Karl Barth on Samuel, Saul, and the Divine Condescension of Election

Divine sovereignty and election are the manner in which God reveals his humility in contrast to, and as a solution to, human pride, according to Karl Barth. He offers an illustration in his exegesis of 1 Samuel 8-31 (found in the Church Dogmatics, IV/1, pp. 437-445). The people went to Samuel and demanded a king. But “from 1 Sam. 8 we see clearly that the existence and function of a human king in Israel are alien and indeed contrary to the original conception of the covenant … The Judges of an earlier period, of whom Samuel was the last, were called to their work directly by God and as the need arose” (p. 438). Given that kings are contrary to the covenant (a claim which Barth defends quite extensively), it is surprising that God agrees to their demand. “Indeed Yahweh Himself undertakes the election and appointment of a king for Israel, and Samuel, for his part, can only be the instrument of this election and appointment which obviously contradict everything that has gone before and the Law which Israel has followed” (p. 439). The text makes clear that God is not changing his mind about the covenant (Barth cites 1 Sam. 15:29f), rather,

According to 1 Sam. 8:18 even God’s connivance and condescension to the people in this matter are simply an act of judgment: “And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” God gave them up (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28) to their own hearts’ desire, to their perverted judgment. He punished their sin by their sin, simply letting it take its course. But that is not good at all, and it is not the decisive point. The grace of God is not extinguished or withdrawn in this His apparent concession. He knows very well what He is will and doing when He accedes to the perverted judgment of Israel its place and possibility. Even in accepting Israel’s plan He can master it. (p. 439)

Even in the midst of his condescension (and we might add humiliation) in the face of the request, God continues with his plan.

[T]he kingship was to express the monarchy and the sole lordship of the grace of God. This was the purpose of the divine concession to Israel’s sinful and perverted demand. It is a concession in which Yahweh not only maintains His control but exercises it in a new way. He does not give up His will and plan. He carries it through in the face of and in opposition to Israel’s sin.

Of course Saul didn’t carry out his side of the deal and (as Barth goes on to explain in no small detail). Rather than serve the people, he began to make demands of the people so that the people began to serve the institution. Saul even sought to usurp the prophetic role. This ultimately leads to Saul’s downfall and death (in stark contrast to Aaron, who did as the people told him and led them into apostasy, but never usurped the role of Moses). Although we have the interlude of David, the second king who was also elected by God and anointed by Samuel, Saul, not David, was the precursor of things to come. The monarchy turned out to be a disaster for Israel.

What is the meaning of this turn of events? “Again, it was the sin of Israel not to be satisfied with the old form. This is the shadow which lies from the very first on the new form of the covenant, the Israelitish monarchy. It did not need to be darkness. It could mean even higher and deeper grace, like the covenant, which, although it had become something stern and hard because of the sin of the first man, had not been destroyed, but had become all the higher and deeper grace in antithesis to the sin of man” (p. 442). In the end the people were required to serve the king (and institution) rather than the institution serving the people.

The king (and lurking in the shadows of Barth’s critique of “the Israelitish monarchy” is his critique of the papacy, which he clearly sees as a parallel rejection of God’s covenantal structure for the church) would demand difficult and burdensome things of the people. The king would even, on many occasions, lead the people in the direction of great evil. But this did not mean that the people of Israel should cease being Israelites and go out and form a new nation that followed the covenant. Because God’s grace could be expressed in “the higher and deeper grace” of God’s humble activity “in antithesis to the sin of man” in spite of the burden and corruption of the institution, those still committed to the covenant could gladly remain faithful to the covenant, in spite of the false and unnecessary institutional burden being placed on them.

Furthermore, Barth’s recommendation is not that Protestants cease being Protestants and just return to the Roman Catholic Church. What’s done is done and there is always the mystery of God’s higher and deeper grace in our current fractured state. But he is making the point that even when we are part of an institution (whether monarchy or papacy or other institutional church, such as the German Reformed Church that served the purposes of the Third Reich during Barth’s lifetime) that is corrupt, God remains working actively in antithesis to human sin, but in a condescending and hidden manner. Our primary job as people is first to be faithful. Our faithfulness may happen to fix the system, but it usually does not. But it is not our job to fix the system, our job is to remain faithful to the covenant in the situation in which we find ourselves.

It is striking that Barth never left the German church. (Yes, he was in northern Switzerland, but the body he was a part of was part of the German church and not an independent Swiss Reformed body.) It is also striking that while he never condemned Bonhoeffer for his act of treason against Hitler that ultimately led to Bonhoeffer’s death, neither did Barth praise it as the normative model of faithfulness. He certainly never called Bonhoeffer a martyr, for he died, not because he was a Christian, but because he was a traitor to the Reich. In the end, while Bonhoeffer’s action has remained a shining example of Christian resistance, it had little effect on the church beyond his example. Barth’s path was different. He remained in the German church. Since he was in Switzerland, he “fought” with the Allies against the Nazis as a city guard in Basel, and he wrote theology. His body of writings, over the next generation, was key to transforming the German church as it confessed its complicity with the Nazis and moved forward into a new era of self-understanding.

I have a number of friends and colleagues who have remained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in spite of its many problems and its ongoing decent into heresy. Although I never thought of it in the context of Barth’s exegesis of 1 Sam. 8-31, I find my attitude toward them as well as toward those who left the denomination (including me, I should note) in much the same way Barth seemed to react to Bonhoeffer. I neither praise nor condemn, I simply assume that they continue to be faithful to God’s covenant in the path that they have taken. Similarly, I am appalled by the racism enacted in Christian bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America, as they turn a blind eye to the rising violence against people of color and too often censure those who do speak out. (This is the reason I waited until today, the ML King holiday here int he States, to post this essay.) But as with my colleagues in the mainline churches, so with my acquaintances in these Evangelical bodies: I have no reason to think they are not being faithful to God’s covenant in spite of the abysmal levels those denominations have sunk. The utter mess and confusion of human perversion makes the correct path forward difficult to see. In the midst of the confusion and perversion, what I am absolutely convinced of is “the higher and deeper grace” of God in Christ in the midst of the modern world.

 

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Karl Barth on Aaron and the Golden Calf

Karl Barth has a most interesting and provocative exegesis of two Old Testament stories in two excurses in Church Dogmatics IV/1. The first one concerns Aaron (Exodus 32) on pp. 423-432. The second is about the rejection of Samuel and the rise of Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 8-31) on pp. 437-445. The exegesis has to do with the culpability of leaders and organizations in contrast to the culpability of the people the leader is leading. In both he circles around the subject of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. I am surprised I did not notice this passage when I read it back in the late 80s or early 90s, but it could be that Barth’s insight may require the perspective of an old guy looking back rather than of a Young Turk just looking around.

Barth was no fan of the papacy. In these two excurses he manages both to critique the institution quite harshly while at the same time provide a way of being Roman Catholic while remaining faithful to the deeper call of the Gospel. His critique is not only about the papacy, but about all systems where power (or possibly more accurately, authority) is concentrated in a small group. He never mentions Hitler by name, but his life context of the Third Reich and the German church whispers throughout this whole section of the Church Dogmatics. (It’s entitled, “The Pride of Man.”)

Exodus 32 is part of the story of the giving of the Law. Moses is on Mt. Sinai and has been gone a very long time. There is concern, then grumbling, then an assumption that he’s dead and never returning. The people talk Aaron, Moses’ brother, into forming an idol, the Golden Calf, which they can worship in place of Yahweh. Moses does eventually come down the mountain, is horrified by what he sees and breaks the tablets of the Law. God tells Moses that the people have broken the covenant they promised to keep and they therefore will be destroyed. Moses intercedes on their behalf, and even though many people die and everyone suffers, ultimately God forgives the breach of covenant and things return to as normal as it can be after such an apostasy.

Barth argues that the respective roles of Moses and Aaron (in relation to God and the covenant) are important if one is to understand the story. Moses is the prophet and is thus the one who has been appointed to be the mediator between God and the people. Aaron, on the other hand is the priest and is not a mediator. He rather speaks on behalf of the people and organizes the religion.

[Note: This association of “mediator” with prophet and not priest might be hard to defend on exegetical grounds. I haven’t studied it a great deal. But if there is a problem, it is not in the idea but rather in the manner which Barth expresses it. His analysis of Moses and Aaron is indeed what Exodus describes. Moses is the one who talks with God, after all, not Aaron. Barth’s motivation becomes clear when we get to the second excursus. Samuel, and all the prophets who proceeded him (that is the Judges), are clearly the mediators between God and the people. But the people wanted a king who served them, not a prophetic Judge who served God. Barth is making a parallel between the two stories. On pp. 438ff, Barth proposes that Samuel’s function is parallel to Moses while Saul’s function should be more or less parallel to Aaron.

The part of the Golden Calf story that is so striking to Barth is what doesn’t happen to Aaron. About 3,000 people died that day (Ex. 32:28) but Aaron, the high priest of the new religion, is not among those who died. Moses’ rebuke of Aaron is shockingly mild. “What did this people do to you that you have wrought so great a sin upon them?” (v. 21). It’s as if Aaron is not responsible. “What did this people do? not, “What did you do?” This is where Barth observes that Aaron’s role is to speak on behalf of the people and thus do their will (in contrast to Moses who speaks on behalf of God). “The one who receives and mediates the divine revelation, the friend who speaks with God as an equal, is Moses himself. Aaron and all the others are only witnesses” (p. 428).

What is Aaron then? He is “a type of the institutional priesthood” (p. 428). “He is the man of the national Church, the established Church. He listens to the voice of the soul of the people and obeys it. He is the direct executor of its wishes and demands. He shows the people how to proceed and he takes the initiative” (p. 429). The problem is not with Aaron, it is with the people. The institution can and should certainly play a role in teaching and guiding the people back to the truth, but ultimately when things go wrong, it is not the fault of the institution, it is the fault of the people. (And this sentiment is the heart of Barth’s nuanced critique of the Roman Catholic Church; it is what the people want.) “The priestly art as such—building altars and celebrating liturgies and ordering and executing sacrifices and proclaiming feasts of the Lord—is a neutral activity which can turn into the very opposite of all that is intended by it. The priest as such can always be a deluded and deluding pope” (p. 429). In Barth’s mind, “Aaron (and any priest or pope for that matter) is not without blame, but because the institutional priesthood (of which Aaron is a type) faces the people and reflects their wishes. It is the prophet, on the other hand, who guides them.”

[Note: at this juncture it is well worth noting that in the classic Reformed tradition of which Barth is a part, clergy should not be thought of in the priestly role because Jesus Christ is our priest, clergy are rather modeled on the prophetic role. It is, I suspect, why proclamation of the Word tends to overshadow administration of the Sacraments although they are technically equal activities. Ministers are not “priests” but “Ministers of Word and Sacrament.”]

The relationship between Samuel (the last prophet leader, or Judge, of Israel) and Saul (the first king of Israel) is similar to that of Moses and Aaron. Samuel is the prophet and thus the mediator between God and the people. Just as with Moses and Aaron, Samuel serves God on behalf of the people while Saul, as king, should serve the people on behalf of God. This pattern is not God’s ideal because the institutional side (ie, Aaron and Saul) can become overbearing as they cease to serve the people’s will and begin to lord over the people. That tendency is much more clear in the story of Samuel and Saul and will be explored in the next essay.

 

Judgment and Mercy

I have talked about the problem of translating “justice” (Hebrew is mishpat) previously in essays such as My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors, The Really Hard Part, and Oppressed-a-non. I want to revisit this topic in more depth as a starting place for this series of essays because we tend to turn the meaning of mishpat on its head. The familiar words of Amos 5:24 offer an example. The translation of record of mainstream Protestantism, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) reads, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This translation makes it sound like Amos is offering a hopeful vision of the future, a glimpse of the Kingdom.

But this is not what Amos has in mind. The King James Version (KJV, translated long before our modern sensibilities of social justice) says that “judgment” (not “justice”) will roll down. In case we are confused by the meaning of judgment and who will be judged, Amos continues by describing its nature: “Therefore I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus” (v. 27).

Another word found frequently alongside mishpat is tzedakah, translated “righteousness” above in v. 24. When mishpat is rendered as “justice” rather than “judgment,” righteousness can also be misleading. The word is similar to mishpat, but again our contemporary usage of “justice” will too easily get in the way of understanding what’s going on. Rabbi Joseph Teluskin says,

From Judaism’s perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedaka is acting justly; one who doesn’t, unjustly. And Jewish law views this lack of justice as not only mean-spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self-governing, Jews were assessed tzedaka just as everyone today is assessed taxes.

Teluskin goes on to quote Maimonides,

There are eight degrees of tzedaka, each one superior to the other. The highest degree … is one who upholds the hand of a Jew reduced to poverty by handing him a gift or a loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding work for him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will have no need to beg from other people.

What Teluskin describes is something quite different than what comes to mind when we say righteousness will flow down. The English word that comes far closer to this sensibility is “mercy.” In fact the same word tzedakah is one of those multi-purpose Hebrew words that is so rich in variation that there is no good single English equivalent. It certainly means righteousness, but not in the Calvinistic sense of something that only God has the ability to give, rather it is a description of the moral life. When your children ask you in times to come, “What is the meaning of [the Torah]? … Then you say … If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right (tzedek)” (Deut. 6:20, 25). The Talmud (Bava Bathra 9b) says: “Tzedakah [and the Bava Bathra seems to have mercy or charity in mind] is equal to all the other commandments combined.”

What is striking is that neither Hebrew word actually includes the idea that we should fix the root problem of poverty (the current conception of social justice). Alms-giving and the righteousness that grows out of that lies at the heart of both the Old Testament and Talmudic system. This is not surprising when we put the words mishpat and tzedakah into a political context. The nearly universal form of government in the ancient near east was monarchy. This is also the context of the New Testament which was written within the borders of the Roman Empire. There were exceptions (and Teluskin describes “self-governing Jewish communities” as an example), but for most of history, fixing the system was not an option; you either helped the poor by giving them food or money (tzedakah) or you got involved in a plot to overthrow the King or Queen (mishpat).

The equation seems rather different today. Most of us in the Western world live in a country with some variant of a representative democracy. Switzerland is the only country I’m aware of that is close to a true democracy, but most of the rest of us have at least some say indirectly through our representatives. This new political environment was not envisioned by the writers of scripture. Political theology today recognizes there is a third way beyond the traditional meanings of mishpat and tzedakah; we can work to change the system to be more friendly to the poor and oppressed. Our newer understanding of “justice” reflects this, and I suspect that this is why the word mishpat is now almost universally translated into English as “justice” rather than “judgment” and tzedakah as “righteousness” rather than “mercy” (although the latter remains a bit curious).

Unfortunately, this hope that we can fix the system, while a nice theory, has not worked very well. While the poor and oppressed are incomparably better off today than they were in the first century, the systemic problems of poverty and oppression persist. Sadly, three centuries or more of enlightened governance has changed few of these realities. For those in power there is always a loophole. Furthermore, the rich and powerful continue to appear to be ignorant and unresponsive to the fundamental needs of society. Here in the United States tzedakah as “righteousness” is not, nor has it ever been the righteous system that supports everyone, rhetoric of the City shining on a hill notwithstanding, rather tzedakah as “mercy” or “alms” remains the only practical way forward as we seek to become a righteous people of God.

Although the Talmud does not speak to this issue to my knowledge, I have one more observation about social righteousness: It is tempting to try to fix others or fix the system in place of fixing myself. There are at least two reasons for this. First, fixing others is a necessarily public action and we receive praise and increase our stature for such public actions. Fixing myself is (or should be) a private affair that should remain between God, me, and my confessor. It’s harder to get excited about something for which we don’t receive praise. Second, fixing myself is an extremely difficult task. Even though actual progress can be made on fixing myself and even though there is little historical evidence that fixing others is or ever has been an effective strategy, we tend to follow the path that leads to little resistance and lots of praise, while ignoring the historical evidence.

Next essay: Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.

 

Truth Arising from the Touch of Jesus’ outstretched hand

I have a long history of engagement with Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. The epistle, Romans 10:5-15, is one of those texts that is deeply problematic for Protestants while at the same time one of the most beloved. In a variety of classes in both college and seminary the instructor has posed the question, “What is Paul talking about?”

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, / on your lips and in your heart” – (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That’s the hard part of the text, the beloved part follows in v. 15

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The associated Gospel, from Mt 14:22-33, is the story of Peter walking on the water. Fairly early on in my pastoral life I put the two texts together. I had been reading Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and it dawned on me what everyone (Polanyi, Paul, and Matthew) were getting on about.

There is a facile reading of Romans which interprets Paul as saying that the point is neither rote repetition nor salvation by works, it is rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is required. This is true as far as it goes but misses Paul’s larger argument that cuts to the heart of our assumptions about how the universe works.

A very long time ago an influential bishop by the name of Augustine, reading the Bible through the lens of Plato, came up with the hair-brained platonic idea that truth was a philosophical concept that was absolute, along the same lines as gravity. The Western church has been either vociferously defending Augustine or trying to overcome him ever since. Calvin and Luther, and thus Protestants in general, were quite enamored of Augustine, so this has been a particular problem for Protestants.

The older western theologians, such as Ireneaus, and pretty much all of the eastern church understood that truth is not so much a philosophical absolute as it is an outgrowth of a loving relationship. Saying truth is absolute is remarkably parallel to Isaac Newton saying that time and space are absolute. While these ideas work on an everyday level, they are simply wrong at a fundamental level. It was Einstein who figured out that it’s the speed of light that’s absolute and time and space coordinate to the speed of light. Thus, as we approach the speed of light, time and space are bent toward the more fundamental reality.

Similarly, the fundamental reality for Christians is the living Lord, Jesus Christ. The radix, or fundament of the faith is the incarnation, the joining together by God, of eternal God with creation itself. This change of focus from truth as a philosophical construct to the living and loving person of Jesus Christ is a “Copernican revolution” of sorts that Protestants and Catholics struggle with. Just as the Sun is the center of the solar system and not the earth, so the Son, the living Word, is the center of Christian faith, and not truth or written word.

Paul’s point in Rom. 10 is that objectifying truth ultimately blinds us and leads us away from the living and loving Truth of Jesus Christ. By objectifying the truth we bring Christ to us (either bring him down from heaven or up from the grave, in the words of Paul) and thus make Christ our servant. That is not the path of salvation. Instead of bringing Christ to us, we need to go to Christ. Christ is very near, but it requires us to enter into relationship.

And this, as we come to the end of the lectionary reading, is why the one who preaches good news is so blessed. It simply does not do to read the text. Truth isn’t there to be grasped and eaten like an apple, it arises in the midst of relationship. As the person sharing the Gospel and the hearer of the Gospel come together, truth arises and salvation is possible. Just as true Truth is found at the coming together of Creator and creation in Jesus Christ, so salvation is found in relationship and community, not in words on the page.

And if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the point of the Sea of Galillee, the storm, Peter in the boat, and Jesus walking on the water. As long as Peter was in communion with Jesus, moving toward him, entering into that living and loving relationship, Peter too could walk on the water. But Peter “objectified” rather than “relationalized” the situation. He looked at the stormy water surrounding him; he looked back at the boat far away, he looked at Jesus, also far away, and he became isolated and alone in his predicament. Salvation is far away when we are isolated and alone.

But Jesus, ever loving and ever drawing us toward himself, reached out and lifted Peter from the stormy depths. Relationship was restored and the truth of salvation was once again established in the interaction of God and human.

In short, we can’t make it on our own. Truth and salvation come only at the crossroads where we enter into community: community with God and community with others. The truth, as an objectified philosophical thing, will never save us, but moving toward relation with God, the Living One, the Truth – the living Truth – reveals itself in the relationship itself, and salvation is the result. Thanks be to God.

Hidden Evil and the Hidden Kingdom

The Gospel lessons for the last two Sundays form an interesting contrast. On July 23 (Mt 13:24-30 with interpretation in 36-43) we heard that Kingdom of Heaven is like a wheat field in which an enemy has secretly sown tares (a weed that is almost indistinguishable from wheat).

“You want me to clear the weeds so they don’t compete with the wheat?” asks the servant. “No,” says the landowner. “You can’t tell the difference between the two. Wait until harvest and separate them when you can tell the difference.”

On occasion that which we think is evil in our lives turns out to be, if not a virtue in and of itself, at least something that builds virtue within us. More often that which we think is virtuous turns out to be a subtle form of evil. Thrift, for instance, might simply be stinginess that has not yet reached fruition. Kindness is sometimes a mask for manipulation. And so the field (that is, our heart) is the strange mix of good grain and weeds that we must deal with throughout our lives, the weeds never completely being removed until we die.

Too often we assume that this text is describing an event where the evil people get separated from the righteous people. While there is an element of this (the angels will gather all evildoers), there is also something more fundamental going on. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers … Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Why is it that the righteous will be able to shine? Because the cause of sin will be removed from their hearts. It is easy and comfortable (assuming we think of ourselves as being one of the righteous) to draw the line between evil and righteous and then put ourselves on one side and evil people on the other. But this is not quite what the text says. Solzhenitsyn famously said that the line between good and evil cuts straight through the human heart.

We learn here that the judgment is not about getting rid of bad stuff. That is certainly an “effect,” but God’s cause is to make us shine like the sun. The “cause” is purification; the “cause” is to make the gold shiny. The “effect” of this action is the removal of evil. That order may seem inconsequential, but the significance is that the judgment is not that ultimately terrible thing that we too often dread. Like a young child that screams in terror before the bath, the bath turns out to be not quite as horrible as expected, and the effect of being squeaky clean before going to bed is quite wonderful.

I won’t ignore the fact that some people refuse to let go of their evil and as a result get gathered up along with “the causes of sin,” but again, this is not the goal of the judgment, it is a side effect. If we love our sin (and refuse to let go of it) more than we love God, when the sin is removed, we get swept away with the sin because they’re still holding on. So while some people (the “evildoers” in this text) are judged, it is worth noting that this is not actually the point of the judgment.

This coming Sunday’s text (also from Mt. 13) turns the theme of the previous parable on its head. If the former was about the hiddenness of evil within the Kingdom, this text is about the hiddenness of the Kingdom within the world. It is like a tiny seed that grows into a tree, it is like the yeast, which is invisible in the flour, but transforms the flour into soft, fluffy, and desirable bread. It is like a treasure hidden in a field that one must search for to find.

Everything is hidden. And this is not merely rhetorical flourish. It is so central to these parables that we must consider this truth carefully. What we see is the world, the created order, society, and culture. We may be enamored by or disgusted with culture. We may think the earth is pretty indestructible or worry about an apocalypse, in some form, that’s just around the corner. We may see the religions of the world and think that they are the problem or contributing to a solution. But beyond what we see is the Kingdom of Heaven. We too quickly want to conflate the Kingdom of Heaven with “my church” or this environmental organization, or that political philosophy. But the Kingdom and all those things cannot be conflated. The Church should be an expression of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not identical to it. The Church (in terms of denominations or bishops, or buildings, or confessions) are human structures and the line of the kingdom slices right through them. It requires eyes of faith to see the kingdom within the structures of the world.

And even more hidden than the Kingdom of Heaven is evil. Evil expresses itself in institutions, people, political ideologies, and even the seemingly innocent desires of our hearts. But its root is hidden deep in the human heart. And evil appears so benign that we have “a devil of a time” (to borrow a phrase from Bulgokov’s novel, The Master and Margarita) telling the difference between evil and the Kingdom of Heaven.

So what’s a person to do with all this hiddenness? The answer is twofold. First we must search for the true presence of the Kingdom of Heaven like a person searching for a treasure in a field. Second, it’s a given that as we search we will find evil everywhere we think we find the Kingdom, and vice versa. But don’t be discouraged. God will take care of the evil in due course (both the “evil ones” in society and the evil within your own soul). Don’t let evil distract you. Seek the Kingdom and God’s righteousness and God will reward you richly.

St. Porphyrios said (and I keep this quote on my phone to be reminded of it regularly), “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look toward Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.”

An Inconvenient Truth

The Gospel lesson for Sunday, July 16, is what Jesus called “the Parable of the Sower.” (The parable appears in Mt. 13:1-9 and Jesus’ own interpretation appears in 18-23.) To the extent it is a parable about the Sower, then it is a defense of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t particularly successful at this moment. (For instance, no one had a clue what he was talking about when he spoke in parables.) This parable is an emphatic reminder that the incarnation wasn’t about Jesus’ ministry and its success, it was all about the Kingdom.

As we turn our focus to our contemporary situation, it might be helpful to reframe this parable, as Lloyd Ogilvie did in his book Autobiography of God, and think of this as the Parable of the Soils. There is “rocky ground.” This person receives the Gospel with joy, but when “troubles or persecution” comes, they do not endure. There is “thorny ground.” This person hears the word but “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” distract them. But there is also “good soil.” This person “hears,” “understands,” and “bears fruit.”

This parable does not speak of repentance directly. In fact, a facile reading may lead us in a different direction completely, because Jesus says that the person who “hears” and “understands” is the one who bears fruit. Being a culture that holds reason and science as the highest ideal, we tend to conflate “understanding” with reason. But when we speak of understanding the message of the kingdom, something rather different is at work.

John the Baptist went about preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the parts of last week’s Gospel lesson that were scandalously left out, Jesus condemned the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for not repenting (Mt. 11:21). The Kingdom of Heaven life is not compatible with life as we normally live it and so to “hear” and “recieve” the Kingdom, at the most fundamental level, requires us to repent of our current life and way of doing things. Understanding is not an intellectual item but an action item.

I am friends with a Roman Catholic priest and Missouri Synod pastor. We often see each other at the local cigar lounge where they smoke cigars and I smoke my pipe. It is friendship that is becoming increasingly strained because we view ministry/kingdom quite differently. This week my pastor friend showed us a meme that is currently floating around religious leaders circles. The author claimed that if the men in his congregation knew as much about the Bible as they did about football stats, he would have a great congregation. Both priest and pastor chuckled and agreed wholeheartedly. Both then turned to me for the obligatory chuckle and affirmation that, yes, this is why ministry is so difficult today.

But I wasn’t amused. I simply arched my eyebrow and said, “Really? You think that’s what you want?” In the following silence it was clear that they were waiting for me to explain why I was being such a buzzkill. So I pondered out loud just what sort of people seemed to know every football stat in the last twenty years: out of shape men who are somewhat bitter about how life has turned out for them, so they sit around Buffalo Wild Wings, commiserating and trying to outdo each other with their trivial knowledge. I concluded by saying that I would far rather have people who were committed to playing the game than those who replaced that sort of discipline with information about how others play the game.

Paul, uses that very analogy in his letters. We should train like athletes, be disciplined like soldiers (2 Tim 4, et. al.). He warned Timothy, “Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (1 Tim 6:20-21).

The church fathers used the Greek word askesis (“athletics” in English) to describe kingdom life. With this word they encapsulated what it means to be good soil. Repentance involves rigorous training (according to Paul) so that the rocky soil can be broken up and the thorns and weeds removed. Then, the Gospel can produce great fruit.

My friendship with the priest and pastor are strained because we live in a time when repentance and askesis are not celebrated. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, leave verses out of the lectionary that clearly emphasize the consequences of not repenting. Our church leaders, falling sway to the spirit of this age, think that if their congregations have Bible knowledge, their pastoral ministries will be improved.

But I’m here to tell you that the church, at its core, is not a place to transmit knowledge. The church, at its core, is not a place to serve the world. At its core, the church is a place to repent so that the vibrant life of the kingdom can begin to seep into, and eventually pour into our broken and dried up souls.

Ah, but isn’t it both? Isn’t the church both a place of knowledge and repentance? Isn’t the church both a place of service and repentance?

Repentance is not pleasant. It’s not hard, but we will avoid it if we can. This is why Jesus called the kingdom an “easy yoke.” A yoke is something you put around an animal’s neck. We need a yoke so that we don’t throw it off when it is inconvenient. But it is not a terrible yoke, it is an easy yoke (see the previous essay on last week’s lectionary readings).

If we emphasize that the church is both a place of knowledge and repentance, the effect will be to avoid the repentance (which is inconvenient at best) and settle for the knowledge. And we will end up with a Buffalo Wild Wings sort of congregation where we keep statistics on other Christians while sitting around being entertained. This is why we must insist that the church is a place of repentance, period. Once that actually happens, then knowledge and service and prayer will grow out of the repentance itself. Knowledge and service will be the fruit of repentance. This is the good soil. Any other path will inevitably lead to hard rocky soil and weeds.

A Lectionary Reflection: The Mysterious Case of the Missing Judgement

I haven’t pondered the lectionary readings for a spell. The texts for July 9 are striking because (1) they are about judgment very broadly understood, and (2) the topic of judgment has been stripped out of the readings. Judgment is a subject we are very uncomfortable with.

I propose we are uncomfortable with it because people judge in a facile and thoughtless manner; we have trivialized judgment and thus made it obscene. Matthew 11:16-19 illustrates: John the Baptist, an ascetic, came along and people said, he’s too strict, “he has a demon.” Jesus followed. While not a libertine, he was far more lax about dietary rules than the religious leaders, and people said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The bottom line is that the average person rejected both their messages, because both involved a fundamental change of life. But rather than simply rejecting or ignoring the message, they used a form of judgment that condemned John and Jesus. In this manner they were able, not only to ignore the message of repentance, but justify their doing so.

This should sound familiar, because this is the most common form of moral outrage we hear today. Rather than engage the other person’s ideas, we tend to respond with an emotional burst that we manage to justify by adding a moral component.

The result is that we cover our failures and wounds of corruption with a salve of moral outrage, expressed as judgment, and rarely get around to doing the hard work of changing the things that need to be changed in our own lives (in contrast to demanding change in others’ lives). The former is true repentance; the latter is obscene judgment.

The lectionary leaves out Mat. 11:20-24 and jumps to v. 25. It is the condemnation of the cities that didn’t accept Jesus’ message, Chorazin and Bethsaida. The actual point of this text (a point which has been completely gutted by the lectionary) is that authentic judgment will happen one way or the other. We can judge ourselves (that is, repent of our own corruption instead of judging others), or we can put that off (as the people did to John and Jesus) and be judged by a far more terrible judgment when that corruption that exists within us finally eats us up completely and destroys us.

Jesus ends the text with the familiar, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mat 11:28-30).

The action here is not only getting rid of our burden, but replacing it with Christ’s yoke, the burden that was originally designed for us. This latter burden, Christ’s yoke, is “light” because it is designed as something that, while heavy and hard, is life-giving. The other burden of our own making is life-destroying. Using different language, a different metaphor of burdens and harnesses, Jesus is saying the same thing as when he spoke about judgment.

That process of judgment which does not examine the self but demands change in others is actually a terrible burden. We know deep down that we are truly wretched creatures (see the Epistle reading, Rom. 7:15-25, Paul’s mournful cry of powerlessness to change). Psychologically speaking, this secret knowledge of self that we try to deny by pointing at others will destroy us by manifesting itself as anger, despair, addictions, psychosis, heart problems, and ultimately, death. Jesus simply calls it a burden.

So the choice is ours. We can keep busy judging others for their failures, or we can enter into the very difficult work of judging ourselves (of removing of our burden) and changing our way of life and thinking pattern (putting on Christ’s yoke, or harness). One way will inevitably lead to the fruition of all the corruption that is within us – unbearable judgment, or if we do the hard task of judging ourselves, the other way will lead to life and fruitfulness.

I will finish with a popular internet meme featuring psychologist and professor Jordan B. Peterson. He rails against those who are busy trying to fix the world. Even though he approaches it from a clinical psychological perspective rather than a biblical perspective, his reasoning should now sound familiar. Such people are avoiding the hard work of fixing themselves by changing the subject and fixing others. “But how do we then improve the world?” ask the world-improvers accusingly. Peterson’s now famous answer is, “Clean your room!” (Remember, he’s a professor and his primary audience is college kids.)

Changing the world must necessarily start with changing yourself.  Any other way will ultimately lead to judgment, or chaos, or societal breakdown, or however you want to describe it. So here’s the challenge. We can follow the august example of the people who brought us the Revised Common Lectionary, and pretend that this ultimate judgment (that will ultimately come back and bite us if we don’t judge and fix ourselves) does not exist, or at least is so unimportant that we can skip over it and ignore it, or we can “clean our rooms” and our lives. As daunting as the latter option sounds, it’s actually a light burden compared to the former option. Jesus promised us this was so. Amen.

The Really Hard Part

It started with a rereading of Tuomo Mannermaa’s Christ Present in Faith, I have re-engaged with Protestant theology and thinking in a manner that I have not done for over a decade. What I have found most striking is the differing emphasis on the individual and the society.

From an Orthodox perspective, the really hard part of salvation is the transformation of the individual. When that is taken care of the societal and cosmic effects of sin and death will take care of themselves. Orthodox theology prides itself in being a cosmic theology, and yet the cosmic implications of the gospel begin with the person and grow outward from there.

From a Western perspective (and this is largely true of both the Latin and Protestant branches of the Western church), the really hard part of salvation is the transformation of society while the transformation of the person is largely taken for granted as an act of pure grace. (For by grace you have been saved by faith, not of works, lest you should boast.) There is a perceived duality of divine and human, of grace and effort, that is largely absent from Orthodoxy, and the effect of this duality in Protestantism is to accept as a given that God will transform individuals apart from human effort. The human effort is then focused on serving the world, evangelism, and through these things, the transformation of society.

It is the epistle lesson for Dec 24/25, Proper I that brought this to mind. Titus 2:11-14 says,

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

One thing I love about this text is that the author calls Jesus Christ “the grace of God.” It’s not so much that Christ offers grace, he is Grace.

This is a text that I have run into quite often in Orthodox writing because it lays out the purpose and path of salvation. We must renounce impiety and passions and we must live a life that is self-controlled, upright, and godly. Those aren’t future things, but the expectation of the here and now as we await the revelation of the “glory.” The Hebrew word for glory is “shekinah,” is frequently used in this particular sense in Hebrew scripture as a synonym for God. The “Grace of God” has appeared, and it turns out that the “Grace of God” is one in the same as the “Glory of God.”

In the Old Testament the Glory of God is often a frightening thing implying potential judgment, but here there is no judgment in the angry or frightening sense, only “Grace,” accomplished through God’s purification of his people.

This is in contrast (and I think that in the context of the two very different approaches to the Christian life in the East and West that I described above, you could call it a stark contrast) to Titus that we find this in the Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 9:4-5.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Back when I  was a Presbyterian I would have likely treated this as a social justice passage, but seeing it with Orthodox eyes, there is no command to do anything found here, it is rather a description of what Christ, the Glory of God, will do when he reveals his Glory. It is a description of the kingdom (ie, God’s pure grace) in contrast to Titus’ description of the things we’re supposed to do while we wait for for the pure grace of “the blessed hope.”

I don’t believe we should make the contrast too stark. The personal emphasis in Titus and the societal emphasis in Isaiah are two sides of the same coin. But as I have read these Nativity texts this week, what struck me more than anything else is the difference in primary emphases of the two great traditions of the divided Church.

Which is the really hard part of salvation and which is more a matter of patient waiting because it is a description of the blessed hope? Well, in fact both are. In the end the Gospel is simply too big for us to effectively comprehend. And we will not be able to just grow into it either, the bigness of the Gospel is so big that we will ultimately have to wait for the bigness of the Kingdom to see how it all fits together.

Joseph’s Story

The three lessons for the 4th Sunday of Advent are each about the nature of the Messiah: his humanity his sinlessness, and his deity. Isaiah 7:10-16 deals with it in a prophetic/poetic voice. Paul comes closest to what we might call a theological statement on the subject with his utterance of praise in Rom 1:1-7. The Gospel (Mat 1:18-25), deals with it as a story.

Historically the church has tended to focus on the theology of the incarnation. And for good reason, because, as seven ecumenical councils and hundreds of years testify, getting the doctrine wrong on these matters leads to seriously bad consequences.

The story itself, on the other hand, has much to tell us about the effects of “God with us” (the meaning of the name “Immanuel”) rather than its meaning, and I’ve been thinking about that this week. For those involved God’s direct involvement with humanity led to inconvenience, chaos, doubt as to how to proceed in life, etc.

Joseph was a righteous man and betrothed (a state of affairs that doesn’t exist in modern culture – pretty much all the legal entanglements of marriage without the “benefits”). Furthermore, the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. He knew he didn’t do it, so he began the process of a quiet divorce. The law suggested he might want to have Mary stoned to death in the city square but he chose to spare her life, and to the degree possible, save her family from shame.

This is the immediate effect of the incarnation: utter chaos in the fabric and family and community life.

The second effect of the incarnation is God’s secondary involvement in life. God comes to Joseph in a dream an explains the situation: the baby’s not illegitimate, the child is from God. Go ahead and marry her.

Notice that this secondary divine involvement in the lives of the people involved doesn’t solve many problems and essentially creates more for Joseph. It saves Mary’s life and makes the baby sort of legitimate, but it doesn’t solve any of the disruptions in the family and social fabric.

We overlay our Christianity with religion. Religion is awe-inspiring, comfortable and predictable, and we use it to solve a lot of our problems. Christianity, on the other hand, is anything but. Since we’ve had Christianity around for two millennia, we’ve settled quite comfortably into it’s religious façade. In this text the façade is torn away and we are reminded of the real thing, of what actually happens when God chooses to dwell among us.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing a congregation because the preacher is really good and then to stay there because it meets our needs. That doesn’t exactly line up with Joseph’s story in Mat. 1. So as Christmas approaches, I wonder … are we going to celebrate the actual chaos of Christmas, escape into the false comfort of the gentle Christmas celebration at Church, or dive into the alternative chaos of consumerism?

Three alternatives. Joseph’s story shows us a glimpse into the best of the three.

Pandas and Prophets

Juan Rodriguez, panda keeper at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is evidently fond of belittling people who like pandas in his public speeches. In the speech I heard, he insisted that there was nothing special about pandas. They’re even quite ordinary among bears. In the larger scheme of things, pandas could disappear, and the universe would barely notice.

Bats and slugs, on the other hand, are vital to the earth. If they disappeared, the earth’s ecosystem would simply fall apart and it would be disastrous on a global scale. People who love pandas and ignore bats and slugs or miss the big picture are shallow and insipid.

Of course all of this was said with tongue firmly planted in his cheek. While this sort of banter is part of his regular spiel, he is, in truth, a loud defender of pandas. They are indeed a minor cog in the environmental structure and do in fact contribute little to the greater good, but it is also true that they are cute. His hope is that a few of thousands of people who adore pandas will mature into actual environmentalists that care about the whole environment and not just the cute stuff.

It was Jesus’ take on the John the Baptist that reminded me of Juan Rodriguez riffing on panda fans. John, of course, was the opposite of cute, but he provided spectacle and entertainment in much the same way Bao Bao and Bei Bei entertain the visitors to the National Zoo. In both cases there is a much larger and more important story going on, but there is evidence that most of the crowd went to watch the crazy prophet guy, not for his message, but for the outrageous things he had to say.

When a character such John comes along, we tend to get distracted and miss the point. But Jesus didn’t want them to miss the point.

Jesus turned to the crowds and asked, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?”

John was anything but this. He was unbending, opinionated and loud in those opinions.

“What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?”

In these two sentences Jesus sums up the essence of the spectacle of John the Baptist by describing the exact opposite. John was crazy prophet guy dressed in camel’s hair and who probably smelled bad, but who was loudly opinionated in an utterly politically incorrect manner. In short, a great spectacle to fill a slow Saturday afternoon.

And note that Jesus never denies nor condemns the spectacle. That is indeed who John was. But John wasn’t just a spectacle.

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

The world is full of pandas and spectacle. And the world is better for it. But we need to listen to Juan Rodriguez and Jesus. The point is neither pandas nor an early version of reality television. The point of Advent is that something far greater is coming. John is pointing at something. Heaven and earth will be united in Christ. When John points at Christ in the iconography, Jesus tells us he’s not pointing at Jesus, but rather the Kingdom, that is the union of heaven and earth in the God who became human, Jesus Christ. We will never fix this crazy world in which we live, but our very selves can be united with God’s very self and a transformation will begin that will imbue all creation with divine life. The lame will leap like a deer and the waters will break forth in the desert.

But maybe we missed all that because we are typically too busy looking at pandas and the crazy prophet John.

And once we learn to and begin to participate in this thing that is coming, we can in turn mediate it outward to a creation that is in desperate need of this new thing. John was greater than all who came before because he saw what was coming.

And it leaves us with a question: This season are we looking at John? Or are we looking outward in the direction he is pointing?