Saturday Night Theologian
23 March 2003

Exodus 20:1-17

Since the United States launched an unprovoked attack on Iraq this week, it's hard to imagine a more appropriate lectionary reading that the Ten Commandments. Certainly the sixth commandment, "You shall not kill," is timely. Or, for those who suspect that the attack is motivated at least in part by interests in Iraq's oil fields, maybe the eighth command, "You shall not steal," is a proper topic for discussion. In the light of certain evidence adduced as justification for going to war, perhaps it would be apropos to talk about the ninth commandment, "You shall not bear false witness." However, I don't want to focus on any of these; instead, I think it is vital to look again at the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me." It's easy to criticize the leaders who make the decision whether or not to go to war, as well as those who have believed for months that attacking Iraq was the right thing to do. But what about those who were undecided, or had mixed feelings, or thought war at this time was probably wrong, but are now heeding the call to back the president and support the troops. Christians should always pray for the president and for the safety of our troops around the world, but what we're being asked to do is put aside our doubts about the legitimacy of this particular war, about our opinions of right and wrong, and go along with our government's decision without further question. In short, we're being asked to put the god of patriotism before the God of the universe. Anytime we feel pressured to abandon our convictions as Christians and voice our assent to national policies on the grounds of patriotism, we're being asked to violate the first commandment. Christianity takes precedence over patriotism; the Christian flag belongs on the pole above the American (or any other) flag. It's difficult to be a Christian in countries where the government is hostile to the faith, but perhaps it's even harder in countries where the government uses the words of faith to usurp the loyalty of its citizens. It is better to be guilty of rejecting the policies of one's country than to be guilty of rejecting the principles of one's faith. "You shall have no other gods before me!"

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Psalm 19

One of the most powerful and moving pieces in the choral repertoire is based on Psalm 19 and is part of Haydn's Creation. In the context of describing the fourth day of creation, the first verse of this psalm is repeated, surrounded by the three angels' exposition:

Chorus: The heavens are telling the glory of God,
The firmament displays the wonder of his works.

Trio (Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael): To day that is coming speaks it the day,
The night that is gone, to following night.

Chorus: The heavens are telling the glory of God,
The firmament displays the wonder of his works.

Trio: In all the land resounds the word,
Never unperceived, ever understood.

Chorus: The heavens are telling the glory of God,
The firmament displays the wonder of his works.
Who hasn't shuddered at the power of God in a thunderstorm, or experienced the majesty of God when gazing at the Milky Way, or sensed the presence of God in a sunrise, or felt the awe of God when looking for the first time at a newborn baby? We don't always have these feelings; in fact, sometimes God seems to hide from us. It's probably a good thing that we're not constantly aware of the greatness of God, for who could endure it? But from time to time, when we need it most, God reveals himself through his creation. Science can tell us much about the mechanics of the universe, about the origins of galaxies, even about the evolution of life, but these explanations only add to our amazement at the God who exists beyond the universe, yet at the same time infuses each and every atom with the divine presence.

For other discussions of this passage, click here or here.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

If Haydn's Creation deals with the sublime, the Grateful Dead's Truckin' deals with the mundane, but one stanza captures a sense of wonder, and even confusion, that everyone feels from time to time. In fact, if Jesus had been familiar with the lyrics, they might have been running through his mind as he stumbled along the Via Dolorosa carrying the cross.

Sometimes the light's all shining on me,
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it's been.
The Jews who were looking for a messiah expected a king in the mold of David who would lead them to victory over the Romans and reestablish their kingdom. The Greeks who were raised in the philosophical traditions of Socrates and Plato, Zeno and Epicurus looked for a teacher who could enlighten their minds. Others in the Roman Empire of the first century sought salvation through the rituals of the mystery religions or the secret knowledge of various Gnostic groups. No one--no one--envisioned God revealing himself in the person of a common criminal, crucified on a cross. Even in India, where gods were believed to take human form and walk among the people, the idea that one of these avatars would be nailed to a cross was unimaginable. However, God is able to incorporate what people consider ridiculous into his divine plan for humanity. Today the cross is a popular symbol. People wear crosses in the ears and around their necks, they worship in great cathedrals laid out in the shape of a cross, and they cross themselves when praying. Too rarely, though, do we remember that the cross was a symbol of suffering, shame, and terror before it was a symbol of power. That God's chosen one could be called upon to endure the cross is a mystery that human intellect cannot comprehend, yet it is the very wisdom of God. Alongside our contemporary appreciation of the power of the cross, we should remember that when Jesus willingly took his long, strange trip to the cross, he made it a symbol of self-sacrifice. Whereas we're happy to bask in the glory of the cross, are we equally ready to follow our master's example and sacrifice our lives to follow him?

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

John 2:13-22

When Jesus arrives in the temple precincts in Jesus Christ Superstar, he is confronted with people selling sheep, doves, postcards, mirrors, guns, and hand grenades. The scene suggests that almost anything, from a lust for military conquest, to the banalities of everyday life, even to the ritual of worship itself, can compete for our loyalty to God. In the biblical account, when Jesus says, "You are making my Father's house a marketplace," the word he uses is that from which we derive the English word "emporium." What began as a matter of convenience for travelers unable to bring sacrificial animals to the temple from afar had turned into a money-making operation. A Marxist analysis of the passage would see in Jesus' statement a condemnation of capitalism, because the sellers and the moneychangers were taking advantage of a captive audience of the faithful, mostly poor. Though that reading is possible, I would like to return to the theme discussed in the section on the Ten Commandments, above, and suggest that Jesus was angry because the institution that was supposed to promote the worship of God was instead turning people's attention elsewhere, in violation of the first commandment. Although the commandment is usually translated, "You shall have no other gods before me," the ambiguity of the English word "before" can lead to a misunderstanding. The words "before me" might better be translated "in my presence." It is not a matter of putting God first and other things second; it is a matter of putting God first and nothing else second. To the extent that the church today encourages other objects of loyalty-- whether the nation, the denomination, the programs of the church, or even the church itself--alongside God, it is subliminally telling people that it's OK to substitute devotion to an institution for devotion to God. Institutions can provide good guidance for their constituencies, but they are not always right, and Christians need to be reminded of that on a regular basis.