Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Best News Ever

I am a news junkie. It may be because, as he got ready for work, my Dad used to listen to KMOX, the radio station that pioneered the news/talk format. Today when I wake up at 5 am, I listen to NPR for 2 straight hours. If I time it right, I hear the last story, which starts at 6:50, before walking in the door at work. It is my morning coffee, if you will. Still not every story grabs my attention. Many wash over me. I always hope for one that will pique my interest, get my brain working and wake me up. It can be something from a field which I know or follow like medicine, science, psychology, religion, history, films and the like. It can be a human interest story that is heartwarming, weird, funny, or even tragic. But sometimes the news is more than just interesting. Here in the Keys, we might hear a report that we are under a Hurricane Watch. That means we must take action, get our homes ready for a possible storm, maybe even prepare to evacuate. On the other hand, you may hear the meteorologist say that we are well out of the cone of possible tracks. That means you can relax and say a prayer of thanks.

So there are 3 types of news stories that we hear: the ones that go in one ear and out the other, the ones that interest us and cause us to listen, and the ones that cause us to act. Which kind of news do you think the Gospel is?

The Greek word for gospel is euaggelion. It literally means "good news." Originally, however, it referred to the reward given a messenger for bringing good news. Then it came to mean the sacrifices made to the gods when good news was received. Finally it came to mean the good news itself--that of a victory or announcing the birth of the emperor's son or the inauguration of a new ruler. And you can see why this rapidly became a specifically Christian word. When Jesus was born the angels (literally "messengers") announced to the shepherds that they were bringing them good news--the birth of a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. Christ is simply the Greek for Messiah, the Anointed One. The shepherds could have said, "Thanks. Good to hear." But instead they made a beeline to see this special baby. The birth of God's promised Prophet, Priest and King was not just interesting news but news to act on.

Jesus began his ministry by announcing, "The time is fulfilled; the Royal Reign of God is near! Repent and put your trust in the good news." To the oppressed people of Judah and Galilee, this was not merely interesting news but something to act on. Jesus in fact includes a call to action. "Repent" in Hebrew means "turn." In a moral sense it meant turn away from sin and turn towards God. The Greek word for "repent" means "change your mind." So Jesus first was telling people to turn their lives around and change their thinking. If God's Reign was about to begin, the people had better start acting like citizens of his Kingdom. Those Arab nations that recently forced out their dictators are now trying to turn their countries around and change the way their citizens have always thought about government. But God's Kingdom only includes willing subjects. They have to be one in their desire to have God as their ruler and they have to do his will. The only slaves in God's Kingdom are those he has freed from their bondage to sin, the destructive ways we tend to think, speak and act.

Besides repenting Jesus calls people to believe the good news. And the word used for "believe" is not a passive one. For instance, I believe most everything I hear on the news cast. If there is an update in which they correct something reported earlier, I note it but it doesn't make much of a difference to me. The Greek word usually translated "believe" however should more accurately be rendered "trust." We are not being called to believe in God in the same sense that a geography teacher wants us to believe that there is a country called Australia. It's more like how you would have to believe in Australia if your plane is about to make an emergency landing there. You need to trust that it's not an illusion and that your wheels are going to make contact with dry land and not waves in the middle of the sea. In the Biblical sense, believing means relying on someone or something. If you really believe in your doctor, you trust his diagnosis and, more importantly, you will follow his orders. As a nurse, I can't tell you how many patients say they believe their doctor but still won't do what he says like give up smoking, or stick to their prescribed diet or get exercise. You have to doubt that they really trust what their physician says. A lot of Christians are like that, too. They really don't believe what Jesus says about the unhealthy ways they are living and don't trust his prescription for necessary lifestyle changes.

"Here's what's wrong with you," doesn't really sound like good news, does it? But it is. I had a friend who couldn't keep food down and was losing an alarming amount of weight. The doctors did tests, imaged her body and found nothing. Finally, they told her it was in her head, which, sad to say, is what many doctors do when they don't know what's going on with a patient. By now my friend had lost 60 pounds and was afraid it was some kind of cancer. She went to yet another appointment with her primary physician. He wasn't there but his partner was. She recited her medical history once more and the doctor had an idea. It was an uncommon condition, very hard to detect. He scheduled surgery and her condition was fixed. I've had a number of patients who were relieved when they finally got an accurate diagnosis. So finding out what's wrong with you is good news.

But sometimes that's as far as people go. They don't want to change. As part of a skid-row ministry in college, I heard many of the men we ministered to call themselves "alcoholics" in a tone that made it clear that they wanted to leave it at that. The diagnosis was the final word on them. It meant we could not expect them to change; their destiny was sealed. It was, in reality, despair, the death of hope for any better life. They confused their diagnosis with their eventual cause of death. Or rather they let it be their death sentence. They would not try to turn from alcohol and towards life.

Sometimes people accept the diagnosis but not the treatment prescribed. For a number reasons, they reject the regimen their doctor orders and search for something more amenable. They often fall prey to quacks. John R. Brinkley wasn't really a doctor but he was a good self-promoter. He used the new medium of radio to bring people from all over the country to his clinic in Kansas, where he claimed he could cure just about anything, but especially ED, by surgically implanting goat testicles into his patients. The so-called Milford Messiah made millions before he was finally shutdown by a large number of malpractice, wrongful death and fraud lawsuits. There are still quacks out there who are willing to trade false cures for real cash and patients willing to go to them for magical remedies that don't require the pain and indignity of accepted medical treatment.

Some try to treat themselves. Another friend of mine had a nasty large black irregularly-shaped melanoma on her arm. I and another friend kept asking her to get it looked at. She said she was. But being afraid of doctors and needles, she was scraping off bits of it herself. Then one day it metastasized to her brain. She suffered a bad stroke and in a month was dead. Had she gone to a doctor when she first noticed it she might have been saved.

Jesus backed up his good news by healing the blind, deaf, lame and all who trusted him. He fed the hungry. He raised a little girl, the son of the widow at Nain and Lazarus from the dead. When people heard the good news of Jesus, they took action. They flocked to him for healing and wisdom.

Others took action in a different way. They tried to discredit him, to stop him and eventually to kill him. It may be hard for us to understand why they would go after Jesus, but this was a time when there was no separation of religion and state. And what used to be the Jewish nation was occupied by Rome, which usually required its vassal states to worship the divine emperor. They had made an exception for the monotheistic Jews, but it was an uneasy situation. There were terrorists called Zealots who recognized no earthly ruler but God. The Holy Land was a tinderbox, just waiting for someone to strike the spark that would set the whole thing ablaze. So both the Jewish leaders and the Roman governor did not view anybody hailed as the Messiah as good news.

They did their best to stamp out the good news. They rewarded the messenger by killing him, in the most excruciating, humiliating manner possible. And that should have been that. His movement should have died, like those of other would be messiahs. His followers should have attached themselves to the next messiah or just gone back to their old lives. People saw no value in a dead messiah. And they were right.

So when the women came running back from the tomb, breathless and frightened, with the news of the empty tomb and the angels, the disciples weren't sure if it was good news or not. But at least 2 of them knew it was news that compelled them to act. John and Peter ran to the tomb to see for themselves. They saw the burial shroud and the face cloth, still wrapped but empty. They didn't know what to make of it. Then Mary of Magdala encounters the resurrected Jesus and the message is truly received. Mary is the first apostle of the full good news: the Lord is risen!

Contrary to what skeptics say, the disciples did not readily accept Jesus' resurrection. They knew people who die stay dead. They knew grieving people see things. They probably really had doubts about Mary of Magdala because she had been seriously ill. It was said that Jesus had cast 7 demons out of her. She was especially grateful to Jesus and especially devastated by his crucifixion. How could they trust what they saw as an hysterical woman about a friend coming back from the dead? Would that convince you?

But then Jesus started appearing to them. In the Bible's earliest account of the resurrection, 1st Corinthians chapter 15, Paul tells us that first Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the others. At one point, he appears to 500 followers. After 40 days, enough time that nobody is thinking this is wishful thinking or an hallucination, Jesus takes his leave. He kicks the apostles out of their comfortable nest and sends them into the world with the good news--the news that Jesus is not just the promised King of the Jews, not the one who frees a people from political oppression, not the conqueror of Rome, but the King of the heavens and the earth, who frees all people from spiritual oppression, the conqueror of sin and death.

A healer who claimed to be the Son of God is killed, buried and then comes back to life 3 days later. That's news that demands action. And people do act. At Pentecost, 3000 Jews from all over the empire are converted when Peter proclaims the good news. Local authorities and then the Empire itself push back. Almost all of the original apostles are martyred and none of them recant. Yet by the end of the 1st century, there were communities of Christians in more than 40 cities throughout the empire, including the capitol, Rome. In the next hundred years there were churches in Africa, Asia and deep within continental Europe and this despite the fact that Christianity still wasn't legal and more persecutions took place. By the end of the third century, there are hundreds of churches stretching from Britain and the Iberian peninsula to the Balkans and Russia. Then in 313 AD, just 2 years after the Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians ends, there are so many believers in Jesus that it is safe for the new Emperor Constantine to make Christianity one of the legal religions. Today 2 billion people, a third of the world's population claims to be Christian. And the largest growth in believers is in Africa, Asia and South America, where the majority of the world's people live. Michael Grant said that while as a historian he could not acknowledge the resurrection, without it he could not explain how belief in the deity of a dead Messiah grew so large so fast.

In the West, belief is shrinking. The good news is old news. And quite frankly we in the church keep burying the lede, as journalists would say. A lot of people think Christianity is primarily concerned with abortion or homosexuality or a certain kind of politics. Those are even deal-breaking issues for some Christians, who can get real nasty about Christians who don't agree with them on these issues or who don't agree to make them a top priority. And a lot of time and money and energy that could be going into telling and acting on the good news is being diverted into issues that ultimately spread the message that Christians are anything but loving towards others, including other Christians.

The men who saw Jesus alive and breathing, who ate with him and touched him after his resurrection, never let other matters obscure the good news. In the first chapter of the oldest book in the New Testament, 1st Thessalonians, Paul mentions God raising Jesus from the dead. It is mentioned in the 1st chapter of the last book written, Revelation. None of those books would have been written if Jesus had stayed as dead as Simon of Peraea, Athronges, Simon bar Kokhba, or the dozens of others who claimed to be the Messiah. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the reason we are here. If it didn't happen, why did we get up early this morning to be here? It wouldn't be news that requires action. Paul said it: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins….If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die."

But if Jesus Christ has conquered death, there is nothing to fear anymore. There is nothing that demonstrates God's power over evil more emphatically. There is nothing that shows us more clearly that Jesus' death on the cross was God's love for us in action. That is good news indeed. And if we who rely on him will be raised to new life, that is news that demands action. It means that we can love anyone, even our enemies, for they can do nothing that ultimately harms us, whereas what we do to show them God's love can eternally benefit them. It means this physical world and our bodies are not despicable or disposable but precious gifts that God will redeem as well. It means that there is real meaning to this life and that there is hope--hope that would not exist even if we believed in an afterlife as mere spirits. Take the hand of the person next to you. Feel its weight, its warmth, its grip. Because Jesus has risen, I can say to you that if you die tomorrow, you will be able to grasp that hand or hug that person again some day and feel them squeeze or hug or kiss you back. And that is the best news ever.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The 7 Deadly Sins: Pride

In our little church, our bishop once preached a Maundy Thursday sermon in which he noted how many churches were named after saints, or the titles of Christ, or various doctrines. But he had never heard of a church of the Sacred Towel and Basin. Yet Jesus made a point of how in the Kingdom of God, leadership is marked not by being served but by serving. God Incarnate washed the filthy feet of twelve men who had been squabbling over which of them was the greatest. We only commemorate that once a year. Keep that in mind as we discuss the deadliest of the 7 sins.

Originally there were 8 Deadly Sins. Greek theologian Evagrius of Pontos listed them in ascending order of seriousness as gluttony, lust, greed, despair, anger, apathy vainglory and pride. Pope Gregory the Great reduced them to 7 by combining vainglory with pride, despair with apathy and adding envy. Later despair was replaced by sloth. But the worst of the 7 was, from the beginning, pride. And that causes confusion. Because in this era of assertiveness, self-esteem, rights and roots, pride is a good thing. In the song, "We are One in the Spirit," we even sing, "we will guard each man's dignity and save each man's pride." In the Prayer Book we no longer call ourselves "miserable offenders." How can pride be a sin, much less the worst of them all?

First of all, what we mean by pride is a proper appreciation of something: an accomplishment, our racial or ethnic heritage, our status as a human being. What we call the sin of pride would be better translated as "arrogance." It might be defined as an overestimate of one's worth, power or centrality in the scheme of things. We see it most clearly in celebrities, politicians and bosses. Accustomed to having their whims catered to as well as the general fawning by those they meet, some of these leaders and entertainers come to believe they deserve special treatment. Others have always believed that they are superior. And in a limited sense they may be right. They may well be superior athletes, or actors, or leaders, or musicians, or physicians, or lawyers, or artists, or whatever. As Dorothy L. Sayers points out, the insidiousness of pride is that it attacks us not at our weak points but at our strengths.

But no one is superior in every category and no one is completely self-sufficient. For instance, Will Rogers observed that we are all ignorant--just on different subjects. The arrogant person rarely recognizes that he has any deficiencies. And that's the danger.

Historians debate whether Hitler was a genius. I think it is safe to say that he was at least a political genius. He went from being the leader of a tiny political party that never won the majority of votes to putting together a coalition that made him the dictator of one of the greatest countries of Europe. He wasn't even a German! A special law had to be passed to allow this Austrian to take over the chancellorship. He was definitely a master politician. Thank God he was no military genius. By overruling his brilliant generals, he made a number of major errors that allowed the Allies to win the war. And he brought a rich culture into ruins and disrepute.

That's a key characteristic of pride. It is competitive. It views all others as rivals and will impel someone to pursue a goal not because he wants it that badly but because he wants to best others in pursuit of the same goal. Pride is a superiority complex.

The Bible uses a whole list of words for pride: arrogance, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, presumption, and ostentation. Its emphasis on pride as a sin and humility as a virtue were unique among the cultures of the time. The Greeks reversed the values, seeing pride as a virtue and humility as despicable. They did recognize the dangers of overweening pride, though. They saw how it tripped up the mighty. They called it hubris and they thought it stirred up the envy of the gods who then destroyed the exalted. But in Christianity arrogance is not risky because God might feel insecure about his place in the universe. It is risky because it puts the self in God's place.

The essence of pride is usurping God, claiming that you are master of your own fate, the final authority on your own life. This goes right back to Genesis. In the story of the Fall, the serpent tells the woman that eating the forbidden fruit will make her like God. So the first thing she does is disobey God. She substitutes her judgment of right and wrong for God's. And we all suffer for that arrogance.

I know it's not popular or even politically correct to point this out but people bring much of their grief upon themselves. AIDS would never have become an epidemic if people simply abstained from indiscriminate sex and recreational drug use. What used to be called adult-onset diabetes would not be on the rise, even among the young, were it not for our gluttonous diets or slothful lifestyles. Powerful financial companies have gone bankrupt due to greed and reckless speculation. Teenage pregnancy leading to fatherless children and poverty, lung cancer brought on by smoking, car accidents caused by drinking, domestic violence triggered by substance abuse, rape as the result of accepting a ride from a stranger one just met in a bar…these are just a few of the calamities that are brought on by ignoring those repressive, unrealistic rules we were taught by our parents or in Sunday School. We thought we knew better. We ignored signs and doubts.

Pride hates doubts. Doubts are not cool. John Wayne never had doubts. Chuck Norris never had doubts. As David Crosby once sang about as movie hero, "he never wondered what was right or wrong; he just knew!" We want to be like that. But nobody is really like that. And, sadly, people who think they have that knack, who know in every instance the right thing to do, often cause the most destruction, even if their purpose was a noble one.

In fact that is how pride creeps into religious people. They start out doing good and getting praised for it. There is nothing wrong with that. It is okay to receive pleasure from exercising God's gifts to you and it is okay to enjoy others' expressions of admiration for the gifts. The danger comes when you take the praise personally, forgetting that your gifts come from God and are meant to serve and glorify him. When you start to believe that you are better than others spiritually, when you start ranking yourself and others on a scale, when you feel morally superior to most, when you imagine how pleased God must be with you, then you have succumbed to pride.

But if pride breeds competition, if it is essentially anti-God, how can a proud person be religious? As C. S. Lewis says, these people are worshipping an imaginary god, one who agrees with them on everything and favors them in everything. He is a tame god, one who would never confront them with how sinful they are or how much they need his grace.

And make no mistake, these people can behave quite morally. Pride can be used to master other sins as beneath one's dignity. But the morality exhibited is done in service to the person and his own self-image, not for the love of God. As T. S. Eliot wrote, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason." Remember that Jesus said, "Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" How could he not know them? They were not dealing with him but a god created in their own image.

That is why we must continually read the Bible prayerfully, the whole Bible. Disciple is another word for student. When we study God's Word, we will find many parts we like, but we must also face the parts we don't. They remind us with our faults and secret sins. They challenge us to act in ways that appear foolish and undignified. We must wrestle with them as Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord until he blessed him. In the end we will see the face of the real God, the one before whom we realize just how small and unsuperior we are.

We must similarly strip ourselves naked in prayer, not always hiding behind the beautiful phrases of our Prayer Book, but putting our true feelings into our own words. Even our ugly feelings, in the same way you need to tell your doctor your most shameful or disgusting symptoms if you wish to get well. The psalmists sometimes express horrible thoughts, such as wanting God to crush their enemies and dash their infants against rocks. Better to express such thoughts to God than to let them fester or to act on them. Anyway, you will find it hard to maintain such thoughts in the piercing light of his righteousness.

And we must really learn to love others. True love casts out pride because it is hard to really care about someone else when you're all wrapped up in yourself. Love pulls you out of yourself. You cease to be the most important thing in your life. In fact, it was wise of Pope Gregory to drop that 8th deadly sin, vainglory or vanity, because it really isn't in the same league as pride. When you're vain, you at least still care what other people think and you want to please them. Pride doesn't give a damn what the rabble thinks. It only cares about itself.

True Christian love means we must also reach out to those who should be our allies but whom we often see as rivals and competitors. I am referring to our fellow Christians. A lot of the divisions in the church, regardless of the issues that created them, are maintained by pride. We are like a family torn apart by old quarrels. We love our arguments more than we love others. Those who don't recognize the obvious elegance, logic and superiority of our positions are either dumber or less moral than we are. We can't admit that they may have a point or two. We can't admit that the issues which loom so large to us are not as central to the faith as we think or that our traditions may not be superior to those held by our siblings in Christ.

The problem with pride is that, like other sins, it can act like a drug. In the beginning it gives pleasure but eventually you keep up the habit because you can't face withdrawal. As the evil Mordred sings in the play "Camelot," "I find humility means to be hurt; it's not the earth the meek inherit but the dirt!" He overstates it, of course, but that's how humility seems when you're coming off a pride high. Giving up pride means giving up an image of oneself as as always or almost always right. It means accepting that you are a sinner, not just in theory but in practice. It means forgiving others and seeking their forgiveness. It means acknowledging that others are just as precious to God as you and may even be superior to you in some ways. It means accepting that you are not the final arbiter of how you should live your life and whom you should associate with.

As C. S. Lewis points out the first step towards humility is to realize that you are proud. "If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed." The odd thing about humility is that, like happiness, you can't achieve it by aiming for it. It is a side effect of living a Christian life. So take the steps we discussed above: study the scriptures to see both God and yourself clearly, pray honestly, love and serve God through loving and serving others. If you ever succeed in becoming humble, you probably won't realize it. If I may resort to Lewis once again, he says of the humble person, "he will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all."

That's because humility means dethroning oneself and surrendering the central place in one's life to God. It means seeing all things not in relation to ourselves but in relation to him who created all things and redeems all things and sustains all things. If this sounds foreign to you, then remember when you were happiest. It was probably some time when you were totally absorbed in something else, something outside you, an activity or an event or a person. For many of us it was when we first realized we were in love. Our thoughts were full of the other person and his or her qualities. Our conversation was full of that person's acts and words. We spontaneously sought out ways to please and honor the one we loved. We were so full of love for that person we felt as if we would burst.

We've all seen romantic comedies where one person disdains the other and resists his advances until she realizes what a fool she is, swallows her pride and accepts his love. God is our ardent suitor and we the haughty and blind object of his love. Whether there is a happy ending or not depends on our decision. Happiness is not found through self-regard, for our natural orientation is outward. Pride blocks happiness. Only when we get over ourselves, and lose ourselves in his love will we find our true selves.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Sometimes my sermons come out as stories. This one has be growing and developing over several weeks. Let me know how it impacts you.

Mary was looking for Jesus. But she just couldn't find him. Not in the fixed eyes which used to be so intense and clear, nor in the slack mouth which used to be so expressive, nor in the gore-encrusted hands that used to be so strong and yet so gentle. Mary could see nothing of her son in the hideously abused body that lay in the dust at the foot of the cross. Her mind told her that this was Jesus but she could not feel anything towards the grotesque remains that barely resembled him. It was like looking at the corpse of an impostor. She couldn't find any emotional resonance in her for this thing that used to be a man.

She had cried and prayed and keened for him as he suffered his last long hours on this earth. She had strained to hear his last words, rasped out of his parched and bleeding lips. It was agony. She did not think anyone could suffer that much. And maybe that was why she could feel nothing now. As her body had emptied itself of tears, it had drained her of every last drop of sorrow. All her emotions were poured out and sucked up by the thirsty earth. It was almost peaceful, this surrender to apathy and the death of the spirit. She wasn't sure she wanted to feel anything, even if that were possible. There was nothing to look forward to but the endless quiet of the grave.

The man from Arimathea was talking to some servants and though she could hear his voice clearly, Mary could not grasp the meaning of his words. All her senses seemed dull, muted--sounds, colors, even the metallic smell of the blood of 3 men. Mary did not try to take it in. She let it blow past her like the hot, dry wind that whipped her gown around her. She felt apart from the world and it was not a bad state to be in. There was, at least, no pain.

The servants were reluctantly taking positions at the head and feet of the corpse, and looked as if they were searching for any excuse not to touch it. It was obvious that this went beyond the fact that they would become unclean to celebrate the Passover. The rich man gave a command and the servants bent down and gingerly took hold of the body. They started to lift when the servant at the head began to lose his grip. They hurriedly let the body down and that servant worked his arms under the body's arms and clasped his hands across the chest, grimacing at the close embrace.

They accomplished the lift this time and crab-walked the body sideways over a very expensive burial linen. After some realignment, they lowered the body onto the cloth. The one servant tenderly yet squeamishly let the head down, stepped back and then vigorously rubbed his hands together and brushed his cheek.

Mary forced herself to take a last look at what remained of her son. This would be the last time she would see him and some part of her told her to make the most of it. Her eyes swept slowly over the obscenity they had made of her beautiful boy. No. This was not him anymore. She saw nothing there that could touch her any longer. Until her gaze lit on the scar.

The crescent-shaped scar shown whitely against his sun-burnt leg. Mary hadn't seen it in decades. But then she hadn't seen her son naked since he was a boy. Still she knew the scar in an instant. She had put it there.

She had been cooking and tending the fire, an endless task when her children all lived at home. She was making bread when she heard the scream. She was galvanized, not only because the pitch mean serious pain but because she was shocked by which child the scream belonged to. Jesus never screamed.

In a second Mary had stepped into the front room of their modest house which served as Joseph's shop. Jesus was sitting in the middle of the dirt floor, Joseph's second best hammer and a chisel on the floor, a block between her son's leg and a pool of blood spreading out from him. Mary grabbed Jesus up and put him on a work table, looking for the source of the blood. It was not hard to find. The chisel had sliced a thin but serious-looking flap of flesh on his inner thigh. It was still firmed attached at one end and appeared to be mostly fat but Mary was at a loss for what to do. Nazareth had no doctor, nor could they afford one if it had. Joseph knew a lot about how to treat cuts and small accidents, since injuries were an occupational hazard. But he was in Sepphoris, 4 long miles away. Take Jesus to the rabbi? He couldn't staunch the bleeding and mend the flesh. An awful clarity came to Mary. She would have to do this herself and quickly.

She yelled for her other children. They came running, alarmed at her tone of voice. When they saw Jesus and the blood, they stopped, goggle-eyed.

"Boys, hold your brother down," Mary barked, disentangling the sobbing, clinging Jesus from her gown and laying him down on the table. "Girls, get the wine and my sewing things."

Mary arranged James, Jude, Simon and little Joseph to hold Jesus' arms and legs. Jesus wailed louder. When the girls brought the wine, Mary poured some on a rag and washed the wound. Taking her sewing kit, Mary quickly considered which needle she would have to use and what thickness and strength of thread. Ordinarily a woman of her means would not have much of a selection in sewing supplies but Mary supplemented Joseph's income by making clothes for other families. She chose what she would need carefully but without hesitation and then said to her children in a no-nonsense voice: "Don't let him move."

It must have been horrific to watch and hear but Mary was focused on doing what she had to do. Whipping off her head scarf, she kept wiping away the blood, holding the flap in place, inserting the needle, pushing and then pulling it through, continually telling her children to fetch this, hold that and for God's sake, stop Jesus from squirming. Finally James laid his body over his older brother's lower legs, using his weight to stop Jesus from kicking and rolling his leg away from Mary's sewing. By the end all the children were crying but they grimly hung on. After 2 tries, Mary finally got her trembling fingers to tie a knot that held. She stood up. The bleeding seemed to have stopped. She picked up her sobbing and trembling firstborn and held him tight. She sent James to fetch the rabbi.

The whole village was at the door by the time the rabbi arrived. He looked at the wound, expressed some surprise at Mary's work and then anointed Jesus with oil, laid hands on him and prayed. He recommended giving Jesus some wine to help him sleep and said he would return in the morning.

The next few days were a blur. Jesus ran a fever and the boys fetched water to cool him. Mary was could barely leave his side, though they all lived in one room. The girls took over the cooking and did a fair job with a limited number of dishes. Mary got very little sleep.

She started awake one dawn to see Jesus, sitting up and looking at his stitches in the early light of day. Joseph and the other children were sleeping. Noticing she was awake, Jesus said, "You hurt me."

Fighting the temptation to reply, "You hurt yourself," Mary said, "I had to."

Jesus furrowed his brow. "Why?"

"I had to mend you."

"But it hurt."

"It would have been worse if I hadn't. As it was you got sick."

"But you shouldn't hurt people."

"Sometimes you have to. Sometimes you have to hurt people to keep them from real harm."


"I don't know. I didn't want to. But sometimes we have to do things we don't want to, to help people, especially the people we love."

Jesus seemed to ponder this and then said, "I forgive you."

Mary gasped at this. "And I forgive you for playing with your father's tools without permission."

Jesus looked abashed. He fingered the scar gingerly. "Sorry." He looked so small and miserable that Mary wrapped him in her arms. "I would have taken that pain for you if I could have," she whispered into his fine hair.

"But you couldn't."


Jesus was quiet so long that Mary thought he had fallen asleep again. And then he said, "But God could."

Mary didn't know what to say.

And suddenly Mary came back to herself, out of the memory, to find herself crying, reaching out to Jesus' body, gathering him to her, not caring that his blood was staining her gown any more than she did on that work table, sobbing so hard she was gulping for air, saying his name over and over. The other women fell on their knees, hugging her and holding her while the men looked distressed and shifted uncomfortably. The Roman centurion turned away and stared at the ground.

Finally, a voice said, "Mary, Joseph is waiting." Mary raised her head and looked uncomprehendingly at the young man who had spoken. Joseph? Here? Back from the dead? But John was gesturing toward the rich man from Arimathea. Oh. Right. He was Joseph, too. Common name, after all. Just wasn't thinking. When I lose the men I love, they never come back.

Mary watched as the servants wrapped a towel around Jesus' face and then wrapped his body in the shroud. They lifted it and she followed them as they carried his body to a nearby burial garden. They carried him into a rock-carved tomb, a new one by the look of it. As they started to roll the large millstone-shaped rock over the entrance Mary protested that they hadn't properly washed and anointed the body.

"The Sabbath is almost upon us," said Joseph almost apologetically, looking at the rapidly falling sun.

"I'll come right after Sabbath and do it," said the other Mary, the one from Magdala. The other women immediately promised to go with her and help.

The stone was rolled into place.

And is that it? thought Mary. Is that the end of her son, the one the angel had announced, the one conceived by no man, the one God called his son. Was he simply to die like any other man? Is this the salvation he was to bring? Is this the blessing Mary had sung about? Is this really the end?

John touched her shoulder and brought her out of her reverie. He offered her his arm. "Come on," he said. "It's over."

Looking back at the tomb one last time, she turned and said, "It better not be."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Least Popular Commandments: Submit to your Spouse

I love the way that J. B. Phillips translated John 1:1--"At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning." In his book, "Your God is Too Small," Phillips says that one can think of Jesus Christ as the unimaginably infinite God focused or expressed in terms we can understand, in terms of time and space and human personality. The corollary to that is that Jesus was not a featureless Everyman but was, like any human, a specific individual in a specific culture at a specific point in history. In his case, he was a first-century Galilean Jewish male craftsman. Thank God, the Bible doesn't record his eye or hair color, his height or weight, or even if he was right or left-handed, so no one may give himself airs for resembling Jesus even in a superficial way. But for the rest, it does mean that his timeless truths were couched in the language and thought-forms of the time so that he would be understood and his words remembered and transmitted. Anti-theist Sam Harris said that if the Bible were the Word of God why doesn't it say something about electricity? Why stop there? Why doesn't it include something about quantum physics? Could it be because (a) the Bible is not teaching an alternate or outdated form of science but values and morals and meaning and (b) no one could understand it or use such knowledge for the same reason that a gas-powered engine or an electrically-powered computer would be useless 2000 years ago? Jesus was speaking in his time but his words are still relevant today. It helps tremendously, though, to understand the original context, culture and language.

Peter Enns, a Presbyterian Old Testament professor, has proposed using the incarnation of the living Word of God in Jesus as an analogy for the inspiration of the written Word of God. In other words, if God was expressing himself to people living 2000 to 4000 years ago, and did so in the form of a book, it is reasonable that he would use the cultural, literary, and thought-forms of the time. That means God's Word takes the form of ancient Semitic texts reflecting the various cultures that dominated the underlying Jewish sub-culture. It's a common-sense rule for communication: speak the language of your audience if you want them to get your message. And most of what the Bible says comes through loud and clear no matter what the reader's culture. But understanding the Bible's context clarifies a lot.

Keep that in mind as we approach this Least Popular Commandment: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." (Ephesians 5:22). First, let us look at the cultural form in which we find this passage. It is a list of household duties, a common document of the time. We find examples of this in the ethical writings of Greek philosophers as well as in Jewish literature of the time. There are cultural differences. The Greek versions only address the husband on how he should rule his wife, children and slaves. The Jewish versions add protections for these weaker members of the household. So Paul is using the Jewish form of a household duties table, as he does in Colossians 3:18-4:1. But he is making some modifications.

For one thing, he takes the instructions for husbands and wives, which he stated in 19 words in Colossians, and expands them to 200 words. So he has been thinking more deeply on the matter since he wrote Colossians. For another, by addressing wives, children and slaves directly, and giving them specific instructions, Paul is saying that they, too, are serving God directly. Their roles are different but that doesn't mean they are less important than the roles of husbands, parents and masters. Paul is not calling for an overturning of the roles of his society but a reinterpretation of those roles, their significance, and their duties. Paul is being realistic. Basic roles in society don't go away. But what they mean and how they are carried out can be changed.

Now in order to see how Paul is changing the roles, let's look at the actual wording Paul uses. And if we are going to be absolutely literal in our treatment of this passage, we should note that the Greek word "hupotasso" which means "submit," doesn't actually appear in verse 22. It is part of a much longer sentence that begins in verse 17 and should be read, "So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is, and do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking among yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melodies to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always in all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, being subject to each other in reverence for Christ, wives to their husbands as to the Lord…" Most translations chop Paul's run-on sentence into shorter sentences, and all add "submit" in verse 22 to make it better English.

But I wanted you to hear the commandment in context. It is a subordinate clause. The main command is to be filled with the Spirit. All the other activities--singing, giving thanks, being subject to each other--are examples of being filled with the Spirit of the God who is Love. As part of this Spirit-filled living, we Christians are to defer to one another. The subjection of wives is, again, just one example of it. And the command for us to mutually submit to one another sets the tone for everything that follows.

Wives are indeed told to submit themselves to their husbands but not because, as in the larger culture, he has an inherent right to her subjection, nor because, as Greek philosophers like Aristotle said, women are inferior to men. She is to do this as she is subject to Christ, who is the Savior and head of the church, his body. This would be arbitrary if it weren't for the fact that Paul commands husbands to love their wives. This was not typical at the time. Most marriages were arranged. Often love did grow over time but it was not a requirement. The family was run like a business. The wife's job was to have and raise children and to run the domestic side of the household. The husband didn't have to love her, or remain sexually exclusive to her, though that was the ideal. So when Paul makes loving one's wife a commandment, it is a significant redefinition of the role of husband.

Nor is he primarily talking about romantic love, though I am sure Paul expects this to a natural part of it. Still, Paul doesn't use the Greek word for erotic love or even the word for familial affection; he uses "agape," the word for selfless love. And he underlines this by adding "just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." So Paul is saying that the man must love his wife with the same self-sacrificial love that Christ displayed in going to the cross. This is a much higher standard than any of the Greek or Jewish household duty tables lays down for men.

Paul goes on to make a parallel between the church as the body of Christ and one's wife. He cites the same passage in Genesis 2 that Jesus did when talking about divorce. The man and wife become one flesh. The wife is no longer to be seen as mere property the way the culture and the law saw her. Husbands, he is saying, she is flesh of your flesh. She is part of you and just as you don't hate your body but nourish and tenderly care for it, so, too, that is how you should see and treat your wife. Nourish her. Tenderly care for her.

This principle continues throughout the other household relationships. It was not surprising that Paul tells children to obey their parents. But it is surprising to hear him command fathers not to provoke anger in their children. In the Roman Empire, a father's authority was absolute. He could sell his child as a slave, punish him or her as severely as he liked, chain him up and even kill his child. You still see this in cultures where a father can execute a child, usually a daughter, who has dishonored the family. Paul could not overturn the laws of the Empire but he could change the way Christians were expected to act. And by telling fathers not to provoke their children to rage and resentment, he was saying, "Take your child's feelings into account. Don't be unreasonable. Listen to their side." That is a big change in the usual approach to being a father in the first-century.

And while I haven't the time to go in depth into the issue of the then-universal practice of slavery, notice that, in addition to the expected rule that slaves obey their masters, Paul tells masters to "do the same things to them." That is, he tells them to treat their slaves the same way that masters expect to be treated, the law of Christian love. He tells them not to threaten their slaves and to remember that they have a master as well, God, who judges everyone according to the same standards. And while Paul doesn't call for slave revolt, as many others did, early Christians became known for their peculiar custom of freeing slaves, especially on holy days. They even made slaves into their bishops. So despite Paul not being as outspoken on this matter as we moderns wish, the message was getting through: though you have different roles in society, you are all one, all equal in the eyes of God. Christ's command to love one another as he loves us has no exceptions.

Society has changed. Roles have changed. In the West, women are no longer owned by their fathers and then their husbands. And though women are still under-represented in leadership and still make about 30% less than men in the same jobs, it is possible to have a marriage of equals. It would be interesting to see what Paul would write to our society. But the principles underlying what he wrote to his own culture haven't changed. We are to love and respect and listen to and treat fairly and defer to each other in reverence to Christ. I defer to my wife on legal and other matters in which she knows more than me. She defers to me on medical and other matters on which I am better informed. We make decisions together. I suspect most wise and happy couples have done pretty much the same throughout history. The official version, recorded in laws and customs, is never the whole story.

To separate the commandment for wives to submit to their husbands from the commandment for husbands to love their wives self-sacrificially, or from the commandment that all Christians defer to each other, makes nonsense out of the whole thing. It would be like one of the 3 Musketeers insisting on the "one for all" part of their code while ignoring the phrase "and all for one." They are not only complimentary, they are necessary counterbalances to each other. You wouldn't consent to get married if only you promised to love, comfort, honor and stay faithful to your spouse while the other person was allowed to opt out of all that. Similarly, it makes no sense to require one party in a Christian relationship to emulate Christ but not the other. We are all one in Christ. We are to treat everyone, even our enemies, with love. Every time we treat our spouse badly, we are, in essence, damaging the image of Christ that is supposed to be reflected in our marriage. Would we treat Christ with contempt? Would we seek to undermine him, or insult him or lash out physically at him? Would he treat us that way? Then neither should we.

Jesus made it real simple. He commanded us to love God with all we are and to love each other as he, Christ, loves us. The rest is working out how to apply that in every culture, in every time, in every situation, in every life. That may not be always be obvious. So pray a lot. Read all the Bible. Assess the facts honestly. Think clearly. And when in doubt, do the most loving thing. You may not always be perfectly right, but you won't be too far off.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

7 Deadly Sins: Envy and Greed

Before revealing important plot points it is proper internet etiquette to type in caps: SPOILERS. However what I'm about to spoil is a 1986 British mini-series "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil," so very little harm will be done. (And the less said about the American movie version, the better.) Taken from a novel of the same name, this is the story of an ugly housewife named Ruth whose life changes when her husband leaves her for a beautiful and successful writer named Mary Fisher. After dumping the kids on the doorstep of the illicit lovers, Ruth blows up her own house to make it appear that she is dead. She then adopts a series of disguises so she can work behind the scenes to sabotage the lives of her errant husband and his paramour. Eventually she drives the writer to suicide and then, through extensive and excruciating plastic surgery, she takes on the appearance of the other woman, winning back her husband and kids. Finally, she takes over both the identity and the elegant lifestyle of her rival. This outrageous uber-feminist satire one-ups "The Count of Monte Cristo" as the ultimate revenge fantasy. It is also a good parable of today's twin sins of envy and greed.

Mary Fisher covets Ruth's husband. At first, we think all Ruth wants is revenge. But the twist ending of the tale reveals that Ruth not only wants what Mary took from her but also wants to be Mary! The mini-series' final shot show's Ruth's grotesque features morphing into Mary's delicate ones. It is as disturbing as anything you've seen in any version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." It also illustrates both what is alike and what is different about greed and envy. Greed, or to use its old name, "covetousness," is wanting what someone else has. Envy is wanting what someone else is. Both are prime examples of the cold-hearted category of sins.

While warm-hearted sins are usually controlled by the emotions, the cold-hearted ones are directed primarily by the intellect. And, as Dorothy L. Sayers points out, "The cold-hearted sins recommend themselves to Church and State by the restraints they lay on the vulgar and disreputable warm-hearted sins." Because of the self-discipline they exhibit, we tolerate misers better than we do gluttons, welcome social climbers while shunning slutty people, and prefer those who feel that certain behaviors are beneath them over those who are emotionally volatile. There is some snobbery involved. The warm-hearted sins are considered lower-class; the cold-hearted ones are much more respectable. But until recently they were less glamorous.

The 80s made covetousness sexy. "Greed is good, "said Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone's movie "Wall Street." In fact, Wall Street wheelers and dealers started dressing like Gecko's character, rather than it being the other way around. Many vices were sanctified as virtues and greed was their king. Our whole economy still seems to be based on selling ever more stuff. And that means we consumers have to want more stuff. So R and D dreams up new stuff, marketing figures out how to sell it, and advertising stirs up our greed for this stuff we don't need, along with envy of those who already have it. Consequently we have to work more to be able to buy more of this stuff. Call it treadmill economics.

The Bible does not condemn wealth in and of itself. But it is concerned with how you get it, what you do with it, and your attitude towards it. If wealth is the result of honest hard work, good. If you use it to help the poor, great. If your attitude is that it is not yours to do with as you wish but a loan from God for use in serving Christ in others, excellent. If, however, you act like the rich man in the parable who neither notices nor nurtures poor, hungry, sick Lazarus at his very gate, God will not be happy. He gives to us that we might share with others. But oddly enough, the more we have, the less likely we are to part with any of it.

People may be greedy out of insecurity. Some people came out of the Great Depression with the ability to make do on less; some emerged from it with an unquenchable thirst for more. They want a large reserve, just in case. As he toured on the vaudeville circuit, W. C. Fields socked away money in numerous bank accounts under baroque pseudonyms. He did this, it is presumed, for the proverbial rainy day but he also may have been trying to hide it from the IRS. Decades after his death, banks were coming across inactive accounts for clients with bizarre names like Mahatma Kane Jeeves, which they suspected were his.

I once did private duty nursing for a rich man who had, I discovered, a virtual discount store in his basement. He asked me to change the battery in his smoke detector and directed me to an enormous pharmacist's chest of drawers in which he kept dozens of bottles of mouthwash, cartons of light bulbs, stacks of canned goods and every kind of battery you could think of. He apparently stocked up every time there was a 2 for 1 sale and the like. It was not simply being prepared, it was pathological. As Christians we need to discern between thriftiness and hoarding. The latter, when not a mental disease, may be a symptom of not trusting God enough. It is definitely a control issue. Ultimately God is in control and all attempts to wrest control from him are doomed. Jesus assures us that God knows what we need and will provide it. Expressing such trust is easier said than done. However, learning to rely on God does free one up from all of the unnecessary and impossible burdens we try to carry.

Sometimes greed is a way of amassing money to achieve power. Again this is a control thing but of a much more serious nature. By power we mean power over people: power to bribe, tempt or coerce them into doing what we want. Let's face it, whatever his personal charms, a large part of Hugh Hefner's success with women young enough to be his grandchildren is due to his wealth and power. If he were any other 80-year old man walking around in his pajamas he would not be fawned over by the caliber of beautiful and ambitious people that he is. It is well documented that a certain soft drink company and a certain famous fruit grower were able to use their influence to make our government stand aside and let a duly elected leftist president of another country be assassinated rather than let him nationalize certain industries.

This use of power to corrupt and manipulate is especially corrosive to the soul because it is the opposite of the way God would have us use power. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to misuse his divine power. He was tempted to use it to make a sensation, to satisfy his own appetites, to become the ruler of the world by giving the devil his due. He chose instead to use it to heal and help, a rarity for the very powerful.

We needn't belabor the connection between greed and theft. When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he supposedly said, "Because that's where the money is." Likewise, we needn't underline the fact that people are more important than money, though there was a 19th century miser who let her son lose his leg after a street car accident while she delayed treatment to seek a free clinic. But let us go to the heart of the matter. Covetousness is more often just an attempt to fill the God-shaped gaping hole in our soul with gold and glitter. Mammon is still God's rival because he makes less demands and fulfills all requests. And yet the heart never seems satisfied with the cold hard stuff. Sins seldom deliver what they promise.

Envy never does. Wanting to be someone else is a real recipe for misery. But envy tries to make up for that by trying to pull that person down to our level. Envy is the mother of gossip, a sin often mentioned in the Bible but seldom in the church. We love to hear Horatio Alger stories: "local boy does good" and all that. But once someone has reached the pinnacle of success, we get restless if they sit up there too long. We secretly desire to see them fall. That's much of the appeal of gossip websites. Watch those rich people crash and burn! "I may not be rich and famous but at least I'm not a slut/alcoholic/addict like that celebrity." It's the equivalent of slowing down and looking at a traffic accident but much more comforting.

Envy can fuel people's drive to success. Wanting to be like one's idol can impel one to emulate him for good or for ill. In the 20th century, the rivalry of identical twin sisters led them both to the top of their profession: advice columnists Ann Landers and "Dear Abby." Sibling rivalry is often about envy. The famous punch line of the Smothers Brothers, "Mom always liked you best," was funny because we recognize the authentic feelings behind it. We all want to be the primary object of our parents' attention and affection. We are afraid than any directed towards a sibling may mean a shift in parental love.

So envy, like greed, may also arise from insecurity. And the mean things we do out of envy--character assassination, gossip, tattling, maybe even blackmail--are ways of trying to take control of the situation. As we said before, we can never really in control of, well, anything. People and situations can slip out of our grasp. Even our bodies and our minds, through illness or accident, can fail us. We need to learn to let go.

Paul wrote the Philippians that "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me the strength." And what is the secret that takes away the insecurity, that fills the aching emptiness within and allows us to be content?

God loves us. He has always loved us. He will always love us. His love and faithfulness towards us does not waver. We need to take the time to reflect on this fact often. We need to luxuriate in it like a hot bath at the end of a hard day; we need to draw it around us like a big comforter before we drift off to sleep; we need to strap it on like body armor each morning before we venture out into the world.

God loves us as we are. He created us as we are, gave us gifts and abilities, put us in a certain time and place where we can use them. When we accept ourselves as God's beloved creations we can let go of our desires to be someone else and to have their gifts and abilities. We can concentrate on using our abilities to their fullest. As we explore our gifts and mature our abilities under his guidance, we will find ourselves growing into more than we were. Not that it will be easy. It will mean confronting those things we don't love about ourselves, things that put the Son of God on the cross, things we must crucify daily in ourselves. But instead of letting them drive us to desire what belongs to others, let them drive us to desire what belongs to us. Because, as children of God and heirs of Christ, all the riches of God's kingdom belong to us.

If we are to be greedy, let us be greedy for his blessings. And if we want to be like someone else, let us want to be like him. Let our only discontent be that of children, who want most of all to grow up and be like their parents. Because we were intended to be like him who loves us self-sacrificially.

But be warned: if we really open ourselves up to God he will not merely fill our lives, but cause them to overflow with the abundance of his blessings. We cannot hoard them; we must be generous. We cannot hold in his love; it will run over as love for others. Because he is infinite and we are finite. We cannot contain him; but we can be channels of his goodness. Even this materialistic world perceives that, no matter what it says, it is not he who has the most toys that wins but he who distributes the most gifts. After all, who do you want to be: Scrooge or Saint Nicholas?

God is the ultimate giver and he created us in his image. To resist the urge to give is to warp who we are. The paradox is that the more we give, the more we get. It may not be in wealth or possessions but in love and gratitude and purpose and contentment. For such is the currency of heaven.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Guide for the Confused

Does it seem to you that there is a gap between what Jesus says in the Bible and what some Christians say he said (or meant)? It struck me that the only way to reconcile this was to assume Jesus must have been speaking ironically. Need a translation? Follow http://twitter.com/#!/IronicJesus Before you turn the other cheek, read this tongue-in- cheek effort to make the Lion of Judah into a cool cat and the timeless Word of God more palatable to the modern world.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Least Popular Commandments: Marriage and Divorce

This is a huge topic, worthy of a book. I cannot do it justice in this small space. I have tried to touch on the essentials. So while I have tried to present some basic truths I make no pretension of giving the issues involved an exhaustive treatment.

Cooking is what made us human, according to primatologist Richard Wrangham. Cooking food makes it easier to chew and digest. That explains our shorter digestive tract, smaller teeth and jaws, the last two of which made room for our larger brain. The trade-off, however, is that cooking takes longer than just wolfing food down. Who will protect an individual's food from being stolen during this longer process? A strong male. A woman offers her cooking ability and fertility to a strong male who will not only hunt down food but protect their food stores from those who would make off with it. And thus cooking is responsible for marriage! At least according to Wrangham.

It all sounds logical, as do other so-called scientific theories for why other bits of human culture originated. But barring having a time machine to go back and actually ask one of our prehistoric ancestors what their thinking was when they created something, all such modern mind reading must be deemed speculation. Remember that when you hear theories bandied about claiming that belief in the gods goes back to the utility of imagining a movement in the grass was the work of a predator, or that religion was invented by telling gullible people that an invisible entity was watching them to see if they broke the rules when no other human being could see what they were doing.

What we do know is that marriage predates recorded history. In Biblical times, marriage took the form of a covenant, a contract between 2 parties, laying out what each would contribute to the relationship and what each could expect from the other. It was an exchange of promises, the basis of any society. The Ten Commandments are actually stipulations in the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The other laws we see laid down in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy are specific to the tribes of Israel, which means we must be careful when trying to apply them to modern life in a pluralistic democracy. If a skeptic asks why as a believer you don't stone gays or beat disobedient children with a rod or own slaves, tell him it's because you don't live in the theocratic kingdom of ancient Israel.

Nevertheless, just because a Biblical law addresses a specific situation relevant chiefly to that time and culture doesn't mean that it is totally useless today. There is a principle behind the law and we do well to see how that principle applies to our lives. This is a bit risky, too, because it is an invitation for people to read into the Bible what they want.

With that caveat, let us look at what Jesus says about divorce and remarriage in the Gospels, specifically in Matthew 19:3-9. The Pharisees approach Jesus over an issue that was, even then, a matter of controversy. In Deuteronomy 24, it says that once a man marries a woman "if she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some indecency in her," he may divorce her. The problem is what constitutes indecency.

Some rabbis felt that indecency in this context meant fornication, period. More liberal rabbis interpreted it as broadly as possible, so that a man might divorce his wife if she went around with her hair unbound, or spoke with men in the street, both of which were scandalous, or spoke disrespectfully of his parents in his presence or even if she burnt his dinner. Still other rabbis said a man could divorce if he found a woman he liked better and thought to be more beautiful. Considering that a woman had few rights in that culture, this made her position precarious. The only thing that stopped some men was the legal requirement that they must return the dowry, making divorce expensive. Unless the wife was found guilty of adultery, in which case the husband kept it. (Which makes one wonder if the woman taken in adultery and presented to Christ was set up. Where was the man with which she was caught in the act?) So the loose definition of indecency was of more than academic interest.

At first glance, Jesus would seem to agree with the stricter rabbis. Only sexual unfaithfulness excused divorce. But he goes on to say subsequent remarriage on the part of either person was adultery. This eliminates a man's motive to look for an excuse to divorce one wife so he can marry another. And only a man could initiate divorce. But it also put the divorced woman in a worse situation. A woman without a husband had few rights and little power. Though it was uncommon for a man to marry a divorced woman, it did happen.

In going so far, Jesus doesn't actually agree with any of the schools of rabbis. In fact, he goes back to the beginning, to the ideal of marriage as expressed in Genesis 2, where it says that the man and wife become one flesh, or, as C. S. Lewis put it, one organism. They are to regard one another has their other half. That is the underlying principle. But because they are not literally one body, what binds them is marriage as a covenant, an exchange of promises, with responsibilities and expectations on both sides. That made it a powerful metaphor for our relationship with God, one that should not be abandoned, and especially not for reasons less serious than betrayal and unfaithfulness.

Furthermore, Jesus says the exception granted by Moses was a concession, not a commandment. Our focus should be on preserving the principle, not
looking for loopholes.

That said, there is one other reason permitted for divorce in the New Testament. In 1st Corinthians chapter 7, Paul quotes Jesus on the matter of divorce but adds a practical consideration. If an unbeliever leaves his or her Christian spouse, then the believer is no longer bound to the person who left. But aside from adultery or desertion, we have no other grounds for divorce in the New Testament.

What about today? Our state of Florida grants no-fault divorces. Otherwise, the grounds for divorce here are either that the marriage is irretrievably broken or mental incapacity of one of the parties. My wife, for many years a paralegal, doesn't remember ever filling out divorce papers that didn't say that the marriage is irretrievably broken. It's a legal catch-all. It can include everything from no longer being in love to physical abuse.

However, this does point to an important principle. What does one do if a marriage is so broken that it does not function as one anymore? If the promises exchanged are going unfulfilled, the responsibilities and expectations agreed to are unmet, if it is no longer mirroring the love of God, can it still be called a marriage? If you car was so completely broken down that it will never move again on its own power, it can hardly be called a vehicle. Paul points out if one person simply isn't going to stay in the marriage, it is functionally over and the other person can hardly be bound to him or her. Again, this could be seen as a concession to hardness of heart, not a commandment. It could also be considered a mercy.

Let's switch the metaphor. If the two are to become one organism, what does one do if one part of the organism isn't doing its part to protect and nourish and support the growth of the whole, such as in kidney failure? What if, as in abuse, one part of the organism is actively attacking or destroying the other, like a cancer? As C. S. Lewis points out, some churches say that in such circumstances surgery is permitted to separate the two parts of the organism while other churches say that the operation is too dangerous to allow. But all churches see divorce as akin to an amputation, a necessary evil at times, but never simply a neutral option.

As a child of divorce, I can identify with those who say that there is a need for divorce as a desperate measure for desperate situations, rather like a fire axe behind glass, to be used only in a real emergency. But we should never enter into marriage as if there was an free introductory period or a no-obligation "unsubscribe" option. The way to reduce divorces is not to make them harder but to raise, in the eyes of the world, the standards for getting and living married. And it will have to be done by Christians. The secular world only values families in so far as they offer tangible benefits, as a target group for unique consumer goods, as a stabilizing influence on society, as socializing influence on children, as an engine of wealth. So the break up of a family is no more a tragedy than the breakup of a company. After all, many segments of society benefit from divorce. It produces more work for lawyers, more individuals seeking to rent or buy housing, more goods bought to replace those the other partner keeps, more trips to the grocery store, more gifts spent to win the children to your side, more money spent at bars, restaurants and movies seeking new mates, etc.

Only those who understand the spiritual significance of marriage can show that it is more than a cultural custom built up around pair bonding and child rearing. Only we can demonstrate the deeper meaning, the sacramental way in which image of the God who is love is found in human beings coming together, uniting body, mind and spirit in love. We can't do it by focusing on the faulty marriages of others, by pointing out the splinter in the eyes of others while walking around with a log in our own. We can only do this by choosing partners wisely and by loving them faithfully and sacrificially, not selfishly. Jesus said that the world will know we are Christians by our love. It's starts at home, with the person whose bad jokes and bad habits and bad odors you know only too well. When you can see and serve Christ in that person, the world will take notice and desire what you have and another seed of the Gospel will be planted.