Saturday Night Theologian
15 February 2004

Jeremiah 17:5-10

When European farmers first moved to Australia, they saw a vast, sparsely inhabited land that was ripe for agriculture. Using tried and true techniques from Europe, they cut down existing vegetation and planted such non-native crops as wheat, rice, and corn (maize). The crops prospered for awhile, but soon farmers began noticing that their yields weren't as great as before. Adding fertilizer and other chemicals to the soil didn't help much, because the land itself was changing. Australian soil is naturally salty, and native plants had evolved deep, complex root systems to reclaim the maximum amount of water possible from the upper levels of the soil, as well as reaching water that lay well beneath the surface. The crops planted by the Europeans had shallower roots, so more water from rain and floods escaped their roots and reached the water table, making it rise. The rise in the water table leached more salt from the soil, making the water even saltier than it already was, reducing the land's ability to produce the farmer's crops. The Australian government estimates that about 5.7 million hectares currently suffer from salinization, and the amount of land may triple by 2050 if agricultural practices do not radically change. Jeremiah compares those who trust in humans rather than God to shrubs in a salty, uninhabitable wilderness. Life is possible, but it does not flourish. Growth is retarded by salinization. It's tempting to put our trust in other people rather than God, because we humans are adept at seeking short-term solutions and quick fixes. God wants us to take a longer view of life. Just as Australian farmers of European descent assumed that European agricultural methods would work in Australia, so we in the industrialized world think that our religious practices, customs, economic theories, and political structures will work with little or no modification in China, India, Iraq, Iran, Liberia, Congo, or Haiti. We overthrew Saddam, so let's set up a representative democracy by the end of June! Free-market capitalism worked in North America and Western Europe, so let's export it to Russia, Brazil, and China! Our Puritan-influenced version of Christianity has taken roots in the U.S., so let's make sure that Christians in other countries espouse the same doctrine and rituals as we do! God tells us to slow down. Look at the native plants of Australia; observe their root systems and learn from them. They know how to survive in salty soil; they can teach us. Pay attention to the biodiversity of the tropical rain forests; they support untold quantities of varied plants and animals. These diverse organisms live together in a web of life more complex than those present in the temperate zones; they show us that people with different customs and viewpoints can live together in harmony. It's time to stop assuming that we humans know what's best just because it's the way we've always done it. It's also time to learn to observe creation to see what God wants to teach us through it.

Psalm 1

The book of Psalms developed over a long period of time, and evidence of its growth can be seen in its organization. Many of the psalms have titles, beginning with Psalm 3, and scholars have suggested that an earlier version of the Psalter began with this psalm, perhaps ending with Psalm 72 or 89. Later, perhaps after the exile, as the psalms were increasingly read from a messianic perspective, Psalm 2 was added at the beginning, and other psalms were added at the end, maybe ending with Psalm 118. It is possible that Psalms 1 and 119 were added at about the same time, shifting the focus of the book from messianism to wisdom and reflections on the Torah. Finally, the psalms at the end of the book were added, with Psalm 150 serving as a final doxology to the entire book. If we look at Psalm 1 as an introduction to the whole Psalter, its advocacy of meditation on the law is revealing. The "law" mentioned in the psalm is not that portion of the Hebrew Bible often called the Law (i.e., the Pentateuch), nor is it the legal portions of the Bible. The "law" the psalmist had in mind was God's instruction, which certainly included the Pentateuch and its legal material but also encompassed other edifying literature--such as the other psalms--and oral teachings as well. The psalmist encouraged the reader or hearer to meditate on what God had to teach him or her, regardless of the medium. The explicit contrast between the way of "the righteous" and the way of "the wicked" demonstrates that the psalmist stood firmly within the wisdom tradition in ancient Israel, a tradition that drew on the best teachings both inside and outside Israel. Certainly the focus was on Israelite traditions about God and life, but wisdom practitioners were perfectly comfortable adapting the traditions of their neighbors--Canaanite, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian--and reinterpreting them for their contemporaries. Those who understand God and the world will flourish like trees alongside flowing streams, whereas those who don't will be blown away like chaff from the threshing floor. There is a tendency among fundamentalists of all religious traditions to try to insulate their children from the broader teachings of society. Some madrassas in Pakistan teach a strict form of Islam that denigrates other religions. Some Christian schools in the U.S. focus narrowly on the Bible and caricature Darwinian evolution and radioisotope dating methods. Some Jewish schools in Israel teach a fanciful view of the history of the Middle East. The first psalm suggests that we should be open to learn whatever we can from every available source. Of course we will interpret the teachings of other religions and cultures in light of our own understanding, but if we are honest learners, we will also be open to modifying our views in the light of convincing evidence. Perhaps the basic difference between fundamentalists and more enlightened practitioners of the various religions is the unwillingness or openness, respectively, to learn from other traditions. The first psalm invites us to open our minds to search for God wherever we can.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Belief in an afterlife has been with humanity for tens of thousands of years. Neanderthals buried their dead over 100,000 years ago, though whether their arrangement of the bodies in a sleeping position or the few artifacts they buried with the corpse signifies some sort of religious belief is debated. The burial practices of modern Homo sapiens provide more evidence of belief in an afterlife at least 30,000 years ago. Some of their graves include tools, weapons, and ornaments, suggesting that the deceased was being supplied with items that would be needed in the next life. The earlier sections of the Old Testament paint an image of the afterlife as a world of shadowy existence and separation from God, but some later passages offer hope in a better post-death experience (e.g., Psalm 139:7-12). Finally, in Daniel 12:13, one of the latest portions of the Old Testament, belief in the resurrection of the dead is stated explicitly. By the time of Jesus, belief in the resurrection was common among the Jews, accepted by the Pharisees and rejected by the Sadducees. In Acts Paul is portrayed as throwing the Sanhedrin into a tumult with the claim that he was on trial for the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6), but perhaps his strongest statements concerning the resurrection are found in 1 Corinthians 15. After providing the evidence of tradition for the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, he shifts to a logical argument based on the common experience of believers, and he broadens his scope to include the resurrection of the dead in general. If the dead are not raised, then neither has Christ been raised, he argues. And if Christ has not been raised, then our faith is futile. From the standpoint of pure logic, this last statement cannot be supported by his argument, but it's certainly a possible inference, and one that is relevant to believers today. A close friend of mine died this week, after several months of declining health. One of the last times he used his computer, he modified his screen saver to display the following message: "Credo--Deus providebit--Credo!" "I believe--God will provide--I believe!" He knew that he was dying and had only a short time to live, yet he put his trust in God. Some argue that the resurrection of Jesus was a literal, bodily resurrection. For others, the resurrection occurs every time a person has an individual encounter with the resurrected Christ. Rather than argue over the literality of the resurrection in the first century, I prefer to focus on the power that the resurrection has today. Contrary to the writings of apologists like Josh McDowell and others, the physical resurrection of Jesus can't be historically validated. Nevertheless, the effect of the resurrected Christ on thousands of contemporaries cannot be doubted. Whether such a mass movement could have been based on anything other than a bodily resurrection can be debated. What cannot be debated is the fact that encounters with the resurrected Christ changed the lives of many people in the first century. Encounters with the resurrected Christ set the course of world history. And encounters with the resurrected Christ continue to give hope, inspire action, and change lives today.

Luke 6:17-26

Famous ConservativesFamous Liberals
Adolf HitlerDietrich Bonhoeffer
Genghis KhanMahatma Gandhi
Attila the HunMartin Luther King, Jr.
Tomás de TorquemadaMartin Luther
P. W. BothaNelson Mandela
Benito MussoliniJesus Christ
With company like those in the column on the right, why are liberals afraid to identify themselves as such? Of course, not all conservatives have been as bad as those listed above, nor have all liberals been people of great moral character, but the question remains: Why do conservatives (whether theologically or politically) so readily identify themselves as conservative, while liberals are so timid about identifying themselves as liberal? Are liberals ashamed of the message of justice, equality, and advocacy for the poor and oppressed? We may be at times, but Jesus wasn't. Today's reading from Luke is part of the so-called Sermon on the Plain, a different, shorter version of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. Other than the relative brevity of the Lucan version, the most striking difference between the two "Sermons" is the section that corresponds with the Beatitudes in Matthew. Whereas Matthew has Jesus enumerate a series of blessings on believers, Luke has Jesus bless those who are poor and suffering, and he adds a series of woes on those who are rich and satisfied. No wonder we in the industrialized world prefer Matthew's version! We don't want to hear that God will bless the poor as well as the poor in spirit, or the hungry as well as those who hunger and thirst after righteousness (or justice). We especially don't want to hear Jesus pronounce the downfall of the rich, the satiated, and the comfortable. Most scholars agree that the Lucan version of these sayings is probably the more authentic rendering. If that is true, then to borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer, how should we then live? We must side with the poor spiritually, morally, and politically. Our decisions should not focus on what's best for ourselves but on what's best for the poor. Our ultimate goal should be to eliminate poverty altogether. One important consequence of poverty is hunger, and progressive Christians must join with others to alleviate hunger at home and abroad. According to Bread for the World, hunger in the United States increased in 2003, and more than ten percent of the population either experiences hunger or is at risk of hunger. Internationally, 840 million people, or 13.5% of the world's population, are malnourished. A much higher percentage are either hungry or at risk of hunger. If the industrialized nations would divert half of their military budgets to hunger relief, hunger would be eliminated overnight. Jesus cared about the poor. Jesus cared about the hungry. If we are going to persist in calling ourselves followers of Jesus, then we should adopt the same concern for the less fortunate of the world.