The First Sunday of Advent - Be Watchful, Be Alert! (Part 1 of 4)

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!'"

Mark 13:33-37

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.     

November 26, 2017 - The Sheep and the Goats

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."

Matthew 25:31-46

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. 

[i] Exodus 22:21, Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 445-446.
Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Faraar, Straus and Giroux 1955) 259-260

November 19, 2017 - The Useless Servant

Jesus told his disciples this parable: "A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one-to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two.  But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master's money.

After a long time, the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, 'Master, you gave me five talents.  See, I have made five more.' His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master's joy.' Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, 'Master, you gave me two talents.  See, I have made two more.' His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master's joy.' Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, 'Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.  Here it is back.' His master said to him in reply, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So, you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter?  Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?  Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.  For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'"

Matthew 25

I began to write Faith on a Stone Foundation not knowing exactly how I was going to deal with this parable or the parable of the sheep and the goats (which also appears in Matthew).  Both seem to depict God as a harsh judge, capable of dividing us and casting some of us into eternal punishment.  They seem to contradict the image of God as all-loving and all-forgiving.  I think it’s fair to say that almost all of Christian literature has sought to find a compromise between these two visions rather than outright rejecting one or the other.   That’s probably good because human beings are really attached to judgment and would probably choose the harsh judge. In fact, Raymond Brown, an exceptionally well-regarded modern Christian commentator on Scripture, went so far as to describe the parable of the sheep and the goats as virtually universally “beloved.” We allow ourselves to like these stories because the commands inherent in them are uncontroversial: of course we should develop our talents and of course we should help others.  Really, we shouldn’t even need faith to tell us those things – they are values unequivocally shared with the secular world.

The answer was handed to me in a small-group discussion with Fr. Robert Morhous, a Cistercian of the Strict Observance living a cloistered life at the Abbey of St. Joseph in Spencer, Massachusetts. Fr. Morhous was also bothered by this vision of God and how it contradicted so much of the other images of God Jesus offered.  I remember he was particularly perplexed by the statement, "For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away." which seems like a terrible rule for the God who professes loving concern for the orphan and widow.  Fr. Morhous came to a remarkable conclusion:

The master of the story is not God, and the servants of the story are not us!  

Instead, the master is the world, expressing an economy of scarcity: it demands a return on its investment.  It will not value anything that is not productive and will, in fact, punish it to the ends of the Earth.  The servant to be punished is Jesus: the rejected, crucified champion of the sick, the outcast, the poor, the marginalized – everyone the Pharisees said was cursed by God, but Jesus insisted was blessed.  Jesus is expressing an economy of grace: love without price or condition.  In our world the rich do tend to get richer, but in the economy of God, it is the poor who are the objects of divine concern. 

I don’t know if Fr. Morhous would approve of the way I used his analysis in my book. I had hoped to send him a copy of the manuscript before it was published.  But the very day I finished it, I received word that he had died.

Image: Fr. Robert Morhous (9/10/32 - 1/28/16)

November 12, 2017 - Prepare

Jesus told his disciples this parable: "The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.  The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise ones replied, 'No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.' While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him.  Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, 'Lord, Lord, open the door for us!' But he said in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.' Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

Matthew 25:1-13

The central premise of this blog is that our relationship to God is not transactional.  It rejects the idea that we must act well, believe well or repent well to earn God’s love.  Rather, I take an existential view:  We are the beloved of God regardless of what we do or think.  This is in keeping with modern science and philosophy which indicate that we do not have free will and therefore couldn’t possible earn anything in the eyes of an all-knowing deity.  It is also in keeping with the age-old ideas of grace and the shefa.

Our eye is naturally attracted to the transactional in today’s reading.  Most often, it is read as a warning to remain in good standing with God at all times because you never know when your moment of judgment will come.  But if God is unconditionally loving, such an interpretation makes no sense whatsoever.

I have compared encounter with God to the I/Thou encounter described by Martin Buber.  The I/Thou encounter can come unbidden to the unprepared, as demonstrated by St. Paul on the road to Damascus. But most often it comes as an epiphany after years of preparation, as demonstrated by the apostles at Pentecost and the Buddha under the bodhi tree.  Today’s reading is an exhortation to prepare -  not to be ready for judgment, but to be ready for the divine encounter so that we recognize it when it comes.

Image: Martin Buber

November 5, 2017 - The Separation of Church and Faith

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.  Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.  For they preach but they do not practice.  They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.  All their works are performed to be seen.  They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.  They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 

Matthew 23:1-12

We should not expect those we hire, elect or ordain to be our prophets. There is no model for the hired, elected or ordained prophet in Scripture.  

The striking thing about the relationship between Moses and Aaron is that one played the role of prophet while the other played the very distinct role of priest.  When Moses was worn out from leading the people, God anointed dozens of helpers simply by having them stand around the Tabernacle Tent.  Shortly thereafter, two men who were not part of that brief consecration were observed prophesying in the camp.  Far from being angry, Moses encouraged everyone to strive to become a prophet.  Prophecy doesn’t require any credentials. On the other hand, Aaron’s ordination was a long elaborate affair which included ornate clothing, ritual sacrifice, etc.  Aaron was the liturgist of the camp – if you read carefully, you’ll note he does not really have a speaking role at all!  Our expectation today is that our ministers and priests will perform both the role of Moses and that of Aaron, when really their role is only the latter.   

This Sunday’s reading can certainly be read as a criticism of some clergy, and it was probably intended that way.  But it can also be read to highlight the difference between priest and prophet.  Jesus was happy to have the Pharisees fulfill the role of liturgist, but wanted spiritual and moral teachers to arise organically.  It is the separation of church and faith.

Prophets cannot be deliberately formed by a predictable process.  Moses had what Martin Buber called an "I/Thou" encounter with God and was able to express some of its content to the people he led. St. Paul famously had an I/Thou encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.  The Buddha had an I/Thou encounter under the Bodhi Tree. There was no classroom component or ordination. The weakness of religious education programs and seminaries across all denominations is that they expect to re-create Moses through a linear process when they should be focused on re-creating Aaron.  The I/Thou encounter cannot be conjured or taught.

Lacking an authentic Moses we tend to look for our prophets and moral guides among celebrities, politicians, and worse.  Lacking an authentic Moses we abandon even Aaron and embrace the secular.