the same kindness and compassion they would want for themselves. Imagine if more humans understood themselves to be caretakers and stewards of God’s creation, rather than viewing it as as something to be exploited, used up, and discarded like a broken toy. Imagine if most humans put their minds to work in positive rather than negative ways, finding ways to heal rather than harm, to create rather than destroy, to help rather than hurt, to make the world a little better because they were here. Imagine…

Jesus said, Don’t just imagine. Change your hearts and lives. Trust the good news. The time is always now, and (quoting N T Wright again) the revolution has begun. And that’s good news to me.




Epiphany: God is Still Speaking

First Sunday after Epiphany

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11

On many past occasions and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. Hebrews 1:1-3

The dictionary definition of “epiphany” is “an appearance or manifestation.” It can refer to a God-sighting, but it can also mean a sudden new understanding of reality, of seeing something in a way it has not been seen before. In Western Christian tradition, Epiphany usually commemorates the visit of the Magi to see the infant Jesus. The epiphany here is that God is God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But in Eastern Christian tradition, Epiphany focuses on the baptism of Jesus, as God spoke in affirmation of his pride in and relationship to Jesus. So the occasion of Jesus’s baptism could also be described as a theophany , a visible manifestation of deity.

All four gospels describe this event, which marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s interesting to me that Mark’s gospel doesn’t waste any time getting down to business.  Unlike the other synoptic writers, Mark includes no long genealogies, no stories about Jesus’s conception, birth, infancy, or childhood.  Mark gives a brief summary of who John the Baptist was and what he was doing, devotes only  a couple of sentences to Jesus’s baptism, and unlike Matthew or Luke, doesn’t try to explain why Jesus would need to be baptized. There’s some question about exactly who was able to hear God’s voice. In the Markan passage, it seems to be only Jesus who hears God speak, but in the gospel according to John, both Jesus and John the Baptist hear it.  Matthew and Luke don’t specify an audience for the theophany.

I believe that God is still speaking, although not in the ways that some people think. I don’t think God tells any politician to run for office, and I don’t think God tells any popular religious figure to extort money from their followers either as a proof of faith or as an investment opportunity. I don’t think God favors a particular team at a sporting event, not even when it comes to Alabama football. Not all the voices in your head are from God. Just because a thought comes into your mind does not mean it is God speaking, and just because someone says they’ve heard from God doesn’t mean they actually have. The writer of 1 John warns his readers  “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God“. John goes on to say that Jesus is the criteria for determining whether a “spirit” (which I understand as a thought or idea, not a phantasmic entity) is from God. As I understand John’s words, “confessing Jesus has come in the flesh” means more than intellectual assent to a particular creed. It means that a person has had an epiphany about the nature of God: God is like Jesus. God is not what some atheists like to call “an angry sky god” out to punish anyone who steps a toe outside an arbitrary line. God is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out presents to good little boys and girls while the bad ones get lumps of coal. God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing blessings when the right prayers or offerings are properly inserted. Rather, God is a force of love, love that is woven into the very fabric of the universe, and if you want to see what that love is like, look at Jesus. If you want to hear the voice of God, listen to what Jesus has to say…the “red letters” in some Bibles. And since actions usually speaker louder and more clearly than words, look at what Jesus did. He healed people. He fed people. He brought hope to people who felt they had no hope, especially those rejected by the religious establishment and oppressed by the civil government.

It is unfortunate that people use portions of the Bible to justify wrong ideas they have developed about God, and then claim that they are speaking for God. I like the way the writer of the Hebrews passage above puts it: the Bible contains the testimony of many different people living in many different times, who tried to put what they heard God saying into words. But it is Jesus, not Moses, David, or the prophets, who is “the exact representation” of God’s nature, meaning Jesus has the last, most complete words. When it comes to understanding God, Jesus is the lodestone and the North Star. “What would Jesus do?” ought to be more than an outdated bumper sticker. It’s a question anyone who really wants to hear the voice of God, and not just the echoes of their own minds, ought to ask.

God is not at all like the way he is portrayed by some of the people who claim they have heard his voice. God is like Jesus, who personified self-giving love. And that’s good news to me.









Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery: It’s Not About Body Parts

You shall not commit adultery. Exodus 20:14

“Don’t be a louse. Be faithful to your spouse.” From the children’s musical “Good Kings Come in Small Packages”

“Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a promise.” Doctor Who

The seventh commandment isn’t about sex; it’s about fidelity. To limit its application to a list of permissible and nonpermissible uses of body parts is to elevate the rule above the principle, making it possible to obey the rule but violate the principle. Bill Clinton famously proclaimed, “I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky“, and in his mind he was telling the truth because the sexual acts in which he engaged were not of the missionary position tab A into slot B variety. But he certainly was unfaithful to his wife. Roy Moore denies any sexual wrongdoing, because in his mind there was nothing wrong with a much older man aggressively pursuing teenage girls, and because he stopped short of traditional penetrative intercourse, and because he wasn’t married at the time. But the behavior described by his victims was abusive and harmful, making it morally wrong in my book, and I think also in God’s.

There are many kinds of prohibited sexual behaviors listed in Leviticus 18, as well as other places in both the Old and New Testaments, but the seventh commandment deals specifically with unfaithfulness to one’s life partner. Then, as now, that particular kind of sexual misbehavior had grave economic as well as emotional consequences. A man whose wife was unfaithful could not be certain that children born to his wife were his biological offspring, which was important when it came to generational inheritances.  This was probably a bigger deal then than now; think of the Abraham’s longing for a biological heir, or the story of Naboth’s vineyard. A woman whose husband was unfaithful could not be certain of anything, as in patriarchal cultures she was utterly dependent on her husband for everything. If her husband found a younger or more desirable woman and neglected or abandoned her, she had no means of supporting herself. The covenant of marriage was taken so seriously that adultery, like murder and working on the Sabbath, carried the death penalty.

The principle behind “thou shalt not commit adultery” is faithfulness. I think that whenever someone fixates on the details of how a particular rule is to be obeyed, they often are consciously or subconsciously figuring out ways to get around the principle that caused the rule to be created. As usual, Jesus had some interesting things to say about those kind of semantic games, equating both divorce and lustful thoughts with adultery. Concerning divorce, Luke records Jesus as teaching his followers that “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” while Matthew phrases it “It has also been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, brings adultery upon her. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew also records Jesus as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  

It is interesting to me that in both of these examples, Jesus is telling men what they ought not to do, not women. He isn’t telling an abused wife that she must stay with her abuser; he’s telling men not to put their wives into vulnerable positions. He isn’t telling women to dress modestly so as not to lead men into temptation; he’s telling the men not to ogle women. The “Me too” movement has recently unleashed an avalanche of disclosures of sexual abuse perpetrated by a number of prominent entertainers and political figures. Although most of the victims were women, there have also been several men who have reported unwanted sexual advances, usually by other men. But gender or sexual orientation isn’t the real issue here. In every case, a person in a position of power sought to gratify his own desires with little thought of how that behavior might affect others.  That’s something adultery and sexual abuse have in common, along with many other forms of sexual immorality including pornography. It’s not so much what people do with their body parts as why they are doing it. If it’s for self-gratification at the expense of others, especially where power and control are involved, I don’t think God is pleased.

Much has changed since the Bronze Age when the Ten Commandments were written, and since Jesus elaborated on their meaning centuries later. Although what are considered normative cultural practices may have evolved, unfortunately human hearts have not changed much at all. We still have a tendency to be more narcissistic than empathetic in our interactions with others. We still have difficulty discerning what is most important and usually find it easier to follow the letter of the law (and inflict our understanding of those letters on others) than to live out its spirit. As Jesus observed,  “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander. These are what defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile him.” Paul wrote, For you, brothers, were called to freedom; but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, serve one another in love. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Thou shalt not commit adultery” can’t be reduced to a command about proper vs improper use of body parts. It is a call to faithfulness, to consideration of the effect of one’s behavior on others, and above all, to love.


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.


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.