Saturday Night Theologian
18 November 2007

Malachi 4:1-2a

When we look at the world around us, it's easy to get discouraged. There is so much suffering, so much injustice, so much plain idiocy, that people of faith can be led to despair. In Malachi 3:15, just four verses before today's reading, the people who revere Yahweh complain that the arrogant are happy and the evildoers not only prosper, but they also get away with every evil deed they commit. It does feel like that sometimes. Sure, petty criminals get caught and punished, and sometimes major criminals do as well, but those who perpetrate the world's greatest injustices--political leaders, business leaders, people with wealth and fame--seem to get away with murder, sometimes literally. Furthermore, the corrupt structures of society that perpetuate the greatest injustices--maldistribution of wealth, generationally perpetuated poverty, discrimination, tax inequities, unequal access to health care, war--continue to exist without serious challenge. The prophetic word in Malachi 4:1 is more hopeful: "See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. . . . But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings." What a great dream! But is it real, or is it just a pipe dream? As people of faith, we wait expectantly for God's justice to prevail on the earth. The problem is that we live in the here and now, in a place where evildoers often do prosper and sin flourishes almost unchecked. How can we reconcile our fervent desire for justice with our honest assessment of the world around us? The answer is one word: hope. The hope I'm talking about is not some vague wish that we want to happen but know probably never will. The hope I'm talking about is the firm expectation that God is in control of the universe, that God cares about injustice, and that God is guiding creation toward a great culmination characterized by justice and peace, whether in this life or the next. Another aspect of this hope I'm talking about is that it gives us strength to act now, in the in-between time in which we live, the time between promise and fulfillment. We are called to live our lives in the firm expectation that our hope for God's justice will be realized in the near future. With this hope as the centerpiece of our lives, we will refuse to condone injustice, whether perpetrated by individuals against one another (e.g., racism), by governments against individuals (e.g., torture), by corporate entities against individuals (e.g., environmental degradation), or by governments against other governments (e.g., preemptive war). Yes, the arrogant and the evildoers often seem to sin with impunity, but we live in a mindset that rejects the short-term benefits that sin accords and holds out to end for the justice of God.

Isaiah 12 (first published 14 November 2004)

Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century abbot, once visited a village where the people asked him to teach them wise sayings about living the Christian life from important past leaders of the church or saints from the Bible. Bernard asked the people if they had any personal experiences of their own that they could relate concerning God. The villagers replied that yes, they had some, but they were reluctant to share them. Bernard told them that if they wanted to understand spirituality, the deep things of God, the best thing to do was to "drink from their own wells." They had had encounters with God, but they believed that for some reason their own personal experiences were less meaningful than those of recognized saints. Bernard told them to start with themselves, their own situation, and their own encounters with God, and they would understand spirituality better than any sayings that he could relate to them would help them understand. Isaiah 12 consists of two short, psalm-like poems, which draw on the language of the canonical psalms for inspiration. In the first poem (verses 1-3), the poet speaks of God as the author of salvation, and he says that the people will draw water from the wells of salvation. What is this salvation that the prophet is talking about? It is not a purely otherworldly kind of salvation that we often hear spoken of in churches today. Too many people today see salvation exclusively as something that applies to the afterlife. They equate salvation with going to heaven, or the promise thereof. The prophet and the people he was talking to had their feet much more firmly on the ground. For them, salvation was deliverance, especially deliverance from one's enemies, whether personal or national. People feel the need for deliverance when they are oppressed in some way--emotionally, spiritually, economically, or politically--and it is natural for them to turn to God for help. How will God provide deliverance for those who are oppressed, regardless of their circumstances? The imagery of the well provides an answer. Salvation is there waiting to be drawn out, but it cannot be grasped unless someone has enough faith to lower the bucket and bring it up. As Bernard told the people of the village, we all have spiritual resources, even though we might not be aware of them. Whether we are rich or poor, in power or out of power, male or female, we can draw on our God-given strengths to empower ourselves and others. We shouldn't wait on outside forces to deliver us. We need to learn to rely on our own resources and those of our family, friends, and neighbors. Gustavo Gutierrez borrowed Bernard's phrase as the title of one of his books, a classic of liberation literature, We Drink from Our Own Wells. He describes how the poor are able to draw on their own encounters with God for wisdom for life and insight into how to deal with their situations of oppression. If we are poor, or if we work with the poor, we are aware of the tremendous faith in God that many of the poor have. If we are not poor ourselves, we can learn from them, but we also have our own experiences of meeting God that are just as valid and meaningful. These encounters give us strength to live in a world that is full of injustice. They give us hope for peace in a world filled with violence. They give us the ability to love in a world filled with racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. We all have wells that we can draw from, wells full of the waters of God's salvation. Lord, teach us to drink from our own wells!

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 (first published 14 November 2004)

In the movie A Day without a Mexican, director Sergio Arau creates a situation in which every Hispanic in the state of California disappears over the span of a few hours. Suddenly there is no one to pick the fruit and vegetables in the fields, 60% of the construction workers are gone, the restaurants and schools have to close, and chaos reigns supreme. Companies are forced to file bankruptcy, the economy slumps, and even many (not all) bigots come to realize the important role that Latinos play in their lives. The message of the movie is simple: Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans--people of Hispanic descent are an important part of the community. They contribute much more than they take out (according to the movie, Hispanics contribute $100 billion to the California economy and only take out $3 billion in government services), and life wouldn't be the same without them. The message of the movie can be applied to other groups as well, including the poor, whether white, black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. Right-wing talk show hosts like to blame all the problems of America on the poor, especially if they also happen to be immigrants (legal or illegal) or minorities. "They're lazy, they just want to be on welfare, they use government services but don't pay any taxes." These are all complaints of right-wing zealots and their ditto-heads, but they're just plain wrong. Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians to beware of those who are idle, but he is not talking about the poor. On the contrary, the poor had to work just to stay alive in that society. Those Paul describes as unwilling to work may be those whose ideas about the end times are erroneous (as Paul discusses earlier in the letter), or they may be people who claim to be spiritual teachers or prophets (as the immediate context suggests). There are many reasons why people do not work. First, they may be incapable of work, such as those who are physically incapacitated, mentally ill, or mentally retarded (although some people in these categories can indeed hold down jobs). Second, they may not be able to find work. The official government unemployment rate is artificially low, since it excludes those who have been unable to find work and have used all their unemployment benefits, as well as those who have just given up, so in many places there are fewer jobs than people. This is particularly true in rural areas and especially on Indian reservations. Third, they may not be able to work because they have to care for children or the elderly. Without child care and elder care as an employment benefit in most jobs, working is just not a viable option for some people. People prefer to work at jobs that are meaningful, but the vast majority are willing to work at pretty much anything that pays the bills. Unemployment is not a state to which anyone aspires. Yes, Christians should be wary of supporting those who are capable of working but are too lazy to do so--and there are some people who fit into this category--but they should also be ready to help those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to find work. In addition, we should recognize the tremendous double standard that exists between the rich and the poor with regard to employment. How many of those who condemn the poor welfare mother who chooses to stay on welfare and raise her children herself also condemn the rich woman who chooses not to work, spending her time playing tennis with her friends, shopping, and involving herself in various hobbies? Remember, the phrase is not "the idle poor," it's "the idle rich" (read a Jane Austin or Henry James novel to refresh your memory).

Luke 21:5-19 (first published 14 November 2004)

Dispensationalism is one of the greatest heresies of Christianity. (I use the term heresy in the sense of a system of beliefs that is inconsistent with the teachings of Christ--very directly so, as we shall see--but my use of the term does not imply that I think that those who hold to dispensationalist doctrine are not Christians. On the contrary, I think that all Christians are heretics in some degree, in doctrine and/or in praxis.) There are a number of reasons that I could list for disagreeing with dispensationalism, but in the context of today's reading from Luke, I will limit myself to two. In Luke 21, Jesus delivers his Apocalyptic Discourse, a series of statements about the end times and the unrest that will precede it. Many people over the centuries have tried to understand Jesus' teachings in this passage, and many have tried to apply his words to specific, usually contemporary, events. Although I believe such attempts to be misguided, I don't see any great harm in most of them. However, dispensationalism's treatment of this passage and others calls for special attention, particularly among Christians who consider themselves to be progressives. Dispensationalism divides world history into seven different eras, or dispensations, and God deals with humans differently in each one. In particular, it sees the Church Age, the time from the resurrection to the rapture, as a distinct dispensation from that during which Jesus lived and taught (I should add that I don't believe the rapture, the stackpole of dispensationalism, to be a valid biblical concept). In fact, the Church Age is really a great parenthesis in God's plan for humanity, interrupting the dispensation of the Kingdom Age which began with Jesus' birth (or maybe his public ministry) and culminates in the Millennial Kingdom that follows the Second Coming. If you've heard all this before, you've been exposed to dispensationalist theology. If this is new to you, you obviously need to listen to more TV and radio preachers! As I said earlier, dispensationalism is a heresy, and an extremely dangerous heresy, for two reasons. First, because dispensationalism treats the Church Age as a separate dispensation from the Kingdom Age, the teachings of Jesus, such as those in the Sermon on the Mount, do not apply in the Church Age! I can think of few heresies as pernicious as this one, even though it is one that many average, church-going dispensationalist Christians are not aware of. However, dispensationalist theologians are certainly aware of it, and they use it to deny that Jesus' moral teachings hold any authority over us now. All that matters is Jesus' death and resurrection. In effect, dispensationalist theology negates the whole of Jesus' life and ministry in favor of a purely post-resurrection Christ who is interested in faith (in the sense of belief in a fixed set of propositions) and not much else. Sure, they encourage good behavior, but the teachings and example of Jesus really aren't binding until after the rapture. The second reason dispensationalism is a heresy develops out of the first. Because Christians in the Church Age aren't bound by Jesus' teachings about loving one's enemies, and because of Jesus' statements in the Apocalyptic Discourse about wars and unrest (as well as dispensationalist interpretations of other passages), dispensationalists see unrest in the Middle East as a harbinger of the coming Battle of Armageddon. Far from wanting peace in the Middle East, some of the most radical dispensationalists actually want to see the violence there grow until it results in a worldwide battle at the gates of Jerusalem (with a rebuilt temple). This seemingly insane idea actually makes sense within the context of dispensationalist teaching. The idea is that violence in the Middle East will increase until a major battle involving the leading nations of the world is provoked. These nations will gather outside Jerusalem, at which point Jesus himself will intervene bodily and put an end to the violence, ushering in the Millennial Kingdom. The heresy is that dispensationalism teaches Christians to promote war rather than peace in the Middle East! Hard as it may be for most Christians (including many who accept many dispensationalist teachings) to believe, dispensationalism rejects the teachings of Jesus in general and his teachings regarding Christians being peacemakers in particular. Understanding dispensationalism helps Christians and others to understand the strange beliefs that many conservative Christians have about the Middle East, including their rabid favoritism toward the state of Israel in its conflicts with the Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims. Once we understand the source of these strange and dangerous beliefs, we can begin to bear testimony to a different form of Christianity, one that values the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount, as highly as it values his death and resurrection. And we can show the world that Christians take seriously Jesus' admonition to his disciples to be peacemakers, not warmongers.