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.









New Years and Second Winds

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”  He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
JRR Tolkien, in The Fellowship of The Ring

This story about Elijah has always been one of my favorites,  probably because I can identify with his feelings of aloneness and despair over the state of the world as he sees it. To be completely honest, I’ve always been rather prone to bouts of existential depression and angst, and those feelings have been exacerbated over the past year by what I see to be a broken political and economic system, aided and abetted by broken theological systems masquerading as Christianity. So I’ve had trouble finding the motivation to sit down and write, that is at least until I was confronted by today’s Old Testament reading in the Daily Office. When I get like this, I probably ought to write more, not less, because when I read, ponder, and attempt to put my thoughts about a Bible passage into words, I invariably find that God is speaking to me. And invariably, what I hear God saying is good news.

In the chapters preceding this one, Elijah had just come down from a major spiritual victory in a showdown with Ahab’s prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. Initially so elated by his success in proving that Yahweh was more powerful than Baal that he briefly turns into a Bronze Age version of the Flash, he soon finds that in reality nothing has really changed. Queen Jezebel is still determined to make Baal-worship the official religion of Israel by any means necessary. He feels that there is no use even trying, that he is the last man standing, and that he’s had all that he can take. He prays to die, then collapses in sheer exhaustion. That’s when God shows up, and Elijah finds his second wind.  He journeys for forty days (a highly symbolic number) to Mt. Horeb, known as “the mountain of God” and which is probably the same mountain Moses called Mt. Sinai.  There Elijah has a profound encounter with God, who reveals himself not in dramatic showings of earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the sound of silence. Here the Hebrew is usually translated “still small voice” or “gentle whisper” but it could also be translated “sheer silence” In a manner reminiscent of a reality therapy script, God twice asks Elijah “What are you doing here?” Elijah says that although he has worked very hard, he thinks his efforts to educate people about God have been fruitless, and he feels despondent and alone. God tells Elijah that he is not a failure, nor is he alone, and that there are still ways he can make a difference.

Like Elijah, we long for God to reveal himself in dramatic and spectacular ways. That isn’t usually how God works, nor is it even particularly successful.  Jesus, who often had to deal with requests for signs and wonders from those with ulterior motives, told a story about a poor man who died unnoticed and uncared for on the doorstep of a rich man intent only on pursuing his own pleasure. When the rich man died, he found that their positions were reversed in the afterlife. While the poor man reclined in Abraham’s bosom, the rich man suffered in Hades. The rich man wanted to send someone back from the dead to warn his family lest they share his fate, only to be told that ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” That, of course, paralleled the reactions of most of the religious leaders to Jesus, and was probably the main point of the story. People who have their minds made up won’t be convinced to change them by facts, logic, or even miracles. In Elijah’s time, some weren’t convinced by fire coming down out of heaven. In Jesus’s time, some weren’t convinced by Jesus’ resurrection. Why should we expect people to react any differently today?

God still asks, “What are you doing here?” As Gandalf observed, there is much going on in the world that we cannot control. What we can control is our own behavior. We don’t need giant letters in the sky or a booming voice from heaven telling us to be kind, to advocate for justice, or to treat other people the way we would like to be treated. And if we listen, we can still hear God saying, “You are not alone. All is not lost. You can make a difference.”

And that’s good news to me.




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.


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!