JOSHUA Cities of Refuge

1 Then the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. 4 He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. 5 And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. 6 And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’” (Joshua 20:1–6 ESV)

The cities of refuge are laid out for Israel in Numbers 35:9–12 and Deuteronomy 19. Six cities in all are set aside for those who kill without pre-meditation or malice, places to flee and find safety from family members seeking vengenace:

9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. (Numbers 35:9–14 ESV)

It’s important to remember that the teaching given to Israel in the wilderness — especially the punishments for sins — are not carried out by some abstract state and its uniformed agents, but by family members, relatives of those aggrieved. This is why the protection of orphans, widows, and wayfarers (to use Qur’anic language) is so important in both the Torah and the prophets — because they have no family, no kin, to act as a deterrent to wrongdoers, no kin to seek revenge, to avenge the blood that has been purposefully or accidentally shed.

So it makes sense that these six cities of refuge — three east of the Jordan and three in Palestine proper — would be set up. Because some who kills isn’t fleeing the state, but a kinsman seeking vengeance.

Because of this, most of the laws about retribution given in the Torah (“But if there is harm, you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” Exodus 21:23–25, also Leviticus 24:17–23 and Deuteronomy 19:21) are designed to limit the damage done by vengeance-seeking rather than encourage retribution. You can take no more than was taken in order to avenge the wrong. No one-upping the damage, no scorched earth in response to a slight. Even Deuteronomy’s command “your eye shall not pity” is a reminder that this vengeance, that this “purging evil for your midst,” is a divine commandment. We may be inclined to flinch — taking limb and life is no small task, and we should never be comfortable with it even when we are right doing it.

This reminds me of story from time at The Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. In the far southwest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the mountains of Asir province along the mountainous border with Yemen, came a report of a murder. A young man from one family killed a young man from another family. The police, however, were not called, in part because the writ of the government doesn’t run very deep in that part of the country.

Instead, the patriarchs of the two clans agreed to work it out the value of the murdered man’s life according to long-held custom. The murderer was held safely by his family and the clans sat down to deal. Eventually, as I recall, the dead man’s life was determined to be worth two pickup trucks, six camels, and an unspecified number of goats. The negotiations — which everyone in the murdered man’s clan had to accede to — were capped off by big, public feast to solemnize the arrangements.

This is the kind of law that scripture is. Not statues for states, but customs for clans and tribes and an entire people, Israel’s sunnah if you will, it’s way of doing business that limits how much and what kinds of vengeance are acceptable. These are statues for human beings, that remind us who and what we are, rather than the impersonal and mechanistic laws of states and nations.

And the cities of refuge are part of this. A reminder that not all killings, not even all murders, are the same. That everyone is entitled to be heard, and mercy … mercy may not be an entitlement, but there is room for mercy.

There is room for mercy.

LENT Never God’s Last Word

12 Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. 13 For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah, and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to make offerings to Baal.

14 “Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble. 15 What right has my beloved in my house, when she has done many vile deeds? Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult? 16 The Lord once called you ‘a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit. ’ But with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. 17 The Lord of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking me to anger by making offerings to Baal. (Jeremiah 11:12–17 ESV)

Didn’t I just say on Sunday that disaster wasn’t a punishment from God? That suffering wasn’t a sign of the judgement of God?

They aren’t. And I believe it. Jesus said so. At least in the case of the seemingly meaningless. Like the collapse of tall buildings. Or death at the hands of the state.

But in scripture, God frequently uses others — Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, and by allusion, Romans — as means of judgment upon Israel. For Israel’s idolatry, for its failure to care for the least in its midst — strangers, widows, orphans — for its faith in its own power, strength, and wealth. These are Israel’s sins, the sins that matter, the sins that bring judgment. And so, the Lord has decreed disaster against the house of Israel, and nothing — nothing — can avert it. Not sacrifice, not pleadings, not prayer.

Do not pray for this people. The judgment of God is coming And nothing can save them.

There are consequences for sin and faithlessness. David and Solomon’s kingdom was divided because of its faithlessness, the northern kingdom disappeared underneath an Assyrian onslaught because of its faithlessness, and now Judah — little Judah — will face a Babylonian army because of its faithlessness.

In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God outlines the blessings to come if Israel follows the covenant God has made with it, and the curses that will come if Israel proves faithless. But it isn’t an either/or promise. It is a both/and. “When all of these things come upon, the blessing and the curse,” God tells Israel in Deuteronomy 30, when you consider your exile and/or miserable state because you have failed to uphold the teachings of God, and you “return to the Lord your God,” then God will restore Israel.

Repentance. This is what God truly wants. This is what Jesus tells us matters. Repentance that leads to trust in God, and self-giving love of neighbor.

Sometimes it does not come in time to avert the disaster. Sometimes the disaster is needed to teach and refine and burnish. Sometimes the disaster catches us unawares, and we are gone. There are events in my life — like the ending of my first pastoral internship — which I have come to see as a judgment upon my faithlessness. God teaching me, in disaster, in dislocation, in exile, how to be faithful. Because I wasn’t. I didn’t pay attention the way I should have.

Repent. Turn your life around. Be who God has called you to be. Even as the fire consumes you.

Even as the fire consumes you.

Because judgement is never God’s last word on our sin. Resurrection is.

Some Thoughts on Vengeance

I went to bed last night thinking about vengeance, and what role — if any — thought and desires for vengeance can or should have in our individual and communal lives as Christians. (It turns out I preached on this once — a sermon that was not well received.)

I was thinking about vengeance because of a situation that arose with one of the young people I minister to online, Bethany, the subject of my “sermon” a few weeks ago. Bethany now has a home, and parents who are working to adopt her, and this is all very, very good. She was being visited by a friend she met online — I’ll call her Zoë. Zoë lives far away from Bethany, in another time zone, and came a long way to visit Bethany and her family.

Zoë is 16, and she’s also in foster care — we’ve become acquainted online, and while I don’t have very many details about her life, Zoë told me that she hopes never to meet her biological parents.

This week, Zoë got a phone call from her foster mother — “Don’t come home.” And if this wasn’t a enough, a friend texted her soon after — “Why is there a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of your house?” That friend jimmied open Zoë’s bedroom window to find the place empty and abandoned. Zoë is a wreck right now, in a near catatonic stupor after having spent hours on the phone to the police, her case worker, and the judge overseeing her foster care in the state she is from. Trying to find out what is going on.

Trying to find a home.

I thought, in dealing with Bethany and the young woman my wife and I wish we could adopt, Molly, that I’d seen the worst kinds of abuse, mistreatment, and utter neglect that people could dish out to foster kids. (Molly is a truly amazing young woman, and she has some astounding gifts of empathy and compassion for the ministry I hope we can do soon, ministry Bethany has told me she’d like to be a part of too.) But this abandonment … honestly, if there were people fit for a millstone to be hung around their necks and tossed into the deepest sea, if there were people who had plague and darkness and Babylonians coming, it is these people who simply absconded and left Zoë to her own devices.

Last night, I prayed with Bethany. For courage and strength for Zoë, that she knows she is loved, and wanted, and is not alone.

But I also prayed for vengeance. “I will wait patiently upon your vengeance, Lord, but please avenge Zoë.” And this, I think, is a perfectly acceptable thing to pray for.

We don’t like vengeance as Christians. At least good, liberal Christians don’t. Instead, we like justice. We like universal ethics, an impartial right and wrong, and vengeance, well, vengeance is too tribal, too messy, and too partisan for our tastes. We are people of the categorical imperative, of the bureaucratic state of rules and procedures, of reasoned and reasonable objectivity. And vengeance, well, that’s for lesser people. Passionate, intemperate, uncivilized people.

Granted, scripture talks a lot about justice — far more than it speaks of vengeance. (Though not quite in the way we do.) But as I have gotten older, the appeal of universal ethics — a solid, concrete, objective right and wrong that applies equally to all in every time and every place — has really dimmed for me. Partly it’s a sense that when the universal proclamation — “Thou shalt not kidnap and rape teenage girls,” for example — meets the reality of power, position, and privilege, as well as the limited nature of state resources and competence, and mixed thoroughly with our pre-existing and very human assumptions about what constitutes guilt, blame, and proper behavior, it becomes clear that some teenage girls can be kidnapped and raped without much consequence. They do not matter.

(In fact, I’m pretty well convinced there are parts of the country where this kidnapping and raping of young women is a competitive sport.)

Instead, what has replaced this universal ethic for me is something akin to the morality expressed by Andrew Vachss in his series of Burke novels, where the main characters created a tightly knit “family of choice”: Threaten or hurt someone we love, and you will pay. You will pay in such a way that all will know there is very high cost associated with hurting us. 

I’m not convinced this is the ethic of scripture — while it fits some of Old Testament story, it doesn’t quite fit with “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But scripture does have something to say about vengeance — something interesting, and something closer to Vachss’ notion than to the universal ethics that is actual historical teaching of the church.

If there is a governing passage of scripture for this, it is in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome:

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19–21 ESV)

Here, Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32, the long song of Moses laying out Israel’s coming history, its calling by God and its falling into idolatry and complacency. The passage Paul is quoting (Deut 32:35) very likely refers to God’s judgement against God’s own people Israel — what awaits Israel after it abandons its God for the idols of its neighbors. The sentiment of vengeance percolates through the rest of the song. God says He will take “vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me,” which though a generic warning to all who might oppose the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it likely still applies to the judgement and violence faithless Israel will face. The song ends with “He repays those who hate him, and cleanses his people’s land,” and it must not be forgotten that Deuteronomy 28 makes a very specific curse about the removal of Israel from the land of promise should it fail to follow the covenant (Deut 28:63). It is very likely that at the end of the Song of Moses, the land is being cleansed of God’s very own people.

So, as we think of God’s vengeance, we need to consider — it may very well be against us.

But Paul is also counseling something else. He does not say, “do not desire vengeance,” but rather, “do not avenge yourselves.” It is okay to want vengeance, to have that feeling, but not to actually have vengeance itself. The psalms bear witness to this, especially one of my favorite bits of scripture, Psalm 137 (which has also given me the name of my ministry), where Israel laments its exile along the banks of the Euphrates River, and yearns to be avenged against those who have conquered, plundered, and enslaved them:

 

8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalms 137:8-9 ESV)

“Blessed shall he be,” not “blessed are we.” Israel wants to be avenged, and hopes that vengeance comes, but isn’t looking to actually do the work itself. This is both utter powerlessness and tremendous trust, to put faith in God that we who have been wronged will have that wrong avenged. Not by our own hands, but by the hands of God, who will act through others. In effect, when it comes to vengeance, the people of God are supposed to be free riders.

This is hard for me, because no one who has wronged me — not school bullies, fifth grade teachers, or Lutheran bishops — have ever appeared to pay a price for wronging me. There was never a cost to wronging me. Granted, I doubt they believe they ever did. (But then, Babylon wasn’t convinced it had wronged Israel, or been God’s judgment upon Israel, either.) So I don’t know if there’s really any vengeance. I know I should trust God. I’m just not sure I do.

Finally, there is the small matter of how God actually accomplishes vengeance. I think you could make a case that Jesus meeting Saul on the road to Damascus and effectively telling him, “now you belong to me,” is a form of vengeance. Taking an enemy and making him a brother becomes a specifically Christian form of vengeance, one that requires we who were enemies — who wronged and were wronged — now live as sisters and brothers, united in baptism to the same Lord.

So, we approach the subject with humility. In love. We know we have been wronged, and we ache for retribution. Knowing that a lot of vengeance in the story of scripture is either God getting “even” with His people, or simply ends very badly (such as Absalom avenging the rape of his sister).

In the meantime, know that we can pray for the vengeance of God. We can wait upon the vengeance of the Lord. I can hope for millstones to be hung around the necks of those who abandoned Zoë, even ask God to bless those who do violence to them. But I also know there are any number of ways God’s vengeance can play out. Including reconciliation, redemption, and forgiveness. And I accept that possibility.

But I still pray hard for millstones. And the deep blue sea.

Where is Your Certificate of Divorce?

I meant to blog on this earlier. I mean that a lot. But I meant to blog on this prior to last Sunday, October 4 (Lectionary 27 in Year B), but stuff got in the way. More about some of that later.

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading was Mark 10:1–16, where Jesus answers a question about marriage and tells his disciples that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” A lot of pastors preached on something other than the Gospel, simply because dealing with divorce is difficult.

I didn’t preach last Sunday. But if I had, it would have gone something like this.

1 And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.

2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. ’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh. ’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:1–12 ESV)

This is a tough teaching, and it’s the clearest teaching on marriage and divorce that we get anywhere in scripture. The historic church has taught, on the basis of this scripture passage, as well as the bit of Genesis that Jesus quotes here, that marriage is indissoluble. Not just in the church, but in nature as well. Once a man and woman are joined together, that cannot be dissolved. It is not meant to be dissolved, and it is not supposed to be dissolved.

And the more I read scripture — particularly the very story of God’s unfailing love for unfaithful Israel — the more I’m actually convinced of this understanding. At least in the church. I’m not convinced of the church’s understanding of “natural law” here. But that is neither here nor there right now.

Because there’s something that needs to be recognized. Scripture rarely teaches about abstractions like “marriage” or “divorce” or “war” or “abortion.” Scripture is a story that deals with very specific examples, and not abstract ideas. Even the torah, the teaching, deals more with specifics than it does with generic notions of right and wrong and do and do not.

In fact, the torah doesn’t deal at all with “divorce” as a concept or a practice. (Nor does it deal with “marriage.”) It seems to presume that practice, and only deals with divorce in several very specific instances in Deuteronomy 22 and Deuteronomy 24.

Divorce is first mentioned — twice — in Deuteronomy 22. Verses 1 –21 tell what the community is to do if a man falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin on their wedding night. If evidence of that virginity is produced (a bloody sheet?!?), the elders of the city will whip the man, fine him 100 shekels (which are given to the woman’s father), “And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days.” (v. 18) In this case, the act of divorce is presumed as a lawful action a man can pursue (such as marrying more than one wife in Leviticus 18 and 20), and so all this instance of the teaching does is forbid it. The passage presumes bad faith on the man’s part — he “goes into her and then hates her” (v. 1) — and so the consequence of bad faith on his part is not just that he cannot dispose of his wife, but he also has to deal with his in-laws — a bigger deal when marriage was at least as much an arrangement between two families as it was between two people.

The second mention is very similar. Verses 28–29 say:

28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (Deuteronomy 22:28–29 ESV)

This is the third of three teachings in Deuteronomy 22 on rape, and it’s the only one in which no one dies. (It helps that she is not betrothed here; I will write more on this when I write about rape.) But the context is specific — a man takes a young woman, they are caught, he has to pay a bride price, marry the girl, and they cannot ever get divorced. Again, this is about the long-term consequences of a bad faith act. You want something so much that you are willing to take it thinking you will never get caught, well, you might just get caught, and you simply cannot walk away from that.

Both of these passages seem to me to assume divorce as an acceptable action or response, at least by men.

But it’s Deuteronomy 24 that Jesus is likely riffing on. (Or, most likely, the oral teaching, which can derive acceptable divorce.) And if so, what Jesus actually says in Mark 10 (and Matthew 19, and Luke 18) is way more interesting.

1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 24:1–4 ESV)

This teaching almost seems absurd. It would have prevented Liz Taylor’s second marriage to Richard Burton, for example. Because, this is not a teaching about “divorce.” Not really. It’s about something else entirely.

It’s about Israel.

Through the prophets — specifically Ezekiel and Hosea, but also Jeremiah — God uses the language of infidelity and unfaithfulness in marriage to describe God’s covenant with Israel and Israel’s idolatry. I outline here how the Prophet Ezekiel deals with this is chapters 16 and 23. God is Israel’s spouse, yet Israel has wandered away, faithlessly, and had many lovers. False gods, and the nations who serve those false gods. Idolatry is a very carnal sin here, a physical act in which a body is given in self-centered service to one who cannot love, or be loved, properly.

And yet, God promises redemption. In Hosea 3, God tells Hosea to “love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, even though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” (v. 1) In Ezekiel 16, God promises to remember his covenant with Israel and “establish an everlasting covenant” with his wayward spouse, and that God himself will “atone for you all that you have done.” (v. 63)

It is a circumstance very similar to the one outlined in Deuteronomy 24, God marries Israel, she leaves him for another, and then seeks to return. Now, granted, in Deuteronomy 24, it is the men who have the problem with the woman, and send her packing with certificates of divorce. So, she cannot return to her first husband — that would be an abomination.

But God also shows, in his love for his wayward bride, that he has issued no certificate of divorce. Divorce if you must, God is telling Israel, but consider what faithfulness really looks like. I’m not going to tell you with faithfulness looks like, God says. I’m going to show you. After all, the teaching given in Deuteronomy 24 is exactly counter to what God does in regards to Israel.

Except that it isn’t, because God never divorces Israel.

Jesus is reminding us of something, I think. The marriage that really matters is that between God and Israel/Church, and there is no possibility of divorce. Because God will NEVER leave Israel/Church. Divorce here is the breach that makes reconciliation and redemption impossible. Because it makes the separation permanent.

So, what do we do with this? I’m not sure. I’m not sure everything we call a marriage has been joined together by God. Merely because the magistrate (or even a pastor or priest) has said “I pronounce you” doesn’t mean that God himself has actually joined something together. But even as I find the Catholic position more sensible on this, I’m not sure how this should reflect itself in the practice and communal life of the church. And I really don’t care about the law.

But I think this puts it best: Divorce if you must, but know what real faithfulness looks like.

The Lectionary This Week: Tell Your Children

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Lectionary 22, the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

  • Deuteronomy 4:1-9
  • Psalm 15
  • James 1:17-27
  • Mark 7:1–23

Be doers of the word. For the sake of the world. That’s what both Deuteronomy and James are telling us this week.

The reading in Deuteronomy has God reminding Israel through Moses to remember what they had witnessed when some Israelites took to cavorting with Midianites and worshiping the Baal (lord) of Peor, and that those who are alive to hear Moses speak the words of God this day are those who held fast to their faith in Israel’s God. (This is all of Numbers 25, though it gets mentioned in Psalm 106 and Hosea 9, where it becomes part of the prophet’s general indictment of the northern kingdom.) God then tells Israel that this teaching has a value. Not just that Israel will prosper and inherit the land that God has promised, but that Israel will show the world what it means to have a teaching תורה torah, and have the Lord God as their God.

6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. ’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6-8 ESV)

Here, we see what makes Israel a “great nation” (גוי גדול, or goy gidol) — it is not wealth, or military might, or the conquest and control of great territories and many subject peoples. It is the torah, this teaching, that makes Israel great. That makes Israel stand out from the peoples around it.

In fact, God goes so far to say that this teaching makes the peoples around Israel stand up and pay attention. This is true wisdom, they will say. These are a wise and understanding people, they will say. This teaching will inspire. It may even, as Isaiah 55 says, draw some to Israel, to become part of this covenant, to share in this teaching. This wisdom. This understanding.

But God is clear to Israel — don’t just teach these things, but remember them. Because Israel has witnessed them. “Your eyes have seen,” God tells Israel. So teach these things to your children, and their children, that you may not forget them. That you may not forget them.

I try not to watch video or even look at pictures of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Because I was there, and I want to remember what I saw — what I tasted and heard and felt. I don’t want those images, those memories, contaminated with media pictures, with the CNN feed, with what the world saw mediated on its television screens.

I was there. I saw and experienced that day with my own eyes.

But in order to remember that day, I need to bear witness to it — to tell my story. Again and again. In the telling, I remember what I saw. What I felt.

The same applies here. We are witnesses to the teaching of God, to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not because we were there, but because we have been told by people who have been told by people who have been told by people who were there. Who knew that that bear witness to a truth that they made real again in the telling. That’s what it means to witness. It’s not just watching, it’s telling. It’s both things. In telling the story, we make it real.

When I heard those words in my head on 9/11, “My love is all that matters,” I had no idea who spoke to me. I didn’t get an introduction like Saul did on the way to Damascus. I didn’t know quite who this was. It took meeting Jesus in the pages of the Gospel of John, meeting Jesus in the love of the people of Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia, to know who it was who spoke to me. I am a witness to the risen Christ, but only because I speak of what I experienced. And what I experienced makes sense only in the light of what others — in this case, the Gospel writers — have witnessed.

James approaches this from another angle. While God says we will impress the neighbors as a people of wisdom and understanding thanks to the teaching, James tells us that we will love the most vulnerable in our midst and around us because of this teaching.

James also says there is no real hearing without doing. There is no watching without speaking. There is no bearing witness to the love of God without loving.

And that, I believe, is why Jesus tells us that what defiles (makes common in the Greek) is what comes out of us. His list of things — evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness — dovetails nicely with the things James warns against as well.

Now, it’s easy to take these as matters of personal piety, things one avoids in order to be right and stay right with God. But that’s not what’s at work here. This isn’t about piety. It’s about showing the world what wisdom and understanding look like, what real religion (ceremonial or ritual observance here in the Greek) looks like. It is concern for the most vulnerable. This is a constant theme, especially once the prophets began to call Israel out for its sin and faithlessness as the armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians loomed. It is part of the constant reminder that we don’t use or abuse others, or ourselves. We don’t treat each other, or ourselves, as objects for pleasure or profit.

Because we are not objects. We are not things.

This is a tough task. The world is all about things. We are in the world (κοσμος, the thing God so loves in John 3:16) but are to be untainted by it, by its wisdom and understanding, by its way of doing business. This means, at least here, visiting those most wounded by the world, those most at risk at being objectified and exploited, those least capable of succeeding in the world according to the world’s terms. For James, that was widows and orphans. (And in many ways, it is still true, especially for orphans.) For us, it is likely to be the poor, the broken, the cast off and discarded people, refugees, anyone subject to violence simply because they draw breath.

And we treat them not as objects, but as human beings, children of a living God who has created them, formed them, shaped them, made them. As beloved sisters and brothers.

In this strange way, we are to show the “great nations” around us what understanding and wisdom looks like. Whether the peoples around us will be impressed or not hardly matters. (We have God’s assurance some will be, and the evidence of our eyes that some aren’t.) And what it is to have a God who is so near to us that he became one of us, lived and breathed and ate and slept and laughed and cried with us. Suffered with us. Died with us.

And rose so we might rise.

The Wages of Sin is … What, Exactly?

On my recent drive from Indianapolis to Baltimore, Jennifer and I sang some of my songs. (Just the words. I don’t play guitar or ukulele and try to drive at the same time. I fear that would end badly.) We do this often. One of the songs I started singing was this, something I wrote for a friend’s installation as a pastor in Virginia and based on a passage in Deuteronomy:

Basically, it’s a fairly faithful rendering of this:

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 ESV)

And as I worried about whether our van would overheat as it crossed the hills of West Virginia and western Maryland, I found myself thinking about what it means that God has set before us “life and death and good and evil” (my rendering; the actual passage bundles the good and the bad together). And what it meant that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere follow the path of life.

After all, God commands Israel, through Moses, to “choose life.” Not just for ourselves, but for our children and their children (and their children) as well.

This passage is part of the blessings and curses that God proclaims to Israel regarding the following — or lack thereof — of the teaching God has just given to Israel through Moses. It’s echoed by Paul when he writes in Romans:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 ESV)

And this verse is, at least in my experience, frequently used by fundamentalists to try and persuade. (I remember this from a lot of Chick tracts.) “If you are a sinner, you will surely die,” it says. The implication is, I think, that you will suffer for your sins, or perhaps even be struck down. God has no tolerance for sin. (That’s it part of a lengthy discourse on sin and reconciliation that begins with Paul speaking of Christ’s death, and our baptism into his death, frequently is ignored.)

I thought about these verses, about the promise from God that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere to the covenant.

Because Israel failed. It’s interesting, the Deuteronomy passage included blessings and curses. And both came true. Israel was blessed. Israel was cursed. The has been blessed. The church has been cursed.

Israel’s story is the story of failure. Of defeat. Of conquest and of exile. That fact — that Israel failed, and doing so, tells us what the church’s life as the people of God has will look like. In Leviticus 18, for example, after God gives Israel the long list of sex acts Israelites are not allowed to do:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Leviticus 18:24-28 ESV)

This bit about the land vomiting Israel out if it fails to adhere to these rules is repeated in Leviticus 20:22. And given the history, of Israel’s conquest, of the disappearance of the norther kingdom (Israel/Ephraim), and the conquest and exile of the southern kingdom (Judah, Benjamin, and Levi), it would be easy to describe what happened as exactly that — the land vomiting Israel out.

We tend to look at the law and consider the matter of consequence and punishment. The wages of sin are death, as if somehow we can avoid death.

But we all die. Jesus died. So, when God tells Israel that failure to adhere to the convenient means Israel will perish, he’s merely describing what is to come. When Paul speaks of sin and death, he speaks of something we all experience. As the Qur’an says,

Every soul shall taste death. And only on the Day of Resurrection shall you be paid your wages in full And whoever is removed away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise, he indeed is successful. The life of this world is only the enjoyment of deception. (3:185, modified Khan & al-Hilali)

And so, threatening me with death for sinning is merely stating the obvious. I’m going to die anyway.

No, God has another answer to sin. To Israel’s failure — to our failure. And that’s resurrection.

It’s already there in Deuteronomy.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3 ESV)

It’s already there in Ezekiel 37, where God asks if the dry bones, the dead things, can live. (Ezekiel 37 seems like an answer to Jeremiah 7 & 8, in which God promises nothing but suffering and death for Israel. “Do not pray for this people,” God tells Jeremiah, “for I will not hear you.”) And then brings them to life.

This is why Jesus died. Because we die. Because our deaths are meaningless without his death. Because he rose and in him we rise. Long before writes of the wages of sin, he confidently tells the church in Rome:

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11 ESV)

Dead to sin. Alive to God in Christ Jesus. There can be no real resurrection without death. And yet, in our baptisms, we are made part of the death of Christ. We taste his death, so that even before we die, we may taste something of his resurrection. And know it’s real. And live like it’s real.

Toward a Biblical Sexual Ethic

Nothing seems to be dividing the church (at least in the relatively wealthy West) quite like the matter of sex. Particularly homosexuality, and whether or not gays and lesbians can be included in the community of those called to follow Jesus.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it starkly in a recent column when he wrote that church teachings stating homosexuality is a sin is a “choice” that “prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.” Continue reading