Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The second commandment overlaps the first quite a bit, so much so that in some faith traditions the two are combined. While the first commandment is concerned with putting God first, the second specifically deals with symbols for the kind of things that might be given priority over God. Depending on the translation, these may be called “idols”, “carved images”, “likenesses”, or “statues”, and the categories used to describe these were quite broad. Most scholars believe that it was not images per se that were forbidden, but the worship of those images. However,  there are some Biblical literalists who disagree. The Protestant reformers  in Tudor England went about destroying religious works of art quite zealously. and there are many other examples of iconoclasm throughout history. An internet search on the phrase “graven images” will show you that there are people who hold to that line of thought today. One site I visited even suggested that allowing children to play with stuffed animals was a violation of this commandment, and might create an opening for demonic attack. (Cue theme from “The Exorcist.”)

Since I am not a literalist, I tend to agree with the idea that it is not the “likenesses” themselves that are a problem, but idolatry, or prioritizing anything above God. God is not particularly concerned with the family pictures or artwork I display on my walls, or my Instagram pictures of cats, but God is concerned that I have the right priorities. Anything that is given priority over God’s prime directive of love can become an idol. It is not things themselves that are bad, but the wrong use of things, and even good things can become idols. Each one of the “seven deadly sins” can be seen as idolatry: the result of taking something good and elevating it to a bad extreme. And symbols which might have represented one thing at one time can come to represent something entirely different at another time. When the created symbol becomes more important than the reason it was created, bad consequences are sure to follow.

There’s a story in Numbers about a bronze snake that God commands Moses to make intended to be an instrument of divine healing. Many years later, the writer of the book of Kings commends Hezekiah for destroying it   because it had become an object of worship.. It seems to me that the meaning of the symbol had changed over the years. Where once it was used by God as an instrument of healing, it came to mean something different in Hezekiah’s time. Perhaps they still saw it as a source of healing, but one that was under their control instead of God’s. Burn a pinch of incense, say the right words, and you would be healed. God has become a peripheral part of the equation, subject to the magical properties of the symbol. The story reminds me of the proliferation of relics in the medieval Catholic church, which were often viewed as having magical healing properties.

When I think of the de-evolution of the bronze snake into an idol, I can’t help but think of the quasi-idolatry demonstrated by some in connection with the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthem. As I understand it, the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance were meant to be symbols of the freedom and unity enshrined in our Constitution.”One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. The brouhahas over standing vs sitting vs kneeling when the National Anthem is sung have eclipsed the original meaning of these symbols; it seems the symbols have become more important than the reasons they were created. If the flag “still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away” why shouldn’t a person have the liberty to stand or sit or kneel as they choose? I suppose freedom also means a person attending a sporting event has the right to drink beer, talk to neighbors in the stands, or peruse a smartphone during the national anthem, although I personally wouldn’t opt to do those things. As I understand it, those who choose to kneel are doing it because they do believe in freedom, liberty, and justice for all, and love America enough to want to see those ideals more fully realized. And I’m really not sure how the idea that not standing is meant to convey a lack of support for those serving our country in the military got into this equation at all. Just as the Israelites forgot the original purpose of the bronze snake, I’m afraid that the meaning of the flag as a symbol of freedom and equality has become distorted into something different. Unity in conformity has replaced unity in diversity.

And while I’m busily alienating those who don’t agree with me about this, I don’t think national flags belong in churches, either, especially not front and center on the platform, and certainly not as the focal point of a worship service. I’m all for celebrating Fourth of July with flags and parades and fireworks and patriotic songs, but to me those patriotic displays belong in a secular setting, not in a church. I’m pretty uncomfortable when love for God is conflated with love for country. As a Christian, my primary allegiance is to God and the kingdom of God, which transcends all national boundaries. As the writer of Revelation envisioned heaven  “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  I really am concerned that, for some people, the American flag has become an idol, one which is elevated in practice if not in name above God. And of course, this is only one example of a misused symbol.

“Thou shalt not make any graven images”. I’m afraid the human race hasn’t outgrown the siren song of idolatry. And as Moses warned, when we listen to it we endanger not only ourselves, but our children and our children’s children and our children’s children’s children.

 

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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!

 

 

 

Tablets of Stone or Tablets in the Heart?

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Monuments in public places, and what they represent, have become a subject of debate lately. Roy Moore, the current Republican candidate for Jeff Session’s Alabama senate seat, was removed from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying a court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments commissioned by him for display in the public square. There have been similar cases in other states. Moore, and those like him, think the Ten Commandments are an essential part of the law of our land, and therefore ought to be widely acknowledged, known, and publicized. Other people believe equally strongly that the Ten Commandments are primarily religious laws, and as such should be separated from the business of government. Despite having such strong opinions, most people don’t know the commandments well enough to list them, or identify what isn’t in them.

Exactly how the commandments are numbered varies a little by faith traditions, because the Bible was originally written as a running document, with the familiar chapters and verses added long after the canon was completed.  Here is a list of the commandments in Exodus 20, divided according to the Protestant tradition with which I am most familiar:

1. 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.

2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 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.

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

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

-Exodus 20 (repeated in Deuteronomy 5)

Exodus 31 describes God as giving Moses what came to be known as the Mosaic Law orally, but the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets of stone by the finger of God, which God then gave to Moses. When Moses heads down from Mount Sinai with the tablets, he finds the people busily breaking several of the commandments, shatters them in anger, and makes the people drink a concoction made from their stone dust. God has to engrave a second set of stone tablets with the same commandments, which will be placed in the Ark of the Covenant and eventually be lost in the mists of time. Whether you believe that God literally used his finger to inscribe the Ten Commandments onto stone tablets, or understand this part of the story as metaphor is irrelevant to me. What I understand both to mean is that these specific commandments were set apart from other parts of the Mosaic law in a significant way. For some reason, these particular rules were given the highest priority.

Why were these particular commandments set in stone? Were they more important than the other laws recorded in the Torah? If so, it’s interesting to note what is and what isn’t included in the Big Ten, as well as how widely they are actually observed.  There’s only one sexual prohibition included in the Ten Commandments- unfaithfulness to one’s spouse. Prohibitions against theft and murder are enshrined in our legal system, but the commandment against creating images of any living thing (take that, Instagram!) seems to be pretty widely ignored in modern society, even by the most ardent proponents of Ten Commandment monuments in public places. The command to refrain from working every seventh day and to grant one’s employees and even one’s animals one day of rest out of every seven isn’t widely practiced, either. And “greed is good” seems to have become somewhat of a modern capitalist mantra.

Were they meant to be a concise summary, a sort of Cliff’s Notes of all the other laws?  The first four deal with the human relationship with God, and the remaining six deal with human relationships with other humans. The summary hypothesis makes sense when paired with these statements from Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” and “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The great Talmudic sage Hillel, who also lived in the first century, came to a similar conclusion: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it!”

Maybe the written law was meant to function as a kind of training wheels for human beings who were only beginning to understand who God was, and how he wanted people to behave.  The  prophet Jeremiah foresaw a time when God’s laws would be internalized: The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them”, declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Paul seems to concur with this understanding, Before this faith came, we were held in custody under the Law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the Law became our guardian to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”

James Fowler postulated that the development of faith goes through predictable stages, similar to Piaget’s and Erickson’s stages of cognitive and psychosocial development. One of the most important concepts in understanding any developmental theory is the realization that people in the earlier stages cannot understand what is going on in the minds of people in the later stages of development. An infant can’t understand that Mommy doesn’t cease to exist when she is not visible, while a toddler knows that an out-of-sight mommy is somewhere, and may go looking for her. Parenting young children is very different from parenting adolescents, because young children operate from a literal, concrete perspective while teenagers are becoming capable of abstract thought. I used to teach science, which often necessitated a review of algebraic concepts, and found that some of my students struggled with higher math, while others did not. Usually, it wasn’t a question of intelligence, but of developmental readiness. A good teacher understands that, and tailors lessons to be appropriate for students’ developmental levels.

When my son was a young child, I once had a conversation with him about his behavior in school. He informed me that since the Bible says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, his inappropriate behaviors were justified because of the inappropriate behaviors of others. I responded that Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and to do good things for them instead of trying to get even. He gave me a disgruntled look and said, “Well, anybody can be wrong!” He could not comprehend Jesus’s teaching, because he was not developmentally ready to understand it.

I think God is a good teacher, and is aware of our developmental levels. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way,  “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” In the “fullness of time“, when humanity had become developmentally ready to receive him, God sent Jesus to teach us how to relate to God, and to each other. There is only one law, the law of love, or as James describes it,  “the perfect law of liberty“, and if it is written on our hearts we will have no need to see it written on tablets of stone.

And that’s good news to me.

 

“Believe” is an Action Verb

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Jonah, Jesus, and Grace

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Joseph: You May Say That I’m a Dreamer

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. Genesis 50: 15-21

The Joseph stories, found in Genesis 37-50, have always been among my favorite Bible stories, and I particularly love the conclusion to his saga as told in today’s  reading. Joseph’s story begins in Genesis 37, where he is the pampered and probably somewhat spoiled eleventh son of Jacob. It doesn’t help the family dynamics that he is the son of Jacob’s favored wife Rachel, who died giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. Although Benjamin is also given special treatment by his aging father, it is Joseph who bears the brunt of his older half-brothers’ anger and jealousy. Joseph’s personality probably had a fair amount to do with that, as he seems to have had a tendency to flaunt his superior status. The ten older brothers cook up a plot to kill Joseph and make it look like an accident, but relent when an opportunity arises to make a few bucks as well as getting rid of their annoying little brother. Instead of killing Joseph, they sell him to slave traders, who carry him off to Egypt in chains. There he undergoes quite a few more trials and tribulations before eventually rising to power as Pharaoh’s second-in-command. He had learned to harness the power of his dreams not only to promote himself, but to advance the welfare of others. Joseph uses his position of authority not only to save Egypt and his family from famine, but also to make Pharaoh a tidy little profit in the bargain. When Jacob finally dies of old age, it sends Joseph’s guilty brothers into a bit of a panic. What if Joseph, no longer constrained by consideration for his father’s feelings, decides it’s payback time? Instead, Joseph responds, “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” And unlike his great-great-great-many times nephew David, Joseph really means what he says. He has changed, and so have his brothers.

I think one of the reasons I like the Joseph story so much is that I can relate to it in several ways. I was a precocious but not very socially aware child, and as a result was frequently ostracized and sometimes bullied. The bullying was usually verbal, but sometimes physical. Usually I could outrun or pedal faster than my would-be tormentors, and escape their intended harm to my person. However, on one occasion when I was walking to school, one of the patrol-boys (this dates me, I know!) deliberately kept me waiting at a crosswalk long enough for a second child to come up from behind and repeatedly hit my back with a plastic golf club. My desire for self-preservation took precedence over my desire to follow the rules, and I took off running and stormed into the principal’s office to report the incident. I remember being quite upset with both my parents and my school because as far as I knew, my attackers were never punished. In retrospect, perhaps that is why “The Count of Monte Cristo” became one of my favorite books for the next few years. Fast forward to about fifty years later, when people began finding long-lost and forgotten classmates through social media. The golf club incident had not been part of my conscious mind for decades. Out of the blue I was contacted by the man the patrol-boy had grown up to be, apologizing and asking for my forgiveness! I had thought that he wasn’t punished, but he told me that not only was he permanently banned from being a patrol-boy, he had been tormented for years remembering and regretting the incident and his part in it.

When I received his first email, I couldn’t help but think of the Joseph story. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”, because that was how I feel about my painful past now. In retrospect I see that even the bad things that happened in my life have helped mold me into who I am now. I became quite analytical about improving my social skills, and eventually got pretty good at them.  Because I knew first hand how painful it is to be ostracized and teased, I became very sensitive to picking up on the suffering of others, as well as a fierce advocate for the underdog.  I grew out of my Alexandre Dumas-inspired revenge fantasies, and sought instead to become a “wounded healer”. to use my painful experiences as a springboard to help others in pain. My former classmate and I continued to correspond up until the time of his death several years ago. Both of us had changed for the better over the years, and both of us attributed those changes to the working of God in our hearts and minds.

Centuries after the time of Joseph but long before my time, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Paul understood what Joseph was talking about, although I think this verse is often misunderstood and misapplied in harmful ways. There are some people who believe so strongly in the sovereignty of God that they think that if something bad happens, God caused it to happen for a reason. I find this kind of thinking disturbing theologically as well as psychologically harmful to the people to whom it is often directed. When someone loses a child, I don’t think it’s because God needed another angel. When someone loses a job, has their home destroyed by a hurricane, or gets cancer, I don’t think it’s because God wants to teach them a lesson of some kind. I don’t think that’s the moral of the Joseph story, or what Paul understood about the nature of God either. The way I see it, bad things can and will happen to all of us. Sometimes these are the result of our own mistakes, but more often they are the result of other people’s bad intentions or bad choices, or just plain bad luck.  It is how we respond to the bad things in life that determine whether we are broken or made stronger by them. We can turn inward and be consumed by despair and anger and regret, or we can turn to God, who is able to turn suffering into hope.

I understand the character of God to be a creative, redemptive force for good in the universe. For me, God is not a puppet master, but a beloved companion. When bad things happen, God is with us, weeping with us, striving to help us weave the broken threads together into something good and true. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, working with and through us for the transformation of our lives and of our world. And that’s good news to me.

 

Good News, Bad News

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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