Jesus & Guns

I recently preached a sermon based on John 2:13-22 (Jesus cleansing the temple) and the Ten Commandments according to Exodus 20:1-17. Jesus is obviously annoyed, angered even, by the rather blasphemous and unfaithful practices of Herod’s Temple.

Since a preacher’s job is to make the biblical story connect with our lives, I wondered what we do that might evoke the anger of our Lord when it comes to our use of God’s name. I wondered whether selling things with a Bible verse on the package was witness or perhaps, manipulation – and so, something Jesus would clean up. I also talked about a recent speech from an NRA official which stated that the right to bear arms was not “bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright…” Since I (and not just I) find no biblical or traditional basis for such a statement, I wondered if it was an example of how we all can bend God for our own purposes.

A few folks asked me about what I made of a passage in Luke that seemed to justify, and maybe even direct, the disciples to carry weapons. The verse offered is Luke 22:35-38:

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” (NRSV)

So, I dusted off my commentaries, brushed the rust off my Greek a bit, and dug into this passage in the same way I would prepare a sermon. (You’ll find a bibliography of sources below if you need to explore for yourself). This is what I found:

First, the context of the passage, as with all passages of scripture, must guide interpretation. This scene takes place on the night Jesus will be handed over for crucifixion. Supper is over. The conversation between Master and disciples has been full of misunderstanding – the disciples just don’t get anything.

Now, the great and final conflict between God’s reign, revealed in Jesus, and the reign of the earthly powers that deal in death is at hand. Up to this point, Jesus has kept those death-dealing powers at arm’s length. He reminds his disciples of his vision by reminding them of how he sent them out into the world. They needed nothing. All was provided, even their safety was under the aegis of God. Then he warns them that, in order to fulfill his mission, he – and so they – will be handed over to the powers of death; the folks who carry swords. The kingdom of death will have one final move against Jesus and his vision this very night.

Some scholars posit that the carrying of a sword as Jesus is handed over to death would make him even more “lawless,” fulfilling the prophecy about him. But the theme of misunderstanding seems more likely. Jesus is speaking metaphorically. As “sword” is so often used in scripture, it refers to the powers of death. Sadly, the disciples, for the third time in this one evening, will fail to understand and interpret his words literally. They do this all the time in the gospels. And that means they get it wrong.

When the boys respond that they possess, literally, two actual swords, Jesus responds, “It is enough!” Does this mean that two actual swords is all that they need? That seems doubtful given the host they will encounter soon. It is certainly a recipe for being “outgunned” (pardon the pun). Jesus response, however, can be read in another manner – one that makes more sense within the narrative of misunderstanding and within Greek usage. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, renders the passage this way:

“They said, “Look, Master, two swords!” But he said, “Enough of that; no more sword talk.” (Luke 22:38, The Message)

Frederick Danker, a towering scholar on Luke, says that when Jesus says “It is enough!” He means “Case closed! They mean well, but there is no getting through their skulls this night.” (353)

Finally, you have to keep reading the narrative. Just 15 verses after this passage, with no break in the action, one of the swords appears as Jesus is arrested.

When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:49-51, NRSV)

If Jesus really wanted the disciples to carry a sword AND to act in self-defense, why then does Jesus put a stop to the violence? Why command the carrying of swords if you can’t use them? Well, it is because Jesus doesn’t command carrying weapons. He acknowledges that on the night of his betrayal, swords will still be a power in the kingdom of death. After his death and resurrection – nope. Sorry. Jesus blesses the peacemakers and commands love of enemies (Luke 6:27-36); he shuns self-defense in death on the cross sparing the life of, well, all of us. Does he expect that of us? I think so. You’ll have to decide for yourself. But don’t look to Jesus to bless violence in any shape or size.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing) 1978, 823-27

Tiede, David L., Luke, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House) 1988, 388-90

Craddock, Fred B., Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press) 1990, 260-66

Danker, Frederick W., Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press) 1988, 352-53

Wright, Tom, Luke for Everyone, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press) 2004, 266-67

Ringe, Sharon H., Luke (Louiville: Westminster John Knox Press) 1995, 264-65

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2018

St. Paul, Fornication, and #MeToo

Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Matt Lauer. Louie CK. You know the list – even as it grows.

#MeToo, women who have said “enough is enough,” who have called their abusers, harassers, tormentors, and brutes to account for sexual harassment, misbehavior, violence and the objectification of women. You know the movement – even as it grows.

Is every accusation is valid? I don’t know. Many certainly seem to be. I also don’t know what the “statute of limitations” is on taking responsibility for a past injustice might be. I do know that there is generally no expiration dates for the pain and harm a victim experiences.  Abuse comes with a “life sentence” for the victim. I don’t know if every man is guilty of something. I do know culture does a pretty good job of inculcating men and women with the notion that human beings are objects for consumption – sexual and otherwise. I don’t even know if I can say with certainty that my own ham-handed, less than subtle, ill-informed encounters with the opposite sex when I was young and foolish did not cross a line. I do know that, if I did, I am ashamed and deeply sorry.

I don’t know a great deal about the complexities of sexuality and sexual immorality/abuse. I do know this for sure: a lot of women have endured a lot of pain at the hands of a lot of men for a very long time. I also know this: God does not approve.

I don’t know what gets into a man’s head mind they undertake the bad behavior the #MeToo movement is resisting. When yet another perpetrator stands accused of what has turned out to be unspeakable behavior, I always wonder “What the heck were these dudes thinking?” What thought process; what cultural nonsense; what perverted world view allows someone to think that they are free to harass, harm, violate, objectify another?

I do know that sexual behavior that is harassing, harmful, violent; that is not mutual or rooted in self-giving love is about as far from what God had in mind as one can get. You may be surprised that what I know comes, in part, from what the apostle Paul teaches about sexuality in I Corinthians, especially the passage in chapter 6:12-20.

To treat someone as a sexual object seems to me to require an attitude of personal liberty that grants permission for someone to do whatever you please without constraint. At our most base, we should know that there are legal consequences to misbehavior. But that does not seem to apply to people who abuse others. Paul knows this, and addresses it in verse 12 of the cited passage.

Apparently, there was a saying in Corinth, popularized by Greek philosophy, that said “All things are lawful for me.” (I Cor. 6:12 NRSV). Note the quotation marks – Paul is saying something the Corinthians say. Richard Hays, in his commentary on I Corinthians, is convinced that it is closer to the original to translate it “I am free to do anything,”  Folks in Corinth believed that enlightened and wise persons were absolutely free to determine what they could or should do, because they were enlightened and wise. Sound familiar? (Greek teachings are still alive and well in our culture).

Paul counters the popular saying about personal liberty by quoting it and then pushing against it. “For me everything is permissible’; maybe, but not everything does good. True, for me everything is permissible, but I am determined not to be dominated by anything.” (I Cor. 6:12, NJB) Paul is acknowledging that we have freedom. He is also, however, correcting the misuse of liberty as a means of seeking personal gratification or engaging our addictions that trade one form of slavery for another. We are free to do good to and for others, not to be selfish and do evil. We are free, but not free to engage in things that enslave us.

Another move you have to make to turn someone into a sex-object is to negate the value of the body. You have to be convinced that another person’s body is just a means to your endgame of self-gratification. You also have to be convinced that your own body is just an object to be fed and satisfied. Paul knows this too, because, once again the Corinthians have a saying.

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. (I Cor. 6:13, NRSV) Many scholars think the quotation marks belong at the end of the verse, not the middle. I agree. Paul is not one to dismiss the importance of the body. The meaning is that food and body both are meaningless because everything dies. This is not from Paul, the premier proclaimer of resurrection power.

The whole verse testifies to the dualism of Greek thought which separates body and soul, material from spiritual. Material things, like the human body, are disposable objects simply to be used as desired – kind of like those cheap razors and paper cups we all use. This means that things like drunkenness, gluttony, and yes, sex, really have no connection with our spiritual life. You can harm the body – yours or somebody else’s – and it has no relationship to the spirit of the person. Paul knew this was not how God’s creatures or creation worked. Neither are ever disposable. Spirit and body are one; what happens to body affects spirit and vice versa.

Paul doesn’t buy the degradation of the body one bit because of the resurrection. God does not work with disembodied spirits.  The resurrection is about the physical body being raised from death (v. 14). How could it be that the body is disposable or unrelated to God’s life in us when we believe in the resurrection of that body? On top of that, Paul says “you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (v. 20). Because your body and soul (the whole enchilada) are part of Christ’s body because of his death on the cross, what you do with your body reflects upon and witnesses to Christ in the world. The material things of life, including the body, have deep spiritual implications.

If you read on into chapter 7 regarding the mutuality of the sexual relationship between husband and wife, Paul says: “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.” (I Cor. 7:3-4 NIV) The person who is the beneficiary of a sexual relationship is not yourself, it is your partner. It is the intimacy of being for the other that makes sexuality a blessing. Sexuality done for the sake of self leads to immorality, according to Paul.

This idea of how human relationships work is fleshed out further in Paul’s discussion of our unity in the body of Christ (I Cor. 12); and again in how Paul makes self-giving love the centerpiece of Christian behavior (I Cor. 13).  Sexual relationships are created by God to be about joy, pleasure, intimacy and love rooted in divine love. They are, therefore,  always relationships carried out for the sake of the other. When, as we engage in a sexual relationship intent on giving love, giving joy, sharing intimacy and giving pleasure, that we receive those things in return is a gift of grace made possible by another’s self-giving love. A selfish lover loves only themselves; a selfish lover is no lover at all.

Something that all the abusers, named and unnamed, have in common is the use of power over others. The sense of personal liberty may bring the evil act to sprout, but only being in a position of power over someone can force your desire on another human being. Mutuality, an absolute necessity in God-given relationships, is impossible when power is asserted and demands are made. If you can look at the cross of Christ and see any evidence that God allows people to use power for personal gratification and gain, you are deluded. Once again, Paul precludes power as a possibility in sexual relationships because Christ redeems the world in powerlessness.

This is why Paul is hard on sexual relationships that do not reflect such self giving love, and mutuality. Paul is direct:“Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.” (I Cor. 6:18) “Fornication” is related to a Latin word which referred to brothels. “Fornication” is used to translate the Greek word, porneia, which refers to sexual immorality, very often sexual relations with prostitutes. Eugene Peterson, in his translation, The Message, tries to get at porneia as “sex that avoids commitment and intimacy.”

In verses 15 & 16, Paul is referring to sex with prostitutes. Prostitution in Paul’s time had an added religious element (not just economic), where paying for sex with a temple prostitute affiliated with some Greek or Roman deity was akin to making an offering to an idol. Paul is not condemning sex or sexuality in a general manner. He is addressing sex that is out of sorts with God’s intention and redemption. Sex with a prostitute is about self–gratification and not about self-giving love. Any sexual relationship that is not rooted in self-giving love, mutuality, life-long commitment and monogamy (see ELCA Statement on Human Sexuality) does not provide the framework for the beauty, joy, intimacy and pleasure intended by God. Paul would call any sex that does not meet these standards “fornication,” and unworthy of our Lord and of our standing as heirs to the resurrection.

The final move Paul makes in this text is to elevate the use of the body – our eating and drinking and our sexuality – to the level of sacred acts of love. Because of the love revealed in Christ, and because in Christ’s sacrifice we have been redeemed, we have been made one with the body of Christ now raised in this world at this time. We are therefore, the temple of the risen Christ and our souls AND bodies are to be used accordingly. Paul asks, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”  (I Corinthians 6:19-20 NRSV)

There is no glory for God or humanity when men make women into victims and cause pain. When sex is degraded to a transaction, or is sought purely for personal gratification, the temple is defiled. Paul shows us another way. So, glorify God in your body – give joy, intimacy, pleasure and love to one other to whom you are joined in the body of Christ, and by grace, God will be glorified and love will bloom.

 

copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson

 

 

S#@tholes and Blackholes

For the last week or so, every news outlet, media source, and social media platform has been focused on a vulgarity: s#@thole. My apologies upfront for even approximating the term. But I write today not to spread the term but address how it reveals our broken humanity.

Whether the President used the term when referring to other nations and people of the world is up for debate – though it doesn’t seem a very forceful debate. Those who have mounted a defense have done so weakly. Two witnesses from both sides of the aisle seem to affirm the incident. When you add to this the question, “Does this seem like something the President would say?” the answer for me is, “Yes, it seems in charachter.” I’m not surprised or shocked, sadly. It does trouble me that he (or anyone) would think such ill of other cultures and nations and people as to dismiss them so easily. But then we do this all the time, don’t we?

You see, one of the things that supporters of the President like about him is that he says what they are thinking. That’s what makes this an issue of broken humanity for me. This language expresses an attitude of negation; it negates the humanity and dignity of people based on their suffering, their differences, their lack of what we consider normal. Now, before you say “Yeah, that’s the problem” with too much self-righteousness, ask yourself a couple of questions. Have I ever thought about people in Haiti or Africa or some other remote place thinking, “Oh, those poor creatures who live such a wretched life, I’m glad I’m not like them?” Or, have you ever driven into a neighborhood where the people are a different shade of human and live in houses less than your own and checked to make sure the doors were locked, wondering whether all of them were about to attack? That’s negation. Negation is the opposite of what God is about.

I once listened to two affluent women studying the congregation’s Christmas “Adopt-a-Family” lists on a bulletin board. They were nice, normal folks like you and me. They didn’t know I was behind them.  They both agreed (loudly) that granting the request for a Barbie doll to a little girl was not going to happen. “How will she know she’s poor if she has everything?” one said. Negation.

Every year I drove into Chicago to teach preachers, someone who knew the city would ask where I was teaching. I would explain that it was on the south side of the city, in Hyde Park. A conversation about roadways would reveal that I would likely traverse Garfield east, off the Dan Ryan. The response was always something like, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that neighborhood.” Negation. Do the neighborhoods look like mine? No. Are folks in that place struggling economically? Some are, some aren’t. Are there drug addicts there? Sure, just like suburbia – heard of the opioid crisis? The truth is that the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago is an affluent, educated area where I would reside in a minute.

Whenever we give quarter to the notion that “those people” in “those places” are less than we are, we negate the divine in them. Whenever we evaluate another place or culture as less than our own because they don’t have all the material wealth we have, we negate ourselves because “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

The “s#@thole” mentality is a manifestation of the black hole of brokenness that threatens to swallow us up in hate and division. It is the black hole of judgment that negates whole countries, neighborhoods, and people while falsely inflating our own worth. It is expressed not just crude and vulgar terms as we’ve seen in the news but in the faux pity and patronizing compassion of people who have much who look down on people who don’t. This spiritual black hole not only negates those we classify, but it swallows up the divine in us too.

 

copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson

 

 

Christmas Bells

Even though we don’t hear too many church bells anymore, the poem, “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadworth Longfellow, which was written during the Civil War, still expresses the truth about Christmas – it is an annoucement of hope in the face of despair, each of which must be embraced for the Nativity of Our Lord to embrance us…

                  Christmas Bells

I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”