Saturday Night Theologian
22 February 2004

Exodus 34:29-35

The Vatican Museum possesses Michelangelo's famous statue of Moses. In the statue, Moses is seated, but the position of his head and feet indicate that he is waiting expectantly, perhaps even impatiently, for a chance to act. He is muscularly built with long hair and a long, flowing beard. In his right hand he holds the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The most striking feature of the statue, however, is the pair of horns protruding from the top of his head, just behind the hair line. Michelangelo's portrayal of Moses, like other more or less contemporary works of art, includes horns on Moses' head because of a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, mistook the rare Hebrew verb qaran, "to shine," for the noun qeren, "horn," which incidentally is very similar to the Latin cornu, "horn." Despite the translation error from Hebrew to Latin, Michelangelo brilliantly captures Moses in his sculpture as a man who is strong, determined, and dynamic. While the Bible portrays Moses as shy and reticent in his first encounter with God in the burning bush, today's reading shows a bold Moses, the same Moses who told Pharaoh, "Let my people go!" Whereas the rest of the people are afraid to approach the holy mountain of God, Moses regularly, intentionally, seeks to commune with God, then he shares God's message with the people. Progressive Christians today need a measure of the boldness that Moses has in this passage. Despite the risks of an encounter with God, we need to hear God's word, and someone has to deliver that message. Today the risk might not be so much our encounter with God as our encounter with those for whom the message is intended. Unlike the Israelites in the desert, who desperately wanted a god to follow, many today think that they need no divine guidance in life. They are more interested in following the way of business, or fame, or leisure, or power than following the way of God. Why is that? Perhaps it's because the way of God can lead through danger zones. It can lead through places of discomfort, places that are unknown. Still we must follow the path. In The Lord of the Rings, the Council of Elrond is trying to determine who will take the One Ring to Mordor to throw it into Mt. Doom and destroy it. While the participants in the council are deeply perplexed concerning how to accomplish the task (or, according to the movie version, they are engaged in a vehement argument with one another), the hobbit Frodo speaks up and says, "I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way." Like Frodo, Christians today need the courage to follow God, regardless of the opposition from those around them. Like Gandalf, Aragorn, and others in the Fellowship of the Ring, those who do know the way of God--at least in part--must have the courage to lead others on their journey.

Psalm 99

When U.S. military planners wanted a code name for the bombing of Afghanistan, the first one they proposed was Operation Infinite Justice. After a backlash from American Muslims, who noted their belief that only Allah can provide infinite justice, the military changed the name of the operation to Enduring Freedom. However, it's interesting to examine the original name for "the first battle in the war on terrorism." Leaving aside for the moment the notion that any temporal power could deliver justice that was infinite, I'd like to focus on the word "justice." What was the motivation behind the choice of that word? Undoubtedly it was the events of September 11, 2001. People often speak of bringing people to justice, when what they really mean is killing or imprisoning them. Many lawbreakers do need to be imprisoned, but what should we make of President Bush's words, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or justice to our enemies, justice will be done"? It is too often the case throughout history that those on one side of a conflict see their cause as completely just, and it is their enemies who need to be taught justice. Of course, it goes without saying that those on the other side of the conflict believe exactly the same thing. How can people of faith step back from such rhetoric and analyze conflict from a progressive, theological perspective? Today's reading from Psalm 99 offers a solution. "Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob." The psalmist then proceeds to describe God's communication with God's people, including Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. The principle is clear: justice is God's concern, and it is God's decrees that set the standard for justice. The Old Testament unfortunately provides many counterexamples of the notion of a just and equitable God, for example, in the stories in which God orders the Israelites to slaughter the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, men, women, children, and even animals. However, in its noblest passages, the Old Testament also shows a more just God, one who tells his followers not to kill, not to steal, and not to lie. Warfare always breaks at least these three commandments. The killing of innocent civilians is labeled "collateral damage." The theft of land and goods is called "appropriation." Lies are referred to as "disinformation." As believers, we should indeed hope for infinite justice, but not the kind of false justice inflicted by national military forces, guerrilla fighters, or individual suicide bombers. Justice cannot be achieved by bombs or bullets. Justice can only be achieved through dialog, mutual respect, and a careful analysis of the existing and historical situation. Launching a mortar is easy; listening to the anguish of your adversaries is not. Dropping a bomb from a plane is easy; sacrificing a part of your dream so that those on the other side can realize part of their dream is not. Shooting a bullet at your enemy is easy; forgiving your enemy and reaching out a hand of friendship is not. Nations are ill-equipped to dispense justice, especially on other nations, not least because national self-interest always clouds one's judgment. Justice must be based on the values that people share: love of family, concern for the future, care of the land, and acknowledgement of the transcendent.

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

"Thus spoke the Lord," bold Moses said,
"Let my people go!
If not I'll strike your firstborn dead,
Let my people go!"
After an initial hesitation, Moses became one of the boldest spokesmen for God in the biblical tradition. He brought a message from a new God (new in name, at least) to the Israelite elders in bondage in Egypt. He demanded that the pharaoh release his Israelite slaves. He challenged the magicians of Egypt to a battle of signs. He led the people through the midst of the sea on dry ground. He climbed the holy mountain and entered into the presence of God. How, then, can Paul say that God's followers today should have even more boldness than Moses? Let me start by exposing what I believe to be a faulty understanding of this passage. I don't believe that Paul's admonition to Christians to not be like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face to keep people from seeing the fading glory, was a criticism of Moses. Contrary to some sermons and Bible studies I've heard on the passage, Paul was not accusing Moses of trying to hide the fact that the glory of God was fading from his face by continuing to use a veil after it was unnecessary. On the contrary, Paul was saying that even when only a glimmer of God's glory was left, Moses still had to cover his face, because the people were overwhelmed and even terrified by the residue of God's presence. The point Paul is trying to make is that if even the faded glory of the "ministry of condemnation" had an impact on people, how much more will the full brilliance of the "ministry of justification" have on them! People were afraid of God's presence in the time of the law, because they couldn't live up to the law, so they felt themselves to be condemned to death. The message of Jesus, on the other hand, shows people that they can be made right with God. What a concept! The message Paul preached was revolutionary to people who tried to be good enough to earn their way into heaven but feared they would never make the grade. Instead of trusting in their own merit, Paul said that because of Jesus, they were justified before God, free from their sins and their transgressions of the law. The world today needs a message of hope. Too often Christianity has a reputation of reminding people of their sins and condemning them for them. Here's a news flash: most people already know that they're sinners, and they feel bad about it. They come to church hoping to hear a word of encouragement. I've been in churches where the typical fare from the pulpit each week was condemnation, and I've been in churches where the sermons encouraged good people to do even better. Yes, preachers need to speak prophetically, and that includes speaking out against sin and injustice. But people who claim to speak in God's name should also speak words of encouragement to those who have made the effort to come worship God. The same applies in conversations between coworkers or within families. I've heard it said, "Condemn the sin, but love the sinner." I don't think that's quite right, at least in the way it's often applied. Too frequently the condemnation comes through loud and clear, but the love, such as it is, is lost in the verbal tirade of damnation. I prefer, "Condemn sin, but remind everyone that God loves them." This is the message that we need to speak boldly with unveiled faces.

Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

If you could talk to two historical figures, living or dead, who would they be? What would you discuss? Would you select great political figures like Lincoln, Churchill, or Charlemagne? Would you pick sports stars like Babe Ruth, Pele, or Florence Griffith Joyner? Would you select musicians like Mozart, Beethoven, or Woody Guthrie? Would you choose religious reformers like Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad? Would you opt for warriors like Alexander the Great, Patton, or Shaka Zulu? Would you choose evildoers like Hitler, Caligula, or Timothy McVeigh? And what about the topic of conversation? Would you discuss courage, inspiration, determination, decision-making, strategy, or aesthetics? Of the three Synoptic Gospels, only Luke gives a hint about what Jesus and his companions Moses and Elijah discussed that day on the Mount of Transfiguration. They talked about Jesus' "exodus" that he would accomplish in Jerusalem. The word "exodus" can refer to departure or death, and this is certainly a meaning true to the context of the passage. It can also mean "delivery," and the reference to Moses and the fact that the gospel of Luke uses the literary style of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, suggests that "delivery" is a possible meaning as well. I suspect that both death and delivery are to be understood here: Jesus' death and the delivery he would bring about for his followers. Commentators often suggest that Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, that is, the message of the Hebrew Bible, and that may well be true. Another possibility is that Moses and Elijah were both people who experienced extraordinary departures from this world; Moses was buried in an unknown location by God, and Elijah rode to heaven in a fiery chariot. The placement of the account of the Transfiguration in the middle of Luke's account of Jesus' earthly ministry, as opposed to near the end of his ministry in Matthew and Mark, demonstrates that, for Luke, Jesus' determination to go to Jerusalem and accomplish God's will there was the central focus of his ministry. As we prepare to begin the season of Lent on Wednesday, we can use the seven weeks before Easter to reflect on Jesus' drive to go to Jerusalem, to accomplish God's will, no matter the cost.