A Society in Collapse

What does a failing society look like? Isaiah’s answer.

Ruins_of_Samaria

The ruins of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Photo, circa 1925.

In Isaiah 9:8-10:11, Isaiah, a Jerusalemite prophet, turns his attention away from his own city to the northern kingdom of Israel* in his day. He sees its future as dire. And that future offers a warning of what lies ahead if the residents of Jerusalem continue in their present ways.

One can read this passage as the expected output of a court prophet. As a loyal Judean, he would be expected to predict the demise of his own country’s enemies. But that’s not quite what we find in this passage. Israel’s dire future is not punishment for its aggressive hostility towards Judah. Rather, the passage reads as a vivid description of a society that is collapsing within itself.

Not that Israel knows its future is precarious. The prophet says that in arrogance and pride the kingdom is harboring illusions of grandeur. Its ordinary dwellings built of brick have fallen (maybe because of an earthquake or maybe because of foreign invasion). But the kingdom plans to rebuild in stone, the construction material of palaces.

Likewise its normal groves of sycamore have been leveled. But the Israelites plan to replant them with cedar, another construction material of palaces. But if they do so, Isaiah says it will be a venture in wasted resources. The Lord has set his face against them. He will rise up the Aramaeans and Philistines to devour them.

As the passage moves on, the prophet turns his sight to the kingdom’s leaders who mislead the people. Its prophets speak lies; its elders lead the people astray. What is not clear is whether the leaders are consciously or unconsciously leading the country in wrong directions. The outcome, however, is the same. The people are left in confusion (Isaiah 9:14-16). No one is sure what the truth is.

Things are not working the way they should. People are indulging in excess, but coming away feeling dissatisfied. This is vividly conveyed in verse 9:20:

They [the people] gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

                        and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied.

As a result, in frustration the people have turned on each other and fallen into civil strife, if not downright civil war (described in the metaphor of cannibalism). Manasseh, another tribe in the northern kingdom, is said to have devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh. This tribal strife would have been poignant for Isaiah’s listeners. By tradition Ephraim and Manasseh were said to be the two sons of Joseph. Their aggression towards each other would have been seen as fraternal strife. The bonds of civic unity are breaking apart.

A Note of Realism About the Poor and Weak

Isaiah particularly denounces Israel’s leaders who have legislated decrees that oppress the poor and the marginalized in Israel’s society. These decrees rob the poor, especially the widows and orphans, of justice. They have become the prey of the strong.

Throughout the Old Testament, the welfare of the widow, the orphan, and the resident immigrant is an object of God’s special concern. Prophet after prophet will denounce God’s people for their neglect of these weak members of society.

But Isaiah injects a discordant note into what is a common theme. In verse 9:17, the prophet announces:

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

            or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

            and every mouth spoke folly.

 In this social collapse all fall under divine judgment, even widows and orphans. Why? Because everyone was godless and an evildoer. The sense I get when I read this is the thought that the poor and weak, despite the oppression they suffer, still buy into the illusions their leaders promulgate. If they could be rich and powerful, they would behave just as their oppressors do.

It is a note of realism that the poor and weak are not more moral just because they are poor and weak. Both the rich and strong and the poor and weak share in common illusions.

A Compromised Society Cannot Stand

The impact of all these social developments is that Israel as a society is fundamentally compromised. It does not have the unity, the strength, and the community resolve to stand up firm when outside pressures come bearing down. And those outside pressures are on its doorstep in the threat posed by imperial Assyria.

When that threat becomes actually real (as it does shortly afterwards), Israel does indeed fall. It is wiped out of the political landscape of the ancient Near East.

It is sobering to read this portion of Isaiah. How he analyzes Israel has enduring value as an analysis of any society that undermines itself with destructive partisan strife, injustice, and buy-in into illusionary thinking. For Isaiah that is a warning to his own community of Judah. Do not follow in Israel’s footsteps. Whether his description also speaks a warning to our own society today I will leave for each reader to decide.

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* The northern kingdom of Israel was also known as Ephraim (see verse 9:9), because the most prominent tribe in the kingdom was the tribe of Ephraim.

 

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The Siren Call of Fame

Fame issues a bogus promise of immortality.

The Bible’s authors and editors have a predisposition to juxtapose stories that they want us to read in dialogue with each other.

A wonderful example occurs in Mark 10:35-52. This passage recounts two stories about Jesus. The first (Mark 10:35-45) tells of an occasion when James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left when he enters into his glory. The second (Mark 10:46-52) tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man named Bartimaeus on the outskirts of Jericho.

I believe that Mark wants us to hear these two stories in juxtaposition. Why? Because of a phrase that Jesus asks in each story. When he is approached by James and John, Jesus asks: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:36) When Bartimaeus shouts to get Jesus’ attention and Jesus stops to talk with him, Jesus asks the very same question: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:51).

This repeated question links the two stories together. Mark wants us to reflect on the very different answers the three people give. In particular, the answer Bartimaeus gives throws a whole different light on the answer James and John give.

empire_state_building_(aerial_view)

America’s tower: The Empire State Building in New York City.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Tower of Babel

Another example occurs in the Book of Genesis with the two stories of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). I believe the editors of Genesis want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition, too. Let me explain why.

The story of the Tower of Babel tells of an effort by a group of people in the plain of Shinar who set out to build a city. Its crown jewel will be a tower which will extend its top into heaven.

What fascinates me in this story is their motivation. They say they want to make a name for themselves because they are afraid that they will be scattered upon the face of the earth. In response to this fear they launch a huge public works endeavor.

How does building a name for themselves protect them from being scattered? The way I understand the link is by seeing the fear of scattering as a stand-in for the fear of death.  What the people of Babel are really afraid of is the oblivion that follows upon death. After we have been dead two or three generations, who will remember us? Will we not all sink into that great mass of humanity who have died and been forgotten?

How can we prevent that?  By creating such a great name and reputation that people will continue to remember us and talk about us long after we have died. We thereby gain a measure of immortality by our continuing fame.

We see another example of this craving for a measure of immortality in the heroes that Homer celebrates in The Illiad. The warriors in that epic share the same value system as does Achilles. Achilles is offered a choice. He can live a long and prosperous life in rural obscurity. Or he can live a short life but one made shining and glorious by his constantly celebrated deeds as a warrior.

Achilles chooses the latter option. He does obtain a measure of immortality. His deeds continue to be celebrated down through the centuries of Greek history as they are sung by bards like Homer. His fame continues even unto today.*

This hope that fame will confer on us some measure of immortality makes its promises so seductive. So we spend a great deal of energy and resources on our quest for our own celebration in the realm of public opinion and the organs of the news media. I ask if it is not this same quest for immortality that Achilles and the residents of Babel crave, a quest that fuels so much of our own society’s obsession with publicity.

In the end the quest of the people of Babel is thwarted. Not only does God block the building of their tower, but also their search for fame. The text does not remember any name of the tower’s builders other than telling us they lived in the plain of Shinar.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Call of Abraham

Now let us turn to the story of the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). Abraham (then named Abram) is living in obscurity in the region of Haran when he receives a call from God. God calls him to leave his country, his family, and his native culture and migrate to a land that God will show him.

If Abram will obey God’s command, then God makes some extravagant promises to him. First, God will make him into a great nation. Second, God will bless Abram (which as the story unfolds we learn includes great prosperity). Third, God will make Abram’s name great. And fourth, God will use Abram to bring a blessing upon all peoples of the earth.

These are extravagant promises. They represent all the great dreams and cravings of kings and other potentates through the ages. These powers have exhausted immense resources in order to acquire just these desirables.

But what catches my eye when I read this story is that third promise from God. God promises to make Abram’s name great. This was the great longing of the people of Babel when they launched their tower. Abram is promised this great blessing with an amazing fame that will indeed extend down through generations upon generations and throughout the earth.

God, however, invites Abraham not to seek this blessing by his own initiative. Abraham is not instructed to go and do great deeds that will rebound with praise among the people around him, especially great deeds in war or business. Instead Abraham is invited to simply respond to God in obedience to his command to go on an undoubtedly risky venture.

Abraham does obey. The text states that obedience in one short sentence. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him( Genesis 12:4). God lives up to his promise. Abraham is today one of the most remembered and celebrated names in human history and the great hero of faith in three world religions. He is granted that measure of immortality that the people of Babel (and the heroes ofThe Illiad) so craved.

 Stories that Probe Our Inner Spirit

What links the stories of the Tower of Babel and the call of Abraham is this repeated theme of making a great name for one’s self. That theme figures prominently in both stories. That fact, I contend, is the signal to us that the editors want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition.

What these two stories can do together is provoke us to think as well about our true motivations for doing the things we do in our own lives. Are we motivated by a desire to make a great reputation for ourselves that will establish, for example, our superior status in the community? If so, are we falling for the bogus promise that the siren goddess sings.

Or are we motivated by other factors: our genuine desire to be of service to God or to the community. Or by our sheer delight and joy in doing the things that give us delight and joy regardless of whether we win recognition for what we do or not?

This is how I find reflecting on these two stories from Genesis shines a probing light on my own inner spirit.

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* Achilles has a very different take on his choice when Odysseus encounters him in the land of the dead in the eleventh chapter of The Odyssey. When Odysseus points out to Achilles his great fortune in holding such a renowned reputation as a warrior on earth, Achilles protests that he would rather be a plough man on earth working for a poor farmer than lord over this collection of dead warriors, which Achilles calls “used-up men.”

Words, Words, Words

A psalm theme: The power of human language to do good and to do evil.

In the musical “My Fair Lady” there is a scene about three-quarters of the way through the play. A British aristocrat named Freddy Eynsford-Hill has fallen in love with Eliza Doolittle. He launches into a passionate love song to her.

She abruptly interrupts him, screaming (in lovely musical notes, of course):

Words, words, words, words.

I’m so sick of words.

I get words all the day, first from him and now from you…

If you are in love, show me.

 Those lyrics came to mind when I was recently reading Psalms 12and 15. We live in a society drowning in words. Words on TV, words in advertising, words in news media, words in political debate, words on Twitter and in e-mails, and constant daily conversations.

What Psalms 12 and 15 do is remind us of the power of those words, whatever our intent in speaking them. For example, Psalm 12 raises this lament about the unrighteous and their malevolent use of language:

They utter lies to each other;
    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
    the tongue that makes great boasts….(Psalm 12:2-3)

On the other hand, words also have beneficent power. Psalm 15 bears witness to that when it praises:

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
    and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
    and do no evil to their friends,
    nor take up a reproach against their neighbors….(Psalm 15:2-3)

When we read these sentiments, we should keep in mind that in ancient Israelite society the psalmists would have been thinking not primarily of the written word (important as it is), but of spoken words. Ancient societies were predominately oral societies.

That fact adds to the power of the psalmists’ assertions. When we speak, we communicate not only through the words we choose, but also through our pitch and tone of voice. The simple words “Don’t touch that” can be said matter of factly. Or they can be filled with a sense of menace depending upon the tone of voice we use.

The power of oratory

That’s why I think oratory has been such a powerful medium of communication through most of human history. It has been said, for example, that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, people said, “How well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes, the greatest orator of ancient Greece and the bitter opponent of King Philip of Macedon, finished speaking, people said, “Let’s march.” His words provoked action.

We saw the same thing happen in the 20thcentury with the oratory of Winston Churchill. In 1940 many people thought that it was inevitable that Great Britain would fall to the armies of Nazi Germany. It was just a matter of time.

They were wrong. Why? One reason is the bravery of the British Spitfire pilots. Another was the power of Churchill’s oratory. His words gave backbone to British morale. His words proved in the end powerful guns indeed.

We all know as well the power of oratory to be incredibly destructive. Oratory has the power to unleash forces of hate and violence that can wreak havoc with the lives of people and the peace of nations.

We need only turn again to World War II for the most revealing example. Would there have even been a war if it were not for the powerful oratory of Adolph Hitler? His words played a key role in unleashing the forces of hatred and genocide that marked that long conflict.

Other psalms decry the wicked engaging in violence and murder. But what Psalm 12 does is make clear that what precedes such violence is malicious and deceitful speech.

Biblical wisdom for Americans

This is an important message that I believe all Americans need to take to heart. We take great pride in our First Amendment right to free speech. That is a precious freedom. If we as a society are to establish wise policies that support the well-being and prosperity of all our citizens, we must ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard.

We also need to remember that our right of free speech carries with it a heavy responsibility if we are not to let our words destroy us. We can do great harm by deceitful, hateful, and intemperate speech. How many marriages or families have been torn apart by an argument that got out of hand or by an insult that was said in high anger?

We are seeing a lot of angry, intemperate speech in our society today, spoken not only by politicians, but also by ordinary citizens. That speech, wherever it comes from, works to deepen distrust among us.

As a result, too many of us, I believe, are beginning to question that we can ever know the truth. In John’s gospel account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, we hear Pilate ask cynically, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) He apparently thinks it is impossible to know the truth. One hears similar sentiments today when we hear a politician say on TV that truth isn’t truth.

So if we cannot know the truth, how do we resolve conflicts? By naked power. Whoever is strongest gets the privilege of defining truth. This is something post-modernism constantly asserts.

I think, however, we need to be cautious if we buy into such an assertion. If we act as if all truth claims are simply disguised power plays, then I believe we are planting dragon seeds. We must not be surprised then when dragons begin to roam our society.

A Biblical Response to Jeff Sessions

Be careful when you quote the Bible in the public sphere. The Bible may bite back.

Flight_into_Egypt_-_Capella_dei_Scrovegni_-_Padua_2016

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

This past week we heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeal to Romans 13 as Biblical warrant for the administration’s no-tolerance policy on illegal immigration. I had to smile. He appealed to the one passage in Scripture that autocrats and divine-right kings have always claimed as their own. Sessions placed the administration right in their company.

But it is always dangerous to quote the Bible as isolated prooftexts. The Bible is not one simplistic message. It embraces many voices. When we quote one passage in isolation, we run the risk of one of those other voices rising up to challenge our single-minded viewpoint.

This is certainly the case when we look at what the Bible has to say about immigrants. For it has a lot to say. To be fair to the Bible, we must hear these alternate voices as well.

The Old Testament’s Vulnerable Ones

A striking feature of the Old Testament is the partiality that God shows for the vulnerable in Israelite society. In particular three classes of society are singled out as a focus of God’s concern. They are:

  • The widow, especially the childless widow
  • The orphan
  • The resident alien (Hebrew: ger)–a foreigner who is living permanently, not temporarily on Israelite soil. They are analogous to the green card immigrant in the United States.

All three were especially vulnerable in ancient Israelite society as they did not fit securely into the structure of the patriarchal family and clan. All three were, therefore, subject to being taken advantage of, abused, or oppressed.

The phrase–the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien–becomes therefore a stock phrase in the Old Testament for referring to the most vulnerable and marginalized members of Israelite society.

The Vulnerable Ones in the Torah

What is striking about the Old Testament is how this divine concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien enters into the text both early and late. The Book of Exodus, for example, includes commands from God about this vulnerable people in its very earliest statement of torah law, the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23).

There we find God instructing the Israelites:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:21-24)

God’s concern for the immigrant gets repeated just a few verses later:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

What is striking about these commands is the rationale they give for treating the resident alien benevolently. Israelites are to do so remembering that they too were once aliens living in a foreign land. They know the precarious lot of a resident alien, who lives and works in a land but is not a citizen.*

When we get to Leviticus, we find the focus on the resident alien rising to an even high level of intensity. Leviticus 19:18 lays down the command that Israelites are to love their neighbor as themselves. In the context, the neighbor is clearly a fellow Israelite. But just a few verses later we find this striking extension of the rule:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Here the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is extended to loving the immigrant as we love ourselves. We are to treat him or her like a citizen.

In Deuteronomy, we find God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien moves beyond just words to concrete actions that the Israelites are to take on behalf of these three vulnerable classes of society.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. 

Flight_into_Egypt_-_Capella_dei_Scrovegni_-_Padua_2016

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

(Deuteronomy 24:19-22)

Concern for the widow, the orphan, and resident alien means taking action to see that their physical needs, their very livelihood, is being taken care of. This is a vision of a generous society, not a parsimonious one. Welfare for the poor is built into the very way the Israelites are to do their daily business.

The Prophetic Contribution

Concern with the life needs of the widow, orphan, and resident alien are not confined to the Pentateuch. We find references to them in the psalms (see, for example, Psalm 94:1-7 and Psalm 146:5-10) and in the prophets (see Isaiah 1:12-17, Jeremiah 7:5-7, and Zechariah 7:8-10).

I find the most striking prophetic passage in Jeremiah. It reads:

Thus says the LORD: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.(Jeremiah 22:1-5)

The Jeremiah passage makes clear that the security and well-being of the kingdom itself is dependent upon the way it cares for its most vulnerable members. If the kingdom chooses to oppress and abuse them, then the very stability of the country is placed into jeopardy. Without using the stock slogan of the widow, orphan, and resident alien, the prophets Hoses and Amos declare a similar message.**

Absorbed into the Spiritual DNA of the Early Church

The New Testament writers do not use the stock phrase—the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien—but we find a concern with these categories appearing all through the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic church. The message of the Old Testament has been so absorbed that it resides as part of the spiritual DNA of the early Christians. I wonder if it was not one of the reasons why the early Christian community found itself ultimately opening its ranks to include the Gentile believer—the spiritual outsider.

Jesus himself builds upon the warning of Jeremiah. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus describes the last judgment when the Son of man comes in glory and sits in judgment. He separates the sheep from the goats.

What is striking in this account is the basis of judgment. It is not whether someone has placed saving faith in Jesus, but how someone has related to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the prisoner, and the stranger.

What is also striking in the account is that this judgment is not just a judgment of individuals. The text says explicitly that the ones gathered before the throne are all the nations. Here again we meet that note that the security and well-being of a society is contingent on how it treats its most vulnerable ones.

I recognize these Biblical passages are not dealing with the issue of society’s need to control its borders and balance the need of immigrants with the needs of the native society. But they clearly say that a society’s “me-first” approach to the challenges of immigration and population movements is not ultimately going to secure the long-term well-being that its citizens crave.

If we are going to take seriously the message of the Bible for America, then I believe we Americans are going to have to listen to the full message of the Bible and not just one sole prooftext.

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* When we read this rationale, we can’t help recognizing how it mirrors the American experience. Unless our ancestry is native American, every American today comes from immigrant stock.

** In the prophets two great sins ultimately bring God’s judgment onto the two Israelite kingdoms. They are religious apostasy and social injustice.

 

 

The Widow’s Mite

The gospel writer makes connections by the placement of his stories.

widow's mite

The widow making her temple contribution, by the French illustrator Gustave Doré, 19th century

I never assume that the gospel writers compiled their gospels thoughtlessly. We may think that they just joined one story to another as a jeweler might string a strand of beads. However, that’s not the case. How they place individual stories or sayings in their broader gospel narrative often reveals connections they want us to make between the stories they recount.

A good example is the story Mark tells that we often label the tale of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44). It recounts an incident in Jesus’ life, which Mark places in the events of Holy Week.

Jesus is sitting in the Jerusalem temple, watching the crowds who enter. Many drop a money gift into the temple’s cash box. Those who are affluent drop sizeable amounts. Then a widow makes her donation. It is a tiny sum: just two small coins that are valued what our translations call a penny. (It is hard to know how to value this sum in today’s currency. But think of it as a miniscule value, like two dollar bills.)

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus comments that she has given the most of all. The rich have given large sums, but those sums amount to no great sacrifice for them. The widow, however, has given everything she has, in fact, everything she has to live on.

The text calls us to admire her for her extreme generosity…or her sincere religious devotion. That is what most preachers focus on when they preach this text. But I contend there is much more going on by Mark placing this story where he does.

In the verses preceding (Mark 12:38-40), Jesus has been criticizing the religious elite who make a great display of their religiosity. They expect public esteem. But while the community honors them, they are behind the scenes devouring the property of widows, reducing them to poverty. One is left to wonder if it is one of those very scribes who has in fact reduced this particular widow to her poverty.

In the story that follows the poor widow (Mark 13:1-4) Jesus foresees the destruction of the temple, the very institution the elite are so lavishly supporting. He has already driven the merchants and money changers out of the temple’s courts. Now he foresees the collapse of the whole institution, which has lived off the temple tax and contributions given by people like the widow in our story. Like the barren fig tree, the temple culture has not produced the spiritual fruit God expects from it, despite the lavish sums invested in it.

Mark lays before us this stark contrast between the pious who exploit the poor and the poor who live out a genuine piety. This richness of meaning comes as we read the three stories together and recognize hidden connections between them.

Connections with Other Scripture

The contrast that Mark develops reminds me of the same contrast that the gospel writer Luke develops in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). There Jesus tells of a Pharisee who goes to the temple to pray. He lays out before God all the right and pious things he has done, unlike the sinful tax collector standing nearby. Presumably this entitles him to a special divine blessing.

The tax collector, however, sees himself truly, with all his flaws and failures to live up to God’s standards. As a result, he prays, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” In no way does he presume he is entitled to any blessing.  Yet, Jesus says, he is the one who returns home in right relationship with God.

We see the same striking contrast between the religious elite and the despised and marginalized ones of society. Both stories make the same point. It is a point that we find constantly repeated in the Old Testament prophets.* Lavish religious piety (and I might add moral scrupulosity) counts for little when that piety and scrupulosity are contradicted by the practice of social injustice. Yet, despite the frequency of this point in Scripture, we Christians, just as much as the ancient Jews, find it hard to root this insight into our core consciousness.

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* The classic text is Amos 5:21-24. But Amos is not alone in his message.

 

Jesus on Paying Taxes

Jesus eludes an entrapment by turning the tables on his opponents.

Marcus_Aurelius_Denarius2

A Roman denarius with the image of the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

In Mark 12:13-17, the evangelist Mark tells the story of an attempt by the Jewish temple authorities to entrap Jesus. They seek to lead him into saying something that will put him in jeopardy. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not.

It seems a perfect trap. If Jesus says it is lawful, then they can charge him with compromising his obligation to honor God. They can use that to damage his reputation with the people who hang on his every word. If Jesus says it is not lawful, they have grounds to report him to the Roman authorities, with dire consequences for Jesus. It seems a perfect question for their purposes. Jesus cannot dodge the question. He must make a choice.

Yet Jesus proves cleverer. He recognizes their question is not a legitimate search for insight, but an effort to entrap him. Holding up a Roman coin, he gives an answer they did not anticipate: Render to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.  

Many Christians have regarded this answer as a nugget of wisdom for the ages. In a sense it is. We might say that it delineates the proper relation between religion and the state.

But we also easily overlook something important about Jesus’ answer. He does not define exactly what are those things that belong to Caesar, and what are the things that belong to God. He throws that task back to his opponents…and in a sense, to each of us.

They/we have to decide what it is that belongs to Caesar and what things belong to God. And we run the risk if our answers offend the authorities in our lives. In trying to entrap Jesus, his opponents put themselves in jeopardy…if they attempt to clarify Jesus’ answer. Jesus has turned the tables on his opponents. Clever Jesus indeed!

Jesus lays down the fundamental principle that should govern the relations between church and state. But as we see, this principle remains inherently fluid. And so Christians have answered the question of what things belong to Caesar and what things belong to God in various ways. Sometimes their answers have had corrupting influences on the church. Sometimes their answers have instead had grave consequences.

Jesus lays down the timeless principle. Its implementation, however, rests on us. Jesus will not relieve us of our own proper responsibility to think for ourselves.

Jesus and Divorce

How do we come to terms with one of Jesus’ difficult teachings?

JesusPharisees

Dispute between Jesus and Pharisees, by French artist Gustav Doré, 19th century

 Every now and then I read a gospel passage where I wish Jesus had kept his mouth shut. His words are hard to take. They’re even harder to explain if you are a preacher.

A prime example is Jesus’ teaching on divorce, as recorded in Mark 10:2-11 (with a parallel in Matthew 19:3-9). On a superficial reading, Jesus comes across as stern, even legalistic like so many of his opponents. Certainly many Christians through the centuries have taken Jesus’ words as sanction for being stern and legalistic in their own attitudes, causing great pastoral harm.

So when faced with a tough passage like that, I turn to my primary tool in interpreting Scripture: a close reading of the text. Here I focus on exactly what is said, not what I presume it says. When I do this with the Mark passage, a couple of details pop out that seem to point me to how to understand and apply what Jesus is saying.

An Effort to Entrap Jesus

The first detail is what Mark says provoked the whole discussion. He says the Pharisees came to him in order to test him. In Mark the word test usually has a negative association. It is the same word in the Greek that Mark uses when he says the devil came to tempt (test) Jesus in the desert after his baptism.

In this case, the motivation of the Pharisees is to entrap Jesus. They want to entrap him into saying something that will get him into hot water. A current polarizing debate in the Jewish community on the proper grounds for divorce offered just the right pretext.

Mosaic law permitted divorce. The key text was Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There Moses says: If a man marries a wife, and then she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her, he may give her a bill of divorce and send her out of his house.

The grounds for divorce are that the husband has found some uncleanness in his wife. But what does the word uncleanness refer to? That was the focus of the debate.

The Jewish rabbi Shammai and his school said it meant adultery. Only adultery was a legitimate reason for divorce. The Jewish rabbi Hillel and his school said that uncleanness could refer to any reason why a wife lost favor with her husband. It could be her cantankerous temper, the fact that she talked to a stranger in the street, or that she burned his bread.

The Pharisees may have wanted to put Jesus right in the middle of this debate when they asked their question? Whichever side he took on the issue of the legality of divorce or the grounds for divorce, he would make new enemies.

The question was not an invitation to an honest theological discussion. It was a game of gotcha. We are terribly familiar with such games as we listen to a lot of political rhetoric today.

Jesus avoids the horns of this dilemma by avoiding the whole question of whether divorce was permissible or not. The law of Moses said that it was. On that question, I hear Jesus accepting the law of Moses.

Refocusing the Discussion

What he does instead is address the deeper pastoral issue raised by divorce. And here a close reading of the text proves fruitful. Jesus says that the law of Moses permits divorce because of your hardness of heart. Now that is not what I anticipate coming out of Jesus’ mouth. But I think the words are critical in how we come to apply the words of Jesus in pastoral situations.

Hardness of heart is a Biblical phrase that refers to a stubbornness of our will, a callousness of feeling, a stone-like fixation on our own self-concern at the expense of God and the other person. It is the prime feature of Pharaoh’s character in his struggle with Moses over release of the Israelite slaves.

Hard-heartedness stands in contrast to warm-heartedness, expressed in gentleness, humility, compassion, openness and flexibility. A warm-hearted person feels with other people, feels their joy and their hurts, instead of closing them out of his or her emotions.

Here, it seems to me, Jesus pinpoints the real reason why many marriages end in divorce. The deep emotional reason is the inflexibility, the intransigence, the insistence of having things one’s own way in the relationship that leads ultimately to irreconcilable conflict. The two partners in the marriage become so entrenched in their own hurts, anger, and demands that they find it impossible to work out their problems in a way that keeps them together.

Every marriage will have its problems and conflicts. The question is: How do we handle them? How do we negotiate through them to a resolution? Can we reach a resolution that both partners can live with? Sometimes one partner wants to work out the problem, but the other partner refuses. Sometimes both partners are locked into combativeness and inflexibility. Both say to the other: It’s my way or no way.

If a resolution proves impossible, then the marriage will split apart. Or one partner will cave in and the marriage becomes lopsided in its power arrangements. Love drains away through the emotional cracks.

Jesus Plays One Scripture Off Against Another

As a pastor, Jesus directs attention away from the legality of divorce to the deeper question: What is God’s intention for marriage. Here he plays Scripture off against Scripture.

In response to Deuteronomy, Jesus directs the Pharisees’ attention back to the story of creation in Genesis, chapter 2, where God creates Adam and Eve. In that story, when Adam meets Eve for the first time, he cries out in ecstasy This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. And then the Biblical author comments: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Jesus reads this passage as expressing God’s intention for marriage. That intention is first and foremost to create a union so deep between the spouses that the couple becomes as one living being. This is talking about the creation of a deep, loving intimacy—a sexual, an emotional, a spiritual intimacy—between the two partners.

For Jesus, the pastoral issue in marriage is the quality of the intimacy between the two spouses that God intends their marriage relationship to foster.

In a healthy relationship as God intends it, giving and receiving are mutual. Both partners become more fully alive, more fully themselves within their marriage. Marriage is meant to nurture life, not smother it. This is the divine call and ideal.

None of our marriages fulfill this ideal perfectly. We fulfill it to various degrees. Some marriages achieve such a depth of love and intimacy that when one partner dies, the other feels as if his or her life has been ripped apart.

In other marriages the partners may be sexually faithful to each other, but maintain an emotional and spiritual distance between them. They live parallel lives that only reach out to each other occasionally.

And in others alienation replaces love and intimacy. This alienation may result from a one-time act of betrayal. Or it may result from the corrosive acids of small, repeated negativities like constant nagging, fault-finding, and petty obsessions. The alienation results in a marriage that feels like a zombie existence. One or both partners live as if they are the walking dead.

In that last situation divorce may become the healthier alternative to continuing to live together. But even so, the divorce can create an immense pain as the union is separated apart.

When we marry, we vow to be faithful to our spouse until death do us part. When we divorce, we break that promise by the sheer act of separation. And when we remarry we carry that broken promise with us.

That is what I think Jesus is getting at when he says that when a divorced person remarries, he or she commits adultery against the first spouse. We enter the second marriage with the broken promise in the first.

Second Chances in Marriage?

So is Jesus closing the door on second chances in marriage? I don’t think so. If Jesus were, he would be out of step with the rest of Scripture. For the Bible is full of stories of God giving people second chances, whether it be Israel returning from exile in Babylon or the apostle Peter after his denial of Jesus.

If Jesus is denying the opportunity for second chances in life, then we are all doomed, not only in our married life, but in our family, business, and community relationships.

I hear the good news of the gospel as a message that God gives us second chances over and over again. But we always enter into our second chances as flawed human beings. Repentance acknowledges that fact.

As I listen to this passage, I hear Jesus’ chief concern not being over the issue of whether divorce is permissible or not. This is largely a legal question. Nowhere in the gospels do we find the spirit of Jesus to be legalistic.

His focus is a pastoral one. When it comes to marriage, his chief pastoral concern is the quality of intimacy that a husband and wife are nurturing in their relationship. That, I contend, should be our chief concern too when we seek to apply this passage to contemporary marriages.

Author’s Note:

I write this posting in an effort to make some pastoral sense out of a difficult passage. But I also write from the perspective of a married man who has never undergone a divorce. Those of you who have may want to challenge what I say. I welcome your feedback.