Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, He took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel." The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted - and you yourself a sword will pierce - so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
Luke 2:22 et seq.
In Chapter 16 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus announces, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
This line inspired early Christians to believe the Second Coming would happen within a generation. It also may have inspired the legend, referred to in the enigmatic third-to-last verse of the Gospel of John (21:23), which indicated early Christians believed the apostle John would live an unnaturally long time until Jesus returned. It appears in today’s reading as a blessing received by Simeon as reward for his righteousness.
But unnatural longevity was also sometimes considered a curse. A thirteenth century legend told of a man named Cartaphilus – sometimes depicted as Pontius Pilate’s gatekeeper who struck Jesus as he carried the cross to Calvary – who is cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming. Apocryphal stories about encounters with individuals claiming to be Cartaphilus in the 1200s and 1500s received a lot of attention (sometimes with an ugly anti-Semitic cast) and most recently he was played as an ageless, murderous Catholic priest, prominent in the 1988 apocalyptic movie, The Seventh Sign.
Image: Rembrandt - Simeon with Jesus (1669)
The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying: "Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer?" Abram continued, "See, you have given me no offspring, and so one of my servants will be my heir." Then the word of the LORD came to him: "No, that one shall not be your heir; your own issue shall be your heir." The Lord took Abram outside and said, "Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so," he added, "shall your descendants be." Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.
This Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The readings seem to have been chosen for the simple reason that they have a familial theme. Several alternative readings are offered in the Lectionary. Two are particularly interesting and I’ll examine the first in this post.
In this passage, Abram is promised innumerable descendants. Abram takes God literally, but what God is really promising is that from this encounter with God the three major religions will arise: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God’s promise to Abram is of extraordinary importance to all that comes after it.
There is a popular belief that God chooses particularly good and virtuous individuals to be His messengers – people who have used their free will in ways that please God. But in every case, the text fails to support this notion.
We first hear abut Abram at Genesis 11:27 where it is announced that “Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot.” The narrative continues, and with broad brushstrokes we are told that Haran dies and Teran moves his family with the intention of settling in the land of Canaan, (which would become the Promised Land). But when the family arrived at a place coincidentally (?) named Haran, he settled there instead. Suddenly, without any preamble at all, God makes an extraordinary promise to Abram:
“Go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”
Note that there is no statement about Abram’s righteousness that might inspire God’s reward. He seems to have been chosen at random. Aside from obeying God’s command to leave, there is little to recommend Abram’s morality in the rest of the narrative. Fleeing famine, Abram arrives in Egypt. He hatches a plan to pass his wife, Sarai, off as his sister. Pharaoh makes Abram a wealthy man to include Sarai in his harem. God afflicts Pharaoh with plagues and Pharaoh, apparently dismayed by the position Abram’s deceit has placed him in, sends them away. This is a trick Abram and Sarai will play again in Chapter 20, this time on Abimelech, king of Gerar, who pays Abram a fortune to assuage his guilt. God inexplicably repeats his promise of innumerable descendants (Genesis 13: 14-16). Abram wins a military victory to rescue his cousin, Lot from captivity (the same Lot who escapes Sodom’s destruction only to have children by his own daughters in the very same chapter). Again, God repeats His promise, which is today’s reading. The first solid evidence that Abram might be a moral figure is the last line. Bear in mind that comes after God promises him the same thing three times and after Abram has been nothing but a cad.
You, Lord, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old.
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.
Isaiah 63:16B-17, 19B; 64:2-7
St. Paul will quote from this Sunday’s first reading in 1 Corinthians 2:29. (“What no eye has seen,
But the closing line catches my eye today. After bemoaning our limitations and shortcomings, Isaiah notes that we are not morally autonomous beings. He calls upon God’s forgiveness and grace because we are causal beings, without free will, formed by our nature and nurture: “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.”
Why does the idea that we don’t have free will make us so anxious? Without free will we feel enslaved. We are enslaved to a mechanistic, deterministic universe where everything that happens is either the inevitable reaction to what has happened before according to the laws of classic physics, or is the arbitrary, random effect of quantum physics. It renders us nothing more than complex organic machines responding to stimuli, with no more inherent value or dignity than a toaster or computer. We assume that to have value and dignity means to be able to make the right decision, to choose freely between good and bad and to choose well. To have value and dignity, we assume, we must perform some task that it was possible we wouldn’t perform - that we were free to perform or not perform the task - and to choose the good, the socially responsible, and maybe even the selfless. We want to be treated as responsible and competent - capable of self-direction and self-discipline. Our culture in particular values the “self-made man” and the “self-made woman” who pull themselves up by the bootstraps and take adult responsibility and accept blame when it arises. As children we eagerly anticipated the day when we would be considered adults – free, responsible agents and captains of our own destiny. We have a natural and evolved desire to see that the moral freeloader is punished. But our desire for free will goes even deeper. We dread the loss of free will because we feel it deprives us of any reason anyone might have to love us any more than they love someone else, or even something else. Slavery, no matter how benign, always diminishes dignity, and our slavery to the forces of causation feels like the utter destruction of our dignity. To the Christian, determinism deprives us of any reason God might love any human being. It is far more palatable to think that God deprives some human beings of love – those who fail to believe, fail to behave, or fail to be contrite – but it’s an altogether different order of dread to think that God has no reason to love any of us.
At Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation of God as a human being. It hardly matters whether Jesus was the product of a virginal birth or how this incarnation manifested itself. What matters is that we as a people of faith have received the inspired message that God became man, and how we unpack what that means.
The Incarnation does not cause us to magically have the capacity for free will. The Incarnation is the culmination of a process of adoption that renders our lack of free will irrelevant. When the Son of God becomes incarnate as a human being, God adopts humanity as His people. Our acceptance into God’s divine family, however we may imagine it, grants us divine dignity and ends our slavery. We are declared loved and accepted. We did not earn this inheritance, but received it in spite of ourselves. God has chosen to overlook something far more serious than our failure to make good moral decisions from time to time. God has chosen to overlook our inability to make moral decisions in the first place. Original Sin is not Adam and Eve’s decision to disobey God and eat fruit from a forbidden tree, nor is it the decision to assert their moral autonomy when they had none, but it is rather their utter inability to make moral decisions at all. The failure of the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai wasn't the bad choice to cast a golden calf, but their inability to make a free decision in the first place. Original Sin is the causal slavery we dread – the fact that without the intervention of God we are no better, no more significant, no worthier of love than automatons. It is Original Sin because we all share it – no one of us is any more or less free than another – we are all equally enslaved by Original Sin and there is nothing we can do about it ourselves. No one is born without this shortcoming or without the impulse to deny it and declare ourselves morally autonomous. This is what happened in the Garden. Although attaining moral knowledge ought to have been a positive event – as the snake promised it would be - the members of the first family are suddenly gossiping, blaming one another, and even murdering each other. But more than having bad social consequences, moral judgment makes us look at ourselves differently. Suddenly our self-worth and dignity are inextricably intertwined with our moral worth and our social worth. Suddenly we are not valued for our mere existence – we have no intrinsic, ineradicable worth - we are only as valuable as our place on the moral spectrum and our value to society. God begins sewing garments for Adam and Eve but we know and He knows it is not enough. For centuries, religion has largely been an attempt to achieve moral perfection in order to re-enter paradise - to encourage us to increase our moral and social worth - but we run full speed into the flaming sword. Embracing the illusion of moral autonomy and striving for moral perfection is not the road back into the Garden. In fact, that road compounds the problem – it is the problem - and leads in the opposite direction.
Nor is simply embracing our lack of free will the road back. Science asserts we don't have free will. But raw science cannot account for human dignity. Science can tell us what we are worth as a handful of organic chemicals, and it can measure statistically what we produce and what we consume, and it can place us in innumerable scales of measurement. But it cannot assert our intrinsic value. God’s incarnation is an existential resolution to this problem. By becoming human, God is declaring, once and for all and with the thunderous,volcanic weight of divine authority, that we are more than our biography. We are more than what we can do for God or for one another. We are valuable to God by virtue of our existence alone and His unreasoning decision to value us. We have nothing to offer in return – no amount of good behavior will pay the ransom for God’s love,[i] and no amount of bad behavior can diminish it. But, then again, love is not love if it is bargained for. Grace is not grace if it is earned. The Incarnation is the ultimate message of redemption:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God didn’t send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.[ii]
This is the culmination and crossroads of many themes of Scripture and hearkens back to the earliest moments. When God announces that He made us in His image, He was essentially affirming - right there in the beginning - that we were family to Him. The Incarnation is the total destruction of the shame inherent in our unfree nature. God has become one of us and, by so doing, has torn the dividing line between the human and the divine and imbued us with dignity. This bridging of the gap between the divine and the human is a theme repeated throughout Scripture. Jacob, later to be renamed Israel, has a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth where angels freely pass between the two realms and God stands at the top and declares “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”[iii] After the moral debacle of Mount Sinai, when God should have been at His most distant, instead He demands that the people construct a movable sanctuary - the Tabernacle Tent - for Him to reside in. [iv] God, thereafter, dwells among His people. Isaiah prophesies that a messiah will be born and his name, Immanuel, will mean “God is with us.”[v] The Incarnation of God is born, lives and dies as we do. And when Jesus finally breathes his last breath on the Cross, the veil that separates the Holy of Holies in the Temple from the rest of the world, fashioned according to God’s instructions in Exodus,[vi] is torn in two [vii].
Science and philosophy conclude with ever greater certainty that we don't have free will. This seems like a disaster for faith and a cataclysm for human dignity. We may assume that anything we can salvage from it will be small, compromised, and hollow. But the truth is that our lack of free will was the central point of Scripture from the beginning and is at the heart of our relationship to God - and it is a warm, personal, grace-filled relationship. When we assert the illusion of free will we adopt shame, judgment and hate of each other and ourselves. God has been working throughout the Scriptural narrative to relieve that shame. First, He knits Adam and Eve clothing to cover it. Then, at Sinai, He boldly announces that He will love us despite our lack of free will. Finally, at the birth of Jesus, He becomes one of us, completing the adoption and eliminating anything we have to be ashamed about. Far from diminishing human dignity, our lack of free will and God's choice to love us anyway imbues us with divine dignity. And the soul felt its worth.
O Holy Night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
The story of the Ten Commandments is undeniably a turning point in the biblical narrative. The account at first appears to be about the moment God imposes His law on the Israelites and they agree to comply and become the Chosen People. But the actual plot is more complex and signals to us that perhaps there is more to this narrative than at first meets the eye.
Having rescued the Israelites from Egypt, God leads them to the base of Mount Sinai. Moses ascends the mountain, and God tells him that God will make the Israelites His own people if they will agree to obey Him. Moses descends the mountain and reports the terms of the deal to the Israelites and they immediately agree.
Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which God commanded him. All the people answered together, and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”[i]
Moses dutifully transmits the people’s acceptance to God and the dramatic prelude to this momentous event is set into motion. God commands the Israelites to sanctify themselves for three days, washing their clothes, abstaining from sex, and finally marching forward to the very base of Mount Sinai. On the third day, there is thunder and lightning on the mountain, thick clouds obscure the peak, and the people hear a deafening trumpet blast. God Himself descends onto Mount Sinai wreathed in fire and smoke. The earth quakes, the trumpet blast grows louder. God summons Moses to the mountaintop again and tells him to remind the Israelites that if they see Him, or so much as touch the mountain, they will die. Moses descends and does as he is told. Then God dictates the Ten Commandments from the mountain to Moses and the people below. In terror, the people ask Moses to intervene – to receive the message and transmit it to them. The very first and second commands are not to have other gods and not to make graven images. God interrupts the list of Commandments to emphasize the importance of this one, which the Israelites will almost immediately break:
You shall not bow down to them and you shall not worship them, for I am the Lord your God, a jealous god, reckoning the crime of the fathers with sons, with the third generation and with the fourth, for My foes, and doing kindness to the thousandth generation for my friends and for those who keep my commands.[ii]
The staccato of the initial Ten Commandments is over, and seeming to re-emphasize and provide even more detail to the first and second commandments, God reminds Moses that the Israelites are to worship only Him and never create idols of silver or gold. The pace of command quickens again and, over the course of the next three chapters, God lays out dozens of more laws and the minimum sentencing requirements for failure to keep them.[iii]
Again, the Israelites agree to abide by these laws without hesitation: “All the words which the Lord has spoken will we do.”[iv] Moses writes down the laws, and reads this book of the covenant to the people.[v] A third time the people agree: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will be obedient!”[vi] God summons Moses to the top of the mountain again, this time to receive the Ten Commandments written by God’s finger on tablets of stone.
Moses is away for forty days, and the people become worried. While in Egypt, the Israelites, at the behest of God, “borrowed” silver and gold jewelry from their Egyptian neighbors before the last plague inspired Pharaoh to let them flee.[vii] Now the Israelites take their gold earrings out of their ears and give them to Moses’s trusted right-hand man, Aaron. Aaron casts the gold into the idolatrous image of a calf.
From the top of Mount Sinai with Moses, God sees that the Israelites have broken the commandment He so recently imposed and they three times agreed to follow. No longer does He refer to them as “the people”; now He refers to them to Moses as, “your people”:
Go, get down; for your people, who you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves! They have turned away quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen these people, and behold, they are a stiff-necked people. Now therefore leave me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation.”[viii]
Moses, in a remarkable speech to God, essentially convinces Him not to destroy the Israelites. God relents. When Moses comes down off the mountain, he is furious. As soon as he reaches the base of Mount Sinai, he throws the stone tablets to the ground and shatters them. Moses demands to know what Aaron was thinking. Like the blame game Adam, Eve and the snake engaged in, Aaron is quick to blame the Israelites and even tries to blame the calf on supernatural forces, telling Moses he simply threw the gold into the fire and out sprang the calf! Moses burns the calf, grinds it into powder and forces the Israelites to drink it.
A critical part of the story that is often overlooked is that God then summons Moses up to the top of the mountain again to receive replacement tablets identical to those Moses broke. Moses obviously sprang for the breakage warranty with Tablet 1.0 and now receives Tablet 2.0 for no additional charge. Upon arrival, before Moses utters a word, God pronounces his forgiveness of the Israelites using the same language He used when He first proclaimed the first and second Commandments:
The Lord, the Lord! A compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and good faith, keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime, trespass and offense, yet He does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons and sons of sons to the third generation and the fourth.[ix]
God then repeats some of His earlier commands and re-states His covenant with the people of Israel. This time, God is dictating and Moses is transcribing. For most of my life, I thought this story could have been less awkward with some fairly basic editing. If Moses simply zapped the Israelites with the first set of tablets without destroying the tablets, there would have been no need to have Moses go and fetch a replacement pair. But this is actually at the heart of the story. The Israelites broke the covenant almost as soon as they entered into it. God immediately enters into it again. Here’s the point: God knows that we are not morally autonomous beings – we do not have free will - and our word, even written in stone, is not trustworthy. Moses’s very strange punishment; forcing the Israelites to drink the golden calf; is not the sadistic creativity of a man blinded with rage. Instead, it is an acknowledgement, memorialized in the most important moment of the Old Testament narrative, that we are never free of our shortcomings. They are inherent to our nature and we carry them around with us always. We cannot be freed from sin, and we need not bother pledging to do better. God knows of what we are made. In His justice He loves us anyway. Our shortcoming is always with us – we drank the powdered calf and it is part of our nature. God nevertheless engages with us, overlooks this shortcoming that existed from the moment of our Creation and will be with us forever, and loves us nonetheless.
The story of the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai is not about people making the free choice to disobey commands and the forgiveness of an angry, petulant God. It is a story about our inevitable inability to make moral choices in the first place, and God’s decision to love us anyway. It is an echo of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve’s inherent shortcoming was a lack of free will. Their mistake was not to disobey a command. Rather, their mistake was that they asserted moral autonomy, assumed they had the ability to follow commandments, and therefore adopted reasons for all generations to come to judge one another and find each other wanting in direct contradiction of God’s advice. They were not ejected from the Garden, but rather made themselves inevitably miserable and condemned their children to murderous hate by assuming the ability to judge and be judged despite a lack of free will. We cannot walk back into the Garden the way we left – there is a flaming sword in our path. To recognize our true relationship to God, we first have to recognize that we do not have free will, the fact that there are no divine commands, and accept the truly unconditional love of God. The shortcoming God overlooks to love us is far more profound than our last bad behavior – it is the inherent inability to make free moral decisions at all. This is the message of the Garden, Mount Sinai and finally, as we’ll see, Jesus.
We think of the Israelites as being heroes of the story. But when Moses descends the mountain a final time and the Israelites resume their journey, there is no reaffirmation of their acceptance of the covenant or pledge to do better. Moses descends, we are told, with the skin of his face shining with a mysterious light so bright he had to veil himself. This is not a man who is flush with a second chance to follow laws and hopeful that the Israelites will not disappoint again – they do, and we do. This is an exuberant man, radically amazed by the I/Thou encounter with the divine and the radical grace he found there for himself and his people. The Israelites simply fall into line, donate their gold again, but this time to construct the Ark of the Covenant, and head off to the Promised Land.
Image: Mount Sakurajim, Tarumizu, Japan
[i] Exodus 19:3-8
[ii] Exodus 20:5-6; Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. 430; This is already an expression of mercy for the Israelites before they even break the commandment. Doing the math, being a foe of God must last uninterrupted for 996 generations before God will withhold His kindness. This message is lost in the New American Standard Version and many other popular versions of the Bible because they omit the second reference to “generations” so, instead of God’s mercy being virtually assured, it appears God will punish several generations for sin, but His kindness is exhibited to unrelated others. The difference is subtle, but the effect is not:
You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
This is a modern redaction, inadvertently having changed the meaning of the words to make them more severe.
[iii] Exodus 21-23
[iv] Exodus 24:3
[v] Exodus 24:4
[vi] Exodus 24:7
[vii] Exodus 11:2, 12:35
[viii] Exodus 32:7-10.
[ix] Exodus 34:7Again, an inadvertent redaction appears to have occurred and the first reference to generations in the New American Standard version and this time in even more versions of the Bible, has been dropped and the meaning of the passage changed. Compare: The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations
This is the history of the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that God made the earth and the heavens. No plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for God had not caused it to rain on the earth. There was not a man to till the ground, but a mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground. God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. God planted a garden eastward, in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground God made every tree to grow that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food, including the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but you shall not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground God formed every animal of the field, and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called every living creature became its name. The man gave names to all livestock, and to the birds of the sky, and to every animal of the field; but for man there was not found a helper comparable to him. God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. As the man slept, he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. God made a woman from the rib which he had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore, a man will leave his father and his mother, and will join with his wife, and they will be one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed.
Now the snake was subtler than any animal of the field which God had made. He said to the woman, “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the snake, “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but not the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it. You shall not touch it, lest you die.’ “The snake said to the woman, “You won’t really die, for God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took some of its fruit, and ate. Then she gave some to her husband with her, and he ate it, too. Their eyes were opened, and they both knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together, and made coverings for themselves. They heard God’s voice walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of God among the trees of the garden. God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” The man said, “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; so I hid myself.” God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” God said to the woman, “What have you done?” The woman said, “The snake deceived me, and I ate.” God said to the snake, “Because you have done this, you are cursed above all livestock, and above every animal of the field. You shall go on your belly and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth. You will bear children in pain. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you have listened to your wife’s voice, and ate from the tree, about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ the ground is cursed for your sake. You will eat from it with much labor all the days of your life. It will yield thorns and thistles to you; and you will eat the herb of the field. You will eat bread by the sweat of your face until you return to the ground, for you were taken out of it. For you are dust, and you shall return to dust.” The man called his wife Eve because she would be the mother of all the living. God made garments of animal skins for Adam and for his wife, and clothed them. God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand, and also take of the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever.” Therefore, God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.
Genesis 2:4-9, 15-25, Genesis 3:1-23
It is no accident that the forbidden fruit is from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God did not choose a tree arbitrarily for the prohibition to test obedience. It is fairly clear that God wishes to prevent Adam and Eve from attaining the ability to distinguish between good and evil. What a strange goal! This is particularly strange if moral judgment is a central concern in our relationship to God. It seems He didn’t even want us to have the ability to tell the difference! It is less strange, however, if this story represents God’s advice to us not to assume that we have moral autonomy and adopt the illusion that we can freely choose between good and evil.
Notice that when Adam and Eve hide from God, they don’t hide because they fear punishment for their disobedience. Rather, they say they are hiding because they are naked – they now have the ability to distinguish between good and evil and have the capacity for shame.
The story is not about disobedience. Rather, it is an exhortation against adopting the illusion that we have free will and can exercise morally responsible judgment. In the Garden, Adam and Eve are blissfully unaware of good and evil and are unable to exercise moral judgment and we are invited to assume they do not have or think they have free will. The situation is described as paradisal! It is only when humanity adopts the presumption of believing they can choose between good and evil that things start to fall apart. Moments after Adam and Eve assumed that they had free will and that they were morally responsible agents, God asks Adam what happened. Adam’s answer reverberates powerfully through the rest of human history. He says, “the woman who You gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the Tree and I ate it”. His answer is almost comic in that he instantly assesses blame against his companion for feeding him the fruit and even implies blame for God for ever bringing her into his life. Eve, not to be outdone, points the finger at the snake and says “the snake deceived me and I ate”. God immediately recognizes what has happened – it is obvious from their answers and obvious from their newly fashioned fig leaf aprons. The language of Genesis reads that God imposes punishment for their disobedience, but we know that our ability and indeed our overwhelming instinct and propensity to judge is itself a road that leads directly out of paradise and into the world we inhabit now. Within a few chapters, the silliness of Adam, Eve and the snake assessing blame against one another gets far more serious as Cain, in a murderous rage generated by envy - an envy that would not be possible without the ability to distinguish good from bad - kills his own brother. Scripture is telling us that when we assume we have free will and exercise our ability to judge right from wrong, we risk filling our minds and tainting our society with hate, envy, jealousy and demands for retribution. We hate by attaching narratives to events. And the narratives we attach are almost always about free will. God was not lying when He said we would surely die if we ate from the Tree. It has been a rough road ever since, filled with moral judgment of each other, hatred and death. God does not react to Adam and Eve’s disobedience as much as to the fact that they have developed a moral sense and are now engaged in moral judgment, blame and humiliation, as will all their descendants after them. Far from being a blessing, this ability is a curse.
It is critical to note that the scene of the Garden closes with the image of God fashioning clothing for Adam and Eve as if to say that now that humanity has falsely asserted that it can choose freely between good and evil, the inevitable result is that we will each morally humiliate ourselves and each other by comparison and jealousy – and that God immediately set to work to relieve our shame. This theme – God mitigating our shame – will be a central theme throughout Scripture through the encounter with God at Mount Sinai and the birth of Jesus. The flaming sword set at the entryway to the Garden seems to be an allegory for the fact that we cannot get back into the Garden by the path we took to leave it. We will not be able mitigate the bad effects of exercising moral judgment and assuming free will by acting ever more morally, charitably, or by a commitment to social justice. We will only mitigate those bad effects by rejecting moral judgment itself and recognizing that our will is not free. We cannot re-enter paradise with moral perfection as both secular people and people of faith often assume. Rather, to inhabit a place without hate and jealousy we need to recognize that we are not morally autonomous and that we do not have free will. The Kingdom of God is not a possible future when everyone will act morally and charitably because of a desire to avoid divine punishment and receive divine reward. The aim of religion is not the creation of a moral utopia. Rather, the Kingdom of God is a possible future when judgment is replaced by forgiveness because it is right, just and reasonable to do so. It is a possible future characterized by universal acceptance and love – not just forbearance or tolerance, but a genuine recognition that we are all in this together and there is no need or justification to place anyone anywhere on a moral spectrum. This is determinism nestled comfortably in one of the most important passages of Scripture, and actually seems to illuminate it.
Image: Genesis Chapter One written on an egg. Israel Museum
Many miracles were attributed to Nicholas. But the most evocative story attributed to him, and the one that would come to lend the most to our vision of him, wasn’t magical at all. He reportedly helped a poor man who had three daughters and who could not afford a dowry for them. Without a dowry, in the culture of the day, the daughters would have been condemned to a life of prostitution. Under cover of darkness, Nicolas threw a small bag of gold coins into the open window of the home of the poor man to pay the dowry of each daughter as they came of age. As the last daughter came of age, the poor man tried to discover Nicolas’s identity by waiting for him by the window. So, Nicholas instead threw the bag down the chimney into a stocking the daughter had hung by the chimney with care - to dry after washing.
In another variation of the story, the poor man successfully confronts Nicholas and thanks him. But Nicholas urges him to thank only God.
So, Christmas really is about gifts! But it is not gifts that we give - it is the abundant gifts God gives us. When Jesus multiplies a few loaves of bread and feeds thousands, he does not expect us to be able to repeat the miracle, nor is he demanding that we imitate his generosity. The story demonstrates that God’s love is abundant. While in the human economy everything of value is scarce, must be rationed and reserved for the worthiest, God’s economy is different. God’s love is abundant enough to go around with plenty left over. We don’t need to decide who is good enough – and God won’t either - He’ll just quietly throw His love to us under cover of darkness.
Happy Feast of St. Nicholas!
Happy Feast of St. Nicholas!
Jesus said to his disciples: "Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'"
This Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, the season of watchful waiting. But what are we waiting for? In a very real way, this question goes to the heart of what it means to be Christian.
Is a Christian someone committed to being a good person? How does that distinguish us from our secular brothers and sisters? Are we watchful for a moment of moral judgment, hoping we pass a cosmic final exam?
Is a Christian someone who has values distinct from secular values? Which ones exactly? Values around sexuality? A particular economic system?
Certainly, a Christian is someone committed to Jesus, but who do we say he is? Is he a moral cheerleader, come to Earth to increase charitable giving and volunteerism? Did a weary world rejoice at this birth because we finally had a good example? Was he born to be savagely killed to satiate an angry god’s bloodlust, inflamed by our poor behavior?
C.S. Lewis re-framed this theology to make it a little more palatable in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan the Lion was bound by the terms of Deep Magic that required the execution of Edmund, who was guilty of treason. Aslan exploits a loophole in the Deep Magic and allows himself to be executed in Edmund’s place, only to be resurrected later. In Lewis’s imagination, punishment must follow bad behavior as inevitably as 2 + 2 = 4. Even God is bound by it. Christians have endless ways of hedging the question of judgment: God forgives but He doesn’t forget; God doesn’t judge us, but we separate ourselves from His love; etc, etc, etc.
The premise of this blog is that we do not have free will and so God, if He is aware of this and interested in being fair, could not possibility reward us for good behavior and punish us for bad behavior. There can be no test. There can be no enraged deity or inevitability of punishment. There can be no judgment. So, what does it mean to be a Christian? What is the point of the Christmas story?
I believe the answer to that question is developed over the entire course of Scripture with clarion call crescendos in three distinct moments: The Garden of Eden, the delivery of The Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, and the Nativity story. (Yes, I’ll admit I think the Resurrection, although important, is more of an exclamation point than an integral part of the story.) Over the remaining three Sundays of Advent I will explore each one of these stories in the context of answering what it means to be Christian. It may seem that without free will that answer will leave Christmas (and Christianity) cold, mechanistic, and over-intellectualized. But I think the opposite is true.
Jesus said to his disciples: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.' Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Why take this story at anything but face value? It is certainly a powerful exhortation to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill, and visit the prisoner. Who among us - secular or religious - would disagree with any of those values? Of course, no one does. Almost as obviously, few of us actually meet the standard set out in this passage for avoiding eternal damnation. I, for instance, have never visited anyone in prison, nor have I ever visited a stranger in a hospital. I give some excess cash to charity and I vote in a manner that I think will most effectively reduce need, but I have no illusions that I am meeting the king’s stringent standards.
Most homilists will use today’s reading to exhort us to greater charity and, again, why fight it?
There are a few problems: First, this implies our relationship to God is transactional: Do what He says to receive reward and avoid punishment. Love one another as He loves us - or else. This vision of God is ultimately stultifying. It reduces God to a cosmic enforcer taken to fits of rage and disproportionate punishment we’d label as signs of immaturity in an earthly judge. It makes faith and morality virtually synonymous, and makes faith insipid.
For me, the larger problem is philosophical. Science and philosophy indicate we don’t have free will. Whether we are inclined to visit a stranger in a prison or do (or fail to do) anything else for that matter is, finally, the product of our nature and our nurture, neither of which is within our control. "A man can do what he wants, but does not want what he wants," as Arthur Schopenhauer said. If God is aware of this and is interested in fairness, He would neither reward good behavior nor punish bad.
So, if we are to take Scripture seriously, this story must be about something other than God commanding us to do something and threatening us with punishment if we fail. I explored one alternate interpretation last week (See, “The Useless Servant”).
Another possibility reveals itself in the parallels in this parable to God’s commandment expressed to the Israelites right after the Ten Commandments:
No widow nor orphan shall you abuse. If you indeed abuse them, when they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their outcry. And my wrath shall flare up and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall be widows and your children orphans.[i]
Our natural impulse is to focus on the moral exhortation that we are to avoid abusing widows and orphans. It appeals to our reflexive desire to equate faith with morality, and it also has colorful, dramatic language, appealing to our retributive side - if we abuse a widow, God will make our wife a widow. It’s also a nice, exceptionally easy moral test we can all pass if we’re inclined to. You would almost have to be a monster to abuse widows and orphans, so the only people who are likely to get caught out by this command are sociopaths anyway. But what if we are not morally autonomous beings and God is not in the business of command, reward and punishment? If this is not about the moral, what is the transcendent message? What are we to make of this seemingly inescapably retributivist statement?
In recognizing that revelation is not a word-for-word dictation by God to a prophet (and, as I have argued elsewhere, isn't verbal at all), we can recognize that we need to read between the lines and apply science and intuition to revelation to make it whole. Our understanding of our relationship to God must be guided by first principals. That God is just and that He would not punish us for things outside our control is the most fundamental assumption we can and must make about God. We need to be alert to moments when the prophet who received the revelation, reduced it to words, and wrote it down, might have abandoned this principle in favor of an assumption he’s made impulsively. We need to tease away what God meant from what the prophet may have inadvertently added as a result of his cultural expectations.
Abraham Heschel writes:
The prophet is not a passive recipient, a recording instrument, affected from without participation of heart and will, nor is he a person who acquires his vision by his own strength and labor. The prophet’s personality is rather a unity of inspiration and experience, invasion and response. For every object outside him, there is a feeling inside him; for every event of revelation to him, there is a reaction by him; for every glimpse of truth he is granted, there is a comprehension he must achieve. Even in the moment of the event he is, we are told, an active partner in the event. His response to what is disclosed to him turns revelation into a dialogue. In a sense, prophecy consists of a revelation of God and a co-revelation of man. The share of the prophet manifested itself not only in what he was able to give but also in what he was unable to receive. Revelation does not happen when God is alone.[ii]
In the ancient world, widows and orphans had no means to provide for themselves and were quintessentially dependent on the unearned accommodation and charity of others for their day-to-day survival. In an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, it could be anticipated that they would never pull their weight, produce anything, or serve any social function. What God was saying here was not a moral exhortation, so much as statement about the nature of His relationship to us – God’s morality. In modern faith the idea that God cares for each of us regardless of our social station is universally accepted. But recall that God’s constant competition in the Old Testament is Ba’al – a brutal, demanding family of gods with no tradition of love for anyone, let alone social outcasts or the poor. God’s loving concern for the widow and orphan would have been an unprecedented message of divine concern for those who could offer nothing in return. This was the message to the prophet, and it was radical departure from the existing expectations of faith. This message of loving the poor and the outcast rather than taking the side of the wealthy and strong, reflects radical grace – unearned love given freely to unfree beings. This is not selective reading, but rather a necessary interpretation if we utilize what science tells us about human nature to discern God’s relationship to us.
So, the message of the parable of the sheep and the goats is not a moral code for us to follow; it is the moral code God follows. Rather than having no regard for us, or having regard only for the triumphal heroes among us, His concern rests on us, never more so then when we feel orphaned, poor or broken. And a weary world rejoices.