Ancient Answers

Leave a comment

Abraham in the Center


Last week I speculated why our churches – including our own here in Portland – are slowly emptying. My answer last week was two-fold: Our Orthodox Church has forgotten its purpose to be a place of healing, and people simply don’t think they need healing – or to put it more radically, they don’t need Jesus. Or they think they don’t need Jesus!

Today we have two readings (2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9 and Luke 16:19-31) that remind us of what used to be the reason why people went to church. For many centuries, the church had two weapons that kept people coming: The promise of heaven and the threat of hell. Promises of heaven can motivate many people, but nothing motivates like fear. So the church for many centuries used the weapon of fear to keep people coming back and staying in their places or pews.

Today the fear of hell has gone from most people. And as for heaven – well, if there is heaven God is going to let everyone in, so what’s the big deal? Why should I go to boring Liturgy? Or fast? Or pray? Or worry about the commandments or how I live my life? Why worry about sin? There is no hell, and if there is heaven God is going to let me in no matter how I live my life. Fear does not work any more. And promises of heaven only seem to work with jihadist terrorists. So what are we to make of today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus if I can’t use it to scare anyone?

Let’s start with Abraham since he is in my opinion the real central character. Notice that Lazarus doesn’t speak, and the rich man only speaks with Abraham; even when he requests a favor from Lazarus, he asks it through Abraham. So Abraham is the central character. What was Abraham to a Jew? Abraham was the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). He is the father of Jews, Christians and Moslems. In the Bible’s language, Adam was the man of dust, the first man. But no one in the Bible looks to Adam as his/her father. They look to Abraham. The rich man now calls him father Abraham, but while he was alive, he ignored the man at his doorstep who also had Abraham as his father!


So the poor man Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham in the parable, while the rich man looks on from afar. What else does Abraham represent in the Bible? He represents hospitality. In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah welcomed three men to their home in the desert, and without knowing it they offered hospitality to angels. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 – clearly referring to this incident) In our own tradition, we represent the three men who visited Abraham and Sarah as angels, but angels who also represent God. And that’s because in the Genesis story, Abraham addresses the three men as Lord – Yahweh! So when Jesus tells us, I was hungry and thirsty and you gave me food and drink; I was naked and you clothed me – he was thinking of Abraham’s kindness and hospitality. Abraham is our example of hospitality. The rich man calls Abraham his father, but he did not do what Abraham did.

Finally, in that same chapter 18 of Genesis, the three men who visit Abraham and Sarah are on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. When Abraham hears of this, he pleads with God and bargains. What if there are 50 righteous people there, will God still destroy? No, God will spare the place for the sake of the 50. What if there are 45? I will not destroy it. How about 40? And so on. Finally, what if there are 10 righteous people there? For the sake of ten I will not destroy it, God says and walks off. And we know the rest of the story. The rich man perhaps remembered the story of how Abraham was even able to bargain with God so he now hopes Abraham can do some bargaining on his behalf.

So Abraham represented three things relevant to the two men in today’s parable and to us: their/our common fatherhood, hospitality, and intercession with God. The rich man failed in all three, and Abraham had nothing with which to help him. Remember, Abraham had pleaded if there were ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah! The rich man in today’s parable was not a righteous man – Abraham could not plead for him.

Finally, the rich man begs for a message to be sent to his brothers. Ah, there’s the fear motivation. Maybe they can be scared to doing things differently so they don’t end up in the same place as he. It doesn’t work that way, Abraham replies. Fear does not work – he could be speaking to today’s people. If the man’s brothers haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, they won’t believe even if some one should rise from the dead and go to them. And here my message today re-unites with last week’s message. When people think they’re just fine thank you, they don’t need Jesus. And they don’t need the church or the sacraments. And they certainly won’t be scared by any parables such as the one we heard today. So let’s do for them what Abraham would do. Treat them as our brothers & sisters, offer them hospitality in our hearts and whenever they do return, and above all, lets intercede for them. Let’s pray for them. Then we might become the church that draws people back.


Revolution thwarted – but not dead

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: tzedakahצדקה. 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.



Only Two Ways to be Honest with God

In thinking about today’s reading from Genesis 12:1-7, I can’t find something better to write than what Mike Mair wrote a couple months ago about this passage. He is a biblical blogger in Scotland whom I’ve quoted in the past and who has posted some responses to my own posts. I obtained his permission to quote his commentary here. His original blog post can be found here.

This begins a new section of the book of Genesis: the story of the beginnings of humanity in general is complete and the story of Israel begins. Of course, the author has planned this from the start. He wants to say that God’s solution to the problem of his out-of-control creature, humanity, is to persuade some of humanity to learn his goodness and to represent it in the world. We should wonder at this strange tactic. Why can God not control what he has made? The answer is evident in the story of Noah: he could wipe out humanity but he cannot force a creature made in his image to obey him; so unless he wants to start all over again he has to find another tactic. He has to persuade humanity of its own free will to go his way. So we have to see his work with Avram and his descendants as an expression of his faithfulness to his creation and to his human creatures especially.

Persuasion, even divine persuasion, starts with one person, in this case Avram, a descendant of Shem, whose father Terah has moved from Ur of the Chaldees, more accurately in Sumer, to Harran in the territory of the Mitanni, on the border of modern Syria and Turkey. The accompanying map shows the extent of the migration. Ancient sources record a variety of nomadic peoples whose journeys took them across the borders of great empires like Sumer and Egypt. Avram’s family is identified as already nomadic, since his father has migrated from Ur to Harran. The command of the Lord, therefore is not utterly foreign to Avram, but it is presented as decisive. There is no preliminary explanation given by the author, just a command: Go-you-forth. It is not an aimless journey, however because a destination is declared: “the land that I will give you”, which is identified within a few verses as Canaan. Both the author and his original audience know that this is the land of Israel, the land promised.


The command of God points to a future in which Avram and his descendants will enjoy God’s blessing but will also be carriers of God’s blessing to the human family. This is God’s solution to the problem of humanity. Avram is to BE a blessing to others. God  cannot simply bless his creatures! The blessing has to come through creatures who have been persuaded of God’s goodness and will in turn persuade others. This is a very strange concept of deity. As the passage tells it, God needs Avram more than Avram needs God.

Avram’s ready response is made clear; he moves out of Harran with his wife and his own complete household. Other members of his family remain but his nephew goes with him, along with the “people they had made-their-own”, that is, workers and slaves. Avram is not exploring, he is moving house. 

Ancient landmarks such as Shekhem, Moreh and Beth-El are noted in connection with Avram’s places of sacrifice to YHWH, but the crucial detail is that Avram “sees” YHWH, that is, he has a vision of him. In the story of Avram and subsequently in Genesis, God no longer talks person to person as he does to Noah, but is a little more distant; perhaps there is a vision or a sign, or a messenger, or several messengers, but the communication is a little less direct than in chapters 1-11. Some have suggested that the author wants to depict Avram as the first of the “seers” or prophets of Israel. In any case the verb “to see” will play an important part in his story.

Holy-Patriarch-AbrahamThe narrative makes God’s promise crystal clear: “I will give this land to your seed”; and shows Abraham’s acceptance of it by his establishing of sacrifice sites and his journeying through the land. The reader is left in no doubt that this passage records a new, distinctive vision of God. Some of what has seemed contradictory and inexplicable in chapters 1-11, now becomes comprehensible as the long-term strategy of God is made clear.

Most of us read this beginning of Abraham’s story with a sense of removal. We don’t hear the voice of God telling us to get up and go somewhere. But then we’re not Abraham and our ears are too busy listening to other voices. Today’s reading of Isaiah 29:13-23 speaks to our own experience as followers of Christ who struggle to preserve some authenticity and wholeness in our faith walk. But immediately before this reading come two verses (29:11-12) that are simply amazing:

And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”

The illiterate cannot read. But neither can the literate read, because “it is sealed.” What is sealed? The prophecies, the scriptures! Who sealed them? The rulers of the people, who are labeled as “scoffers” in 28:14. But more immediately here in chapter 29 (verses 9-10), the prophets!

Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor,
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not with wine;
    stagger, but not with strong drink!
For the Lord has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes, the prophets,
    and covered your heads, the seers.

It is a horrifying vision. What hope is there for the people when even the prophets no longer receive the words of God? This is the famine that the prophet Amos warned about:

famine 1“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God,
    “when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
    but of hearing the words of the Lord.

This is why we have trouble relating to Abraham’s hearing the voice of God. We are living in the time of famine! Yes, millions of copies of the Bible are printed every day in every known language of the planet. In English alone we have who knows how many translations and versions that you can pick up in a local bookstore or order from Amazon and have delivered to your door by UPS! It would appear that there is plenty of Bible going around. And yet, there is a famine – because the people of God are in a drunken stupor of materialism and comfortable Christian lives (so-called). Were these words spoken by God only for the dwellers of Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time?

“Because this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote. (29:13)

Woe to those who hide deep from the Lord their counsel,
    whose deeds are in the dark,
    and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
You turn things upside down!
    Shall the potter be regarded as the clay;
that the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”? (29:15-16)

How many of us do not shiver when reading these words? And yet, we claim to read the Bible! Every year, on the Monday of Holy Week, at the evening service of the Bridegroom, the Gospel reading includes all of chapter 23 of Matthew. I don’t know how I make it through that reading every year or how I don’t hang up my vestments and quit on the spot. I don’t know how anyone in the Orthodox Church makes it through that reading! I don’t know how any priest or bishop of the Orthodox Church can read that Gospel and not quit or start a revolution of faith! Those are the only two options it seems to me.

These are the only two ways that we can be honest with God: Either quit or start a revolution! Everything else, everything in between, is lip service. This easygoing relationship we have with God, church tradition, the Bible, and with our own consciences – it’s all dishonest. God started a revolution with Abraham. By the time of Isaiah, the revolution was long in the past and easy believism ruled the lives of the people. But even here, God was ready to do something new, to renew the revolution that had started with Abraham:

Therefore, behold, I will again
    do marvelous things with this people,
    wonderful and marvelous… (29:14)

In that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (29:18-19)

Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:

“Jacob shall no more be ashamed,
    no more shall his face grow pale.
For when he sees his children,
    the work of my hands, in his midst,
    they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
    and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
    and those who murmur will accept instruction.” (29:22-24)

I pray that God can still do this renewal. I pray that God can still renew the fire of revolution in the church and in the hearts of all who want to follow Jesus. May the cloud and sleep that have come over our faith be dispelled once again, and may the famine cease. As Mike wrote in his post that I’ve quoted above, Abraham is not exploring, he is moving house. We also need to move house, and there’s a lot of moving to do! May Lent challenge us every year with these readings from Genesis and Isaiah to set a moving date.