Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rethink: Our Duty to God

The word "duty" is not a popular word today. We are so indoctrinated with the idea of individual freedom that we think we are free from all constraints. But freedom is never unlimited. We have obligations to other human beings. All religions and societies recognize the obligation not to harm others. As my 8th Grade teacher, an ex-top sergeant, would say, "Your freedom to swing your arms ends at the tip of my nose." And as Christians, we recognize greater obligations to each other than just not doing harm. We also recognize certain obligations to God, our creator and redeemer.

The first 4 of the Ten Commandments spell out the basics of our duty to God. First, have no other gods besides Yahweh, the God who liberated the Israelites from Egypt. In other words, remain faithful to the Lord. A common metaphor used of God's relationship with his people is that of marriage. Faithfulness is a basic element of marriage and Israel's periodic worship of other gods was seen as a form of spiritual adultery.

The second commandment tells us not to make images of other things and worship them. If you go into any art or early history museum you will see lots of figures of gods and goddesses. Some look human, some look like animals and many are a mixture of the 2. Bulls were frequent models for idols in the Near East because they were the biggest, strongest and most fertile of domesticated animals. Sometimes a Near Eastern king would be pictured with his head on the body of a bull, to show his power and divinity. The Baal of the Canaanites, their storm and fertility god, was represented by a bull. That's why the golden calf was such an important symbol of the Israelites' defection from the God who had just led them from Egypt.

The third commandment tells us not to use God's name in vain. Originally the prohibition was not about blasphemous exclamations but about not using God's name in magical spells. The kind of magic prohibited in the Bible was primarily calling up gods, goddesses or demons, entering into an agreement with them to do one's will in everything from material prosperity to matters of love to cursing one's rivals. As their supreme Lord, God's people were not to try to use him like that. The opposite of magic, in which one tries to impose one's will on the universe, is prayer, in which one asks God to do things but only in accordance with his will and wisdom.

Eventually, saying false things about God were included in the understanding of the third commandment. At the end of the Book of Job, God vindicates him and not his so-called comforters, who insisted that Job's sufferings must be a punishment from God. God will not forgive the three men, who thought they were defending God but were not being honest, unless Job intercedes for them. Another instance of this interpretation is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In this case, Jesus' critics said he was healing people using the power of Satan. To call an act that is clearly good "evil" takes such a twisted way of looking at things that repentance and therefore forgiveness are impossible.

The fourth commandment is about observing the Sabbath and we've already dealt with that. The question is: do these commandments have any significance today in our society? It's not like we worship graven images any more, right? And how did Jesus make us rethink our duty to God?

Quite early in Matthew's gospel, in the 6th chapter, Jesus says "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Here he is designating wealth, not a pagan idol, as a rival to God. In Philippians Paul speaks of those whose god is their belly. They are saying that anything that is your ultimate concern, your primary motivator, is your god. 4 years ago a 16 year old killed his mother and shot his father in the head for taking away the video games he was playing for 18 hours a day. Videogames had become his god. People have shot spouses over changing TV channels. Others have viciously attacked supporters of rival football teams. Less dramatically people have wholly neglected their families for their careers or for dreams of achieving fame or for any hobby or interest you can imagine. I'm not saying such people might not have other problems as well but if they think something is more important than the life or well being of other human beings, they have elevated it to the status of a god. That's idolatry.

Ideas can similarly rise to the level of almost divine inspiration. Political doctrines, economic policies, academic shibboleths, even scientific orthodoxy can become sacred cows that few are willing to confront or question. They too attract their acolytes and apologists, who resist progress.

Sometimes it is a literal graven image, or at least a man-made object, that a person makes the center of his or her life. Some people collect Barbie dolls, or pay exorbitant amounts of money for comic books or Star Trek collectibles, or, lets face it, pay exorbitant amounts for recognized pieces of art so they can build a shrine to it in their homes. I'm all for art but when you pay what amounts to the entire budget of a moderate sized city for one canvas, you have to ask if we haven't elevated objects of art to the level of the medieval relics around which cathedrals and even cities were built.

What's wrong is not just the overvaluing of money, human appetites, leisure activities, man-made things and ideologies but their rise to becoming the most important thing in people's lives. And unfortunately, while they may be objects of worship, they impart no comprehensive ethical system to their devotees. That you have to get elsewhere. Now I know some people have done horrible things in the name of Christ but these things were done in direct violation of his commands to love our enemies and to put up the sword. And while many people were persecuted or even killed by so-called Christians over the last 20 centuries, the atheist countries of the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and other Communist regimes killed many tens of millions more people in just 1 century. It can be argued that acting in contradiction to the explicit commands of its founder restrained the normal human bloodlust of supposedly Christian fanatics, as opposed to the result of the total lack of restraint offered by ideologies that do not view people as created in God's image.

Which brings us to another way in which Jesus makes us rethink our duty to God. For most people, their duty to God and their duty to their fellow human beings are separate things, even at cross purposes at times. But Jesus didn't endorse that kind of compartmentalization. While he attends the major feasts of Judaism, goes to the synagogue each Sabbath, and prays frequently, Jesus' mission as given in Isaiah reads thus: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Jesus' duty, laid on him by the Spirit, is to bring good news to those who need it. And as we see he does this not only by speaking the message but by being the good news. If you wanted healing or forgiveness, there was no better news than Jesus is coming. Because once he arrived he didn't just say "God wants to forgive you" or "God wants you to be well;" Jesus went ahead and forgave and healed you. Jesus serves God through serving the people God loves.

If we are created in God's image, and that makes murder a kind of symbolic deicide, as God tells Noah, then doing the opposite of harming people--helping and healing them--is serving God. In fact, Jesus makes it even more pointed when in his parable of the last judgment, he says that when feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the foreigner, caring for the sick and visiting prisoners we are doing these things to Jesus. Our duty to Jesus our Lord encompasses all that we do to the least powerful and most insignificant members of his family. And if we do not do these things, we are refusing to serve Christ our God.

Treat a mother's child badly and see if she considers you a friend anymore. Her children are physically extensions of her. Jesus is telling us that we are spiritually extensions of him. As such what we do ought to be extension of what he does and those to whom we do it are extensions of him as well.

Of course, our duty to God means being faithful to him as God alone and not letting anything usurp his place as the center of our lives. Of course it means not speak saying bad things about him, just as you shouldn't say bad things about your spouse. And Jesus summarized these things by saying the greatest commandment is to love God with all we are and all we have. But this also means we must love what God loves and what bears his image--people.

Which leads us, as it did Jesus, to the second great commandment. We'll get to that Sunday. In the meantime, ask yourself these questions: if I am to have no other gods besides the Lord, are there activities or ideologies that I let rival his place in my life? If I am not to worship man-made things, how do I protect myself from the materialism that runs our economy and tries to seduce me into loving things? If I am not to use God's name in an unworthy manner, do I not only refrain from using his name when swearing but not make it sound like he is endorsing things that are my personal opinions and political positions on matters not clearly set out in Scripture? If I am to serve Christ in others, how am I meaningfully incorporating that into my spiritual life?

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