Thou Shalt Not Use the Name of the Lord in Vain

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. Exodus 20:7

Growing up attending Baptist Sunday School, I was under the impression that the third commandment referred to cussing. If you said “hell” or “damn”, particularly if “damn” was prefixed by “God”, you were in mortal peril of winding up in the lake of fire yourself. Other four-letter words that didn’t have anything to do with God were also included in the “cussing” category. My original interpretation of “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord in vain” was “thou shalt not use bad words”.

As I grew older and began to read the Bible for myself, I began to understand that using the Lord’s name in vain had more to do with oath-taking than vocabulary choices. If someone invoked the name of God when making a promise, they had better follow through on their promise, no matter what. For this reason Jephthah, who foolishly promised to offer whatever or whoever first came out to greet him upon his return from a successful military campaign, believed he had to kill his daughter. Apparently the third commandment takes precedence over the sixth, or perhaps child sacrifice isn’t considered murder. Violating an oath made in God’s name was serious business, even if the person didn’t consciously break the promise. Samson was asleep when he got the haircut that caused him to lose his fabled strength. Interesting, women had an escape clause of sorts: their fathers or husbands could veto their vows.

As is usual with written laws, people who are motivated to do so will find a way around them. It’s quite possible to technically obey the law, but disregard its intent. Jesus gave one example of this kind of thinking when he castigated some prominent religious leaders of his time.Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?  You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.” If you determine the principle behind the rule, you’ll have a better understanding of how God wants you to behave. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” I understand Jesus to be saying that if you make a promise, you ought to keep it. Don’t try to wiggle out of your responsibilities on technicalities.

There’s another way I think humans use the name of God in vain, and I think it is perhaps the most dangerous transgression of all. There are people who self-identify as Christians, but their lives do not reflect evidence of the transformation a person connected to God is undergoing. It is difficult to see the fruits of the Spirit– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control- in their lives. Sometimes they follow all the rules they demand others follow, and sometimes they don’t. They do not live by the law of love: they do not treat others the way they would want to be treated themselves. They appear to focus more on their own needs and wants than those of others; they are more self-aggrandizing than self- sacrificing. They are quick to judge the behavior of others but slow to see their own faults, let alone try to correct them. They have a tendency to say they are speaking for God, even when they say such demonstrably false things that it is clear that they are not. To put it bluntly, people like that give God a bad name, and if that isn’t “using the name of the Lord in vain” I don’t know what is. They are certainly on Jesus’s bad list, for he says of them, “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.” and “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” Whatever the “unforgivable sin” of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is, this kind of stuff comes perilously close to it.

Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord in vain” is just as important for those who profess to be on God’s team today as it ever was.

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Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48

On Palm Sunday, Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem surrounded by adoring throngs. By Good Friday, many of the same people were clamoring for his death. What happened?

I think many of the people who threw down their cloaks and waved palm branches were expecting a coup. When they cried “Hosanna”, which is best translated as “save us!, they meant that literally. They thought Jesus would be a military leader in the style of David or the Maccabees. He would defeat their oppressive Roman enemies and Jerusalem would rise again to its fabled Solomonic glory. When Jesus didn’t do what they expected, their emotions turned to the dark side. Their hope turned to fear; their joy turned to anger; and their love turned to hate. Since Jesus wasn’t going to “save them” in the way they wanted to be saved, they wanted to see him destroyed.

Anyone who was paying attention to Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount ought to have figured out that Jesus wasn’t going to use force to establish his kingdom. God’s kingdom will come not by power and control, but through love and self-giving.

He, 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!

People are by nature tribalistic, which was probably a helpful evolutionary survival trait at one time, but I think Jesus was teaching that it’s time for us to evolve beyond that programming. God’s love is inclusive, and ours ought to be too. How do we fight our natural tendency to divide everyone into “us” and “them” categories? By prayer, which doesn’t work to change God or others, but to change us. By behaving kindly toward others whenever we have the chance, even if it’s just to offer a friendly greeting. Power and control may subdue an enemy, but they cannot defeat it. Only love has the ability to change hearts and transform an enemy into a friend.

It can be dangerous, and lonely, to swim upstream against currents of tribalism and self-interest. Jesus walked his talk….all the way to the cross.

 

Is Resistance Futile?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:38-42

When taken at face value, this is one of the more difficult sayings of Jesus. Is he promoting the kind of absolute pacifism that makes no exception for self-defense? What if the evil person is attacking a child or other innocent? What about war? The entire Jewish population of Europe might have been exterminated had the Third Reich not been violently opposed. Some Christians have taken this passage in the Sermon on the Mount very literally, refusing to participate in any war or to even defend family members from attackers. Others have resorted to all kinds of theological and verbal gymnastics to explain away the “clear meaning” of this passage. They’ll reference Jesus’s instructions to the disciples to buy swords in the days leading up to his crucifixion, or quote him as saying “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” and use those words to justify “stand your ground” laws and preemptive wars.

I don’t think there is a simple answer. I think Jesus often made provocative statements in order to get people to thinking. When I come across a difficult Bible passage, particularly if it something Jesus is reported as saying, I always try to look for the principle behind the literal words, and to compare those words with everything else Jesus said and did. There’s an apocryphal Gandhi saying, “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind“, and I think that’s the principle Jesus is trying to get his disciples to see. Violence, even when it is meant to promote justice, usually leads to unforeseen negative consequences. Violence often begets more violence in an escalating spiral. Children who are abused often grow up to be abusers themselves. A punitive criminal justice system often results in recidivism and even worse offenses. World War I, the “war to end all wars” sowed the seeds for World War II, which was even more devastating and deadly. Perhaps Hitler would not have come to power had it not been for the crippling war retributions Germany was forced to pay after losing the first war. You may be able to control human behavior with the use of overwhelming power, but that kind of control is powerless to change human hearts, and in many cases serves only to harden them. Jesus wants to break that vicious cycle  by changing hearts and minds. Gandhi and Martin Luther King understood that principle and tried to apply it to effect lasting change in the unjust societies in which they lived. They trained their followers to literally “turn the other cheek”, even under extreme duress. Through their efforts, many hearts and minds were changed.

I started writing this post a couple of days ago, before the US attacked the Syrian airbase following the horrific poison gas attacks on Syrian civilians in rebel-held areas. I don’t know whether it was the right response or not. On the one hand, I don’t think Gandhi’s techniques would have worked very well to protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. On the other hand, I’m quite sure that there will be considerable unforeseen negative consequences, for the US, for the Syrian people, and for the world.

Is resistance futile? Jesus certainly gave us something to think about with this one.

 

I Solemnly Swear That I Am Up To No Good

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5)

In the Harry Potter novels, the Marauder’s Map is accessed by the use of the passphrase “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good”. Rowling intended this to be a bit ironic, because generally her characters used the map for good, although possibly rule-breaking, purposes. In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus elaborates on the commandment  “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. Jesus goes beyond the rule to the principles of honesty and loyalty that underpin it. Don’t promise something you have no intention of delivering, or can’t deliver.

When I was a child, I thought the Third Commandment referred to “cussing”, meaning using “bad words”, some of which strangely enough had more to do with bodily functions than with God. Adhering to that understanding of one of the Big Ten might have kept me out of trouble with parents and teachers, but that’s not at all how I understand that commandment now. Most modern translations of the Hebrew words phrase it “you shall not misuse the name of God”, and there are many passages in the Old Testament which give examples of the proper and improper use of oath-taking. Using God’s name to promise something was a kind of unbreakable vow, at least for men; a woman’s vow could be overruled by her father or husband. Whatever you promised in God’s name had to be done, even if it turned out to be a rash statement, as Jephthah learned to his sorrow. A modern parallel might be the courtroom custom of placing one’s hand on the Bible and swearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

The problem with attempting to regulate moral behavior with rules instead of principles is that it does not always work. People look for and find loopholes or twist the intended purpose of the law in order to benefit themselves, and that does not make God happy. In Matthew 23, Jesus gives one example of such behavior in his time, coupled with a strong warning that it is highly displeasing to God. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You traverse land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes it sacred?”  Today anyone who keeps up with the news is painfully aware of how often political figures distort the truth to serve their own purposes, make empty promises, and/or dance around the edges of perjury. And don’t get me started on people who claim that God wants you to send them money, or that God told them to run for political office, or that God told them to commit acts of violence and hate in his name. I think God gets especially mad when people use his name to say and do things that drive people away from God. As Paul put it, God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” 

Using God’s name in vain is serious business, and God’s name is used in vain when it is invoked to make promises that won’t be fulfilled, or when it is used to justify human behavior that it is self-serving or harmful to others. Just leave God’s name out of it, Jesus says. Say what you mean and mean what you say. A tree will be known by its fruits, and if you regularly practice the principles of honesty, loyalty, and commitment that will be readily apparent to others as well as pleasing to God.

 

 

 

 

Jesus the Feminist?

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Jimmy Carter caused quite a stir in 1976 when he admitted in a Playboy interview “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” As I remember, he caused quite a stir in evangelical circles just for granting Playboy an interview in the first place. Going back and reading the article now, many of his comments about traditional marriage seem more parochial than controversial, and he’d probably be quite roundly condemned by many of today’s progressives for making them. But you can’t understand, much less judge someone who lived in a different time and place by today’s cultural mores. Were Carter giving the interview today, I think that he might have chosen different words to express the points he was trying to make. Ironically enough, I think Carter was trying to express his belief that since we are all fallible human beings, no one has the right to judge the moral behavior of other human beings- only our own.

If it’s so easy to be be grasp the meaning behind words spoken forty years ago, how much more difficult it is for us to grasp Jesus’s meaning through words recorded two thousand years ago. If we read these words through the lens of our own cultural norms, we fail to understand the radical nature of Jesus’s thought. One ancient Jewish prayer praises God as follows:  “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me… a goy [Gentile],” “a slave,” and “a woman.” In the patriarchal Middle Eastern society of the Old Testament, women were treated as property, much as they still are today in some Middle Eastern countries.  They were their father’s property until they were “given in marriage” thereby transferring ownership from father to husband, and were dependent on the largesse of a father, husband, or son for their support. According to the Talmud, divorce was entirely the husband’s prerogative.  Some rabbis taught that a man could divorce his wife because she burned a meal, or because he found someone more attractive. (“Trophy wives” are not a recent invention.)  A divorced women would very likely be in the untenable position of having no way to support herself.

When Jesus talks about adultery and divorce, he puts the onus firmly on the men. He does not advise women to veil themselves or dress modestly so as not to invoke the lust of men. Rather, he uses the strongest possible metaphor to tell men they shouldn’t ogle women. He does not advise women to concentrate on gratifying their husband’s every whim and fantasy, so as not to risk their displeasure. Rather, he tells men not to abuse their wives by the legal means of divorce.  Here, as in many other places recorded in the New Testament, Jesus is advocating on behalf of the powerless against the powerful.

Today, Jesus’s words are often misused and misapplied in appalling ways. There are some “evangelists” who stand on street corners and call women sluts deserving of rape because of their clothing. There are some “pastors” who tell wives they must stay with abusive husbands because divorce is an unpardonable sin. I don’t think Jesus approves of their message, and I think if he were to show up in person he might direct some very strong metaphors their way, too.

Jesus a feminist? I think so.

 

 

Sanctity of Life

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. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

The sixth (or seventh, if you’re Catholic) of the Ten Commandments in its familiar KJV rendering commands”Thou shalt not kill”, but is probably better translated “you shall not murder”. The Pentateuch expounds on this commandment quite a few times, distinguishing between accidental and deliberate deaths, with different punishments for each. Premeditated murder carries the death penalty on the testimony of two or three witnesses, with false witnesses subject to the same penalty. Where death occurs as a result of non-premeditated or accidental actions, the punishment may be fines or exile to sanctuary cities. Rather than elaborate on crime and punishment, Jesus focused on the principle behind the commandment. I understand this principle to be the sanctity of life.

“Sanctity of life” has come to be used as a synonym for “anti-abortion”, but I agree with Joan Chittester, who is quoted as saying  “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” I think Jesus was trying to have a “much broader conversation” with his followers by going beyond the letter of the law and exposing its heart.

The path to the dark side begins with anger, Jesus says. But even more dangerous than anger is disdainful judgement and name-calling. “Raca” is a derogatory term derived from the root word “to spit”. When the Jewish people of Jesus’ day used that word, they were judging the recipient as worthless and good-for-nothing. We don’t use that word today, but we have plenty of substitutes that mean the same thing:”moochers” “welfare queens” “takers”. Calling other people fools has never gone out of vogue, although there quite a few creative variations on that theme, and Jesus seems to rank that one as the most dangerous of all.

Jesus goes on to say that you cannot connect to God if you are not connected with your fellow human beings. You can’t connect to God when you are consumed by anger. You can’t connect to God when you judge other human beings as worthless, stupid, or evil. God isn’t interested in your pious words and behaviors, but in how you think of other people, what you say about them, and how you treat them.  “I hate, I despise your religious feasts”, thunders Amos. “Rend your hearts and not your garments“, implores Joel. “The entire law is fulfilled in the single decree, Love your neighbor as yourself“, writes Paul. Furthermore, it is not just your spiritual life that will be negatively impacted when you persist in unloving thoughts, words, and behaviors. Many other unpleasant and undesirable consequences are likely to ensue.

If we believe life is sacred- special and precious- why don’t we consistently and holistically act like it?

The Heart of the Matter

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. -Jesus

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.– Moses

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of God’s upside-down kingdom in the Beatitudes, followed by the commissioning of Jesus’s followers to be the light that shows others the way into it. Then it really gets interesting. Jesus says that “not a jot or a tittle” should be expunged from the Pentateuch, and that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That sounds an awful lot like “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” But right after that, he proceeds to repeatedly say “You have heard it said of old (Scripture quote) but I say to you (different spin on the Scripture he just quoted)

“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.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What’s going on here? How can the Law of Moses both be timeless and open to such dramatic reinterpretation? I think Jesus is saying it is the principles underlying the Law which are timeless, not the rules themselves. Rules are always incomplete; they can’t prescribe what the most appropriate behavior is in every possible circumstance, and they can be twisted and misused. Any good lawyer knows that even the most carefully written rules are subject to misuse and exploitation. “Don’t lie” is a good example. A person can literally “not lie” but be quite untruthful by the skilful use of misdirection and omission. The rule may be followed, but the principle is violated. As Bill Clinton rather infamously noted, “it depends on what you mean by the word “is”.

The Law is fulfilled when its principles are followed and not just its rules. It is the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that matters.  Obviously, murder is a bad thing and therefore “thou shalt not kill” is a good rule. But Jesus, like Yoda, reminds us that bad actions often have their genesis in the heart and mind. It is only through understanding and applying the principles behind the Law that it can be internalized, as Moses exhorted the Israelites through the use of colorful metaphor. The Bible is pretty consistent about what the two great principles of  the Law are: love of God and love of neighbor.

I was never a great fan of the “Because I said so” approach to parenting. I wanted my children to understand the “why” behind any rules I imposed, because I wanted them to develop internalized behavioral controls. Externalized controls are temporary, dependent on whether the authority figure is watching, and easily manipulated. Internalized controls are more permanent, function independently of supervision, and are can be generalized to apply to novel circumstances.  I think Jesus was saying that’s how God thinks, too. That’s what it means when Moses commands the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart“, or when Jeremiah says that God  “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”, or when Paul tells the Corinthians they are living letters “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 

Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill the law; that is to complete its purpose and to lead us to internalize its principles. It is not a static thing written in stone, but a living thing written in receptive hearts. That living principle is love, and as Hillel is reported to have said, “That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”