It is a fact of human history that revolutions almost always end up as something other than originally intended. The revolution of faith that God initiated in chapter 12 of Genesis, when Abraham obeyed God’s call in faith and moved from the land of his father to the land God chose for him, that revolution of faith has led to four thousand years of conflict in that land that we have mis-labeled “holy land.” What is holy about a land that has caused more bloodshed, more hatred than any other land on the planet? Already in chapter 13, we see the beginnings of what is to come, when Abraham and his nephew Lot agree to a parting of ways to avoid fighting over land.
But our lectionary reading for today, Genesis 13:12-18, avoids the reason for the separation of Lot and Abraham and jumps directly to God’s promise of the land that will be the source of so much conflict. Did God not know that this land would become the source of so much ungodly hatred? But that’s to ask the question from the wrong perspective. God did not write Genesis, people wrote it – people who had a vested interest in pressing claims on the land and the various promises God made. God has his own purposes; how those purposes are interpreted by humans and how they are put down on stone and paper is another thing.
Or are we to take the promises to Abraham and his descendants as another test, like the test in the garden? If it was a test, then we have failed royally, for 4,000 years! And we’re still failing, as the recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu clearly shows. One of the hymns of the Third Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, has these words:
Come, all you kindred of the nations (αἱ πατριαὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν), and let us honor the Cross of the Lord. Rejoice, O Cross, perfect redemption of fallen Adam. Glorying in you, our faithful kings laid low by your might the people of Ishmael.
These are the words of an imperial Orthodoxy facing the threat of Arabs (“the people of Ishmael”) in the Middle Ages. Today the land is the place where apocalyptic violence by followers of the three Abrahamic religions feed into dreams of “armageddon” that extremists in all three religions promote as literal interpretations of their “scriptures”!
Today’s reading from Isaiah 37:33-38:6 certainly does not help: “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (verse 35). The problem arises when scriptures are given a political spin that they don’t originally possess. God defends the city because of his own commitment to it and to David. But God also does not hesitate to destroy the city or hand it over to enemies of David. And we see this ambivalence throughout the historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures. The bottom line for God is not the political meaning of Jerusalem and the “holy land” but the presence of justice and righteousness.
The Hebrew word for justice is the same word for righteousness: tzedakah, צדקה. It is the same in Greek: δικαιοσύνη, one word for both concepts. In the mind of the biblical writers, justice and righteousness are two sides of the same thing. It’s only in the minds of some Christian interpreters of Paul’s letters that “righteousness” has become something narrower, defining a particular view of salvation. In interpreting Paul’s statements that we are not “justified” (=made righteous) by the “law” but by faith alone (Galatians 2:16 and elsewhere in Romans and Galatians), it seems to me that some Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater and have lost the double meaning of the one word in both Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Throw out the “justice” meaning out of some dogmatic concern not to do “works of the law” (Galatians 2:16 again) and you’re left with an inward-looking, one-on-one version of faith that has nothing to do with God’s abiding concern for social justice throughout the scriptures.
That’s also the danger with how we usually translate the 4th and 8th Beatitudes:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In both, the word in the original Greek text is δικαιοσύνη. When “righteousness” is only a personal virtue characterizing one’s relation to God, I can’t quite see how one might be “persecuted” for it. But people who hunger and thirst for “justice” and work for it might very well be persecuted, even in our allegedly enlightened modern age. They are the same people who are also “merciful” and “peacemakers” in the 5th and 7th Beatitudes.
In these Lenten Reflections I have not often referred to the daily readings from Proverbs, but today I choose to do so. Consider these assertions from today’s reading:
He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is kind to the needy honors him.
The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing,
but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity.
Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding,
but it is not known in the heart of fools.
Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people.
God’s view of righteousness is inseparable from acts of justice, both on the personal and national level.
The call to us today is the same as the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” But for us, the calling is not so much to leave our homes, but to leave our inherited thoughts behind, to encounter God with open minds and hearts, to learn anew the meaning of promises and to renew the revolution that has been thwarted. The abrahamic call to us is to join God’s revolution of faith and righteousness and justice! The revolution has been thwarted, but it is not dead or buried. As long as we can honestly encounter the scriptures as if for the first time, the revolution can happen again – a revolution of faith, a revolution of the renewed heart and mind that God seeks to cultivate in us. May Lent always be a time to pause and open our hearts to God’s renewing spirit.