Archive for August, 2014

DEUTERONOMY 11:18-21, 26-28

18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.

In ancient Israel, two traditions ran side by side and had different things to say about the nature of God, our human condition, the meaning of salvation, and the responsibility each of us carries.

One tradition was centered on Mt. Sinai and the other on Mt. Zion; one featured Moses as the ideal while the other venerated David; one represented the relationship between God and humans as a bilateral covenant whereas the other saw it as based on a unilateral and unconditional divine promise; one held special affection for the poor and downtrodden, as the other tended to favor persons of clout and privilege; finally, one was dedicated to the Torah (ethical teachings) and produced the prophets while the other was chiefly concerned with the Temple and its political ties to the Throne, promoting the vocation of priests.

All of the terms in bold text above represent the web of values that makes the Old Testament such a complicated collection of writings. Through the centuries, and in response to major events such as the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 BCE and the Babylonian captivity of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, these two traditions and their different voices were gradually stitched together in one “grand narrative.” Even so, the stitching seams are rough and still obvious in places, and occasional contradictions can trip up the attentive reader.

Deuteronomy is the principal document of the tradition featuring Mt. Sinai, Moses, the bilateral covenant (more on that in a moment), concern for the oppressed, the Law code of the Ten Commandments, and prophets as agitators of the status quo. The status quo – then and now – refers to a tendency of the political and religious establishment to suck resources away from those who desperately need them, making their situation more desperate still, as insiders enjoy comfort and ease. It often happens as well that an established religion can grow morally complacent and actually work to keep out those who don’t fit in the group.

This so-called Deuteronomic tradition understood God’s protection and provision as conditional upon the people’s faith and obedience to the teachings of Torah. God would do his part, but in return he expected them to keep a sharp ethical edge on their faith. Their diligence in following the way of God as explained in the Law, and teaching their children to do the same, would bring them long life and prosperity. For this reason the agreement is technically a conditional covenant, holding together around the “if/then” clause: If you do this, then I will do that. If you don’t, then the deal is off.

The Old Testament contrast of these two traditions showed up later in Christianity as the tension between “faith alone” and “works righteousness,” belief versus action. Is it enough to have faith, or is salvation dependent on our living out what we believe? If we practice compassion and benevolent outreach, is it still necessary to believe the “right” things?

This voice of the Bible answers: It’s not what’s in your head or even in your heart that ultimately counts; salvation is something you need to work out in daily action. God loves the poor more than he cares for priests and politicians!

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PSALM 46

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Religion is often criticized as so much whistling in the dark. Under the harsh and unforgiving conditions of mortality, human beings have a desperate need to believe they are supported by providence and that their existence doesn’t just end in oblivion. The plain fact of the matter is that we’re thrown into existence and fall out of it without so much as a sigh of indifference from the universe.

Now it may be true that religion frequently ascribes to its god more supremacy and control over what’s going on than he or she genuinely deserves. To an outsider it can sometimes sound as if God is nothing more than a personification of what the ancient Greeks named Fate – the universal principle or ultimate agency by which the order of things is presumably prescribed: a.k.a. “God’s sovereign plan.” Such belief in an absolute necessity behind everything is at least more comforting than the idea of it all as random and utterly pointless.

But maybe it’s not human insecurity that best explains the phenomenon of religion. Could it be that a mystical insight rather than neurotic anxiety underlies our many concepts of God? Perhaps it’s not primarily our fear of death that compelled the first thought and stories of God. More likely it was the intuition that our existence is grounded in a present mystery we cannot explain, but which supports us, inhabits us, confronts us, and transcends us in the marvelous adventure of being alive.

What’s more, this present mystery is provident – for here you are! The breath in your lungs, the beat of your heart, your living body and the countless life-lines connecting you to the earth and its moon, to our Sun and the spinning planets, into the galaxy and out to that One Song (uni-verse) that’s been topping the charts now for the past 15 billion years – all of it is conspiring to open a window of awareness on this very moment.

You blink, and it opens again.