Saturday Night Theologian
22 March 2009

Numbers 21:4-9 (first published 30 March 2003)

In the early 1950s, the Cold War was under way, and many Americans were terrified by the thought of communists infiltrating the country and ultimately overthrowing the government. Senator Joseph McCarthy capitalized on the fears of his fellow citizens, riding their fears to nationwide popularity. At the height of his popularity, on March 9, 1954, journalist Edward R. Murrow broadcast a television special entitled "A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy," revealing McCarthy's duplicity and fear-mongering. As a result of Murrow's courageous journalism, the nation turned against McCarthy, and the term "McCarthyism" entered the American vocabulary to indicate an unwarranted attack on people based on insinuation and unsubstantiated rumor. When the emptiness of McCarthy's charges became evident, he lost his power to strike fear in his enemies, and his ability to harm others disappeared. In the reading from Numbers 21, the Israelites, complaining because their detour around Edom was delaying their entry into the promised land, were accosted by "fiery" (Hebrew: seraf) serpents (generally understood as venomous snakes, though Hebrew mythology describes the celestial beings known as seraphim as fiery, winged serpents). In response to this plague of serpents, Moses crafted a bronze replica of a snake and put it on a pole. Whenever anyone was bitten by one of the fiery serpents, gazing at the bronze serpent would bring healing. One of the tricks that people use to assert their authority over others is to instill fear--especially mass hysteria, if they can get away with it. When people are terrified, they will give away their civil liberties, turn on their neighbors, and even think of their oppressors as their protectors. However, if a few people maintain the courage of their convictions and expose the lies and hyperboles of the fear-mongers, others will eventually wake up and realize that the things they have been taught to be afraid of are much less hazardous than they have been led to believe. It's not that there are no real dangers in the world--indeed, some people who were bitten by the fiery serpents died--but dangers that are exaggerated drive us from taking reasonable precautions to being consumed by fear and susceptible to control by those who would manipulate us. As the Apostle John wrote, "Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). In these McCarthyesque times, God grant us the courage to oppose fear with faith, despair with hope, and hatred with love.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 (first published 30 March 2003)

One of the more common types of psalms found in the Psalter is the psalm of thanksgiving. While most psalms of this type give thanks for one particular episode of deliverance (cf. Ps 34), Psalm 107 has a general introduction (verses 1-3); succeeded by a series of mini-psalms of thanksgiving for deliverance from exile, prison, illness, and sea-travel; followed by a conclusion stating God's care for the weak and powerless. The Psalm reading for this week selects the verses that speak of God's deliverance from illness. Illness in the ancient world was often seen as a punishment for sin (including what we would consider violations of ceremonial regulations); consequently, suppliants were required to confess their sins in order to receive healing from God. Although today we see the primary causes of illness as infections, toxins, chronic physical conditions, genetic predisposition, or diet, the call to praise God for God's steadfast love (Hebrew: hesed) is still as relevant as it was then, and perhaps even more so. Anyone able to read this commentary online has been blessed by the marvels of twenty-first century technology, a perk available to most people living in the industrialized world. If you live in the industrialized world, you also probably have access to professional health care, nutritious foods, higher education, and other benefits of the modern world. Even as we thank God for these blessings, we must be mindful of the many in our world who lack not only Internet access, but also decent medical care, and even proper sustenance. When we're sick for one reason or another, it's hard to think of anything except getting well. However, when we do recover, this psalm reminds us to thank God that we live in a time and a place where killer diseases--measles, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, etc.--have effective treatments, and while we're thanking God for our good fortune, we should pray for those for whom a disease like cholera is still likely to be a death sentence. Finally, we should become aware that the inequities in regard to nutrition and health care that exist in our world are not inevitable, but they are the result of structural injustices that can be changed through international cooperation, institutional coordination of efforts, and individual compassion.

Ephesians 2:1-10

Christianity is unique among the major world religions in its emphasis on orthodoxy, or correct belief. It's true that adherents of other religions have certain more or less set beliefs--reincarnation for Hindus, acceptance of Muhammad as God's ultimate prophet for Muslims--but they don't put nearly the same emphasis on a list of correct beliefs as Christians have historically done. In many Christian churches, the creed is recited every Sunday, beginning with the words, "I believe ...." Some churches that do not recite the creed nevertheless have a list of "fundamentals of the faith" to which every true Christians is supposed to subscribe. Christians often refer to one another as believers, which can be taken as another reference to the importance of correct doctrine. Today's reading from Ephesians says that people are saved by grace through faith. However, that faith is not mental assent to a set of propositions. Faith in this passage--as throughout the New Testament--refers to a commitment of trust in God through Jesus Christ. What should characterize true Christians, this passage says, is not only trust in God through Christ but good works. Good works do not contribute to salvation, according to this text, but they are the expected result of a life that has been changed through contact with the risen Christ. Good works are not defined here, but they are in other places, and they include love of neighbor, compassion, mercy, and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for others. If this passage is taken as paradigmatic, the Christian life is one whose source is God's grace, accepted through a faith-commitment to God through Jesus Christ, resulting in a life characterized by good works.

John 3:14-21 (first published 30 March 2003)

At almost every televised football game, someone will make a sign that says, "John 3:16," the verse that begins, "For God so loved the world." All too often Christians want to skip over the first part of the verse to get to the part that says, "Whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life." However, structurally, the first part of the verse--the main clause--is the most important. Do we really believe that God loves the world? In Thomas D. Hanks' book entitled God so Loved the Third World, the author tells how he came to realize the special place that the poor and oppressed have in the heart of God, according to the biblical text. As he prepared to give a lecture in Costa Rica on the biblical teaching on poverty, he found it strange that the various Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias he consulted had little or nothing on the subject, even though it is a major theme in both the Old and the New Testaments. Come to think of it, he said, he didn't remember discussing the issue in any of his seminary classes, either. As he re-read many of the biblical passages dealing with poverty and oppression, he came to see that God loves these people in a special way, and God calls God's followers to do so as well. Until we're able to say truthfully that we love those who are different from us in terms of ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, or religion, we can't say that we love the world the way God does. Rather, we're like Nicodemus, the religious teacher, who visited Jesus by night. The evangelist who wrote the gospel of John used language masterfully to convey meaning on more than one level. Nicodemus' nighttime visit signifies the spiritual darkness he was in, though he had the good sense to come to Jesus, the source of light. (The only other occurrence of "night" in the gospel is in chapter 13, when Judas went to betray Jesus; in Judas' case, he abandoned the light in favor of the darkness.) Jesus tells him that, like the bronze serpent on the pole, he must be "lifted up." This phrase is a double entendre, signifying both Jesus' crucifixion and his ultimate exaltation. Are we Christians still groping in the darkness? Do we embrace God's inclusive vision of the world, or do we still divide it into "us vs. them"? Do we think that God loves Christians more than Muslims? Do we think that God loves American soldiers more than Iraqi soldiers? Do we think that God loves the rich living in industrialized countries more than the poor living in the Third World (or sometimes in our midst!)? It's hard to overcome our own prejudices and preconceived notions about people, but it is possible. May our prayer ever be, "God, teach us to love the world like you do!"