November 9, 2014
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
I have several friends who are atheists, so I occasionally hear how this or that Biblical passage is ludicrous, often based on taking it out of context, and usually without much theological or historical reflection.
Without context, theological reflection and a sense of the history of interpretation, many passages of the Bible are difficult at best. It has been the history of Congregationalists and the United Church of Christ to require the use of all our brain as well as our heart in trying to understand scripture.
One strange aspect of scripture is the way many passages, the prophets and parables chief among them, are designed to take us out of our usual context.
Take Amos’s apocalyptic vision. He warns that faith is not simply life getting better and better as long as we believe hard enough. The Day of the Lord was popularly seen as the destruction of Israel’s enemies and oppressors. It was what we all hope for: life getting better without us having to change. Amos offers a more troubling view. Amos declares it will be an overturning of all the ways that the world does not practice justice and righteousness, and being religious will not make a difference. What will make the difference is how we treat each other.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Justice: this is a tough word to translate, even from English into English. The Biblical view of justice is that judgments are made without favoritism; that the relief for the settled and the safe is also given to the marginal and the foreigner; that the ways of dividing people and using social-, economic-, racial-, gender-, you name it-, differences as a means of exclusion would end.
Like unto it is righteousness. The word righteousness is sometimes translated as charity, not in the sense of being magnanimous or giving a little to help someone else, but as a duty to God and to neighbor. It is how those “with” live in right relationship with those “without.”
Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish Scholar, wrote of righteousness and listed examples ranked from the least to the greatest:
8. When donations are given grudgingly.
7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.
6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.
5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.
4. Donations when the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor still doesn’t know the specific identity of the recipient.
3. Donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.
2. Giving assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds, administered by responsible people are also in this category.
1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.
What strikes me about this list is that it is not a progressive or a conservative list, a left or right list, a blue or red list. It is a Biblical list.
The warning is that without justice, without generosity, without loving neighbor as self, then all the religion in the world will not bring peace. Without justice, we get Fergusson, Missouri. Without justice we get those with money being able to decide the lives of those without money. Without righteousness we get gated communities with the rich man on the inside and poor Lazarus dying at his gate.
Without taking care of each other, fleeing to religion will be:
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
We cannot understand this if we try to shoehorn it between Black Friday shopping and political ads. This is a Word that breaks our context. But if life has knocked us out of our old context, maybe such a word is necessary to re-right us.
So we have the story of the ten bridesmaids. A shallow reading says that we need to grab all the oil we can and hold onto it as tight as we can. But such a reading goes against much of what Jesus teaches in Matthew’s Gospel:
Give to everyone who begs from you,
and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this
is the law and the prophets.
(Matthew 7: 12)
So let us concede that these verses are not about imitating the oil cartels; Something else is going on. I want to offer you two thoughts:
First, what if the oil is not a thing, but that which allows us to shine like a lamp set on a lampstand or a city set on a hill? If it is the way that faith animates our lives, this is not something that can be given. Yes, our prayers can help sustain people in the wilderness, but ultimately we are also each responsible for the state of our own faith. We burn out when we have not replenished that which fuels our souls. As my seminary professor Robert Moore would say, “Stay prayed up.”
Second, the problem is not that the bridesmaids do not know the bridegroom, it is that the bridegroom does not know them.
It does not say we do not know Jesus. Everyone in the United States, whether Christian or not, knows Jesus. Billboards and t-shirts and TV programs and churches in every town means everyone knows Jesus. Whether it is an accurate picture or not is open to debate, but everyone knows Jesus.
Similarly, I can say I know the great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. I have almost all of his books, have read many of them, have seen him speak a time or two, have met him on multiple occasions, and I’ve even had lunch with him.
So, yeah, I know Uncle Walt. But does he know me? He has taught hundreds of classes, thousands of students, met a few gazillion pastors. The chances that he knows me are fairly slim.
It takes time spent together over years to really know someone. It takes many meals, many late night talks, many moments of vulnerability to know and be known.
If we are going to follow Jesus into the practice of justice and righteousness, it is going to take a lot of time together.
Come to me,
all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Thanks be to God.