Saturday Night Theologian
15 October 2006

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

This week the U.S. Justice Department approved the planned merger between AT&T, the regional phone company in the Southwest (formerly called Southwestern Bell) and Bell South, the regional phone company in the Southeast. In addition to their local phone service assets, the two phone companies jointly control Verizon wireless and significant Internet resources as well. The merger will undoubtedly result in record earnings for investors, but customers may end up enduring higher rates, as often happens when their service is provided by a virtual monopoly. This merger is yet another in a series of big corporate mergers in industrialized countries over the past decade or two. These mergers are almost always good for the companies involved (why else would they merge?), but their benefit for customers is questionable at best. The fact that Western governments now routinely sign off on deals such as this one, while lawmakers at the same time accept huge campaign contributions from the companies involved, and former lawmakers go to work as lobbyists for the same companies, raises all sorts of ethical issues. If governments exist for the common welfare of the people, as the U.S. Constitution explicitly claims, why do they seem much more concerned about their wealthy donors than average citizens? Why don't governments insist that excessive corporate profits from these corporate behemoths "trickle down" to the poor? Amos addressed a situation in Israel in which the government favored the rich, while the poor suffered grievously. Amos's message was that God was "mad as hell and wasn't going to take it any more"! "Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins--you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate." Sound familiar? It's time for progressive Christians, and other like-minded people, to take a firm stand against governments that favor corporations over ordinary people, against politicians who take bribes (a.k.a. campaign contributions) in exchange for their votes, and against all people and policies that oppress the poor. It shouldn't take a scandal involving sex (a la Mark Foley) to get Christians excited about a political campaign. The concern for justice should be enough.

Psalm 90:12-17

I had a friend a few years ago whose doctors gave him only a few months to live. As the days passed and he got weaker, I wondered what it would be like to know when my end was coming. I asked him once, shortly after he had received his diagnosis but was still relatively strong, if there were specific things he wanted to do before he died. He shook his head and replied that he really didn't have anything he wanted to accomplish before then. I thought that was sad, because he had had a difficult life in many ways, and he was estranged from some of his family. He thought that his life was already over, except for counting the days that remained. When the psalmist asks God, "Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart," I don't think that's what he had in mind. The verb translated count here can be used in the sense of mustering troops, and that's the idea behind this verse. The days that lie before us, whether or not we know how many there are, are not days to be dreaded, nor are they days merely to be endured. Rather they are days that we need to organize and plan for. They are days for which we ought to have specific goals in mind. That doesn't mean that we have to be workaholics. On the contrary, we can and should have days of rest and relaxation in our schedules. It also doesn't mean that we have to have our whole lives planned out, so that we have no spontaneity. Numbering our days reminds us that God has granted us a tremendous gift, the gift of life. Whether we have only six months left or sixty years, may God teach us to make the most of our time on earth.

Hebrews 4:12-16

I've taken the Myers-Briggs personality profile test a few times, and the results are pretty consistent. Not surprisingly, considering my line of work, the four letters that describe my personality are typical of people who are professors (including the absent-minded types) and other people whose lives deal a lot with abstract thoughts and ideas. As anyone who has ever taken the Myers-Briggs test knows, despite the letters that are used as a shorthand to characterize our personalities, most people are somewhere on the continuum between one aspect of personality or another. For example, the Myers-Briggs test classify people as either introverts or extroverts, but though most people tend to be one or the other, most introverts have at some extroverted characteristics, and vice versa. In my own case, I am definitely on the introverted side, but not excessively so. In one area, however, I am pretty close to the extreme edge of the continuum. On the Perceiving-Judging scale, I am way over on the perceiving end, with very little J as part of my personality. For better or worse, no one else in my family is a strong P: we have a strong J, a mild J, and a mild P (or perhaps another mild J; it's hard to tell yet), in addition to me. People who test as a J are not necessarily judgmental people, but they sometimes have to work harder at it than a P typically would. The author of Hebrews says, "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been test as we are, yet without sin." I have a hard time condemning other people for their actions, particularly if I don't know their background or what they've gone through in life. Thus, I'm often able to generate at least some sympathy with most people, even if I strongly disagree with their actions. There are some people, however, whose actions are so repugnant that I have a hard time drumming up any sympathy at all for them, despite the fact that I'm a strong P. The author of Hebrews says that though we might not be able to show sympathy for others, Jesus, sitting at the right hand of God, has no problem doing so. Jesus' sympathy is all the more remarkable, he says, because, unlike the rest of us, Jesus did not succumb to the temptations that get the rest of us, even though he experienced them himself. It is comforting to know that God understands our weakness, but this knowledge should also be a motivation for us to show greater sympathy for those who have given in to temptation and need our support. It's one thing to tell someone that God forgives their sins. It's another to show them our conviction that God forgives them by forgiving them ourselves.

Mark 10:17-31

In the Gospel of Mark, the first nine chapters describe Jesus' ministry in and around Galilee. Jesus occasionally ventures into Gentile territory, but he always returns to his home base in Galilee. Chapter 10 is a transitional chapter, chronicling Jesus' journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. He is not traveling alone. His disciples, who have been with him since the early part of his ministry, make the trek to Jerusalem as well. For some time now Jesus has been telling his disciples of his impending death (recorded in Mark 8:31), yet still his disciples follow him. Of all the gospel writers, Mark is the hardest on the disciples, portraying them alternately as inattentive, out of touch, social climbers, and just plain stupid. Regardless of their shortcomings, however, the disciples remain by Jesus' side as dark days approach. Peter says to Jesus, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." This remark is not so much a boast as a statement of fact, or even a plea. "Lord, we've given up everything for you. What will we get in return?" "Everything," Jesus replies. Though those who follow Jesus may lose their relationships with their parents, siblings, children, or other members of their family, their loss will be more than made up for in the family that they gain in this age. And Jesus promises them a little persecution thrown into the mix. If Mark 8 describes a transition in Jesus' relationship with his disciples in the Gospel of Mark, Mark 10 is another transition, from a life of safety and comfort to a life of danger and suffering. That the disciples do not fall by wayside at this point in the story but persevere on the road with Jesus is a tribute to their character, and it is a challenge to us. We know much more than the disciples about Jesus' eventual fate, because we live on the other side of the cross and empty tomb. The disciples didn't understand many of Jesus' teachings, and they certainly didn't understand the need for his death, but they remained at his side despite their misgivings. Do we have the strength and commitment to do the same?