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Archive for January, 2011

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
(Matthew 6:19–21 NRSV)

Jesus appears to have exercised a utilitarian view of wealth. He had little of the stuff we use to define the term and appeared not not to miss much what he did not possess. He was also severe about the ability of wealth to distract, detour, and corrupt.

‘How can this be?’, one asks in a world where accumulated resources feel as though they’re the important bulwark against calamity.

For starters, Jesus seemed to find the greatest beauty in what his Father himself had created. Not to make a romantic naturalist of him, he found in the lilies and birds of the field not only beauty but also a bit of instruction.

And then Jesus appears to have found the little he needed, when it arrived, to be gift rather than achievement or prerogative.

The twice-used phrase (do not) store up for yourselves treasures and the following—third—reference to treasures (Greek θεσαῦροι) probably points to excess rather than modest provision against hunger and the evil day. Yet this observation does not relieve the would-be follower of Jesus from asking how much that might be.

One is faced down here with a conventional division of reality into ‘heaven’ and earth’. Unconventionally, we are asked to invest our productive capacity in the former, because it endures. The world, we read, makes a poor investment for our limited and precious energies because it is so impermanent.

Only a fool would stock up on perishables that are surely to be rotten long before the anticipated need of them has been exhausted.

Appearances as to what endures and what is most real savage us with their persuasive deception.

‘Find heaven’, Jesus might tell us, ‘and do not mess around with diversifying your portfolio beyond that rather expansive category. Your enthusiasm will follow your allocation like a well-loved puppy. Trust me.’

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If it is true that folly for a season fills life up with irrefutable pleasures, it soon manifests its nature as a lethal disease.

Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster. (Proverbs 1:29–33 NRSV)

Folly lacks one of the constituent elements of wisdom: it does not self-correct.

Wisdom has a governor, to speak in mechanical terms. Wisdom is self-critical. It thrives on a feedback loop that provides the tools for subtle course corrections and, for that matter, radical ones.

Folly lacks this sophistication. It is bound to proceed in the direction of its own logical extremity. One begins to enjoy its delicacies but finishes the night gorged and puking.

The biblical proverbs understand this dynamic and instruct those who would learn with the most realistic of voices.

The variants of folly kill and destroy.

Wisdom, as we it and its voice personified in the first chapter of Proverbs, turns normal descriptors on their head. ‘Ease’ is often in the prophetic and sapiential currents of biblical literature, associated with facile wealth, corruption, and foolishness. Here, in what becomes almost a hymn to wisdom’s virtues, it is those who listen to Wisdom who will be secure and … live at ease.

Wisdom’s pleasures require a long growing season. They are not quick, indeed they are nearly always the product of long waiting and a chosen patience.

When they ripen, they are very sweet. By then, the fool has met his destruction, his name barely remembered.

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We do not often marry matters of wisdom and folly to those of love and hatred.

The biblical proverbs do not suffer this hesitation.

Not only does the Book of Proverbs rather daringly personify both wisdom and folly as appealing women in the street, calling out to passersby. It also sketches out the young man’s choice in terms of the strongest emotions of the heart.

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.’ (Proverbs 1:20–23 NRSV)

Biblical wisdom understands that its alternative is, in the short term, both attractive and rewarding. It is quite normal for the simpleton—the one who will neither take the time nor invest the energy required to discern right from wrong and health from disease—to love his immediate gratification. The simpleton’s life does gratify. Wisdom makes no bones about this.

Likewise, Lady Wisdom knows the personal buzz that the scoffer enjoys as well as the tight-knit kinship that bonds together those who thrive on what has lately been called ‘ironic detachment’. Such a life is, within the limits of its own myopias, a good life. For the moment, it satisfies deep needs.

Not without reason do scoffers acquire an aura of coolness about them. To claim it does not exist or fails to allure is, in its own way, a virtuous but misguided blindness.

We learn also, if we accept Wisdom’s plea to listen to her words, that fools hate knowledge. Theirs is no dispassionate choice in favor of self-entrancing ignorance with no offense intended towards the wisdom they passed over. The affections of the heart are very much in play when we choose a path that over the long run hollows out our soul and cripples our community.

Wisdom and folly are no white-bread choices from among a menu of options, none of which matters terribly.

Our choice does matter, and terribly, no less than love and hatred which ignite the bones and fire the soul.

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We blanch at the clarity of suffering.

If we have not experienced direct attack on our lives, our livelihoods, our family, or our faith, the slashing verbal knives of those who lament seem uncivilized, unsafe, and awkward. When we read, we skip over such language, whether our audience be our children, our congregation, or ourselves.

Truth be told, the clarity of the besieged is not a perspicuity that works well in all contexts. We understand that reality and human hearts are too complex and nuanced to fit into a good guys/bad guys bifurcation of our race. Wasn’t it a voice as suppressed as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s that taught us where the line between good and evil lies?: not between peoples or even people but through the heart of every human being.

Yet we must not quiet the voice of the martyrs or the cries of those who find themselves vulnerable to a painful and unjust end. Even if self-interest is the highest motive we can muster, one must remember this: I may one day need these words.

For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction;
|their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.
Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you. (Psalm 5:9–10 NRSV)

The poet has known enough of suffering to place a pungent prayer on the lips of those who have lost all recourse except YHWH himself.

The fifth psalm, as so many of its peers, cries out for ruin to be the fate of those who pound its author’s life into the ground. For the duration of his lucid moment, the pray-er knows his persecutors to be rebelling against God himself. He knows what ought to, what must, what—please, God, do it!—cannot but fall upon the heads of such assassins, whose fingers are stained with my life’s blood.

At the same time, the faithful lose their limp, their homely frailty, their vulnerable lips so capable of hypocrisy, their hearts so wandering, the seed of evil that germinates in their soul and but for YHWH’s providence and a long accrual of small, righteous decisions should place them quickly on the other side of life. Of this prayer.

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
so that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O LORD;
you cover them with favor as with a shield. (Psalm 5:11–12 NRSV)

The definition of this fortunate population is the definition of the sufferer himself. Like him, they take refuge in you.

In desperation, they are family. The clarity of the suffering not only profiles with uncommon sharpness the silhouette of one’s enemy. It also labels this one ‘brother’, that one ‘sister’, this child ‘m’ijo’, this aged lady ‘abuelita’.

The psalmist wishes for his kin not only the protection that is obviously needful. He wants more.

He wants laughter. Deep, joyous, exultant, belly-rocking laughter.

In the clarity of unjust affliction, one prays with no footnotes: Make these ones wander alone like living dead. Make these, in safe and tear-stained embrace, laugh until they can hardly remember why.

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When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River, a heavenly voice identifies him as the Father’s beloved son. Paradoxically, he is then led (or, as the gospel of Mark has it, driven or banished) into the desert to be tested by the devil.

While it may still be an open question whether the devil wears Prada, it is an established fact in the gospels’ presentation that the accuser quotes Scripture. His hermeneutic, that is to say his interpretive tactic, is sophisticated but very bad.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”‘ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”‘ (Matthew 4:5–7 NRSV)

The devil cites the ninety-first psalm. The poem ranks high among the favorites of Bible readers and lies open, almost as a protective amulet, by the bedsides of many sleepers around the world. They treasure its promise that YHWH’s hidden forces, his uncounted angels, are more than sufficient protection for his hard-pressed child who finds himself exposed to lethal invisibilities over which he holds no control.

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. (Psalm 91:3–10 NRSV)

The satanic way with Scripture is to quote text without context. This simple maneuver ably converts the word of God into the voice of hell.

The devil comes quickly—as contextless citation allows one efficiently to do—to his point. He engages Jesus in a conversation that leaves the best film directors flailing just a bit. The psalm from which he quotes reads in this place as follows:

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. (Psalm 91:11–13 NRSV)

It seems a note custom-made for the hungry abandonment of the beloved son in a desert not of his choosing.

Yet Jesus supplies a context that is latent in the ninety-first psalm itself, but visible and explicit in the Torah text that he quotes:

Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. (Deuteronomy 6:16 NRSV)

Jesus is, after all, the beloved son. The devil’s favorite psalm begins and ends with words directed to the faithful and besieged sufferer, who has nowhere to place his trust but in YHWH himself. Their plight is the same one. The devil conveniently overlooks this contextual bedrock, as it suits his purpose to do.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ (Psalm 91:1–2 NRSV)

Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation. (Psalm 91:14–16 NRSV)

On the devil’s lips, Scripture thus becomes the voice of hell. The threatened believer is turned by demand against his divine Protector. Trust becomes insolent challenge. Scripture is ostensibly honored but in reality debased.

We who are quick with a Bible, craving simplicity, learn too well hell’s pragmatic and horrible hermeneutic.

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The Bible’s primeval history, as this is found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis, is arguably the most supple and satisfactory explanation of human experience ever written.

One aspect of this paradigmatic story involves the matter of guarding (Hebrew שׁמר).

The second panel of the two-paneled creation story sees ‘YHWH Elohim’ (commonly in English, ‘the Lord God’) planting a garden in the east and installing the man there. Although the text speaks here only of the man, the joint commissioning of man and woman in chapter one and the organic and relational union of the man and the woman subsequently in the second panel provide a more inclusive context. Significantly ha-adam (האדאם, commonly in English ‘Adam’ or ‘the man’) suggests ‘humanity’ and is linked in the text to ha-adamah (האדמה), meaning the soil.

When YHWH Elohim places the man in the garden, the latter is assigned to that place with a double purpose: to serve it and to guard it. Some readers, not unreasonably, discern priestly resonances in this assignment and relate garden and temple as almost interchangeable features of YHWH’s living space on earth. More straight-forward—if not exactly prosaic—translations choose words like till and keep.

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:8–15 NRSV)

Famously, the first couple fails at this task. The appearance of an astute serpent invades the garden’s equanimity with deceptive guile, so fracturing the relational web that might have developed it as a paradise. It is plausible to assume that the couple possessed both the authority and the means to guard the garden from the usurping presence. Sadly, they did not do so.

In consequence the man and the woman find themselves exiled not only from each other but also from the garden itself. Like their eventual Israelite successors, the community divides and the people are expelled to a place of wandering that lies to the east of the soil that had been promised to them.

Then the LORD God said, See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’— therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22–24 NRSV)

Humanity, in the persons of its progenitors, finds itself the object rather than the subject of guarding. Insofar as access to and care of YHWH’s living space is concerned, they are no longer the guards but now the intruders. In addition, the guarding role no longer appears in their relationship to the place. They now simply serve or till it. They have become, in a sense, the enemy, albeit one clothed and watched over by YHWH in an arrangement that has become decidedly distant.

Yet even east of Eden, the dignity of humankind’s commission has not become entirely lost. After one of the couple’s sons (Cain, lance) murders another (Abel, a vapor) in a jealous rage related to the now mediated access to their Maker, YHWH questions the fratricide.

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis 4:8–9 NRSV)

With tragic pathos, the son of a couple doomed by their illicit acquisition of knowledge professes ignorance about the community’s most basic fact: the whereabouts of one of its own. What is more, he rejects the very purpose of his race. Virtually de-humanizing himself in the act, Cain spits damning words in the face of his Creator: ‘I will not be my brother’s guard!’.

Cain chooses bitter solitude. His shadow falls heavy upon us.

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The particulars of the Iranian cosmologists who arrive in Bethlehem to pay homage to Mary’s child are surprising. Yet the fact that such characters should appear near the center of events when the biblical God has bared his arm should not surprise. It has ever been so.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. (Matthew 2:1–4 NRSV

King Herod, tricked up in privilege, self-interest, and a host of counselors enriched with custody of YHWH’s holy scrolls, still manages to stumble about wondering how he might abort redemptive events or, failing this, to profit from them. This, too, has ever been so.

Privilege and legacy are not to be scoffed at. They represent distilled blessing and are capable of making people both wise and strong. Yet proximity to redemptive precedent bears with it the soul-killing dangers of presumption and apathy.

YHWH has always at hand his astrologers, pagan kings, lepers, and tax-gatherers.

He summons them when his chosen ones have faltered with that divine mixture of grief and glee that clings to breakthroughs like skies filled with angels and a child in a feeding trough, squirming, pooping, and hinting at salvation.

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The medium-sized prophetic book of Zechariah seems long among the twelve ‘minor prophets’. It ends with an idiosyncratic take on a sturdy prophetic theme: the destiny of the nations in YHWH’s plan.

As with the other prophetic books that touch upon this theme, the nations’ prospects appear to the modern reader’s eyes and tastes to be decidedly mixed.

Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths. If any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain upon them. And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves, then on them shall come the plague that the LORD inflicts on the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths. Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths. (Zechariah 14:16–19 NRSV)

First, the stock of those nations that comes here under consideration is a remnant of those peoples that have lately made war against YHWH and his city.

Yet these are offered a stunning fate: they are to make annual pilgrimage to that Zion which they had intended to obliterate, there to participate as though they were YHWH’s own Jewish people in the ‘festival of booths’.

The festival of booths is known alternatively as Sukkoth or tabernacles. A harvest festival, booths becomes in the biblical transformation of the agricultural cycle into a rhythm that celebrates YHWH’s great redemptive feats a commemoration of the forty years of Israelite wanderings in the desert prior to their ‘inheritance’ of the land that had YHWH had promised to them. Though the people experienced the frailty and predicament of nomadic aliens, YHWH’s provision got them through.

Against this backdrop, Zechariah’s vision of a YHWH-day when old distinctions will be broken down and forgotten, is quite astonishing. YHWH’s, Israel’s, and Zion’s worst enemies are, in a matter of speaking, invited into the family as kin and invited to cut the Thanksgiving turkey.

If there is a most unanticipated carrot for this privileged residue of the world’s great and arrogant powers, there is also a stick. YHWH will withhold the earth’s blessing to those who do not make annual pilgrimage, those who survive the YHWH-storm but for reasons of rebellion, ingratitude, or neglect choose not to belong.

We modern and post-modern readers may stumble here over our axiomatic conviction that matters of faith and religion are above all else matters private, voluntary, and of the heart. The Bible rarely entertains such a conceit and so is unlikely to soothe our bruised aesthetics on this count.

In Zechariah’s prophetic vision, several of the otherwise indelible fractures of human experience are broken down as YHWH has his way, unimpeded, with his world.

The old, normal, and troubling distinction between secular and sacred goes the way of all flesh. Zechariah trusts his readers to rejoice at this.

A wounded Egyptian, helped along towards Jerusalem by daughters and sons who never fully understood the depth of his former rage, shuffles bright-faced to Zion. Together—within earshot of cousins bantering the way holiday-makers do, in Hebrew—they build a booth.

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Full of summons to praise YHWH, the biblical psalms always provide a reason for doing so. In English translation, the word ‘for’ or ‘because’—commonly rendering Hebrew כי—habitually serves at the hinge between the command to praise YHWH and a motive clause that grounds such a response in YHWH’s deeds or his character.

Empty praise, that is to say praise for the sake of praise, is virtually unknown in the Psalter. When Christian worshipers hear it from worship platforms and worship leaders, they can be sure that liturgy has become detached from the biblical logic and rhythm of praise.

The psalter’s next-to-last exemplar piles up words in order to articulate the joyful nature of the people’s praise. No mere contemplative bliss, the vigor of their worship is to be expressed via dance and instrumental music.

The reason for such animated worship is, via a kind of logical rhyme, YHWH’s own delight in his people.

Praise the LORD!
Sing to the LORD a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
For the LORD takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with victory
. (Psalm 149:1–4 NRSV)

Delight, or taking pleasure, is a notion that occurs frequently in the biblical prophets, as in the Bible’s wisdom literature. One delights in YHWH and in that expression of his heart that is known as Torah or Instruction.

With winsome gratitude, notwithstanding his imperatival mode of expression, the psalmist places on display the reciprocal nature of such delight. We see YHWH smiling broadly as he contemplates his own daughters and sons. What is more, he beautifies—the New Revised Standard Version‘s ‘adorns’ is a nice flourish—his humble ones with victory.

The once tattered stroll about in designer threads, a reflected smile lighting their lifted faces.

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