Saturday Night Theologian
17 August 2008

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

When the economy began to sour a couple of years ago, some people instinctively knew who to blame: foreigners. Those undocumented workers who had brashly sneaked across the border were to blame for all of America's ills. The fact that undocumented workers and their families put more money into the economy while taking out less money in services doesn't matter to those whose minds are set on blaming them for all our woes. In a similar way, some people today are hinting (our saying outright) that Barack Obama is really more of a foreigner than an American, the implication being that only those whose background and life experiences mirror those of the majority of Americans (or what this group perceives, wrongly, to be the experiences of the majority of Americans) are fit to lead us. The fact of the matter is that America is not a homogeneous nation in terms of ethnicity, ideology, or religion, and it never has been. To me, that's one of the things that raises our potential for greatness as a nation, though it also raises our potential for self-destructive behavior, if we don't embrace our brothers and sisters who differ from us in one way or another. The book of Deuteronomy, chapter 23, lists the types of people who are to be excluded from the assembly of Israel. In addition to eunuchs and illegitimate children and their descendants, a number of different foreign groups are explicitly forbidden from entering the sacred assembly, either for a set number of generations or forever. The prophet whose words are recorded in today's reading rejects the idea that certain people are unfit for duty to God because of their nationality or national heritage. All who willingly seek and love God and agree to follow the divine law are welcome into the assembly of the people of God that the prophet seeks to build in the Second Temple Period. Like that prophet, Christians today should welcome the foreign-born and those of recent foreign ancestry into their midst. More than that, churches should actively seek to build communities that reflect the marvelous diversity of the earth.

Psalm 67 (first published 16 May 2004)

One of my former pastors used to say, "You can't take it with you. You never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer." God blesses us in this life so that we can be a blessing to others. The psalmist asks for God's grace and blessing, "that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations." Proponents of the health and wealth gospel claim that God's blessings of his followers will make others want to join their ranks so that they may experience the same success. I can't think of a more perverse distortion of the gospel message than the idea that greed should motivate someone to become a Christian. On the contrary, Christians should be characterized by a spirit of giving, having concern for the needs of others, not just themselves. It is true that if people equate Christianity with the wealth of the Western world, they might want to abandon their faith and adopt Christianity--along with Western values--in the hope that their luck will change. However, the most effective form of evangelism is one in which non-Christians see Christians showing them love and meeting their needs to the best of their abilities. When the people in parts of the world that are largely non-Christian begin to see Christians not as self-righteous, cultural imperialists but as caring people respectful of the beliefs and concerns of others, then and only then will "the nations be glad and sing for joy" because of the blessings of the Lord.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 (first published 14 August 2005)

There are some acts that, once accomplished, can never be reversed. Once you crack an egg, you'll never get it back together again. Once you sneeze, you can't unsneeze. Once you have a child, that child will always be yours. Paul says that God's choice of the nation of Israel as a special people is such a permanent, irrevocable act. Even if all do not now accept the gospel that he preaches, he says, God still loves them, and one day they will receive the same mercy that God is now showing to the Gentiles who have accepted the gospel. It's easy to understand why Paul believed that "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." Paul was a Jew, and for most of his life he fully accepted the teachings of mainstream, Pharisaic Judaism. Just because Paul became a Christian didn't mean he stopped being a Jew or stopped caring for other Jews. On the contrary, Paul had a tremendous love in his heart for his own people, and he wanted them all to come to believe like he did. The best preachers are often those who are taking the message of God to their own people, whether actual or adopted. Hosea's message to the Northern Kingdom of Israel is full of a compassion that is lacking in Amos's forceful message to Israel, for Hosea was an Israelite, while Amos was from Judah. The evangelization of the Goths wasn't accomplished by Roman Christians but by Ulfilas, a Gothic convert to Christianity. St. Patrick was kidnapped as a boy by Irish pirates and lived among the Irish for several years. Years later he returned to his adopted country with the message of the gospel. More recently, Christianity has spread in Korea not through the work of Western missionaries but primarily through the work of Korean Christians. Naturally, such conversions by a "native son" are not unique to Christianity. The prophet Muhammad was quite effective in spreading Islam among the Arabs. Of course, it makes sense. Who better to spread the message of God's love among a nation than someone who speaks the language, understands the customs, and above all loves the people? When we love people who are our friends and neighbors, who share our language and worldview, it is easy for us to believe that God loves them in a special way as well. What is not so easy, sometimes, is to understand that God loves other nations and people groups just as much. Yes, the Jews were called by God and were God's special people. The Hebrew Bible is a testament to God's faithfulness to the Jewish people. But they were not God's only chosen people. "Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" (Amos 9:7). Jesus said, "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold" (John 10:16), probably a reference to the Gentiles. The fact of the matter is that God has many different chosen people; in fact, we are all chosen, because God loves us all. God has a plan for each of us individually, and God has a plan for groups and nations. That we see ourselves as a people special to God is fine, as long as we acknowledge that we have no monopoly on God's grace or God's love. As Paul said, "God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all." May God have mercy on us, on our neighbors, and on our adversaries as well.

Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28 (first published 14 August 2005)

The story of Jesus' interaction with the Canaanite woman (a.k.a. the Syro-Phoenician woman) is one of the most unusual stories in the New Testament. Jesus is walking through the district of Tyre and Sidon, when he is approached by a local woman who has obviously heard about him. She urgently requests that Jesus heal her daughter, who is possessed by a demon. When she persists in her entreaty, Jesus says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." The woman replies, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." On hearing this, Jesus responds, "Woman, your faith is great! Let it be done for you as you wish," and immediately her daughter was healed. Commentators tend to focus on the conversation between Jesus and the woman. Was he insulting her when he compared her plight to that of a dog? Was he suggesting a spiritual hierarchy in which Jews came before Gentiles? Was he merely testing her faith? These are interesting questions that deserve discussion, but I want to focus on a different question. Why did Jesus go to the region of Tyre and Sidon in the first place? If he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, why was he in Gentile territory? Tyre and Sidon are a long way from Jesus' home in Galilee, especially by foot, and comparatively few Jews lived in the region. If he was looking for Jews to preach and minister to, he was better off in Galilee or Judea. If he was trying to escape from the multitudes for a time of rest, there were many places much closer that he could have gone. Maybe Jesus went to the region around Tyre intentionally, perhaps because the Hebrew Bible speaks so negatively of the region and its people. Book after prophetic book records negative oracles against Tyre--Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Zechariah---all contain "divine words" against the kings and inhabitants of the region. Jesus, however, had a different idea. The cities of Tyre and Sidon would fare better on the day of judgment than Jewish cities like Bethsaida and Chorazin, Jesus said (Matthew 11:21-22). Jesus had a heart that reached out to the underdog, the sinner, the outcast, and I think that's why he went to Tyre. In truth, the people of Tyre were no better or worse than those in any Jewish city. Like the inhabitants of Capernaum, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, the people of Tyre needed to hear that God loved them, and Jesus went to deliver the message. Who are the people of Tyre for us today? Are they the people who live in the rough part of town, people in prison, or immigrants from another country? Do we shy away from them, convinced that God must not love them as much as God loves us? If we do, then God is calling us to overcome our prejudice and our fear, journey to Tyre, and show them God's love. I think we'll find that the inhabitants of Tyre are a whole lot like our friends and neighbors. In fact, they're a whole lot like we are.