Saturday Night Theologian
29 August 2010

Jeremiah 2:4-13 (first published 29 August 2004)

In the third millennium B.C.E., a group of people that we know today as the Indo-Aryans inhabited an area of southern Russia. At some point they split into two separate groups, one of which migrated southeast into India, while the other moved southwest into Iran. The close connection between these two groups of people is evident in the languages in which their respective sacred scriptures are written. The language of the (Indian) Rig Veda is Sanskrit, and the language of the (Iranian) Avesta is Avestan; the two languages are closely related, indicating a fairly recent common ancestor language. One interesting difference between the two languages, though, is the words for good and evil gods. In Sanskrit, a god is deva, and a demon is asura. In Avestan, the meanings of the cognate words are reversed: god is ahura, and demon is daeva. Why this reversal of meaning? One possible explanation is that a religious schism in the Aryan community led to the breakup of people into two groups, with one group keeping their traditional gods and the other adopting new gods and literally "demonizing" the old gods. It is unusual for a group of people to change their gods, though it is hardly unheard of. The great conversions of pagans to Christianity and of pagans, Jews, and Christians to Islam are cases in point. That some of these "conversions" took place at sword point is significant, because it raises the question: how often does a people-group voluntarily change its gods? The prophet Jeremiah accuses his people of doing exactly that. "Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?" "What are you talking about?" Jeremiah's contemporaries might ask. "With the exception of a few political elites, who adopted Baal worship for a short time, we have always worshiped Yahweh, and we still do today!" But Jeremiah would reply, "God says, 'my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.'" It wasn't that the people were worshiping a god with a different name; they were worshiping a different god with the same name! This situation is rife among Christians today as well. Many claim to worship God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but the god they actually worship is somebody else. The God revealed by Jesus says "love your enemies," but the god many Christians follow says "bomb your enemies into oblivion." The God revealed by Jesus says "in me there is no male or female," but the god many Christians follow says "men are superior to women." The God revealed by Jesus says "care for the poor," but the god many Christians follow says "pass more tax cuts for the rich." The God revealed by Jesus says "beat your swords into plowshares," but the God many Christians follow says "beat your plowshares into swords." Our political and philosophical beliefs often say more about the God we worship than the religious words we mouth. Have we changed our god?

Proverbs 25:6-7

One of the first things you learn when you take a class on applying for a job is to sell yourself. Anything good you've ever done should go on your résumé. Your cover letter should trumpet your abilities and accomplishments. In short, your application should present you as by far the most qualified person for the job. There is no place for humility on a job application. Particularly in hard times like these, when there are five people looking for work for every job opening available, putting your best foot forward is key. What do we make, then, of Proverbs' advocacy of humility and admonishment against pride? In the work place, such advice is important. Self-promotion is fine on a job application, where it's expected, but it will not endear you to your coworkers, or most likely to your boss. The saying "the cream rises to the top" applies in the workplace and in most other areas of life as well. It's true that some people occasionally get away with shameless self-promotion, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Humility when dealing with friends or family will go a long way to helping others overlook your mistakes. Animosity within the family is often caused because one or more relatives have too much pride to apologize for a wrong done, forgive a wrong received, admit an error, or even allow for the possibility that there might be other opinions on a particular subject. A "holier than thou" attitude is particularly destructive to relationships, particularly when the sins of the person in question are known to others (and aren't they always?). Spiritual pride comes in many forms: an overt claim to be morally superior to another person ("I would never do that!"), persistent intimations of moral superiority to others (often communicated by disdainful looks, sighs, and eye-rolling), or an exaggerated spirituality in the public sphere that doesn't match typical private behavior. Almost everyone is guilty of pride of one sort or another from time to time, so this reminder from Proverbs is a welcome reminder. All we have that's good is due to the grace of God, apart from which we would be and have nothing of value.

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 (first published 29 August 2004)

One of the recurring motifs in the Old Testament involves the Israelites rebelling against God, God giving them over to their enemies, and the Israelites returning to God, who grants them victory over their enemies. The book of Judges is built around this motif. Today's reading from the Psalms also reflects this idea. "O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! Then I would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes." The lesson, as some would interpret it, is that proper faith in God will result in military strength, so if a nation has military strength, it must also have God's favor. This sort of thinking is both wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because it is logically flawed. Even if one assumes that the proposition "if the people are obedient, God will give them military victory" is valid (which I certainly don't), the converse "if God gives them military victory, the people are obedient" is not necessarily true (though the contrapositive "if God does not give them military victory, then the people are not obedient" is true); see any introduction to logic for the reasoning. More importantly, this sort of thinking is dangerous. It seeks to equate faithfulness with success, an error that any cursory look at history will show is unfounded. A particularly egregious example of this sort of thinking is found in the book The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall and David Manuel. Their thesis is that Christopher Columbus was a deeply spiritual, committed Christian, who believed God had called him to sail west under the flag of Spain to accomplish great things. The authors agree that God did want Columbus to discover the Americas, because God had a plan for America (specifically for the United States, as it turns out) to be the light to the world. Sure, Columbus strayed from the path somewhat in his lust for gold, and as a result the native population of Hispaniola and the rest of the New World were almost eradicated, but his initial successful voyage indicates that God was with him. Yikes! The slaughter of millions of Native Americans was just a minor deviation from God's plan?! Of course, many people today equate military might with God's favor, but I would submit that military prowess may be an indication of just the opposite. Were the great empires of Assyria, Greece, Rome, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union called by God to enact a special plan? I don't think so! I think, instead, that nations with great military power have it for only two reasons. (1) They are bent on conquering other nations. (2) They have many enemies who want to attack them. Of course, both may be true. U.S. leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, claim that America is not an imperial power, though many countries around the world would surely dispute that. Assuming for the moment the truth of this contention, though, the need for a huge military suggests that we have many enemies. If that's true, why is it true? Why do people hate us? President Bush thinks it's because of our freedoms, but that's ridiculous. People around the world who hate the U.S. don't do so because of our freedoms, or because we're a democracy. They hate us because of our arrogance on the international stage, our economic subjugation of weak nations, and our propensity to involve ourselves militarily and politically in the affairs of sovereign nations (see Venezuela for the most recent example, Iraq and Afghanistan aside). Our need for military might suggests to me that maybe we don't have as much of God's favor as we'd like to think. I believe that God is calling Americans, and others in the developed world, to repent of our treatment of the weaker and poorer countries on our planet. If God has blessed us economically, surely God is calling us to share our good fortune with others. Despite Osama bin Laden's personal fortune, most terrorists around the world are poor and live in communities that are economically depressed and politically oppressed. The current administration claims that the war on Iraq has made us safer from terrorists. What if we had taken a fraction of the $130 billion we've spent so far on the war and used it to help Palestinian refugees or others living in inhuman conditions around the world? Doesn't that sound a whole lot more like the kind of approach God would have us take? "O that my people would listen to me!"

Luke 14:1, 7-14 (first published 29 August 2004)

Pride is considered one of the seven deadly sins, but it is not always wrong. When I was in high school, our band director instilled in us a sense of pride that permeated the group. Because we were proud of the band to which we belonged, we were willing to work harder to perfect our half-time show or hone our concert performance. We weren't satisfied with second-best, so we regularly took top honors in the contests we entered. Our pride also extended to the way we behaved at school, and even off-campus. "Everything you do reflects on the band," Mr. Kuentz would say. "Don't do anything to disgrace the uniform you wear." That kind of pride was positive, because it encouraged us to do our best, and it fostered esprit de corps. Pride becomes a sin when it leads to arrogance, a sense of entitlement, or a feeling of superiority. I was on a mission trip to Mexico once, and our church, which was predominantly Hispanic, was accompanied by a predominantly Anglo church. Everything went great until one of the people from the Anglo church had an auto accident and wrecked a donated SUV. The pastor of the Anglo church went ballistic when our Mexican hosts tried to tell him that the laws in Mexico were different than the laws in the U.S. and that he couldn't just tow the truck across the border to have it fixed in Texas. His sense of superiority to the Mexicans, and by analogy to the Hispanic members of our church, was evident, and it was an embarrassment to everyone who was there--everyone, that is, except the pastor himself. Even when we think of ourselves as pretty humble people, pride has a nasty way of sneaking up on us. When we drive through the "bad side" of town, do we silently think of ourselves as better than the people who live there? When we see people of a different faith in the store, do we smile knowingly to ourselves in the arrogant confidence that our understanding of God is better than theirs? When we read in the paper about a politician convicted of taking of bribe, do we tacitly cluck our tongue at him, convinced that we would never do anything like that given similar circumstances? Pride that manifests itself as arrogance, a sense of entitlement, or a feeling of superiority is a trap that lies within each of us, because we share a common human nature. Knowing that, it's important to remember the words of Jesus, "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."