Saturday Night Theologian
3 September 2006

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

The cover of the most recent edition of The Wittenburg Door has a picture of Jesus holding up a barbed wire fence and holding a lantern, while a Mexican family, an Orthodox Jewish man, a Muslim woman, and a Black man cross into the U.S. at the border. The caption below the picture asks, "WWJE? Who Would Jesus Exclude?" The immigration debate in the U.S. right now seems to be primarily between the bad (the Senate bill) and the worse (the House bill). The Senate bill would allow most of the 12 million undocumented immigrants stay in the U.S. for awhile, once they registered, and it would provide a path to citizenship, a path that would probably take several years for each person. The House bill would make undocumented immigrants felons, building fences along the border, and bar all undocumented immigrants from citizenship. Where in this cacophony of xenophobia and prejudice is the authentic Christian voice? Where are the leaders who are calling for compassion for the poor? Where are those who remind us that Christians are supposed to love our neighbors? Where is the voice that challenges us to create a just society that is not based on the arbitrary circumstance of which side of an imaginary line in the dirt a person was born on? In today's reading from Deuteronomy, Moses urges the people not to add or take away from the commandments of the Lord that he is about to mention (in the rest of the book), for the laws of God are wise and just, and they will serve as a testimony to the surrounding nations of the kind of God the Israelites serve. As a nation, our laws reflect our morality, and since a majority of U.S. citizens claim to be Christians, our laws reflect our understanding of the Christian God as well. We have many laws on the books that reflect the highest ideals of the nation, particularly parts of the Constitution, like the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, we also have other laws in place that enshrine injustice, favor the rich over the poor, discriminate against gays and lesbians, and value war over peace. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Which of our laws reflect the ideals of our nation the best? These are the laws we must follow, while setting the others aside as not worthy of a great people. The laws in the Hebrew Bible are similarly of mixed quality, in terms of how just they are and how they reflect on God. Laws that allow masters to beat their slaves, advocate group punishment for the sins of an individual, and exclude foreigners and people with physical disabilities from the community are not worthy of the God who inspired the Ten Commandments, the year of jubilee, and the laws regarding the community care for the poor. Similarly, laws and customs that perpetuate injustice and oppression, both at home and abroad, are not worthy of the God whose Son many of us claim to follow. We can do better.

Psalm 15

Recent news stories have suggested that the U.S. government is investigating certain individuals suspected of spying on the U.S. for the state of Israel. If the suspicions prove true, why would Israel spy on its closest ally? The U.S., in turn, engages in intelligence gathering (a.k.a. spying) in many countries around the globe, some of whom are supposed to be close allies. Many U.S. congressmen are proposing that the government build a wall to separate the U.S. from its erstwhile ally, Mexico. Meanwhile, Canada and the U.S. snipe at each other over trade disagreements. Similar acts of distrust take place between many other countries as well. Maybe we would all do well to heed the psalmist's contention that those who would worship God should "do no evil to their friends." It's bad enough to do evil to our enemies, in violation of Jesus' explicit charge, but why would anyone do evil to a friend? The answer lies in the selfishness that lies at the heart of human nature. In the teen movie Mean Girls, high school girls who are supposed to be friends say and do mean things to each other behind the other person's back. Though a comedy, the story is unfortunately too close to the truth, and it's not just teens who treat their friends badly. Younger children will tattle on their friends, and adults will gossip about theirs. More spiritual adults, of course, will eschew gossip in favor of requesting prayer for a friend who is involved in a certain nefarious activity. If we as individuals, especially mature adults, don't treat our friends any better than we do, it's no wonder that our governments don't get along, even when they're allies. If the root problem of doing evil to our friends is selfishness, then the way out of the problem involves learning how to love, trust, and respect other people. Will the recipients of our love always return it? No, but a surprising number will, and those that don't, at least eventually, probably don't deserve to be numbered among our friends. As individuals, we can certainly learn to treat our friends well at all times as a starting point, and then we can move on and learn to love our enemies. Reinhold Niebuhr, in Moral Man and Immoral Society, suggested that loving enemies is too much to expect from nations, but surely loving and respecting one's friends isn't! (If it's unreasonable to expect a nation to live up to the high ideals of Christ, as Niebuhr regrettably concludes is the case, then perhaps the solution is to do away with individual nations, or at least the notion of the absolute sovereignty of nations, but that's a topic for another time.)

James 1:17-27

I sometimes teach college classes online, and when I do, I assign my students to read selections of material every week, then they are to go online and discuss it with their classmates. To get the discussion started, I always ask several questions, often somewhat provocative, based on that week's reading assignments. Every once in awhile I'll have a student whose answer to the question is quite forceful and vehement, yet betrays no indication of actually doing the assigned reading. James says that Christians should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. (I interpret this verse as applying to online courses as well.) We are all raised with certain presuppositions that we get from our parents, our friends, our socioeconomic class, our religious tradition, and our nation. It is difficult to evaluate the world in a way that is substantially different from our neighbors, but not impossible. One of the goals of education is to show students what their presuppositions are and encourage them to question those presuppositions. If they will do so, sometimes they will decide that their presuppositions were right all along, and sometimes they will decide that they were wrong. Sometimes the evaluation process takes a long time, even years. The important thing, however, is that the student learns to listen to voices from outside his natural constituency. It's true that we can sometimes learn by talking through an issue with someone else, but it's also true that the best learning usually takes place when we listen, or read, or observe other people. There is a time for speaking, and even a time for anger, but most of the time we should be in listen mode.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Religious rituals can be a good thing, right up to the point where they are elevated to the status of religious requirements. Then they often become onerous, or even idols, and their original good is lost. In today's passage from Mark, Jesus suggests that certain religious rituals involving the washing of hands and/or food are in danger of becoming religious requirements and thus becoming a hindrance rather than a help to faith. He quotes Isaiah, who says that the people of his day were teaching human precepts as though they were divine doctrines. Interestingly, later on in the passage, the author of the gospel says that by implication, Jesus declared all foods clean. Those of us today who have no problem eating a ham sandwich might miss the logical conclusion of this statement, assuming that the phrase "human precepts" only applies to later traditions like ritual washing. However, since the prohibitions on eating certain food derive from Leviticus 11 (repeated in Deuteronomy 14), the gospel writer interprets Jesus' words as being applicable to at least some of the Pentateuchal laws as well. If the dietary laws in the Pentateuch are no longer valid, then what about the law of retribution (an eye for an eye)? If the law of retribution is no longer valid, then what about the restrictions on temple worship? What about the holiness code, or the Ten Commandments? How do we know which laws are still applicable? The answer is that none of the laws are still applicable, at least not in the sense of being universally binding. It is our job as Christians to scrutinize the laws and see what principles we can derive from them, and then we must live by those principles that are still valid. The only law Christians are under is the law of love, a law that is both less stringent than the laws of the Pentateuch and at the same time more demanding. There are no more religious requirements, but there still religious obligations. No longer does it matter if we wear a shirt that blends cotton and wool, but it does matter if we love our enemy. In the end, no one can decide for anyone else exactly what laws we should follow or what principles are still valid, but we are all responsible for deciding for ourselves, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.