Saturday Night Theologian
25 January 2004

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of citizens of the North and citizens of the South and their different readings of the Bible. "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged." Lincoln was being deferential to Southerners, but as a Southerner myself, and 129 years after the fact, I don't have to be. Those who used the Bible to justify slavery were wrong, because slavery was an affront to God, and it always was. What about those passages in the Bible that were used to support the institution of slavery? "Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (Genesis 9:25). "When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner's property" (Exodus 21:20-21). "Slaves, obey your masters" (Ephesians 6:5). Proponents of slavery used these passages and others to justify their oppression of other human beings. Those today who reject the idea of slavery, yet believe in an inerrant Bible, are forced to explain away the rather obvious meaning of these portions of scripture. The explanation I have heard the most frequently is that at one time in history God allowed slavery, but because of the new revelation of God revealed in Jesus Christ, slavery is no longer acceptable. Aside from the obvious fact that Ephesians postdates Christ, such an interpretation turns God into a proponent of slavery, putting God on the side of oppression and racism, all in the name of preserving the inerrancy of scripture! For me, a better explanation of passages like those cited above is that those who wrote them simply got it wrong. Blinded by their own culture and worldview, they misunderstood God. To that charge, no one is immune, including those of us living at the beginning of the third millennium. Postmodernists remind us that we are all shaped by our worldview, and we interpret everything, including the Bible, through that lens. I don't think that precludes some absolute statements, such as "slavery is wrong," but it does mean that we all need to be extremely careful when we interpret scripture, doing our best to read it in the light of the revelation of Christ. When Ezra read the book of the law to the Jews in Jerusalem, many of them were unable to understand Hebrew, so he had to interpret for them into Aramaic (see verse 8). However, the passage suggests that he did not simply give a literal rendering of the words, but he explained them so that the people understood (the Aramaic targums that were eventually written down are filled with explanatory material, as well as a wealth of illustrative material not based on the Hebrew text itself). Our task as progressive Christians is the same today: to interpret scripture--as well as current events, history, art, literature, science, and so forth--so that we convey God's word to those who hear us.

Psalm 19

Some televangelists would have us believe that serving God will bring us great riches. They're right! (but not in the way they think). Psalm 19:7-10 expounds the blessings of observing "the law of the Lord." The word translated "law" is torah, which might be translated "instruction." The psalmist uses a variety of synonyms and near-synonyms for torah to recount the blessings that come upon those who follows the instruction of the Lord. First, their souls will be revived. Like cool water in the desert, the torah refreshes and brings one back to a state of readiness to move ahead, following God's commands. Second, they will gain wisdom. The torah offers counsel for almost any imaginable situation in life. Third, they will rejoice. Following the torah results in a life that, though sometimes touched by sorrow, is always characterized by joy. Fourth, their eyes will be opened. The torah is God-breathed, so it offers its followers insights that they would not otherwise attain. Fifth, their reverence for God will endure forever. Unlike a passing fad or a summer-time infatuation of youth, the fear of God strengthened by the torah, will last a lifetime. Sixth, they will understand truth. True instruction from God, the torah offers its followers guidance on their journey towards the truth revealed in God. Most people know that following God's instructions won't necessarily bring material wealth, so why do they do it? They do it because what they gain is more valuable than gold and sweeter than honey. Those who follow God's instructions are eager, wise, joyful, insightful, reverent, and on the trail of life's greatest truths. They are experiencing a life worth living.

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

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

When I was little, there was a man in my church who had a withered arm. He couldn't walk very well, and even at my young age I could tell that he wasn't of normal intelligence. Despite his infirmities, he was at church whenever the doors were open. Furthermore, he had a very important job: he rang the bell that let the Sunday School teachers know that it was time for class to be over. He didn't have a lot of skills, but he could tell time, and he could push a button. God had given him a job to do. Just as importantly, someone in the church had recognized that the man was an asset to the church, not a liability. Too often our churches only recognize those who are involved in what are considered the more important jobs in the church. Paul might even be accused of leaning in that direction, since he offers a hierarchy of gifts and tells the Corinthian Christians to strive for "the greater gifts" (verse 31). But maybe, just maybe, Paul was being ironic, for earlier in the passage (verses 22-25) he says that the apparently weaker members are indispensable and that God gives greater honor to the "inferior member." Perhaps Paul is gently chiding the church in Corinth, where people were breaking into factions and showing off their more flamboyant spiritual gifts for all to see. Those gifts that are exercised in public--apostles, prophets, teachers--get the most attention, and those who exhibit such gifts have a certain notoriety within the church and often beyond its walls. Few notice when a retired man goes once a month or more to visit the refugee family that the church helped several years ago and then largely forgot when they didn't convert from Islam to Christianity. No one pays attention to the nursery worker who keeps the children so that their parents can attend the worship service, go to a Sunday School party, or have an evening out. Only a small number of people know the name of the person who delivers food to the co-op a couple of times per month. Even fewer know that a faithful member of the church has given a little money to another member who has lost his job. A church needs pastors, staff members, teachers, and other relatively high-profile ministers. It wouldn't last long without them. But the church also needs someone to show love to those who are strangers in our country, someone to care for children, someone to minister to the poor and the homeless in the neighborhood, someone to welcome visitors, encourage the unemployed, run errands for a shut-in, or even ring the bell to indicate that Sunday School is finished. Without these people, the church might as well close up shop, for although they are rarely noticed, they are doing the most important work in the church.

Luke 4:14-21

If you don't believe in the Virgin Birth, you're going straight to hell. If you don't accept the Substitutionary Atonement, forget it. You don't believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture? Sionara! If you want to call yourself a Christian, you'd better toe the line when it comes to doctrine, because everybody knows that Jesus insisted that his disciples assent to a fixed set of principles before they were accepted into the fold. Right? Wrong! Interestingly, Jesus has little to say about the necessity of believing a fixed set of doctrines. Instead, Jesus urged his followers to do certain things that were related to ministry. In his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus reads a passage of scripture from Isaiah regarding God's concern for the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed, and all others who were in special need of God's liberation. Since the Reformation, the church has been divided into an increasing number of denominations that were distinguished from one another largely on the basis of doctrine. Late in the twentieth century and early in the twenty-first, there have been some hopeful signs. A few denominations have merged instead of split, and others have agreed to recognize one another's clergy. Yet despite these advances, new splinter groups continue to form, on both the denominational and supra-denominational level, again, primarily over differences in doctrine. How foreign this would have seemed to Jesus, whose twelve closest associates included a Roman lackey (Matthew) and a political extremist opposed to Rome (Simon). When Jesus preached in the synagogues and on hillsides, he urged people to love one another and minister to those in need. The gospel is good news for the poor and oppressed, not a satisfying doctrinal proof for the intellectually curious. For that reason, there is more of the gospel in giving a cup of water to someone who's thirsty than in sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with him. Jesus said he was sent to encourage the poor with good news, to announce release for captives, to heal the blind, and to free the oppressed. A gospel that does not express itself in action is a false gospel and is unworthy of our allegiance.