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Archive for the ‘Old Testament’ Category

Our strong roots in democracy don’t give us particularly good background for understanding the biblical concept of kingship. Living as we do in one of the first countries to reject rule by a monarch in favor of a federation of independent states, we balk at the idea of locating all authority in one person. From its beginnings in the Hebrew Scriptures, though, we see that the concept that eventually came to be know as the “divine right of kings” didn’t entirely escape the flaws of humanity creeping into the institution. Today we hear the story of the great King David. Chosen by God while still a shepherd boy watching his father’s flocks, anointed by Samuel, David is now acclaimed by the people as their king.

The ill-fated monarchy of his predecessor, Saul, gives us some important background to the early days of the monarchy in Israel. The people came to the prophet Samuel asking for a king because all the neighboring countries were ruled by kings. They seem to have forgotten that God was the only king they needed. Samuel told them an elaborate parable about the trees in the forest wanting to name one of their number ruler over all, with disastrous results. But God tells Samuel to give the people what they want, and the results prove Samuel’s words to be true. Now the people are acclaiming David because of his military prowess. I suspect that when they repeat God’s words: “You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander of Israel,” they’re putting far more emphasis on the second part of that phrase. The notion of a strong military commander was mighty appealing.

Throughout Christian history, the notion of Christ as king has jostled somewhat uneasily along the concept of an earthly king. From the very beginning, when Caesar was pro- claimed as divine, Christians asserted that they followed the one true God, a greater king and ruler. And even before that, in the Gospels themselves, Jesus often had to remind his followers that his reign as the Messiah was much different than the military leader they sought.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, the people jeering at Jesus frame their abuse in terms of Jesus not using his power to save himself. This was one of the temptations in the desert, the temptation to use his power for his own glory. Once again on the cross, he overcomes it. The Lord’s kingship is simply not about earthly power, military or otherwise. As his followers, we need to remember this.

In 21st-century America, we elect our leaders by popular vote. While we no longer rely on the notion of the “divine right of kings,” we are nevertheless called to bring our faith to bear on the decisions we make in choosing those who will lead us and set public policy. We need to remember that our God is a Prince of Peace, and not a pagan god of war.

Each time we pray the Our Father, we say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s been said by Franciscan Father Richard Rohr and others, we can’t say “Your kingdom come” unless we also say “My kingdom go.” Today’s feast reminds us to let go of egos and power and the idea that might makes right. The well-being of our country and per- haps the whole world depend on our willingness to elect leaders who will live the Gospel message and not simply say “Lord, Lord.”

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In a recent episode of The Simpsons, the wealthy businessman Montgomery Burns nearly drowns in a fountain. With what he thinks is his last breath, he says, “Apparently I’m dying. Sure wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

We laugh because we know that the reality is that most people will do anything they can to carve out more time for their families, their friends, their lives outside of the workaday world. Time management seminars tell us that the goal of everything we do should be “to live, to love, to leave a legacy.” And that legacy involves far more important things than a savings account and an investment portfolio. It means teaching our children the things that really matter: strong values, solid relationships, an enduring faith in God.

Today’s Scripture readings show us what really matters in life—and in death. In the Gospel, the Sadducees approach Jesus with a question that to their minds shows the absurdity of the concept of an afterlife. Will the woman married to seven brothers belong to one, none or all of them after death?

At the time of Jesus, many people still believed that the only chance a person had of attaining any kind of immortality was to raise up children and grandchildren to carry on their name and their bloodline. Jesus is trying to get them to see beyond this narrow concern and to appreciate how very different life in the afterlife will be. He cuts through their knotty puzzle and says, “They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.”

The reading from the Book of Maccabees also speaks of seven brothers, but the true connection with the Gospel lies in the belief in an afterlife expressed by the boys and their mother. It gives a nobility to their martyrdom and a purpose to their witness. At the time this book was written, Jewish scholars were just beginning to grasp a notion of the afterlife.

Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The same holds true for those who regularly put their lives at the service of others, knowing full well that they could be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. On this Veterans Day we think especially of those who have been killed in battle, but also of police officers and firefighters, all those working in dangerous occupations to preserve the common good.

Parents often say that they would willingly give their lives for their children, and many have proved the truth of that statement by doing just that. The Harry Potter books are based on the idea that Harry’s protection from the powerful and evil Lord Voldemort comes from the fact that his mother and father were willing to be killed to save his life. That kind of love can withstand even death. And of course we believe that it was that love that led Jesus to give his life for us, teaching us how to live, how to love, how to die and how to rise to new life.

These are just a few examples that show us the power of the Scriptures, the reality of our faith, and the futility of those who try to turn religion into an intellectual exercise, a series of required tests. They also offer a powerful argument against those who scoff at the very notion of belief in God. God is love, and love is stronger than death. If we live our lives and love others with this in mind, we will indeed leave them a lasting legacy.

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In a touching scene in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s well-loved children’s novel The Secret Garden, the fiery tempered young orphan Mary Lennox begins to win the heart of grief-stricken Mr. Archibald Craven with her simple request for “a bit of earth” for a garden. In the course of bringing the long-neglected walled garden back to life, Mary and her cousin Colin discover healing for themselves and those around them. The miracle of green and growing things works a wild kind of magic on their bruised souls.

I thought of Mary’s “bit of earth” when I read the story of Naaman’s healing in today’s first reading. This foreign military general was persuaded to seek healing from the Hebrew prophet and man of God by a young serving girl. Once he’s healed, he wants to give Elijah a gift but his request is refused. Instead, Naaman asks for two mule-loads of earth, which he regards as sacred ground from the land of Israel, the promised land, the place where God can rightly be worshiped.

A superficial reading of this story might suggest that Naaman is some- thing of an oddball, a man with pagan roots who sees some sort of magical properties in this pile of dirt. But there is an unmistakably primal significance to this gesture.

We are rooted, grounded people. We tend to identify with places, with geographical locations, even with bits of earth or bottles of water from sacred places. This is partly because we’re a sacramental people. The “stuff,” the matter of the sacraments, is an important part of the rituals: water, bread, oil, touch. And so it was for the Hebrews of Elijah’s day.

At times we over-spiritualize our faith and our religious life. This is in part because of the strong influence of Greek philosophy on the early Christians. Centuries of theologians and scholastics have further intellectualized Christianity. It’s good to have reminders like today’s readings that our faith needs to be grounded in the everyday realities of life.

Families have something of an advantage here. Finding ways to make religion concrete for small children can open up new ways of seeing, even for jaded adults. Setting up a small prayer altar in the home, even the simple act of lighting candles before mealtime prayers, can be reminders that God is really present with us at all times.

I sometimes find myself remembering such rituals from my childhood with great fondness, and feeling a need to return to similar rituals today to get out of my head and into celebrating the great gift of faith with my whole being. It need not be anything elaborate: a bowl of holy water by the door, a candle on the table, a picture of someone who made a difference in your journey to God. I have my own bit of earth, a bowl of sand from a fam- ily vacation spot. These things are ways to remember the God who gave us life, who made us whole, who healed us of the separation that marred human creation from the beginning of time.

We’re moving into late fall in the northern hemisphere, a time when the ground itself lies fallow and waiting. It’s a good time to give thanks for the beauty of our bit of earth and recognize that God’s grace and the hospitality of loved ones has carried us through another year.

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The lectionary selection from the Hebrew Scriptures for the 17th week of the year is one of my favorites. Listening to Abraham haggling with God like a trader in the bazaar reminds us that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have always seen God in relationship with the Chosen People. That relationship, of course, reached it purest manifestation in the incarnation. But from the beginning of Genesis, when God walks in the garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, the inspired writers show us a God who is both immanent and transcendent, near to us as we are to one another, but nevertheless the unbounded Creator.

When I think of bargaining with God, I usually have in mind a rather self-centered approach where I make all sorts of promises to God if he’ll get me out of some bind that I’ve gotten myself into or grant some deep-seated desire. On a more serious note, we know that bargaining is the third of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages that follow catastrophic news. It comes between anger and depression.

What I noticed this time through the Abraham story is that Abraham is not bargaining with what he will do or what the people will do. His bargaining chip is set squarely on who God is. He’s staked everything on God’s merciful love. And quite possibly on his sense of humor. The lectionary selection stops before the end of the story. As it turns out, not even ten innocent people were found in Sodom and Gomorrah, but God did save Abraham and Sarah and Abraham’s nephew Lot and his wife, thus remaining true to the covenant and true to the divine nature.

Abraham’s story, despite appearances, is one of coming to complete trust in the God who called him. And so is ours. In the Gospel, before Jesus tells the story of the man who woke his neighbor for three loaves of bread, he teaches us the way to rely on God for all that we need, beginning with the words, “Our Father.”  It reminds us of who God is and of who God is for us. And all it asks in return is that we accept the gifts he offers and offer those gifts to one another. One heck of a bargain when you think about it.

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All week in the lectionary we’ve been hearing the story of Abraham. His choice to enter into a covenant with God set the course for the Chosen People. His story is their story—and ours. We are heirs to the promise made to Abraham and the greater promise fulfilled in Christ. The Akedah (the binding of Isaac) has often been read as the story of the Jewish people. And Christian exegetes from the earliest days have seen it as  a type for the passion of Jesus, beginning with the Letter to the Hebrews (11:17-19).  The writers of our Scriptures had a long time to shape the story to reveal the divine truth of complete faith and total trust in God’s promise and plan. But it can also be read on a much more personal level, without detracting from its deeply symbolic significance.

In Wednesday’s reading from Genesis, we saw Abraham struggle to let go of Ishmael when Sarah insisted on banishing Hagar. Having let go of his firstborn, it must have been beyond excruciating to face the test of losing  Isaac as well. The years of waiting for this son, the joy at his birth, the fulfillment of all that God had promised, looked as though it was about to come crashing to an end. And one of the reasons this story resonates so deeply is that parents around the world face this unimaginable pain every day. Losing children to disease, accidents, war, starvation has been a fact of life from the beginning of time. Most parents would  willingly give their own lives for their children, and many have. To ask a parent to sacrifice a child—”take your son, your only son, the one whom you love”—is almost incomprehensible. The story of Abraham and Isaac—like the story of Jesus’ crucifixion—might ultimately be bearable only because we know the end of the story. We know that God’s love wins out over death. We believe that in the end, the promise is fulfilled and good does triumph. Without that, we have nothing but despair.

Let’s bring this idea  a little closer to home.  The big stories give us hope in our darkest hours. But the big stories can teach us something about our  everyday lives as well. Clinging to the people, even the things, that we love is a common human inclination. Learning to let go can take a lifetime. We may never be asked to face the death of a child. But all parents need to let their children live their own lives at some point. And that can be painful in its own way. Later in Genesis, we see Isaac struggle with his own sons, Jacob and Esau. And Jacob will in turn face the tragic loss of his best-loved son Joseph, perhaps because of his own favoritism. The patriarchs are remembered for God’s covenant with them, but even in the midst of their faith, their humanity is never  glossed over.

The Scriptures remind us again and again that others have faced the same struggles we face. And in the end, whether it’s the big letting go of someone we love deeply, a lesser letting go of a long-cherished dream, or something as trivial letting go of our plans for the day because of a change in the weather, what makes it possible is being willing to place ourselves in God’s hands and believe that the divine promise is greater than any of our human desires. If we begin with small things, working our way up to the bigger things in time, we might be ready when it’s time to let go of this life.

While the binding of Isaac was the climactic point of this week’s Genesis stories, it was followed by Sarah’s death in the fullness of time and Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah, reminding us of the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth that is both our human and divine destiny. When we know that we’re part of this story, we can begin to learn its lessons.

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Biblical Heroines

Yesterday’s reading was the akedah (the binding of Isaac), and I have some thoughts on it, but they’re not in order yet. In the meantime, here’s a Beliefnet quiz. I wasn’t a bit surprised at my results. (HT to Brittany).

Quiz: Which Bible Heroine Are You?

You scored 52, on a scale of 0 to 100. Here’s how to interpret your score:
0 – 20
Like Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth or Mary, mother of Jesus, you are reflective, gentle, and devoted to your family.
21 – 50
Active and home-oriented, your personality recalls Sarah, Esther or Martha.
51 – 70
Strong and decisive, you’re a lot like the warrior Judith or the purposeful Mary Magdalene.
71 – 100
You’re asking for a smiting, girl! Like Delilah, you get what you want–no matter who you have to deceive.

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The lectionary readings for this 13th Sunday of the year, at least the first and the third, are linked by the image of a plow. In the reading from Kings, Elijah calls Elisha to follow him by throwing his mantle over his shoulders. Elisha leaves his plow and tells the great prophet, “Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye and I will follow you.” Elijah ignores him. Elisha then slaughters and cooks the oxen, using the plowing equipment for fuel for the fire (the hyperbole here is not likely to escape the original listeners). He feeds his people and then follows Elijah.

For Elisha to simply say farewell to his family wasn’t enough in Elijah’s eyes. He was looking for a total commitment. Elijah never did anything by halves. He comes upon Elisha after the tumultuous rout of the 500 prophets of Baal, a time of near despair in the wilderness, and a theophany in the form of a still, small voice. The successor God has appointed for him better hang onto his hat. He’s in for a wild ride.

Similarly in the gospel, Jesus challenges—almost taunts—those who would follow him, reminding them that he hasn’t even a cave to call home. He has set his course. He’s on the road to Jerusalem, to his destiny. Many have commented on the somewhat enigmatic line, “Let the dead bury the dead” and how strong a command the burial of the dead and honoring of parents was in the Law. What struck me about this passage, though, was the relentless forward movement. Once he’s headed to Jerusalem, Jesus isn’t going to let anything get in his way. And he uses the image of the plow in a way that would also be familiar to his listeners. Something else might be pulling the plow, but it’s the responsibility of the person holding its handles to keep it straight and true.

The two readings together remind me of the better know fish story when Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets because he will make them fishers of men. Here, we see Elisha leaving his plowing equipment to follow Elijah in the prophet’s mission, one that Jesus will describe as a metaphorical furrow.

Maybe it’s where I find my life heading these days, but what I hear in these readings is that God finds a way to use our work to accomplish his work. The Spirit provides the energy, the fuel, the inspiration. Our job is to hold true to our course. And the only way we can do this is by facing forward. Looking back leads only to confusion. Whatever we’ve learned from our experiences, from our families, from our past has brought us to today. The important thing now is to move into the future. It takes a lot to pull us forward. Maybe it’s only the hand of God that can really keep up steady. And so this might be a time to burn our plow, our bridges, anything that holds us back from wholeheartedly embracing the future God has in store for us. And I suspect we’ll be surprised when we find ourselves doing much the same work in a different context with a new goal.

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