Saturday Night Theologian
16 July 2006

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones races against the Nazis to be the first to discover the fabled ark of the covenant. Jones sees the immense historical value of the ark. The Nazis believe it is a magic box full of power that can be manipulated against their enemies. The U.S. government, which hired Jones in the first place, is primarily concerned that the power of the ark not fall into enemy hands. All the major players in the movie share the belief that the ark is a source of tremendous power, which potentially can be used to further one cause or another, if only the secret to its manipulation can be learned. The primary source of the film's mythology concerning the ark comes from the account of David bringing the ark to Jerusalem. (Jones's contention that "The Bible tells of it leveling mountains and wasting entire regions" is entirely fanciful.) After capturing Jerusalem and making it his capital, David decides that the presence of the ark in the city will strengthen it immensely (by making it invincible? by ensuring God's blessing?). He makes elaborate preparations to bring the ark with honor into Jerusalem, but suddenly tragedy strikes. Uzzah, an attendant of the ark, tries to stabilize the ark when the oxen pulling the cart it is on stumble, and he is struck dead immediately. David, angered by God's outburst, stores the ark temporarily in the house of Obed-edom, a foreigner, for three months. When he sees the blessings that Obed-edom receives, he revives his plan to bring the ark into the city, and he does so with great fanfare. Many Christians today are like David. We desire the blessings of God, but we are wary of encountering God's holiness. Churches of all stripes, not just the health and wealth churches, promote a relationship with God as the key to a life filled with blessing, sometimes of a financial nature, sometimes of a spiritual nature. What churches often forget to mention is that an encounter with God is a dangerous thing. Yes, we may receive blessings, but we may also suffer because of our proximity to the holy. It is not that we might be struck dead because we touch a holy relic or partake of the Eucharist unworthily. The primary danger we face in our encounter with the holy is that we cannot come close to God and escape unscathed. When we truly see God at work, we will either be compelled to join in or we will have to reject God altogether. When we join God's work, our attitudes and opinions will be changed, and suddenly our convictions may be anathema to others. Society teaches us to seek revenge against those who have harmed us, but an encounter with God will push us in the direction of mercy and forgiveness. The world encourages us to "look out for number one," but an encounter with God compels us to consider others more important than ourselves. The collective wisdom of this age advises us to seek the adulation of our neighbors and friends, but an encounter with God urges us to speak and act prophetically, eschewing popularity in favor of justice. David wanted the ark's blessings, but he wasn't sure he wanted the dangers associated with an encounter with God. Are we willing to take the risk?

Psalm 24

For several years a piece of legislation called the DREAM Act has been introduced in both houses of Congress, but its opponents have made sure that the act has never made it to the floor of either the House or the Senate for a vote. DREAM stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors--it's one of those acronyms that were chosen first, and later words that fit the acronym itself were tacked on--but it's really about the dream that the vast majority of young people living in our country have, the dream of growing up, getting a good education, and becoming productive citizens. The DREAM act allows children of undocumented aliens, who are undocumented themselves, to gain legal status, and eventually citizenship, by finishing high school, staying out of trouble, and attending college or joining the military. What law could be more fair than that? Who in the name of simple decency could oppose such a law? Apparently there are many members of Congress who oppose it, and they are supported by a large number of their constituents. What motivates people to oppose a law that would be so meaningful and give hope to so many deserving people? One word: xenophobia, the irrational fear or hatred of foreigners. The psalmist says, "The earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it." He didn't say, "All those who live north of an imaginary line in the dirt belong to God," nor did he say, "All those who were born in certain countries belong to God." No, all the earth belongs to God, as do all its inhabitants. The imaginary lines we draw in the dirt or on the surface of the water may help us subdivide the planet into manageable chunks of land, but we must never forget that they are human inventions, even human illusions. The border that separates the U.S. from Mexico, or Israel from Lebanon, or India from Pakistan is artificial. It does not divide one group of people who are favored by God from another group that is not. All the people of the earth have the right to a good education, to a home in the country of their choice, to a form of worship that is meaningful to them. The DREAM Act is a step in the direction of a more just, more merciful world. It is fully consistent with both the Christian faith and the sentiments of the psalmist. Those who advocate treating people from other countries as though their lives were less important than their own have failed to understand the teaching of scripture, and they stand against the idea that "the earth is the Lord's."

Ephesians 1:3-14

Everybody loves a mystery. From John Grisham books to The Da Vinci Code, the summer's best-sellers year in and year out are frequently mysteries. The Dante Club, The Rule of Four, The Historian, and many books of the same genre often top the best-sellers list. We are attracted to mysteries because we like trying to outsmart the author and figure out what is going on. We like the imagination involved in creating a mystery. We also like the tension that we feel while reading the book, knowing that the conflicts we're reading about will be resolved, but not knowing how. When we finish reading a mystery, we often feel a sense of accomplishment, or maybe even smugness, because we know something that our co-worker doesn't, unless she has read the book, too. Today's reading from Ephesians says, "With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." The Christian life is a mystery of the highest caliber. It involves a plan devised by the greatest mind in the universe. The wisdom and insight that it took to concoct the scenario in question were undoubtedly great, but they remain largely beyond our comprehension, regardless of God's revelation. It is a mystery that involves the limits of time and space, and it is connected to God's ultimate plan for the universe. Anyone who claims to have figured out the mystery of God is either deluding himself or others. God's will remains a mystery today just as it was when the author of Ecclesiastes declared it impossible to determine (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of propositions, nor to a set of rules and regulations. Even what we claim to know about God is at best only partial knowledge, so worship of God is partaking of the divine mystery about which the apostle speaks in this passage. It may be that some people are turned off by the irrationality--or better, nonrationality--of Christianity. If it makes no sense, they argue, why should I believe it? I would argue just the opposite. If Christianity could be fully explained, it would cease to partake in the divine. I'm glad, then, to see our relationship with God through Christ as a deep and abiding mystery, one that will always be pursued but never solved. After all, everybody loves a mystery!

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

Mark 6:14-29

In his book Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel, Robert R. Wilson uses sociological studies of the institution of prophecy in modern societies to illuminate the phenomenon in Israelite society of the biblical period. He identifies two primary types of prophets on the basis of their relationship with the political power structure. Central prophets are those who are fully integrated into the political structure. They are advisors to the king, court prophets, and temple prophets. They pray for the welfare of the nation, assure the king of the success of his endeavors, and even occasionally warn the king against an unwise move. The second group of prophets are peripheral prophets. They operate outside the central power structure. They are typically critical of government initiatives, and they identify sin both in people of power and in society as a whole. They have their supporters to be sure, but the government usually takes little notice of peripheral prophets, because they serve a useful societal function: they allow the disenfranchised masses to vent their anger in an essentially harmless way. Every now and then, however, a peripheral prophet begins to wield too much influence, to sway the masses too strongly. When things start to get out of hand, the political powers that be identify the prophet as a witch, that is, as a person wielding uniquely demonic, destructive power, in an effort to separate him from his supporters. The accusation itself is often enough to quash the prophet, but if it is not, the government can always step in and have the prophet either arrested or killed. This is exactly what happened to John the Baptist. A peripheral prophet from the beginning, he hit a nerve with a large portion of the Jewish people when he accused Herod Antipas of adultery for marrying his brother's ex-wife. Because of John's popularity, Herod was worried that his influence would get out of control, so he had him arrested. A short time later his wife and step-daughter connived to have John executed. He was a prophet who posed a threat to the power that Herod and his family possessed. Today we also have central and peripheral prophets. Central prophets play an important role in shaping the morals of the nation, if they are committed to truth and justice and if they have the courage to speak out concerning their convictions. Because they have the ear of those in power, they have a unique opportunity to sway the course of the nation. There is a danger that comes with being a central prophet, however. Proximity to power is addictive, and central prophets are constantly tempted to temper their words in order to maintain their position. Peripheral prophets also play an important role in today's society. Unconstrained by associations with power, they are often freer to speak their minds than central prophets. Although they might not have the ear of those in power directly, they have many supporters, so they can influence policy indirectly through the masses. Unfortunately, witchcraft accusations are also present in contemporary society. When a peripheral prophet becomes too pointed in her critique, or when her following gets too large, those in power sometimes attempt to demonize her. In the contemporary world, "witchcraft accusations" don't mean literally calling someone a witch. Contemporary witchcraft accusations may involve calling someone unpatriotic, or a terrorist, or an atheist. Who are the real prophets today, those who are making a difference in our society? Usually they are those with limited, or only superficial, access to power. Often they are people whose motives are impugned and whose moral characters are swift-boated as soon as they begin to gain an audience. These are the people we need to pay attention to, because very often they will have something important, perhaps even divinely inspired, to tell us.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.