Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice

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The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.

There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.

Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:

 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here:  What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children?  They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”. Continue reading “Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice”

Prayer Beyond Imagination: Space, Time, and Story

Lately I came across an interesting theological intersection between Abraham Heschel and John of the Cross. John, advising would-be contemplatives, writes about how the imagination can be helpful to us when we’re beginning to meditate and pray, but can become an obstacle to progressing in prayer, because anything we construct in our imaginations can never correspond to the reality of God.

Heschel, in his wonderful little book on the Sabbath, writes about how the Sabbath returns our attention from the arena of space towards the arena of time. Heschel argues that our imaginations have to do with space—the way we conquer and move in the world of space.  In that view, images of God necessarily depict God as existing in space, losing the dimension of God’s existence in time. However, for Israel, the Sabbath functioned as a temple in time, reminding Israel that God existed and worked in the sphere of time.

I was reading John and Heschel together, and it led me to think about how this all gets played out in the Hebrew canon, and the implications for a narrative theology. If we think about the two sides in the analogy framework, we get something like this:

Image : Space :: Story : Time

Image is to space what story is to time—Image and story are depictions of existence in the respective spheres of space and time. Interestingly, in the canonical faith of Israel, the God of Israel is freely depicted as through stories. God is depicted in time through the use of story, while the canonical tradition explicitly rejected the depiction of God in space through image. Perhaps that is just because of the nature of the written canon, but it seems also to be an affirmation of something essential about the nature of God. God is in pursuit of goals, on a mission. God works through time, across time—not cyclical, repetitive time, mind you, but historical time, in which there is progression and fluidity.

The canonical God is a storied God, because God is a personal being, expressed in story better than in a space/image, as if he were material. For Heschel, this is a reminder that we, too, exist not just as matter in the sphere of space, but also in the sphere of time, and that this is what really matters. Being a person is about existing through time.

In the prayer theology of John of the Cross, the problem with the use of too much imagination in prayer is that it prevents progression—God becomes fixed, static. The imagined God may be dependable, but it can never fully express God—God as eternal person is beyond full expression through image. When the imagination is allowed to play too heavy of a role in prayer, the prayer is prevented from developing a faith in God that can exist beyond what can be imagined.

However, the situation is different in a narrative theology that understands God as having been at work, which depicts that work through story, and understands the story to be somewhat open-ended, and continuing through the present. In that theological framework, there is a place for hopeful prayer in the midst of darkness, while God is  hidden and unseen. Indeed, such time is healthy, because it keeps us from restricting and limiting God to our image. God may be at work in new ways throughout time. Thus, waiting, praying, and living in faith (not by sight) is an affirmation of definitive hope, and yet also an exercise in provisional discernment. We live in the story we know, knowing that we don’t yet know the whole story.

Kingdom Come: A Sermon about Matthew's Genealogy

He was the “Son of God”, the “bringer of Good News”, the Lord, the Savior, the one who would restore order and justice to the earth—at least that was Rome’s official story about Caesar.  History also seems to look favorably on the Pax Romana, and in many ways, that version of reality isn’t that far off. The Roman Empire brought relative peace, wealth, and stability to many in the mediterranean world.

However, there was another side to life in Caesar’s world. Beneath the heel of the empire were whole peoples, exploited for the empire’s sake, hopeless to fight back against the efficient military machine of Rome’s storied army. In Palestine, a particularly dark cloud hung over the recipients of Caesar’s “good news”. The Jewish people living in Judea and Galilee lived in a world in which power was king—and they had none of it. They had always been a proud people, and once a powerful nation, but now lived under another flag. Over and over again they rose up to resist the Empire, trying to beat the empire at its own game by asserting their own power—and they failed miserably. Rome brutally asserted its power over what was, to them, a strategic territory filled with a stubborn, irritating, and irrational people. Religious leaders based in the temple used divine distinction to stoke the fires of resentment that justified bouts of armed revolution. Many a would-be leader rose to fame by resisting the Romans, claiming divine consent for their revolutionary attempts to throw the pagans out. Certainly not everyone joined in the violence, but everyone felt the force of Rome’s response to it. To some it was an empire of peace, but to others, it was an empire of violence.

Also, while it was an empire of wealth, it was also an empire of poverty, built on the backs of slaves and enslaved nations. Wealth drifted upward, and the few who controlled land or other means increased their assets while the poor became poorer with each generation. Some of the most recent historical work is trying to move beyond simple binary descriptions as elite/nonelite or haves/have-nots, but even still, the best estimate show that between 75-97 percent of the population in the roman world lived in poverty, if that is defined by living at or near subsistence level.

Beyond that violence and turbulence, the economic conditions were tough as well. Under  the empire and its elite accomplices, a small minority controlled land, food, and wealth. Although historians are working to get beyond simple distinctions like elite/poor, the best estimates now are that somewhere between 75% to 97% of the population across the empire lived in poverty—meaning at or below subsistence levels, with very few resources. Palestine, having been rocked by violence and dependent on agriculture, was worse off than most areas.  For many of the Jews of Palestine, life under the Roman empire was anything but a life of wealth—it was a life of poverty.

As far as stability goes, Rome knew that it needed local leaders who sought to keep the people in check, and found more than enough who were willing to become accomplices to the empire’s power in exchange for a few of the empire’s coins. These imperial elite played a dangerous game, negotiating the terms of the relationship between the people and the empire. When the people were pushed too far, revolution erupted. When the empire’s power was too openly challenged, the military convincingly crushed the opposition. The imperial elites danced between these two, trying to keep both parties reasonably content in the effort to maintain their own power, and often failing. Thus the people of Judea and Galilee faced a cycle of would-be revolution, followed by crackdowns, growing dissatisfaction, and new uprisings.

Caesar promised a world of peace, wealth, and stability. For many of the people living in Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee in the first century, the reality was a life of violence, poverty, and turbulence. Is it any wonder that many of the people were anxious for a change? Caesar’s world was a world where power stood in the place of justice, where influence held more sway than righteousness, and where rich and the poor were nearly destined to become richer and poorer. Depending on who you were, you either hoped it would go on forever, or hoped and prayed that God would intervene, and remake the world into something else.

The book of Matthew grows out of the latter perspective, and is thoroughly subversive to the empire. It begins with the assumption that this is not Caesar’s world. It is God’s world, and God has been active in it a lot longer than Caesar could imagine. The book’s opening line, “The book of the generations of Jesus Christ” calls us back to Genesis, to the story of God creating the world and of God’s relationships and promises to the patriarchs. It points toward the language Genesis uses to introduce its own narrative (“The book of the generations of the heavens and the earth” Gen 2:4), and to move to new phases of the story. (5:1, 10:1, etc.). Matthew uses it here to let the reader know that he is about to tell about a new phase in that same story. He does all this because he wants us to know, from the very beginning, that this is not a narrative set in Caesar’s world—it is God’s world, and Caesar is just living in it. Beyond that, the genealogy is a substitute for a formula such as “in the days of Caesar Augustus…”, and gives the story of Jesus it’s primary context, which is not in the history of the Roman empire, but in the narrative of God’s covenant people. He is the son of Abraham and the son of David, being born in this moment of the story of God’s people.

Matthew marks the significance of the moment by structuring his genealogical list into three periods. There is the period from Abraham to David, one from David to the Exile, and from the exile to the moment of Jesus. Abraham, David, the Exile, represent critical moments in the story, and by noting the time, Matthew is underlining the importance of Jesus. Matthew 1:17 points out the symmetry of this for the reader, “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” The only problem is, Matthew’s math is wrong. 

Most of the time, we don’t notice stuff like this because we read the Bible too quickly, but if you count up the named generations Matthew lists, the numbers should be fourteen, fourteen, and thirteen. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that’s a mistake—ancient authors loved to play with numbers in settings like this, and I feel certain that Matthew is doing this on purpose, somewhat playfully. I think he is setting us up to look at the story and ask, “Who comes after Jesus?” It’s a great way to open his book, because the rest of the gospel really teases out this question, as Jesus recruits disciples, teaches them about a new way of life, and then eventually charges them to do the exact same thing, replicating their experience of discipleship throughout the world. The genealogy is therefore connected with the rest of Matthew’s story, right up to the end, where Jesus gives the great commission, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew’s gospel, from the genealogy to the commission, points to the question, “Who comes after Jesus?” and, I think, to an answer.

The answer is “us.” We are the descendants of Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus’s work is producing a sustained community that lives consciously under the reign of God—a community of which we are now a part. In our living as disciples of Jesus we find ourselves in Jesus’s story, and the mission of his life become our mission. We continue his story. We are the fourteenth generation.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Some folks worry about who their ancestors were. I am more concerned with who my descendants will be.” Matthew’s story shares that concern, and even the genealogy, which seems to look back, looks forward to the fulfillment of Jesus’s mission. As we take our part in that mission, may we look forward to its fulfillment as well, and trust that to that end  we will be used by God, for God’s own glory.  Amen.

The Story (As Told by Steven, at This Moment, in This Place)

I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about the nature of scripture, and particularly the grand narrative of the biblical text. There are a lot of synopses of the story,  but I’ve been tinkering with my own, a task that might not be a bad idea for most believers to work on every now and then. Recognizing that such a synopsis necessarily leaves things out and focuses on some elements at the expense of others, I’d love a little feedback on where I’m at with this version. I mean “Version” pretty intentionally, recognizing that it reads a little differently than it would have a year ago, or likely will a year from now. What’s here is a reflection of the story I see myself in right now. What do you see as missing or distorted here?

The world and humanity were created by God, but became estranged from God because of human sin, and thus the world became broken. As a result, God set about revealing Himself to Abraham and his descendants, forming them into a people whose destiny was the blessing of the world—God would reconcile himself to humanity through Israel, and thereby heal what was broken.

Although it appeared God’s plan would at times be thwarted by Israel’s unfaithfulness and resulting exile, God continued to pursue his plan through Israel, and eventually was victorious in creating the possibility of true reconciliation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. After his resurrection, God began using Jesus’s followers to proclaim the message of his reign, and to exemplify that reign within a new form of human community which we know as church. The church carries out that mission today, while trusting the promise that at some point God will assert his ruling authority over the whole earth, and thus bring the world back into its proper state. At that time there will be a resurrection of those faithful to Jesus, what was broken will be made right, and God’s reign will be fully realized.

I’d love to hear your feedback on this!