Nov
2021

Hanukkah and the Bible

Hanukkah 2020 - Stories, Traditions & Origins - HISTORY

As I write this, both Advent and Hanukkah are about to begin: tomorrow (November 28) is the first Sunday of Advent, and at sundown that evening, the first day of Hanukkah begins.  On each Sunday of Advent, many Christians will light another candle on their Advent wreaths, counting down the four weeks until Christmas.  On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah (beginning Monday November 29), observant Jews will light another candle on their Hanukkah menorahs (these traditionally have nine branches, as one holds the light from which the others are lit).  A minor festival in the Jewish religious year, the significance of Hanukkah as a family holiday of feasting and gift-giving has grown in parallel to its winter neighbor, the Gentile celebration of Christmas. 

File:Michelangelo, profeti, Daniel 01.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The story back of Hanukkah is related in Talmud (b. Shabbat 21b) and in the Apocrypha, in 1 Maccabees 4:36-61.  Intriguingly, that story is also related in the Old Testament book of Daniel.  This may surprise us: the Maccabean revolt, after all, was in the second century BCE, while Daniel is set nearly 400 years earlier, in the time of the Babylonian exile.  However, most scholars agree that in its final form, Daniel must actually have been written down in the mid-second century: in fact, between 167 and 164 BCE.  For example, the writer of Daniel doesn’t know the name of the Judean king under whom the first exile took place–it was Jehoiachin (see 2 Kgs 24:8-17; Ezekiel 1:1-3), not Jehoiakim, as Daniel 1:1-4 claims–and says that the city of Babylon was conquered, not by Cyrus the Persian (see 2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 45:1-4), but by an otherwise unknown Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30–6:3). These statements couldn’t have been made by an eyewitness to the events.

On the other hand, Daniel accurately describes the events of the Greek period, which also set the stage for the events recalled at Hanukkah. In 332 BCE, most of the then-known world was conquered by a young Macedonian called Alexander the Great. When Alexander died ten years later, leaving behind no heir, his generals divided the empire among them. For the Jews in Palestine, two of these rulers would prove especially significant.  To their south, Egypt was claimed by Ptolemy, while to their north, Seleucus ruled in Syria. Through the following generations, the descendants of these two Greek generals, called the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, squabbled for control of Palestine. As long as the Ptolemies of Egypt were in control, the Jews of Palestine were left alone. However, in 200 BCE Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid, conquered Palestine. At first, little changed. But when Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in 175 BCE, he began to intervene drastically in Jewish life (1 Maccabees 1:20-64; Daniel 7:25; 11:29-39): perhaps as part of a campaign to unify his kingdom under Greek culture and religion, perhaps in order to get his hands on the Jerusalem temple treasury–or perhaps as an act of anti-Semitic hatred.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Beginning of the Rebellion | Reading Acts

Antiochus IV appointed a high priest of his own choosing (ominously named Jason–clearly not a Hebrew name!) in Jerusalem, and gave his support to those in the Jerusalem aristocracy who favored the new Greek ways. When pious Jews resisted, he used cruder methods. In 167 BCE, an altar to Zeus, chief god of the Greeks, was set up in the Jerusalem temple. On this altar was sacrificed an animal sacred to Zeus: the pig. This terrible sacrilege–the sacrifice of an unclean animal to an alien god–is the “desolating monstrosity” of Daniel 11:31 (in the KJV, “the abomination that maketh desolate;” for later interpretations of this Danielic image, see Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14). Similar altars, and similar sacrifices, were ordered established throughout the land. It became illegal to circumcise male children, to observe the Sabbath or any of the other festivals, to teach or even to read the Law, and those who resisted were horrifically persecuted.

All of this is accurately (if symbolically) related in Daniel 10:1–11:39. But after this point, historical events and the course of the vision no longer coincide. Daniel 11:40-43 predicts steadily greater victories for Antiochus–until suddenly “reports from the east and north will alarm him, and in a great rage he will set off to devastate and destroy many” (Dan 11:44). Then, preparing to return to Syria, Antiochus will camp in Palestine, where the archangel Michael will fall upon him with the heavenly armies and destroy him, ushering in the resurrection of the dead and the end of the world (Dan 12:1-3).

Antiochus actually died in the course of his campaign against Persia, in 164 BCE.  Earlier that same year, Jerusalem was liberated by an army of Jewish guerrillas led by Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 4:36-61).  The traditional Hanukkah song “Hayo Hayah” (here adapted and sung by Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers) retells the story.  Daniel does not describe these events, likely because the book was completed before they happened: sometime between 167 (the date of the “desolating monstrosity”) and 164 BCE.

Of course, while Antiochus’ oppressive rule ended in the mid-second century BCE, the world did not.  Later Jewish readers, as well as Christian readers such as the John of Revelation, identified Daniel’s fourth kingdom with Rome (2 Esdras 12:10-12; Rev 17:9): but the world did not end with the fall of Rome, either.  In all the generations since, the promise of God’s deliverance has been continually re-read, and applied to new situations, in the confidence that God’s faithfulness will prevail over every oppressor.

Hanukkah: History & Traditions | Live ScienceSo, why the eight nights of Hanukkah, with their eight lights?  Following the liberation of Jerusalem, Judas Maccabeus summoned faithful priests to reconsecrate the temple and its altar, defiled by the idolatrous rites that had been performed there under Antiochus’ rule.  But, according to the tradition, they hit a snag.  Talmud says:

For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest,  but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel  and thanksgiving [b. Shabbat 21b].

How to Play Dreidel | My Jewish Learning

 

The dreidel game traditionally played during Hanukkah becomes another way of recalling the miracle of the lamps:

Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ‎ (nun), ג‎ (gimel), ה‎ (hei), ש‎ (shin). These letters are translated in Yiddish to a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: nun stands for the word נישט (nisht, “not”, meaning “nothing”), gimel for גאַנץ (gants, “entire, whole”), hei for האַלב (halb, “half”), and shin for שטעלן אַרײַן (shtel arayn, “put in”). However, according to folk etymology, they represent the Hebrew phrase נֵס גָּדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם‎ (nes gadól hayá sham, “a great miracle happened there”).

 

Book Of Daniel Art | Fine Art America

While Hanukkah rightly celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees over their Greek oppressors, the book of Daniel models a different path, of passive, peaceful  resistance.  Perhaps the most famous story in this book is Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan 6:1-28), set in the reign of Darius–evidently the Persian Darius I (522-486 BCE).

In form, this story is reminiscent of the book of Esther, also set in the Persian period (in Esther 1:1, Ahasuerus [Xerxes I, 485-465 BCE] is said to rule “from India to Cush—one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all;” note that the Greek text of Daniel 6:1 also counts 127 satrapies). In Esther as in Daniel, a good and just councilor (Mordecai in Esther, Daniel here) is victimized by jealous enemies in the court (Haman in Esther; in Daniel, all the other councilors). In both books, the Persian king is tricked into signing an irrevocable edict: in Esther, ordering the deaths of all the Jewish people; in Daniel, directing that “for thirty days anyone who says prayers to any god or human being except you, Your Majesty, will be thrown into a pit of lions” (Est 3:9-15; Dan 6:8, 12, 15).  We should note that “the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be annulled” (Dan 6:8, 12) is a bit of folklore, rather than a genuine feature of Persian law.  But while in Esther Ahasuerus’ irrevocable command is matched by a new law arming the Jews and empowering them to resist (Est 8:8-13), in Daniel Darius is forced to carry out his edict. Daniel, who had continued his practice of daily prayer in defiance of the law, is hurled into the lions’ den.  The story records how, after a sleepless night, King Darius breathlessly ran to the lions’ den, to learn how his friend had fared:

At dawn, at the first sign of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit.  As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God—the one you serve so consistently—able to rescue you from the lions?”  Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.”  The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God (Dan 6:19-23).

Althouse: They've covered the popular "Lion Attacking a Dromedary” diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh — do you see why?

In ancient times, Asiatic lions ranged across the Near East, and were understandably feared and respected–even regarded as symbols of royalty in Israel (for example, Gen 49:9; 1 Kgs 10:18-20//2 Chron 9:17-19; Ezek 19:1-9) and Mesopotamia. This diorama in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History contains the taxidermied remains of an Asiatic lion, but sadly, that species is now extinct; modern lions are restricted to a few African regions.  Yet for all the vividness of Daniel’s story, we have no evidence from the Persian period of lions as a mode of execution. Daniel Smith-Christopher (“The Book of Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII, ed. Leander Keck [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 91) proposes that the lions’ den serves as “a symbol of the exile itself,” and of God’s promise of deliverance to God’s people.

Mahatma Gandhi | Biography, Accomplishments, & Facts | Britannica

Mahatma Gandhi, who called Daniel “one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived,” said specifically of the lion’s den story:

When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience, and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha [nonviolent resistance; a term coined by Gandhi] in its purest form.

The book of Daniel models and affirms the passive, nonviolent resistance practiced by its own faithful community: a different way than the path of violent revolution followed by the Maccabean rebels, but one to which, in our violent times, we ought particularly to attend.

Chanukkah sameach and a joyous Advent to you and yours, friends–God bless us every one!

Nov
2021

A Thanksgiving Prayer

30 Scripture Verses to Celebrate Thanksgiving with an Attitude of Grat - Clothed with Truth

FOREWORD: In Sunday’s worship service, my pastor (and former student!) Karen Slusser led us in this beautiful thanksgiving litany, from poet, theologian, and civil rights activist Howard Thurman.  I share it with you for your own meditation and devotion this festive week.  God bless you, friends–Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

Howard Thurman’s Thanksgiving Prayer

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father
The playmates of my childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives
Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies
And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the
Eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I
Feared the step before me in darkness;
The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest
And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open
Page when my decision hung in the balance.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

If John Wesley Came to General Conference – Part 1 - United Methodist Insight

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:
The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,
Without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp
And whose words would only find fulfillment
In the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;
The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream
Could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment
To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,
My desires, my gifts;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence
That I have never done my best, I have never dared
To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind
Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the
inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the
children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

Who Was Howard Thurman? | BU Today | Boston University

AFTERWORD:

Howard Thurman, 1899–1981 (from Rich Barlow, “Who Was Howard Thurman?”, Boston University Today, January 7, 2020)

“In 1944, Thurman cofounded San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first integrated interfaith religious congregation in the United States. In 1953, he became the dean of Marsh Chapel, the first black dean at a mostly white American university, mentoring, among many others, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) as he developed his philosophy of nonviolence.

Yet Thurman didn’t live the dramatic public activism of King or suffer a similar martyrdom. In fact, critics called him a backbencher in the Civil Rights Movement, more preoccupied with mystical meanderings than frontline protesting. Thurman countered that the first order of social change was changing one’s individual internal spirit. ‘He rather gently and powerfully moved through the world in a spirit of grace, dignity, and humility,’ says Walter Fluker (GRS’88), the School of Theology Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership, who published Thurman’s papers, taught a seminar on the man last semester, and wrote his dissertation on Thurman and King.

Who exactly was Howard Thurman?

In an interview shortly before his death, Thurman said he caught the ‘contagion’ of religion from his grandmother, who cared for him after his father died when Thurman was seven and his mother became the family breadwinner. His grandmother recited for Howard the mantra of the black preacher she’d heard as a child on her owner’s plantation: ‘You are not slaves. You are not niggers. You’re God’s children!’ His grandmother’s charismatic rendition, Thurman told the interviewer, inspired in him the belief that ‘the creator of existence also created me.’

That belief took him to Morehouse College in Atlanta, then to seminary and a series of jobs as pastor and professor. His first pastorate after his 1925 ordination as a Baptist minister, in Ohio in the 1920s, led to study with Quaker pacifist Rufus Jones, which Thurman said changed his life. His thinking was honed by a 1935 trip to India with other African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi, who completed Thurman’s conversion to nonviolent social activism.

Thurman’s association with Martin Luther King, Jr., predated BU. Thurman and King’s father, an Atlanta minister, were friends when the young King was growing up. ‘Thurman was at the King home many times,’ says Vita Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93), former director of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, which houses King’s donated papers. Their BU time overlapped for only a year, and King considered his father and Thurman a different, older generation, Paladino says. Nonetheless, King carried Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman’s most important book, while leading the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott.

Published in 1949, the book argues that Jesus taught the oppressed a faith-based unconditional love that would enable them to endure their oppression. Thurman’s message moved not only King, but Jesse Jackson, who in 1982 penned an essay for a postmortem tribute to Thurman by BU. Jackson the activist wrote that he’d been drawn to Thurman the academic by his insistence that ‘if you ever developed a cultivated will with spiritual discipline, the flame of freedom would never perish.’”

Nov
2021

The Pierced King

What is truth? Christ and Pilate - Popxartist

This Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, marks the end of the Christian year; next Sunday, with Advent, a new year will begin. The last Sunday of the Christian year is called the Reign of Christ, or the feast of Christ the King.  Appropriately, the Gospel for this Sunday, John 18:33-37, relates Jesus’ trial before Pilate on the charge of political insurrection:  has Jesus claimed to be a king, in opposition to Caesar?

Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 

Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”

Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

“So you are a king?” Pilate said.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

The epistle for this Sunday, Revelation 1:4-8, further clarifies what sort of kingdom Jesus rules, and what sort of king he is:

Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen 

Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen.

John’s reference to Jesus as the pierced one alludes to an enigmatic text from Zechariah:

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn (Zech 12:10, NRSV).

As in Joel 2:28-29 (in Hebrew, 3:1-2), God pours out God’s spirit.  But here, rather than a spirit of prophecy poured out on all people, God pours out “a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (12:10). This spirit sufficiently softens their hearts so that “when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”

But who is this pierced one?  Our Hebrew Bible reads ‘elay ‘eth ‘asher-daqaru: “to me whom they have pierced.”  The third person forms used later in the verse (“mourn for him . . . weep over him”) suggest that perhaps ‘elay should read ‘elaw (“to him”)—a common scribal error.  Accordingly, the NRSV has “the one whom they have pierced.”  The Greek text of John 19:37, which quotes this verse, reads hopsontai eis hon exekentesan, “they shall look at him whom they have pierced,” which seems to be the form of the saying assumed by most early Christian writers.

However, the Greek Septuagint keeps the first person reference in Zech 12:10, translating the phrase as epiblepsontai pros me anth’ on katorchesanto (“they shall look to me because they mocked”[?]; the Greek texts of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotian have exekentesan, “they pierced,” instead of katorchesanto, “they mocked”).  The early Christian teacher Theodoret of Cyrus accordingly read, “They will look on me, on the one they have pierced” (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets).  The Latin Vulgate also uses the first person (aspicient ad me quem confixerunt; “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced”), as does the old King James Version: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced.”  The CEB has, “They will look to me concerning the one whom they pierced;” similarly, the Jewish Publication Society’s translation reads “they shall lament to me about those who are slain.” This is a possible, if awkward, reading.

But if the Hebrew text is correct here, as seems likely from the textual evidence, the simplest and best reading is, “when they look on me whom they have pierced.”  Incredible as it seems, this passage refers to an assault by Jerusalem’s leaders upon God.  The one “whom they have pierced” is the LORD.

There is precedent for this in Zechariah 2:8:

The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims (after his glory sent me)
        concerning the nations plundering you:
            Those who strike you strike the pupil of my eye.

Here, those who assault Judah are regarded as though they had poked God in the eye!  Cruelty to those whom God loves is an assault upon the Divine.  No wonder Zechariah 12:10 calls the people of Jerusalem and their leaders to mourn!

Crucifixion of Jesus - Wikipedia

The quotation of Zechariah 12:10 in the Fourth Gospel comes in John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion:

It was the Preparation Day and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies to remain on the cross on the Sabbath, especially since that Sabbath was an important day. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of those crucified broken and the bodies taken down.  Therefore, the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men who were crucified with Jesus.  When they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead so they didn’t break his legs.  However, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.  The one who saw this has testified, and his testimony is true. He knows that he speaks the truth, and he has testified so that you also can believe. These things happened to fulfill the scripture, They won’t break any of his bonesAnd another scripture says, They will look at him whom they have pierced (John 19:31-37).

Breaking of the legs of the crucified was intended to speed their deaths.  If victims of crucifixion were unable to push up to relieve the pressure on their lungs and diaphragm, they would soon suffocate.  Otherwise, those crucified suffered for hours, even days, before dying.  The religious leaders do not ask a quicker death for Jesus and his fellow sufferers out of mercy or pity, however.  Unburied corpses defile the land (Deut 21:23, Paul’s prooftext for Jesus taking our curse on himself; see Gal 3:13).  Therefore, it is important for these leaders that the condemned men die before sundown, so that they do not die on the Sabbath–particularly this Sabbath of Passover.  When the executioners see (doubtless to their surprise) that Jesus is already dead, they stab him with a spear to make certain, fulfilling, in John’s mind, Zechariah’s prophecy (as well as Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12, which direct that the bones of the Passover lamb are not to be broken, and Psalm 34:19-20).

Returning to Sunday’s epistle reading, Revelation 1:7 also alludes to Zechariah 12:12: “The land will mourn, each of the clans by itself.”  Here, John follows the Septuagint reading kai kopsetai he ge kata phulas (“the earth shall mourn by tribe”).  So John declares that every tribe on earth will see the exalted, returning Christ–and everyone will be brought by this revelation to mourning and repentance.

By contrast, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr read this passage as referring specifically to the Jews, who looking on “him whom they have pierced      . . . shall say, ‘Why, O Lord, have you made us to err from your way? The glory which our fathers blessed has for us been turned into shame” (First Apology 52). Indeed, Hippolytus describes those who crucified Jesus, whom he identifies as “the people of the Hebrews,” wailing when they see “him whom they have pierced,” and repenting—but too late, as they have already been consigned to hell (On the End of the World 40).

No contemporary Christian can–or should–read those words without shame. Jesus was not killed by the Jews, as the Bible and history alike make utterly plain.  But while absolutely repudiating the anti-Semitism of these ancient Christian authors, we can still learn from them. By identifying the “pierced one” with Jesus, whom they certainly regarded as divine, these early Christian exegetes recognized that in Zech 12:10, God is the offended party.

But while Jerusalem and its leaders have by their injustice and faithlessness wounded the LORD, God’s response is not to seek vengeance, but to pour out God’s spirit, and so to bring them to sorrow and remorse.  The reference in Zechariah 12:10 to mourning “as one mourns for an only child” (Hebrew hayyakhid, “the only one”) recalls other texts depicting extreme grief (Jeremiah 6:26; Amos 8:10).  Just as the reference to the firstborn (habbekor) recalls the grim story of the tenth plague in Exodus 12:29-32, and the “terrible cry of agony” when the deaths of the firstborn were discovered, the reference to the only child recalls Genesis 22, where Abraham is commanded to give up “your son, your only son [yekhideka] Isaac, whom you love” (Gen 22:2) and the loss of Jephthah’s only daughter (Hebrew yekhidah) in Judges 11:34.  Christian readers are likely to think of John 3:16, which describes Jesus as God’s only child (Greek monogenes; the same word used in the Septuagint of Jdg 11:34 for Jephthah’s only daughter), given up for us.

What kind of king is Jesus?  He is not a cruel despot, like Pilate or Caesar–or indeed, like any of the kings of the earth over whom he reigns.  He is the pierced one, who knows our suffering from the inside, who by his blood has freed us from the power of our own sin.  He comes, not to avenge, but to bring us all to a full recognition of our own violence and hatred, and so to healing grief and repentance.

 

Oct
2021

Being the Bible Guy: Does the Bible Matter Today?

FOREWORD:  I was humbled and honored to deliver the 2021 Ira Andrews Lecture this past Sunday at Randolph-Macon College.  I thank R-MC President Robert Lindgren and campus minister (and old friend!) Rev. Kendra Grimes for this invitation, and Rev. Michael Kendall, pastor of Duncan Memorial UMC, for his hospitality.  It was grand to see and visit with so many old and dear friends.

May be an image of 2 people, including Steven Tuell and outdoorsWhat follows is derived from my lecture.  If you would like to view it, you can find it online here.  Ira Andrews was a good friend, a generous colleague, and a tireless advocate for the Gospel, the United Methodist Church, liberal arts education–and specifically, for the way that those ideally came together at his beloved Randolph-Macon College.  May light perpetual shine upon you, my brother!

 

Even after sixteen wonderful years teaching seminarians at PTS, there are things I still miss about teaching at a liberal arts college.  At R-MC, I had trusted colleagues in a wide range of disciplines.  So, if I had a question about astronomy, physics, or science generally, I could go to my good friend George Spagna.  When my research required me to decipher an article written in Italian, I was able to rely on my colleague Aouicha Hilliard for a translation.

My colleagues in turn asked me about the Bible.  I still recall an inquiry from my colleague in Spanish, Mark Malin.  I cannot remember Mark’s question, but I distinctly remember how his email began: “Since you are the Bible guy. . .”.  Immediately I thought, “That is exactly who I am!  I love the Bible: I love studying it, I love teaching it, and most of all, I love the God revealed in its pages.  I am a Bible guy.”  When, eight years ago, I began this blog, I knew what I had to call it.  Today, I have retired after 33 years of guiding college and seminary students through the Scriptures, but I am still certain that this is my calling.  I am a Bible guy!

But for these last sixteen years, teaching seminarians, I have been preaching to the choir!  Students coming into my classroom already valued the Scriptures, and accepted that the Bible matters.  That was not the case at R-MC!  Every term, and more and more as the years went by, I had students in my classes who had never set foot in a church, synagogue, or mosque; who had never opened a Bible before. Once, when Ira and I were discussing the increasing secularity of our students, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Steve, we’re missionaries!”

So:  on the first day of class, I would say to my students, “I know why most of you are here. R-MC requires you to take two courses in philosophy or religion (or both), and you have picked Bible. I am fine with that. My job is to persuade you that you made a good choice!”  I would then proceed to share with them some reasons why, in our culture, the Bible matters.

COVID-19 and the Constitution: How the Bill of Rights Is Being Tested by the Coronavirus | New York Law Journal

American legal and political traditions, I would tell them, derive from English common law, which is based in turn–at least, in principle–on moral and ethical ideals drawn from Scripture.  Specifically, our laws build on the foundation laid in the Decalogue (Exod 20:1-17; Deut 5:1-22): respect for life, for property, loyalty to one’s commitments, wishing the other’s good–the principles that make human community possible.

Night sky Colors & Stars: Cyc Ideas http://southwestdesertlover.wordpress.com/tag/wyoming-night-sky/ | Night sky photography, Night skies, Sky

Next, I would take my students to Gen 1:14-19, where the priests of ancient Israel describe God’s creation of the sun, moon, and stars.  These heavenly bodies are called in Hebrew me’orot, that is, lights: a big light to rule the sky at day; a little light and a generous scattering of tiny lights to adorn the heavens at night.

The sun, moon, and stars are not gods or goddesses, but merely lights in the sky: objects, not persons or powers!  Once we understand that we live in a world of objects—in short, once our world is disenchanted—we can begin the attempt to understand their interrelationships. By observation and experiment, we can begin to formulate hypotheses and test them; we can make predictions about what our world will do. The ancient Israelite priests who wrote Genesis 1 were not scientists, but the step that they took in Genesis 1:14-19 made our scientific and technological age possible.

William Blake - Wikipedia

Finally, I would share with my class the words of that great English poet, artist, and mystic William Blake: “The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art” (cited by Northrop Frye in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982], xvi).  In the West, you cannot look at a sculpture or a painting, go to a play or a movie, read a poem or a novel, without encountering images, ideas, even plot lines taken from the pages of Scripture.

That is what I used to say to my classes, and I could say the same now.  But today, I would need to say something more.  Today, we are in the midst of a global pandemic.  COVID-19 has taken the lives of nearly five million people world -wide; 741,231 in the U.S. alone.  And yet, some still refuse vaccines or masks, and say that they do so because of their faith.

Image result for white CHristian Nationalists at Capitol

Some who mobbed our nation’s capital on January 6 carried crosses, or wore t-shirts with Christian slogans–believing, with Evangelical author Eric Metaxas, that “Jesus is with us in this fight.”  In these days of crisis and division, white Christian nationalists believe that the church belongs to them, and to those like them–and that the Bible tells them so.

These groups, and many like them, treat the Bible I love, not as a source of light and healing, but as weapon: a bludgeon to beat down their adversaries. We need to say “no” to these groups.  But to oppose them effectively, we need to know what the Bible actually says.

Christian author and apologist Josh McDowell. Photo courtesy of Set Free Global SummitLet me give you an example of what I mean.  On September 18, 2021, one of the speakers at a meeting of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) was Christian author Josh McDowell.  His talk took aim at Critical Race Theory, often abbreviated as CRT—a common bugaboo of Fox News commentators and of many white Evangelicals, which says that racism is not simply a matter of individual bad choices or bad actors, but rather a systemic and institutional problem, woven into the structures of our society.

McDowell told those Christian counselors that CRT “negates all the biblical teaching” about racism — because it focuses on systems rather than the sins of the human heart and said today’s definition of “social justice” is not biblical. “There’s no comparison to what is known today as social justice with what the Bible speaks of as justice,” he said. “With CRT they speak structurally. The Bible speaks individually. Make sure you get that. That’s a big difference.” The Bible, according to Mr. McDowell, only focuses on individual sin, not social or structural sin.

Mr. McDowell went on to say,

I do not believe Blacks, African Americans, and many other minorities have equal opportunity. Why? Most of them grew up in families where there is not a big emphasis on education, security — you can do anything you want. You can change the world. If you work hard, you will make it. So many African Americans don’t have those privileges like I was brought up with.

These racist remarks were rightly and roundly condemned, and Mr. McDowell’s speech was removed from the AACC website. To his credit, he later apologized:

At a recent conference, I made comments about race, the black family, and minorities that were wrong and hurt many people. It breaks my heart to know what deep pain I have caused.

Mr. McDowell announced that he was stepping back from ministry, to enter a “season of listening.”

I hope he means it, friends.  Still, the problem is that Mr. McDowell’s attitudes toward race and society are inseparable from the way that he and many white Evangelicals choose to read the Bible: as about individuals, not society or social justice. These claims about Scripture are simply wrong. Note that this is not a matter of opinion! We aren’t dependent on someone to tell us what the Bible says—we have Bibles of our own, and can read them for ourselves.

Far from being an unbiblical idea, social justice is a consistent and persistent part of the prophetic witness. The prophets spoke, not to isolated individuals, but to their people, who were called to account not merely individually, but corporately.  Certainly that was the case for Amos, who addresses his message to the entire northern kingdom:

The Lord proclaims to the house of Israel:
        Seek me and live (Amos 5:4).

In the Talmud, that great compendium of rabbinic tradition, Rabbi Simlai teaches that although there are 613 commandments in Torah, in Amos they are boiled down to one: “Seek the LORD, and live” (b. Makkot 23b-24a)!  The alternative, Amos declares, is destruction for the house of Joseph and Israel (that is, the northern kingdom):

Seek the LORD and live,
        or else God might rush like a fire against the house of Joseph.
        The fire will burn up Bethel, with no one to put it out (Amos 5:6).

Why?  Because, Amos says,

They hate the one who judges at the city gate,
        and they reject the one who speaks the truth.
Truly, because you crush the weak,
        and because you tax their grain,
    you have built houses of carved stone,
        but you won’t live in them;
    you have planted pleasant vineyards,
        but you won’t drink their wine (Amos 5:10-11).

Note that, in Hebrew, the “yous” in this passage are plural (like “y’all” in the South, or “yinz” in Pittsburgh!). Amos is addressing, not isolated individuals, but a society.

Amos 5:21-24 is, frankly, terrifying:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps (Amos 5:21-23).

God rejected the worship of Israel–but why?  What does God want, if not beautiful, emotionally stirring worship?  We know well Amos’ answer to that question:

But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

We know those words well because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously quoted them, in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail and in his “I Have A Dream” speech.  Dr. King used these words in exactly the same way that Amos used them–to call a society to repentance.

A few pages later in our Bibles, the prophet Micah similarly addresses the sins of the southern kingdom of Judah.  God brings a lawsuit (Hebrew rib; the NRSV reads “case” or “controversy”) against God’s own people:

Hear what the LORD is saying:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
        let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD!
        Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The LORD has a lawsuit against his people;
        with Israel he will argue (Micah 6:1-2).

The LORD reminds Judah of their past: of who they are, and who God is:

My people, what did I ever do to you?
        How have I wearied you? Answer me!
I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
        I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
        I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you (Micah 6:3-4).

Next, much like Amos, Micah asks, “What does the LORD expect of us?  What does God want?”

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? (Micah 6:6-7).

Micah’s answer, too, is much like Amos’:

He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the LORD requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

In Hebrew, the word rendered “faithful love” in the CEB is the gloriously untranslatable khesed (the NRSV reads “kindness,” the KJV has “mercy”)–a word that means steadfast love, covenant loyalty–the commitment of the whole self to God and to the justice that God loves and requires.

In Daniel 9:4-11, Daniel is reading Jeremiah’s prophecy of seventy years of exile (see Jeremiah 29:10; 25:11– 12).  Daniel cannot understand why God’s promise has been delayed, and so, fasting and mourning in sackcloth and ashes, he offers his corporate prayer of confession.  In this book, Daniel is presented as a conspicuously righteous and pious man.  But recognizing that, as an Israelite, he shares responsibility for the sins of his people, he prays for and repents of the sins of all Israel (note the emphasized words in this powerful prayer):

Please, my Lord—you are the great and awesome God, the one who keeps the covenant, and truly faithful to all who love him and keep his commands:  We have sinned and done wrong. We have brought guilt on ourselves and rebelled, ignoring your commands and your laws.  We haven’t listened to your servants, the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our leaders, our parents, and to all the land’s people.  Righteousness belongs to you, my Lord! But we are ashamed this day—we, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, all Israel whether near or far, in whatever country where you’ve driven them because of their unfaithfulness when they broke faith with you.  LORD, we are ashamed—we, our kings, our leaders, and our parents who sinned against you.  Compassion and deep forgiveness belong to my Lord, our God, because we rebelled against him. We didn’t listen to the voice of the LORD our God by following the teachings he gave us through his servants, the prophets.  All Israel broke your Instruction and turned away, ignoring your voice. Then the curse that was sworn long ago—the one written in the Instruction from Moses, God’s servant—swept over us because we sinned against God (Daniel 9:4-11).

Some may say, “Well, yeah, but that is all on the left-hand side of the Bible.  Jesus taught individual accountability.”  But, is that so?  Remember that Rabbi Simlai looked for the core of the 613 commandments of Torah, finding them all summed up in Amos 5:4.  The question of the greatest commandment was addressed by Jesus, too: in Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34 (the Gospel reading for this Sunday!); and Luke 10:25-28.  These accounts differ in small points: in Matthew, the expert on the Jewish law seeks to test Jesus when he asks his question; in Mark, his question is sincere; in Luke, it is Jesus who questions the expert.  In all three, however, Jesus’ answer is the same: I can’t give you just one, I have to give you two!

The first commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 (the alternate Hebrew Bible reading for Sunday): “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”  The heart (lebab in Hebrew) is the center of the will: loving God with all your heart means loving God as much as you can.  To love God with all one’s being (Hebrew nephesh should not be translated as “soul;” it refers, as the CEB translation “being” indicates, to the whole of oneself) is another way of saying that one is to love God entirely.  The last word, typically translated “strength” or “might,” is me’od in Hebrew; it means literally “much” or “very.”  We are to love God with our muchness–again, as much as we are possibly capable of loving!

The second commandment is Leviticus 19:18: “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.”  In Matthew 22:39, Jesus expressly connects this commandment to the first, saying that it is “like it.” Responsibility to our community is not optional!   After all, in the prayer that Jesus taught us, we do not pray “My Father,” but “OUR Father.”  Jesus taught us to pray, not “forgive me my trespasses,” but “forgive US OUR trespasses.”  Communal responsibility and social justice are common, prominent, universal themes in the whole of Scripture.

Why, then, can’t Mr. McDowell see it?  Perhaps because, as an Evangelical Christian, he believes, as I do, in the importance of a personal, individual relationship with Christ.  It is far too easy to see in Scripture not what is there on the page, but what we expect to see; to hear only what we expect to hear.  But this need not be an either/or, friends.  After all, Micah called not only for justice, but also for a personal, humble walk with God.  There need be no conflict between personal faith and social justice.

Friends, we must challenge those who arrogantly claim that the Bible legitimates their hatred and division—but how? I remain persuaded that the only way to beat bad Bible is with good Bible. We need actually to READ the Bible ourselves, in big hunks! We need to study this ancient text, so foundational for our society, in the church and in the academy. We need to ask hard questions, of the text and of one another. We need to find and engage with reliable scholars and teachers, old and new. To reclaim the Bible as a positive force for good in our world, we must all become Bible Guys.

AFTERWORD:

Disney tried to trademark 'Day of the Dead.' They make up for it with Pixar's 'Coco' | America MagazineOctober 31 is called Halloween (“Hallow E’en”)  for the same reason December 31 is called “New Year’s Eve,” or December 24 “Christmas Eve.”  Sunday is of course the day before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve.  All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast day of their own (and by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.

The feast was shifted from spring to fall in response to the Celtic celebration Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en;” called El Dia de Los Muertos [the Day of the Dead] in Spain), an ancient festival of the quarter-year, falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. In Celtic culture, Samhain was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by jack o’lanterns) were set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.  When the Celts became Christians, this night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared.

Some Christians argue that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors for treats!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

Happy Halloween, friends, and a joyous All Saints Day–and to my Dad Bernard Tuell, the best saint I know–happy birthday!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct
2021

“What You Are Doing Isn’t Good”

Pastor Appreciation Month — The Pastor's SoulThis past Sunday, I am told, was Pastor Appreciation Day, and October is Clergy Appreciation Month.  To all of my friends and colleagues in parish ministry, including many former students–thank you for all that you do, every day and every month!  But perhaps there is also no better time than this to remind one another of the dangers of pastoral overwork , including the risk of burnout, and of our need for good support systems and self-care.  In recent weeks, tennis star Naomi Osaka and gymnastics great Simone Biles have both chosen to withdraw from some competitions, to conserve their own mental and emotional health. Their controversial choices have put self-care into the headlines.  By contrast, clergy far too often ignore self-care, with devastating personal results.

But pastoral overwork is also damaging to the communities that we serve, and to the faith that we profess.  Indeed, Parker Palmer calls such workaholism “‘functional atheism,’ the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000], 88).

'Moses' by Michelangelo JBU140.jpg

As a Bible Guy, I tend to think in biblical rather than theological or psychological terms.  Specifically, this issue calls Exodus 18 to my mind.  Here, Jethro follows his famous son-in-law Moses through what appears to be a typical work day, and at day’s end tells him,

What you are doing isn’t good.  You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you. The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone (Exod 18:17-18).

Exodus 18 is an old northern, or E, tradition in the Pentateuch–so called because of its preference for the Hebrew title ‘elohim (“God”) rather than the personal Divine Name Yhwh (typically rendered as “the LORD,” in all caps).  Northern traditions in the Pentateuch do use Yhwh once the Name has been revealed to Moses (Exod 3:9-15), but they remain reluctant to use it too frequently. In this chapter, only Exodus 18:1 and 8-11, use “the LORD”–in each case, for a reason.  These verses all recall the deliverance from Egypt, calling the Name particularly to mind.  Indeed, in 18:11, the Name is necessary to distinguish the LORD from other deities: “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods [kolha’elohim], because he delivered the people from the Egyptians.”  Otherwise, the Divine is referred to throughout this chapter as “God” (Exod 18:1a, 4, 5, 12 [twice], 15, 16, 19 [three times], 21, 23).

Further, Moses’ father-in-law is called Jethro here (Exod 18:1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12; compare Exod 3:1; 4:18) rather than Reuel (Exod 2:18) or Hobab (Num 10:29; see also Jdg 4:11), the names used in the old southern epic (usually called J, for the Germanic spelling of the Divine Name, JHVH, from which we get “Jehovah”).  The focus on Moses in this chapter is also typical of northern traditions. What is surprising, however, is that this passage is critical of Moses. Elsewhere, northern traditions exalt Israel’s liberator (for example, Num 12:6-8; Deut 5:1-5).

Johnchrysostom.jpg

By contrast, this chapter is remarkable for its very human portrayal of Moses.  St. John Chrysostom wrote,

For nothing was more humble than he, who being the leader of so great a people, and having overwhelmed in the sea the king and the host of all the Egyptians, as if they had been flies, and having wrought so many wonders both in Egypt and by the Red Sea and in the wilderness, and received such high testimony, yet felt exactly as if he had been an ordinary person. As a son-in-law he was humbler than his father-in-law; Moses took advice from him and was not indignant (“Homilies on 1 Corinthians 1.4,” cited in The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 3, ed. Joseph T. Lienhard; gen ed. Thomas Oden [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2001], 94).

In our chapter, Moses tells Jethro of the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh, and from the hardships they have faced so far in the wilderness. Jethro rejoices, and declares “the LORD is greater than all gods” (Exod 18:11). Then the Midianite priest offers a sacrifice to the Lord, followed by a sacred meal in which Moses’ brother, the priest Aaron, also participates (Exod 18:12).

This scene would have been highly significant to the old northern priestly families who preserved this tradition. Through much of Israel’s history, the right to serve as priests was denied those northern Levites. The southern Jerusalem priests claimed that only they, the rightful descendants of Aaron, could offer sacrifices.  But in this northern tradition the right to priestly service is given even to Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, with Aaron himself giving his blessing by eating bread with Jethro “in the presence of God” (18:12).

Many early Jewish and Christian interpretations wrestle with this inclusion, and can only accept Jethro’s role by seeing his confession in Exod 18:10-11 as a conversion!  In Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of Exod 18:6, Jethro tells Moses that he has come in order to convert (Aramaic l’tgyyr’, see also Exod Rab 1:32; Tankha Buber Yitro, 5; and Mekhilta). Among Christian interpreters, Cyril of Alexandria and the Venerable Bede also see this scene as Jethro’s conversion.

On the other hand, Josephus notes that Moses here gives due praise to a Gentile! He did not

conceal the invention of this method; nor pretend to it himself: but informed the multitude who it was that invented it. Nay he has named Raguel [alternate spelling of Reuel {see Num 10:29, KJV}; i.e., Jethro] in the Books he wrote, as the person who invented this ordering of the people (Ant III. 4.2; http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-3.html),

Similarly, St. Augustine wrote:

Moses very prudently and humbly yielded to the advice of his father-in-law, foreigner though he was. . . For he realized that from whatever intellect right counsel proceeded, it should be attribute not to him who conceived it but to the One who is truth, the immutable God (On Christian Teaching, Prologue 7).

A similarly inclusive approach to ministry is found in the parallel to this passage in Numbers 11:11-17.  There, Moses has no problem with Eldad and Medad who, despite not having been present at the consecration of the seventy elders, spontaneously prophesy at the spirit’s prompting: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Num 11:29; compare Mark 9:38-40).

As we noted at the beginning of this blog, Jethro stays with Moses for awhile, watching quietly as his son-in-law works through a long day. Only at the day’s end does Jethro question what he has seen: “What’s this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people are standing around you from morning until evening?” (Exod 18:14). There is an ambiguity in this question not apparent in translation. The Hebrew la’am could mean, not “for the people,” but “to the people (as in Gen 12:18; 20:9; 26:10)—perhaps already implying that Moses’ actions are harming, not helping them.

Moses’ answer (Exod 18:15-16) reveals a threefold job description. First, the people come “to inquire of God” (18:15). In the Hebrew Bible, to “inquire of [Hebrew darash] God/the Lord” often means to consult a prophet concerning God’s will (for example, 1 Kgs 22:8//2 Chr 18:7; 2 Kgs 3:11; 8:8; 22:13, 18//2 Chr 34:21, 26). So, Moses is a prophet. In fact, we could perhaps more accurately say that Moses is the prophet: Deuteronomy 34:10 says “No prophet like Moses has yet emerged in Israel; Moses knew the LORD face-to-face!” This does not mean that Moses was engaged in fortune-telling, predicting the future of each inquirer—what we today may think of when we hear the word “prophet.” Rather, Moses is God’s messenger, communicating God’s will to the people.

Second, Moses is a judge: “When a conflict arises between them, they come to me and I judge between the two of them” (Exod 18:16). The roles of prophet and judge are not entirely distinct; Deborah was both prophet and judge (Jdg 4:4-5); as was Samuel (1 Sam 3:20-21; 7:15-17). However, the task of deciding matters of law is in Deuteronomy 21:1-5 assigned not to prophets, but to priests. This puts a whole new spin on the role Moses is seen to fill in this text. For the priests were also given a limited, semi-prophetic role: they could use the Urim and Thummim (apparently a sacred lot) to “inquire of the LORD” (Deut 33:8; for how the sacred lot was used, cf. 1 Sam 14:3, 41-42 and 23:1-6). As prophet and judge, Moses, it seems, is filling a priestly role as well.

This impression is strengthened by the third role Moses holds in Exodus 18:15-16. Moses is a teacher: “I also teach them God’s regulations and instructions” (18:16). Here again, we might say that Moses is the teacher (Deut 4:1-5), as he is the one who will receive the Law from God on Horeb (the name northern traditions use for the mountain elsewhere called Sinai). However, teaching the law was a task particularly assigned, in all the traditions, to the priestly house of Levi (for example, Lev 10:11; Deut 24:8; Ezek 42:23-24; Mal 2:6-7). So by describing Moses as prophet, judge, and teacher, Exodus 18:15-16 may also be claiming for Moses another role, as priest.

From the viewpoint of the old northern priestly families, this would have been important, since many appear to have traced their own descent from Moses himself, as the genealogy of the priests of Dan in Judges 18:30 reveals. In the Hebrew of this passage, in both the Leningrad and Aleppo Codices, scribes apparently offended by this claim have inserted a superscripted letter nun into the name “Moses” (presumed by the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate), changing it to “Manasseh” (see the KJV of Jdg 18:30)!  For the purposes of this study, this indicates yet another burden placed upon Moses, which he evidently believes that he must bear alone (Exod 18:14, 18; cf. Num 11:14).

Although, as we have seen, Jethro was the priest of Midian, in this chapter he is called Moses’ father-in-law (Hebrew khoten) thirteen times (18:1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12 (twice), 14, 15, 17, 24, 27), and a priest only once (18:1; see Terence Frethheim, Exodus, Interpretation [Louisville: John Knox, 1991], 195).  Jethro responds to Moses’ inhuman workload as any caring parent would, telling him, in no uncertain terms, “What you are doing isn’t good” (18:17)!

What burnout really is, and ways to prevent it | The Seattle Times

First, it is not good for Moses, and for obvious reasons: “You will end up totally wearing yourself out . . .  The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone” (Exodus 18:18). Long before contemporary psychotherapists came up with the term “burnout,” Jethro described the condition to a tee.

But the danger was not to Moses alone—as the Hebrew of Jethro’s initial question (“what are you doing to the people”) has already implied. In full, Jethro says, “You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you.” What Moses is doing is not only self-destructive, but destructive to the community as well.

The workaholic’s conceit is always, “I can’t quit now. They are all depending on me.” That may well be true—but if it is, then “they” are all being deprived of their rightful opportunity to make their own decisions and to live their own lives. Jethro’s proposal of delegated authority not only gives Moses a much-needed rest, it also empowers the community. Like Moses, we may try to “do it all” for the best of reasons, out of a profound desire to help. However, that sort of “help” swiftly becomes coercive, even pathological—not ministry, but codependency. Once more, Jethro diagnosed the disease long before it was given its own label in the psychotherapeutic dictionary.

Jethro proposes that Moses seek out “capable persons who respect God. They should be trustworthy and not corrupt. ” (Exodus 18:21). This is a checklist that could scarcely be improved upon today for identifying people in our communities worthy of the task of leadership. What is more, Jethro confidently expects Moses to discover that such people are not rare. He will find enough to place some “over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (18:21).  Jethro gently informs Moses that God can work through others, too; there are plenty of people capable of sharing his burden.

Notice that Jethro does not tell Moses to stop caring—or even to change his job description. Moses is to continue in his priestly role, as prophet, judge, and teacher:

Your role should be to represent the people before God. You should bring their disputes before God yourself.  Explain the regulations and instructions to them. Let them know the way they are supposed to go and the things they are supposed to do (Exod 18:19-20).

The cure for Moses’ burnout—and ours—is certainly not quietism, noninvolvement, or apathy. Rather, Jethro tells Moses to go right on doing what he has been doing, but with a difference. Moses must acknowledge that he cannot, and should not, do it all alone—that he needs help.

The system Jethro describes provides for a far more efficient means of dealing with questions and conflicts. First recourse, apparently, would be to the judge appointed to you personally: one for every ten Israelites. Jethro recognized that Moses could not possibly be personally involved in the life of every Israelite. But in this way, every member of the community could talk to someone who knew them very well. Similarly, John Wesley divided the first Methodists into classes, or bands; small groups for prayer and support that met weekly

To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting (John Wesley, “Rules of the Bands,” 1744; cited in John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler, Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford, 1964], 180).

Jethro also proposed providing higher courts of appeal: judges over fifties, hundreds and thousands. These persons could deal with problems too severe or widespread for the judges over tens. Only the most important cases would then be appealed ultimately to Moses himself (Exod 18:22).

Obviously, Jethro’s proposal spares Moses a great deal of work. But that is by no means all that it does. Remember Jethro’s observation that the people, as well as Moses, were being worn out by the old ways. They had no voice, no real participation in decision-making. But once this program is in operation, “they will share your load” (18:22). Jethro’s proposal shares power and responsibility broadly, among the people whose daily lives are effected by the decisions made. Jethro predicts that this program will lead to greater satisfaction and tranquility: “all these people will go to their home in peace” (18:23).

God Reaches Out, No Matter Where You Are: Purves

So—what lessons applicable to our current circumstances can we draw from Jethro’s practical admonition to this son-in-law? Andrew Purves addresses his transformational book The Crucifixion of Ministry primarily “to busy, tired, somewhat depressed, midcareer, and fed-up ministers who can’t carry the load of ministry any longer”—in short, to pastors like Moses in Exodus 18 (The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2002], 11)! At the very beginning of his book, Purves describes a conversation with his wife about her frustration with pastoral ministry, “that no matter what she tried, nothing seemed to change.”

Suddenly, I mean out of the blue, I had the insight that there is little, maybe nothing, we who are ministers of the gospel can do that really changes things. If anything worthwhile is to happen, Jesus has to show up. . . . Walking on the beach I was suddenly aware that our attempt to be effective ministers is a major problem. We are in the way. Our strategies, action plans, pastoral resources and entrepreneurial church revitalization techniques have become not the solution but the problem. Our ministries need to be crucified. They need to be killed off. What if Jesus showed up? That’s our only hope. Our people don’t need us; they need Jesus. Our job is to bear witness to him. (Purves, 9-10)

The purpose of his book, Purves writes, “is to offer a perspective on ministry and illustrate a practice that liberates ministers from the grind of feeling that ‘It’s all up to me.’”  That perspective begins with a crucial insight: “Conceiving ministry as our ministry is the root problem of what ails us in ministry today.” Instead, “Ministry should be understood as a sharing in the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ” (Purves, 11).

L. Roger Owens

L. Roger Owens describes a different sort of problem with the goal-driven ministry Purves decries: what if it succeeds?

My problem was that I was doing it well and seeing results. I’d put on the mask of the visionary leader and I wore it convincingly. But after five years of wearing it, the mask was beginning to chafe. . . I’d been going against the grain for five years, and was suffering because of it—physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. I was contemplating how to get out (“Staying with God: Eugene Peterson and John Chapman on Contemplation,” in Pastoral Work: Engagements with the Vision of Eugene Peterson, eds. Jason Byassee and L. Roger Owens [Cascade Press, 2014], 131-32).

For Owens as for Purves, the way forward is a reorientation, away from “practicing ministry with the unconscious assumption that if I don’t make something good happen here it never will” (Owens, 132) and back toward Christ, through contemplative spiritual practice. Part of trusting in God is trusting that God is at work, in ways we do not know and cannot see or control.

Another point worthy of note is that we need to find a Jethro of our own. Each of us needs someone who knows us well, and loves us enough to confront us with hard truths. In Judaism, this truth finds expression in Mishnah:

Joshua ben Perahiah used to say: appoint for thyself a teacher, and acquire for thyself a companion and judge all men with the scale weighted in his favor (Pirkei Avot 1:6).

Seek out a spiritual director or covenant group, and see them regularly.

We would do Jethro’s wise counsel a disservice if we did not mention a theme that runs through the entire plan. Jethro begins with a blessing: “Now listen to me and let me give you some advice. And may God be with you!” (Exod 18:19). The people sought out to be judges, he directs, must be people of reverence, who “respect [the Hebrew actually is “fear”!] God” (Exod 18:21). Finally, Jethro concludes by saying, “If you do this and God directs you, then you will be able to endure. And all these people will be able to go back to their homes much happier.” (Exod 18:23). Jethro’s counsel is godly counsel. He places it before Moses for prayerful consideration; only if Moses is commanded by God to take this step should the counsel be followed at all.

To be sure, this tells us something important about Jethro. As a wise counselor, he was also a person of faith, willing to submit his own plans to the direction and guidance of God. But Jethro’s stipulation that the installation of judges should only take place at God’s command also tells us something important about the system itself. Note that Moses followed his father-in-law’s advice, as 18:24-26 describes. Although God’s command is not explicitly described, we can assume that Moses believed this structure to represent God’s will.

One final note on Jethro as wise counselor: when the job was done, “Jethro went back to his own country” (Exod 18:27). Jethro did not have to stick around and compulsively fiddle with the structure he had devised. Nor did he have any need or desire to be a back-seat driver, looking over Moses’ shoulder. Jethro was himself able to let go, trusting that God was at work, and trusting Moses to handle matters that arose as Moses saw fit. In other words, Jethro was that rare and wonderful commodity, an advisor who was able to take his own advice.

AFTERWORD:

October is also a month of birthdays in my family–both mine and my Dad’s!  Every October, I look for a chance to recite, or post, this wonderful bit of Suessian whimsy! God bless you all, my friends, and thank you for your birthday greetings.

May be an image of text

 

Sep
2021

Biblical Divorce

13 YES, SLAY GURL ideas | protest signs, power to the people, protest

The Gospel lesson for this Sunday, Mark 10:1-12, contains this potent word from Jesus concerning marriage:

At the beginning of creation,  God made them male and female. [see Gen 1:27]  Because of this a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’ [see Gen 2:24]   So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together (Mark 10:6-9).

Let me be very, very clear, friends: this passage has nothing to do with same-sex marriage.  Nor does its parallel, Matthew 19:3-9 (see also Luke 16:18 and  Matt 5:31-32).  Now how can I, a self-avowed Bible Guy, say that?  After all, doesn’t Jesus explicitly say here that marriage is between a man and a woman?

24 Marriage= One Man+One Woman ideas in 2021 | marriage, traditional marriage, pro life

Actually, friends, this passage is not so much about “biblical marriage”  as it is about biblical divorce.  That is the question the Pharisees ask (“Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife?”, Mark 10:2), and that is the subject of Jesus’ private discussion with his disciples afterwards (Mark 10:10-12).  Jesus’ opposition to divorce is grounded in his high view of marriage: he vigorously affirms the goodness of marriage between women and men. Jesus’ words in context, however, are not restrictive and prohibitive (only this), but permissive and affirmative (yes to this). Jesus’ affirmation does not imply a prohibition: it is Jesus’ stated intent here to bolster marriage, not to define it by restriction to “one man and one woman.”  After all, Jesus does not make this statement in response to a question about homosexuality, or polygamy, or sexual practice generally, but specifically in response to a question about divorce.

To understand this biblical conversation, and its relevance to our contemporary world, we first must understand the debate concerning divorce in Scripture and in Jewish tradition, and what Jesus’ response to this debate tells us about his approach to Scripture and tradition–and yes, to marriage and divorce.

The Old Testament takes marriage very seriously: after all, according to Gen 2:24, man and woman were created for one another, and are drawn to become “one flesh.”  Still, in the Hebrew Bible, divorce is accepted, with no shame implied to the woman who is divorced (in that patriarchal culture, nothing is ever said of wives divorcing their husbands).  The divorced daughter of a priest can return to her father’s house and eat from the offerings restricted to the priests and their families (Lev 22:13), and oaths sworn by divorced women have legal standing (Num 30:9). True, according to Leviticus 21:7, 13-14, no priest may marry a divorced woman. But this restriction on priestly marriages clearly implies that other Israelite men could marry divorced women.  The law concerning divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) assumes this, although it places a restriction on remarriage:

Let’s say a man marries a woman, but she isn’t pleasing to him because he’s discovered something inappropriate about her. So he writes up divorce papers, hands them to her, and sends her out of his house.  She leaves his house and ends up marrying someone else.  But this new husband also dislikes her, writes up divorce papers, hands them to her, and sends her out of his house (or suppose the second husband dies).  In this case, the first husband who originally divorced this woman is not allowed to take her back and marry her again after she has been polluted in this way because the LORD detests that. Don’t pollute the land the LORD your God is giving to you as an inheritance.

 

Again, in the Hebrew Bible, divorce is an accepted practice.  The exception that proves the rule is Malachi 2:15-16:

Don’t cheat on the wife of your youth
because he hates divorce,
says the LORD God of Israel

The Hebrew of the Masoretic Text (or MT, the text used in the synagogue, on which our Old Testament is based) reads ki-sane’ shalakh (“For he [God] hates divorce”).   But the oldest Hebrew text of Malachi extant, from the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran, reads instead ky ‘m snth shlkh: “But if you hate her, then divorce” (4QXIIa)!  That alternate reading is also reflected in many ancient translations from the Hebrew (called, in scholarly shorthand, “the versions”). Targum Nebi’im, the Aramaic translation of the Prophets for use in the synagogue, reads ’arey ‘im senet lah patrah (“For if you hate her, you shall divorce her”).  Similarly, the Greek of the Septuagint reads alla ean misesas exaposteiles (“if, since you hate her, you send her away”), and the Latin Vulgate reads cum odio habueris dimitte (“when you hate her, put her away”).

Usually, such broad attestation for a different reading would call the MT into question.  However, the alternate reading is here unlikely to be the original, as it conflicts with the emphasis on faithfulness and commitment in both the broader context of Malachi 2:10-16 and in the remainder of the verse in which it appears. Further, it is far more likely that this alternate reading attempts to deal with the difficult text in the MT of Malachi 2:16 than that the MT resulted from deliberate alteration or scribal error.

What makes Malachi 2:16 difficult isn’t any problem with its wording, grammar, or syntax, which are all clear, but rather the problem is its meaning. The alternate reading represented in 4QXIIa and the versions is more in keeping with the whole of Scripture.  Everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, as we have seen, divorce is accepted.  So in its biblical context, Malachi 2:16 is an anomaly–if it applies to actual divorce.

But if this verse concerns metaphorical divorce, then there is no anomaly. The point of the passage then would be that God calls Judah to covenant faithfulness, without wavering.  With Julia O’Brien (Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, AOTC [Nashville: Abingdon, 2004], 299-303), I would argue that in Malachi 2:10-16, as in Hosea 1–2, marriage is understood symbolically, as faithfulness to the LORD.  “The wife of your youth” would then be the life of faith and commitment abandoned by Judah in its idolatry (see Mal 2:5-7; 3:5), a life that was expected to bear fruit in righteousness (“divine seed” [Hebrew zera’ ‘elohim] in Mal 2:15; still thinking of actual marriages, CEB has “godly offspring”). Like other prophets (see Isa 50:1; Jer 3:1, 8), Malachi uses the law concerning divorce in Deuteronomy 24 metaphorically, to condemn Israel for worshipping other gods, then thinking that they can return to the LORD as though nothing had happened .

While we can imagine that divorce was intended to be rare, no statement of the acceptable grounds for divorce is ever given in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 24:1 only says that a man can divorce his wife (again, no provision is made for a woman divorcing her husband!) if he finds “something inappropriate about her.”  The Hebrew word translated “something inappropriate” is ‘erwah: literally “nakedness;” or “something shameful.”  But what does that mean?  Since the Hebrew Bible doesn’t clearly specify the conditions under which divorce is permissible, the rabbis debated the issue intensely.

The alternate reading for Malachi 2:16 in 4QXIIa, reflected in all the versions of this passage, sounds very like the teaching of Jewish sage Jesus ben Sirach:

Do you have a wife who is a soul mate?
    Don’t divorce her,
    and don’t trust yourself to a woman
    whom you hate (Sir 7:26).

Ben Sirach believed that a good marriage was cause for celebration and lifelong commitment. But he implies that divorce could be pursued for incompatibility.

Two Jewish teachers who lived at roughly the same time as Jesus, Hillel and Shammai, were famous for their disputations.  According to the Mishnah (b Gittin 9.10), Rabbi Shammai argued that divorce could be permitted only in the case of adultery, where the commitment had already been broken by unfaithfulness.  But Rabbi Hillel taught that bad cooking is sufficient grounds for divorce! In Hillel’s view, as a human contract, marriage could be dissolved for any reason at all.

 

In contrast, Jesus’ teaching rejects the law in Deuteronomy, and so rejects divorce and remarriage, altogether: “Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18; compare Matt 5:31-32).  To understand Jesus’ teaching, we should note that in Palestine in Jesus’ day, women could not independently own property.  Divorce meant that the woman would be dependent upon the chancy charity of her family or her community to support her.  She could be rendered homeless and destitute by her husband’s rejection.

The law regarding divorce, in Jesus’ view, reflects not God’s good will, but rather a concession to human failing.  “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” Jesus says, “because your hearts are unyielding. But it wasn’t that way from the beginning” (Matt 19:8; compare Mark 10:5).  Jesus sets the law in Deuteronomy 24 aside and rejects divorce in order to protect women from being cast out at their husbands’ whims.  He bases this action on an earlier passage in Torah: Genesis 2:24.  God’s original intention for women and men expressed in Genesis is a higher principle than Deuteronomy’s permission for men and women to divorce.  Jesus’ opposition to remarriage shows that he understood marriage to be a permanent commitment.

The varying forms and contexts in which Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage is found across the New Testament indicate that the debate about that teaching continued in the earliest church.  Indeed, Matthew 19:10-12 describes the high standard Jesus sets for marriage as an ideal, not as a law: “Not everybody can accept this teaching, but only those who have received the ability to accept it. . . . Those who can accept it should accept it.”  In Matthew 19:9 and 5:31-32, divorce is permitted in cases of adultery, just as Shammai had argued–although remarriage is still rejected.   In the gospel of Mark, which may have been written in Rome, the saying reads, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;   and if a wife divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). This differs from the Old Testament and traditional Jewish position, and places Jesus’ teaching in the context of Roman law, which permitted a woman to initiate a divorce. Likewise Paul (see 1 Cor 7:10-16), who cites Jesus’ teaching on divorce (one of the few places where the words of Jesus are cited in Paul’s letters), recognizes that in the Roman world a wife could divorce her husband.

File:Jan Lievens, Painting of St Paul, ca. 1627-29. Oil on canvas. Nationalmuseum Sweden.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Paul also forbade divorce because he was convinced that the world would end soon, making any attempt to change one’s present status a waste of time:

This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: The time has drawn short. From now on, those who have wives should be like people who don’t have them.  Those who are sad should be like people who aren’t crying. Those who are happy should be like people who aren’t happy. Those who buy something should be like people who don’t have possessions. Those who use the world should be like people who aren’t preoccupied with it, because this world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31).

Clearly the world did not end in the first century.  But Paul’s teaching on divorce and remarriage still follows the teaching of Jesus.  So shouldn’t the plain teaching of Scripture on this issue bind us?  Aren’t all divorced and remarried people today therefore living in sin?

Few of us would want to say so.  I have members of my own family, as well as dear friends, who are divorced and remarried.  I cannot imagine going to them and announcing that their marriages are invalid, and their children illegitimate! Indeed, in the United Methodist church, as in most other Protestant churches, divorce and remarriage are permitted.  The United Methodist Social Principles state:

when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. . . . Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.

Remember that, despite the law, Jesus stood up for women in his day by condemning divorce and re-marriage.  Clearly he did not read his Bible, even the Torah, uncritically and legalistically.  Why, then, should we think that Jesus would expect us to read Scripture in a way that he did not?

For Jesus, marriage deserves our highest respect and regard.  Is his affirmation of marriage a condemnation of same-sex relationships?  I see no reason to think so.  Jesus’ point is that the partners in any marriage are to be radically committed to one another, which is an excellent model for same-sex marriages as well as for heterosexual marriages.

I remember repeating, in more weddings than I can now recall, the words of our traditional marriage service: H0ly matrimony

is an honorable estate, instituted of God, and signifying unto us the mystical union between Christ and his church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.  It is therefore not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently, discretely, and in the fear of God.

Given the radical commitment to one another that Christian marriage involves, neither marriage nor divorce should ever be casual decisions! In our day as in Jesus’ day, love for God and respect for the rights and happiness of all people requires an approach to all of life–including marriage, remarriage, and divorce–faithful to the living spirit rather than the rigid letter of Scripture.

AFTERWORD:  For more on Malachi 2:10-16, see my commentary, Reading Nahum-Malachi, Reading the Old Testament (Macon, Ga: Smith-Helwys, 2016), 243-47.  For more on my position regarding LGBTQ+ persons and the Bible, enter “homosexuality” in the Search window to be taken to blogs where I have discussed the Bible passages usually cited in this discussion at length–particularly the Gospel passages (much of this blog is adapted from that one!) and the Genesis texts.

 

 

 

Sep
2021

Like A Tree

The Psalm for this Sunday in the lectionary is Psalm 1.  The first Psalm was not placed at the opening of the Psalter by accident: indeed, this poem may have been composed to introduce the book. In the Leningrad Codex, on which the standard critical edition of the Hebrew Bible is based, the first psalm is unnumbered, suggesting that it stands as a heading to the psalms that follow.

Psalm 1 affirms that God’s torah  (traditionally translated “law”) is the source and ground of blessing (Ps 1:1-2). This emphasis on Torah reflects the structure of the Psalter, which is divided by four doxologies (Pss 41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; and 106:48) into five books, reminiscent of the Five Books of Moses–called, in Judaism, the Torah.

Still, Psalm 1 seems an odd place for this book to begin. In Hebrew, the book of Psalms is called Tehillim, or “praises;” yet, the first psalm is not a song of praise! Numerically, the book of Psalms is dominated by prayers for help, and yet Psalm 1 is not a prayer.  As James Luther Mays observes, “The Book of Psalms begins with a beatitude. Not a prayer or a hymn, but a statement about human existence” (Psalms, Interpretation [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], p. 40).

Icon of St. Athanasios - (1AT15)

But perhaps this is not such a strange beginning, after all. For while the Psalter certainly gives expression to Israel’s theology, this is not so much a book about God as it is a book about us: the community of faith. As St. Athanasius wrote,

Within [the Psalter] are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul.  It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.       . . . In the Psalter you learn about yourself (from “To Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms”).

So, what does this psalm teach us about ourselves, as we are and as we might become? Psalm 1 contrasts the wicked (Hebrew resha’im) and the righteous (tsadiqim). The wicked are defined only in negative terms: by their opposition to the righteous, who do not follow their way, or sit in their councils (1:1), just as the wicked themselves

will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous (1:5).

The righteous, by contrast, are positively defined by their immersion in God’s torah. My old friend and fellow Bible Guy Jerome Creach proposes that in Psalm 1, torah refers not only to the written Law of Moses, but also to the Psalter itself:

The Psalms are a part of the pluriform expression of divine instruction by which the righteous find a secure destiny, hope for their living (Jerome Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms [St. Louis: Chalice, 2008], 139).

 

Certainly, the language of Psalm 1 does not permit a legalistic understanding of righteousness. Contrast this psalm’s approach to Torah with, say, Deuteronomy.  In Deuteronomy 15:5, for example, Israel is enjoined to “carefully obey the Lord your God’s voice [Hebrew shama’ beqol; literally, “hear the voice”]  by carefully doing [Hebrew shamar; “keep” or “observe”] every bit of this commandment  [Hebrew mitswah] that I’m giving you right now” (see also Lev 26:14).

None of this legal vocabulary appears in Psalm 1. Instead, the righteous are here said to “love (Hebrew chapets, “desire;” rendered “delight in” in the NRSV) the LORD’s Instruction” and to “recite (the verb hagah actually means “murmur,” implying constant, repetitive study and recitation; the NRSV has “meditate”) God’s Instruction day and night” (Ps 1:2).

The same verb is used in Joshua 1:7-9:

“Be very brave and strong as you carefully obey all of the Instruction that Moses my servant commanded you. Don’t deviate even a bit from it, either to the right or left. Then you will have success wherever you go. Never stop speaking about this Instruction scroll. Recite it day and night so you can carefully obey everything written in it. Then you will accomplish your objectives and you will succeed.  I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

As the CEB recognizes, Hebrew torah may be better rendered as “instruction” than by the traditional translation “law.”

Reflection on Psalm 1 | New Life Narrabri

Focus on divine instruction yields for the righteous happiness and security (Ps 1:3; again, compare Josh 1:8). The Psalmist avows,

They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds.

This arboreal imagery emphasizes both the stability and fruitfulness of the righteous.

Winnowing - Life on Earth Pictures

In sharp contrast, the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (1:4, NRSV): empty husks–dry, lifeless, fruitless, and rootless.

But the image of “trees planted by streams of water” also calls to mind other biblical connections. The reader may think of Eden, the well-watered garden of God (Gen 2:8-14), in which grew “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9, NRSV), or of the river in Ezekiel 47:1-12, along whose banks

will grow up all kinds of fruit-bearing trees. Their leaves won’t wither, and their fruitfulness won’t wane. They will produce fruit in every month, because their water comes from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for eating, their leaves for healing (Ezek 47:12; compare Rev 22:1-2).

No photo description available.

These passages in turn evoke the image of Zion: center of the world, source of life and meaning, and site of the temple (for example, Isa 2:2-4//Mic 4:1-3; Ezek 28:13-14; Ps 46:4-6).

The Zion link is particularly intriguing, as other features of Psalm 1 connect this Torah psalm to Psalm 2, a royal psalm celebrating the coronation of the king “on Zion, my holy mountain” (Ps 2:6).  Most of the psalms in Book 1 of the Psalter (Pss 1–41) have superscriptions connecting them to David.  But neither of the two opening psalms of the Psalter is given a title (apart from these two, only Pss 10 and 33 lack such superscriptions). Further, Psalms 1 and 2 are bracketed by the Hebrew expression ’ashre (“happy;” compare Pss 1:1 and 2:11). In this way, the book of Psalms opens with the two major themes of the Hebrew Bible conjoined: law and kingship, conditional covenant and unconditional promise, Sinai and Zion (cf. Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible [New York: Winston Press, 1985], 217).

Jerome Creach argues that in Psalm 1, Torah has replaced Zion as the means of access to God’s presence and blessing (The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms, 145). Curiously, in our New Testament, it often seems that the opposite shift has taken place.  Zion themes, particularly those promises linked to the Davidic line, have displaced Sinai themes–or, as Christians so often phrase it, the Law has been displaced by the Gospel. So, Paul can describe Sinai allegorically as Hagar, Abraham’s slave wife whose children remain in bondage (Gal 4:24-25), while his free wife Sarah “corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother” (Gal 4:26, NRSV).

But the relationship between Sinai and Zion is in both testaments more complex than at first appears. The book of Psalms does not simply set Zion aside, but makes frequent reference to temple worship; further, the attribution of many of its poems to David leads, ultimately, to the traditional ascription of the Psalter as a whole to that paradigmatic king (See, for example, Mark 12:36-37//Matt 22:43-45; Rom 4:6). Although Paul asserts that “a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16), he opposes simple antinomianism: for example, Paul recognizes the command to love the neighbor (Lev 19:18) as the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:8-10).

In the New Testament as in the Old, then, Sinai and Zion are held in unresolved tension. Insofar as faith involves the relationship of the believer with God, all of Scripture affirms that God’s grace alone makes that relationship possible: the unconditional promise of Zion reassures us. Insofar as faith involves life in the world, all Scripture insists upon God’s will as an imperative: the conditional covenant on Sinai challenges and compels us.

A man In deep thought looking himself in mirror - The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

To return then to the question with which we began, what does Psalm 1 teach us about God and ourselves? Although the poem appears to describe two different groups of people, it is apparent that the Psalmist actually has no interest in the wicked; like chaff, they have no real substance. The righteous alone are defined positively and concretely, by their relentless pursuit of Torah. Therefore, the righteous alone have purpose and destiny:

The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed (Ps 1:6).

The NRSV, like the old KJV, has “for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous” (Ps 1:6). But the verb here is yada’, that is, “know.” In Hebrew, “knowing” has to do not simply with intellectual grasp, but with relationship. Those who desire to know God, who seek out and meditate upon God’s instruction, are in turn known by God: as the CEB has it, the LORD is “intimately acquainted” with them!

Psalm 1 says of the righteous, “Whatever they do succeeds” (Ps 1:3). But this psalm is not about how to be successful.   The righteous are described in the opening verse of this psalm as happy, but Psalm 1 is not about how to be happy. Just as Jesus’ beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) are descriptive rather than prescriptive, so the beatitude pronounced upon the righteous in Psalm 1 describes rather than defines them.

The destiny of the righteous in this psalm is to know, and be known, by God—to enter into a relationship with the Divine; to become like trees in the temple garden, drawing life from God and bearing fruit for God. The means to that end set forth in this psalm is immersion in Scripture: in God’s Torah. Such seekers will not seek in vain!  As Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7).

AFTERWORD:  The odd map above, with Jerusalem at the center of the world, is the Bünting Clover Leaf Map (the German title reads Die ganze Welt in einem Kleberblat/Welches ist der Stadt Hannover meines lieben Vaterlandes Wapen; “The entire world in a cloverleaf, which is the coat of arms of my dear Fatherland, the city of Hanover”).  It was drawn by the German pastor, theologian, and cartographer Heinrich Bünting, and published in his book Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae (“Travel through Holy Scripture”) in 1581.  See if you can find America on this map!

Sep
2021

When the Worst Thing That Can Happen, Happens

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, just north of Richmond. I well remember the shock and horror that seized our little college town as news trickled in that Tuesday morning. First, we learned of a bizarre and horrible accident involving a plane colliding with one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  Then swiftly came the unthinkable revelation that this was not an accident, but a terrorist attack, involving two airliners deliberately targeted on the Towers. We later learned that another plane had been targeted on the Pentagon, and that still another, intended to crash into either the Capitol or the White House, was forced down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania by its heroic passengers and crew – saving the lives of others at the cost of their own.

On Thursday of the week following this assault, Ashland held a memorial service on the town square.  I was among those asked to speak.  As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to Habakkuk 3.16-19.  Habakkuk saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  He knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt that day, Habakkuk knew well.

Nearly every year since beginning this blog, on or around September 11, I have reprinted the sermon I preached on that day.  Last year, I posted my heartbreak, to realize how fully the fears I had expressed back then in this sermon were realized.  Today, twenty years later, we continue in our fear and mistrust to give ground to racism and xenophobia.  Yet there are many hopeful signs that we are at last ready to confront our national sins, to repent, and to allow God’s spirit of justice to move us, following what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” It is my prayer, today as back then, that Habakkuk’s ancient words will speak to us all, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.

 

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack.  But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed.  He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village.  He saw homes in flames.  He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon.  Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One?  We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12)  Surely, surely, you will not let us die.  “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13)  Habakkuk is in shock.  He can’t accept what he sees and hears.  “I hear, and I tremble within.  My lips quiver at the sound.  Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16)  We know how that feels, don’t we?  Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels.  Who could believe it?  Who can believe it now?

From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger.  “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17)  We know how that feels too, don’t we?  Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land.  We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger.  But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we.  If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal.  We will never move on to wholeness and new life.

Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are!  We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man.  If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won.  They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.

A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees.  He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place.  Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened.  Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this.  Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this.  In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.

So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”(Hab 3:17-18)  Oh God, this is as bad as it gets!  How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).

The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright.  Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here.  We were wrong.  But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling.  Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19)  A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain.  It can mount up impossible precipices.  The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this!  But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.”  May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times!  God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.

We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord.  We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service.  God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world.  But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands.  No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sep
2021

The Syro-Phoenician Woman

Canaanite woman

This Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7:24-37) is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament.  First, Jesus treats a Gentile woman, pleading for her daughter’s exorcism, with what certainly sounds like contempt: “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  Then, he heals a deaf and mute man by what certainly looks like magical means. Jesus spits on the man’s tongue (!), puts his fingers in the man’s ears, and then says what seems in context a magic word: Ephphatha (“[let it] be opened” in Aramaic; the Greek of the Gospel translates it in an imperative form: dianoichtheti, “be opened”). 

It may be some comfort to know that the Gospel writers struggled with these strange stories, too.  Only Matthew also has the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt 15:21-28), and the healing of the deaf and mute man appears nowhere else.  But while that second account is merely odd (rather like the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida [Mark 8:22-26], also found only in Mark), the first is downright offensive.  How could Jesus treat someone this way?

In Matthew’s account, the exchange with the woman is somewhat softened.  Despite his disciples’ insistence that the woman be sent away, Jesus enters into a conversation with her, explaining, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel” (Matt 15:24).  Additionally, Jesus himself praises the distraught mother:

Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed (Matt 15:28).

This exchange comes at a pivotal point in Matthew’s Gospel.  For this most Jewish of the evangelists, Jesus had first come, as he explains to the Syro-Phoenician woman, to his own people (Matt 10:5-6).  Only after being rejected by the Jewish religious leadership (see Matt 16) does he broaden his focus to include the Gentile world.

But Mark’s presentation lacks any such moderation.  Although her daughter is granted the deliverance the Syro-Phoenician woman had come seeking, there is no hint of either apology or of praise.  As is typical of this generally terse Gospel, the accent falls on actions rather than words.

But He Did Not Answer Her a Word": Lessons from the Syrophoenician Woman | Emily Tomko

That said, the conversation is remarkable!  For Jesus to speak in public with a Gentile woman would have seemed to many scandalous.  But then, far from being submissive, this woman talks back!  When Jesus says, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” she retorts, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:27-28).

Jesus recognizes that she has won the point–the only place in any of the Gospels where anyone wins an argument with Jesus!  Still, the matter-of-fact acknowledgement in the NRSV (“For saying that, you may go”) and the KJV (“For this saying, go thy way”) is a better rendering of the Greek than the CEB, with its implicit praise:

“Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.”

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. – Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

What are we to do with this?  It takes extraordinary eisegetical gymnastics to avoid the clear implication of this story, in Matthew as well as in Mark.  As Wil Gafney puts it, “In that moment, something happened to and in Jesus.”  Jesus, acknowledging that he was wrong, changes his mind!  This Gentile woman has become “The Woman Who Changed Jesus.”

To us, this may seem offensive–perhaps, even more offensive than Jesus’ words to the Syro-Phoenician woman.  How could Jesus, who is God, change his mind?  Similarly, when I have questioned Moses’ authorship of the Torah, or David’s of the Psalms, some students have angrily noted that Jesus himself in the Gospels ascribed these works to their traditional authors–and Jesus, certainly, could not have been wrong!  Perhaps the best response to such questions is another question: do we believe–really believe–in the Incarnation?  Do we somehow imagine that Jesus did not, after all, learn or change or grow?  If so, then his “humanity” was a mere pretense–and we are in serious trouble!

St. Gregory of Nazianzus put it very well: “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved” (to gar aproslepton, atherapeuton; ho de henotai to theo, touto kai sozetaiEp. 101).  In short, if Jesus is truly to atone for us, reconciling us to God, then he must really be one of us–not just seeming to be human, but actually being human.  Debi Thomas writes:

The Jesus who appears in the Gospels is not half-incarnate.  He is as fully human as he is fully God.  Which is to say, he struggles, he snaps, he discovers, he grows, he falters, he learns, he fears, and he overcomes.  He’s real, he’s approachable, and he’s authentically one of us.  The “Good News” is not that we serve a shiny, inaccessible deity who floats five feet above the ground.  It is that Jesus shows us — in real time, in the flesh — what it means to grow as a child of God.  He embodies what it looks like to stretch into a deeper, truer, and fuller comprehension of God’s love.

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus comes to understand that this Canaanite woman is not after all outside of the community he has come to save.  For the first time, he knows that he has been given by God his Father to and for all the world.  We Gentiles owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.

Aug
2021

God’s House

Owen Kanzler, Urban Neighborhood with Church

A former student told me that his church was once handing out treats for Halloween.  Like the houses in their neighborhood, they had indicated that they were in business by turning on their porch light.  Still, many children were reluctant to approach their door. Finally, one brave child asked, “Doesn’t God live here? Is this candy from God?”

Perhaps, when you were a child, you too thought that the church was God’s house, where God lives, as we live in our own homes.  I remember a picture of Jesus at the front of our sanctuary in the church where I grew up, that I used to think was God, looking at me!

Our Old Testament lesson for Sunday is from Solomon’s prayer to dedicate the temple (1 Kings 8: 10-13, 22-30, 41-43). In the Hebrew Bible, several words are used for the temple. In this week’s Psalm, mishkan is used (Ps 84:1[2]): “dwelling place,” a word related to shakan, meaning “settle, or “camp”– “tabernacle” in KJV. Elsewhere, we find miqdash, “sanctuary,” related to qadosh, “holy;” and hekal, a word likely borrowed from Sumerian or Phoenician, meaning “temple” or “palace,” sometimes used just for the temple’s main room.

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But the most common word used for the temple is bayit, meaning “house.” We hear it later in Psalm 84:4 (“Those who live in your house are truly happy; they praise you constantly”), and throughout our OT lesson for today.  In 1 Kgs 8:13 (NRSV), Solomon says to God, “I have built for you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”  Yet Solomon’s prayer later calls that claim into question: “But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple [Hebrew bayit; the NRSV reads “house]  I’ve built contain you?” (1 Kgs 8:27)

Since God is not contained by our houses of worship, does going to church matter? Many clearly say no. When Gallup first measured U.S. church membership in 1937, 73% of those surveyed belonged to a church.  Membership in houses of worship remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century. In 2020, only 47% of Americans said that they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque–down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999, falling below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.

Golfing At Sunday River Photograph by David McLainWe often hear people insist that they don’t need to go to church–they can meet God in nature, or on the golf course. That is true—God is everywhere, and we might meet God anywhere. But, God does meet us here!

Solomon prays for God to be attentive to the temple, and to the prayers offered both there, and “toward” the temple, by folk far away (as we have often been in this pandemic).

Constantly watch over this temple, the place about which you said, “My name will be there,” and listen to the prayer that your servant is praying toward this place.  Listen to the request of your servant and your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Listen from your heavenly dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive! (1 Kgs 8:29-30).

Not only the prayers of faithful Jews, but prayers offered there by anyone, even foreigners, are heard!

Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built (1 Kgs 8:41-43, NRSV).

So, is the church “God’s house”? In the simple sense, no. But still, the church is the place where God comes to meet us. When Jesus’ frantic parents at last found their missing boy in the temple, he said, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Much later, the adult Jesus would tell his followers, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them” (Matt 18:20).

About Orthodox Christianity

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ hard teaching about himself as the bread of life causes many to leave him:

Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”

Simon Peter answered, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s holy one” (John 6:67-69).

Peter’s question is a good one.  God has promised to be attentive to our gathering in this place.  Jesus has promised to join us whenever and wherever we gather. So, if we truly want to meet God, where–other than the church–should we go?

As disturbing as the church membership statistics may be, there is also good news in the numbers, friends! According to the most recent survey conducted by PRRI, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans (including atheists, agnostics and some people who say they pray daily but don’t claim a specific faith tradition), the fastest growing religious group in America since 2006, is now in decline: the “nones” peaked at 25.5% of the population in 2018.  Today, they make up just 23% of the country.

While White Evangelicals continue to decline (14.5% of the population, down from a peak of 23% in 2006), other Christian groups have grown: Black and Hispanic Christians (23% in 2006, now 26%) and white Mainline Protestants (now 16.4%–down from 18% in 2006, but up from 13% in 2016).  People are finding their way back to church again.

Friends, I harbor no delusions about the church’s many problems.  Frustration with the church in our day is palpable, and easily understood: like all institutions, the church has been slow to change when change is needed. But the church is still God’s house! God’s presence is still experienced, and God’s will made known, in and through the church. Despite its many troubles and conflicts, the institutional organization of the church remains the means by which ministry gets done. Our challenge is to learn new ways to be the church, in a rapidly changing culture, without losing our identity in the face of change.