* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

2 Chronicles 26: Entitlement, Fear of Irrelevance, and Spiritual Leprosy

I am fairly talented at a few things. Yet, when I see a real expert doing something impressive -- something that person has most likely practiced doing for thousands and thousands of hours -- there are times when I think, "I wish I could do that." Maybe that's indicative of typical human dissatisfaction, or maybe it's based on some imagined system in which some areas of expertise are more valuable than others. Perhaps we sometimes devalue those things that come easily to us, or those things that are expected of us, and convince ourselves that we need to diversify, expand our areas of competence, continually become more. The implication is that we are not enough -- that, whatever we are able to do today, we are on the brink of being irrelevant.

Consider 2 Kings 15, in which the historian runs through a series of rulers of Judah and Israel spanning about 50 years in one rapid fire chapter. The first of these is Azariah, or Uzziah, who gets a much lengthier treatment by the Chronicler in 2 Chronicles 25. The Hebrew scriptures claim that Uzziah was king of Judah for 52 years, but it may have been closer to 40 years. Historians often have a difficult time making biblical chronology line up with what is known about actual history. All told, he was a pretty good ruler -- until (according to the story) being king wasn't enough.

Uzziah saw that people were cared for in Judah, maintaining the country with a sense of justice and integrity. He brought a few neighboring nations under Judah's control through military force, which brought in more resources in the form of taxes from those conquered peoples, and Uzziah used Judah's resources to build protective towers for his people and to provide cisterns for vinedressers and farmers. Then, one day, at the height of his strength, he decided that he would do the job of the priests, and (again, according to the story) was struck with leprosy that lasted the rest of his life. Due to the stigma against leprosy at the time, he was ostracized from his people.

Maybe Uzziah was acting out of a sense of entitlement. Maybe he thought, "I'm the king; I can do whatever I want." Or maybe he believed at some level that he was irrelevant. It seems far-fetched, given everything that he accomplished for his nation, but some of the most powerful people develop unexpected self-esteem issues. Whatever his motivation, Uzziah's actions robbed himself of the satisfaction of ruling Judah, and it robbed the people he served of his competent leadership. In fact, looking ahead to the brief account of Jotham (Uzziah's son) in 2 Chronicles 27, Jotham was an upstanding fellow, but he didn't have much moral or ethical influence over the people he ruled. When Uzziah made a misstep, it affected a lot of people.

Some would say that this is true of all leaders -- that whatever a leader does has an impact on a lot of other people. I would say that this is true of everyone. We just notice it more in the lives of more visible people. None of us is irrelevant, and as long as we are connected to other people, we cannot become irrelevant. A society does not thrive because it is comprised of individuals who can do everything equally well. A society thrives because many people who have individual skills and talents are meaningfully connected to one another. Forging deeper connections with people is more beneficial than entertaining fears of irrelevance.

At the same time, we are also in danger of believing that we are entitled to special treatment. We don't like thinking that we may be slighted or cheated out of some opportunity or privilege. Uzziah may have thought that he could do things that other people shouldn't be allowed to do, just because he was king. Some people today think that they deserve special treatment for all sorts of reasons. Others think that their children deserve special treatment, which is a sort of entitlement by proxy, I suppose. Some people are powerful or persuasive enough to benefit from their sense of entitlement. This might even trigger a sense of entitlement in other people -- people who think that they are suffering an injustice because they missed out on some opportunity or privilege. For some reason, we can all fall prey to a belief that we deserve more than we have.

A society cannot support such attitudes indefinitely, though. At some point, we must recognize our own abundance and strive for equity on a larger scale rather than feed our individual sense of entitlement. When we cry, "It's not fair!" about a social injustice, it carries a little more weight than when we are commenting on the circumstances of our own lives. One of the essential ingredients to a commendable society in the Hebrew scriptures is justice, which means that all people are treated equally. Ideally, this even meant that debts should be forgiven after a certain amount of time and that the people of Judah should not keep fellow Jews as slaves. Judah didn't live up to this ideal in practical reality, but throughout the prophets there is a cry for justice and equity. This did not mean that everyone looked out for themselves and defended their own personal entitlement to equal treatment; it meant that people were supposed to look out for one another. The intention was that every individual would be intentional about treating people with equity and compassion.

We are not likely to be stricken with leprosy, but we can suffer a kind of spiritual leprosy -- a weakening of our sense of self and our relationships with other people that can even be contagious. There are some real negative consequences to constantly fighting irrelevancy or defending what we think we deserve. We will always see people who are highly capable in ways that we are not. We will always be able to find some way in which somebody "got away with" something or received some opportunity or privilege that we envy. Being driven by fear or a sense of entitlement will only yield more frustration and anger for us, though. Looking around in our lives for ways in which we can bring equity and compassion forward for others not only engages us in creatively using our unique capabilities in highly relevant ways, but it has the potential to transform the lives of other people. This, in turn, can ultimately lead to a more equitable society, which benefits everyone.  

At the core of every person is a deep awareness of truth, an undeniable beauty, and a phenomenal reserve of creativity. No person can truly become irrelevant. At the same time, no person truly deserves more than any other person. When we recognize the inherent value of ourselves and of every person around us, we can engage our creativity in profoundly satisfying and meaningful ways. We can create something that can never be built from fears about ourselves or a preoccupation with what we think we deserve.

What are you building?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mark 7:1-23: Giving Up Righteousness in Favor of Connection

Returning to the gospel narrative of Mark, we find the character of Jesus confronted by his caricaturish nemeses, "the Pharisees and teachers of the law." As one would expect, Jesus not only repels their accusation, but turns their words and behavior back on them and sends them away soundly rebuked. The Pharisees in first century Judaism were something of a political party, religious sect, and social movement. They were often in conflict with the Sadducees, who were more aristocratic, largely controlled activities at the temple, and were cooperative with the Roman government. Although neither sect represented a majority of Jewish people, the Pharisees were more connected to the interpretation of Jewish spirituality in everyday life, and were thus more connected to the people than the elite Sadducees. After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, it was the thinking of the Pharisees that most contributed to Rabbinic Judaism, which was the basis for most modern iterations of Judaism.

In the particular episode reflected in Mark 7:1-23, the Pharisees are challenging Jesus based on their understanding of purity laws. Through highly ritualized daily practices, the Pharisees kept their spiritual identities at the forefront of their thought, infusing all that they did with spiritual meaning. That was the idea, at least. Unfortunately, as the author of Mark points out, living a highly stylized life can leave something to be desired in terms of human value and ethics. The Pharisees advocated allowing people to withhold wealth and possessions from needy family members if that wealth was dedicated to the temple. It was a loophole that allowed people to excuse themselves from taking care of their families, and also allowed the church to accumulate wealth when those people died. In the meantime, people kept enjoying the "dedicated" resources. It was a system that fed into people's greed, which is just a specific kind of fear.

When the Pharisees challenged Jesus based on the fact that he didn't engage in all of the ceremonial behaviors they advocated, he levied this matter of Corban against them to demonstrate their hypocrisy. This was just one facet of a larger picture, however. Ultimately, the author of Mark suggests that the entire worldview of the Pharisees was skewed. Living in accordance to a personal code of purity does nothing to connect one to other people or to oneself. There are no bonus points in life for being borderline obsessive-compulsive about hand-washing. What actually matters is what one does with one's time and energy.

Brought into focus for the twenty-first century, the author of Mark is saying that it doesn't matter if you go to church, contribute to charities, pray before your meals, put the right bumper stickers on your car, read a devotional every morning, or engage in any other "spiritual" behaviors that ultimately might just make you feel good about yourself. What matters is what we do in the world, how we treat the people around us, what kind of a difference we make in other people's lives -- our fruit. All of the spiritual disciplines or holy habits that people might engage in can be fertilizer, but what matters most is what we produce in the practical realities of our lives. If we don't bear any meaningful fruit, all we've really got is a ton of fertilizer.

So, rather than pride ourselves in how well-behaved we are or how well we have colored inside the lines of our lives, our focus could be on how we respond to the opportunities we have to connect with other people and make a difference in the world -- even if that difference only seems to directly impact one other person. Helping one person's day go more smoothly might actually have a greater ripple effect than we will ever realize. But if we go through our lives willing to help one person's day go more smoothly, we are going to wind up having a positive impact on more than one person.

Being connected to ourselves is important too; we need time for introspection and we operate best when we are aware of our deep guiding principles. Those things are empty, however, if they never feed into an outward expression of the kind of people we most want to be in the world. We have the potential to create a world that is characterized by justice, equity, and compassion. It just requires being intentional about what we do, and perhaps shifting our focus away from being righteous and toward being connected.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Jeremiah 8:8-12: Condemning of Sweet, Empty Words and Overconfident Entitlement

In the midst of a move and other time-consuming life events, this week is a bit out of sequence and a bit on the scholarly side perhaps, but I trust that you will ask for clarification where needed. If you want the short version, read the brief Jeremiah passage and then skip to the last three paragraphs!
Although scholars do not universally agree about the literary seams of Jer 8 (as is largely the case with the entire book of Jeremiah), the poetry of vv. 8–12 paints a clear and concise picture of the delinquency of pre-exilic Jewish society and the resulting consequences. While determining a specific date of composition for these verses is nigh on impossible, they fit well with the circumstances of Jehoiakim’s reign, during which time Jeremiah is known to have experienced conflict with priests and prophets.[1] It is conceivable that some of the consequences indicated in this passage refer to Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem in the wake of Jehoiakim’s refusal to pay taxes. An astute observer might have foretold such a predictable military act, or the text might have been written after the fact as a means of explaining history through a theological lens. In any case, this passage, like much of the book of Jeremiah, holds a warning against overconfidence that still has value for twenty-first century leaders.

Historically, Babylon posed a clear and present danger, but many religious authorities in Judah were apparently confident to the point of prideful entitlement. One reason for this overconfidence may have been Isaiah’s encouraging words from a century earlier, but a message appropriate for one place and time is not necessarily appropriate for all places and times.[2] Spiritual discernment requires willingness to assess one’s reality honestly, which some of the religious leaders of late Judah were apparently lacking. According to Jer 8:8, they believed that the only wisdom required was the wisdom of a written law (although there is some debate about what this written law may actually have been). Jeremiah recognized that the law was subject to interpretation. Whether out of ignorance, fear, or greed, the interpreters of the law were straying from its original intent, and thus were compromising its intended results, a just society characterized by deep and abiding peace.

Jer 8:9–10 warns that such misinterpretations cannot continue indefinitely; there are consequences for only seeing what one wants to see and ignoring one’s reality. Some of those results could be seen in Judah’s social ills, fraught with greed and injustice at every level of society, but specifically among those individuals who were supposed to lead and guide people. The ultimate consequences, however, would be much more devastating: the brutal rape of wives that accompanies being conquered by a foreign army, the confiscation of property that follows being occupied by another nation, and (although Jeremiah does not say so explicitly in this passage) the destruction of the symbolic heart of a people’s spiritual identity.

Judah had deep self-inflicted wounds, and yet those people who were in positions to correct policies and practices that denigrated people were enjoying the temporary benefits of those wounds too much to inspire change. Their habitual moral self-mutilation had gone on for so long that it had become the norm; it was impossible for the people of Judah to see the problems with their trajectory because they were in the thick of what seemed like normal life. It was impossible for them to feel appropriate shame or guilt, and thus it was impossible for them to correct their course enough to make any meaningful difference by the time they saw the crest of consequence on the horizon. To the religious mind of one like Jeremiah, it might seem that the natural results of international conflict were divine punishments carried out by a just god who could not allow insubordination to go unaddressed.

Those who spoke to the society on behalf of Yahweh exacerbated the situation. In the face of clumsy, self-inflicted spiritual amputations throughout Judean society, the spiritual leaders continued to promise that everything was just fine. For whatever reason, they continued to proclaim a message of shalom when reality was proclaiming a very different message. These so-called prophets spoke words that people wanted to hear rather than words that were spiritually authentic. According to Jeremiah, such prophets practiced deceit, and they probably received popular approval as a result. While the book of Jeremiah is frankly critical of these prophets, there is no clear indication that every prophet who spoke about deep and lasting peace was benefitting by living a luxurious lifestyle. Their misguided proclamations may not have been intentionally malicious but may have been mere lack of awareness, fueled by the same sense of confident entitlement that characterized Judah’s culture. The cries of “peace, peace” may have been their own way of clinging to the promises of Yahweh as they understood those promises, even in the midst of what seemed to be contradictory circumstances.

Textually, Jer 8:10b–12 is nearly identical to Jer 6:13–15, and while there is some disagreement about which passage was written “first,” the LXX [the early Greek translation of the Old Testament] reflects the verses only in Jer 6. This may mean that later editors saw a thematic connection and attached to Jer 8 a poem from elsewhere in a collection of Jeremiah sayings, but it is equally possible that LXX redactors removed repetitive material for reasons unknown. It is clear that both contexts reflect a pervasive interest throughout the book of Jeremiah in addressing false prophecy. Indeed, the LXX is distinct from the MT in its use of the term pseudoprophÄ“tÄ“s (“false prophets”) later in the book (Jer 26–29).[3] The accusation against such false prophets in Jer 8 is that they convey an attractive message of peace and well-being rather than an honest message that addresses the realities of Judah’s culture, specifically pervasive injustice, apostasy, and greed.

Other threads of commonality connect this poetic passage with sections of prose in other sections of Jeremiah, such as that found in Jer 14:11–16. In this later prose passage, the specific message of shalom is additionally articulated as freedom from the sword, famine, and disease, and it is clear that the false prophets proclaiming this overconfident entitlement to special treatment from Yahweh will fall prey to the specific dangers of sword, famine, disease—incidentally the very threats that accompany the siege of a city by a foreign military force. This related prose passage in Jer 14 is the third and final ban on intercession that appears in the book as it has been assembled.[4] The first such ban appears in Jer 7, and in that earliest instance there is still some reluctance implied on the part of Yahweh; by contrast, Jer 14 reflects a deity with no internal struggle about the consequences of Judah’s decisions. Thus, Jer 8:8–12 appears within a pattern of escalation, as Yahweh is depicted as having growing conviction about the imminent fall of Jerusalem and his chosen people.

Regarding these bans against intercession and the escalating pattern of conviction in which they appear, Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer wonders whether God is “safeguarding his plans of destruction against his own compassion,”[5] and while this is a quaint thought that serves to defend God against accusations of cold-hearted wrath, it is unlikely that this was in the mind of the original writers of Jeremiah. It is clear that the ultimate consequences of societal collapse and exile were the direct result of human behavior within the culture of Judah. Prophets may look at reality honestly and seek to find God in the midst of it, but it is somewhat gratuitous to read into the book of Jeremiah an actual deity who is trying to suppress his true compassionate nature in order to carry out the effective and disciplined punishment of a good parent. Besides, later in Jeremiah, the compassion of Yahweh is expressed without reservation; there is no reason to ameliorate the sting of devastating consequences by reading into the text a hidden compassion longing to be expressed.

Reading one’s own concept of God into the text is inevitable in many ways, however. It is worth considering that, like Tiemeyer, the false prophets denounced in Jeremiah were simply reconciling their own perspectives with what they read. There is nothing inherently wicked or malicious in being limited by common human blind spots. If one reads promises attributed to one’s god, and if one believes wholeheartedly in the veracity of that god, then one is quite likely to conclude that no action by mere humans can counteract divine will. On the contrary, it is understandable why such people would look upon Jeremiah as the apostate if his words seemed to reflect a lack of faith in promises made by a completely trustworthy deity. People can ultimately only believe in their own concept of God, and once one has a firmly established understanding of God, that concept changes only with great difficulty.

An underlying accusation in Jeremiah is against the whole of society, not just those authority figures who have established a flawed interpretation of law. False prophets will be among the fallen in Jer 8:12, but they will not wholly comprise those who fall. Thus, it is inherent in Jeremiah’s message that people have a personal responsibility with regard to their own spiritual integrity; it is not enough to claim that a prophet spoke it, and thus it is unquestionable. If a society has become rotten, the members of that society share the blame. Proclaiming what people want to hear is only a path to power and comfort if the people are willing to reward sweet words without practicing a bit of scrutiny and discernment. False prophets cannot last long in a society of people who reward honesty and spiritual insight, even though there might be some challenge involved in doing so.

The cards were stacked against Judah in some ways, however. Earlier generations had passed down some seemingly unconditional promises attributed to Yahweh, and people who were supposedly trusted authorities with specialized knowledge and insight had established their religious practices. Their covenantal code, although rife with capital offenses, also suggested that most wrongdoing could be overcome if appropriate ritual actions were taken. For whatever reason, the people of Judah had succumbed to an ethnocentric pride and an unwarranted sense of entitlement and superiority, and—as with one’s concept of God—it is very difficult to take those glasses off once they have been worn for a little while. Jeremiah was trying to change the prescription lenses of people who believed that their city was made of emerald, but through the lenses he was offering, everything seemed to be made of pig iron. It was bound to be a tough sell.

It is possible to leave the words of Jeremiah in their historical context and assume that their value was for an ancient people in a set of circumstances that is utterly foreign to the twenty-first century Western world. Yet, for all of the progress that has been made since the days of ancient Judah, there are still gaping, self-inflicted societal and spiritual wounds that go unaddressed. While there is likely to be some debate about the identity of the most grievous of those wounds, some likely candidates are not very different from Jeremiah’s observations of economic injustice and greed. The primary difference is that the world has become much more blatantly interconnected than it was in the days of Jeremiah, with an economic reality that affects most of the world’s population in some way. While the twenty-first reality of interconnectedness is impossible to deny, most of the world still seems to exist in a tribal state of mind. That tribalism is also evident within the United States (and probably other nations) as adherents to varied religious ideologies—even assorted Christian denominations—vie for recognition, or even dominance, proclaiming whatever seems most attractive to people without really taking the practical steps to heal, connect, and uphold people. There is real work to be done in the world, and it is perhaps impossible to do that work sincerely while marketing one’s faith or defending one’s beliefs.

There are also still people who cry various things with prophetic-sounding voices, and it may be worth considering which of those cries are like the “peace, peace” of those whom Jeremiah criticized so harshly. Perhaps those who proclaim God’s favor with nationalistic pride would be somewhat tempered if they understood Jeremiah’s criticism more fully. The same tempering might also apply to those who blithely pronounce God’s desire for believers to be healthy and wealthy, with the added implication that God has chosen not to favor people who are not healthy and wealthy. Without demonizing every message of hope and peace, it would seem prudent to approach spiritual messages with a discerning sense of personal responsibility. Indeed, Jer 8:8–12 seems to suggest that failure to exercise such discernment can result in consequences unmitigated by divine intervention.

Other twenty-first century prophets are crying out messages that sound much closer to Jeremiah’s, at least on a first hearing. There have been cries for the creation story of some Christian sects to be taught in public schools alongside or in place of scientific theories regarding natural processes. There have been cries (sounding in some cases remarkably similar to Jeremiah’s declarations) that natural disasters or diseases are punishments on the wicked, mostly clearly exemplified in the early days of the AIDS crisis and in the wake of some recent hurricanes. These examples possess at least one subtle distinction from the call to integrity inherent in Jer 8:8–12 and similar passages. Many twenty-first century prophets seem to assert their inward beliefs or morality on external systems, insisting that people who are not a part of the Christian belief system must still abide by its standards. This is strikingly dissimilar to Jeremiah’s admonition for the people of Judah to be impeccable in their own lives. If one were to translate the cry of Jeremiah into a twenty-first century context, rather than pronouncing doom and judgment on those deemed outsiders by a Christian subculture, one would address the hearts and behavior of those who consider themselves part of the “chosen” people of God. This would require new lenses for many people, however, and one is still likely to find those who, like the people of Judah, prefer to see their world from an ideal perspective up until the moment that it collapses.

1. Jack R. Lundbom, Jeremiah 1–20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 21a of The Anchor Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 432.
2. Walter Brueggemann, The Theology of the Book of Jeremiah. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2007), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 2, Loc. 1239–1247.
3. Lundbom, 430.
4. Leslie Allen, Jeremiah: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library. (Louisville: Westminster
John Knox Press, 2008), 167.
5. Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer, "God's hidden compassion," Tyndale Bulletin 57, no. 2 (January 1, 2006), 212.