Saturday Night Theologian
15 February 2009

2 Kings 5:1-14 (first published 12 February 2006)

A teenaged boy is found seriously injured on an isolated planet which the Enterprise happens upon in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The doctor beams him aboard the ship and treats him, but the captain is not happy at the favorable treatment the patient is receiving. Why? The reason is that the patient is a Borg, a race of biological-technological hybrids whose mission is to "assimilate" every sentient species in the galaxy. Captain Picard has had a traumatic experience with the Borg in the past, and he sees this Borg as his enemy. He and other crew members concoct a plan to implant information in the Borg's mind that they hope will create confusion in the Borg collective, ultimately killing it. In the end, however, the captain, like some of his crewmates, comes to see this boy as an individual in need of their help rather than as merely a representative of an enemy race. In today's reading from 2 Kings, Israel and Aram were at war. An Aramean general, Naaman, had leprosy (or some other skin disease), and his servant girl, a captured Israelite, felt sorry for him and urged him to go to the prophet Elisha for healing. Naaman does go to Israel, and--after some confusion with the king--he visits Elisha and is healed. It is interesting to notice that although Israel and Aram are ostensibly at war, no one in the story considers a citizen of the other country his or her enemy. Naaman's servant is genuinely concerned for her master's health. Elisha doesn't care what the nationality of Naaman is. Naaman treats the Israelites he encounters with respect (although he does take some offense at being told to bathe in the Jordan River!). The respect and concern that the Israelites and Arameans in this story show for one another raises the question, why were the two nations fighting in the first place? Like most wars throughout history, this on-again, off-again conflict seems to have been based on the desire of one king for the territory and riches of the other king. The soldiers and citizens on opposite sides of the conflict had little or no animosity toward each other at all. If we look at all the conflicts over the past 200 years or so, most of them were started by government leaders who wanted war for one reason or another, often for territorial expansion. The German people didn't hate the Czechs or the Poles, but Hitler said that Germany needed Lebensraum, so they invaded. The French didn't dislike the Germans or the Russians, but Napoleon wanted to be an emperor, so they launched their assaults. Most U.S. citizens didn't hate Native Americans, but the government wanted Indian land, so they moved in and took it, often starting wars in the process. Today leaders start wars on flimsy pretenses and lead their nations into war, even though the people of their country have no real quarrel with the people in the "enemy" country. Saddam Hussein's wars on Iran and Kuwait are good examples, as are El Salvador's invasion of Honduras, India's frequent wars with Pakistan, and Uganda's wars with its neighbors under Idi Amin's dictatorship. The U.S. invasion of Iraq falls into this category, too, for it was a war that the U.S. government wanted so desperately that it was willing to use false evidence, exaggerate the threat that Iraq posed to its neighbors and the U.S., and ignore the advice of many of its closest allies in order to pursue a war against a country that few U.S. citizens were worried about. Christians who supported this war, or who support any of the other numerous conflicts in which the nations of the world are involved, have grown oblivious to the voice of Jesus, who urged his followers to love their enemies and to be peacemakers, but maybe they will be willing to listen to the voices of a young slave girl, an army general, and a prophet, who looked at an enemy and saw a person in need.

Psalm 30 (first published 12 February 2006)

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
In March 1865 Abraham Lincoln had much for which to be thankful. The American Civil War, which had been longer and bloodier than anyone had imagined, was drawing to a close. The Union had been preserved, slavery would soon be abolished, and the nation could soon start to heal its self-inflicted wounds. Lincoln could have gloated over the Union's defeat of the Confederacy, as many people are wont to do when they achieve victory, but Lincoln, as Aaron Copland observed, "was a quiet and a melancholy man," not given to grandstanding or lording it over his opponents. He was content to thank God and move on. Psalm 30 is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from illness, though the language is general enough to be used for thanksgiving in other circumstances as well. The psalmist's focus is entirely on God rather than on his own worthiness or prowess. Too often when people are in a position to thank God they forget entirely, and if they do remember, their prayers of thanksgiving are often heavily laced with reminders that God was really doing the world a favor by blessing them. Like the prayer of the self-righteous man in Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it is all too easy to blend "thanking God" with self-promotion. "Thank you, God, for my promotion at work; you know I was the best person for the job!" "Thanks, God, for the many blessings you've given me, which I so richly deserve!" "Thank you for letting us live in the greatest nation on earth!" It's hard for me to see prayers like these as true prayers of thanksgiving, for even though they invoke the name of God, they lack the humility necessary to approach the sovereign ruler of the universe. Much better is the psalmist's admission that he once had pride but had now been humbled, only to be raised up again by a loving and powerful God who loved him in spite of who he was, not because of who he was.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

I'm a survivor
I'm not gon give up
I'm not gon stop
I'm gon work harder
I'm a survivor
I'm gonna make it
I will survive
Keep on survivin'

These lyrics by Beyoncé show the resolve of a woman who has just broken up with a man, but the idea of working harder to overcome the difficulties of life can be applied to men and women who are faced with all sorts of different problems, including, but not limited to, problematic relationships. Paul uses the image of an athlete who works hard to be in the best shape he can be, ready to run a race, compete in a boxing match, or engage in whatever sporting event he is trained for. Training and discipline are important for athletes, but they're just as important for people in other fields. Students who work hard at their studies are better equipped than those who don't to succeed in life. Employees who work hard at their jobs are more likely to accomplish great things and get promotions. Of course, it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes a person who works hard in life gets slapped down by ignorant or unjust supervisors, by incompetent teachers, or even by the uncertain vicissitudes of life. Sometimes things just don't work out, regardless of a person's efforts. What should be our response when our hard work and dedication are not rewarded? We could just give up on life and slip back into the mold of ordinary people who do just enough to get by. That might seem like a reasonable response, but it's not. If God has given us the ability to be an athlete, a scholar, an adept businessperson, a singer, or whatever, we are only letting God down by not performing to the best of our abilities. Life isn't always fair, and discipline and determination don't always pay off, but in the end, every athlete knows that he has no control over others who run the race, he only has control over his own training and preparation.

Mark 1:40-45 (first published 12 February 2006)

As we have traveled through the ministry of Jesus over the past few weeks, we have seen Jesus present himself for baptism, preach a message of repentance, call disciples, heal the sick, cast out demons, and pray. In today's reading, for the first time we see the emotional side of Jesus (although there was also a hint of this in 1:25). The majority of manuscripts say that Jesus was moved with pity for the leper. Other witnesses say that Jesus became angry. Either way, this account sets the stage for the Markan portrait of Jesus who is an emotional human being (quite apart from being the Son of God). The other gospels tend to tone down Jesus' emotions, probably because of their so-called higher Christology, but Mark paints a picture of Jesus who has normal human emotions. Personally I find it comforting to think of Jesus as a person with a normal range of emotions. Sometimes I get mad, or feel compassion, or get down, or experience elation. It would be hard to follow Jesus as a role model if he were an automaton, reacting predictably (i.e., divinely) to every encounter. Mark's description of Jesus as a man with emotions frees his followers to express our emotions as well. If we think about it, it makes sense that God would give us emotions in order to express, not suppress, them. Life is full of opportunities for emotion, and while there are times when it is appropriate to tone down or even stifle particular emotions, most of the time it is better to live authentically in our emotions. If we are happy, we should rejoice. If we have experienced a loss, we should mourn. If we see injustice, we should definitely get angry, though of course we shouldn't lash out indiscriminately. Mark's portrait of Jesus frees us to be fully human, just as Jesus was fully human, and it also encourages us to minister to others through our humanity, just as Jesus did.