Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 212

The scriptures read are Song of Songs 1-3, Psalm 23 and Colossians 4.

Song of Songs 1-3. This sexy poem got into scripture because rabbis insisted it was a metaphor for God's love for his people. But they needn't have used that excuse. There is nothing wrong with sex per se, just with how we try to divorce it from committed love. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, God likes sex. He invented it. It's also the very first commandment--"Be fruitful and multiply"--and the only commandment we've wholeheartedly obeyed. So this poetic drama/wedding liturgy is not out of place in the Bible.

Interesting how the issue of the darkness of the woman is discussed. She is worried about being looked down on by other women because she is brown from working in the fields, tending flocks. Her lover seems not to have problems with her pigment, though.

The universal connection between spring and love is on display. Winter retreating and flowers blooming.

Lots of longing expressed in this interval where the woman searches the darkened streets for her lover.

The king arrives in his carriage to take his fiance to their wedding.

Psalm 23. Lots to choose from, of course. Here is a heartfelt version, but I also like this lively gospel-inflected one.

Colossians 4. Slaveowners are reminded that they, too, have a master. So they had better treat their slaves well.

Paul mentions Onesimus, one of his brothers in Christ. Make note of him. We shall meet him again when we read the letter to Philemon, in which Onesimus plays a major part.

Paul mentions Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, Paul's original missionary partner. They split up over Mark, who left in the middle of their previous missionary journey. Paul's evidently changed his mind about Mark. And this is traditionally the Mark who wrote the first gospel.

Paul tells them of a letter he sent to the church in Laodicea. He tells them to swap letters. This shows us how Paul's letters got so well known through the churches. People evidently made copies and sent them around to share with other Christians.

Paul signs the letter, something he apparently started doing to show that they were really from him. Were phony letters attributed to him circulating? This could explain why Paul gets so angry with his opponents and why he feels the need to defend himself and what he really believes.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 211

The scriptures read are Ecclesiastes 10-12, Psalm 22 and Colossians 3.

Ecclesiastes 10-12. The book ends in a flurry or proverbs, many of which could be inserted in the book of Proverbs. The Quester's conclusion: Fear God and do what he says. Oddly enough, the writer shows how inadequate even an otherwise biblical way of looking at things is when you don't factor in final judgment and an afterlife.

Psalm 22. There are a lot of good versions of at least the first section of this. But I really like this plainchant version here.

Colossians 3. Following Jesus means doing what he says. Paul rattles off a number of behaviors that we need to stop if we are serious about following Christ.

He gives another household code list. It echoes his other ones, especially the one in Ephesians. A lot of other passages also feel like new ways of saying what Paul's said before: putting on a spotless garment/putting on Christ; the fact that our differences mean nothing in Christ; the interdependence of everyone despite different roles because we are one in Christ. I confess I don't see the drastic departure between the content of Colossians and what Paul says elsewhere.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Are All Prayers Answered?

Corinne was someone everyone just loved. She and her family joined St. Francis one month before my family did. We taught Sunday School together. And then she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. It wasn't cancer but it couldn't be removed without doing massive brain damage. On the other hand, if it continued to grow it would eventually kill her. Our church, her coworkers and friends did everything we could—raised money for her medical bills, gave their sick days and vacation days to her, watched her newborn second daughter as she went for treatments. And prayed—hard. And God was merciful. The tumor shrunk, its neurological effects diminished, she got to see her daughters grow into their teens. Then about a decade and a half after first being diagnosed, the tumor began to grow again. Nothing the doctors did could stop it. And once again everybody helped her anyway they could. And prayed—hard. I put on our church sign “Pray for Corinne.” I even told God that my kids were adults: take me instead. But this time she did not receive a reprieve. She died. And on top of grief, a lot of people—myself for sure—wondered why God let such a good person die.

And we aren't the only ones who don't get what we pray for. David's first son with Bathsheba sickens and dies despite his anguished prayers. Job asks God for a reason for his suffering and while God speaks to Job, he doesn't give him an answer. And most importantly Jesus in Gethsemane asks God to let the cup of suffering and death by crucifixion pass him by. That doesn't happen.

In today's gospel, Jesus makes a big promise: “Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be open to you.” But we all have instances when we asked God for something, and we do it fervently and persistently as Jesus says to, and yet we do not get what we asked for. How can we square that with Jesus' promise?

In a way it would be easier to deal with this if prayers were never answered. Then we could say that there is no God or that God doesn't listen to our prayers. But we have seen prayers spectacularly answered, and not just in situations where one could say “it would have happened anyway.” We have seen people healed from very serious illnesses. We have seen people in dire personal circumstances get the resources they needed. We have seen people in the process of self-destruction suddenly have their lives turned around.

The problem then isn't so much unanswered prayer but the promise that our prayers will be always be answered, when that is not our experience. How do we reconcile our experience with Jesus' flabbergasting promise?

First a word about experience. Today we exalt personal experience over everything else. “What I experience is the truth,” we say and our culture agrees with us. There is no greater truth than your own experience, we think. This is the real reason people take atheists so seriously today. They don't personally experience God and so it must be correct. Even though their experience would then trump that of the billions whose experience is different. Of course the great majority of atheists (not to mention other humans) have never personally experienced quarks, mesons and Higgs boson particles either but they believe in them, all the while denying that they do so on faith—though it is faith in what other people say they have experienced. In the same way scientists believed that South Korean scientist who said he had cloned a dog. They believed it right up until he was shown to have faked the data. But evidently no other scientist has ever done that!

Even if no one's lying, what you experience and what's really going on can be two different things. My brother is an amateur magician, albeit one good enough to have been president of the St. Louis chapter of the Society of American Magicians. He could have you experience many things that weren't what they appeared to be. He can put a coin in your hand and change it into another coin while you are still holding it. He can chop a head of lettuce in two with a guillotine and then let the falling blade pass harmlessly through the neck of a volunteer. And, yes, he can produce a live rabbit from a a silver platter that was empty of all but a raging fire just seconds before. What you experience will feel real if uncanny. Even if you know they are illusions you will not be able to tell how he accomplishes them. That's the fun.

Not at all fun is when a person with an amputated arm experiences excruciating pain in the absent limb. It may feel like the hand is so tightly clenched that the nails are digging into his palm and the muscles of his hand are spasming. It's no good telling him that it's all in his head. But his very real experience is nevertheless at odds with reality. And neurologists have learned that what often works is to put the present hand into a box with a mirror that makes it look as if the missing limb has returned. They ask the patient to unclench their real fist while looking at the mirror which is creating the illusion that the phantom hand is unclenching. And the pain will cease. But the answer is not that their experience isn't genuine; it's that their interpretation of the experience is.

When we experience what we think is unanswered prayer, the reality may be quite different. As one of the lyrics in Godspell goes, “If you pray a prayer and it's no go, don't come around with I told you so. You got the answer; the answer was 'No.' He heard you all right.” God is a wise parent. He doesn't give his children their every whim. And one moment's thought tells you that when Jesus said, 'Ask and it will be given to you,' he did not mean “if you ask for anything at all.” God is not a genie. If you ask that Brad Pitt drop dead so you will be free to marry Angelina Jolie, do you really think a just God will do that for you? If you ask for all the cocaine you could possibly snort, would a loving God would say “Yes?” Sometimes the answer to a prayer is a straightforward “No.”

And God may say “No” to things which in his wisdom he knows are not good for you. Most people wouldn't mind being wealthy or famous. But those things have destroyed a lot of lives. The heady power that comes with wealth and/or fame has destroyed many a relationship, a career or even a life. Rock stars die young so often that the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap made a running gag out of how many drummers the band had gone through due to increasingly bizarre and drug-fueled deaths. It's not funny, though, that Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendricks, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and many more will never debut a new album. John Belushi, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, John Candy, Cory Monteith and countless others will never delight us in a new movie or TV show. There are entire websites devoted to famous people who died too young and the majority did so because of lifestyles made possible by having more money, power and fame than they could handle.

Or God may say “No” because the request does not fit into his plan. Jesus' brother James wrote, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” We are called to serve God. If you were a soldier being sent on a mission and your commander told you that he will give you anything you ask for, you wouldn't for a minute think this meant he'll give you the latest video game or a Rolex watch. You would realize that what he meant by "anything" was “anything you need for the mission.” All indications are that Jesus means the same. His examples are all of basic necessities, like food, or in the Sermon on the Mount, clothing.

Or God may say “No” for reasons which we do not understand. That is at the heart of the book of Job. When God finally speaks to Job, he doesn't give him an answer to why he lost his health and lost his kids for whom Job had made numerous prayers and sacrifices for their well-being. Instead God asks Job questions about how the universe works, as if to say the reason for his suffering unjustly is also an imponderable. Job is just satisfied that God spoke to him. And God expresses his displeasure towards Job's “comforters” for supplying reasons for his suffering that were not given by God. On a less cosmic level, Paul found his proposed missionary work in Asia and then in Bithynia stopped by the Holy Spirit. He was trying to spread the gospel, something you would think God would be all for, but God prevents this for reasons known only to him. God knows more than us and we may not be able to understand the reason, the way a baby cannot understand why his mom lets his pediatrician give him painful shots.

But sometimes when we think God is saying “No” he may be saying “Not yet.” David was anointed king over Israel but had to wait for years, serving King Saul, then chased by him, then ruling as king of Judah before being asked to be king over all Israel. Joseph had dreams of his brothers and family bowing to him. But first he was thrown into a pit. And then sold into slavery. And then charged with rape and thrown into prison. Then he helped Pharaoh's cupbearer and asked him to remember him to his boss. It took 2 years before God got Joseph out of prison and raised him to be Pharaoh's right hand man. 

We may not be prepared for what we ask. I originally planned to enter the ministry shortly after college. I became a nurse in order to be able to support myself and my family as I went to seminary. It didn't work out that way. 20 years later I was caught completely by surprise by a renewed call and an opportunity to become ordained. And I think I am a better priest and pastor having had 2 more decades of life experience. God knew I needed to wait. Sometimes we hear “No” when God is really saying, “Not yet.”

Sometimes a prayer that appears to be going unanswered is God's way of saying, “I have something else in mind for you.” Amos was not the son of a prophet or a member of the school of the prophets. He wasn't even an Israelite. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. The kingdoms were stable and peaceful. His prayers were probably for a healthy herd and healthy trees. But God called him to prophesy to the people of Israel who were corrupt, self-indulgent, were drifting from God and his covenant and consequently exploiting and abusing the poor. This did not make him popular, especially with the king and priests of Israel. And it was probably not the life he had asked for.

Moses had been raised as the Pharaoh's adopted grandson. But he found himself a shepherd and he was happy with that. Then God called him to lead his people out of slavery. Moses didn't want this. But God had something different in mind for him.

There is a reason why our chief response to God is faith. We have to trust him, especially when it's hard to have faith, when we ask for something in prayer and the answer seems to be other than “Yes.” If he says “No” as he said to Jesus when he asked for the cup to pass him by, we must trust him to have a good reason. The reason may become apparent later or we might not learn the reason in this life. 

When we pray for someone's life, and they die anyway, it's especially important to trust God, to remember that, as Paul tells us, to be absent from the body is to be with the Lord. It's important to know that when they are gone it is not that they no longer exist, but that they are gone as someone on a long journey is gone. We will see them again.

In other cases God might be saying “Not yet,” and so we must be patient for the answer. And he might be saying “I have something else in mind for you.” His purpose for you might also be a surprise to you.

To return to my life, my career looks like a haphazard affair. I went into nursing to be able to afford seminary and then stayed in nursing. Then I went into radio. Finally God gave me a clear call to the ordained ministry. It looks like a zig-zag course to the pulpit. But as a nurse I learned how to talk to and to help people—the mentally ill, the sick, the demented, the dying. I learned that you can't always go by what you read in the textbooks; people and lives are not that easy to categorize. I learned that people recover at different rates and respond to different therapies. I learned not to pronounce a prognosis on anyone; some people you expect to recover get worse and some people you expect to get worse get better. I learned that sometimes you just have to shut up and let people talk out their grief and pain. I began to see the same principles that manifest in sickness and health can be seen in sin and salvation. I saw how important it is for people not simply to say they had faith in their doctor or their course of treatment but to show it by following doctor's orders.

As LPN jobs began to get scarce, I became a radio copywriter. I learned to do research on what business or products I was to write about. I learned to find out not merely what the message should be but what was the best way to express that message. I learned that you have to think of your audience, how will they perceive what you say.(Do they care if a car dealership is an inventory leader or would they respond better if you say instead that they have the best selection of cars in the area?) And I learned to write on a deadline. You don't always have the luxury to wait for a great and original idea. You don't always have the time to make it perfect. I learned to boil down what had to be said into 60 or even 30 seconds. Which means the 15 minutes I usually allow for my sermons is generally plenty of time. Boring people is one of the worst sins in making an ad. And I think it's one of the big things to avoid when preaching.

As it turned out the “somethings else” that God had in mind for me made me a better preacher and a wiser and more understanding counselor.

“Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it!” goes the pop wisdom quip. The thing to remember is that God will not say “Yes” to prayers that are not good for us, even if we want them badly. That's part of his mercy. And while he will not stop us from pursuing wrongful desires, he will put up obstacles. What he won't do, though, is enable us by answering prayers inappropriately. He is a good God and will say “No” or “Not yet” to prayers that are inappropriate for us, for others or for the time and situation, whether of not we like or understand it.

The good news is he will give us what we need both to live and to carry out the mission he has given each of us. He will give us his Holy Spirit, who will equip us in every way to follow him and do his will. He will give us talents and skills. He will put people in our lives to help and mentor and comfort and inspire us. And he will answer our prayers in surprising ways at times. Sometimes he will say “I have something else for you,” an opportunity we never sought or asked for but for which he has prepared us, perhaps without our being aware. Sometimes I think God is like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid. We find ourselves doing boring or unpleasant tasks, waxing on and waxing off, never realizing God is training us for something seemingly unrelated and much more important. Who'd have thought writing 30 second ads for innumerable seafood restaurants and bars and cleaning up every kind of bodily fluid while dealing with folks suffering from dementia would be such good training for the ministry?

One last point: The verb tense in verse 9 indicates a continuing present action. So what Jesus is really saying is “Keep asking and it will be given you; keep searching and you will find; keep knocking and the door will be opened for you.” That is the point of the parable about the guy in bed and the bread. Not that God is reluctant to give but that he wants to see how much we want what we ask for. How much do we really want the equipment we need to do his will? Enough to keep praying every spare moment? Enough to keep praying for days or weeks or months?

Or are we like the guy who promised to pray for a friend (let's call him Fred), sees him at church, says a quick mental “Dear God, help Fred,” and then goes up to him and says, “Hey, Fred, how're you doing? I've been praying for you.” If you pray like that, you can't really expect God to answer your prayer because your heart is not really in it.

Whether God answers your prayer with a “Yes,” a “No,” a “Not yet,” or an “I have something else for you,” the thing to remember is that God has what is best for you and everyone else in mind. As he says in Jeremiah 29:11, “'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.'” That's what we need to remember. God has a plan for us, a plan for us to prosper, a plan to give us hope and a glorious future. Knowing that we can act as it says. We can seek him because we know who we will find: our heavenly Father, who loves us and provides for us and who will never say “No” to our needs. And knowing that, we can respond long with Dag Hammarskjold, who said, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.”  

The Bible Challenge: Day 209

The scriptures read are Ecclesiastes 7-9, Psalm 21 and Colossians 2.

Ecclesiastes 7. There are a couple of bursts of proverbs, interspersed with the Quester's musings on people. He concludes that nobody is purely good and we have done that to ourselves.

Ecclesiastes 8. The Quester endorses obeying the king. (He would if he was a king. Traditionally, Solomon.) He tries to make sense of the fact that good people often suffer while bad guys sometimes get away with it. It doesn't make sense, not from a purely earthbound viewpoint. He just can't work out God's plan.

Ecclesiastes 9. Why does everyone, good or bad, have but one fate? (Remember, Jesus hasn't come. Revelation hasn't progressed to the point where the afterlife is at all clear. It seems to them at this point in time that if there is an afterlife, it consists of a gloomy existence in shadowy Sheol.)

So the best the Quester can do is conclude to embrace life. God made a world of pleasure. Living a good life doesn't exclude having a good life with your spouse, grabbing for the gusto and welcoming each day as a gift from God. Life is short and uncertain. Be wise.

Psalm 21. A reflective version of psalm 21 here.

Colossians 2. This is the rare letter where Paul is writing a church he's never visited. He wants them to know that he is nevertheless on their side. And they don't need to learn a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo, or follow tons of laws, or go through secret rituals. If they were baptized, that's all they need. That united them to Jesus, their immersion and rising from the water paralleling the burial and resurrection of Christ. The important thing is not just studying Jesus but putting him to work in your life.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 208

The scriptures read are Ecclesiastes 4-6, Psalm 20 and Colossians 1.

Ecclesiastes 4. The Quester gives us his take on violence, ambition and workaholism that keeps people from relationships. All ephemeral.

Ecclesiastes 5. The Quester does fear God. If you make a vow before God to do something, definitely do it, the sooner the better.

The Quester suggests moderation even in social justice. That's surprising in the light of how often the Bible decries injustice. But remember we are getting the reflections of a jaded and disappointed man. You can't take much in Ecclesiastes at face value. The Bible candidly shares the viewpoint of a man whose attitude is typical today. He believes in God but mostly to protect himself from disaster and the consequences of foolishness.

Ecclesiastes 6. The unfairness of life. The Quester advises a detachment from most things to protect yourself.

Psalm 20. A joyous Irish reel version of the psalm that will make you want to get up and dance! Click here!

Colossians 1. The background of this letter and the cosmic implications of it are in my latest sermon: click here to read it.

And remember: the secret is Christ in you!

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 207

The scriptures read are Ecclesiastes 1-3, Psalm 19 and Philippians 4.

Ecclesiastes 1.  The Preacher/Teacher (Peterson translates it "Quester") is a Davidic king who has had it all, seen it all, done it all and it's all like a morning mist, ephemeral, transitory. He's pretty jaded about life. It's always the same thing.

Ecclesiastes 2. More "been there, done that." Then this king realizes that even the achievements that will outlast him, the stuff he worked hard to create and amass, will just go to another person. You can't take it with you.

Ecclesiastes 3. Here you find the famous list of all the actions in life and the fact that there is an appropriate time for all. And if you can't read this without thinking of the famous version by the Byrds, well, neither can I. (Here it is.) The writer even questions if there is an afterlife. This is the Old Testament with very little said about the afterlife and most of what is said is grim. And this is a sobering thought. The philosophy of Ecclesiastes is the best you can do if there is no recompense after this life.

Psalm 19. Such a beautiful psalm and so few videos that (a) cover the whole thing and (b) feature good singers and decent sound quality. But I really like this version in Hebrew, complete with phonetic pronunciation and English translation.

Philippians 4. One of the most beautiful closing chapters of all Paul's letters. His advice on how to turn everything into song, what to meditate on (most Christians should think about these things) and his expression of contentment in spite of circumstances need to be read over and over.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 206

The scriptures read are Proverbs 29-31, Psalm 18:21-50 and Philippians 3.

Proverbs 29. "The goodhearted understand what it's like to be poor; the hardhearted haven't the faintest idea."
"If you let people treat you like a doormat, you'll be quite forgotten in the end."
"The fear of human opinion disables; trusting in God protects you from that."

Proverbs 30. Agur Ben Yakeh sure loves to make lists of 4.
"If you're dumb enough to call attention to yourself by offending people and making rude gestures, don't be surprised if someone bloodies your nose. Churned milk turns into butter; riled emotions turn into fist fights."

Proverbs 31. King Lemuel finishes up the book and what a finish. He records the advice his mother gave him.
"Speak up for the people who have no voice, for the rights of all the down-and-outers. Speak out for justice! Stand up for the poor and destitute!"

Proverbs concludes with a wonderful portrait of a confident, competent woman who not only is a great mom and homemaker but an astute businesswoman. A portrait of Lemuel's mom?

Psalm 18:21-50. Not many videos cover the second half of this psalm and those that do really get into the martial imagery. Unfortunately, updated military images confuse the struggle of David with modern political conflicts. Here is an excellent dramatic reading of the whole Psalm.

Philippians 3. Paul warns the church about the folks who are trying to get Gentile Christians to follow Jewish law. If that worked, Paul would be a shoo-in. He was the impeccable Pharisee. But he gave it all up when he realized that all he had to do was trust in Jesus. Now he calls for the Philippians to make their commitment to Christ total. He makes no pretense of having achieved perfection but has his eyes on the prize and is heading for it full tilt.    

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 205

The scriptures read are Proverbs 26-28, Psalm 18:1-20 and Philippians 2.

Proverbs 26. Verses 4 and 5 contradict each other. And it's pretty obvious that the editor of Proverbs did this deliberately. His point, I think, was that sometimes there are reasons both for and against the same action. Sometimes one set of considerations make one action the wise choice; other times different considerations might lead you to do the opposite. Also this is an alert not to take one verse of scripture and build a whole program of action out of it without looking at what other parts of scripture say about the same matter. They won't always be conveniently side by side. And be prepared for paradoxes that signal that matter in question is more complex than it first appears, with different angles to explore and nuances to observe.

Man, there's a lot about fools in this chapter. And sluggards. And gossips.

"You grab a mad dog by the ears when you butt into a quarrel that's none of your business."

Proverbs 27. "Don't brashly announce what you're going to do tomorrow; you don't know the first thing about tomorrow." What does God think of 5 Year Plans?
"The wounds of a lover are worth it; kisses from an enemy do you in."
"Better a nearby friend than a distant family."
"If you wake your friend in the early morning by shouting 'Rise and shine!' it will sound to him more like a curse than a blessing." Especially if you don't have a coffee ready for him.
"A nagging spouse is like the drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet; you can't turn it off, and you can't get away from it." There have been a lot of proverbs about nagging wives in this book. Marrying 700 wives wasn't such a wise move after all, was it, Solomon?
There are more. This is one of the best chapters so far.

Proverbs 28. "God has no use for the prayers of those who won't listen to him."
"The rich think they know it all, but the poor see right through them."
"Playing favorites is always a bad thing; you can do great harm in seemingly harmless ways."
"If you think you know it all, you're a fool for sure; real survivors learn wisdom from others."

Psalm 18:1-20. An instrumental version that really suits the very dramatic first part of this psalm. Click here to hear.

Philippians 2. Paul, who brought the Gentiles into the church, which caused such controversy and division, is always concerned about Christian unity. The main cause is short-sighted selfish human thinking so he uses Jesus as the example to follow. He was equal to God but didn't cling to that and stripped himself of divine privilege to become one of us. He came as a slave to God's plan, which he followed obediently, even to the point of dying, and dying that most horrible of deaths, crucifixion. In response to him serving all, God has made him master of all. That's you should think and act.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 204

The scriptures read are Proverbs 23-25, Psalm 17 and Philippians 1.

Proverbs 23, 24. The 30 Precepts of the Sages, begun in the last chapter continues. It's mostly common sense stuff. I love number 25 in chapter 24: "Rescue the perishing; don't hesitate to step in and help. If you say, 'Hey, that's none of my business.' will that get you off the hook? Someone is watching you closely, you know--someone not impressed with weak excuses."

Proverbs 25. "Patient persistence pierces through indifference; gentle speech breaks down rigid defenses."
"Singing light songs to the heavyhearted is like pouring salt in their wounds."
"If you see your enemy hungry, go buy him lunch; if he's thirsty, bring him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness, and God will look after you." I bet Jesus loved to find such treasures in the Old Testament.

Psalm 17. Hard to find the whole psalm, sung well with no sound problems. But for a good setting of the first few verses, click here.

Philippians 1. Philippians is one of my favorites. Paul is in good spirits, despite being in prison and contemplating the end of his life. He is content and ready to face death. In fact, dying to him is not terrifying at all. Living means serving Christ and dying means being in his direct presence.

And his imprisonment has not stopped the gospel. On the contrary, it's piqued people's curiosity. And others are preaching the gospel, either in support of Paul or hoping to replace him as Apostle Extraordinaire. He doesn't care as long as the word gets out about Jesus.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Christ the Cosmic

The inmate asked to speak to me. I didn't know if it was to ask about a personal problem, to pose a Biblical question or to ask me to do something for him, like pass a message to someone on the outside which I am explicitly forbidden to do. Instead, he started telling me about a guru he followed and these breathing exercises he practiced. OK, I thought, this sounds like yoga or some Hindu discipline, about which I know more than the average person but less than an actual Hindu. But then what he was saying veered off into an unexpected direction. Suddenly he was talking about the events of 9/11 being a sham. He's a truther, I thought. Then it was FEMA coffins. Extreme right wing paranoia, I surmised. Then it was about the Roman Catholic church controlling the world. Old-style fundamentalist anti-Catholicism, I wondered. Then it was about vaccinations really being an excuse for implanting mind-controlling chips, which led him to refuse the anti-TB vaccination the jail provides. At this point I was doing all I could to hang on during this wild ride through his imagination. And finally it was about aliens from space, of which there are 3 types of bad ones and 1 type of good alien. (X-Files, I ventured.) And he's seen them, which is why they put in in jail to prevent him from spreading the truth. Ah, I should have expected this, seeing as I was in the unit which houses inmates with psychiatric problems. The thing is that in his presentation he had woven together an admirably comprehensive picture of interlocking global conspiracies, leaving out only the Kennedy assassination and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, though if I had asked, he might have found a way to incorporate them as well.

In religion, this mixing of bits and pieces of otherwise disparate beliefs is called syncretism. Voodoo, which mixes Catholic saints and African beliefs, is an example. And it was a more elaborate kind of syncretism, on the order of the inmate's system, that Paul was up against in his letter to the Colossians. Biblical scholars have tried to figure out just what the “Colossian heresy” was. From what we can tell from Paul's letter, it apparently encompassed bits of Jewish practice, an elaborate angelology, astrology, Greek philosophy and some proto-Gnosticism. It's the inclusion of Gnosticism that makes some scholars say that this letter couldn't have been written by Paul. It must have been written in the 2nd century, which is when we start finding systematic writings about Gnosticism, they say. The problem with this line of reasoning is that an idea must exist before it's written down and for it to have gotten so developed as a system implies a gestation period. Besides that, the version Paul is addressing has a lot of elements that the 2nd century version has lost. In addition, there are some features of the letter to the Colossians that echoes bits of the letter to the Ephesians, which everybody accepts as an authentic letter of Paul's. Ephesus was just about 100 miles away from Colossae. Perhaps the schools of thought the letters addressed were related.*

The most important aspects of the Colossian heresy that clash with Christianity are the Gnostic ideas. The Gnostics believed that all matter was bad and only spirit was good. So the world could not have been made by God. Instead, God gave off these emanations, each successive one further from him in knowledge and goodness. The one that made the world was so far from God he was ignorant of the true God and actually hostile to him. And they didn't identify this creator with Satan, though, but the God of the Old Testament! And, of course, if matter was evil, Jesus who came from the true God could never have taken on a material body. He only appeared to. Naturally he was never a real human being and so he didn't die for us. He was in effect a hologram. We on the other hand are spirits imprisoned in evil bodies and in an evil world. Salvation was knowledge. (Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge.) Elite Gnostics could give the initiates secret knowledge and passwords that would allow them to travel up the various spiritual levels until they encountered God.

You can see how (a) this could be worked into some form of Judaism and Christianity and (b) the violence it did to the essentials of the faith. According to the Gnostics, God didn't create the world. It was never good and cannot be redeemed. Jesus never lived and died as one of us and thus doesn't have any experience of what our lives are like. Salvation is a wholly intellectual process, which leaves out less educated folks. Salvation is not a matter of God's grace but something we achieve through learning a lot of esoterica. Add in the other elements and the resemblance to Christianity is only superficial. But apparently some in the Colossian church were falling under its sway.

So Paul tackles the controversy  of this mishmosh of religious ideas head on, focusing on the way Jesus Christ is depicted.

“He is the image of the invisible God...” Paul is saying that Jesus is not a feeble emanation, a copy of a copy of a copy of God, a faded Xerox of the original. He is the very image of God. The Greek word is eikon, which means a representation of someone like a statue or portrait. It was also used of a section of legal contracts that described the parties involved and their distinguishing characteristics. His point is that when you look at Jesus you see what God is really like. You don't have to go through a series of bad likenesses to slowly get a better idea of what God is. For example in Greek Orthodoxy, they call their icons windows into heaven. We might say looking at Jesus is like Skyping with God.

Paul goes on to call Christ “...the firstborn of creation.” This makes it sound like Christ was merely the first thing created. (Christ is not a creation. See John 1:1-3.) But Paul is really doing 2 things here. He is connecting Jesus with the personified Wisdom of God, spoken of in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is depicted as the personal principle by which and through which God created everything. Wisdom is called the firstborn of creation. In addition, Psalm 89:27 God says, “I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.” This was widely seen by rabbis as a description of the Messiah. So firstborn was a Messianic title as well.

But firstborn means something more than birth order in the ancient world. The firstborn was the favored son, the one who inherited the most of his father's property, the father's successor as head of the family. Many pharaohs let their sons act as co-rulers with them. And birth order had nothing to do with it. Abraham had Ishmael before Isaac but Isaac was given the rights and privileges of the firstborn. Jacob takes the birthright and blessing of his older brother Esau and becomes for all intents and purposes Isaac's firstborn. Joseph was the second to last of Jacob's sons but he was the favored one. His long-sleeved coat (“many colors” is a mistranslation) indicated he would be the next head of the clan. You can't do hard physical labor in a long-sleeved tunic. And his 2 sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, are each given a part of the promised land, giving his descendants twice as much as the other tribes. Joseph is for all practical purposes Jacob's firstborn.

So Paul is saying that Jesus is the heir of God, not some subordinate knock-off. He is due the honor and authority that implies. And he is the Messiah, God's Anointed Prophet, Priest and King.

“...for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created...” Paul is now tying creation to Christ. Creation is not the bad product of an evil and ignorant emanation of God. Christ was intimately involved in creation of the world, “things visible and invisible,” as Paul says. So the material creation as well as the spiritual creation originated in Christ. The angels which Judaism contributed to the Colossian heresy were created through him and are therefore inferior to Christ. Why deal with the middle men when you can do business with the boss himself?

All things were created “for him.” He is not only God's agent in creation but its goal. He is, to quote the book of Revelation, “the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end of all things. Creation is not a mistake or an evil thing but was created for Christ, to come to its culmination in him.

“ him all things hold together.” In Greek philosophy the creation was held together by the Logos, the rhyme and reason of the cosmos, the Word as we translate the term in John. Many Jewish writers in trying to reconcile Greek philosophy with Judaism connected the Logos with the Wisdom of God. Paul is saying in an obvious but less explicit way that Jesus is the Logos, the Word or Wisdom of God that holds all creation together.

So Christ is the living principle that organizes and sustains the universe. He holds it together. Which means that he is not only the start and finish of creation but also what keeps it running in between those 2 ends.

All this makes Jesus very grand but also sounds like he is quite remote from us. How do we humans connect to this image of God, this agent of creation, its goal and the thing that keeps everything from flying apart?

“He is the head of the body, the church...” He is in charge of the church, which is the center of the new creation. And since we are the church, we are directly connected to him like the body's nervous system connects to the brain, so that all muscles and parts of the body carry out its will.

“He is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead...” He is obviously the beginning of the church, of the new assembly of God's people, whom he called to himself. And he is the firstborn of the dead, the resurrected one, the one whose death reversed the reign of death. Jesus raised others and then raised himself from the dead. He is the source of new life and new creation. Paul says that he rose “ that he might come to have first place in everything.” He is the creator of life and the conqueror of death and by virtue of that, is peerless in all creation. How is this possible?

“For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell...” Paul began by telling us that Jesus is the image of God. Here he is saying that Jesus is not a lifeless statue or a flat portrait but fully God. The word translated “fulness” could be rendered “completeness” or even the “full contents” of God. Jesus doesn't just resemble God; he is God. Whatever is found in God is found in Christ.

“...and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” The question of every religion is why are things not as good as they should be if God made them. The Gnostics said, well, besides God not making the world, it is because of ignorance. The answer is knowledge that only we have and which you won't understand unless we teach you.

But everyone knows knowledge is not enough. If it were, smart people would never knowingly do wrong. But dumb people didn't cook up the complicated financial instruments that wrecked our economy. A dumb person might shoplift or hold somebody up. But he could never create a credit default swap or a derivative or a sub-prime mortgage. The smarter you are the more damage you can do. The problem isn't knowledge; it's the will to do what's right even when what's wrong benefits you.

So what we need is not more knowledge, it's a new heart. It's a new life with a new outlook. But to do that we have to deal with our old life and what we've done to this creation and to the creatures that came into being through Jesus. In a sense, the reconciliation he does is part of his holding things together. To reconcile is to bring people together. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “ Christ God was reconciling the world to himself...” The Greek word means to mutually change. But, wait, God doesn't change, does he? No, not who he is or what he desires. But as to how he accomplishes his ends, sure. God is doing something new here and anything new is by definition a change. He becomes one of us in Jesus, he lives as one of us, he is killed by the authorities and he rises again. That's a lot of changes that God was willing to undergo to bring us to him and to fix what we broke. He has more than met us halfway.

And how does he accomplish this? “..making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death...” If our problem is not merely an intellectual one, if we are not spirits imprisoned in bodies but our bodies are part of what once was a good creation, if our problems are not just in our minds but also in the physical world, then an adequate solution must have a physical as well as a spiritual component. A holographic Jesus does us no good. But a flesh and blood Jesus, a Jesus who can do something on the physical plane of existence, so to speak, as well as on the spiritual plane can accomplish something in both the worlds in which we live. What he did was not theoretical. And it did change lives. He physically healed people and they changed their minds and followed him. He healed the mind of the man living in the tombs and he stopped cutting his body with stones. He physically fed people and some realized how nourishing his words were to their spirits. He physically died and physically arose, which was what it took to spiritually change the minds and lives of the Twelve and his other followers. Mind and body and spirit are not hermetically-sealed, compartmentalized aspects of life. They affect one another. I touch you with affection and your mood calms. I say reassuring things and the tension leaves your body. Jesus dies and rises from the dead and, united with him through trust, we live in the now spiritually and in the future in new bodies like his.

Ultimately what Paul is saying is that Jesus is the answer. Not to science or math or plumbing problems, but to the 3 big questions human beings ask: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?

Who are we? We are God's creations, created in his image, the image we see most clearly in Jesus Christ, God's Son, the reason for, the beginning and the goal of creation.

Why are we here? We are here to know and enjoy God but since we have created barriers to knowing and enjoying him through our sins, Jesus has crossed the barrier from the spiritual to the material to reconcile us to God. By faith we accept his grace and through his Spirit, we become more Christlike and offer his reconciliation to others.

Where are we going? We are going to be with Jesus as part of his new creation, heaven and earth brought together, so that God will dwell with his people, in his kingdom, eternally celebrating the wedding banquet of the Lamb, reclaiming his people in love.

Jesus was not just some guy sent to tell us to be nice to one another or how to get to heaven. He is the whole reason for creation, and the model of how it is held together. Which is by love. He came not to condemn the material world but to redeem it and reconnect it to the spiritual. He gives the Spirit of God form and he gives our material world and our lives meaning and direction. Jesus is the lens through which we are to view everything, seeing this world and the people in it as images of God to be restored and reasons to praise God. Jesus enables us to see in catastrophe the seeds of triumph, in sickness the opportunity for healing, in pain the capacity to feel joy, in death the door to new life. If we gaze into the face of Jesus, we see how everything is related, how we all are connected, how we are to live our lives, both now and eternally.

*Another thing that makes some scholars think Paul didn't write this letter is the language which is unlike his other letters. In this, I have to agree with William Barclay that this perceived language change controversy is due to 2 things. One is a silly idea that Paul's thought and expressions were static, that his great brain could not change over time, that he could not acquire new vocabulary. The second thing that might make him use to new language is a new challenge. If he was encountering a radically different system of thought, he would have to use different language in response. Also we know Paul did not do the actual writing of his letters but dictated them to scribes. A good scribe might suggest language when the person dictating is trying to find the right words, as Paul might in dealing with this new school of thought.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 202

The scriptures read are Proverbs 20-22, Psalm 16 and Ephesians 6.

Proverbs 20. "Switching price tags and padding the expense account are two things God hates."

Proverbs 21. "We justify our actions by appearances; God examines our motives."
"Clean living before God and justice with our neighbors mean far more to God than religious performance."
"You're addicted to thrills? What an empty life! The pursuit of pleasure is never satisfied."
"Do your best, prepare for the worst--then trust God to bring victory."

Proverbs 22. "The rich and the poor shake hands as equals--God made them both!"
"Generous hands are blessed hands because they give bread to the poor."

Psalm 16. It's very hard to find a sung video of this entire psalm. This fellow seems to be recording his version of every psalm. This is a very simple and haunting setting, followed by a message from the singer. Hear his version here. On the other hand there is a rocking version of just a few of the verses here.

Ephesians 6. Paul continues to ring changes on the standard household rules. Kids, obey your parents. That's not surprising. But telling fathers not to provoke anger in their kids when correcting them puts him in the minority of moralists for his time. So too does Paul's command that masters not threaten their slaves. And saying that that masters and slaves are equal in God's eyes and implying that God will judge masters who mistreat their slaves is again radical. We judge Paul by modern standards and wonder why Paul doesn't advocate slave revolt (there were an estimated 5 to 8 million slaves in the Roman Empire, perhaps a quarter of the population) which would have been bloody on both sides. (See what the Romans did to Spartacus and his largely slave army; 6000 survivors of his troops in the Third Servile War were crucified.)  But Paul does tell slaves to get their freedom when possible (1 Corinthians 7:21, remember?) and we will see more of his real feelings when we read his letter to Philemon.

Paul uses the analogy of the armor of God, perhaps inspired by the Roman soldier he would have been chained to while in prison. Notice that it is all protective. The only offensive weapon is God's Word, the sword of the Spirit. No physical violence is justified by this extended metaphor.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 201

The scriptures read are Proverbs 16-19, Psalm 15 and Ephesians 5.

Proverbs 16. A number of good ones right off the bat, including:
"Mortals make elaborate plans but God has the last word." and
"Humans are satisfied with what looks good; God probes for what is good."

Plus good observations about leadership.

Proverbs 17. "Whoever mocks poor people, insults their Creator; gloating over misfortune is a punishable crime." Or it should be.
"A quiet rebuke to a person of good sense does more than a whack on the head of a fool."
"Whitewashing bad people and throwing mud on good people are equally abhorrent to God."
"Even dunces who keep quiet are thought to be wise; as long as they keep their mouths shut, they're smart."

Proverbs 18. "Wise men and women are always learning, always listening for fresh insights." Which is why I listen to NPR.

Proverbs 19. "People ruin their lives by their own stupidity, so why does God always get blamed?"
"Mercy to the needy is a loan to God, and God pays back those loans in full."

Psalm 15. This is a lovely setting for the psalm sung (after the intro) by a beautiful clear soprano voice. It does drop the last verse about not charging interest but 85% of the psalm and the spirit of it is there. Feast your ears here.

Ephesians 5. Mountains of good advice. Even the marital advice if you read it closely.

The word usually translated "submit" appears in verse 21, not in verse 22. The Greek reads more like "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as to the Lord." The submission of the wives is just an example of the submission all Christians should do to one another. There is no second specific command for the wife to submit in a special way here, nor anything to indicate men are exempted from the mutual submission commanded for all Christians. This is in line with Jesus telling his disciples not to lord anything over one another but for each to be the servant of all.

And if there were a command for wives to obey their husbands here (there isn't) it would be right in line with the lists of household rules that pagan moralists loved to draw up. Where Paul gets radical is in verse 25 where he tells husbands to love their wives. Pagan moralists never did that. The husband's only responsibility was to feed, clothe and shelter his wife. Her role was to run the household and give birth to his kids. If he wants love, he can always find a mistress. But Paul makes the husband loving his wife a command. Nor is he to love her in an average way. He is to love his wife as "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." That is, Jesus died for the church.  So the husband is to love his wife self-sacrificially. No justification can be found here for bullying or abusing or disregarding the feelings of one's wife. One way people get in trouble with scripture is when they don't pay attention to what it really says. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 200

The scriptures read are Proverbs 13-15, Psalm 14 and Ephesians 4.

Proverbs 13-15. A few of the better proverbs.

From chapter 13: "The rich can be sued for everything they have, but the poor are free from such threats."

From chapter 14: "The person who shuns the bitter moments of friends will be an outsider at their celebrations."
"You insult your Maker when you exploit the powerless; when you are kind to the poor, you honor God."

From chapter 15: "Better a bread crust shared in love than a slab of prime rib served in hate."

Psalm 14. A choral version by Charles Ives for your enjoyment: click here.

Ephesians 4. As usual, Paul stresses unity but not uniformity. He points out what we have in common with other Christians. And he does it with poetic beauty (vv. 4-6). And he also reminds us of the variety of gifts the Spirit gives the church.

Following Jesus means some changes in the way you think, speak and act. Paul has some specifics on this matter.

And never grieve the Spirit!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 199

The scriptures read are Proverbs 10-12, Psalm 13 and Ephesians 3.

Proverbs 10-12. We are finally, with these aphorisms attributed to Solomon, getting into some actual proverbs. Needless to say, I can't summarize or comment on each. I'm just going to pick up on general themes or particularly good proverbs.

Wisdom, diligence and honesty are good. Their opposites aren't. Also talking too much is bad. (I'm doomed!) Sins of the tongue (lying, slander, gossip) get a lot more attention here than you hear in the pulpit today.

The fear of God (we might say, healthy respect for God) pops up. Also "God hates cheating in the marketplace." Wall Street, you have been put on notice!

Humility, integrity and generosity are getting a lot of love here. Materialism, violence and exploitation are not.

Random verses (not numbered in The Message) that I like from chapter 11:
"When you're kind to others, you help yourself; when you're cruel to others, you hurt yourself."
"Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful face on an empty head."
"The world of the generous gets larger and larger; the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller."

And from chapter 12:
"Good people are good to their animals; the 'good-hearted' bad people kick and abuse them."
"Fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults."
"Rash language cuts and maims, but there is healing in the words of the wise."
"Worry weighs us down; a cheerful word picks us up."

Psalm 13. There are a lot of contemporary songs that are named for individual psalms but they are usually just "based on" the psalm in question or just a few verses and otherwise deviate so much I can't in good conscience use them for this part of my blog. (Why does "blog" have a wavy red line under it? You guys didn't put it in the spellcheck dictionary? Seriously?) But here is a a catchy version of Psalm 13 that manages to get the whole psalm in even though it adds a refrain. Enjoy it here.

Ephesians 3. Paul is writing from prison (probably Rome). When he speaks of the mystery of Christ he is probably tweaking the Gnostics and people who are in mystery cults, where salvation is only for the initiates, the elites, who get secret knowledge to go through the various spiritual levels to reach God. But what Paul is talking about is a kind of open secret. Through Paul and the other apostles God is broadcasting his plan, the gospel, the good news. It is for everyone, not just spiritual snobs.

Paul encourages us to get deeply into what Jesus offers, which is a lot more than we imagine or can imagine.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 198

The scriptures read are Proverbs 7-9, Psalm 12 and Ephesians 2.

Proverbs 7. I'll telling you again: avoid the adultress.

Proverbs 8. If you must take up with women in the street, make it Lady Wisdom. Chasing wisdom is better than chasing wealth.

Wisdom is pictured as God's first creation and then as his coworker in creation. This metaphoric poem probably helped the early Christians puzzling out Jesus' relationship to God.

Proverbs 9. Wisdom prepares a feast for the wise. The other woman prepares one for the unwary.

Psalm 12. Today a women's trio sings our psalm in close harmony here.

Ephesians 2. After ending the last chapter with the church, Paul goes on to remind us that none of us have a spotless past. We are Christians only by virtue of God's grace, his undeserved, unreserved love, manifested in Jesus. Jesus has forged a peace between Jews and Gentiles through his death on the cross. He not only brings us peace, he is our peace.

To switch the metaphor, we are like building blocks for a living temple for God, with Jesus as the cornerstone, balancing all the forces that would otherwise tear us apart and keep us from rising and becoming one.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 197

The scriptures read are Proverbs 4-6, Psalm 11 and Ephesians 1.

Proverbs 4. More exhortation to get wisdom.  Wisdom as a lady theme.

Proverbs 5. Keep away from promiscuous women. Stay faithful to your wife.

Proverbs 6. Don't procrastinate. Don't just sit there. The writer lists 7 things God hates: arrogance, lying, murder, scheming, being eager to do the wrong thing, perjury and a family member who is always stirring things up. Think of the consequences of adultery.

Psalm 11. A beautiful plain chant of the psalm done by a male choir: click here.  

Ephesians 1. Ephesus was the most important Roman city in Asia Minor, now called Turkey. It was the greatest commercial city in the area. It was also the center of the worship of the many breasted goddess Artemis, and a major site for the worship of the Emperor.  Paul went there on his first missionary journey and spent 2 years there on his third journey. You may remember that Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote to the Corinthians. Later he left Timothy in charge. The apostle John is said to have settled there and the book of Revelation addressed Ephesus and 6 nearby cities.

Paul opens with this very dense and sweeping look at God's plan to bring everything in his shattered creation back together in and through Jesus Christ. This plan and our part in it was conceived before the world was even created. It reaches its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those who trust in him are saved and given the promised Holy Spirit. The Spirit is our down payment and the first installment of our inheritance from God. Which makes us Christ's body on earth.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How to Be a Neighbor

The pilot of the spaceship is playing with toy dinosaurs on the ship's console. He has the stegosaurus talking of what they will call the new land they have discovered. The Tyrannosaurus says, “Let's call it your grave,” and he is made to pounce on the neck of the other dino. The stegosaurus cries out, “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal.” This is not only our introduction to Wash, one of the most beloved characters of the scifi show Firefly and the movie Serenity, but it is also a wink by creator Joss Whedon to the kind of TV tropes he loves to subvert. Not only does the murderer in a TV show turn out to be the least likely suspect but the surprise traitor in most shows is someone you thought was a good guy. It's getting to where you expect this sort of plot twist in any show or movie that includes a group of good guys up against a conspiracy of bad guys.

Less common is the plot in which an apparent enemy turns out to be a ally. Oddly enough this troupe is used quite commonly in the James Bond films, where someone 007 and the audience perceives to be a threat turns out to be an friend. This is how Felix Leiter, Bond's oldest ally, is introduced in the very first film Dr. No. Variations of this occur in most 007 films. Less surprising is Bond's preternatural ability to convert any female working for the enemy.

One could argue that the good Samaritan is one of the earliest examples of the unexpected ally. More than that, this reversal is the whole point of the parable.

The set up is a bit of a twist, too. In Matthew 12, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is and he answers with these two quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18. Here in Luke 10 an expert in Jewish law asks Jesus what must he do to gain eternal life. Jesus answers the question with a question, asking the man how does he read the scriptures on the matter. And what the law expert answers is hardly surprising. The first commandment is one of the written pieces of the Torah he would have in his frontlet, the little wooden box he would bind to his head when saying his prayers. And rabbis often quoted the second commandment as a complement to the first. For one thing, the two commandments summarize the two categories of ethical duties we find in the 10 commandments. The first 4 concern our duty to God and the last 6 concern our duty to other human beings. So Jesus was not the first to link the 2.

But the expert, who was trying to test Jesus, has a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?” It's not as simple a question as it first appears. Is it literally the person next door or who lives near me or a coworker or just any fellow Jew. The context of the passage in Leviticus would seem to indicate it was just your countrymen.

So Jesus illustrates the scope of being a neighbor by telling a story.

Jerusalem is 2300 feet above sea level. 17 miles away, at 740 feet below sea level, is Jericho, the world's oldest continuously occupied city. The road between the two not only drops more than 3000 feet but twists and turns among narrow rocky gorges. When I was on a study trip in Israel we stopped in the middle of this road to hike into one of the ravines, only to find a 1000 year old Russian Orthodox monastery tucked away and clinging to the side of the canyon wall. You never would have suspected it was there. So in Jesus' day the area provided great hiding places for bandits and only a fool would travel the road alone, rather than as part of a caravan. Apparently, our victim is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

And Jesus' audience would not be surprised at what happens next. This dimwit gets robbed, stripped, beaten and left for dead. He's lucky he's not completely dead.

The first person to come across him is a priest. He walks over to the other side of the road and keeps on going. Why? Jesus doesn't say but the usual explanation is that the priest can't be sure if the guy is dead or not and he knows that touching a dead body will make him ritually unclean for a week. He wouldn't be able to serve at the temple. But notice that he is going “down the road,” in other words, from high Jerusalem to low Jericho. His rotation as priest has ended and he is going home. Yes, he would be unclean but, no, it won't affect his service. Plus he doesn't even check to see if the guy is actually dead! He could at least, say, poke him with a stick to see if he flinches or watch his chest and sides to see if he's breathing. This guy is playing it safe—for himself!

The Levite, who was kind of like a deacon, similarly sees the guy and crosses the road. He also doesn't check to see if the victim is in fact dead. Barclay's commentary said that the Levite may have been concerned that the man was a decoy, a robber pretending to be hurt to trap anyone who stops to help. The decoy would grab and hold the helper while his band comes out of hiding to rob him. Again the Levite is thinking only of himself and his own possible harm.

Now Jesus' audience would not necessarily have seen this as unusual. The average Jew would know that the priestly class collaborated with the Romans to keep their power and would see them as morally compromised. The idea that priests and Levites would be more concerned with ceremonial cleanness than compassion would not be news to the listerners.

But here comes the plot twist. The next guy down the road is not a righteous Jewish layman but a Samaritan. Remember: Jews thought Samaritans were half-breeds and heretics, neither racially or religiously pure. To understand their attitude, imagine Jesus told a modern audience that he was an illegal alien who was also a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. The audience is pretty sure this guy is going to be the real villain of the piece. But surprise! The Samaritan doesn't worry about himself but the victim. He's the hero!

The Samaritan doesn't just show concern; he springs into action. He gives the victim first aid, using olive oil and wine to clean his wounds. He bandages him. He puts him on his pack-animal and brings him to an inn. He himself nurses this trauma victim. And when he leaves in the morning, he pays for the man's continuing care. And promises the innkeeper that if the care costs more than what he's left, he will repay the additional costs when he returns.

Now granted that healthcare then was not what it is today. The guy wasn't going to pay for MRIs or antibiotics or a home-health nurse. Still his feeding and care is going to require a lot of time on the part of the innkeeper or his staff. And the Samaritan is going to bear those costs. Being a neighbor to the victim goes way beyond inconvenience; it's taking money out of the Samaritan's purse.

Jesus then turns the tables on the expert in the law. He asks which of the 3 men who saw the robbery victim was a neighbor to him. In other words, instead of answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” he changes the question to “What does being a neighbor mean in practical terms?” He doesn't make the victim Samaritan; he makes the hero Samaritan. The guy with the different version of the Torah and a different version of the Ten Commandments understands neighbor in a wider sense than most Jews. In fact in answering Jesus' question of who acted as a neighbor, the law expert can't bring himself to say “The Samaritan” but says instead “The one who showed him mercy.” To which Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

To Jesus it is not a matter of how you define your neighbor. The fact is that YOU are the neighbor of anyone God puts in your path and the real question is "how will you treat them?" The priest and Levite fail to be neighbors. The Samaritan acted as a neighbor should. As Martin Luther King pointed out, the first 2 guys were worried about what might happen to them if they stopped to help the victim; the Samaritan was worried about what might happen to the victim if he didn't stop and help him. A good neighbor helps whoever needs help.

And that idea doesn't originate with Jesus. The quote about loving your neighbor is Leviticus 19:18. And just a few verses down in that same chapter we come across this: When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” The Samaritan with his slightly odd Torah knew that. The expert in the law must have blanked on that one.

The fact is we all pick and choose the bits of the Bible we pay attention to and the bits we ignore. A lot of the time the reason good Christians have different opinions on certain issues boils down to which verses of the Bible they emphasize and which ones they neglect or explain away.

But this parable has a command that is not the usual “Let he who has ears, hear.” Jesus says at the end of this parable “Go and do likewise.” And unlike negative commands which forbid just one thing in the spectrum of actions, positive commands lock us into a specific behavior. The command not to commit adultery leaves you with a whole range of sexual activity you can enjoy with your spouse. Paul's command for husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church commits the Christian man to love his wife self-sacrificially and excludes the whole range of selfish and unloving actions a husband might otherwise indulge in. When Jesus says “Go and do likewise” it means we are required to treat any person in need that we encounter the way the Samaritan would. It means not just saying, “I'll pray for you” but taking whatever practical steps you can to help the person in need.

This is strengthened by what Jesus says in Matthew 5:42: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” I don't think Jesus was thinking primarily of lending your neighbor your lawnmower so much as giving to the person in need. And that includes lending money, which according to the Bible cannot be done with interest. The important thing is to help the person out and to do so to the full extent that one can.

And the inclusiveness of who is our neighbor is there as well. Because just after the verse I quoted, in Matthew 5:43 and 44, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, 'You must love your neighbor as yourself' but you must hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies. Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who abuse you and persecute you.” Which would obviously include Samaritans, Gentiles, and non-Christians. Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan could be seen as an illustration of this very teaching.

Today government and the healthcare system have taken over a lot of what the Samaritan does for the robbery victim. I have on various occasions rendered first aid at accidents when I witnessed them or was at the scene before the first responders. But as soon as the EMTs arrive and I can tell them what I've found and what I've done, I hand the patient off to them. They are equipped to do what I can't, such as stabilize a broken bone or neck injury, monitor the vitals continuously, give lifesaving drugs and transport the patient safely to the ER all the while being in contact with the doctors and nurses who will receive him. Jesus would have to modify his parable were he telling it today.

But his point remains. The Samaritan's concern for the victim and his actions to help him did not end at the inn. He continued to help and provide for the man. Even when he could not longer personally take care of the man, he paid for someone else to do so. He paid the whole cost. My recent surgery which ended a decade of pain and suffering cost over $140,000—so far. My co-pay and deductible are still thousands of dollars. I couldn't have managed it at all if I didn't have insurance. Instead it was covered by me and a lot of other people paying premiums that are a fraction of that. Jesus would have you pay all. The government and insurance companies don't, something to think about when complaining about healthcare costs for other people.

In the West, we enshrine the concept of rugged individualism, forgetting that no one accomplishes anything of note without help. Out of curiosity, I recently watched an episode of the new survival show Naked and Afraid. 2 people well versed in survival are dropped off in a wilderness location, naked, to see if they can survive for 21 days. (Don't worry: they blur the "naughty bits.") The episode I watched featured a 25 year veteran of the military who teaches survival to soldiers. He and his survival partner were dropped off on an African plain. As good as he was, he was nearly defeated by stepping on a thorn. His partner pulled it out but it got infected and eventually the show's crew had to intervene to keep him from getting septic. Had he been truly alone, he would have died. As it was the show allowed each person to take 1 survival item. In his case it was a very well-made heavy-duty knife, manufactured and shipped over paved roads, thanks to factories and transportation and interstate highway systems consisting of lots of other people. They could have had him make everything, which really would have reduced his probability of survival. There are whole industries who manufacture tools, dehydrated foods, manuals, entire underground shelters and the like for people who think they can survive world-wide catastrophes on their own. There is no comparing these high-tech-equipped survivalists with our ancestors who made do with a lot less and their own ingenuity. And the support of their communities.

The Bible tells us we are all one big family and science has backed that up, finding in our DNA evidence that we are all descended from one specific woman and one specific man. Some scientists argue that humanity can be viewed as one vast organism. You find that in the Bible as well. C. S. Lewis picked up on that in using his metaphor of "the good infection" to illustrate how what one person, Jesus, does can save all of humanity. Paul uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ to illustrate how all Christians are connected. The point is we are interdependent. We are born helpless infants; we are cared for and educated by others; we succeed largely due to getting breaks and support from others. Our daily lives are only possible due to many people providing services and goods, including food, and protecting us from disease and crime. But many fall through the cracks. Jesus tells us that whoever we encounter is our neighbor, whom we must help regardless of our personal feelings about the person.

Recently at the Lutheran Synod Assembly, I asked one of the candidates for bishop what one thing could a little church do to grow. And she said to ask ourselves “Who is my neighbor?” Then figure out what need our neighbor has that we could meet. And do so. That's basic, heart of the matter Christianity. It's what we should be doing anyway.

A lot of people came to Jesus just to be healed or to be fed. Then they heard him preach the gospel and decided to follow him. Loving our neighbor and bringing him to Jesus should not be totally separate activities. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out, people's most basic needs have to be taken care of before they have the ability to think of their spiritual needs. And, yes, some of those needs are taken care of by the government, albeit imperfectly and impersonally. But anyone who thinks there is nothing else to be done has his head in the sand.

I'm convinced that God is calling us to step up our game in loving our neighbors as ourselves. So I'm challenging each of you to think about these questions: Who are our neighbors? What are their needs? How can we meet some or one of those needs?  

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 195

The scriptures read are Proverbs 1-3, Psalm 10 and Galatians 6.

Proverbs 1: The intro to a book that alternates between long speeches and collections of aphorisms. They are primarily practical advice on how to live. Wisdom is personified as a lady on a street corner enticing people to take her up on what she has to offer for a change: not mindless pleasure but the pleasure of using your mind.

BTW, love Peterson's rendition of v. 19: "When you grab all you can get, that's what happens: the more you get, the less you are."

Proverbs 2. Make close friends with Lady Wisdom but stay away from the Seductress. (Kinda like The Natural, one woman is good, the other is bad.)

Proverbs 3. Note the creation imagery. Wisdom is the Tree of Life. Wisdom personified helps God in creation. It was such a concept that paved the way for the early Christians to see Jesus as the Wisdom of God and led them to see more than one person in the Godhead.

Notice that after trusting and honoring God, Proverbs goes right to loving your neighbor.

Psalm 10. This is a song about injustice and today especially, singing seems inappropriate. This powerful reading of the the psalm seems appropriate, though. Listen here.

Galatians 6. As usual, Paul wraps up the letter with a lot of ethical advice. Excellent advice. Correct others humbly, knowing you yourself are prone to stumble. Bear one another's burdens, fulling the law of Christ. Remember you reap what you sow. The important thing in any controversy is to focus on the cross of Christ. Nail to it that part of you that cares what the world thinks. Don't get cocky about your contribution but be mindful of God's part in making us new creations.