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.

 

 

 

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Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Today’s reading from the Epistles is from the final chapter in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, which seems to have been the one to which he felt closest. It’s interesting because on the surface the selection seems to be dealing with two unconnected topics: a plea for two of the Philippian church leaders to get on the same page, and some good psychological and spiritual advice about positive thinking. But the more I think about it, the more I think that applying Paul’s psychospiritual advice might also be helpful in resolving interpersonal differences.

Conflict between believers, sometimes escalating to the point of violence, has been a part of the church ever since its inception. I’ve often thought about Jesus’s unanswered prayer for unity for his followers as recorded in John: I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This clearly has not happened, and is one of the strongest arguments my atheist friends have used against the existence of God in general, or that Jesus was who he claimed to be in particular. If God can’t answer the Son of God’s prayer, what gives? Jesus was certainly aware that disunity among believers promotes that kind of unbelief, because that was included his prayer. John places Jesus’s prayer for unity in the context of Jesus’s parting speech at the Last Supper, so it would have been some of the last words his followers heard him speak before he had to leave them for the cross.

I don’t know what the issue was that caused conflict between Euodia and Syntache. I doubt it was over something as petty as who had the best casserole at the church potluck, what color the draperies in the worship center should be, or what type of music should be sung at services. Paul refers to these two women as his coworkers “who have contended at my side for the gospel“, so I think they were significant leaders, not “church lady” busybodies. I tend to imagine their differences were theological. Each considered their own opinions to be correct, necessary, and essential, and they strove mightily to convince others of their positions.  People tend to have strong opinions when they think that the fate of the world, or someone’s immortal soul, hangs in the balance. We read the same Bible, but come to different conclusions as we do.  I am saddened to see so much of that kind of thing going on in the church today, and I know enough church history to know that it has pretty much always been going on. I think I understand the “why” well enough, but what can we do about it?

That’s where I think the second part of the passage comes in. The way to “be of the same mind in the Lord” is to begin to develop the mind of Christ. Paul has a few suggestions on that subject., both in this passage and in many other places, Here, he begins by urging his readers, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  and continues to say that thankfulness is an integral part of effective prayer: ” In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”  Gratitude journals have become quite a popular tool for improving mental health, even by those with no religious leanings. There is a principle in cognitive-behavioral psychology that thoughts, emotions, and actions are inextricably linked. Change your thoughts and you will find your feelings change as well. I think that prayer works not to change the mind of God, but to change the mind of the one doing the praying. Jesus’s prayer for unity among his followers was more for our ears than God’s.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. It is possible to disagree with someone without doing so harshly or sarcastically. I used to be quite good at what I call the “Jonathan Swift approach” in my writing, but I’ve come to identify more with  Paul, who came to realize that what he thought was standing up for the right side was in fact not only ineffectual, but harmful.   “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” is almost always a correct prediction.  There’s a bit of advice I learned in education classes that holds true in all relationships:  it takes many positive interactions with a person before you have earned the right for a negative one. (Research puts the ratio at 5.6:1 for adults in a business setting; but I’d shoot for higher in a more personal setting .Most of the time, social media is a terrible place to have an intelligent, much less a gentle conversation with someone about matters of consequence. You can’t adapt your conversation to facial and body language cues, for one thing, and since social media is a very public setting, it tends to put people who disagree with you into extreme defense mode. Face must be saved, at all costs.

The Lord is near”. If we believe that is true, it means Jesus is right there beside us, hearing every word we say to each other. That certainly motivates me to try a bit harder to ensure my words are helpful and kind, rather than to show off how clever and correct I am. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 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!

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” My goal concerning relationships with difficult people is to, instead of perseverating on our negative interactions, to remind myself of the positive ones. I find it helpful to think about what they do that is good and right or that we have in common, rather than the things about which I think they are badly mistaken. As Paul advised, I’m endeavoring to change my thoughts in order to change my feelings. It is not easy, but I hope that it is right.

It is no secret to most who know me that I find myself on a very different page theologically than some of my fellow believers who have also pledged their loyalty to Christ. I do not hold to an inerrantist view of the Bible; rather I think the Bible is a diverse anthology which reflects an evolving human understanding of God. Although the Bible can lead us to God, the Bible is not God and should not be worshipped as a fourth member of the Trinity. I do not think that God is particularly concerned about sexual orientation; I think he cares more about how we treat other people. I don’t think being pro-life is  synonymous with thinking “every sperm (or egg) is sacred. I think God is pro-life, yes, but most of the examples I see in the Bible have more to do with how we treat refugees, the poor, the enslaved, and other ostracized/marginalized people than with birth control methods. Yet there are those who have called me “false teacher” for coming to such conclusions. There are those who have instructed me to “read the Bible”, thinking that I don’t do that, or else I would surely come to the same conclusions they have. Not only do I find this kind of thing personally hurtful, I feel compelled to defend all those I know who are hurt by this kind of thinking, and also the reputation of God, which I think is being dragged through the mud. It stokes my urge to fight back- bigly.

The problem is that I realize the Syntaches to my Euodia also firmly believe they are right, and I am not only wrong, but leading others to perdition. I don’t know what the answer is, because although “here I stand; I can do no other”, I acknowledge that they probably are thinking along the same lines, with the good guys/bad guys roles reversed. I can take a little comfort from realizing that not even Paul had a solution in this case; he didn’t say one was right and the other was wrong; he just urged both of them to concentrate on what they held in common, which was their faith in Jesus as Lord.

And that’s pretty much all I think I have to say about that.

 

 

 

 

 

Total Eclipse of the Mind

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Romans 12:1-8

2017-08-21 11.27.28

We’ve just returned from a ten-day vacation planned around viewing the total eclipse of the sun. We chose a location in rural Idaho where there would be a good chance of an unclouded day, purchased ISO-certified eclipse glasses, booked an overpriced room in a rundown motel in Boise, and drove off in our minivan. On the way there and back,we visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as Zion, Bryce, Craters of the Moon, Yellowstone, and Arches National Parks. The highlight of the trip was, of course, experiencing the eclipse. I’ve seen photographs and videos of eclipses, but as Old Rose said to the treasure-hunters in “Titanic”, the experience itself was… somewhat different. “Magical” might approach being an appropriate descriptor. As we took peeks through our eclipse glasses at the ever-waning crescent of the sun, the temperature dropped and the colors of the landscape changed. When the moment of totality arrived, it was sudden, like flipping off the lights. We took off our eclipse glasses and as we gazed in awe at the fiery corona and the surreal landscape, we heard the people in a nearby town break out in cheering. Nobody was thinking about, much less opining about, the political news of the day.  For two short minutes the world was transformed.

In today’s Epistle passage, Paul writes to the Romans that as they present their lives to God, they will be transformed. Much as the eclipse dramatically changed everything around us, followers of Jesus who are growing in their faith will start to see the world and their part in it in new ways. Unlike the eclipse, the transformation is meant to be permanent and ongoing. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Don’t be conformed to this world“. The world as it is is not the way God imagined or planned for it. Its values are seriously distorted. God did not plan a dog-eat-dog world, where it’s every man for himself, and the one who dies with the most toys wins. Jesus summed up God’s values pretty clearly when he answered a first-century biblical scholar’s question,  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The Sermon on the Mount elaborates on the same theme in more detail, giving many specific examples of what “love your neighbor as yourself” means. In many ways God’s values are the exact opposite of the world’s values. The world apart from God sees life as a zero-sum game with winners and losers, but God wants everyone to be a winner. The world apart from God values competition, but God values cooperation. The world apart from God values power and control, but God values love and kindness. The world apart from God thinks that greed is good, but God thinks that giving is the better way. “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” The world apart from God believes that if someone wrongs you, you should get even, but God values forgiveness “even seventy times seven“. God’s values can be seen in what Paul calls the ‘fruits of the Spirit”- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control.

But be transformed by the renewing of your mind“. I really like this phrase. It implies active cooperation with God in order for the transformation to take place. Very rarely does God dramatically change on a person overnight; it’s usually a gradual metamorphosis that evolves over time. Cognitive-behavioral psychology teaches that changing your thinking is the key to changing your emotions, but changing your thinking isn’t easy or automatic. It takes work and practice.  “Renewing of your mind” to me means studying and learning from the life and teachings of Jesus as they were recorded by his earliest followers. It means thinking about what Jesus might do if he walked the earth today and figuring out how his teachings can be applied in the place and time in which we live. It means getting outside myself through meditative prayer practices, learning to ignore my racing and anxious thoughts enough to experience the presence of God.

So that you may discern what the will of God is, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Some people see the Bible as “God’s instruction book”. Although I think I understand where they are coming from, I don’t see it quite that way. For one thing, I’ve seen verses taken out of their context and used to justify whatever the Bible-quoter wanted them to justify. You can’t just string random verses together and make God say whatever you want him to say. There’s an old joke about a man whose devotional reading consisted of cracking his Bible at random and reading the first verse his finger touched. One morning this was his verse for the day: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” That can’t be it, he thought. So he tried again. “Go thou and do likewise” was his second hit. Chagrined, he thought,The third time is a charm! It wasn’t. It read: “What thou doest, do quickly!” The joke is recognizably silly, but I’ve seen a church with screamingly large lettering on its side,  “Master, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”…”Keep my commandments” The question comes from the story of the rich young ruler but the answer written on the side of the church is more in line with the rich young ruler’s thinking than that of Jesus! Then there are the contradictory bits of advice, such as this advice from Proverbs on arguing with fools. I like to think of the Bible more like a recipe with lots of variations than a step-by-step “how to” document. There are certain basic ingredients and processes involved in making a cake, but a huge diversity of possible flavors and adaptations. That’s what the “discerning” piece of the verse above means to me. God has given us the basic ingredients in the Greatest Commandment and the Golden Rule, and those are non-negotiable. But he’s also given us a great deal of latitude in how to carry those out, and I think we’re meant to adapt our recipes to our own times and places.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Don’t let all the bad things in the world influence your thinking and behavior. Instead, work on learning to see the world as God wants it to be.  As you do, you may find yourself both transformed and a transforming force for good. That’s what I mean by a total eclipse of the mind!

 

 

 

 

 

Proverbs: Principles, Not Promises

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

Like the book of Psalms, the book of Proverbs is a collection, but of short sayings rather than songs. I think of it as an ancient version of “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. Rather than a list of promises that have only to be personally “claimed” to be granted to the individual believer, it is a compilation of observations about life that are usually accurate. For example, while it is generally true that “lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” this statement is a principle, not a rule and there are exceptions. There are some very hard working poor people and some very indolent rich people.

One of the main issues I have with using Proverbs as a book of promises rather than a book of common-sense advice is that it leads to blaming the victim, much as Job’s “comforters” did. For example, if I believe that following certain rules invariably leads to the result of living long and prospering (Proverbs 3:1-2), then it invariably follows that those who get cancer or lose their jobs must be somehow at fault.  Either they secretly violated some of the rules, or they didn’t demonstrate enough faith to successfully “claim the promise”. This is observably not always true, even within the Old Testament. Torah-observant King Josiah dies relatively young, while some of the most egregious royal lawbreakers live long lives. This kind of mistaken theology completely falls apart with even a cursory reading of the New Testament, where many of the most devout God-followers meet horrible, early deaths because of their faith.

Furthermore, some proverbs contradict other proverbs. The most glaring example is in Proverbs 26:4-5, where the reader is instructed as follows:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
 Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes.

So, which option is the wise person to choose? Do you bring yourself down to the lowest common denominator by arguing with a fool, or do you take him down a peg by proving him wrong? I think these contradictory nuggets of advice were placed side-by-side by the compiler of Proverbs deliberately in order to make a paradoxical point. Both sayings are true.  Depending on the situation, sometimes it’s best to speak up, and sometimes to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes your words will make a difference for the better, and sometimes they will make them worse. True wisdom isn’t one or the other, but knowing when.

God gives us principles to live by, not arbitrary rules that are illogical or impossible to follow. And that’s good news to me.