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.






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.




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.


Would Jesus Take a Knee?

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.  Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. Matthew 22:15-22

In one of the Facebook theological groups of which I am a member, someone posed the question, “Would Jesus stand with his hand over his heart during the national anthem, or would he take a knee?” Several people responded, making arguments for both options, but the answer I liked best was “He would probably do something surprising”, because that’s exactly what he did in the incident recorded in today’s gospel passage.

As the story of Jesus according to Matthew progresses toward its conclusion, the relationship between Jesus and the religious elite becomes more and more adversarial. After getting into a very public confrontation by chasing the money changers out of the Temple, Jesus tells several parables, all of which cast the religious leaders in a bad light. They respond by trying to publicly trip him up with “gotcha” questions, which is what they are doing in today’s reading. The question is designed to have no good answer. If he responds one way, he’s in trouble with the Roman government; if he responds the other way, he’s in trouble with the general public. As you may recall, crowds of people had just waved palm branches, welcoming Jesus into town as the messiah they hoped would liberate them from Roman oppression. It was a simple yes or no, forced-choice question, but instead of being entrapped in their no-win scenario, Jesus gives an answer no one had anticipated. It’s also an interesting detail to note that the religious leaders have no difficulty producing a denarius while within the confines of the temple courts, where this incident takes place. Part of the function of the money changers was to change Roman coins, which bore not only the idolatrous assertion that Caesar was a god but also his graven image, into shekels. Or was that rule only applicable to the little people, not to the one-percenters?  No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites!

Jesus says “give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s“. Devout Jews would have understood that everything belongs to God. As the psalmist Asaph wrote, we can’t “give” God anything except our loyalty. God “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” and Job observed that “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praisedEverything comes from God and belongs to God, and the principle of stewardship teaches that God wants us to to use all God has given us responsibly and well, thinking not only of our own needs and wants but also those of others. There’s quite a lot in the Bible, especially in the writings of the prophets, applying this same principle to governments. Rulers are supposed to take care of the people who live under their governance, not just use their nation’s resources to indulge their own whims. They are supposed to be instruments of justice and righteousness, especially for the poor, widows and orphans. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” Furthermore, as the Bible tells it, God causes the fall of nation after nation when they abdicate these responsibilities, beginning with Sodom and continuing through dozens of others, including Israel and Judah.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s“, but what is Caesar’s, and what is God’s? Where is the line between patriotism and idolatry? It must have grated on Jewish nationalists to think that a large part of the taxes they paid to Rome went to finance the vast Roman military, including those who were brutally occupying their homeland. It would have also bothered devout Jewish people to think that part of the money they paid in taxes was used to fund pagan temples and their sacrifices to idols. This would not be dissimilar to those today who do not want their tax dollars being spent to pay for things they do not support or believe to be morally wrong, such as wars or birth control. It is also not dissimilar to those who take a knee during the playing of the national anthem in order to protest what they believe to be their nation’s unjust treatment of its minorities.

Instead of answering the question posed to him by the Pharisees and their frenemies the Herodians, Jesus asked them to think about where their ultimate loyalties lay, and left it up to them to decide what actions ought to be taken in light of those loyalties. And I think he’s asking us to do the same.





Thou Shalt Not Kill

“You shall not murder.” Exodus 20:13

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering- Yoda

God is pro-life.

Now that I’ve gotten your attention, let me explain what I mean by that. When it comes to “pro-life”, as  Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means”.  As it is commonly used today, the term has become associated with those who believe abortion, and sometimes even birth control, should be outlawed. I tend to agree with Sister Joan Chittister, who observed “that’s not pro-life; that’s pro-birth” and take a much broader view of the term. When I say God is pro-life, I mean that God cares about the welfare of every living part of his creation. That includes every single human being on the planet, as well as animals, plants, and the environment that sustains them. To be “pro-life” means to actively advocate for all of the above and to stand in opposition to the social Darwinism that causes some lifeforms to be designated winners and others losers. In terms of the elephant I just let out into the room, I believe the best way to reduce the number of abortions is through a combination of comprehensive sex education, access to affordable, effective methods of birth control, and a robust social safety net.

On the other side of the (usually) political spectrum from the advocates of abortion restriction  are the advocates for gun restriction. It never has made theological sense to me than generally folks are anti-choice and pro-gun, or pro-choice and anti-gun. It seems to me that a consistent pro-life position would be opposed to the proliferation of both abortions and guns.  You can’t say out of one side of your mouth that abortion restrictions are effective in preventing deaths, and out of the other say that gun restrictions are ineffective in preventing deaths. This has nothing to do with the Second Amendment or Roe vs. Wade, or even one’s premise of when life begins; it has to do with logic. I am also unconvinced by the use of statistics which compare the number of gun deaths to the number of deaths by abortion. (If you haven’t read “How to Lie With Statistics” yet, I highly recommend it.) Too often statistical arguments are red herrings which serve only to cause arguments about whose cause is worthier, and which accomplish nothing to solve the problem.

The first murder recorded in the Bible is the killing of Abel by his brother Cain. This is not an auspicious start for humanity, if you consider that with only four people introduced into the story so far, one decides to kill another. Genesis 4 relates that Cain became jealous, apparently because he thought that God always liked his brother best. God says to Cain,  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” It’s always a good idea to pay attention when God tells you something, especially if you are hoping to win God’s favor like Cain supposedly was. Instead, he allowed his fear of inadequacy to fester into anger. Instead of controlling his emotions, Cain was controlled by them. His anger spiraled into hate, which is not an emotion, but a choice to ruminate on a negative emotion. He then made a further bad choice to deliberately act on his hate by waylaying and killing his brother. And as Yoda might have predicted, great suffering was the result- for his brother, his parents, himself, and for the God who cared for both Cain and Abel.

Jesus warned his followers that murder begins in the heart. In Biblical references, the heart was not the seat of the emotions but of the will…we might say “mindset”. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Jesus lists a series of escalating consequences as a person moves further and further toward the dark side. Anger is a natural human emotion, but it’s also dangerous because it can lead to hurtful behaviors.   A person might impulsively say words they don’t mean, but which cause deep wounds. Name calling is a symptom of contempt; when you call someone “raca” or “fool” you are moving into dangerous territory. If you believe that someone is worthless compared to you, anything goes….even murder. “Be angry and sin not. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, advises Paul. I take that to mean “don’t let anger fester and infect you with hate. Don’t ruminate on the wrongs you perceive have been done unto you.” Certainly, there are examples of “righteous anger” in the Bible, such as Jesus chasing the money changers out of the Temple, but generally speaking when that occurs, it’s on behalf of others who are being hurt, not the feeling of being wronged oneself. If it’s you who are feeling wronged, it’s a good clue that your anger may be steering you down a dangerous path.

Thou shalt not kill“. There’s so much more to being “pro-life” than we realize, and this commandment just scratches the surface. I’ve touched on two hot-button topics here, but  haven’t even mentioned so many others. I haven’t talked about deaths as a result of war, or the prison system, or lack of healthcare, or unjust economic systems that designed to benefit the good of the few at the expense of the many. But I have hope that despite everything we do that is pro-death, God is pro-life. And as Malcom said in Jurassic Park, “life will find a way.