Saturday Night Theologian
16 November 2008

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who was a contemporary of Plato, famously wandered the streets of Athens with a lamp, looking for an honest man. He identified himself as a Cynic, someone who valued actions more than words, and his life was a constant protest against what he considered to be the corruption of society. He was reputed to live in a large tub rather than a house, and one of the staples of his diet was onions. Clearly he was not someone who was wont to entertain guests (because of the tub) or to be invited frequently to into the homes of other people (because of the onions). Despite his lack of social graces, or rather because of it, Diogenes developed a reputation as someone whose life reflected his beliefs. The prophet Zephaniah, who lived about three centuries earlier than Diogenes, also saw his society as hopelessly corrupt. He portrays God as searching Jerusalem with lamps, looking for people whose lives reflect their commitment to God. Like Diogenes, Zephaniah's God is not interested in fine words or even proper theology. On the contrary, those sought by God are people of integrity, who put their trust in God rather than in their riches. The current financial crisis facing Americans--and indeed, many others as well--challenges the idea that self-interest on either an individual or an international level will inevitably pay off. Joe the Plumber, and others like him, seem to assume that if the government will just get out of their way, their road to riches is assured. Many churches have bought into this philosophy, either telling their member outright that financial blessings are directly tied to their faith, or offering seminars on how Christians can go about accumulating wealth. Nowhere in these churches is the idea that Christians should be trying to accumulate wealth ever questioned. It is assumed that wealth reflects the blessing of God. The corollary, of course, is that financial struggles reflect God's displeasure. Nothing could be farther from the message of the gospel. Were Mother Theresa, Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, or Jesus himself outside of God's plan? Or is it more likely that those who pursue wealth as one of their chief concerns have somehow gotten off message? Wealth in and of itself is not a bad thing, if it is used to meet the needs of the poor and marginalized, but neither is it something that Christians should want to identify themselves with. After all, Jesus once described himself as someone with nowhere to lay his head. We follow a homeless savior, not one who was a CEO.

Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12

The election of Barack Obama last week has been heralded by many around the world as the dawn of a new day in America, and indeed for the worldwide community. As an ardent Obama supporter I have to admit being excited about the possibilities that his election offers. At the same time, however, I am realistic enough to know that (1) Obama won't be able to accomplish everything he wants to, since he will have to compromise with the Congress on some issues, even though the Congress is currently strongly Democratic; (2) since I do not agree with Obama on every issue, he will undoubtedly enact policies that I won't be happy about; (3) even on policies on which we agree, my priorities are not identical with Obama's; and (4) like every administration, Obama's will be hit with scandal that will hinder some of his efforts. Then there's the question of time. John F. Kennedy was president when I was very young, and people were so enthusiastic about the potential of his presidency that they labeled it Camelot. Even had the tragedy of his assassination not occurred, the U.S. today would look back on Kennedy's administration as belonging to the past. More than forty years later, how many of Kennedy's accomplishments continue to be felt in the present? Some, perhaps, but not that many, and in another forty years, or a hundred, how much of an impact on history will the Kennedy administration, or the Obama administration, have made? In a thousand years, will the U.S. even be a country? Will there still be distinct nations on earth? Will there still be human inhabitants? My guesses--and these are only guesses--are no, the U.S. will not still be a country because there will be no distinct nations, at least in the modern sense, but yes, people will still inhabit the planet. I hope that the world in a thousand years will be a more peaceful place, a place where people of different nationalities and different religions will have learned to tolerate and even respect one another. Will there still be distinct religions? I would guess there will be, but if so, what will they look like? One thing is for sure: human history is in for many surprising changes, but only God is forever.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (first published 13 November 2005)

The early church talked a lot about the Parousia, the expected Second Coming of Christ. For the earliest generation of believers, the Parousia was imminent. They were living in the last days, and the Lord's return was just around the corner--maybe this year, maybe next, but surely within the lifetime of that first generation. In 1 Thessalonians, the earliest book of the New Testament, Paul reflects the concern of the church at Thessalonica concerning Christ's return. Paul urges Christians to prepare themselves for that day, which would come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. Paul never makes any explicit prediction about the timing of the Parousia, though like other believers he apparently thinks that it will be soon (see Romans 13:11). Why was the early church so anxious for Christ to return? What changes did they expect him to make? Other than saying that Christians would be "with the Lord," Paul says very little about what he expects the reign of Christ will be like. However, if the book of Revelation is any indication of general expectations, Christians were looking for a time of peace, relative prosperity, safety, and comfort. In this their picture of the Parousia closely matches the prophetic vision of the eschatological kingdom, where the faithful "shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4). If we approach the question of the Parousia from a sociological rather than a theological perspective, one of the questions we will ask is what kind of people long for the world to end soon? If we leave aside those who so desire the end of the world that they are willing to take their own lives (e.g., the Branch Davidians or the Heaven's Gate community), we are left with people for whom the present realities of life are difficult and who look for a more equitable future. Eschatology aside, I believe that if the gospel is really the "good news" that we claim it is, it should address the deep longing of the poor and the marginalized in our world for peace and justice. The gospel does not offer fabulous riches or eternal youth to all believers (hence the term "health and wealth gospel" is an oxymoron), but if we remember the words of Jesus' inaugural address in the Nazareth synagogue, the gospel does speak of peace and justice. The gospel portrays a world in which people's most basic needs are met. It is a world where justice, though tempered with mercy, is the rule, not the exception. It is a world in which all can claim to be recipient's of God's favor. That idealized world may never appear this side of the afterlife, but it is something Christians should imagine and work for. The problem of the delayed Parousia is not a problem that disappeared in the first century. It remains an issue for all those today who suffer from lack of food, who die before their time because of lack of access to medical care, who cannot get treatment for their mental illness, who have no roofs of their own over their heads. Parousia literally means the arrival, or even the presence, of a person. It's time we preached the Parousia not as an event in the indeterminate future but as something for which we can strive in the here and now. For Christians, Christ is with us, and in us, so in a very real sense we can proclaim the Parousia to those who are hurting and most in need of the good news that God cares.

Matthew 25:14-30 (first published 13 November 2005)

The Peter Principle states that in a large organization, every person will eventually rise to his or her level of incompetence. The idea is this. A person excels at her job, so she is promoted to the next level. If she does well at that level, she will be promoted again, until eventually she attains a position for which she is not prepared, where she will stagnate in incompetence. We have perhaps all known people who had positions of authority for which they were ill-suited. They may have been wonderful at other jobs, but they're just not cut out for the one they have now. Some of us may have found ourselves in such a position, and when we realized it we asked ourselves, how did I get here? How do I get out? Of course, in many cases a person is able to grow into the new position, but that's hardly a universal truth. The parable of the talents talks about the distribution of resources to three employers. Two turn a profit with an investment, while the third does nothing with it. When the landowner returns, he takes the talent from the one who did nothing with it and gives it to the one with ten already. I used to think that was unfair. Why take from the one who has little and give it to the one who has much? If we were talking about taking from the poor and giving to the rich (a la regressive taxes, for instance), it would be wrong, but I think the parable is talking about something entirely different. The parable is about good management techniques. The landowner in the story is a good manager, because he recognizes the ability to get something done and rewards it. His initial distribution of talents in the beginning indicates that he doubted the ability of the third servant, and he was proved correct in his assessment. (I'll avoid going off on a tangent about low expectations and save it for another time!) Good managers realize that they have limited resources--money, time, personnel, ability--and it is their job to maximize the desired output. Aside from the obvious applications for us in the workplace, there are applications in the area of ministry as well. A church is supposed to minister to its community, but it cannot possibly meet every need or be involved in every type of ministry, so it has to decide how to allocate its resources in order to minister most effectively, according to its understanding of God's call. Individuals, too, can apply this parable in their management of their own time and resources. A good education is a vital part of one's preparation for ministry. So it spiritual preparation and hands-on experience with ministry. I'm not just talking about people who feel called to full-time Christian service of one sort or another, for we are all called to be ministers to those around us who have needs. If we find we have an interest in one area but no real aptitude, its better to invest little or no time in that interest and focus on other areas in which we have both interest and aptitude. The good thing about the parable is that we're all capable of being the servant who was given five talents. We just have to figure out those areas of our lives and ministries that yield the greatest return on investment and spend our time there.