Matthew 03-The Bible in Context

Advice for reading through uncomfortable passages.

 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

So far the subtitle of this blog could be “leaning into your discomfort.” Now here comes John the Baptist, talking about repentance, which I’ve always thought of as an uncomfortable act.  People used to self-flagellate and wear hair shirts as a way of repenting. Yikes.  Now I’ve never done that, but my general conception of repentance has been an idea of feeling really sorry. But my beloved NIV footnotes describes repentance as “a radical change in one’s life as a whole.”  And that sounds like a much healthier and more effective definition than mine, and way better than whipping you’re own back bloody.  But even so, radical change, in the sense of repentance, requires examining our current beliefs and actions, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable.

That in and of itself isn’t any huge revelation.  I think most Christians of any stripe talking about repentance are expecting it to go hand in hand with at least a little bit of self examination.  But if we’re talking about radical changes in behavior through self examination, let’s talk about some radical evolution of thought at the same time, and how reading the Bible in context can guide us on our spiritual journeys of radical change.

I listened to a new podcast for the first time ever last night, called The Bible for Normal People.  In the episode I listened to, host Pete Enns brought up the fact that the Bible needs to be read in context.  To paraphrase, he reminds us that the Bible pre-supposes cultural norms that simply aren’t true for most people today.  Just recently I’ve had two brief comment/social media discussions about the importance of Biblical context, and even touched upon it a few posts back, in Malachi 02. Basically, it’s important to remember that while the Bible is a divinely inspired book, it was still written by humans.  Well-intentioned and seeking God, for sure, but fallible and imperfect nonetheless.  They were influenced by the culture of their time.  Sometimes that means that rules and cultural norms that applied to them simply aren’t applicable today, such as polygamy and slavery, which Pete Enns listed as examples.  So it’s important to remember that when we read certain passages, especially those dealing with rules and behavior.

Let me be clear-I’m not advocating a complete rejection of all Christian ideals and traditions.  Far from it.  What I am advocating for is doing away with dogmatic rule-following for the sake of rule-following.  In this chapter John the Baptist does the same thing, calling out the Pharisees and Sadducees in 3:7-10.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two influential and educated groups of Jewish society who were strict rule-followers, and tended to be separatist and elitist – not really things Jesus will be down with when he gets into his ministry.

In order to not be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, I think we need to dig deeper into the Bible than just the surface meanings of the texts, and look for the universal truths. I believe that our primary responsibility is one of love and acceptance, and to find Biblical proof of that I started this blog.  The Bible is a vibrant treasure trove of guidance, and to see it as static does it a disservice.  It is there to be used as a tool in our spiritual journey, as we examine our thoughts and actions to see if they are in keeping with Christ’s true teachings.  The Bible was at one time used to provide justification for slavery.  You don’t see many advocates for that, anymore, and yet the Bible hasn’t been thrown out. Changing our minds on topics like gay marriage, women in the priesthood, and more doesn’t mean that we’re throwing away the Bible.  As long as we are thoughtful in our opinions, seeking God as we form them and reading the Bible for it’s deeper truths, then I see no problem with new interpretations.

Self examination can be really uncomfortable.  So can repentance.  But it doesn’t have to mean the end of joy and love.  Instead, it can be the starting point for it.  Next time you read something in the Bible that makes you uncomfortable (the verses that get my hackles up are always the ones admonishing women to be subservient), examine it.  Remember the context in which those verses were written, and look for the greater truth.  Doing so will bring you into deeper conversation with God, into a deeper knowledge of yourself, and into a deeper knowledge of your own faith.

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I’m totally not ignoring Jesus’ first lines of the Bible, like literally the first words he ever speaks, as our Bible is arranged.  I just really like the telling of this story in Mark even better, so I want to discuss it a little later on, and keep the focus of this blog post on reading the Bible in context.  Don’t worry, he talks a lot in Matthew 11 and we’ll discuss what he says next post.

Psalm 126 – Faith in Times of Doubt

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

 

Isn’t this a beautiful psalm?  I think it sounds like Shakespeare.  He used dreams and dreaming in so much of his own writing.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is basically one giant dream.  The first half, especially, sounds like something a triumphant heroine would say in closing.  So now I’m wondering if Shakespeare had any favorite psalms.  If I had to take a guess, I would think this to be one of them.

But why would this psalm be suggested reading for Advent? My beloved NIV footnotes actually came up short (gasp!) on any clues.  But I found a clue when reading different versions of this psalm online.  And I’m so sorry I cannot remember which version or where exactly I found this note, because I really appreciated the insight and wanted to link it.  126:6 says “those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy.”  The whole reason they’re going out weeping is because they are using what grain they have left, the grain that they also eat, to plant.  Of course, you need to plant in order to have food in the long run, but if you don’t have enough grain to get you through the short run, what good is it?  So, as these farmers go out to their field, using up most of what’s left of their food supply, they have many troubles on their mind.  Can I make it to harvest? Will it be a good harvest? Will it rain enough? What if it rains too much, and there is a blight? What if there are locusts this year? A whole myriad of things can effect a harvest.

Planting becomes an act of Faith in a time of doubt.  These farmers may be weeping, but they do it anyway, and God rewards them with the joys of harvest.  Same with the streams of Negev, mentioned in 126:4.  This time my NIV footnotes came through for me.  Negev was a desert region (surprise, surprise) that had seasonal springs.  In the summer months they dried up, but in the winter months the waters returned.  So again, they require Faith through hardship of those who rely upon them.

What does this have to do with Advent?  Advent is a time of preparation, of waiting.  I for one can get anxious over preparations and waiting. This psalm is a reminder that on the other side of that anxiety is joy untold, we just have to have Faith.  Now this isn’t to say that Faith will cure life’s hardships.  One of my favorite church signs of all time said “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  But if you go through life’s hardships knowing God is with you, believing in a joy that is so great you’ll think it can’t be real, you must be dreaming, then those hardships will be easier to bear.  It may feel like the world is against you.  Hell, maybe the world IS against you.  And it is okay to feel sad or overwhelmed or anxious or whatever.  Look at those farmers, they were weeping. But don’t stop planting that seed, building that tower, persevering through your act of Faith, because that is what lays the foundation for an outcome of joy.

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Next week I’ll be reading about John the Baptist according to Matthew.  There’s three chapters where he is mentioned, so it’s perfect to round out the last full week of Advent.  These chapters are Matthew 3, 11, and 14, if you want to read along.

Malachi 04 – Privilege? White Privilege?

Turning our hearts to others and examining ourselves.

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Arrogant. Evildoer. Wicked.  This whole chapter is a warning to “those people.” But who are these people, exactly? I thought that perhaps knowing the original Hebrew words might help me gain a fuller understanding of what these undesirable traits might actually be, and how to avoid them.  I don’t know a lick of Hebrew, fortunately, I have Google and a plethora of results came back when I searched “Classical Hebrew Arrogant” and so forth.  My favorite new reference is a Hebrew word study site.  The layout is a little dated, but it had some great information on it. If you’re reading the Bible and wonder about a word, it’s a great place to check.

I’ll sum up my half hour of internet digging in a few sentences.  Arrogant pretty much means what we think of as arrogant. Wicked most directly refers to cheating, as in, a merchant who uses false balances. “Evil” has many translations in the Bible, and many of them mean “harm” more so than “bad.”  The example I liked best comes from a particularly long essay on the subject. It talked at length about the giving and receiving of “evil” names.  Basically it refers to slander, or a person trying to harm another’s reputation, not cast a spell upon them that would turn them evil.  Likewise an evil report can just mean bad tidings, not malicious misinformation. So what it boils down to is the arrogant, the wicked, and the evildoer are those who bring harm to others, either through false dealings, slander, or just plain bad behavior.

I started writing about how the evildoer and the wicked of the Bible are those who harm others, and how it is important to truly consider if someone is actually hurting others before condemning them (gay marriage critics, anyone? Sorry, couldn’t resist that jab).  But then I realized I need to take one more step back and examine how my actions might be harming someone, turning me into the arrogant, wicked evildoer.  One of the best, and hardest, pieces of Jesus’ teachings to follow is found in Matthew 7:5.  You’ve probably heard it: “You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.” In other words, study your own actions before you start seeing the fault in others.

Being in an interracial marriage with a husband vocal in social justice, I have a lot of conversations about white privilege, institutional racism, and implicit bias – all of which can be harmful phenomena.  They are uncomfortable topics for a lot of white people, including some of those closest to me.  I get it.  We all want to believe that we are “good people;” and living in a society that is invisibly structured to exclude certain members of that society makes us complicit to a crime we didn’t even know we were committing.  It’s jarring to realize this, and can make people defensive.  I like to think I’m pretty sensitive to these things, again, being married to someone who is both Black and Native and now being a mother to two mixed-race children.  But even from that close-up vantage point I have had to step back from time to time and reevaluate how I was reacting to things, how I was being part of the problem and not the solution.

Verse 4:6 tells us a prophet will come to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents.” This means we’ll be truly thinking of others, in tune with each other’s needs.  This is empathy! We already know what that is, we don’t need a prophet to start doing that, we can start now.  Sometimes that is easy – comforting a friend through sorrow feels natural, and doesn’t require a lot of self-examination.  Sometimes, though, we need to recognize when what we are doing (or not doing), may be harmful to others, even by proxy, and then see what we can do to change that.

My plea today is for you to join me in identifying your positions of privilege.  I don’t want you to feel guilty about it, but I do want you to identify it.  Perhaps you are white.  Perhaps you are wealthy.  Hell, perhaps you’re just middle class, that’s a privilege.  Perhaps you are able-bodied, and have health insurance through work, and don’t deal with mental illness.  You get the idea.  Again, don’t feel guilty about any privileges you may have, but do see where they may make you blind to those that don’t have them.  Let’s use an example from recent headlines.  There were two men, both fathers, accused of murder in separate incidents.  The white man was humanized, with news sources using his name, calling him a father in the headlines, and showing pictures of him with his family.  The black man was simply called an “Arizona man,” and his mugshot instead of any photos of him with his family were used.  Just through subtle differences in reporting, the white man was made to seem sympathetic while the black man was made to look criminal.  Now, I hope you are never accused of murder, but there are many small instances of our society all working in similar ways against people of color, and just like a dripping faucet, those instances add up.

If you feel yourself getting angry, flustered, or defensive right now, try to examine why. If there’s anything marriage has taught me, it is that often the most important time to reach out a hand for understanding is when you are angry: don’t fight the person, fight the problem. One time I read a post on Pantsuit Nation one time after the Women’s March.  A black woman had been belittled on the metro on her way to the rally.  Not by any counter-protesters, but by her fellow marchers.  She was angry, and hurt, and the pain came through very raw in her writing.  My immediate reaction was to jump in and say “not all white people are like that” and basically defend myself, separate myself from the others, listing off all my shining non-racist characteristics.  Many others had already done that.  But that would only make me feel better, and wasn’t what this woman needed to hear.  She needed the space to tell her story and be heard.  Some others commented as much, I decided just to “love” the post.  Just holding space for her was the best I could do, even if it was hard.  So I did it, and vowed to keep examining my own actions, learning where I can make changes so as to not contribute to racism, institutional or overt, and help shine light on where it still exists.

We’re going to mess up, we’re going to make new, sometimes painful, discoveries.  But the important thing is to keep going, keep searching, and keep “turning your heart” to those around you, and you will see God turn his heart to you in return.

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Yay! A whole book down and Advent isn’t even over!  I’ll read Psalm 126 next and then find some passages on John the Baptist, since he was also sent to prepare the way for Jesus and seems like a fitting Advent figure.  I’m not sure which yet, I’ll let you know on Friday.