Saturday Night Theologian
11 July 2004

Amos 7:7-17

Most people know Martin Luther King, Jr., as the iconic leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. School children read his "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Even right-wing extremists like Glenn Beck claim King as a role model of sorts, despite the fact that their positions on many issues are directly at odds with those espoused by the Civil Rights leader. What fewer people are aware of is that, in his last years, King became a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War. He spoke out strongly against the war, criticizing it as an attempt at neocolonial expansion and calling the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Those who promote the various wars that the U.S. prosecutes find it embarrassing that a great moral beacon such as King used such strong language against his country, so they tend to sweep his opposition to the war under the rug. But King was right about the Vietnam War, and he was right to speak out in opposition. He understood, as too few today or at any time in our history have, that the prophetic word opposes the powerful and stands with the oppressed. When the prophet Amos went to Jeroboam's court, he observed firsthand the abuses of the royal government and how it impacted the poor. The king's followers gladly received his prophetic condemnation of Israel's neighbors, but when Amos turned his gaze to the injustices he saw in Israel itself, the courtiers said that Amos had gone too far. The king tried to silence Amos, but Amos refused to back down from the criticisms of the king. Too many Christians today are like the followers of Jeroboam. They welcome prophetic words that condemn militant Islamist extremists or the Sudanese government for its actions in Darfur or the Iranian regime in its attempts to gain access to nuclear weapons, but they don't want to hear modern prophets speak out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continuing train wreck of a health care system in the U.S., or out of control military spending during the worst recession since the Great Depression. As Martin Luther King said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." That sentiment is even more true today than in the 1960s, and it is up to prophetic Christians, and other likeminded people, to oppose this great injustice on a regular basis. Justice trumps so-called patriotism.

Psalm 82 (first published 11 July 2004)

At first glance, the beginning of Psalm 82 makes little sense, particularly in Hebrew. First, the word elohim, a plural word that can be translated either "God" or "gods" (Hebrew has no capital letters, so only context can dictate the proper translation), is used twice in the first verse, as is the similar singular word el, which can mean either "God" or "god," depending on context. Thus, the first verse reads "elohim has taken his place in the council of el; in the midst of elohim he holds judgment." Assuming that the first elohim refers to the God of Israel and both the second reference and el refer to other gods, a second problem arises: if the Bible teaches monotheism, who are these other gods? The solution to the first problem lies in the fact that Psalm 82 is part of the so-called Elohistic Psalter, a group of psalms (42-83) that was edited in ancient times--before inclusion in the present book of Psalms--to replace most occurrences of the divine name Yahweh with Elohim. Thus, the first verse originally read, "Yahweh has taken his place . . . ." The solution to the second problem is a simple acknowledgement that the Bible is not as consistent as some people might wish with regard to the issue of monotheism, particularly in the earlier parts of the Bible and in poetry. One can argue that the reference to other gods here is poetic license; nevertheless, it is clear that the psalmist is drawing on language that worshipers will understand when he refers to a heavenly council consisting of many divine beings. The statement in verse 6, "I say, 'You are gods,'" probably refers to the divine beings who were thought to be in charge of various nations. Yahweh is accusing them of favoring the wicked over the righteous and failing to support the cause of justice in the world. As a result, Yahweh condemns them to the place of the dead and asserts control over all the nations. If we can get past the non-monotheistic statements of the psalm, we will find two teachings that are as revolutionary today as they were in the psalmist's day. First, God expects rulers, whether divine or human, to give justice to those who are the weakest in society. Second, all nations belong to God. One implication of these claims is that caring for one group of poor while wreaking havoc on another group of poor is not an option. If flying planes into buildings and killing innocents in one country is a sin, so is dropping bombs on innocents in another country. Perhaps that greatest sin of all is when one claims to be committing these atrocities in the name of God. The psalmist has a message for those who flaunt their power in wicked ways: "You have neither knowledge nor understanding, and you shall suffer the fate of all humans."

Colossians 1:1-14 (first published 11 July 2004)

When I was a pre-teen, the father of one of my church friends decided that he would no longer go to Sunday School, because he had learned all that the teachers had to teach him. I've remembered that incident over the years as I've examined and worked in the adult education programs of various churches. Although I don't agree with his solution to the problem, I think that his analysis of the problem was probably correct: he had learned all that the teachers in that church had to teach him. Typical adult educational curricula in the churches with which I'm most familiar offer lessons on a set number of biblical passages--the Prodigal Son, David and Goliath, Elijah and the Prophets of Baal, etc.--then repeat them after two or three years. Even programs that offer more variety often restrict their audience's exposure to the biblical text and perhaps some classic devotional works of years past. Some publishers of educational material offer much more, and individual churches, or particular adult classes within a church, take advantage of the wealth of potential educational material at their disposal. In verse 10 of today's reading from Colossians, the author prays that his readers "may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God." This verse contains three important goals of every adult education program. First, adults should be taught to lead lives that are worthy of the Lord and fully pleasing to God. In the context, perhaps the emphasis here is a negative one: true disciples will avoid getting caught up in the sins and cares of the world. If so, the second goal in the following phrase is positive. Disciples should bear fruit in every good work. The Christian life is one both of separation and of engagement. A good adult education class will help believers determine those points at which they should separate themselves from their surroundings and the ways in which they should interact fully with others. The final goal is growth in the knowledge of God. There is much that can be learned about God from the Bible; in fact, I would venture to say that the Bible is an almost inexhaustible resource for knowledge of God. However, it is by no means the only resource, and in certain circumstances other material, when used properly, may offer a more penetrating or striking presentation of some divine truth. Contemporary and classic books, both fiction and nonfiction, are potential educational resources, as are movies, TV shows, drama, field trips, and encounters with people of other faiths, just to name a few. Every church should have a quality adult education system, one in which no one can ever truthfully say that he has learned all that the teachers had to teach him.

Luke 10:25-37 (first published 11 July 2004)

My neighbor across the street is a really bad guy. Last week I saw him beat up his wife and his son, so I called the police to report him. They responded by sending a helicopter carrying a large fire bomb. They dropped the bomb on his house, killing him, his wife, his son, his next-door neighbors on either side, and sending the neighbors who lived behind him to the emergency room with missing limbs. I guess that will teach him! Of course this story is completely made up, and we know that it is because our police wouldn't respond to a domestic situation in a way that threatened the lives of an entire city block (at least not since the MOVE incident in Philadelphia in 1985). That's not how we deal with our neighbors. However, there are many religious people who have no qualms about dealing with people in other countries in just such a manner. How many wedding parties have we crashed--literally--in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past year or two? How many innocent civilians have died? How many children have been killed or maimed? Why is a child killed in America a tragedy, while one killed in Iraq is just "collateral damage"? The lawyer in today's reading wanted Jesus to clarify for him just who his neighbors were, perhaps so that he could feel better about ignoring the plight of others who were not his neighbors. Jesus, however, turned his question around. The issue is not who your neighbor is, Jesus said. The issue is being a neighbor to everyone you meet. When we view an Iraqi child as our neighbor, we won't drop a bomb anywhere near her home or school--in fact, we probably won't drop any bombs on her country. When we view a village of Ugandans suffering from AIDS as our neighbors, we'll find a way to get medicine to them, regardless of the cost or the loss of profits to large international conglomerates. When we view a Haitian peasant as our neighbor, we'll ensure that his children can attend school in peace. When we view a homeless man on the streets of New York as our neighbor, we'll do our best to meet his medical needs and find him housing and employment. The world is full of people waiting for us to be their neighbors. Are we ready?