Saturday Night Theologian
30 January 2011

Micah 6:1-8

The overthrow of the repressive ruler of Tunisia earlier this month and present uprising against long-time president Hosni Mubarek in Egypt are reminders of the potential for political instability, especially in places where the mass of the people feel disenfranchised from their leaders. Ordinary people in Tunisia and Egypt are standing up against injustice in their own countries, and that puts the U.S. in an awkward position. Egypt is generally regarded as America's strongest ally in the Arab world, and until recently Tunisia was marketed as a sterling example of how democracy can take root in a Muslim nation. It reminds me of a similar situation more than thirty years ago, when America's strongest ally in the region was Iran, led by the Shah of Iran, a man widely considered the richest man in the world, but one who was opposed by the majority of his fellow citizens. Because of historical U.S. support of the Shah, the government that emerged after the Iranian revolution was hostile toward the U.S., and that hostility persists to this day. Pragmatists will insist that we have to deal with the leaders other nations have, not the leaders we wish they had, and that's true enough. However, while it may be not only expedient but necessary to deal with those currently in power, it is incumbent upon us as a nation that claims to stand for certain principles in the world to always champion the cause of justice. Unlike those today who confuse patriotism with unconditional support of all government policies (unless the other party controls the reins of government), the prophet Micah didn't hesitate to point out the ways in which Judah's rulers failed to live up to divine principles of leadership. God has a case against the nation's rulers, Micah says, because their actions don't match their rhetoric. What does God demand of the people? To do justice, to love covenant-faithfulness, and to walk humbly with God. The word traditionally rendered "humbly" is a hapax legomenon, a word appearing only once in the Hebrew Bible. In addition to association with "humility," scholars have proposed that the word carries the connotation of caution, wisdom, or attentiveness. A related word appears a few times in the wisdom books and is generally rendered "humble" or "clever." In the context of Micah, perhaps the word may best be read as meaning "circumspectly." The overall passage then offers the following counsel: work for justice, strengthen the bonds that connect you with other people, and walk with great care before the Almighty.

Psalm 15 (first published 30 January 2005)

One of the most characteristic activities of God's people is worship. We gather for worship on a weekly basis, sometimes more frequently, and we raise our songs, our prayers, and our hands to God. In the Old Testament law, worshipers were supposed to purify themselves before offering a sacrifice to God. Psalm 15 alludes to this practice and explicitly lists certain types of behavior that are involved with living a pure life, one worthy of offering worship to God. First, the psalm says, one must walk blamelessly and do what is right. This is not a requirement that we achieve perfection before approaching God, but it does suggest that worshipers should live their lives in a way that is consistent with the words and deeds of worship they offer to God. Sacrifice is no substitute for proper behavior. Second, worshipers should speak the truth from their hearts. Truthtelling is important to the faithful, because without integrity, our testimony to other suffers greatly. Third, worshipers will be careful what they say. Slander, or the intentional telling of lies in order to cast aspersions on another person, is not consistent with the true worship of God. Fourth, acting in a way that is harmful to one's friends, presumably because of some short-term advantage it offers the person acting in this way, is forbidden. If an individual, or even a nation, wants to keep one's friends, it must always treat them with honesty and respect. Fifth, one should not unduly criticize one's neighbors. These are people you have to live with, and while a neighborly request or occasionally a gentle rebuke may sometimes be appropriate, building a spite fence--or causing your neighbor to build one--is counterproductive and, more importantly, a violation of your covenant with them (the requirement to treat one's neighbors with respect applies to nations as well as individuals). Sixth, the psalmist says that those who worship God will despise the wicked. I disagree with that. We should oppose the wicked, and we should work in constructive ways to promote justice, but we should never despise those whom we consider wicked. Our ultimate goal with reference to our adversaries should be conversion--theirs, ours, or both of ours. We don't want them to remain our adversaries, but we want them to become our friends. Despising them won't get the job done. Seventh, we should honor those who fear the Lord. We should respect those whose lives reflect their commitment to God, even if they belong to another denomination or even another faith tradition. Eighth, the psalmist says that we should not lend money at interest. Such an idea seems foreign to those of us who live in capitalist societies that are built on money-lending at interest, but maybe we can make a distinction that makes sense in today's world. Lending money at interest to someone involved in a business venture--that is, someone who plans to use the money to make more money--might be justifiable. However, lending money at interest to those who need the money to survive cannot be justified. Credit card companies and pay-day lenders that prey on the poor should be shunned by God's people. Moreover, rich countries that lend money to poor countries should not expect to make a profit off of the misery of people in poverty. Why not just donate the money? Ninth, worshipers of God will not take a bribe against the innocent. This requirement seems pretty straightforward when applied in a criminal or civil lawsuit, but I think it is also applicable in the context of special interest money that is spent on political campaigns. When a candidate for office accepts money from a corporation or industry, that corporation or industry expects payback, no matter how much they deny it. A system that allows corporate donations to candidates is inherently corrupt, because it encourages pandering, and God's people should work to change such systems where they exist. All people are welcome to worship God, but true worship, as the psalmist reminds us, involves much more than singing, praying, and reading scripture. True worship involves one's whole life.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 (first published 30 January 2005)

The tsunami that struck Southeast Asia last month was the direct result of an earthquake that was caused when two tectonic plates slipped past each other. Scientists now recognize that the great land masses of the earth, both the continents and the ocean floors, rest on giant tectonic plates that are in constant motion (albeit very slow motion). Over millions of years the shape and especially the relative position of the continents change. 225 million years ago all the continents were joined together in a great land mass called Pangaea. In another 225 million years, who knows where the continents will be? All scientists today accept plate tectonic theory, but when Alfred Wegener proposed the idea in 1912, most people--scientists and lay people alike--dismissed the idea as ridiculous. It wasn't until the 1960s, when further evidence supporting the theory was discovered, along with a mechanism for causing the continents to move (convection currents in the earth's mantle), that plate tectonics became accepted as scientific fact. Why would God choose an obscure group of people on the edge of the Roman empire as the vehicle for self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ? Those steeped in Greek philosophy would have expected divine revelation to come through one of the students of Plato's Academy, or perhaps a student of one of the Stoic philosophers of the day, such as Seneca. The Jews--who considered themselves God's chosen people, not an obscure group of people at all--would have expected God to speak through someone born in the holy city of Jerusalem, or maybe through someone born from the lineage of the Hasmonean kings (the Davidic line having all but played itself out), or maybe a great military leader associated with one of the leading rabbis: someone like Simeon Bar Kochba. To the Greeks, Jesus and his early followers were illiterate peasants spreading silly superstitions among the masses. To the Jews, the early Christians were troublemakers who rejected the teachings of the Jewish elders and led the faithful dangerously astray. To most people of the day, the good news about Jesus Christ seemed foolishness. The early Christian movement certainly appeared weak. Where were power and wisdom to be found? Not among the Christians! Yet strangely, inexplicably, the movement grew. Ordinary peasants heard a message that gave them hope. Merchants and artisans spread the word as they traveled from city to city throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Even some of the wealthy saw value in the teachings about Jesus. What was foolishness to many became wisdom to many others, and within 300 years of the time of Jesus, Christianity was the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. It is true that Christianity spread by the sword after it became the official religion of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and later the reconstituted Holy Roman Empire, but in its first 300 years, it spread in spite of official opposition and sometimes persecution, in spite of the ridicule and scorn of accepted religious leaders and philosophers, and in spite of the fact that the majority of its adherents came from the lower classes. What was it about the life and teachings of Jesus that so inspired the earliest believers? Many answers could be given, but one that Paul hints at in today's reading from 1 Corinthians is that in the Christian gospel, the masses of people encountered a God who was not ashamed of their lowly estate. They met for the first time a God who loved them despite their weakness. They experienced a God who loved them, not a God who threatened to annihilate them if they didn't offer the correct sacrifices or follow the proper rituals. The God of early Christianity was a God of the masses, a God who cared about them, a God who stood traditional "wisdom" and "power" on its head and called the uneducated wise, who proclaimed the weak powerful. Is this still the God of Christianity? If it isn't, we'd better look for that God again. It won't be a problem, though. God is always accessible to those who seek with humility and sincerity.

Matthew 5:1-12 (first published 30 January 2005)

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. - Kurt Vonnegut
Why is there such an uproar among certain Christian groups who insist on the public display of the Ten Commandments? Why don't they try to get the Beatitudes posted instead, since they represent the words of the founder of Christianity? I believe wholeheartedly in the separation of church and state, so I wouldn't advocate posting either on government property, but I think Vonnegut has a good point. Why the Ten Commandments and not the Beatitudes? One possible reason is that the Ten Commandments are accepted by Jews as well as Christians, so there's a slightly larger group who might potentially support the idea. The problem, of course, is that it seems to be only Christians, not Jews, who are publicly advocating the posting of the Ten Commandments. Furthermore, most of the Christians who want the Ten Commandments posted also believe that Jews are all going to hell, so an appeal to the Jews hardly seems likely as a rationale. I think the real reason that some Christians want the Ten Commandments posted rather than the Beatitudes is that the Ten Commandments are a lot less threatening and a whole lot easier to live up to. Plus, they're more black and white. Either you've killed somebody or you haven't. Either you've committed adultery or you haven't. And if you have, you can simply ask forgiveness and receive it. The Ten Commandments, at least if we don't examine them too closely, are pretty easy to follow (but read Elton Trueblood's Foundations for Reconstruction or Joy Davidman's Smoke on the Mountain for more insightful comments on the Ten Commandments). They are the law of the establishment, a set of rules by which to set up a government and control people's lives. The Beatitudes, on the other hand, are subversive, even in the Matthean version (don't even look at Luke's version!). "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The kingdom belongs not to the wise or powerful but to those who are "poor in spirit," that is, people who recognize their spiritual poverty and their need for divine salvation. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Those who suffer in this life will receive comfort in the next, but those who have it good now . . . ? "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." Now doesn't that fly in the face of modern wisdom? It is the rich who are inheriting the earth now, and it is money that talks, both in and out of the church. But maybe the rich pastor of the megachurch doesn't really have a corner on God's wisdom; maybe it's the bivocational pastor of the innercity mission that we should be listening to. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Those who long for inner righteousness and outer justice (the Greek word can mean both) will see their desires fulfilled. There are few who are truly righteous, and many who think they are, are not. Here's one clue for determining whether you qualify as righteous. If your heart doesn't ache at the injustice in the world--the poverty, the socio-economic inequality, the racism, the hate, the intolerance of one religion for another--you are falling short of the righteousness that Jesus taught and exemplified. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." Are you an advocate of the death penalty? Where is the mercy that Jesus demands of his followers? "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Do people sometimes make fun of you because you're gullible? Is your first inclination to believe what someone says, especially someone you've never had dealings with? Do people think of you as childlike (as opposed to childish)? Those are all characteristics of someone who is pure in heart. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." Those who support preemptive war worship the war god Mars, not God the Father of Jesus Christ; there is nothing remotely Christian about an unprovoked attack on another country and the slaughter of innocents. The Just War Theory has run its course and proved to be sub-Christian as well. Pacifism is good, but it's not enough. Followers of Jesus should be peacemakers, actively opposing war and violence by peaceful means. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." There are still Christians today, as well as people of other faiths, who are persecuted for their beliefs. I mean beaten, tortured, or killed, not just made fun of. All those who suffer for their faith, who have not committed any crimes or offenses of any sort, are blessed by God. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account." Name-calling, slander, and misrepresentation of one's ideas are not as harmful as torture, but they can hurt, and they can hinder the spread of the gospel. When Jesus asked the Rich Young Ruler whether he had kept the whole law, he answered that he had kept the law from his youth, and he proceeded to list several of the Ten Commandments as examples. The Ten Commandments are a high standard, and they are a good standard, but they fall far short of the even higher demands that Jesus puts on his followers. How do you measure up?