Ancient Answers


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The Commandments of Theocracy

For many years evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States have been fighting for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, especially courthouses, city halls and legislatures. I have always understood this as only a political move to assert the mythology of America’s Christian origins. I see it as political because there is no theological rationale for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who claim salvation by faith alone and not by works to be so obsessed with placing the Ten Commandments on buildings. After all, they quote Saint Paul and his opposition to the law (meaning the Mosaic law, of course) every opportunity they get. They love Paul’s rejection of the Law, and yet they want to promote the heart and soul of the Mosaic Law! Go figure. But as I said, this is not a theological project; it is purely political and theocratic, the delusion of Christian nation.

The Ten Commandments have lasting value in and of themselves. They don’t need American theocrats to buttress them. They are essential building blocks of the covenants that God established with the people of Israel. But one has to question their validity outside the covenants with ancient Israel. One could accept the last six of the Ten Commandments (“words” as Exodus 20 calls them); they have some universal validity. But even among these last six commandments, there are questions that arise. What does it mean to honor father and mother? In the Mosaic Law, children are to be stoned to death if they disobey or rebel against their parents:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So along with the commandment to honor father and mother, will we also consider the punishment by death on those who don’t honor parents and who disobey their parents? After all, punishment is part of the bargain that a commandment implies.

As for adultery, of course it’s a sin. But put up this commandment in a courthouse? Are courts going to punish people who commit adultery? Moses of course said stone them to death. And how is one to define coveting, when our whole society is motivated by greed and competition?

But the real problem with the Ten Commandments lies in the first four; and I will claim that it is primarily for these first four that our evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats want to push the Ten Commandments into the public square. Let’s take the first four commandments one by one.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” If I am a Christian, I certainly will have no other god but the Lord. But the Lord did not bring me out of Egypt – perhaps out of slavery to sin, but certainly not out of slavery in the land of Egypt. This first commandment was God’s announcement of his covenant with the people of Israel whom he had just brought out of Egypt. It has nothing to do with me. My covenant with God is not rooted in an exodus from Egypt! And what right do I have to shove this commandment in the face of people who have no connection with the biblical narrative and worship a god of their own liberation?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” By this commandment, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians stand condemned. Regardless of how our traditions have rationalized the use of images in our churches, the evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats reject the Catholic and Orthodox use of images, so in their eyes we are transgressing against the second commandment. No wonder Orthodox and Catholics will not go up in the Rapture, right? Don’t make me throw up in your face, Mr. Evangelical Preacher!

But isn’t it ironic that the same theocrats who blast Catholic and Orthodox use of icons and statues like to start their worship services with the American National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag? When a conservative Evangelical or Baptist stands at attention at the start of a worship service with his or her right hand placed over his or her heart, how is that different from a Catholic or Orthodox venerating an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary? Granted the difference in theologies, I consider the veneration of flag in most Evangelical and Baptist churches a sheer example of idolatry and a clear violation of the second commandment. And finally, with respect to the second commandment: really, we are to promote the idea of God punishing the sins of parents to the third or fourth generation of children? Really, we should promote that image of God. Oh, I know, the theocrats only want to exhibit the short versions of the commandments – but that’s just dishonesty.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” Who can disagree with this commandment? And yet it is the most universally disobeyed of all ten commandments. So, good luck with this one.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” I love the Sabbath, but who observes the Sabbath besides observant Jews. Do Christians? Or have we replaced the Sabbath with Sunday? Yes, that’s exactly what the Christian church did back in the early centuries of Christendom. But do Christians even observe Sunday as a replacement for the Sabbath? How many of these theocrats resist the urge to go to the Mall on Sunday afternoon? And how many of them are out there watching their kids in team sports instead of being at worship? Oh, I forgot they don’t need to be at worship on Sunday morning because they prefer to go in the evening or Wednesday night instead. Those times are more convenient and do not interfere with kids sports. So how does anyone observe or honor, not the Sabbath, but the Sabbath idea?

But let’s return to that first commandment one last time. God begins by declaring, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” It begins there, that is the root cause and justification for everything that follows.

Consider now Exodus 22:20“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And Exodus 23:9“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the same way that the first commandment begins with a reminder of Egypt, so also the commandments about how strangers and foreigners are to be treated are based on reminders of Egypt. But these commandments hardly register in the minds of flag-worshipping theocrats, because then they would have to disagree with their government’s policies toward refugees and migrants. No, their idolatry of flag and country and guns must endure! But let’s not be fooled by their pretense of honoring the word of God. In their minds and hearts these are the commandments of theocracy, nothing more or less.

 


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A Love Song

The Bible is a love song. Western Christianity has turned the Bible into a dry source of doctrines and judgments, all neatly wrapped up so as to make sense to the boring lives of people who are immune to the immensity of divine imagination and romance. People struggle to understand why there is so much warfare and ugliness in the Bible, not just in the Old Testament but in the New Testament as well. But when you look more closely you see a God who is passionately in love with his people and struggles with their unfaithfulness. So when the Lord God pours out violence upon his people in their calamitous journey of faith and unfaith, you also hear him groaning with anguish and even self-doubt. The language is extremely human, earthy, physical and emotional. That’s because the Bible does not present us an abstract, distant God, “the man upstairs” that we have mockingly reduced him to. No, the biblical God is ever-present in the lives of his people and he experiences their torments as his own.

This passionate God is especially visible in what we call the “Old Testament”. I personally don’t like that term because it seems to make that part of the Bible as of less importance to Christians than the so-called “New Testament”. New is always better than Old, right? Not necessarily, as anyone can see about the newness of life in today’s world. There is nothing “old” about the first part of the Bible. It is as new as every word spoken by our Savior Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is the voice of the Lord Jesus that I hear and read every time I open the Psalms and the Prophets, and even many parts of the historical books and the “books of Moses”.

Jesus was the ultimate and final expression of the passionate God. Too bad that Christian tradition has turned Jesus into another remote deity, another version of “the man upstairs.” I love this little quote from Kahlil Gibran that I found in one of his books:

Once every hundred years Jesus of Nazareth

meets Jesus of the Christian

in a garden among the hills of Lebanon.

And they talk long.

And each time Jesus of Nazareth goes away

saying to Jesus of the Christian,

“My friend, I fear we shall never, never agree.

Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon and emigrated to the United States with his parents, but never left behind the earthy soul of the Middle East – that same earthy soul that formed the humanity of our Lord. There is something deeply monophysitic about how most Christian churches view and represent Christ. And so when we come to something like the Song of Songs we turn it into an allegory – a dry, passionless allegory. That’s what the Christian tradition did with this beautiful poem right smack in the middle of the Bible, from which our verse today is taken.

The Song of Songs is a love song. Most English translations call it the Song of Solomon – but the old Greek translation of the scriptures correctly calls it ΑΣΜΑ ᾀσμάτων. It is a dialogue between a man and his beloved. It is passionate, earthy and physical – much as God is represented in those “old” scriptures. But that does not make it an allegory. It is a love poem that the Hebrew editors of the Bible decided belongs as scripture – much as they also chose Ecclesiastes as scripture, even though it is hardly the most “orthodox” book of the Bible. The Song of Solomon is not an allegory of Christ and the Church, as Christian tradition has treated it. But the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels is indeed passionate and earthy. He did not wear a crown when he walked the hills and deserts of Judea; nor was he richly robed as we show him in our icons. He probably wore a plain white tunic – much as men still wear in the poorer regions of the Middle East and central Asia – and walked barefoot most of the time. He was a poor man among poor men and women. He embraced sinners and invited himself to dinner wherever he could. He did not wear his deity mightily. As Saint Paul told us, “he emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7). In this great passage in Philippians, Paul tells us that it is precisely because “he emptied himself” that he is our Lord and Savior! It is precisely because he became earthy and barefoot that he is our Lord and Savior. And Kahlil Gibran tells us that we are far from that Jesus of Nazareth.

So don’t turn Jesus into “the man upstairs” – he is among us: not as an allegory, but as the way, the truth and the life. It is time to rediscover the earthiness of the Bible, in all its gut-wrenching passions, love imagery, and even its violence. It is not a Hellenistic book of philosophy, nor a dispassionate book of ascetic nonsense. It is full of real humans and a real God who shares their lives. It is full of war and human hatreds, but also of human and divine love, and a lot of eating and drinking. So in our verse today, the lover takes his beloved to the “banqueting house”, in the usual English translations. The Hebrew text says beth hayyayin, meaning “the house of wine”! Even the old Greek translation of the scriptures, the so-called Septuagint, correctly translated it as οἶκον τοῦ οἴνου. Is it because teetotal Anglo-Saxons want to avoid all talk of wine, just as they turn the wine of communion into grape juice? But it was wine that Jesus drank; and it was with images of food and drink that he spoke parables of heaven and the kingdom of God. He was speaking biblical language, the earthy language of his people. And there was nothing ascetic in the language of Jesus.

So don’t turn away from the Bible because you find some of its language unacceptable. And don’t turn the “unacceptable” parts of the Bible into allegories. If you want to get your feet wet in the earthy language of the Bible, the Song of Songs is as good a place to start as any. As are the prophets, as are the Psalms, as are the historical books. But why not start with a love song? That’s what the Song of Songs is, and everybody loves a good love song.

 


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The Provocative Jesus

Two versions of the same Gospel story, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

First, Mark’s version:

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. 

Then, Matthew’s version:

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Mark calls her “Syrophoenician”, Matthew “Canaanite” – either way, a pagan, an outsider to the community of God’s people. She comes to the Jewish man of God as a beggar. Matthew writes that she called him Lord and Son of David. Perhaps that is the title that she heard other people calling him, for she a pagan would not “son of David” in her vocabulary. But more likely it is simply Matthew’s insertion, as Matthew among the four Gospel writers is the most concerned to refer to Jesus as son of David – 9 separate times in Matthew, only 2 in Mark, 2 in Luke, and none in John. And only in Matthew’s version does Jesus speak of “the house of Israel.” And only in Matthew does Jesus commend the woman’s faith! In Mark he simply commends “this word” (διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον) that she spoke to Jesus. I prefer to see Mark’s version as the more original version. Both Gospel writers recognize the Jewish-pagan contrast at the heart of this story, but by calling the woman a “Canaanite” Matthew places the encounter in the context of the ancient conflict between the Israelites and Canaanites. Matthew’s hand in his version is heavy indeed.

The much-missed late Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan reflected deeply on this passage in the Epilogue to his book, Sorrow Built a Bridge, Friendship and AIDS, a book in which he recounts his care of people with AIDS during the 1980s in the Supportive Care Program of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Berrigan’s ministry toward people with AIDS was one more chapter in his extraordinary life of resistance to the culture of death that reigns over much of human affairs. The fight against AIDS went hand in hand with his life-long fight against war and nuclear weapons and against social and government institutions that are indifferent to suffering, poverty and exclusion.

After quoting the passage from Mark’s version, Berrigan went on to write:

I commend this text to you, and to my own soul. Many of us have, we are told, for different reasons, something less than a human claim on the bread of Christ; which is to say, on his attentiveness, his response, his healing. Certain claims are neither large nor persuasive. What, after all, is the worth of a canine claim, proceeding as it does from a dog’s life? … Those securely in possession, established where they sit – they are given to glances, words, slamming of doors in faces, such acts as might improve the occasion when a stray dog enters a banquet hall. Or a church.

Berrigan is speaking to me and you. He is provocative as he always was in his books and in his life work. As a Catholic who devoted his life’s work to human suffering and exclusion, he cannot avoid bringing the “bread of Christ” into his meditation – the exact thing that most Christians, and certainly we Orthodox, do not date to do. Imagine that, bringing the holiest of the sacraments into a discussion about AIDS and a pagan woman’s encounter with Jesus!

The church has more rules about participation in the Eucharist – the communion of the body and blood of Christ – than about anything else. The modern rules that most people grew up with are pathetic – rules about food, sex, and other trivialities. Of greater importance are the developments during the formative centuries of Orthodox theology and jurisprudence. The bishops who met at the various ecumenical councils could not find enough reasons to exclude as many people as possible from communion! They were certain that God had entrusted them with protecting the holy sacrament from defiled hands and souls.

Jesus provoked the Syrophoenician woman by calling her a dog. In doing so, Jesus was parodying the way most Jews mocked pagans. But the woman had substance, she would not go away just because a man treated her this way. She met Jesus’ insult head on and earned his respect and her daughter’s healing. When the church today refuses communion, are we treating people as “dogs”? Do we exclude where Jesus included?

Last Sunday morning an elderly man of a rather haggard appearance walked into our church during Matins and clearly wanted to speak with the priest. I was in the midst of a service and obviously I could not attend to him. I actually felt bad as I saw him leave the church, and I placed myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Was I like the priest or the levite who were more intent on their religious duties than to care for the wounded man? Had I put my liturgical responsibility above hearing a man’s cry for help? I struggled with those thoughts as I continued Matins and Liturgy. However, after Liturgy was over, I was told what this man uttered on his way out: “I thought this was a church for whites!” Clearly he was disappointed to see black people in our church. He walked into our church that morning, intent even to interrupt a service in progress, to ask for money. This happens quite often in our church as we are an inner-city parish. And yet, this needy man could not avoid spewing out his racist filth.

Very rarely indeed are moral lines clearly drawn or visible. Human behavior never ceases to surprise and confuse. But whether it’s a man spewing racial hatred or governments keeping people out or religions seeing the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are heading for disaster unless we begin to take Jesus seriously – not in the apocalyptic terms that many American Christians do, but in the terms he defines in the various Gospel stories that show us his true face.

The December issue of National Geographic magazine has a challenging article by Jared Diamond that paints in convincing terms competition for the earth’s limited resources as more and more people and nations aim to achieve the same standard of living we are used to. The results will be disastrous for the planet unless governments – starting with our own – take steps to decrease income inequality and the chasm between rich and poor. Unless a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources is achieved, the growing clamor of people to have what we have will spell disaster before this century is out. The article is available online. It’s well worth reading if you care about the world around you, or the world your children or grandchildren will live in.

The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is a parable for today. It should provoke us to think deeply about how we view others. But more importantly, it is a parable for governments and churches. Who do we exclude? Who do we treat like ‘dogs’? And when are we who call ourselves Christians start following the example of Jesus?


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Reflections on the Sistine Madonna

I came upon a story called The Sistine Madonna, by Vasily Grossman, a writer and survivor of Soviet and Nazi antisemitism. A black and white picture of the painting Sistine Madonna was included in the story, so my curiosity was piqued. I found a good quality color reproduction of this painting and I wish to share with you my thoughts.

The Sistine Madonna (click to enlarge)

The Sistine Madonna is a painting by the great Renaissance artist, Raphael. It shows Mary in full standing form holding the Christ child who is looking straight at us. It is called the Sistine Madonna not because it was in the Sistine Chapel, but rather it was commissioned in 1512 by Pope Julius II for the church of San Sisto. It is an incredibly human painting of the young Mary, her face glowing with motherly love. As a matter of fact I would say that this painting shows Mary as a human mother more than any icon I have ever seen. Our icons tend to emphasize the transcendent rather than the earthly. 

I like talking about Mary, the mother of Christ. Yes, she is Theotokos, the Mother of God, and all those other amazing titles the church has bestowed upon her. But I like to think of her simply as Mary, Miriam, the young Jewish girl who was chosen by God for a most amazing miracle. In three days the Orthodox Church celebrates her entrance into the Temple in Jerusalem. The sheer irony never ceases to amaze me. The church celebrates the entrance into the holy of holies by a girl – something strictly forbidden by Jewish laws – and yet after 2,000 years the church still does not allow women or girls to serve in the altar in any way! As I said, irony.

I was so overcome by the beauty of this painting that I took the upper portion of it and made it the wallpaper of my computer. So when I turn on my computer I immediately see the two faces touching each other and looking out toward me, toward all human beings. Mary looks a bit to her left while Christ looks straight at me. It is with my humanity, with your humanity, that Christ looks out. Looking at Christ I see my humanity in all its glory and all its sorrows and deficiencies. It’s all there. And Mary holds the Christ tenderly but firmly, as if to protect him from what the world will unleash against him. And we know that Mary did precisely that. The Gospels tell us that she kept a close watch on him and even tried to pull him away from combative encounters with the religious leaders.

Sistine Madonna – enlargement of top portion (click to further enlarge)

The Mary that I see in this painting is the Mary who sang the Magnificat in Luke, chapter 1. Do you know it? She spoke these words when she was pregnant. We sing her words at every matins service. 

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm,

he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones,

and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”

She considers herself a humble handmaiden – but she is also a rebel and rejoices in the downfall of the mighty. As she looks slightly to her left in this painting she is perhaps imagining those centuries in the future when the mighty of the earth will try to refute her prophetic words by enlisting her son to their ambitions. And she holds her child tight. She does not want to see him used and abused by 2,000 years of human greed and hatred. But she does not hold him so tight as to restrain him from facing his destiny – his destiny on Golgotha; but also his destiny as Savior and Judge. So the child looks straight at us and 2,000 years of human history, with a look of defiance and already a look of judgment. The face of the Christ child in this painting reminds me of the Star Child at the end of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both images strike deep chords in me. 

Regardless the subtext that I’m reading into the Sistine Madonna, it remains a profoundly beautiful painting. It is profoundly humane, full of sorrowing compassion. It confronts us with questions: Do we see our humanity in Christ? Do we see the love of a mother and the love of a savior who is one of us? And do you see the unity that calls us forward in these times of profound danger? There is one body and one spirit, Paul tells us today in his letter to the Ephesians. We are called to unity, despite how much division and hatred keeps spreading in the world around us. Grossman lived through the decades of Nazi terror, world war, and Stalinist tyranny. As humanity was disappearing around him, he found humanity in this painting. Every one of us can be a beacon of humanity, Christ humanity! Only then do we prove to the world that Mary’s life was not in vain. That she who once held Christ in her arms is now held in his arms. It’s there, in his loving embrace that we find our true humanity.


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Leviticus to the rescue!

What is the least popular book in the Bible? Most people would say, Leviticus! For very good reason, as Leviticus consists mostly of laws that Moses gave to the people of Israel. And many of these laws are the kind of thing that give the Bible a bad name among many modern people. And yet, the central theme of Leviticus is HOLINESS. God is HOLY, and God’s people are called to be holy. God “separated” the Jews from the peoples of the world in the sense that they were set apart to be holy. This was to be the quality that identified them as God’s people. This matter of holiness was not meant for the people of Israel to feel superior to others; it was not a matter of ego inflating! It was a matter of their mission in the world.

I needed some uplifting inspiration when I logged into my Logos account at midnight to see what today’s verse might be, and I was very happy to see this verse from Leviticus. I had spent the afternoon watching Simon Rattle’s final concert this past June as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The program was Mahler’s 6th Symphony, an overwhelming 85 minutes of music and an overwhelming performance by the greatest symphony orchestra in the world.  I got into the Mahler mood and continued by listening to couple older recordings of Mahler symphonies. But in the midst of Mahler, I turned to my Apple Music library and came upon John Lennon’s Christmas Song. One verse caught my attention: “And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, for rich and the poor ones, the world is so wrong,” But for some reason, I didn’t hear “the world is so wrong.” I heard “the world is so young.” And I thought, wow, what a great line, John! But then I went back to play the song again and I turned on the Lyrics that Apple Music provides and I realized that I had not heard correctly. “The world is so wrong,” were the words John Lennon sang. But I think the song would be better if John had sung what I thought I heard, “the world is so young”! “Young” brings hope, and it seems that’s what I wanted to hear. “Young” brings hope that we can overcome what is wrong with the world and once again rediscover God’s call to be holy. “The world is so young” can be the antidote we need to apocalyptic visions of an aging world and a humanity that has lost its ethical moorings and will to live.

I still have not recovered from the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue two Sabbaths ago. It continues to haunt me and it has caused me to question so much of who we are. I can’t shake off the conviction that we Christians will be judged by God for how we have treated the Jews through the centuries. Every year I cringe at some of the words we read or chant during Holy Week services. The blatant anti-semitism that the Orthodox Church still promotes in our theology and hymnography is indefensible – especially after the Holocaust. And especially as we see antisemitism again on the rise. Will the Church ever wake up to the poison that medieval words and superstitions perpetuate? All the shows of solidarity with the Jews that our ecclesiastical leaders parade for photo ops will not erase our continuing guilt. When will we say, Enough, we will no longer use such horrible words in our worship?

There is wrong in the world, John Lennon, but the world is not wrong. As long as there is a holy God and people who are called to be holy, we can hope that we will see again that the world is beautiful and longs to be holy together with God’s people. Even Paul said something like this in chapter 8 of Romans. Read the whole chapter, you won’t regret it. Leviticus tells us what is the mission of God’s people in the world: to be holy, to bring to reality a different standard by which we live and by which we view each other and our beautiful world. The Jews through their adherence to those antiquated laws of Leviticus are showing that they have not forgotten their original calling. And they have survived thousands of years of persecution because they are and always will be GOD’S PEOPLE! I wonder when we Christians will realize that our calling and destiny are to unite with them in holiness. Holiness is not limited to monks who supposedly pray for the world; nor is holiness for those who the Church decided should be called “saints.” Holiness is the mission of all God’s people. Two thousand years later we still don’t get it. And that’s why “the world is so wrong.”


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Parables of Surprise

The Sunday Lectionary after feast of Cross in September offers various combinations of Epistle and Gospel readings that break the normal pairings – at least in the Greek tradition. Today’s readings, Ephesians 2:4-10 and Luke 16:19-31, offer an interesting juxtaposition: faith or works? Paul says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” But our Gospel passage today seems to focus only on whether the rich man showed kindness on Lazarus.

Chapters 15 & 16 in the Gospel of Luke are rich with parables – and all deal with what it means to be lost. After two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus turns to three big parables with human characters. As if to underline that these are human, all-too-human stories, each parable begins with the phrase ἄνθρωπός τις – there was a man, anthropos. The parable of the prodigal son we read every year before Lent. The parable of the shrewd manager we don’t read on a Sunday, but it also is a gem of a story. The third parable is the one we read today, the rich man and Lazarus.

Each story features central characters who are lost in different ways. Then in each story grace enters and reverses the plotline. Paul told us today: God “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Did you catch that? It’s not just a promise of a future life; we’re already sitting with Christ in the heavenly places! The immeasurable riches of grace are a future promise, but the present is already a life lived in rich fellowship with Christ. This is precisely what happened to all the main characters in our parables.

The younger brother was lost in sin; but he repented, changed his mind, and entered life. The older brother was lost in pride and ego, but the door was opened to him also to join the celebration of life. And let’s not forger that Jesus’ favorite image for eternal life was a banquet! The father in the parable was not lost, but he also found redemption of sorts by showing kindness to both his sons. You don’t have to be lost to receive grace and redemption. The father found a deeper life through the redemption of his two sons. Profound!

The shrewd manager in the parable we don’t read on a Sunday was lost because of his dishonesty, but found redemption by using his dishonesty in a way that somehow met with Christ’s approval. Who ever said the Gospels are boring or irrelevant? Maybe Jesus was a capitalist after all! (Okay, I’m joking.)

In today’s parable, Lazarus is lost in poverty, hunger and invisibility. But he is raised from the dehumanized squalor of dogs licking his wounds to life in “the bosom of Abraham.” The rich man is lost in his self-absorbed luxury. Redemption of some sort comes to him too! He now sees Lazarus as if for the first time. Is it too late for him? The parable clearly indicates that it is; but he does try to prevent his five brothers from coming to the same end as he. Plus, he is in Hades. That’s not Hell. As a matter of fact, Hades was a Greek mythological concept: the place of the dead. Luke, the writer of this Gospel, was a Greek, not a Jew, so it is very possible that he inserted the language of Hades and made it a place of torment; whereas for the ancient Greeks it was not necessarily a place of punishment or torment. It’s highly unlikely that Jesus himself would have used the word Hades. He might have said, Sheol, and Luke turned it to Hades. Sheol in the Hebrew mind was not much different from the Greek Hades – not a place of torment, but a place of darkness and separation from God.

So all three of these parables with the ἄνθρωπός τις headline, have surprising elements. In each parable something takes place in and around grace that reverses “the way things are.” There’s a message there for us too. Never settle for the way things are. Our Lord is the master of surprises. So the entire question of faith vs. works is meaningless. Grace is the only thing that matters. And grace is unpredictable in its coming and in its effects. Prepare to be surprised – here in this life and in the life to come.


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Bless, do not curse!

The two verses highlighted today come from Psalm 67 – a short psalm. But verses 3-4 have to be read with the first two verses of this psalm. So let me quote the first four verses of Psalm 67.

May God be gracious to us and bless us 
and make his face to shine upon us, Selah 
that your way may be known on earth, 
your saving power among all nations. 
Let the peoples praise you, O God; 
let all the peoples praise you! 
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, 
for you judge the peoples with equity 
and guide the nations upon earth. Selah 

The psalm begins with a paraphrase of the famous blessing in the Book of Numbers (6:24-26):

The LORD bless you and keep you; 
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; 
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. 

So Psalm 67 takes the blessing of Numbers and turns it into a prayer for the whole people of Israel. But for what purpose? So they will be healthy and wealthy? It doesn’t appear that the prayer is so self-serving as that. Quite the contrary, the psalm asks for God’s blessing and grace; the psalm asks for God’s face to shine upon the people – so that God’s ways can be made known to all the earth and so the nations may praise God and sing with joy. It is a vision of global joy, peace and knowledge of God. But it starts with the people, God’s people. Only God’s people can ask such a prayer. And only God’s people can spread the blessing to all the nations.

But the psalm is a prayer, it is not a vision of a reality that exists. It is a vision of what our mission in the world should be. God will judge the nations with equity, the psalm says. God will judge all the nations and all the people of the earth equally and fairly. We are not the judges, God is the judge. But we are here to bring God’s blessing to all the earth. Instead of the hatred that is rapidly spreading throughout the world, we are to be a counterweight. If hateful people dominate the social media we should flood those same social media with messages of love, acceptance and blessing. Bless, do not curse, the Bible tells us (Romans 12:14). This is our purpose. If we are people of God we are here to bless the people of the world, the nations, the earth. As a matter of fact, let me quote that whole paragraph in Romans 12; it is the exact opposite of the hatred that drove the shooter in Pittsburgh last Saturday:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Does someone you know speak hate toward anyone or any group of people? Stand up to that person and speak up for love and acceptance. Do not allow any racist or hateful talk to to be spoken or written without challenging it. Whether in speech or in email or in social media, stand up to hate speech with words of blessing. And leave the judgment to God. Speech matters, words matter.

Did you notice the word Selah in the verses of Psalm 67? The same word is found in many of the psalms, but no one is sure what it meant. Perhaps it indicated a musical interlude. Perhaps it indicated a place to stop and meditate on the words, perhaps a sign to be silent for a bit before continuing. The psalms are prayers. We do well to read them slowly and allow their message to sink in so we can be inspired to do what they are gently telling us to do. And as I’ve said many other times, the psalms also often contain words of hate and revenge – because many times those are our honest reactions. Many of us I’m sure felt hate for the Pittsburgh shooter. But it’s not the same hate that drove him. Nevertheless, this is the cathartic aspect of the psalms that allows us to bring our own gut reactions before God and allow God’s healing to act on us. Perhaps if the shooter had paused and allowed his hatred to be healed by the psalms he would not have carried out such a heinous act. So listen to that word Selah, and take a break from what you’re doing and what you’re feeling, to enter the world of God’s shining presence. And may the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you.

P.S. After writing the above I came upon this extraordinary commentary in today’s New York Times.