Feb
2021

Whose Church Is This?

 

Image result for white CHristian Nationalists at CapitolFOREWORD:  I am re-sharing this post from 2016, lightly edited, for this Ash Wednesday.  The issue it poses has become, if anything, even more urgent today.  The recent second impeachment trial for Mr. Trump involved horrific video and witness statements concerning the insurrectionist mob assault on our nation’s capitol January 6.  To our sorrow and shame, as the white cross in the center of this image reminds us, that mob contained no small number of white Christian nationalists, people who are persuaded that the church, and the nation, belong by rights to them and those like them.  May this Ash Wednesday remind us that it is Christ’s church, and that we enter it–all of us–humbly and in sincere repentance, at Jesus’ generous invitation.

 

aint peters church

When friend and colleague in United Methodist ministry Tom Barnicott shared this picture from Analytical Grammar on Facebook, I first laughed uproariously (what can I say–I love a good pun!), then shared it myself (with the added caption, “‘Tain’t Paul’s, neither”), and then thought, “Huh! Whose church is this?”–that is a profoundly important question.

The Christian season of Lent, during which we are called to repent of our sins and to seek God’s will for our lives, begins with Ash Wednesday, February 17.  I can think of no better way to enter into this Lenten discipline than to reflect on whose church it is, after all, and what that means for our lives and outreach.

Likely, many readers will think immediately of Jesus’ words to Peter at Caesarea Philippi, following Peter’s acclamation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter.  And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.  I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven” (Matt 16:16-19).

Traditional Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage finds here the establishment of Peter, the first Pope and vicar of Christ, as the foundation–the Rock–upon whom the church is established.  This passage, by the way, puns on the name “Peter” (Greek Petros), a nickname given to Simon bar Jonah by Jesus (see Mark 3:16; John 1:42).  Petros means “rock;” as does the Aramaic name Cephas (used for Peter in John 1:42 and consistently by Paul; see 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Galatians 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14).  It is as though Jesus called his friend “Rocky”!

Stair Climb: Get Your Rocky Balboa On and See L.A. From Above Los Angeles Magazine

 

This passage is also the source of the association of Peter with the keys to the kingdom, seen in the El Greco painting above, and in the crossed keys of the papal seal (here, the official seal of Pope Francis):

In the Greek of Matthew 16:19, the second-person pronouns (“you”) are singular, which could support the understanding that the keys were given to Peter. But other aspects of this passage call that into question.  First of all, while Petros is, of course, masculine, the noun translated “rock” in that very same verse is feminine: not petros, a rock or stone, but petra, a crag or outcropping (in the parable of the sower in Luke 8:6, 13, this is the word used for bedrock with only a very thin covering of soil).  In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture) of Isaiah 8:14petra is used for Mount Zion–a passage quoted in Romans 9:33 and in 1 Peter 2:8 with reference to Jesus as the Messiah:

God will become a sanctuary—
    but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on for the two houses of Israel;
    a trap and a snare for those living in Jerusalem.

In short, it appears that the Rock on which the church is founded may not be Peter after all, but rather Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Certainly, the text is very clear on whose church this is: Jesus declares, “I’ll build my church on this rock.”  The church belongs to Christ.

In Matthew’s gospel, the “kingdom of heaven” is not a reference to the afterlife (as in the myriad jokes about Saint Peter standing at the pearly gates).  Instead, the very Jewish Matthew, reluctant to refer to the Divine too directly, consistently uses this expression where Mark and Luke have “the kingdom of God“–the inbreaking of God’s reign into our world which Jesus both announced and inaugurated (compare Matt 4:17 with Mark 1:15). The kingdom is God’s–but we who claim to know and love the Lord can either give people access to what God is doing, or stand in their way.  The keys are ours–but that is less a promise or an honor than a caution.

Sadly, when we think that the church is ours, we may also think that having the keys gives us the authority to admit or exclude whomever we like.  On James Dobson’s radio program “Family Talk,” evangelist Franklin Graham said,

We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church and that they were wanting to influence them. And I thought to myself, they’re not going to influence those kids; those kids are going to influence those parent’s children. 

What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving. We have to understand who the Enemy is and what he wants to do. He wants to devour our homes. He wants to devour this nation and we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches. You have immoral people who get into the churches and it begins to effect the others in the church and it is dangerous.

Rev. Graham’s pronouns are significant: “our churches,” “our homes”–as though the church of Jesus Christ were our personal preserve, our private club, into which we need admit only those who think like us, and from which we can exclude anyone who makes us uncomfortable. This view of the church is not only mistaken, it is idolatrous: the church is Christ’s, not ours.  Indeed, as Christian blogger Benjamin Corey writes, the call for the exclusion of gay children, from Rev. Graham and others,

is precisely why 40% of homeless children in the United States are LGBTQ. It’s also why 68% of them report their homelessness is due to family rejection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, often by religious parents.

Mr. Corey is right: “these are dangerous, dangerous ideas– ideas the people of Jesus must resist and rebuke.”

 

Andrew

My dear friend and colleague Andrew Purves, the Jean and Nancy Davis Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts this better than anyone I know:

Seeing ministry as “our” ministry or “my” ministry is the root problem that ails us. Ministry, rightly understood is our sharing in the continuing and ongoing ministry of Jesus in the world. . . . The heart of the matter is this: To participate in Jesus’ ministry requires our being willing to crucify any understanding of ministry as ours so that we may more fully experience the resurrection hope and power of Jesus’ ministry in and through our lives.

After all, brothers and sisters, it ain’t Peter’s church–or Paul’s, or yours, or mine.  It is the church of Jesus Christ.  God help us to claim and live this truth, in every congregation of Christ’s Church.

Feb
2021

I [HEART] You!

This Sunday is Valentine’s Day.  In popular culture, the historical and religious connection with St. Valentine that gives the day its name was stretched past the breaking point long ago.  We know Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers, and a celebration of romantic love.  Its symbol is the heart, whether mailed as a valentine, given in candy form, texted as <3, or expressed as an emoji:

Image result for heart emoji

Since the Middle Ages, the heart has been the symbol of romantic love in the West, and regarded as the seat of the emotions and of sentiment.  We commonly contrast thinking and feeling as matters of the head and the heart, respectively.

Today, of course, we are well aware of the difference between the symbol and the reality.  We know that our hearts are actually powerful muscular pumps in our chests, which circulate life-giving, oxygen-bearing blood through our veins and arteries to every part of our bodies.  If our heart ever stops beating, and does not start again, we die.

When our Bibles mention the heart, we are likely to think about one of these two concepts.  The problem is, neither one was known to the Old or the New Testament authors, who did not connect the heart with emotions and did not understand the circulatory system!  To understand what they would have meant by the heart requires us to set our preconceptions aside, and see with new (or more accurately, with ancient!) eyes.

A good way into understanding the heart in Scripture is Jesus’s teaching on the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28). In all three passages, Jesus’ teaching comes in a conversation with an expert on Jewish law, although the accounts differ on small points:  in Matthew, the expert seeks to test Jesus; in Mark, his question is sincere; in Luke, it is Jesus who questions the expert!  In all three, however, the answer is the same: no single commandment is the greatest.  The meaning and message of Scripture hang not on one, but on two essential teachings: love for God, and love for neighbor.

Jesus’ “first commandment” comes from the Shema’, which Mark’s version quotes in its entirety, and which still today is the heart of Jewish life and faith.  The name comes from its first word in Hebrew: Shema’ Yisrael ‘Adonai ‘Elohenu ‘Adonai ‘echad. The traditional translation (see the KJV) of this verse, reflected in the Septuagint and in the Greek of Mark’s gospel, is: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.” A better rendering, though, is the one found in the Jewish Publication Society’s translation, and in the NRSV: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  While the traditional translation is an affirmation of the doctrine of monotheism (there is only one God), the better reading understands the Shema’ as a pledge of allegiance, a declaration of commitment: our God is the LORD, and only the LORD!

Deuteronomy 6:5, which immediately follows, describes the totality of that commitment: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”  While some interpretations of this commandment find here three different ways of loving God, that does not seem to be its intent.  The heart (lebab in Hebrew) is the center of the will: connected, not with feeling, but with deciding and doing.   Loving God with all your heart, then, means choosing, as the opening verse of the Shema’ declares, to commit yourself solely and absolutely to God: to love God as much as you can.

The remainder of the verse restates and underlines this absolute commitment. Hebrew nephesh should not be translated as “soul.”  Rather than some separate, immaterial part of me, nephesh refers, as the CEB translation “being” indicates, to the whole of me.   To love God with all one’s nephesh is to love God entirely, with all that I am.  The last word, typically translated “strength” or “might,” is me’od in Hebrew–not a noun, actually, but an adverb, meaning “much” or “very.”  We are to love God with all our muchness–again, as much as we are possibly capable of loving!

In the Greek of the New Testament, however, and in the minds of early Christians influenced by Greek thought, this command does become a threefold (or more) depiction of loving God, with every aspect of one’s being.  The KJV of Mark 12:30 reads,”And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”  The Greek psyche can refer (unlike Hebrew nephesh) to an immaterial, spiritual part of the person: hence, the soul.  The Greek word dianoia refers to thoughts and intentions, and is commonly translated as “mind.”  One’s “might” (Greek hischus) could be regarded as relating to one’s physical, material self.

First in the list, though, is the heart: Greek kardia.  In Greek as in Hebrew, the heart is the center of the self–the choosing, deciding aspect of the person.  Loving God with all one’s kardia is, on the right-hand side of the Bible, no more about feeling or sentiment than loving God with all one’s lebab on the left-hand side!  In each case, love is a decision: an act of the will.  Curiously, the association of love with the heart, in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, plainly demonstrates that love is not regarded here as an emotion.  Love has to do, not with feeling or sentiment, but with the will.  Love is a choice.

Jesus’ second “great commandment” makes this crystal clear.  Leviticus 19:18 says, “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.”  We could perhaps ask, as the lawyer does in Luke 10:29, “And who is my neighbor?” Indeed, some interpreters have proposed that this was an in-house commandment: “your neighbor” means “your fellow Israelite.” But Leviticus 19:33-34 demonstrates that this is far too narrow a reading. There, love is commanded toward “the alien who resides with you” (the Hebrew term is ger, meaning a non-Israelite living in the land without the comfort and protection of a clan) in the same language used in 19:18 for the neighbor: “you shall love the alien as yourself.” In fact this passage says, the ger “shall be to you as a citizen among you.”  All quibbling aside, we already know this, as the lawyer in Luke’s account certainly would have known it.  The real question, as Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, is how can we demonstrate love–not just to those like us, and those we like, but to all our neighbors?

Actually, the fact that Scripture commands love for God and neighbor should already have made this clear.  Feelings cannot be commanded–they simply are.  Love for the neighbor doesn’t mean fond feeling: I may not even like my neighbor (at least, at first)!  Love means willing and acting for my neighbors’ good, in order to bring about for them what I would wish for myself.  Likewise, love for the LORD is not a sentimental valentine to God.  Loving God is the decision to commit myself–my entire being–deliberately into God’s hands, and to live with the consequences.  Making that choice, we discover that the deepest consequence of loving God is knowing that God loves us–that indeed, God loved us first!

Jan
2021

Putting People First

How can the Bible be written by God yet have human authors?

This Sunday’s epistle, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, is one of my favorite passages from Paul’s letters.  That may strike you as odd: why should I be so enamored of this weird passage, on such an obscure matter?  But friends, I am persuaded that Paul’s treatment of the question of whether or not Christians may eat food offered to idols  has a significance far beyond its narrow cultural and historical context.  Bear with me for awhile.

To us, of course, this question is irrelevant.  Whether or not we should eat food offered to idols isn’t even on our radar screen!  But we know from our New Testament that this issue divided the early church.  In Acts 15, the Apostolic Council–called to consider whether Gentiles could be part of the body of Christ–turned, in part, on this divisive issue.  James, leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (and likely, the brother of Jesus and the source of the Christian wisdom recorded in our book of James) spoke for the Council:

I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood (Acts 15:19-20, NRSV).

Gentiles would not need to become Jews in order to be followers of Christ.  However, all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, had to follow some rules.  They had to abide by a bare minimum of  kosher law (no eating blood, or meat with the blood still in it: that is, from animals killed by strangling).  They had to forswear the sexual perversions that James believed (with some justification!) were rife in the Greco-Roman world.  But at the top of the list, they had to abstain “from things polluted by idols”–that is, no eating food that had been offered as a sacrifice.  The John of Revelation too held that those who ate food sacrificed to idols separated themselves from the church of Jesus Christ (Rev 2:14, 20).

Marcus Aurelius sacrificingWe may think that, even in the ancient world, this surely could not have been that big a deal: how hard would it have been to avoid eating food offered to an idol?  As it turns out, it could be very difficult indeed!  Temples, and their priesthoods, supported themselves largely through sacrifices.  A select portion of the worshipper’s offering would be burned on an altar for the god.  But the remainder became the property of the temple, and of the priestess or priest.  They could sell it to vendors, to be resold on the open market to consumers.  So, unless you were very careful about where you obtained your meat, you might not know whether it had first been offered to a god or goddess.

If you took avoiding such food seriously, you would also be very careful about with whom you socialized.  You couldn’t eat with nonbelievers–or even with other believers who weren’t as scrupulous as you were.  Indeed, as the texts from Revelation cited above showed, you might even deny that those less careful Christians were Christians at all.

The Cult Statue of Artemis of Ephesus

Avoiding meat offered to idols could have economic implications as well.  Practitioners of skilled trades were organized into guilds, which could be dedicated to a patron god or goddess–like the silversmiths of Ephesus, dedicated to Artemis (Acts 19:23-41; the Romans called this goddess Diana).  Guild gatherings would have involved meals, likely including food offered to their divine patron.  To avoid eating such food, Christians (for example, Christian silversmiths in Ephesus) would have to surrender their guild membership–but if they did that, they would likely find employment difficult or impossible.  Abstaining from food offered to idols could mean losing their livelihood.

However, as Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians shows, some believers thought differently.  They reasoned that, since there was only one true God, idols were merely statues, and food sacrificed to them was no different than any other kind of food (see 1 Cor 8:1-6).  Paul, who steadfastly refused to reduce faith to rule-following, certainly agreed with their theology:

There is one God the Father.
        All things come from him, and we belong to him.
And there is one Lord Jesus Christ.
        All things exist through him, and we live through him (1 Cor 8:6).

But Paul refused to settle the matter legalistically, either way–because Paul understood that the food itself was not the real issue.  What really mattered was sensitivity to one another in the body of Christ.  If the faith of “weaker” Christians is threatened when they see other believers eating food sacrificed to idols, then the “stronger” Christians need to abstain (1 Cor 8:7-13).

This does not mean, by the way, that Paul simply surrendered to the rule-followers!  In Galatians 2:11-14, when Peter refuses to eat with Paul’s Gentile converts for fear of James’ “circumcision faction” (Gal 2:12, NRSV), Paul is caustically scornful:

But when I saw that they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas [Peter’s name in Aramaic] in front of everyone, “If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:14).

Paul sums up his advice on food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33.   Buy your meat wherever is convenient, and eat it without fear.  Accept invitations from unbelievers–after all, how will you ever have the opportunity to witness for Christ if you only associate with like-minded Christians?  Thank God for whatever they offer you, and eat it gratefully–unless they make an issue of it, by telling you that the food you are eating comes from an idol sacrifice.  But even then, notice, the issue is not the food or where it comes from, but the conscience of the person who has offered this food to you, who may think that, by knowingly eating food offered to an idol, you are condoning their idolatry.

So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you should do it all for God’s glory. Don’t offend either Jews or Greeks, or God’s church. This is the same thing that I do. I please everyone in everything I do. I don’t look out for my own advantage, but I look out for many people so that they can be saved (1 Cor 10:31-33).

For Paul, people, and their salvation, matter more than ideology, or even than right theology.

First and Second Chronicles: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching by [Steven S. Tuell]

Paul’s resolution of this thorny problem reminds me of another favorite passage, from the left-hand side of the Bible (2 Chronicles 30:15-22).   King Hezekiah had invited refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel, who had escaped the fall of their kingdom to Assyria (722 BCE), to come to Jerusalem for Passover.  Sadly, Hezekiah’s invitation was rejected by many in the north, who laughed at and scorned his messengers (2 Chr 30:10).  Perhaps Jesus was thinking of this passage when he told his parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14; compare Lk 14:15-20), where the messengers are also scorned and ill-treated.

However, as in Jesus’ parable, the failure of those invited to respond does not stop the feast!  Some northerners, from the tribes of Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun, do humble themselves  (an important theme in Chronicles; see  2 Chr 7:14) and come south to Jerusalem for the feast.  In Judah, meanwhile, the response is overwhelming: “God’s power was at work in Judah, unifying them to do what the king and his officials had ordered by the Lord’s command” (2 Chr 30:12).  The Hebrew of this verse says that God gave them leb ‘ekhad–that is, “one heart” (see 1 Chr 12:38, where those who come to make David king are likewise said to be of “one heart”).  In the end, “a huge crowd” gathers in Jerusalem for the feast (2 Chr 30:13).  Jerusalem and the temple are cleansed, and the priests and Levites stand ready to serve (2 Chr 30:15), conducting themselves “according to the law of Moses the man of God” (2 Chr 30:16, NRSV).

It is fortunate that the priests and Levites are ready, for a great number of those attending are ritually unclean, and so cannot kill their own sacrifices; the Levites must do this for them (2 Chr 30:17; for the killing of the sacrifice by Levites, see also Ezr 6:20; Ezek 44:11).  Nothing is said of the reasons for their defilement; however, since many of those said to be defiled come from the north (2 Chr 30:18), they may have had different ideas about what constitutes ritual purity, or about the requirements for the observance of Passover.  From the Chronicler’s perspective, however, this means that they “hadn’t eaten the Passover meal in the prescribed way” (2 Chr 30:18)–that is, they were in violation of God’s law in Scripture (see 2 Chr 30:5).

Joe Biden is a man of faith. That could help him win over some White evangelicals. - CNNPolitics

But rather than barring these rule-breakers from his Passover, Hezekiah prays for them:

May the good LORD forgive everyone who has decided to seek the true God, the LORD, the God of their ancestors, even though they aren’t ceremonially clean by sanctuary standards (2 Chr 30:18-19).

The LORD hears the king’s prayer, and the community is healed (2 Chr 30:20; compare 2 Chr 7:14).

Hezekiah’s prayer, and the LORD’s favorable response, strike a blow against legalism.  Clearly, it is more important to set one’s heart to seek God than it is to be in a state of scrupulous ritual purity.  Similarly, the prophet Micah declares:

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 (Mic 6:8).

Was Jesus Silent about the issue of Homosexuality? – Theist Thug Life

 

In his teaching, Jesus as well placed “the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith” above laws of ritual purity (Matt 23:23).  So, for Jesus, meeting human need by healing on the sabbath was more important than strict adherence to the regulations of the rabbis (so, for example, Mk 3:1-6).

Today, the church is divided by other questions and controversies.  Yet, we still are tempted to appeal to legalism, whether in our reading of Scripture or in our application of community standards–which, far from resolving our conflicts, only heightens our division.  We need to remember that Scripture itself rejects this narrow, rigid standard.  How much better, like Paul and King Hezekiah, to put people before ideology: to trust in God’s grace, and remember that devotion to the Lord, and loving those whom God loves, is our first and highest calling.

AFTERWORD:

The image of Roman sacrificial religion above comes from Wikipedia:  User:MatthiasKabel.  It is a bas-relief from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, depicting “Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) and members of the Imperial family offer[ing] sacrifice in gratitude for success against Germanic tribes. In the backgrounds stands the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitolium (this is the only extant portrayal of this [R]oman temple).”

Jan
2021

Telling the Truth

Title: Living Cross [Click for larger image view]In the Christian year, this season after Epiphany is a season of light, and revelation–a season for the truth.  Jesus, whose marvelous birth we have just celebrated, promised “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  But we may ask, what is the truth?  When multiple voices declare, with absolute certainty and sincerity, mutually contradictory truths, how can we know what–or whom–to believe?

In Jewish tradition, Psalms, Proverbs and Job are called the “Books of Truth”–in large measure, because the first letters of ‘Iyob (Job, in Hebrew), Meshaley (Proverbs), and Tehillim (literally, “praises;” the Hebrew title for the Psalms) spell ‘emet: Hebrew for “truth.” However, it is doubtful that this acronym would have occurred to anyone if these books were not already regarded as vehicles of truth.

The Psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 139, begins by affirming a fundamental truth of the poet’s own existence, and of ours: “LORD, you have examined me.  You know me” (Ps 139:1).  In the Hebrew, that second verb lacks an object: “you have searched me and you know . . . .”  The Greek of the Septuagint assumes, as our English translations do, that the poet or the reader–I–am the one whom God knows, which is certainly apt.  But the open-endedness of the poet’s declaration is powerful–“you know (fill in the blank)”!  You know the truth, about everything.  You know all secrets and mysteries–even the ones I keep hidden, perhaps even from myself.  Whatever the truth is, you, LORD, know it.

Job's Comforters

Certainly, Job is famous for telling the truth. At the beginning of his book, Job is described by the narrator as “honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil” (Job 1:1). God declares the same: when the Accuser (the Hebrew hassatan is a title, not a name, referring to a sort of heavenly prosecuting attorney) comes to a gathering of the divine council, reporting that he has just come from walking about on the earth, God asks if he has seen “my servant Job; surely there is no one like him on earth, a man who is honest, who is of absolute integrity, who reveres God and avoids evil?” (1:8).

Even after Job has lost his family and his wealth, he remains true, so that the LORD says to the Accuser yet again, “Have you thought about my servant Job, for there is no one like him on earth, a man who is honest, who is of absolute integrity, who reveres God and avoids evil? He still holds on to his integrity, even though you incited me to ruin him for no reason” (2:3). All through the poetic disputations which form the bulk of this book, Job’s three friends defend the Divine: rather than comforting Job, they attempt to vindicate God’s justice in the face of Job’s suffering. But at the book’s climax, God declares to them, “you didn’t speak correctly, as did my servant Job” (42:8)! Job alone has told the truth about God.

This is astonishing, since Job refuses either to justify God’s actions, or to reconcile himself to his own circumstances by accepting his fate.   Job 16–17 is typical of Job’s speeches throughout this book. In his suffering, Job hates his life, and longs for death:

My spirit is broken,
    my days extinguished,
    the grave, mine. . . .

If I hope for the underworld as my dwelling,
    lay out my bed in darkness,
    I’ve called corruption “my father,”
    the worm, “my mother and sister.”
    Where then is my hope?
        My hope—who can see it?
Will they go down with me to the underworld;
    will we descend together to the dust? (17:1, 13-16).

Yet, Job also steadfastly insists upon his own innocence, and the injustice of his suffering:

My face is red from crying,
    and dark gloom hangs on my eyelids.
But there is no violence in my hands,
    and my prayer is pure.

 Earth, don’t cover my blood;
    let my outcry never cease (16:16-18).

 

This speech is Job’s response to one of his disputants and alleged comforters, Eliphaz the Temanite (Job 15). Eliphaz embraces the traditions of conventional Israelite wisdom: “I will show you; listen to me; what I have seen I will declare— what sages have told, and their ancestors have not hidden” (Job 15:17-18 NRSV). These traditions, expressed particularly in the book of Proverbs, insist that life makes sense: the sage, by rightly discerning the pattern of God’s will in the world, can choose rightly, and so live rightly and well:

Those who have integrity will dwell in the land;
    the innocent will remain in it.
But the wicked will be cut off from the land,
    and the treacherous will be ripped up (Prov 2:21-22).

Suffering comes from resistance and opposition to God’s will:

for they raise a fist against God
        and try to overpower the Almighty.
They run toward him aggressively,
    with a massive and strong shield (Job 15:25-26).

Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament by [William P. Brown]

Job’s angry insistence upon his own integrity and refusal to submit to instruction place him in opposition to this traditional perspective. As William P. Brown observes,

Job is nothing less than a monstrosity in the eyes of his friends. His situation and his character do not fit within any schema of moral and theological coherence with which they are familiar. . . Job threatens the collapse of the moral world order as it has been traditionally construed (Character In Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], pp. 68-69).

The problem is not that the sages, represented by Job’s friends, were ignorant of innocent suffering—after all, they weren’t idiots! The problem is that Job won’t play his proper role. Rather than accepting the role of the pupil, and permitting his wise friends to instruct him about life and God, Job claims the role of the teacher, and speaks a truth hard-won by his own experience. Eliphaz huffs that, by voicing his doubts and fears in front of civilians, Job is “truly making religion ineffective and restraining meditation before God” (15:4)! But rather than shoehorning his experience into Eliphaz’s theology, and confessing a guilt he knows he has not incurred,  Job instead challenges God to act justly, and vindicate him: “my eye pours out tears to God, that he would maintain the right of a mortal with God, as one does for a neighbor” (16:20-21 NRSV)!  Job insists upon telling the truth—and so must we.

Supporters of President Trump in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday.

This week, we witnessed the hitherto unimaginable spectacle of American citizens breaking into the Capitol and threatening the Senate and Congress in session–committing acts of vandalism, injuring several Capitol police officers, and killing one: Officer Brian Sicknick. The mob that perpetrated this violence claimed that they were acting to correct a horrendous injustice: that the 2020 election had been stolen from its rightful victor, Mr. Trump, who encouraged and indeed instigated their violence. But evidence for that massive fraud has never been demonstrated, and indeed, court case after court case has rebuffed attempts to nullify the election’s results.  In short, the justification for their violence was, and is, a lie.

The fact that they may have sincerely believed this lie does not make it any less a lie.  One of my favorite sayings comes from nineteenth- century American humorist Josh Billings (the stage name of Henry Wheeler Shaw): “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.”  The mob that invaded the capitol knew that they were right–but that does not make them any less wrong.

Sadly, the church bears no small amount of blame for this–and not only because many members of the mob bore signs saying “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus in 2020” as they pressed past the police barricades and up the Capitol Steps.  We Christians have conveyed the idea that faith means believing things without evidence or proof–indeed, despite evidence or proof.  As a result, evangelical leader Eric Metaxas could say, without any evidence at all, that Donald Trump won re-election “in a landslide,” calling the attempt to “steal” the election from Mr. Trump “the most horrible thing that ever happened in the history of our nation.” Indeed, Mr. Metaxas says,

It’s like somebody saying, “Oh, you don’t have enough evidence to believe in Jesus.” We have enough evidence in our hearts. We know him and the enemy is trying harder than anything we have seen in our lives to get us to roll over, to forget about it.’

Essentially, this was Eliphaz’s argument.  We know the truth, and therefore evidence–whether of Mr. Biden’s election, or of Job’s innocent suffering–is irrelevant.  But that is not faith: it is nonsense.  Job’s insistence that he is innocent is affirmed by God, who also declares that Eliphaz and his friends are wrong–not only about Job, but about the God they claim to defend.

If faith is not belief, then what is it?  Psalm 139 affirms God’s presence with us everywhere, from horizon to horizon, in heaven and in the underworld, and every when: from before our life begins to beyond its ending.  Similarly, in Job, the divine speeches in chapters 38–41 underline God’s presence with and involvement in every aspect of the created world.  Faith is not affirming things about God, as Eliphaz and his colleagues do quite well.  Faith means relationship with God–a relationship that Job demonstrates in his unceasing engagement with God, even in resistance!  Similarly, the truth Jesus promises to reveal does not involve claims about him we are to affirm without evidence.  Rather, the truth he reveals is himself: “before Abraham was, I Am” (John 8:58)

Every September, for the last thirty years, I have welcomed a new class of students into the academic study of the Bible.  Many of them, I am sure, received from some well-meaning friends and family the same warning I was given: “If you’re not careful, you’ll lose your faith.”  The truth is, those friends and family are absolutely right!  If I do my job, they certainly will lose their faith: if “faith” means to them what it means to Eliphaz, or to Mr. Metaxas.  Education, and seminary education most of all, is fundamentally about learning to tell the truth: about Scripture, about faith, about human experience. The first step in that process is realizing that we do not yet know the truth—relinquishing our illusions through the painful process of questioning, doubt and uncertainty. “Our” faith cannot survive that crucible—but then, if “our” faith is so fragile that it cannot stand up to questions and trials, what good is it anyway? We have no use for a china-cabinet faith, which cannot be challenged, but must be guarded and protected. We need a rugged faith that we can take out on the road, a four-wheel-drive faith to get us through the ruts and mud and obstacles of life.

Friends, we must lose our faith, so that we may find—and be found by—the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2 NRSV).

Telling the truth is hard to do. We are always tempted to say instead what is popular, or expedient. But we do no one any favors if we listen to Eliphaz, and duck the hard truths of life and God. God grant us the power and the integrity to be honest, before God and the world. God grant us the grace to tell the truth.

AFTERWORD:

The stained glass art at the top of this blog is by Sarah Hall, and is called “Living Cross.”  I downloaded the image from from “Art in the Christian Tradition,” a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN, http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56472.

Dec
2020

A Child He Was

My favorite poem for this glorious season is “A Child He Was,” by Giles Fletcher (1588-1623).  I have never found any other expression that so fully captures the wonder, awe, terror and glory of the incarnation of our Lord.  May God richly bless us all–Merry Christmas, friends!

Who can forget – never to be forgot –

         The time, that all the world in slumber lies,

When like the stars the singing angels shot

         To earth, and heaven awaked all his eyes,

To see another sun at midnight rise

         On earth? Was ever sight of pareil fame

         For God before, man like Himself did frame,

But God Himself now like a mortal was become.

A Child He was, and had not learnt to speak,

         That with His word the world before did make.

His mother’s arms Him bore, He was so weak,

         That with one hand the vaults of heaven could shake.

See how small room my infant Lord doth take

         Whom all the world is not enough to hold,

         Who of His years, as of His age hath told?

Never such age so young, never a child so old.

And yet but newly He was infanted,

         And yet already He was sought to die;

Yet scarcely born, already banishëd.

         Not able yet to go, and forced to fly:

But scarcely fled away, when by and by,

         The tyran’s sword with blood is all defiled,

         And Rachel, her sons, with fury wild,

Cries, “O thou cruel king!”, and “O my sweetest child!”

Egypt His nurse became, where Nilus springs,

         Who, straight to entertain the rising sun,

The hasty harvest in his bosom brings;

         But now for drought the fields were all undone,

And now with waters all is overrun:

         So fast the Cynthian mountains poured their snow,

         When once they felt the sun so near them flow,

That Nilus Egypt lost, and to sea did grow.

The angels carolled loud their song of peace;

         The cursed oracles were strucken dumb;

To see their Shepherd the poor shepherds press;

         To see their king the kingly sophies come;

And them to guide unto his Master’s home,

         A star comes dancing up the Orient,

         That springs for joy over the strawy tent,

Where gold to make their prince a crown, they all present.

Source: Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), pp. 273-4.

 

 

Dec
2020

Judas Maccabeus, Daniel–and the Grinch

Hanukkah 2020 - Stories, Traditions & Origins - HISTORYAs I write this, we are midway through the celebration of Hanukkah: a Jewish holiday eight nights long (this year, December 11-18).  Each night of this festival, observant Jews light another candle on their Hanukkah menorah (these 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 December neighbor, the Christian celebration of Christmas.  This year, both winter holidays are butting up against the necessary restrictions posed by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing Jewish and Christian families to think differently about their celebrations.

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, albeit cryptically, 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 around 332 BCE, most of the 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 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 anmal to an alien god–is the “desolating monstrosity” of Daniel 11:31 (in the KJV, “the abomination that maketh desolate;” see also 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.  The traditional Hanukkah song “Hayo Hayah” (here adapted and set to music by Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers) retells the story.

All of this is accurately (if symbolically) related in Daniel’s vision of the future (Dan 10:1–11:39). But at 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)–which, of course, did not happen.  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).  Daniel does not describe these events, likely because the book was written before they happened: sometime between 167 (the date of the “desolating monstrosity”) and 164 BCE.

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].

Image may contain: ‎text that says '‎חנוכה שמח ה ג נ HANUKKAH! HAPPY Hillel International‎'‎

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”).

Michelangelo Buonarroti: The Prophet Daniel

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.  Although written long after the Babylonian exile, Daniel 1 likely preserves authentic memories from the era of the Babylonian exile. We know from Babylonian records that Jewish exiles did become part of the imperial bureaucracy, so Daniel and his friends being singled out for special training as palace officials (Dan 1:3-7) may reflect a memory of Babylon. The king’s provision of “daily allotments from his own food and from the royal wine” (Dan 1:5) is reminiscent of 2 Kings 25:27-30, where Jehoiachin, after thirty-seven years as a prisoner, was released and permitted to live in the palace, receiving “a regular food allowance” from the king, “every day.” However, the term used for this portion in Daniel is pat-bag (found only here and in Dan 11:26), a loanword from the Persian patibaga, meaning “delicacy”—showing that while this passage may recall experiences in the Babylonian exile, it was written down much later.

Accepting the king’s pat-bag would have meant violating the Jewish dietary laws, since no attempt could have been made to slaughter animals, or to select and prepare dishes, in accordance with those strict requirements (see Lev 11:1-47; 17:1-16; compare Deut 12:20-27; 14:1-21). The palace master was unwilling to let his Jewish charges eat anything other than what the king had provided.  But Daniel persuaded their guard to agree to a contest. For ten days, Daniel and his friends would eat only fruits and vegetables (the Hebrew zero’im and zero’nim, found only in Dan 1:12, 16, apparently mean “seed-bearing plants”) and drink only water–a diet that involves no violation of kosher laws. At the end of that time, Daniel invited the guard to “compare our appearance to the appearance of the young men who eat the king’s food. Then deal with your servants according to what you see” (Dan 1:13).   Sure enough, Daniel and his friends thrived: “At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food” (Dan 1:15). The guard, therefore, was pleased to continue giving them vegetables and water. Without any violence, indeed with scarcely a disturbance, Daniel had won his first victory over his captors, contriving to live for his faith, rather than to die for it!

Book Of Daniel Art | Fine Art America

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), although according to the Greek historian Herodotus (Hist. 3.89-94), Darius divided his empire into twenty satrapies, not the 120 that the Aramaic text of Daniel 6:1 claims.  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).

No photo description available.

Today, the Asiatic lion is extinct, and lions are restricted to a few African regions.  But in the ancient times, these fierce predators 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. 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.  Today, some Christians regard the COVID-19 restrictions on religious and social gatherings advised by medical professionals as an assault upon their freedom of worship, and call upon the church to resist, like Judas Maccabeus taking up the sword against what they see as an oppressive regime.  But I would argue that that model is fundamentally flawed.  People of faith are being inconvenienced by these necessary regulations, not persecuted.  We may not be able to gather in public, but nothing and no one is restricting our freedom to worship.  The faithful response in our day is not the militance of the Maccabees, but the peaceful acquiescence in pursuit of a higher goal modeled by Daniel.

Amazon.com: How The Grinch Stole Christmas! - Dr. Seuss: Appstore for AndroidSo–what about the Grinch?  What is this inspired invention of Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Suess) doing in the same blog as Judas Maccabeus and Daniel?  In a wonderful Twitter thread, Sandra Tayler sees in this now-classic Christmas story a model of and a lesson for holiday observance in this season of pandemic:

The entire genre of Christmas stories with the formula Protagonist Saves Christmas is doing us a disservice this pandemic year by teaching that the holiday is “saved” by massive efforts to restore the status quo Santa-Delivers-Presents and accompanying traditions. These stories say that Christmas can’t be Christmas w/o a specific set of events & trappings, that it will be ruined if there is any disruption to those events & trappings. This primes people to panic and feel huge loss if they can’t celebrate in the ways they are accustomed to.
 

This year, more than ever, we need the story of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas where all the trappings are stripped away and Christmas saves the Grinch. . . . Yes the Grinch story does end with the restoration of the traditions and trappings, but it didn’t have to. Christmas would have been fine even if the sled had gone off Mount Crumpit. That was the point. That’s WHY it saved the Grinch.

In the end, Tayler argues, it is far more true to the spirit of Christmas not to fight for our “right” to celebrate Christ’s birth in the way to which we are accustomed, but to submit to the straightened circumstances necessary to combat the spread of this virus.  She concludes:
All of our traditions, gatherings, decorations, etc are merely a frame for something larger than ourselves to arrive into. We can change the frame without harming the holiday. 

If Christmas is holy to you (as it is to me,) that holiness exists with or without the tinsel and trappings. Trust that no matter what form your holiday must take this year, the holiness will show up to fill the space you create.
Chanukkah sameach and a Merry Christmas to you and yours, friends–God bless us every one!
Dec
2020

Faith and Politics

US election 2020: Meeting Donald Trump's evangelical Christian voters - Reporters

Eric Metaxas, the author of acclaimed biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is regarded in many circles as an important Evangelical thinker and public intellectual.  That influence makes his reaction to the 2020 election all the more troubling.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, Mr. Metaxas says that Donald Trump won re-election “in a landslide.”  He predicts that many will be imprisoned for the fraud resulting in Joe Biden’s apparent victory, calling the attempt to steal the election from Mr. Trump “the most horrible thing that ever happened in the history of our nation.” Thankfully, Mr. Metaxas declares, “Jesus is with us in this fight.”

More recently, Mr. Metaxas told Evangelical supporters of Mr. Trump that God is on Trump’s side, and their side.  To those who say that no evidence of election fraud has been presented, and that indeed numerous lawsuits in multiple states have failed to persuade any court that such evidence exists, Mr. Metaxas says,

It’s like somebody saying, “Oh, you don’t have enough evidence to believe in Jesus.” We have enough evidence in our hearts. We know him and the enemy is trying harder than anything we have seen in our lives to get us to roll over, to forget about it.’

During a call with Mr. Trump broadcast on Mr. Metaxas’ television show,  he told the president, “I’d be happy to die in this fight.” . . . “This is a fight for everything. God is with us.”

It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that Mr. Metaxas and I differ strongly in our politics.  But these statements, coming from a man of considerable influence to many Evangelicals, are disturbing for reasons that have nothing to do with partisan politics.  Mr. Metaxas easily equates faith in Jesus with believing Mr. Trump’s unsupported claims of election fraud, and unambiguously declares that God is on his side.

 

This is nothing new, of course.  Sadly, the rhetoric of adversarial politics often seeks to enlist God on our side–whatever that side might be.  Allegedly, Abraham Lincoln, asked during the Civil War if he believed that God was on the Union’s side, answered, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

President Lincoln certainly expressed this wise reserve in his second inaugural address.  Looking back in sadness to the beginning of the Civil War, he wryly observed:

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

More troubling, however, is the way that Mr. Metaxas blithely equates faith in Christ with belief in a stolen election.  You believe in Jesus without evidence, he seems to say, because you know in your heart that Jesus is real–why then do you need evidence to believe this other thing you feel in your heart to be true?  This false equation not only belittles reason, it cheapens faith.

In C. S. Lewis’ famous Christian satire The Screwtape Letters: Letters From a Senior to a Junior Devil, the senior devil Screwtape writes letters of advice to his nephew Wormwood, on how Wormwood can tempt his “patient” into hell.  Screwtape advises Wormwood to get his client thinking obsessively about politics–whether conservative or liberal (“Patriotism or Pacifism,” in Lewis’ World War II English context):

Let him begin by treating Patriotism or Pacifism as a part of his religion.  Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part,  Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “cause” (The Screwtape Letters, letter 7).

I fear that this is the fate to which Mr. Metaxas, who unambiguously identifies Mr. Trump’s re-election as God’s will and Christian faith with commitment to Mr. Trump’s political fortunes, has succumbed–and into which he may lead others under his influence.

 

Reflecting on Mr. Metaxas, I was reminded of the closing verses of Haggai (Haggai 2:20-23)–a cautionary tale about the dangers of identifying our faith too closely with any political figure or movement. In his final oracle, Haggai addresses the political leader of restored Judah, the governor Zerubbabel:

On that day, says the Lord of heavenly forces:
I will take you, Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, my servant, says the Lord;
        I will make you like a signet ring
            because I have chosen you, says the Lord of heavenly forces  (Hag 2:23).

King Hezekiah in the Bible: Royal Seal of Hezekiah Comes to Light - Biblical Archaeology Society

The word translated “signet ring” in the CEB (Hebrew khotam) is not common in the Hebrew Bible. Still, the use of the term in Genesis 38:18 and 1 Kings 21:8, together with archaeological evidence (numerous clay document seals and jar handles bearing seal impressions have survived), demonstrate the importance and use of the signet.  The impression of a signet ring indicated that the document or item so sealed came from, belonged to, or bore the authority of the signet’s owner.

Particularly significant for understanding Haggai 2:20-23 is Jeremiah 22:24:

As surely as I live, declares the LORD, even if Coniah [also called “Jehoiachin”], King Jehoiakim’s son from Judah were a signet ring on my right hand, I would still remove you from there.

Haggai, like Jeremiah, is using royal imagery: to be the king is to represent divine authority; to be, as it were, God’s signet ring. For Jeremiah, the image demonstrates both God’s authority and the irrelevance of Jehoiachin, who was taken into exile in Babylon after surrendering Jerusalem to save it from siege (his sole kingly act; see 2 Kings 24:8-17).  Even if Jehoiachin had been God’s signet ring, Jeremiah says, God had removed him, just as one takes a ring from one’s finger.

Haggai’s choice of this image for Zerubbabel is tremendously significant, and potentially dangerous. Jehoiachin had at least been a king, for a little while. Zerubbabel was a descendant of David (see the Davidic lineage in 1 Chronicles 3:19), but he is explicitly called pekhah (“governor,” see Haggai 2:21): he is the governor of the Persian province of Judah, not the king of an independent kingdom. For Zerubbabel openly to claim the title “king” would be to rebel against Persian rule.

Haggai does not propose a rebellion. Instead, he is confident that God is at work in the tumultuous political events of his day to bring about Zerubbabel’s rise.

Speak to Judah’s governor Zerubbabel:
I am about to make the heavens and the earth quake.
        I will overthrow the thrones of the kingdoms;
            I will destroy the strength of the nations.
        I will overthrow chariot and rider;
            horses and riders will fall.
        Each one will fall by the sword of his companion.
On that day, says the Lord of heavenly forces:
I will take you, Zerubbabel, Shealtiel’s son, my servant, says the Lord;
        I will make you like a signet ring
            because I have chosen you, says the Lord of heavenly forces (Hag 2:21-23).

 

The CEB has “the thrones of kingdoms” in Haggai 2:22, following the Greek of the Septuagint.  The Hebrew, however, is kisse’ mamlakot, “the throne of kingdoms.”  The Aramaic of the Targum and the Latin Vulgate also have the singular “throne,” as does the NRSV.   It is easy to see why a Greek translator would have thought that the two terms should agree in number, but it is difficult to see how the opposite move could occur. The Hebrew has the original here: God is about “to overthrow the throne of kingdoms.”  The singular throne over multiple kingdoms must surely refer to imperial power: in context, to Persia.  Haggai was convinced that the rebellions of Egypt and Babylon against Darius I (522-486 BCE) would lead to the fall of Persia, to independence for Judah, and to kingship for Zerubbabel, who would then be revealed to all as the LORD’s signet ring.

But Haggai was wrong. Darius did not fall—thankfully, since according to Ezra it was largely through his intervention that the temple was at last rebuilt (see Ezra 5–6). Zerubbabel did not rise to kingship; instead, he faded into obscurity. This is but one of many examples, from across Scripture, of prophecies that did not come to pass: to name but a few, Huldah’s promise that Josiah would die in peace (2 Chr 34:28//2 Kgs 22:20; cf. 2 Kgs 23:29-30; 2 Chr 35:20-27), Ezekiel’s prediction that Tyre would fall to Nebuchadressar (26:1-14; cf. Ezek 29:17-21), Jonah’s declaration of Nineveh’s fall (Jonah 3:4; cf. 3:10), and the many New Testament predictions of the imminent end of the world (for example, Mark 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20). “Unfulfilled” prophecy is only a problem if we believe the prophets to be fortune-tellers. But instead, the Bible presents the prophets as God’s messengers, communicating what God has revealed as best they can. God remains free to act as God chooses, in response to God’s people (see Jonah 4:1-2, 11).   So we need not root Haggai from the canon because he misread his times!  But we can find, in his last mistaken oracle, a warning not to identify our faith too closely with any political figure.

 

This does not, by the way, mean that Christians should not be politically involved.  Lewis published The Screwtape Letters in book form in 1943, but it began as a wartime serial in the British newspaper The Guardian between May and November of 1941.  This was just after the Blitz, a terrible period during which England was under almost continual aerial attack from Nazi Germany.   Indeed, Wormwood’s “patient” is killed by a German bomb:

One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching; next moment all this was gone, gone like a bad dream. . . Did you mark how naturally–as if he’d been born for it–the earth-born vermin entered the new life? (The Screwtape Letters, letter 31).

Lewis warned his readers against their faith becoming just an aspect of their politics–“merely part of the ’cause.'”  However, he was well aware of the dangers posed by systemic, political evil, and of the responsibility owed by citizens to work for the common good.  Christian faith does not call us to quietism–indeed, loving what God loves will engage us positively and passionately with what God is doing in the world.  But our faith also reminds us that, together with all the saints who have gone before us, we are part of something larger than this or any other political season: the Church of Jesus Christ, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” (The Screwtape Letters, letter 2).

 

Nov
2020

The Lord is My Shepherd?

Greek orthodox icon of Christ the Good Shepherd – orthodoxmonasteryicons.com

This Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, marks the end of the Christian year; next Sunday, with Advent, a new year begins. The last day of the Christian year is called the Reign of Christ, or the feast of Christ the King. The Gospel reading for the day is Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ famous parable of the last judgment, when the Son of Man judges the world:

All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:32).

We often think of the shepherd as a humble, comforting image, expressing nurture and care. But the metaphor of the king as shepherd was common in the ancient Near East and is very old, going back to the ancient Sumerian king lists. Hammurabi, founder of the first great Babylonian empire in the eighteenth century BCE, had written, “Hammurabi, the shepherd, called by Enlil am I; the one who makes affluence and plenty abound.” The title was used by the Assyrian kings as well: Adad-nirari III (810–723 BCE) is described as “(a king) whose shepherding they [i.e., the gods] made as agreeable to the people of Assyria as (is the smell of ) the Plant of Life,” and Esarhaddon (680–669 BCE) is called “the true shepherd, favorite of the gods.” The expression was still in use at the rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire—both Nabopolassar (626–605 BCE) and Nebuchadnezzar (605–562 BCE) were called “shepherds.”

The Hebrew Bible amply attests to the use of the shepherd metaphor for Israel’s rulers (for example, 2 Sam 5:2; Jer 3:15; Ezek 34:1-10; Mic 5:1-5a; Zech 10:2-3). By analogy, the LORD as king of the universe is also called a shepherd (see Ps 23; Ezek 34:11-16), an idea that lies back of the New Testament image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in John 10, as well as here in Matthew 25. But the specific source back of Matthew’s judgment scene is the lesson from the Hebrew Bible for Sunday, Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24.

This prophetic text from the Babylonian exile is reminiscent of the far better-known Psalm 23. Here as there, the LORD causes the flock to lie down in good pasture, beside streams of waters. But the mention of the settlements in the land (“inhabited places” in the CEB; 34:13) breaks up this pastoral imagery to remind the reader that this is about Israel after all, not about sheep: God will bring the exiles home, and repopulate desolated Judah.

Divided Kingdom, Exile and Return - Ascension Press Media

The last verse of this section begins as a summary of 34:11-16, reiterating God’s determination to seek out and care for the scattered sheep. But then, abruptly, the image shifts: “I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy” (34:16). This statement, like the mention of settlements in 34:13, explodes the metaphor: it makes no sense for any shepherd to destroy the strong and healthy sheep!

No wonder the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Syriac, and the Vulgate all read “I will watch over” instead, assuming an original Hebrew ‘eshmor instead of ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”). The two words are nearly identical in Hebrew, where vowels are not written, and the consonants d and r look a great deal alike. It is easy to understand a scribe mistaking one for the other. The reading followed by the LXX certainly seems a better fit with the context of 34:11-16, which stresses God’s care for the flock, in striking contrast to the cruelty of the false shepherds: that is, Israel’s kings. Numerous commentators on Ezekiel (for example, Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 208; Daniel Block, Ezekiel 25—48, 287; Leslie Allen, Ezekiel 20—48, 157) therefore follow the LXX here.

On the other hand, not only the CEB, but also NIV, NRSV, and even the KJV all stay with the Hebrew Bible here, which reads ‘ashmid (“I will destroy”)– and they are right to do so. The next phrase in Ezekiel 34:16 makes the prophet’s meaning clear: “But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.” God’s justice was seen in 34:1-10 with the punishment of the false shepherds, Israel’s past kings. But while the shepherds had certainly been guilty, the sheep are not therefore innocent! Throughout this book, Ezekiel rejects the exilic community’s claim that they are innocent victims (see, for example, 18:1-4).

All Sheep Matter CARTOON | Etsy

In the next section, 34:17-24, God’s justice is visited on the sheep, just as it had been visited on the shepherds. Once more good theology trumps good animal husbandry, as God sides with the weak and injured over against the fat and strong (Christian readers may be reminded of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine unguarded in the fold to seek out the one lost lamb; Matt 18:10-14//Luke 15:3-7)! The startling introduction of this idea in 34:16 is in keeping with Ezekiel’s style elsewhere: this prophet loves to shock his audience.

God’s judgment upon the flock falls into two parts, the accusation (34:17-19, unaccountably left out of the lectionary reading), and the pronouncement of judgment (34:20-24). The accusation opens, “As for you, my flock, the Lord God proclaims: I will judge between the rams and the bucks among the sheep and the goats” (34:17)–words that directly call to mind the judgment scene in Matthew 25 (compare 25:32).

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

In Matthew as in Ezekiel, the basis of the judgment is regard for the least (Matt 25:40, 45). So, in Ezekiel, the strong sheep are taken to task for selfishly and greedily trampling the pasture and muddying the water so that others cannot eat or drink (34:18-19). The point is expanded in 34:21: the strong are condemned for thrusting the weak aside.

Hurricane Iota Makes Landfall in Nicaragua

In our own day, the gap between rich and poor is wider than it has ever been, as the lion’s share of the world’s resources is claimed by a diminishing minority of its people. The trampling of our earth and fouling of our water, through irresponsible use of this world’s resources, now threatens the entire planet through climate change, even as it robs opportunity from the most vulnerable. Ezekiel plainly states God’s place in this: on the side of the poor, and on the side of the abused land. God declares, “I will rescue my flock so that they will never again be prey” (34:22). Perhaps, friends, before piously invoking Psalm 23, we should remember what kind of shepherd our LORD is, and what being faithful members of his flock may ask of us. The image may prove not so much comforting as challenging.

Oct
2020

For All the Saints

 

SPOOKY SEASON IS UPON US - MyLibraryCardWoreOut

I had never heard the expression “Spooky Season” until this segment from John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight“–but apparently it is a thing, at least among television newscasters!  However, the Jack o’ lanterns and other holiday decorations in lawns and department store windows, the heaps of candy in grocery stores, and the perennial return of pumpkin-spice-EVERYTHING (I had pumpkin spice Cheerios for breakfast this morning!) all presage the approach of Halloween–after Christmas, the biggest commercial holiday of the year.

In the church, however, this season is leading us up to an important, although little celebrated or even recognized, day in the Christian year.  It is especially sad that United Methodists may let this day pass unheralded, as it was a particular favorite of John Wesley!  Joe Iovino writes:

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, enjoyed and celebrated All Saints Day. In a journal entry from November 1, 1767, Wesley calls it “a festival I truly love.” On the same day in 1788, he writes, “I always find this a comfortable day.” The following year he calls it “a day that I peculiarly love.”

On All Saints Day we remember those who have gone before us in the faith. "All-Saints" 15th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Halloween  is called “Hallow E’en”  for the same reason December 31 is called “New Year’s Eve,” or December 24 “Christmas Eve.”  October 31 is of course the night 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.

Disney tried to trademark 'Day of the Dead.' They make up for it with Pixar's 'Coco' | America Magazine

So, why do we celebrate All-Saint’s Day on November 1?  The feast was shifted from spring to fall in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en;” called El Dia de Los Muertos [the Day of the Dead] in Spain), an ancient festival of the quarter-year, 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.  Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms, that

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!  And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death.

Still, because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued 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–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter!  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.”

In fact, in this year of pandemic, when conventional trick-or-treating has become dangerous, Hallowe’en has become a window of opportunity for our churches to minister to our neighbors.  Many churches had already begun the practice of “trunk or treat” in their parking lots.  This year, when little children cannot come to the doors of our homes to receive our offerings of sweets, perhaps our churches can fill that role, sweetly sharing the love of Jesus and the promise of his resurrection!

AFTERWORD:

This is my favorite All-Saint’s Day hymn, composed by William Walsham How, Bishop of Wakefield, and usually sung to a stirring tune by Ralph Vaughn Williams.

October 31 is also the birthday of the best saint I know: my Dad, Bernard Tuell.  Happy birthday, Daddy!

Oct
2020

Happy Birthday to Me!

Every year on or around my birthday, October 3, I try to find as many opportunities as I can to share this bit of wonderful nonsense from Theodore Geisel–better known as Dr. Suess.  Under the silliness, it carries a deep affirmation of self-worth, which reminds me of the fundamental philosophy of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s best-known alumnus, Mr. Fred Rogers.  Every day on his television program, Mr. Rogers told every little child watching, “You are special, just for being you.”

faithful-in-christ | Lamentations, Inspirational scripture, New every  morning

Both Mr. Rogers, and Dr. Suess’ birthday poem, remind me, curiously, of Lamentations 3:19-26:

The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.
I can’t help but remember and am depressed.
I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.

The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him.
It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance.


The hope in Dr. Suess’ poem seems to echo the hope in this passage of Scripture–but does it?  After all, Lamentations (found just after Jeremiah in our Old Testament) is a grim collection of five poems mourning the fall of Judah, written in the ruins of Jerusalem’s temple.  There is only one hopeful word in this entire book, and this is it!  Therefore, some would say that to single out this passage is dishonest, as it is not representative of the book as a whole.  In fact,  since this passage is swallowed up by the poems of despair surrounding it, the point could be that these words proved ineffectual–that they provided no lasting healing or hope.

Certainly, Mr. Rogers took some flack for his message of self-affirmation.  One television panel claimed that this message was “ruining kids”:

Well here’s the problem [that] gets lost in that whole self business, and the idea that being hard and having high issues for yourself, discounted. Mr. Rogers’ message was, “You’re special because you’re you.” He didn’t say, “If you want to be special, you’re going to have to work hard,” and now all these kids are growing up and they’re realizing, “Hey wait a minute, Mr. Rogers lied to me, I’m not special”

The panel decried the damage Mr. Rogers may have done to this whole crop of kids who now feel entitled just for being them. And what he says that instead of telling them, “You’re special, you’re great,” why didn’t he just say, “You know what, there’s a lot of improvement, keep working on yourself.”

The television panel’s critique may seem to some more reflective of Christian faith (and certainly more true to the overall tone of Lamentations) than Mr. Rogers’ or Dr. Suess’ message of affirmation.  I grew up in the sawdust-trail revivalist tradition of Christianity, in which the point of preaching often seems to be bringing its hearers to such a state of fear and guilt and self-loathing that they will run to the altar to be saved from judgment, hell, sin, and themselves: repentance as the child of despair.

But this is not the only way that Christian tradition has spoken about humanity, or about our relationship with God.  In his Ladder of Divine Ascent, 5, Christian mystic St. John Climacus writes,  “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair.”  Repentance is not born out of despair, but is the child of hope, and indeed the denial of despair!

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (The Inner Kingdom [St. Vladimir Press, 2000], 45) unpacks St. John’s teaching on repentance:

It is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.

I think that it is no accident that those words of hope in Lamentations have been placed in the center of the book, in the middle of its longest poem. The point is that, yes, for this community devastated by Babylonian armies, things are bad–as bad as they could possible be. In these days, when after 200,000 deaths, the pandemic still rages; when climate change has turned our West Coast into a tinderbox, and wildfires rage; when racial justice often seems as distant a dream to us as it did to Dr. Martin Luther King, or indeed to Frederick Douglass; when political differences readily harden into hatred; we may well think the same of our times. But what saved them–and saves us–from despair is knowing that we are loved, and that God is faithful:

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through! They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness (Lam 3:22-23).

The point is not optimism, but rather hope.  Optimism says it will all be okay; that nothing really bad is going to happen.   However, hope affirms that no matter what happens, all will be well.  It was that hope that caused Jews being marched to the gas chambers in the Nazi holocaust to recite, from the creed of Moses Maimonides, “I believe, I believe, with a perfect faith, I believe that Messiah will come, and though he tarry, I will expect him daily.”

Friends, I believe that it is consistent with the heart of the Gospel to claim our created goodness, and our standing as people God loves, and for whom Christ died.  Looking upward to God’s love, forward with trust, we may go forth by God’s grace, transformed by Christ and empowered by the Spirit, to be the people we were created to be.

I can shout with Dr. Suess, and invite you to shout with me: “I am what I am!  That’s a great thing to be.  If I say so myself, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!”

AFTERWORD:

October is also the birth month of my father.  That’s my Dad, Bernard Tuell, sitting next to me in this photo.  I got my laugh and my hairline from my Dad–but also, my love for the Bible and for the Lord.  So–happy, happy birthday, Daddy.  God bless you, as God has blessed so many through you.