Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Widow's Two Coins

A good friend wrote a comment on my earlier piece: "Diminishing Kindness in America," and here's my reply:

G'morning Judy - read your comment on the blog, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. The Jeremiah quote, btw, is in Mark 11.17 - Jesus cites Jeremiah's complaint that folks have turned the temple into a den of robbers - a place where robbers go after their crimes to find safety, only to prepare again for further crimes.

With regard to the widow, one of the problems with preaching is isolating a passage from its context, and then adding "value" to it to suit our own interests. Mark places the widow's story immediately after Jesus warns the disciples about the scribes, or legal experts, who devour widows' homes. When Jesus describes the widow, I hear compassion for her plight ("all she has to live on) - because she's giving to a system that plays upon her piety, her faithfulness, her love of God. But to lift this passage from its context and isolate it, and then turn it into a "Hallmark Card" moment misses the point - while she may be a woman of great virtue (that we really don't know), she's a victim of a system that has made religion a business and business a religion.

You mention kindness and government - and that's the very link Jeremiah makes - Jeremiah 5.27-31 and Jeremiah 7.5-7. He's very clear, and so is Jesus, how the system is weighted in favor of the wealthy, and their increasing wealth (see Isaiah 5.8-13).

It's a matter of social kindness, not just personal. Offering a temporary job to someone is very different than a system that provides steady jobs, with good salaries and the appropriate safety nets that folks need for their children and their health, including public transportation, job-security (a boss just can't fire them at will) and the hope for a secure retirement.

Judy, in my world and travels and ministry, I have never met a lazy poor person - I've met folks working two and three jobs, getting up at 3 in the morning to ride buses to a job that starts at 7, and then when the bus schedule fails, they lose their job. I've met poor people who are sick and still work endless hours for small wages, who put up with insult and injury, who weep about their children, and can't sleep at night. I've met poor people who never had good families to rear them, who had no friends or relatives to bail them out when they failed (and who hasn't been bailed out a time or two by their family, or their friends?).

Judy, there is so much wrong with our system right now, and it's getting worse, and we are failing the very people whom Jeremiah notes: the alien, the widow and the orphan.

As for Christians, we have to read Jesus a whole lot more, and we have to read the prophets upon whom Jesus relied. On the Mt. of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were there, not David. Moses and Elijah are both prophets (to simply call Moses a representative of the law - Reformation theology - misses the point). Elijah's presence is best understood when Ahab calls him a "troubler of Israel," and Elijah fires back, "Not me buddy; it's you!" And Moses is the one who confronted Pharaoh and set the people free, leading them through the wilderness, with God providing for them (hardly a do-it-yourself proposition, because God is kind).

Anyway, I stand by what I wrote about the widow, because of Mark's context and how Jesus referes to Jeremiah. Luke has the same setting: Luke 20.45-47, and then 21.1-4 ... when Jesus says, "all she has to live on," it's a sad comment on a cruel system that will never honor her, or provide for her, but only take her home when she can't climb out of her debt (which was how most homes were taken, and if she's a widow, then she likely has debt).

Judy, I appreciate the length and quality of your reply, and I appreciate the struggles of your soul on these matters. That you and I should be FB friends is a gift - when I was in South Africa recently, I was talking with some Dutchmen there, and we all had a good laugh when I said, "If you're not Dutch, you're not much!"

Carry on the good fight!

To God be the glory!


Friday, February 24, 2012

Diminishing Kindness in America

I see one of our nation’s greatest attributes diminishing - kindness.
We’re known around the world for kindness, but I see this quality of character taking quite a beating under the onslaught of t-party values and right-wing crabbiness, with far too many Christians either ignoring the progressive loss of kindness or, worse, cheering it on in some kind of an upside-down misconstrual of the gospel.

And this worries me.

As it did Jeremiah, as he watched his beloved nation slide further and further into a very dark hole, wherein the wealthy were privileged and living in pleasure and three representative categories of people were slipping deeper into distress.

Jeremiah identifies three groups who are the victims of his nation’s greed - aliens, widows and orphans. People who ordinarily have no social voice or economic clout. Only a nation with compassion and kindness will address their needs. But as Judah slipped further away from God, all the while claiming to be righteous (“The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” - Jeremiah 7), compassion died on the vine before a harvest.

Jesus quotes Jeremiah in the context of his condemnation of the temple, and his instructive warning to beware of the scribes, or legal experts, who devour widows’ homes and then say long prayers. When Jesus sits by the treasury to watch people depositing their money, nothing how easily the wealthy drop in large sums, while noting a widow who puts in her last two copper coins, he notes her situation, not as an example of giving, nor does he lift up her virtue as a giver, but she’s a victim of a heartless system that would willingly take “all she has on which to live,” and put into a treasury that can only benefit the already-wealthy. Indeed, she’s a singular example of those widows whose homes are being devoured by the legal experts for the sake of the wealthy.

All of this dressed up in religion: the use of religion to bless business, and the transformation of business into religion.

We have taken the very people Jeremiah identifies as vulnerable, and the victimized widow of Mark, and turned them into “bad people” who are parasites on the system, lazy and irresponsible, depriving the upper-crust of their self-proclaimed share of the pie.

That some should feel this way is a contradiction of our better angels, so to speak, a denial of something vital to America’s identity. But what truly disappoints me is the failure of Christians to identify this decline and lament it’s loss in the American character.

Sadly, a lot of Christians have bought the story of the t-party as if it were the gospel, and it makes no sense whatsoever, for nothing could be further from the gospel than the bitterness and crabbiness of the t-party and right-wing ranters. Their childish complaints about government and their idolization of the wealthy as “job-providers” doesn’t square at all with history, nor does it reflect anything of the Gospel.
Furthermore, it’s a message being proclaimed in many pulpit, but then, many a pulpit has become nothing more than a message-chair to ease the pains of the life and give us a good night’s sleep. Preachers go on and on about marriage, children, success and self-esteem, while Jesus slips further into the shadows of our forgetfulness.

Yes, this disturbs me deeply.

But my greatest distress is the failure of so many Christians to do anything about it.

Proclaiming the Kingdom

If the church had proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and seriously prayed the Lord's Prayer, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, rather than eternal salvation and the sweet by-and-by, there never would have been a slave trade, or an Andrew Jackson, a "good" Presbyterian, ordering the expulsion of the Cherokee from the Carolinas, nor would there ever have been two World Wars fought by Christian against Christian. Had the church proclaimed the Kingdom of God, Christians would have never tolerated such inhumanity or violence.

With eternal life the goal, no one really cared about the earth and its creatures. Without the kingdom at the center of the church's life, greed and violence rose up and took command. And the clergy, often the beneficiaries of the wealthy, blessed the status quo, promised salvation to the masses, and enjoyed the privilege of the few.

Is this what Jesus had in mind when he announced the Kingdom of God?

Oh well, I'm just saying ...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Are Christians-Protestants Dumb?

Are Christians dumb?

Protestants dumb?

I don't know ... but sometimes I think so.

Is this a religious problem?

Or a cultural problem?

Or is it just me?

Am I arrogant?

Or am I dumb?

Or a little or a lot of both?

I've spent 42 years in ministry, but someone recently noted, "time in the saddle doesn't mean anything."

Then I think of writers like Borg and Wright and Crossan and Bass - are they dumb, too?

Well, if everyone's dumb, that's that.

But if only some are dumb, then what?

Are there people who have a more coherent understanding of the gospel?

Of the Bible?

Of religious history?

And how it works in the mind and spirit of humankind?

Is there such thing as learning?

Or wisdom?

I've spent my entire career in pursuit of learning.

Not that I'm an intellectual - far from it.

Not that I know anything - unlikely that I do.

But I've pursued knowledge.






And books - tons of books ... more than I could ever read, but I've read more than I would have, because of all the books.

But what do I know?

Yet I think to myself, "There must be standards" or do we live in Alice's Rabbit Hole?

There must be some measure of knowledge when it comes to religion.

Or faith.

Is there any kind of reality in our "reality"?

Is there something enduring and true and good?

Beyond the momentary moments of my life?

Your life?

Our life together?

I don't know.

I think so.

And if there are, then what?

Is there something to know?

And what happens if we don't know?

Are there some who know?

And others who don't?

Then let's get to work.

I guess that's why some called Jesus Rabbi.

He was, after all, a teacher.

With authority.

Who pointed beyond the common wisdom of the day.

Beyond religious convention.

Beyond the sheep and the goats and the temple.

Beyond land and dietary laws.

I think he pointed beyond the things that make people dumb.

So that folks might know the glory of a living God.

A covenant of peace and wholeness and healing and hope.

A covenant that always requires people to pack up and move along.

Rather than settle down and stay put.

A covenant that requires some rootlessness to be rooted in God.

I think Jesus taught that.

And if he's a living presence, and that may be the case, then he still teaches that.

And by the Spirit, if that be the case.

I don't think Jesus was dumb.