Saturday Night Theologian
24 January 2010

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

As of Thursday evening, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, charities have raised more than $355 million in donations for Haiti, following the devastating earthquake last week. Much of that money was donated in $10 chunks via cell phone text messages. People around the world who witnessed the tragedy in Haiti felt compelled to donate, and many of those who identify themselves as Christians did so at least in part because of their understanding of the biblical mandate to help those in need. Innumerable Bible verses could be quoted as supporting texts--"Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so" (Deuteronomy 15:10); "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him" (Proverbs 14:31); "Stretch out your hand to the poor, so that your blessing may be complete" (Sirach 7:32); "If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?" (James 2:15-16)--yet some people will cite other verses to justify their failure to give: "The poor you always have with you" (Matthew 26:11); "All must carry their own loads" (Galatians 6:5). So what is the true message of the Bible? Today's reading from Nehemiah describes a situation that occurred in the postexilic period, after many of the Jews had returned from exile in Babylonia, and they had gathered together in the square in front of the Water Gate. Ezra read to them from the law--presumably portions of the Pentatuech--and, importantly, interpreted the meaning of the text he was reading. "So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." Ezra, with help from several Levites, did the important work of interpreting the scripture. The biblical text, like any other text, requires interpretation, preferably by someone who understands the overall message of the text and doesn't have an ideological axe to grind. Too many Christians today hear from the pulpit and in Bible study classes messages that are contrary to the overall message of the Bible. They are taught that wealth is a sign of God's favor, that God loves them in ways God doesn't love some other people, that Jesus serves as a model for CEOs of large companies. Lost is this false interpretation is the Bible's overarching message of God's concern for the poor, the idea that all people are equally beloved by God, and that being faithful to God has more to do with right living than with right doctrine. In times of crisis, like the Haitian people are experiencing now, large numbers of people realize what's really important. If only we could all remember what's important all the time.

Psalm 19 (first published 25 January 2004)

Some televangelists would have us believe that serving God will bring us great riches. They're right! (but not in the way they think). Psalm 19:7-10 expounds the blessings of observing "the law of the Lord." The word translated "law" is torah, which might be translated "instruction." The psalmist uses a variety of synonyms and near-synonyms for torah to recount the blessings that come upon those who follows the instruction of the Lord. First, their souls will be revived. Like cool water in the desert, the torah refreshes and brings one back to a state of readiness to move ahead, following God's commands. Second, they will gain wisdom. The torah offers counsel for almost any imaginable situation in life. Third, they will rejoice. Following the torah results in a life that, though sometimes touched by sorrow, is always characterized by joy. Fourth, their eyes will be opened. The torah is God-breathed, so it offers its followers insights that they would not otherwise attain. Fifth, their reverence for God will endure forever. Unlike a passing fad or a summer-time infatuation of youth, the fear of God strengthened by the torah, will last a lifetime. Sixth, they will understand truth. True instruction from God, the torah offers its followers guidance on their journey towards the truth revealed in God. Most people know that following God's instructions won't necessarily bring material wealth, so why do they do it? They do it because what they gain is more valuable than gold and sweeter than honey. Those who follow God's instructions are eager, wise, joyful, insightful, reverent, and on the trail of life's greatest truths. They are experiencing a life worth living.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (first published 25 January 2004)

When I was little, there was a man in my church who had a withered arm. He couldn't walk very well, and even at my young age I could tell that he wasn't of normal intelligence. Despite his infirmities, he was at church whenever the doors were open. Furthermore, he had a very important job: he rang the bell that let the Sunday School teachers know that it was time for class to be over. He didn't have a lot of skills, but he could tell time, and he could push a button. God had given him a job to do. Just as importantly, someone in the church had recognized that the man was an asset to the church, not a liability. Too often our churches only recognize those who are involved in what are considered the more important jobs in the church. Paul might even be accused of leaning in that direction, since he offers a hierarchy of gifts and tells the Corinthian Christians to strive for "the greater gifts" (verse 31). But maybe, just maybe, Paul was being ironic, for earlier in the passage (verses 22-25) he says that the apparently weaker members are indispensable and that God gives greater honor to the "inferior member." Perhaps Paul is gently chiding the church in Corinth, where people were breaking into factions and showing off their more flamboyant spiritual gifts for all to see. Those gifts that are exercised in public--apostles, prophets, teachers--get the most attention, and those who exhibit such gifts have a certain notoriety within the church and often beyond its walls. Few notice when a retired man goes once a month or more to visit the refugee family that the church helped several years ago and then largely forgot when they didn't convert from Islam to Christianity. No one pays attention to the nursery worker who keeps the children so that their parents can attend the worship service, go to a Sunday School party, or have an evening out. Only a small number of people know the name of the person who delivers food to the co-op a couple of times per month. Even fewer know that a faithful member of the church has given a little money to another member who has lost his job. A church needs pastors, staff members, teachers, and other relatively high-profile ministers. It wouldn't last long without them. But the church also needs someone to show love to those who are strangers in our country, someone to care for children, someone to minister to the poor and the homeless in the neighborhood, someone to welcome visitors, encourage the unemployed, run errands for a shut-in, or even ring the bell to indicate that Sunday School is finished. Without these people, the church might as well close up shop, for although they are rarely noticed, they are doing the most important work in the church.

Luke 4:14-21 (first published 25 January 2004)

If you don't believe in the Virgin Birth, you're going straight to hell. If you don't accept the Substitutionary Atonement, forget it. You don't believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture? Sionara! If you want to call yourself a Christian, you'd better toe the line when it comes to doctrine, because everybody knows that Jesus insisted that his disciples assent to a fixed set of principles before they were accepted into the fold. Right? Wrong! Interestingly, Jesus has little to say about the necessity of believing a fixed set of doctrines. Instead, Jesus urged his followers to do certain things that were related to ministry. In his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus reads a passage of scripture from Isaiah regarding God's concern for the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed, and all others who were in special need of God's liberation. Since the Reformation, the church has been divided into an increasing number of denominations that were distinguished from one another largely on the basis of doctrine. Late in the twentieth century and early in the twenty-first, there have been some hopeful signs. A few denominations have merged instead of split, and others have agreed to recognize one another's clergy. Yet despite these advances, new splinter groups continue to form, on both the denominational and supra-denominational level, again, primarily over differences in doctrine. How foreign this would have seemed to Jesus, whose twelve closest associates included a Roman lackey (Matthew) and a political extremist opposed to Rome (Simon). When Jesus preached in the synagogues and on hillsides, he urged people to love one another and minister to those in need. The gospel is good news for the poor and oppressed, not a satisfying doctrinal proof for the intellectually curious. For that reason, there is more of the gospel in giving a cup of water to someone who's thirsty than in sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with him. Jesus said he was sent to encourage the poor with good news, to announce release for captives, to heal the blind, and to free the oppressed. A gospel that does not express itself in action is a false gospel and is unworthy of our allegiance.