Saturday Night Theologian
20 August 2006

Proverbs 9:1-6

One of the most basic principles of human development is learning from our mistakes. As children, we learn to walk by trial and error. If we lean too far in one direction, we fall over, and we learn just how far we can lean. When we learn to play a sport, we learn what it takes to hit a baseball, what defensive strategies don't work in basketball against a particular opponent, and when not to bite on a fake to the outside when covering a wide receiver. Learning from our mistakes is essential to proper human development, both as individuals and as societies. Insanity has been defined as doing the exact same thing again and expecting different results. Whether it's insanity or not I don't know, but it certainly qualifies as stupidity. When I look at the state of the world and the various global conflicts, I have to wonder about the wisdom of many of our leaders. The recently ended (hopefully) conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon is a case in point. Hezbollah knows that Israel is prone to overreaction--a simple observation of Gaza over the past six months should have told them that--yet they persisted in picking at Israel until they reacted, with the result that more than a thousand Lebanese died. Israel, on the other hand, hasn't learned from its own experiences over the past twenty years, nor from the American fiasco in Iraq, that overwhelming force often doesn't get the job done, and those who use it are worse off when the conflict is over than when they started. Both Hezbollah and Israel acted foolishly, and both suffered. Unfortunately, so did many innocent victims on both sides. In today's reading from Proverbs, personified Wisdom prepares a feast and invites all who would enter to and partake of the feast. Even those who are simple and immature can gain from the feast, for they will not leave the table unchanged, if they will just participate in the feast. What a tragedy it is when a feast of wisdom is available and people ignore it. Jesus taught his disciples to be peacemakers, yet too many Christian leaders around the world trust in the power of weapons over the wisdom of Jesus' teaching. Sages from other religious traditions have also warned against trusting in military might rather than trusting in God. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders alike need to open their ears and hear the call of God's wisdom. It is the only hope for our world.

Psalm 34:9-14

I watched a baseball game earlier this week on TV that ended in a ninth inning brawl. The Rangers pitchers had been throwing at the Angels batters, and the Angels pitchers had been throwing at the Rangers batters. After several ejections, one more batter got hit, and both benches cleared. When the pandemonium ended, the score was still the same, but both managers and several players ended up getting suspended by the league. Both teams are fighting for the lead in their division, but now they will both have to try to win without their managers or some of their best players. What exactly did the teams gain by this contretemps? Nothing. However, the Oakland A's, who are currently in first place in the division, were happy to see it. The psalmist urges his hearers, "Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it." In the grand scheme of things, the game of baseball doesn't greatly affect the lives of many people, but it can be a microcosm of the real world from time to time, and it was on Wednesday night. The parallelism in the verse puts "seek peace" alongside "depart from evil," implying that they are the same, or at least closely related. If seeking peace is a form of departing from evil, then in follows that failing to seek peace is following in the footsteps of evil. Too many nations today, especially the most powerful nations on the planet, think that peace can be accomplished through war. Like Chairman Mao said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." But do the powerful, capitalist nations of the world really want to follow the advice of Mao Zedong? Or as Al Capone says in the movie The Untouchables, "I want this guy dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground! I want to go there in the middle of the night and piss on his ashes!" That seems to be the approach that powerful countries often take toward their enemies, but again, do we really want to follow the example of a notorious gangster? Following the path of war doesn't really seem to be working for us, so maybe it's time to try something different. What about following the example of Martin Luther King, Jr.? What about following the example of Mahatma Gandhi? What about following the example of Jesus Christ? Now there's a novel idea! Seek peace and pursue it. It's worth a try.

Ephesians 5:15-20

There's a lot of talk nowadays about spirituality. Many people are turned off by religion, but they are interested in spirituality. My wife had a conversation just last week with a friend who is not particularly interested in returning to her church, but she is definitely interested in spirituality. This interest in spirituality crosses religious and socio-economic boundaries. There are Christians, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, Wiccans, and many others interested in pursuing, or at least investigating, a spiritual life. Our reading from Ephesians says, "Be filled with the Spirit," so it is apparently advocating a form of spirituality, but what kind exactly? The very term spirituality implies close contact with the Spirit of God, or the Holy Spirit, in Christian parlance. Some Christians think of being filled with the Spirit in terms of ecstatic speech or special powers of healing. Others think of it as the grace to administer the church's sacraments. Still others see being filled with the Spirit as a means of speaking the word of God to others, or acting with God-given wisdom, or being filled with the courage to accomplish great things for God. And that's just a few of the Christian definitions of being filled with the Spirit. Obviously there are many different ideas about what being filled with the Spirit means, but I think there are some things that it definitely doesn't mean. It doesn't mean having a feeling of being close to God but not living a life that matters in the real world. It doesn't mean being and/or acting more "spiritual" than other people. It doesn't mean having an experience with God that makes you a spiritual giant in comparison with your friends and family. For me, being filled with the Spirit means seeing the world a God sees it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It means understanding the principles of cause and effect and striving for ends that God desires. It means seeing past our prejudices about people's religious affiliation, sexual preference, ethnic makeup, socio-economic status, or nationality, and seeing them as God sees them: as people worthy of God's love, and desperately needy for it as well. Being filled with the Spirit may make you sing, it may make you shout, it may make you ecstatic, but if it doesn't strip you of your prejudices and fill you with love for your neighbor, it doesn't make any difference.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

John 6:51-58

My daughter and I were watching a 70s movie set in a prison, and one of the characters said, "I'll get the bread." "What does that mean?" she asked me. "It means he'll get the money," I said. "Remember, in the 70s, "bread" often meant "money." "Oh, yeah," she said. In a cash economy, money might well be considered a staple of life. In the prison movie we were watching, cigarettes often served as money. In a barter economy, the only real staple of life is food. Everyone has to have it to survive. When Jesus says, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven," what does he mean? Among other things, by equating himself with bread in what was largely a barter economy, at least for the poor, Jesus was claiming to be something indispensable, a staple of life. In the cash economy of today, we understand about cash being a staple if we've ever had to try to get by without much of it. Bills pile up, creditors call, and we may even get to the point where we wonder where our next meal is coming from. If we understand the value of money for survival, we can start to understand the value of Jesus to our lives, at least potentially. Jesus lived a life that stood out from his contemporaries for his sayings, his wisdom, and his commitment to God. In many ways Jesus was unique, and as Christians, it is our obligation to do our best to emulate him. In addition, just as people can have an excess of cash, more than necessary to meet their own needs, so they can have an excess of Jesus, more than they need for themselves. This is just one of the ways in which having Jesus is better than having cash. When you give away your cash, you don't have it any more, but when you give away Jesus, through your words or through your actions, you have just as much as when you started, or maybe even a little more.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.