Saturday Night Theologian
19 November 2006

Daniel 12:1-3

One of the arguments that atheists often use to demonstrate the unlikelihood of God's existence is the lack of justice in the world. Those who are poor and weak suffer the most, while the rich suffer very little. Furthermore, those who happened to be born in countries with few financial resources are more likely to suffer from war or famine than those born in rich countries. In a just world, so the argument goes, the good would be rewarded and the wicked would be punished. The observation that the world does not operate in this manner is central to the argument of the book of Job. As Job observes, the wicked often prosper and the righteous suffer, in contrast to the sentiment "I've never seen the righteous forsaken" (Psalm 37:25). Is there then no resolution to the problem? Is God indeed unjust? Or does God perhaps not exist at all? Another solution to the problem appears in today's passage from Daniel. The latest book of the Hebrew Bible to be written, the book of Daniel agrees that those who are faithful to God sometimes suffer in this life, and thus life is indeed unfair. However, the problem disappears if the next life is taken into account, a life in which the righteous truly are rewarded and the wicked truly are punished. This is the solution that the New Testament writers, as well as classical Judaism and Islam, adopted, but it, too, contains an inherent problem. Who is completely righteous? No one. Who is completely wicked? Again, no one. Christians, especially Protestants, attempt to skirt this issue by substituting Christ's righteousness for the righteousness of the individual believer, as Paul advocates, but that raises other issues. What about the person who has never heard of Christ, or who hasn't had a real opportunity to believe in Christ? What about those who lived before Christ? Is eternal punishment a just sentence for temporal sin? These and other issues continue to be debated by people of faith, and perhaps they will continue to be debated for all time. One thing this passage teaches us, though, regardless of how we resolve the God-theodicy paradox, is that God cares for people, and God will take care of those who respond with all the faith they can to all they understand about God.

1 Samuel 2:1-10

It has always been amazing to me how readily people will make political choices that are contrary to their own best interests. I'm not talking about those few who are rich who advocate higher estate taxes, based on the principle that inheriting excessive wealth somehow violates justice. Instead, I'm talking about middle class, or even poor, people who vote for candidates who vow to reduce the tax burden on the rich, even though such policies shift the economic burden down the socioeconomic ladder. I can think of only two reasons why people might vote against their own economic self-interest. The first reason is that they truly believe that the adjustments to the tax code advocated by their candidate are fair. I doubt, however, that this is the case with the vast majority of middle- and lower-class people who vote in this manner. The second reason, which I think predominates in the mind of those who vote this way, is that they hope one day to be rich and then to enjoy the benefits of a lowered tax burden. They idolize the rich, and they fantasize about being rich, so they vote for politicians who favor the rich, on the off chance that they may someday benefit. Hannah's song offers a shrill wakeup call to that kind of thinking. God, she says, doesn't side with the rich but with the poor. God lifts up the poor and needy, but God brings down those who are rich and powerful. Desiring membership in the club of the rich is like trying to join the yacht club on the Titanic. There's just no future in it.

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25

"Whenever we argue, you always get historical," a man told his wife. "You mean hysterical, honey," the wife replied. "No, I mean historical," the husband said. "You always bring up everything I've done wrong in the past!" That's exactly how we often face the issue of sin and forgiveness. We say that we forgive those who have wronged us in some way, but if they wrong us again in the future, or if we need justification from wronging them, we have no qualms about dredging up that old complaint. Similarly, we often have a hard time forgiving ourselves. We imagine that since we are unable to forget the wrongs done to us, God is similarly unable to forgive and forget. However, the passage in Hebrews says precisely that. "Where there is forgiveness of these [sins], there is no longer any offering for sin." It is undoubtedly true that some sins are harder to forgive than others. If you feel that you've been grievously wronged, it's much harder to forgive that person who sinned against you than if the wrong was nothing more than a slight. There are also certain classes of sin that we seem to have a hard time forgiving. Many conservative churches find it much easier to admit a person to full fellowship who has committed armed robbery, drug dealing, or even murder than to admit a person who has committed a sexual sin of some sort. In many churches, divorce is the unpardonable sin, regardless of the circumstances or the passing of time. Before we get on our high horse and condemn the sin of another person, offering little recourse in the way of forgiveness, it is always a good idea to remember our own sins, and the fact that God has forgiven us. When I adopt that approach myself, I find that I have a hard time being too judgmental of the sins of others, particularly when the person who has sinned has asked forgiveness. If we expect God to forgive our sins permanently, we must be willing to do the same for others. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Mark 13:1-8

When Dick Cheney became vice president in 2001, one of the first things he did was call the leaders of the energy industry together for a secret sit-down to discuss the Bush administration's energy policy. One of the companies represented at the table was Enron, the poster child for growth in the industry. Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling had put together a company that was one of the biggest on Wall Street, and people everywhere wanted to emulate their success. The Houston Astros even named their new stadium Enron Field. Then the bottom fell out. It turns out that the superstructure on which Enron was built was little more than a glorified pyramid scheme. They borrowed money from one of their companies to make another of their companies look good on paper, but eventually their accounting sleight of hand caught up with them, and the company fell to pieces. George W. Bush pretended that he didn't even know Ken Lay, and the Astros erased Enron from their stadium and replaced it with Minutemaid. People are often impressed by the wrong things. Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus' disciples were impressed with the Jerusalem temple, but Jesus told them not to put so much emphasis on things that that pass away. All that remains of the temple today is the western wall. The great pyramids of Central America were marvelous feats of engineering, but when the Mayan civilization fell, the jungle took over the pyramids. The World Trade Center towers were tall and majestic, but they were destroyed in a single, terrible morning. It's tempting to put our trust in institutions or structures that people have built, but none will last. The Great Wall of China failed to keep the Mongols out, just as Hadrian's Wall failed to keep the Scots out. Similarly, the wall the Israelis are building through the middle of Palestinian territory will not bring peace to the Middle East, nor will the wall the U.S. is building on the Mexican border bring an end to illegal immigration. Our trust should not be in buildings or walls or corporations or defense systems; our trust should only be in God, and in the strategies that Jesus proclaimed: peacemaking, loving one's enemies, and forgiving those who have wronged us.