Saturday Night Theologian
5 June 2005

Genesis 12:1-9

Oscar Romero, the moderate archbishop of San Salvador, experienced a conversion experience at the age of 59, and he worked tirelessly for the benefit of the poor in El Salvador until his assassination three years later. Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's, got his GED (high school equivalency) at the age of 60. Colonel Harlan Sanders began franchising his chicken restaurants at the age of 65. Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa at the age of 75. Anna Mary Robertson "Grandma" Moses began painting at the age of 78. George H. W. Bush took up skydiving at the age of 80. Right now Doris "Granny D" Haddock is making her first run for political office--the U.S. Senate--at the age of 94. What is exceptional about all these people is not just that they did these things at relatively advanced ages, it is that these accomplishments were completely out of sync with their previous experiences. They were steps in a new direction. Our reading from Genesis tells of Abram at the age of 75 leaving his homeland with his family and moving to a new country. The land of Canaan was hundreds of miles from both Ur and Haran. The inhabitants spoke a different language. They worshiped different gods. They were suspicious of outsiders. In spite of all these obstacles, Abram stepped out on faith, and his life, and the history of the world, was changed forever. We may feel that we're too old or too set in our ways to uproot ourselves and begin something completely new, but maybe God is calling us to do exactly that. God may be calling you to physically relocate. Maybe God wants you to change your job. Maybe you are being called to start a new ministry where you already are. Regardless of what obstacles you might face, if God is calling you to begin something new, you should do it. God will be with you as you play your role in the divine master plan, and you will be blessed for your faithfulness.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Psalm 33:1-12

In 1962 a young South African lawyer was sent to jail for leaving the country illegally. While in prison he was convicted of additional charges, which resulted in a life sentence. The white minority in South Africa controlled the country with an iron fist and brutally suppressed the majority black population (along with others classified as non-white). The institution of apartheid, coupled with white leadership of the police and army and the superior wealth and education of whites, ensured that whites would continue to rule in South Africa forever. Or so it seemed. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and communist regimes in Eastern Europe tumbled, forces of change began exerting themselves with new strength in South Africa. Massive street demonstrations were held in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and elsewhere, with hundreds of thousands of participants. F. W. de Klerk, who promised to negotiate a new constitution with the black majority, was elected state president. In February 1990 the young lawyer, Nelson Mandela, who was now 71 years old, emerged from prison to lead the country. Many people were convinced that the evil apartheid system could not be overcome without a violent revolution, if it could be overcome at all, but history proved them wrong. The psalmist says, "The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations." There is much injustice in the world today, and it can be frustrating to those of us who care about such things to view the apparent lack of progress in many areas. Crushing national debt threatens the lives of hundreds of millions of people. AIDS runs rampant through parts of Africa while the medicine that could stem the spread of the disease sits undistributed. Women and minority groups in many countries are denied basic human rights. The promises of globalism go largely unrealized as large multinational corporations exploit the poor of the world. The country with the planet's largest nuclear arsenal makes plans to build more nuclear weapons and perhaps even put them in space, while the world recoils in horror. Injustice is rampant in the world, yet the psalmist reminds us that there is hope for the future. The counsel of nations (or of multinationals) will come to nothing in the long run if they are contrary to the will of God. The course of history has a funny way of changing suddenly and unexpectedly, particularly when people listen to their hearts and their consciences and speak out. There is hope that some of the national debt of the poorest countries will be forgiven at the upcoming G8 summit. A cure for AIDS may be just around the corner. Globalism, for all its attendant problems, has also given us the Internet as tool for distributing information and organizing for peace and justice. Despite the problems that are all too evident in today's world, I remain optimistic, for I have faith in the God of the psalmist, who loves righteousness and justice.

Romans 4:13-25

In the 1955 movie Trial, Glenn Ford plays a law professor who finds himself defending a teenaged Mexican boy against the charge of murdering a white teen girl on a beach. The racist prosecutor notes that although the boy may not have intended to harm the girl, the law technically allows a charge of murder in the first degree, which he pursues. Supporting the defense is a group of communist party members, some of whom secretly want the boy to be convicted and executed so that they will have a martyr for the cause. Tension rises as the climax of the trial approaches and it appears that the law allows no wiggle room. If the boy was with the girl illegally on the beach--and he was--and if the girl died--which she did--he was technically guilty of murder. That's the problem with many laws: there is little or no room for mercy. Paul points this fact out in reference to the Old Testament law: the law brings wrath, for no one is able to follow it completely. Paul says that Christians are not under the law, however, for they have the example of Abraham, who was justified by his faith in God. Justification, for Paul, rests on grace through faith. If that is the case, why do so many Christians desire a legalistic form of religion? I can think of a couple of reasons, though there are undoubtedly others. First, when there are hard and fast laws or rules, people don't have to think for themselves, and it gives them a measure of comfort to rely on the judgment of others. That's why true education, both in schools in churches, must teach people how to think, not just what to think. Second, restricting our interactions with people who accept the same set of doctrines as we do is a form of provincialism. It allows us to function within our comfort zones, never having to interact seriously with people who have a different point of view. In many cases it is also a form of prejudice, since people who believe the same things often share the same ethnicity, nationality, or social class. Laws, rules, and regulations can be helpful in establishing structure and setting boundaries for behavior, but they must never be given absolute status in the believer's life. Legalistic forms of religion stifle the spirit that religion is meant to elicit, so for that reason legalism is the enemy of true religion. Laws have their place, but they can never take the place of grace, mercy, and common sense.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

I've been told that the definition of a good Baptist boy is someone who doesn't dance, drink, smoke, or chew, or go out with girls that do. It's amazing to me the activities that some Christians identify as harmful to the faith, and the activities that they pass over in silence. I know of a church that kicked a woman out of the choir for filing for divorce from her husband, yet at the same time an acknowledged neo-Nazi, replete with anti-Jewish bumper stickers on his truck, is a member in good standing. Other churches I've known have prohibited leaders of any sort from drinking alcohol, but they never seem to inquire into those leaders' racial or nationalistic prejudices (not to mention homophobia, which is viewed as a badge of honor in some circles). The religious leaders of Jesus' day had certain ideas about how a good Jewish man should behave, and associating with "sinners" was not appropriate, in their view. Jesus rebuked them, saying, "I have not come to call the righteous but sinners." Unlike Luke, Matthew does not add the phrase "to repentance" at the end of that sentence. This omission suggests that Jesus understood that all those whom the religious establishment labeled "sinners" were not really sinners at all, but merely people who did not observe all the niceties of religious tradition. Two applications of this passage come immediately to my mind. First, we must be careful as Christians not to confuse our own personal likes and dislikes, including those based on societal custom, with the norms of the Christian life. Second, although we should definitely beware of sin itself, we should not avoid true "sinners," for how else will they know that God cares for them? Besides, we are all sinners as well, and avoiding sinners for the sake of appearance is nothing short of hypocrisy. The next time someone looks down his nose at you for associating with "sinners," say, "Thank God that Jesus didn't come to call the righteous but only sinners like me!"