Saturday Night Theologian
13 September 2009

Proverbs 1:20-33 (first published 14 September 2003)

In 1982 Wayne Watson, who sings contemporary Christian music, released a song called "New Lives for Old." It features a carnival barker whose life has been transformed by an encounter with God. As in his former life, he stands on street corners calling to passers-by, but now he has a different message. "New lives for old! Warm hearts for cold!" is his cry. God wants to make a difference in your life! Our reading for today pictures Wisdom personified as a woman, standing on a busy street corner, calling out to anyone who will listen. In the ancient Near East, "wisdom" was a commodity that was available primarily to the upper classes. It encompassed what moderns would call science, rhetoric, and literature, as well as principles for right living. Since only the wealthy could afford to educate their children in the wisdom schools, they were the primary beneficiaries of "official" wisdom. However, folk wisdom was also available, to the lower classes as well as to the rich and powerful. It was passed down orally, since only the rich were literate. To make it easy to remember, it was couched in short, epigrammatic sentences, or proverbs. Both the sophisticated wisdom of the educated and the earthy wisdom of the common people were available in ancient Israel, and both are present in the book of Proverbs. To both rich and poor, literate and illiterate, male and female, young and old, wisdom calls. It is available to all who will pause from the routines of their daily lives, open their ears, and listen. Those who heed the voice of wisdom will prosper, while those who reject it will suffer. This classical message of traditional wisdom is tempered by the messages of the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as the realities of life. Nevertheless, that wisdom benefits those who possess it is a theme that is constant through both the Old and the New Testaments. Especially notable in today's reading is verse 33: "Those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster." In the wake of the second anniversary of the terrorist attack on America on September 11, the desire for security is evident both in the U.S. and abroad. The U.S. has sought security in various ways. The government has limited some of the freedoms that Americans and visitors to America once had in an effort to increase security. It has appropriated more money for military spending. It has attacked and occupied two Middle Eastern countries. It has created a separate Department of Homeland Security. Whether any of these measures have actually increased the level of security for American citizens is a matter of debate. Certainly the war in Iraq has had the opposite effect, and scaling back civil rights has only limited the freedoms of citizens, something the government has declared to be the main goal of the terrorists. A recent poll indicates that Americans feel less secure today than they did on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, so it is apparent that the measures the country has adopted--at least as a whole--have not raised our feeling of security. Wisdom, this passage says, can give us security. Can it protect us from terrorists? Can it prevent crime? Can it keep us from losing our jobs, or our health, or our families? No to all of these. However, wisdom can help us to discern what to believe and how to act in difficult times. Will war stop worldwide terrorism, or is peace more likely to achieve the results that we desire? Is the earth capable of endlessly renewing its resources, or should we take steps to preserve the environment? Will tax cuts for the rich stimulate the economy, or will balancing the budget have more positive effects? Should the U.S. spend $87 billion on reconstructing Iraq, or would the money be better spent at home--or is there another alternative? These questions are of pressing concern today, and they require wisdom to discern the answer. Facile answers are available from politicians and the mainstream media, but they are often not the right answers. In today's complex and dangerous world, now more than ever Christians need wisdom to discern what to believe and how to act. If we will take the effort to acquire and apply wisdom, we will be rewarded, and so will our world.

Psalm 19

The Peter Principle, promulgated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1968 book of the same name, states that in a hierarchical organization, every employee will rise to his level of incompetence. The idea is that people with a certain level of skills will be promoted on the basis of their accomplishments and aptitude, until eventually they are promoted into a job for which they are ill suited. Because they cannot perform well in that job (i.e., they are incompetent in that position), they will not be promoted from there, and they are doomed to remain there for the rest of their career. Of course, they are not alone in being doomed, because the organization, and in particular all the employees that are subordinate to such a person, are also doomed by the incompetent employee's entrenched position. Aside from that person's retirement, resignation, or other form of departure, the only way to rescue the organization is a major restructuring of the bureaucracy itself. And how often do bureaucracies voluntarily restructure themselves? Today's reading from the Psalter includes this line: "Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression." Some of us live in an idyllic world in which we are completely surrounded by people of compassion, intelligence, and competence, but I suspect that those who do are only a lucky few. More commonly, we live and work in a world filled with those who are competent and incompetent, compassionate and selfish, loving and insolent. Much as we would like to, most of us find it impossible to avoid the insolent, selfish, and incompetent altogether, so we have to try to figure out a way to live with them. The challenge for us as people of faith is not only to learn to live with them, but also to avoid becoming like them. If you work with gossips, you will experience a strong pull to become a gossip as well. If you work with people who are highly critical of others, you might well find yourself offering critical opinions that would otherwise be uncharacteristic of you. If you work in an environment in which innovation and hard work are not rewarded but are rather seen as a threat to others, you are likely to find yourself becoming lazy and apathetic. The problem with the insolent, then, is not just that we may work with them or even for them, it is that we might become just like them. God grant us the inner strength to overcome the weaknesses of others, and our own shortcomings, to be the people of God we are meant to be!

James 3:1-12 (first published 14 September 2003)

"Words are nets through which all truth passes." Over the years I've taught many Bible and religion classes, both in the church and in the college or seminary classroom. I've taught things that I no longer agree with, and I'd like to go back and correct what I said. However, even though I don't now agree with everything I've ever said in the classroom, I don't think anyone has been serious injured by what I've said. It's the words I've said casually, in comments to friends, having nothing to do with religion, that have caused the most damage. I remember making a disparaging comment about a teammate on a church softball team that hurt the person deeply, even though I intended the comment to be in jest. Whether or not that person remembers my words twenty-five years later, I do, and it's a painful memory. Why do words hurt so much? They hurt because they're not just a combination of random sound waves; they carry meaning, sometimes intended, sometimes unintended. Hurtful words have long-term consequences. The quote about words being nets is from Paula Fox's short story "News from the World." Words are incapable of holding the truth, but they remain intact long after the meaning has escaped them. People remember words of comfort in a time of need, even if the words were only half-heartedly meant. The meaning of words is certainly important, but so are the words themselves. How often does one person say to another, "I hate you!"? Minutes later, that person can apologize and say that he didn't really mean it, but the words remain, indelibly inscribed in the other person's memory. Someone can preach a great sermon, or teach a moving lesson, or give an inspirational speech, and the words will continue to have an impact long after they are delivered. Think of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, or Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," or John F. Kennedy's "Inaugural Address." The words were powerful then, and they retain their power today. At the same time, think of the words of hate that have spewed forth from the mouths of such people as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Osama bin Laden, and Timothy McVeigh. Their words still bring pain, because they are words of hate. No wonder James warns his readers, "Let not many of you become teachers," because the words of teachers have great power. The world, and the church, certainly needs teachers, but it needs those who will exercise wisdom in what they say, and sprinkle their words with grace. The world, and the church, needs prophets who are not afraid to speak the truth, but who always temper it with love. Amos was a great prophet, and his words continue to speak to modern people, but he was speaking to a people who were not his own. His God-given words of judgment did not include him, since he was from Judah rather than Israel, and a certain level of detachment is evident in all his speeches. Hosea, on the other hand, spoke to the people of Israel as a citizen of Israel. When he preached God's judgment on the people, he preached God's judgment on himself. No wonder, then, that the book named after him ends with a message of hope, a promise that God will restore his people: "I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, . . . . I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon." Our words sometimes have an impact far beyond what we might have expected. A kind word today might cause a cascade of positive consequences affecting dozens of people. A hurtful word might have all sorts of unintended evil consequences. God, teach us to speak what we should, when we should, and teach us to hold our tongues otherwise.

Mark 8:27-38 (first published 14 September 2003)

Are we able to recognize the people through whom God is working in the world? God worked in the person of a tiny Yugoslavian nun ministering to the poor in Calcutta. God inspired a nominal member of the Nazi party in Germany to save the lives of 1,300 Jews in the heart of the Third Reich. God sent a German doctor, religion scholar, and musician to set up hospitals in the heart of Africa. God inspired former slaves and other abolitionists to set up the underground railroad to help Southern slaves reach the freedom of the North. There are many, many others who are not as well-known who have also obeyed the voice of God and transformed the world around them. Peter recognized in Jesus a man who was more than just a prophet, someone who had been anointed by God. But despite his discernment of God's guidance, he was unprepared for the full mission of Jesus. "What do you mean you have to die? That's crazy!" Peter saw God at work, and rather than fall in step with God's divine plan, he succumbed to the temptation to try to manipulate God's will to match his own. Perhaps Peter dreamed of a revived nation of Israel, free from the Romans, in which people would worship God with their whole hearts. Maybe he even saw himself as Jesus' viceroy, ruling over part of the kingdom personally. "You don't understand," Jesus said. "Following me is not about what you get, it's about what you give." Inasmuch as Peter allowed his own ambition to cloud his view of what God's will was, he was influenced by the spirit of evil. Why do people follow leaders like Jim Jones, or David Koresh, or Osama bin Laden? They're all people who have a lot of charisma. They want to change the world they live in. They want their followers to emulate them. So far so good. The problem lies in these people's vision of the world and in their conception of their own role in the new reality they imagine. All three of these men, and many others throughout the centuries, saw a world that could only be changed through violence. They and their followers were exempt from the normal rules of morality, because they had a higher calling. This attitude is the complete opposite of what Jesus taught, and how he lived. Jesus told his followers they would have to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. Because of Jesus' death on the cross, the image of the cross has been central to Christian theology from the very beginning of the church, but imagine the impact Jesus' statement would have had on people prior to his crucifixion. "What did he mean," the disciples might have asked one another, "'take up your cross'? Surely he was speaking metaphorically!" Well, yes and no. Jesus was speaking of a life of self-sacrifice, a life of service, a life of demonstrating mercy, and these are all figurative examples of taking up one's cross. According to church tradition, however, all the original disciples, except for John (and Judas Iscariot), suffered violent deaths on behalf of the faith, many on crosses, so the metaphorical sometimes became literal. If following Jesus has the potential for such pain, what are the rewards? "Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." There is no life that is more meaningful than one that is dedicated to God and to doing God's will. What God did through Mother Theresa, Oskar Schindler, Albert Schweitzer, and Harriet Tubman, God is doing today through many people around the world. Do we have the discernment to recognize God at work? Do we have the courage to join the struggle to bring about the kingdom of God?