Saturday Night Theologian
21 October 2007

Genesis 32:22-31 (first published 31 July 2005)

The idea that life involves great struggles is widespread in human thought and history. Voltaire said, "My life is a struggle." Hitler's famous autobiography and statement of values was entitled "My Struggle." Nietzsche believed that the driving force behind all of life's activities is the struggle for power. The song "The Impossible Dream" speaks of a person who strives "with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star." In Genesis 32 we encounter a strange story about a human wrestling with a divine being, struggling for victory. Details in the story suggest that it is based on an earlier story that involved a man struggling with and prevailing over a night-demon, who was forced to grant the man an extra measure of power in order to flee before daylight sapped the demon's strength. In its present form, however, it describes a nocturnal wrestling match between Jacob and an angel (to use a later term), who embodies the power of God. As a result of Jacob's tenacity, the angel blesses him and changes his name to Israel, which in the context of the story is interpreted to mean "one who prevails with God." Somewhat scandalized by this interpretation, the Latin Vulgate says rather that Jacob "was strong" with God and prevailed over humans, but the Hebrew is unambiguous. For what are we struggling today? Will we prevail in our struggles? It is important to note that when Jacob wrested a blessing from God, it was something that God wanted to give Jacob all along. If we want to prevail in our struggles, we had better make sure that we are struggling for something God wants to give us. Hitler's struggle for pan-Germanic dominance and subjugation of the Jews failed, in large part because it was misguided, based on selfishness and hatred, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of God's will for the human race. Similar struggles to achieve dominance over others and to discriminate against people are also doomed to fail in the long run. On the other hand, struggles for basic human rights, freedom, and equality for all are struggles that we must continue, for if we are persistent, we will succeed.

Psalm 121 (first published 20 February 2005)

Many people in the ancient world believed that their gods lived on the tops of mountains. The Greek gods lived on Mt. Olympus. The Canaanite gods lived on Mt. Zaphon. The Hebrew God was identified Mt. Sinai in the pre-kingdom period and with Mt. Zion at a later time. Pilgrims who made the journey to Jerusalem to attend one of the three annual feasts had to travel uphill as they approached the city. This increase in altitude was so noticeable that the songs the pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem were called "Songs of Ascent." When they arrived in the city, they had to make their way uphill again to approach the temple mount, or Mt. Zion. Psalm 121 is one of several entrance liturgies that are found in the Psalter. It begins with a brief statement from the worshiper concerning the source of help. It is not to be found in the mountains, that is, not with any Canaanite gods or with the gods of other nations who dwell on high. Help comes only from Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth. In the liturgy found in the psalm, the priest follows with a statement proclaiming God's vigilance ("he who keeps you will not slumber"), protection ("the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night"), and care ("the Lord will keep you from evil"). As worshipers enter the temple, the priest tells them that they have entered the mountain sanctuary of God, where they will be safe, protected, and taken care of. The church today should be a sanctuary to which all people seeking God can turn, but unfortunately it isn't always. Some churches today are "niche churches," targeting a specific group of people for ministry. Now there is nothing wrong with trying to reach a particular type of person, particularly if the target audience consists of people who are routinely ignored or ostracized by other churches. The danger lies in being so focused on a particular group of people that others don't feel welcome. I'm not talking about people who visit a church and don't feel comfortable with the style of worship. There are many different worship styles, and different people prefer different styles, but a huge difference exists between not feeling comfortable and not feeling welcome. Other churches preach a "gospel" of inequality, one in which different classes of church members are recognized. For example, men might be elevated over women, or married people might be elevated over divorced or single people. Still other churches ostracize "sinners," as if we weren't all sinners. People in this type of church claim to hate the sin but love the sinner, but what the "sinners" usually perceive is in fact hatred of themselves as people. If they're gay they're not welcome. If they're hooked on drugs they're not welcome. If they're an unmarried couple that lives together they're not welcome. If they have a prison record they're not welcome. If they have a mental illness they're not welcome. If they vote for the wrong political party they're not welcome. We sometimes refer to the church building as a sanctuary, and it truly should be a sanctuary in two senses of the word. First, it should be a place where people encounter the holy. Second, it should be a place where anyone can come and feel safe, protected, and loved.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

What is the nature of biblical inspiration? The Greek word used in this passage literally means "breathed by God," which tells us that God is somehow behind the words of the sacred text, but it tells us nothing about the mechanism by which God inspired the writers. And what is scripture? The traditional rendering of verse 16 is "All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable ...." However, it is perfectly legitimate to translate the Greek in this manner: "Every God-inspired writing is also profitable ..." (cf. the New English Bible, the Revised English Bible, and a footnote in the Jerusalem Bible, for example). What happened to the word scripture? Simply put, there's no such word in Greek. The word is "writing," and only the context determines whether sacred writing is intended. When Jerome translated the Vulgate, he solved the problem by adding the word "divine" to his translation: "Every divine scripture is inspired and useful ...." And of course, the Greek of Timothy also refers to sacred writings, since they are described as "God-breathed," but exactly which writings are in question? The commonly given answer is that the passage refers to the Hebrew Bible, and this explanation is probably correct, but it is important to note that when 2 Timothy was written, the canon of the Hebrew Bible was not yet fully determined by the Jews, much less by the Christians, so the author apparently did not have a fixed list of books in mind, as in "these books are God-breathed, and no others." The advantage of the second translation given above is that it offers a flexible definition of sacred texts, one that can be expanded to include the New Testament, and perhaps even other books that the church might come to consider inspired. Although the canon is generally viewed as a fixed list of sacred texts, James Sanders argues for a more flexible view of canon that allows the church of any time to alter the list as it sees fit, and he also argues for allowing different incarnations of the church (e.g., Protestants and Catholics) to arrive at different, fully legitimate, understandings of the extent of the canon. Since at least the time of the Council of Trent, Christians in the West have argued over the exact content of the Old Testament canon, but Christians today would better spend their time figuring out what the scripture--however they define it--says to them that is profitable for "teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living" (REB). I believe that God is less concerned with the list of books we claim to revere than with the way in which we express through our lives our understanding of those books.

Luke 18:1-8 (first published 17 October 2004)

In The Shawshank Redemption, prisoner Andy Dufresne is put in charge of the prison library. Every week he writes a letter to the state legislature asking for funds to buy books for the prison library. After six years with no response, he receives several boxes of books and records, a check for $200, and a note requesting that he stop sending letters to the legislature. Andy's response is to start sending two letters a week! Like this vignette from the movie, Jesus' parable of the importunate widow is a humorous story of perseverance and hope. The widow presents her case over and over to a judge who respects neither God nor humans. Nevertheless, in order to preserve his own sanity, the judge finally decides the case in favor of the persistent widow. Jesus' point in the story is that if people can wear down uncaring judges, how much more readily will God respond to our requests, since God really does care about us. This is a message about perseverance, but it's also a message about hope. The widow was in a situation in which she was powerless to act. Only the judge could bring relief. The fact that the woman persisted with her request shows that she never gave up hope that justice would be done. In real life, justice is not always done, but like the widow, we must fight on anyway in the hope that God will change human hearts. Or maybe we'll just wear them down!