Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Saving Souls
Jas 5:13-20; Mk. 9:38-50[1]
Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at various aspects of what it means to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” in the light of the letter of James. It seems to me that, as a people, we’re not very good at “loving mercy.” We are not particularly merciful, especially when it comes to “wrongdoers.” We much prefer cold, hard revenge to forgiveness. We don’t really do the whole thing of “letting people off the hook.” We would much rather see people get what they deserve, especially when we think they are “bad,” or at least “worse” than us. I think this inherent lack of mercy in our society has made itself quite plain in some of our recent political debates. I don’t want to get into all the ins and outs of the debates at this point. But what I do want to talk about is the tight-fisted and uncharitable nature of much of what has been going on. Especially when it concerns our attitudes toward those we may deem to be “beneath” us. Rather than mercy, much of the talk I hear betrays a complete lack of Christian concern, compassion, and charity.
Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure” illustrates the problem rather dramatically. The story is about a strict judge named Angelo who has condemned to death a young noble named Claudio for violating the cities harsh laws against promiscuity. Claudio’s sister Isabella comes to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. In one particular exchange, Angelo replies to Isabella’s appeal by saying that her brother’s soul is forfeit because of his crime and therefore he must die. She replies:
“Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgment, should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that;
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new made.”[2]
The basis of her appeal is that we have all received unconditional forgiveness, grace, and mercy from the only One who could truly judge us all—“He that might the vantage best have took.” We are all “forfeit souls,” but instead of severity we have received mercy. That one thought, above all, should be enough to inspire mercy to breathe new life within us. But it’s not always the case, unfortunately. Too often we are like the “Unforgiving Steward” in Jesus’ parable—all too happy to take the grace we have been freely given, and all too willing to deal out judgment to those around us.
Jesus was the very incarnation of mercy. In everything he did he demonstrated concretely the nature of God’s mercy by accepting and befriending and loving and caring for sinners and tax collectors, outcasts and outsiders.[3] He forgave sins and restored lives freely, joyfully, and without any kind of conditions—whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever.[4] That kind of open-ended generosity seems to me to be completely opposite from what I see reflected in our world.
In the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles envision the church as a community where forgiveness, and unconditional love, and mercy are the rule, not the exception.[5] That kind of mercy is called “charity” in the KJV. The Latin caritas translates the Greek agape, which is self-giving love, unconditional love, merciful love. It is the love that Jesus showed for us, outcasts all, “forfeit souls” all. Charity in the sense of caritas is not something you do to get a break on your taxes. It is a way of life that flows from the experience of the love and grace and mercy of God.[6] It is a matter of actually caring about other people, what happens to them, their quality of life, their hopes and their fears, their wellbeing.
That’s the kind of life we’re called to live. We are called to live in a community that forgives, that restores, and that “saves souls”, as our Scripture lesson from James makes clear (James 5:19-20). Scholars debate “who” is saving “whom”—the “restorer” or the one who is “restored,” but I think the Scripture may imply that both are “saved” in the process of acting out the mercy of God! [7] We are called to live in a fellowship that shares with others, that blesses others, that cares for others—whoever, whatever, wherever, whenever. Until we get this part right, nothing we try to do in “mission” will make much of a difference. Without caritas, all our best efforts are just a lot of useless and irritating noise (1 Cor. 13:1-3). But with it, we can breathe new life into those around us, and in the process maybe breathe a little life into ourselves.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/27/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] William Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure,” Act II, scene 2. The irony is that Angelo offers to pardon her brother for sleeping with his fiancé if Isabella will sleep with him!
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 115: by forgiving sins without any conditions and by eating with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus was “demonstrating in his own person what acceptance by the merciful God and forgiveness of sins means.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 129, 131, 141-42, 147.
[4] Cf. George Barna, “Jesus’ Health Care Plan,” editorial published September 2009 at http://www.barna.org/component/wordpress/archives/70. He describes Jesus “strategy” with people in terms of four words: “whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever.” He says, “Whoever needed to be healed received His healing touch. Whatever affliction they suffered from, He addressed it. Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.”
[5] Cf. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 99-103.
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 249, describes caritas as based on the fact that we all share the “image of God.” He says, “If through his grace God pours the supernatural virtue of caritas into a person’s heart, … that person says ‘yes’ to God, to all his creatures and all his commandments. . . . in the person who is thus inspired and blessed, the love for God extends as far as God’s own love. . . . Neighbour, sinner and enemy will be loved because they are the image of God, and so that they may be led to God and belong to God.”
[7] Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:732-33. See Sophie Laws, The Epistle of James, 240-41; Peter Davids, James, 136-37; Luke T. Johnson, The Letter of James, 338-39.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Being content where I am

The lesson from Hindu wisdom that we addressed in this week's study of Welcome to the Wisdom of the World concerned letting go of fear, ambition, all the "would-a, should-a, could-a's" and fully living life where we are right here and right now. In the Bhagavad-Gita, the hero Arjuna is worried about the outcome of his actions, and Lord Krishna reminds him that the outcomes are not his to control: "It is in action alone that you have a claim, never at any time to the fruits of such action. Never let the fruits of be your motive," but "remain the same in success and in no success" (G. Schweig, Bhagavad Gita, 2.47-48). All we can do is carry out what is set before usto do at this moment and find peace, contentment, and fulfillment in that.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gentle Strength
Prov 31:10-31; Jas 3:13-4:3; Mk. 9:30-37[1]
We live in a world where ambition is required. If you don’t have ambition, you must be some kind of slacker. If “money makes the world go around,” ambition is the engine that turns it. In our world, “climbing the ladder” is a way of life. Now, some kinds of ambition are good. But the problem with most of our ambitions is that they are all about us. And when our ambitions are essentially selfish, we tend to adopt an “any means to the end” approach. I think we can agree that when selfish interest dominates our ambitions, our principles seem to go right out the window.
James was very concerned about this tendency. That’s why he wrote to warn First-Century Christians about the effects of what he called “selfish ambition” on people and on the communities they belonged to. He says, “Whenever people are jealous or selfish, they cause trouble and do all sorts of cruel things” (James 3:16, CEV). I’m not sure anyone could have said it better. The alternative, from James’ perspective, is “the wisdom that comes from above.” He says that this wisdom “leads us to be pure, friendly, gentle, sensible, kind, helpful, genuine, and sincere” (James 3:17, CEV). For James, the real goal of the one who seeks the meaning of life in the “fear of the Lord,” in “walking humbly with your God,” is wisdom.[2] Wisdom that is a way of life defined by walking in God’s ways— humility, meekness, gentleness, along with integrity, peace, and justice! For James, “wisdom” is about taking our religious faith and making it real in daily life.[3]
That’s not really what we look for in terms of “the meaning of life.” We see the meaning of life in terms of what we can achieve (success), who knows our name (fame), and what we have acquired (wealth). And we see the meaning of life in terms of what it takes to get there. But like his brother James, Jesus took a different path. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus’ interaction with the disciples about their argument over who would be greatest is almost comic! Jesus turned their goals on their head and told them if they wanted to be “the best” in the Kingdom, then they should become the servant of everybody else.
And just in case they didn’t get the practical implications, he took a child and said that the way they treated that child determined the quality of their commitment to the Kingdom. Now, what you have to understand was a child was someone you could treat however you wanted and nobody would be the wiser.[4] Jesus said that the true test of one’s character is how you treat those who have absolutely no recourse, who cannot “report” you to anyone. In Jesus’ perspective, true wisdom, true strength, true greatness is found in the kindness you show to the most vulnerable people in our world.[5]
For some, this kind of approach to life and the world might seem “weak.” But this kind of wisdom is not a matter of weakness. The image of the ideal woman in Proverbs makes that clear in a very ironical way. In a culture where men dominated pretty much everything, the book of Proverbs chooses a woman as the ideal of “wisdom”— the ideal of what it looks like to “fear the Lord.”[6] And in this context, the ideal of success in life is not just any woman. The woman described in this passage is called “noble,” “capable,” “virtuous,” “excellent,” and “worthy.” But the Hebrew calls her a “woman of valor.”[7] Now the irony is that in the Hebrew Scriptures, “man of valor” is a title reserved for champions and heroes and leaders—and they are pretty much all men. But when it comes down to giving us a concrete image of the wisdom that Proverbs seeks to instill in us, that image is one of a woman who embodies gentle strength.[8]
I think that’s what James envisions as the “meekness of wisdom” or the “gentleness born of wisdom” (James 3:13). It is a way of life that is born of walking humbly with God. When you live like that, you develop a kind of confidence about life; but it is always a humble confidence. This kind of wisdom is a way of life that is inspired by the presence of God’s Spirit. When you live in such a way that you are consciously aware of God’s presence, it tends to create a sense of inner strength; but it is always a strength that manifests itself in gentleness, in humility, in self-sacrifice, and in kindness.
The point of this is not really to give us another yardstick by which to measure others and point out all the ways in which they fall short, tempting as that may be. The point is that we each look to ourselves, and evaluate the character of our lives. How do I speak to people who cannot report me if I get out of line? How much respect do I show people who are essentially invisible in our world? How concerned am I about the rights and the quality of life of those that for the most part nobody really cares about?[9]
Let’s be clear about the implications of following this path. It is not a path that will lead you to “success,” or “fame,” or “wealth,” in the sense that our culture defines them. Who in our world really believes that the meaning of life is to be found in service to others? Our society recognizes that there are some brave and courageous crusaders who give their lives away in service to others, but they tend to look at them as if they are on some sort of quixotic quest! But Jesus said that this is the path of life that the Kingdom of God calls us to follow. And James said that the wisdom that marks true piety is defined in these terms. And Proverbs says that this is what the “fear of the Lord” looks like. The end result is a way of life that promotes peace, God’s peace, lasting peace.[10]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/20/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX
[2] Cf. Robert W. Wall, The Community of the Wise, 181.
[3] Paul Tillich, “On Wisdom,” in The Eternal Now, 167-72.
[4] Judith Gundry-Volf, “To Such as These Belong the Kingdom of God: Jesus and Children,” Theology Today (2000): 475-76. Although in Jewish society children were viewed as a blessing and a gift from God, in the Graeco-Roman world of Jesus’ day children were a burden and a nuisance. Cf. also David E. Garland, Mark, 367: “The child had no power, no status, and few rights.”
[5][5] Cf. Judith Gundry-Volf, “Mark 9:33-37,” Interpretation (1999):57-61, where she says that Jesus advocates a “feminine greatness” that is to be practiced by men and women alike. Cf. also Garland, Mark, 375.
[6] Claudia Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs, 186-208; cf. also Thomas Ρ McCreesh, “Wisdom as Wife Proverbs 31 10-31,” Revue Biblique 92 (1985): 25-46.
[7] Cf. the Douay-Rheims version, a Catholic translation of the Vulgate: “a valiant woman”; cf. also Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, 272-73.
[8] Christine Roy Yoder, “The Woman Of Substance (esheth-hayil): A Socioeconomic Reading Of Proverbs 31:10-31,” Journal of Biblical Literature 22 (2003) 427-447. She says (p. 427, n. 1) that the word “valor” is used in the Hebrew Scriptures for “persons of ‘substance’” which she defines in terms of “strength and capacity, wealth and skill.” Note that one of the features of this woman is that she engages in “loving instruction” or “kind teaching” (Prov. 31:26; Cf. TEV: “She speaks with a gentle wisdom.”).
[9] Cf. The Message translation of James 3:18: “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God … only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”
[10] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 289, 291-92, where he describes the church as a fellowship of peace, freedom, and service.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Healing Words
Prov 1:20-33; Ps. 19; Jas 3:1-12; Mk 7:24-37[1]
A couple of weeks ago I preached a sermon about how the way we use words has the result that they mean nothing at all. I think I should add an asterisk to that opinion: except when we use words to attack another person. The sad truth is that we live in a culture where verbal attack has become a way of life. We have celebrities who are famous because they are so “good” at verbally attacking other famous people. Nobody watches “news” unless the commentator takes a “slash and burn” approach to the news—meaning slashing and burning the people they are supposedly “reporting” about!
Like me, many of you were raised with the proverb, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Of course, in this day of when we pay people millions of dollars to do exactly the opposite, perhaps we should change the saying to “if you can’t say anything nice, you are on your way to fame and fortune!” Various alternatives of the saying are actually in common use, like “if you can’t say anything nice, come sit next to me!” Or, “if you can’t say anything nice, make sure you have a good lawyer.” Or one of my personal favorites, “if you can’t say anything nice, say it in Yiddish!”[2]
I must confess that I get pretty jaded about it all. I for one am tired of living in a culture where we are surrounded by words that I think Jesus and James would have considered “lethal.” It seems that there is no part of our society that is not infected with the poison of harmful and hateful words. Yes, even the church. Make that “especially the church!”
But the Bible makes it very clear that words are powerful, and that we must respect that power. One of the common themes in the book of Proverbs concerns the contrast between the speech of the wise and that of the unwise.[3] Consider a few golden gems:
· The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.[4] (Prov. 10:11 NRSV)
· The more talk, the less truth; the wise measure their words. (Prov. 10:19, MSG)
· It is foolish to speak scornfully of others. If you are smart, you will keep quiet. (Prov. 11:12, TEV)
· Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin. (Prov. 13:3, Today’s NIV)
· The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. (Prov. 15:28, NIV)
Such wisdom is completely foreign to us—in fact it seems completely opposite from the commonly accepted practice of our day!
In our text for this morning, wisdom is personified as a woman crying out in the streets for anyone who will be wise enough to listen. I’m afraid that’s part of our problem these days—we really don’t want to listen to anybody else. But “Lady Wisdom” in Proverbs makes it clear that we will never hear and heed the truth as long as we’re running our mouth; to listen properly we have to be silent (Prov. 1:22-23, 33)!
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says that it is not the food you put in your mouth that defiles you, but what comes out of your heart (Mark 7:20-22). In Matthew’s version of this episode, what defiles you is what comes out of your mouth (Matt. 15:11). In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that we will all be judged not only by what we’ve done, but also by what we’ve said. He says, “on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37)! I think we ought to take that particular Scripture a lot more seriously!
Not surprisingly, James elaborates on this theme at great length.[5] It can be argued that James’ whole thesis in his letter is “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).[6] In our lesson for today, James elaborates on being “slow to speak.” He clearly thinks of words as having great power to destroy. For example, James says that the tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). In an interesting parallel to Jesus’ comment about what comes out of your mouth defiling you, James says that the tongue “corrupts the whole person” (James 3:6, Today’s NIV). Most of us can bear witness to the way in which words can literally destroy our whole lives and the lives of those around us. Once unleashed, harmful words are like a spark that ignites a fire and consumes a whole forest (James 3:5-6). Words of anger, where we say what we will very likely regret; words of gossip, where we say what may very well be true but ought not be said; words of slander, where we say what we know to be false simply to tear someone down; words of abuse, where we tell someone in effect “you’re worthless.” Harmful words like these “set the whole course of one’s life on fire” (James 3:6, Today’s NIV). [7]
I think we have ample evidence around us to verify James’ assertion that our words have the potential to be lethal. I don’t know about you, but I’ve about had it with all the barrage of angry and violent and hateful words—including the ones that come out of my mouth! I think it’s high time we put our words to better use—the use for which they are intended. Not only are our words intended to “bless” God (James 3:9), they are also intended to bless others! [8] Paul says that we should speak “only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29; cf. also Colossians 4:6). Our words ought to be healing words; they ought to bring grace and peace; they should build up and not tear down, heal rather than kill, encourage rather than discourage. Then we can truly join the Psalmist in praying, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14).

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/13/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] This is the actual title of a recent (2006) book by L. B. Epstein!
[3] Cf. Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs, 258-60.
[4] Cf. Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, 114 points out that “cover” in Prov. 10:11 could mean “conceal” as above or it could mean “fill,” i.e., “the mouth of the wicked is full of violence.”
[5] On the relationship between Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7 and the Letter of James, see Virgil Porter, “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 162 (2005):344-60 and “The Sermon on the Mount in the Book of James, Part 2 ,” Bibliotheca Sacra 162 (2005):470-82.
[6] Cf. Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise, 30.
[7] Cf. Gene Peterson’s translation in The Message: “By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.” (James 3:6, MSG)
[8] James points out the inconsistency of professing to praise God and then turning around and using the very same tongue to assault others with words! Cf. Wall, Community of the Wise, 177: “In Christianity according to James any form of duplicity, including ‘double-speak,’ is the mark of spiritual failure.” He attributes this to a “faulty theology of creation, which supposes there is no connection between a good Creator and the creatures of a good creation.” It seems that, for James, it takes a great deal of “nerve” to speak destructively about or to a person who is created in God’s image!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Mercy Triumphs
Prov 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Jas 2:1-17[1]
I have long felt that one reason why most Christians in this society avoid the Hebrew Scriptures like the plague is because they are so focused on the theme of justice. Not judgment, mind you, but justice. I realize that there’s a lot of so-called “judgment” there, too, but I don’t think that’s what God was trying to get across. I think the justice that God was calling his people to practice was more along the lines of compassion and mercy. And the primary motivation for it was the fact that God has shown us mercy and compassion.[2]
But I think we are afraid of justice, because it is hard. The fact that it is so hard makes us fear that we might fail to live up to it and so be rejected and condemned to perdition for all eternity. We are also suspicious of justice because it calls us to not to criticize or stereotype or condemn but to show mercy.[3] Justice calls us to “deny self, take up your cross, and follow me.” It calls us away from a life that is lived solely for our own benefit to a life that is lived for the benefit of others. We really don’t like that.
Although it consists of mercy, God’s justice is hard—it relentlessly exposes our selfishness and calls us to relate to others with mercy and compassion. But it is nevertheless a justice of mercy—always has been, always will be. Justice that consists of mercy must seem like an oxymoron to us. Our version of “justice” is to some extent exactly opposite of the justice of mercy. So it doesn’t surprise me that we live in a world where the mercy of God’s justice simply does not compute. “Mercy triumphs over judging” (James 2:13) makes no sense in our world where we’re constantly evaluating and measuring up and criticizing and condemning!
And yet the call to the justice of mercy remains. You simply cannot read much of the Bible without running into it. Something like Prov. 22:22-23: “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them” (NIV).[4] But we live in a society where “greed is healthy,” to quote Ivan Boesky, so we find all kinds of ways to avoid the call to the justice of mercy.
But you cannot really avoid that call just by avoiding the Hebrew Scriptures, because this message also shows up in the New Testament. It is very prominent in the letter of James. James is in full agreement with the Hebrew Scriptures regarding justice for the poor: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor!” (Jas. 2:5-6). It seems that the conclusion is inevitable: “God … has always been on the side of the poor.”[5] But then, James sounds so “Jewish” that many have followed Martin Luther’s example by simply ignoring him!
You can avoid James and still not be able to avoid this theme. You really don’t have to look that far in the Gospels to find that this perspective is also central to Jesus’ teaching—“the first shall be last and the last first”! And then there’s Jesus’ take on the great commandment, which in his view includes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This text from Leviticus is one of the unifying threads of this whole subject in Scripture. That much you probably know. What you may not know is that much of the content of Leviticus 19 is concerned with showing kindness and fairness toward the poor and marginalized. That gives us a perspective for what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” From this perspective, it seems obvious that mercy truly is the “royal law” (James 2:8), or the central principle upon which God’s kingdom is founded.[6] And from this perspective it also seems obvious that in the end God’s justice which consists of mercy will eventually win out over all the ways we discriminate and look down on and diminish those we deem “less than” (James 2:13).
The bottom line is that the only way to avoid the “hard” demand of God’s justice that we repent of our selfishness and practice mercy toward others is to completely unravel the whole Bible. But then, that’s what some people do with their narrow selection of a few “memory verses.” The real bottom line is that the Scriptures make clear God’s call that we who have experienced mercy extend mercy to others.[7] From Genesis to Revelation, God’s call is one of justice, a justice defined by compassion and mercy toward others, especially the least and the lost and the left out.[8] There is simply no way around it. So the question we have to ask is this: “When will we stop ignoring the central teaching of Scripture and start walking humbly with our God?” May God grant us courageous faith to take that question to heart.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/6/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX
[2] Cf. Robert W. Wall, “Where Wisdom is Found,” Christian Ethics 2009, 31: “The care of poor and powerless believers is a hallmark of God’s covenant-keeping people (cf. Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 24:17-21; Psalm 146:9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; Acts 2:45; 4:32-35; 6:1-7; 9:36-42).”
[3] I think criticizing, stereotyping, and condemning are ways in which we practice the kind of “favoritism” or discrimination James prohibited.
[4] Prov. 22:2 provides a foundational rationale: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.” Cf. Roland E. Murphy, “Proverbs 22:1-9” Interpretation 41 (1987): 399: “while material possessions create distinctions among human beings, they do not do so with the Lord.”
[5] Cf. Jeanine K. Brown, “James 2:1-13,” Interpretation 62 (April 2008): 175. She points out that the example James gives in 2:2-4 of seating rich and poor differently according to their status “not only would not offend ancient sensibilities, it would be the obvious pattern of social interaction.” I’m not sure much has changed! Cf. also Robert W. Wall, The Community of the Wise, 114: summarizes this theme well: “God stands on the side of those the powerful of this world exploit and the people of God ignore.” He says that the very act of choosing the poor defines “the impartial character of God’s coming reign.”
[6] Cf. Wall, Community of the Wise, 122-23; cf. also Luke T. Johnson, James, 223, 230.
[7] Cf. Deut. 15:11: “I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” And the motivation was “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you” (Deut. 15:15).
[8] James also calls this principle the “law of liberty” (2:12) perhaps in part because it is a principle of “jubilee justice,” i.e., justice that sets the poor free from their oppression. Cf. Wall, Community of the Wise, 127-28. Cf. also Wall, “Where Wisdom is Found,” 32: “the ‘law of liberty’ concerns ‘the year of liberty’ (Leviticus 25:8-24), which became important especially during the Second Temple period for fashioning a sociological model of God’s coming kingdom (cf. Luke 4:16-21; James 2:5).”

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Hold Your Tongue!

The Scriptures this week give us some serious food for thought about whether we ought to be so casual about saying the destructive and demeaning things we say about others.

We would do better to hold our tongues because:

1) We will never hear and heed the truth as long as we're running our mouth; to listen properly you have to be silent! (Prov. 1:22-23, 33)

2) Our words ought to be "blessing" rather than "cursing" (James 3:10, Ps. 19:1)

3) We cannot both "bless God" and "curse" one who is created in God's image (James 3:9)

4) With our words we can literally destroy our whole lives and the lives of those around us. Once unleashed, harmful words are like a spark that ignites a fire and consumes a whole forest (James 3:5-6).

All good reasons to "hold your tongue" rather than unleashing the lethal words we are so accustomed to using against each other. IMHO. More to come . . .

Friday, September 04, 2009

Mercy Triumphs

I have long felt that one reason why most Christians in this society avoid the Hebrew Scriptures like the plague is because they are so focused on the theme of God's merciful justice. We live in a world where the mercy of God's justice simply does not compute. "Mercy triumphs over judging" makes no sense in our world!

You cannot read much of the Bible without running into a passage that throws our selfishness and greed into stark relief, like the lectionary reading from Prov. 22:22-23 does : "Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them." But then you really don't have to look that far to find that this perspective is also central to Jesus' teaching--"the first shall be last and the last first"!

From this perspective, it is obvious that mercy, which is the primary and fundamental principle upon which God's justice and God's kingdom are founded, will eventually win out over all the ways we discriminate and look down on and oppress those we deem "devalued."

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Null and Void
Ps 15; Jas. 1:26-27; Mk. 7:1-13[1]
We live in a society that is saturated with words. Cable television and satellite radio, broadband internet and digital cell phones—we are surrounded by words. Whether you’re driving to work or eating in a restaurant, shopping for a pair of shoes, riding in an elevator—or even pumping gas in your car—we are surrounded by words. But the more words bombard us, the less they mean to us. In a very real sense, words have become null and void in our culture. Part of the problem is the way we use our words. With our words we profess our love for others, or we foster hatred for others. With our words we make promises to reassure others and we try to persuade others to do something that may not be in their best interest. With our words we inform and we deceive. Because of our misuse, words are virtually null and void. They mean next to nothing.
Unfortunately, that applies to words of faith just as much as they apply to words in advertisements or campaign speeches. It is all too easy to turn the words of our faith—words of Scripture and worship, words of admonition and assurance—into just another means to manipulate people. All you have to do to confirm that is to listen to a few sermons! Even the way we profess to revere Scripture often becomes a means of misusing it to achieve our own ends. We call it “the word of the LORD,” and “the word of God,” but what we really mean is “I’m right and should agree with me.”
It seems to me that kind of attitude toward words is at least part of what Jesus had in mind when he criticized the religious leaders of his day for nullifying the word of God. The particular example he cites is actually quite blatant. Jewish tradition had interpreted the fifth commandment, “you shall honor your father and mother,” to include supporting them financially in their old age. But in Jesus’ day, there was a procedure called “Corban” by which someone could “dedicate” their possessions to the Temple. It is unclear, but it seems that it is the original “charitable annuity,” where you give your assets to an organization, but you get to continue using them until you die.[2] Jesus completely dismantled this rather elaborate and insidiously pious means of subverting the fifth commandment—the word of God.[3]
James and Jesus were in complete agreement about those who profess to be pious but their words and actions betray their hypocrisy. They not only make their own words null and void, but in the process they make “God’s word” null and void! Let me hasten to add that I don’t think this was confined to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day![4] This problem is still very much a part of religion today. [5] I find it interesting that words—the very means by which they portray themselves as pious—are what betrays them. As James puts it, “If you think you are being religious, but can’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and everything you do is useless.” (Jas 1:26, CEV). And the Psalm gives us a concrete example—using our words to slander another is blatant contradiction of the kind of piety that is genuine (Ps. 15:3). Among other things, by our words we make “God’s word” null and void!
The flaw in that kind of piety[6] is the fact that it misses the point of it all: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). I like the NIrV: “You must treat people fairly. You must love others faithfully. And you must be very careful to live the way your God wants you to.”
The point of it all is that true piety translates into action.[7] That’s always been the point of the commandments, the teachings of prophets and apostles, even the gospel—to create a community of people who put into practice the commitment to “live the way your God wants you to.” Call it what you will: in Deuteronomy it’s “keeping the commandments” (Deut 4:1); in the Psalm it’s doing “righteousness” from the heart (Ps. 15:2). [8] Elsewhere in Scripture it’s called living in covenant with God (Exod. 19:5), doing the will of God (Matt. 7:21), and seeking God’s kingdom (Matt. 6:33). What it boils down to is making God’s ways the guiding orientation to all of life.[9] Anything less than a sincere effort to do so inevitably turns into making “God’s word” null and void. James is convinced that what God considers “pure and genuine religion” is demonstrated not by words but by actions: it means “taking care of orphans and widows in their suffering and keeping oneself from being corrupted by the world” (Jas 1:27 TEV).[10] It’s when we miss that this is the point of it all that we tend to make “God’s word” null and void.[11]
You may be thinking, “How can anyone ever attain ‘pure’ religion”? That’s a natural reaction. But I don’t think James was insisting on perfection here.[12] I think James points us in the right direction when he says that the way to respond to “the word” is to “humbly accept” it (Jas. 1:21, NIV).[13] I don’t think that means that we are to swallow at face value everything that is presented to us as “word of God,” but rather we are to humbly seek to understand and then put into practice the teachings we discern in our faith and in Scripture. I think the humility has to come from the realization that we are all fallen and therefore also flawed our endeavor to do that.
One of my heroes is a German scholar named Adolf Schlatter. Prof. Schlatter was fervent Christian, so scholars of the day looked down on him; but he was also a genuine scholar, so faithful also looked down on him. Schlatter sought to hold together the two—deep respect for Scripture together with the integrity of a scholar. There’s a story about Schlatter that I’ve always felt illustrates the kind of humility Scripture has always encouraged. Supposedly, Prof. Schlatter shared a cabin on a train with a gentleman, and in the course of their discussion, the other man discovered that that he was talking with the great Professor. At that point he expressed his pleasure by saying rather piously, “I understand that you take your stand on the word of God”—apparently to indicate his own orthodoxy and his agreement with Schlatter’s outlook. As the story goes, Prof. Schlatter simply replied, “I take my stand under the word of God.” It seems to me that those who “stand on the word of God” are those who trample it underfoot and make it “null and void.” Only by humbly standing under it can we hear it in a way that transforms our hearts and is translated into the way we live our lives.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/30/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jon Nelson Bailey, “Vowing away the Fifth Commandment,” Restoration Quarterly (2000):193-209.
[3] Cf. David E. Garland, Mark, 274.
[4] Cf. Garland, Mark, 282: “we should be careful not to belittle first-century Judaism as a dead letter, awash in legalism, when our own Christianity can be just as dead and just as legalistic.” He adds wisely, “We should recognize that what we derisively call legalism today was to the Pharisees a sincere effort to apply God’s will to everyday life.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:365, describes this problem when he says that to hear the word only and not obey it “would mean that we maintain our autonomy over against it as those who know the Word and are interested in it and reverence and adore it. But although we can do this with the word of man, we cannot do it with the Word of God. Because it is the Word of the Lord, to hear the Word of God is to obey the Word of God.”
[6] Cf. Luke T. Johnson, James, 214, where he translates “deceive” themselves as “indulge” themselves. Perhaps there is some truth to this perspective, for typically this kind of superficial piety is incredibly self-indulgent.
[7] Cf. also James L. Mays’ comment on Psalm 15: “The insistence on the correlation between righteous God and righteous people in the psalms is unrelenting in its pervasiveness.” See James L. Mays, Psalms, 85.
[8] Cf. Patrick D. Miller, “Poetic Ambiguity and Balance in Psalm XV,” Vetus Testamentum 29(1979):422, where he argues that all of the phrases in Ps. 15:2 “describe right conduct in general or abstract fashion”: walking blamelessly, doing righteousness, and speaking truth.
[9]Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, 213; cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 98-99, 126-27, 168, 254-57, 301, 381-84.
[10] The Bible demands compassion toward the vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the alien are named in the Bible, but we could add the unjustly convicted or the mentally ill. See Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Num 15:29; Deut 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jer 7:6; 22:3; Ezek 22:7, 29; Zech 7:10; Mal 3:5.
[11] Cf. William Barclay, James: “the finest liturgy you can offer God is service of the poor and personal purity.”
[12] Cf. the discussion of “perfection” in James and the NT in David E. Garland, “Severe Trials, Good Gifts, and Pure Religion: James 1,” in Review and Expositor (1986): 387.
[13] Cf. Sophie Laws, James, 82: the “implanted word” is most naturally the gospel; yet Johnson, James, 205 makes a good point when he insists that there is no hard and fast distinction in James between the word of creation, the word of Torah, and the word of the Gospel.