Saturday Night Theologian
26 September 2010

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 (first published 26 September 2004)

In July 1942 Anne Frank and her family went into hiding in a house on Prinsengracht Street in Amsterdam. Anne had recently gotten a diary for her thirteenth birthday, and she spent the two years of their seclusion fillings its pages with notes, letters, and stories. In late 1944 the family was betrayed to the Nazis, and the Franks were taken to concentration camps, where all but Otto, the father, died. After the war ended, Otto made his way back to Amsterdam and read Anne's diary for the first time. Despite the desperateness of their surroundings, the discomfort, and the danger, Anne was hopeful. "I still believe that people are really good at heart," she wrote. What makes some people optimistic in the face of seemingly contradictory reality? Jeremiah lived through two sieges of Jerusalem, the second of which would result in the destruction of the city and the temple. As Nebuchadnezzar's troops surrounded the city that they would destroy in less than a year, Jeremiah's cousin came and asked him to redeem a field in Anathoth to which Jeremiah had the rights. Jeremiah agreed to do so. It was a terrible business decision. The land would soon be worthless if the Babylonians decided to appropriate it, and in any case there was a strong likelihood that Jeremiah himself would be killed in the onslaught of the Babylonian army. Why did Jeremiah agree to purchase the field? He did so because, at heart, Jeremiah was a man of hope. It may seem strange that a prophet of doom could also be called a man of hope, but he was both. He preached God's judgment on his own people, because he believed that that was the message that God wanted him to proclaim. However, he also had a profound conviction that God would not abandon his people. He bought the field not because he expected to get use of it. In fact, elsewhere Jeremiah predicts that Judah will be in exile for seventy years. He bought the field to show that in the darkest of hours, hope still existed. Like Anne Frank, Jeremiah never saw the end of the period of darkness in which he lived, but he hoped--he knew--that evil could not prevail forever.

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 (first published 26 September 2004)

In the 1965 movie The Naked Prey, a group of British hunters insults an African tribe with whom they are negotiating, and the tribe, in retaliation, kills the entire party, with the exception of the guide, who tried to stop his colleagues' foolishness. The tribe strips him almost naked and gives him a short head start before a war party takes off after him. The bulk of the movie is consumed with the chase, and the man (he is never given a name--it's easier to kill someone who doesn't have a name) is in constant danger for his life. The psalmist describes three terrifying threats to his life: pursuing enemies (metaphorically portrayed as fowlers), demons of the night, and full-scale war. Despite his circumstances, however, the psalmist proclaims that he is not afraid, for God is on his side. The psalm ends with a prophetic oracle of salvation in vv. 14-16, in which a cultic prophet speaks for God with a message of personal deliverance. Seven times God says "I" to the one who is persecuted: I will deliver, I will protect, I will answer, I will be with them, I will rescue, I will honor, I will satisfy. The terrors that the psalmist describes are all too real in our modern world. A pursuing enemy might be a stalker or a motorist caught up in road rage. We don't believe in night demons or demons of the desert any more, but there is plenty of random evil to go around: stray bullets from a gang shootout (even more likely now that assault weapons are back on sale in the U.S.), a drunk driver careening across the median, a drug dealer in your child's school. The danger of war is seemingly everpresent, either in its traditional form for soldiers and sailors called to serve on the battlefield or in the form that those without armies unleash on their enemies: terrorism. Our own government wants to keep us in constant fear, warning us that we are currently under an "elevated" threat advisory (Yellow Alert), meaning that there is "significant risk of terrorist attacks." Yes, there is danger all around, perhaps more so than at any time in history, but we don't have to live in fear. The message of Psalm 91 is that we are not alone in the struggle, for God is with us. We can live our lives without paralyzing fear, because we know God has not abandoned us. We have no control over where evil strikes, whether close to home or far away. There is little we can do to stop it, but we can refuse to surrender to fear. As followers of God, we live our lives every day in God, and when it comes time to die, we will die in God as well. Until then, let us live courageous lives in the presence of our faithful God.

1 Timothy 6:6-19

We often hear that money is the root of all evil, but the exact quotation is "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil." Money itself can be either good or bad, but when someone loves it, it becomes an idol, an end it itself, that turns people from better pursuits. The Citizens United ruling earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court is a good illustration of the corrosive power of money. Free speech is good, but when spending money is confused with free speech, the political process is corrupted. Corporations will buy candidates outright, and those with the most wealth will have the greatest voice in government. The Tea Party movement began with the funding of a couple of California billionaires, and Tea Party candidates, whether out of conviction or out of fealty to their contributors, call for reducing taxes on the very rich, as well as on the middle class (although interestingly, never for the poor). On a smaller scale, we are in the middle of a giving campaign at work, and all employees are encouraged to give a small portion of their incomes to a charity of their choice. Most choose to contribute, but there are some who, for one reason or another, keep their wallets closed. The current economic crisis was caused in no small part by people who wanted to buy houses that they couldn't afford, loaned by mortgage companies and banks that knew they could pass on their risks to other companies, or be bailed out by the government. In all sorts of ways, both great and small, the desire for money corrupts the hearts of men and women, throws the world into crisis, and fails to live up to its promise to satisfy the innermost longings of people. In contrast to this attachment to money, there is a movement among some of the wealthiest people in the country to give as much as half of their fortunes away to support education, counteract poverty, and fight disease. Cynics will say, "Sure, but if you have a couple of billion dollars and give away a billion, you still have a billion." True, but the needy now have a billion as well. I doubt there are many billionaires among the readers of this blog, and I know there are none among the writers, so why do I even mention it? Because it reminds those of us of more modest means that it is possible to overcome the lure of money. We can use the money we have for good. We can give to those less fortunate than ourselves. We can work at jobs that pay less but help other people more. Love of money may be the root of all kinds of evil, but the proper use of money can be a godsend to those in need.

Luke 16:19-31 (first published 26 September 2004)

In his book, The Literary Function of Possessions in Luke-Acts, Luke Timothy Johnson traces Luke's use of wealth as a literary device in Luke-Acts. For Luke, "possessions are a sign of power" (p. 221). Wealth is a great danger to those who possess it in these books, for they have a tendency to rely on money rather than God. Luke's portrayal of the Rich Young Ruler, for example, is less sympathetic than in the other gospels. In Luke, for example, he is not "Young," so he is mature enough to be responsible for his actions, or his inaction. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the most striking indictments of the corrupting influence of wealth and its consequences in the gospels. The rich man in the story lives a life of comfort, while Lazarus suffers right outside the gates of his house. In the afterlife their roles are reversed, with Lazarus resting in the "bosom of Abraham" and the rich man suffering the torments of hell. Nowhere in the story does it say that the rich man was bad or that the poor man was good, much less anything about justification by faith. The clear implication is that those who are poor and who suffer in this life are destined for a blissful afterlife, while those who are rich and live extravagantly now will suffer torment in the hereafter. But there is more to the story. Although the story doesn't explicitly say that the rich man was bad or that he persecuted the poor, his attitude toward them can be deduced. First, he wore fancy clothes and feasted every day, a clear case of conspicuous consumption. Second, he was aware of the fact that Lazarus lay outside his gates day by day, for he calls specifically for Lazarus by name to bring him water. Had he ever sent water out to Lazarus, much less food? Apparently not. Third, he shows concern for his brothers' fate, implying that he now understands that his former lifestyle led directly to his current condition. The rich man didn't consciously harm Lazarus. In fact, he hardly seemed to notice him at all. That fact is an indictment of almost all of us who live in the affluent West. To some extent we've managed, like the rich man, to keep the poor outside our gates so we won't notice them. We live in neighborhoods where there are no poor people, or if there are, we don't know about it. We drive through the run-down, poor parts of our cities with our doors locked and our windows rolled up. And as for the poor in other countries, well, who really cares about them, anyway? If they were more ambitious, we tell ourselves, they would be able to drag themselves up out of poverty. When Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, his disciples probably identified with Lazarus, because most of them were poor, too. When we read the story today, we should probably identify with the rich man. Are riches a help or a hindrance to our Christian testimony? How can we use our money to help the poor? There are of course many good non-profit organizations that minister to the poor, and many churches do as well. In addition to giving our money, we can give our time. We can build a Habitat House, or work in a clothes closet, or help out in a homeless shelter, or go on a mission trip to help build a new school in a poor village. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus ends on a note of irony that is doubly ironic today. In response to the rich man's request to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Abraham reminds the rich man that they have Moses and the prophets to warn them. "'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even in someone rises from the dead.'" The irony in the story is that Jesus is the one who rose from the dead, but many of his contemporaries still refused to listen to the testimony of the disciples. The second irony applies in our time, because modern Christians have supposedly accepted Jesus as the risen Lord, yet we still ignore the warnings of Moses and the Old Testament prophets, not to mention the message of Jesus himself. Christians today buy into the culture of consumerism with gusto, so that it is difficult or impossible to tell a Christian from his non-practicing neighbor. God calls us to be different from the crowd around us, and God specifically calls us to care for the poor. When we do that, we will demonstrate that we have been truly transformed by our contact with Christ.