Saturday Night Theologian
18 July 2004

Amos 8:1-12 (first published 18 July 2004)

Translating word-plays from one language to another is notoriously difficult, and for years I've toyed around with the pun in the first two verses of Amos, trying to come up with a translation that would capture the thrust of the message. One possible translation may only work in Texas: "'What do you see, Amos?' 'A basket of figs.' Then the Lord said to me, 'I'm fixin' to make an end of my people Israel.'" For those who don't say "fixin' to," maybe this translation is better: "'What do you see, Amos?' 'A basket of ripe fruit.' Then the Lord said to me, 'The time is ripe for judgment on my people Israel.'" When translated into both a modern language and a contemporary historical setting, this prophetic passage is unbelievably timely. Consider this paraphrase of verses 4-6 in the light of the war in Iraq, revelations this week concerning Enron memos on the California energy crisis, and the ongoing problem of immoral multinational corporations (and immoral nations):

Listen, you who trample on the needy,
   and crush the poor of the land,
saying, "How long will we have to wait
   before we can cheat people by artificially raising the price of energy?
How long
   until we can swoop in on a people devastated by war and sanctions,
   and make a killing there?

How little can we get away with paying our employees
   if we move our factories overseas?
Which country has the laxest environmental rules,
   or which government officials can we bribe to secure a favorable business environment?

Where in the world are people so desperate
   that we can treat them like dogs without any concern of revolt?
What laws can we pass, or what executive orders can we issue
   to protect our citizens from lawsuits when they abuse people in other countries,
   or fill their country with radioactive artillery shells,
   or pollute their environment,
   or corrupt their political process?
As in Amos's time, we are suffering from a famine, not of food, but of the word of God. May God raise up a people who have the courage to stand with the oppressed against the oppressors, no matter the consequences.

Psalm 52

"How do you tell if a politician is lying? His lips are moving!" So goes the old joke, and unfortunately it's true way too often. Politicians tell the voters what they want to hear, often tacking to the left (for Democrats) or right (for Republicans) before the primary and tacking back to the center before the general election. Everyone knows they do this, yet they are rarely held responsible for their obviously self-serving flip-flops. One positive thing that you can say about the tea partiers--pretty much the only positive thing--is that at least they're consistent on the issues, even if consistently wrong. Not only do politicians lie about their own positions, they also lie about their opponents' positions. It is common practice to distort their opponents' records, and sometimes the distortion reaches the point of falsification. Part of the reason for corruption, of course, is that political races are expensive, and to get elected many politicians pander to their richest contributors, including corporate contributors. Congress has passed laws to limit the influence of money on politicians, only to have the Supreme Court strike those laws down with the ridiculous justification that money is a form of speech. No, money is money and speech is speech. If you don't know the difference, try paying your electricity bill next month with speech, and you'll find out pretty quickly that money and speech are two different things. The psalmist says of the wicked, "You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth." This statement doesn't apply only to politicians, of course, but it's just painfully obvious with them. And with many of their supporters as well, including so-called "news" organizations that see their job as promoting a particular political party rather than engaging in serious journalism. How can people of faith counteract the pervasive practice of prevarication? First, they should be scrupulously honest in their actions and their speech, even when it comes to talking about people with whom they disagree. Admit that even those with whom you frequently disagree sometimes have good ideas. Second, they should be willing to call those with whom they usually agree to account if they see them dealing in lies or half-truths. Third, they should keep in mind the ethical principle that the end doesn't justify the means. If we will set a high standard for honesty and truthfulness, who knows, maybe even politicians will follow our lead!

Colossians 1:15-28 (first published 18 July 2004)

The doctrine of the Incarnation deals with the nature of the relationship between the divine and the human in the person of Jesus Christ. Christians have discussed and argued about that relationship for centuries, almost from the very beginning of church history. Arians, Pelagians, Nestorians, Monophysites, and Sabellians were excluded from the church because of their views on this subject. I believe that the doctrine of the Incarnation involves more than just the relationship between the divine and the human in Christ. It speaks to the issue of the relationship of all of humanity to the divine. Today's reading from Colossians includes a hymn describing Christ as a cosmic figure who joins all of creation together, and as such it has been the focus of much discussion concerning the nature of Christ. More important, for me, is the section beginning with verse 18, which describes Jesus as the head of the church, the one in whom all the fullness of God chose to dwell, in order to reconcile all things to God, having made peace through his sacrifice on the cross. I think this passage is critical because it doesn't invite theological speculation on the Incarnation; rather, it describes the practical implications of the Incarnation. Christians spend too much time arguing over what it means to really be a Christian and whether other people are really Christians (not surprisingly, those who debate these matters always consider themselves to be true Christians). We ought to be focusing instead on the bigger question: if Christ, who joins all creation together, is the head of the church, what is the church doing to reconcile the world to God? Fighting among ourselves won't reconcile the world to God. Arguing over doctrinal niceties won't reconcile the world to God. Claiming moral superiority to others on the basis of differences of religion, belief, political party, or sexual orientation won't reconcile the world to God. Warmongering won't reconcile the world to God. Yet Christians are engaged in all of these destructive activities, and more, in the name of Christ! There are too many problems in the world to be distracted by theological "pissing contests." There are too many people hurting to take time to examine whether they are worthy of God's love (they are--just accept it). We have too many who already consider themselves enemies of Christ to make more by our arrogance, intolerance, and hate. The church should be in the business of reconciling the world to God, because Jesus has already made peace through his sacrifice on the cross. Any activities we're involved in that divide rather than unite fly in the face of the doctrine of the Incarnation. No matter how "orthodox" our beliefs, we show by our actions whether or not we accept the Incarnation of Christ.

Luke 10:38-42 (first published 18 July 2004)

Maybe I'm just lazy, but I've always kind of liked the story of Mary and Martha. I can identify with Mary's desire to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn rather than do actual work. For a brief time in my academic career, I was actually being paid to study. Ever since then I've looked for a job where someone would pay me to do nothing but read or study. I have yet to find it, but I'm still looking! Working is hard, so I'm happy to read that Jesus took Mary's side in this sibling quarrel. I have a feeling, though, that there's more to the story. Under different circumstances, I suspect that Jesus would have sided with Martha. If everybody spent their whole life studying, or going to church, or meditating--however we choose to translate "sitting at Jesus' feet" into today's culture--the world would quickly go to hell in a handbasket. There is a lot of important work, and it requires people to do it. Although some Christian traditions have argued that the story teaches that sacred vocations are more important that secular vocations, I don't believe it. Everyone is called on to work, whether that work is identifiably "the work of God" or not. I agree with Brother Lawrence that washing pots and pans can be as much a spiritual activity as praying and singing hymns. Similarly, "secular" jobs can be just as crucial to promoting the kingdom of God as "sacred" jobs. Why, then, did Jesus praise Mary over Martha? I think it was a question of discernment: Mary understood that at that moment, she needed to listen to the words of Jesus. Martha was doing an important work, but it didn't need to be done right then. Sometimes it's OK to let schedules slip, to let dishes sit in the sink unwashed, to put off a meeting until later, to cancel a business trip. There aren't any rules about when to do so. We just have to be as sensitive to God's leading as we can be and follow our hearts.