Friday, March 18, 2011

Least Popular Commandments: No Other Gods

If you wish to be a polygamist, don't try to justify it by referring to its existence in the Bible. Yes, it was practiced by the patriarchs, most notably by Jacob who had 4 wives. And it is always portrayed as a recipe for an domestic strife and unhappiness, most notably that of Jacob's household, though we can throw in Abraham, David, Solomon, and Elkanah, the father of Samuel. It's true today. Women who escape from the polygamous marriages of Mormon Fundamentalists tell of jealousy and vicious inter-family politics between the sister wives. Muslim women from Saudi Arabia have written of how upset they feel when their husbands announce they wish to take another wife. And just to show that this isn't a problem merely for multiple wives, a recent documentary "Three of Hearts" follows the marriage of 2 men and 1 woman which seems idyllic for more than a decade until the female partner becomes pregnant. First one man leaves and then the relationship between the remaining man and woman falls apart. There's a reason why, though polygamy (and polyandry) exist, monogamy is the norm, especially wherever women are liberated.

This is the first in our series on the least popular commandments in the Bible. But we're not talking about marriage, at least not directly. We'll do that in 2 weeks. Instead, we are dealing with the first of the Ten Commandments: "I am Yahweh, your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery; there will not be any other gods for you besides me." This is the beginning of the covenant between God and his people. It is in the form of the suzerain/vassal covenant of the time and culture. An emperor would present this covenant to the kings who were his vassals, setting out what he would do for them and what their duty was to him. It was binding, like marriage. And marriage was a frequent metaphor used for God's relationship with his people.

If you read the Old Testament you may notice something odd. Though the culture was one that tolerated polygamy--for those wealthy enough to afford it, of course--and one where arranged marriages were the rule rather than the exception, the key marriages are usually love matches. At least one scholar has suggested the author of Genesis, or parts of it, was a woman. Yet it is normally the man (Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, etc) who sees and falls for the woman. It is the same in the marriage metaphor of God and his people. God sees and falls in love with Israel. The prophets tell it as a love story. Israel's spiritual unfaithfulness is depicted as adultery. But God is determined to win her back. The New Testament transfers the metaphor to Christ and his church. And in the Book of Revelation, the whole story of the Bible ends in the marriage of the Lamb, of Christ to his bride. The whole Bible can be seen as the love story of God and humanity.

Now you might see why I started with polygamy. It doesn't work well in human relationships or in our relationship with God. When God says in his covenant that we are not to have other gods besides him, it is like the wedding vow in which one forsakes all others and cleaves to one's spouse. Loving God is an exclusive relationship.

So why is the idea that we must stick with one God seen as a problem today? Because, to be blunt, we are a commitment-phobic culture. We don't like closing our options. We don't even want restrictive cellphone contracts. And we have gone from admitting that some sex does occur outside of marriage to that largely being the norm. For undeniable proof, there is the fact that 40% of all children born in the U.S. are born outside marriage, 60% of those to women in their 20s. Nor is it just our country: 66% of children born in Iceland are born to unwed mothers; in Sweden it's 55%. In France, Scotland, Wales, Slovenia, and Bulgaria, more than half of all children are born to unmarried women, whereas in Austria, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Denmark and parts of England it's more than half of first births. It's an epidemic in the rich, industrialized West, where, incidentally, birth control of all types is readily available. The best explanation is that we want love with all the pleasure but none of the commitment. Small wonder that attitude extends to God.

We want God's love, without any commitment on our part to love him faithfully. We want the security he offers, without any attempt on our part to act safely. We wants his forgiveness, without the need on our part to repent. We want what God has to give without being married to him; we want to be friends with benefits--with God!

You might say, "Come on, we don't live in a polytheistic world anymore. It's not like we're trying to create a pantheon with Jesus, Thor and Zeus." Well, there was that Episcopal priest who was in the news for saying she could be a good Muslim as well. I doubt many Muslims would agree. And certainly one of the objections to our God's stance is the idea that believers in other faiths would be left out. That's rather like saying the Democratic party is unfair for not accepting the major tenets of the Republican party. Or vice versa. Both parties may want the best for the country but each has somewhat different conceptions of what that would be and how to get there. It doesn't mean people from different political parties--or religions--cannot be friends or cannot act civilly towards each other or cannot work together for the common good. But rather than asking each group to adopt the other's beliefs, it makes more sense that if someone in either group believes the other has the answers, he should switch.

I believe it was theologian Paul Tillich who said God is a matter of ultimate concern. Defined this way, one can see that, rather than another deity, a more likely rival for God is anything we have elevated to the status of Most Important Thing in our life. It could be anything, any cause, any value, any activity, any treasured possession, or any political position. In Germany in the 1930s and 40s, it was the Nazi Party. Many churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant, were willing to toe the party line. Those that recognized this ideology to be incompatible with Christianity became known as the Confessing Church and many of its leaders, like Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoffer, opposed the symbolic seating of Hitler on the right hand of God.

That kind of idolatry is easy to spot. It's harder to see when Christian truth is mixed with politics or wedded to a cause. C.S. Lewis called it "Christianity and…" Modern examples are "Christianity and Capitalism," "Christianity and being Prolife," "Christianity and Feminism," "Christianity and Democracy," etc. People may see a certain cause as consistent with Christianity, but eventually elevate it to a position of being almost equal importance.

It can be a good cause. That's not the point. The problem is it can take over the central place in your faith. Lewis said beware of getting to the point when your support of the cause is no longer rooted in your relationship with Christ, but your support of Christianity is dependent on its compatibility with your pet cause. In other words, if you feel one cannot possibly (or absolutely must) be a Christian and a conservative, or a Christian and a socialist, or a Christian and pro-choice or a Christian and an environmentalist or a Christian and member of the Democratic, Republican or Tea parties, you have let your cause become as important or more so than God.

As a preacher, I have gotten into more trouble by revealing the startling fact that Christians can hold different points of view on contemporary hot button issues than any thing else I've said. Certain people cannot even tolerate the idea that other Christians might think differently than they and that they may some good points. Our tendency is to feel that a good idea is good all through and a bad idea is wrong at every point. If you can't love Christians who think differently than you, you have to ask yourself if you love people or you just love their agreeing with you.

This is not to say that Christians don't hold self-contradictory positions on small or even important issues. It's a matter of whether the issue is essential. As we said, the Nazi doctrine, with its racism, anti-Semitism, its denial of the value of people who were mentally ill, physically disabled, or simply non-Arian, ran completely contrary to the central truth that we worship the God of love as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and we serve him by loving God and loving all those created in his image, including those we perceive as enemies.

And then there are the idolatries of which we are unconscious, the choices that reveal what we really worship besides God. On what do we spend the majority of our energy, time or money after we have taken care of our job and the basics of life? Do we spend most of it entertaining ourselves, enhancing our looks, acquiring things, over-indulging our appetites, burying ourselves in hobbies, mindlessly playing games, surfing the net, watching TV? I'm not talking about needed recreation or time spent enjoying things with loved ones. I'm talking about trivial things taking over our time, talent and treasure with little of lasting worth to show for it. God asks for one day devoted to him. Most of us begrudge him an hour, saying we are too busy. But with what? When you are honest with yourself, do you goof off more than you glorify God?

Some of these activities can in fact become ways to serve God. There are motorcyclists who not only share their hobby but the gospel with other enthusiasts. There are people who through their athletics, visual or performing arts, use of specialized knowledge, or other activities minister to others, or convert them into personal prayers or praise for the creator who gave them these gifts. The medieval church used to employ people with all sorts of talents to glorify God. In medieval mystery plays, guilds would use their skills to tell Bible stories which linked together told the one great story of God's redemption of the world. The Tailor's Guild might perform the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors while the Bakers might do the Harrowing of Hell. Christians coming together, each making his or her own contribution to making manifest the whole gospel, is one way in which we can collectively mirror the image of the God who is so profligate with his gifts. In fact, one way not to worship things other than God is to remember that they should never be seen as ends in themselves. We are to give as we have been given, generously. So if, for instance, your talent lies in promoting causes or politics, do so, but always asking yourself if you are doing this to help only yourself or your friends or the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters and thus are doing it to Christ.

Ultimately we tend to worship what we most desire and wish to have. Charles Williams pointed out that we are to not covet anything that belongs to another. And everything belongs to God. So the only thing left to covet is God himself. And if he is our chief desire and pleasing him our chief pleasure, there will be no room in our hearts and lives for other gods.

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