Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

Joe the Plumber in the Year of Jubilee

Joe the plumber is famous for asking the right question of Barak Obama: how will your policy impact my income? The presidential candidate stirred up a political storm with his reply, which included this general statement: “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

You can read the entire transcript at MSNBC but there is one other text that will shed light on this matter: in the Bible, the book of Leviticus, chapter 25. There, and in two other places, you will find a description of a year-long festival known as Jubilee. The name is taken from the Hebrew word for the ram’s horn; the year of Jubilee commenced with the blowing of the horn.

A Jubilee year occurred every 50 years, or at the end of seven cycles of seven years. Three things happened during the year of Jubilee: the fields were left untilled, land reverted to its original owner, and all slaves were freed.

These Jubilee practices were designed to keep the land—and therefore the means of wealth—distributed among the people. The purpose was to prevent a few landowners from accumulating most of the land while the many landless were without means of support. In other words, it is a biblical principle of distributing the wealth and preventing extreme gaps between the rich and the poor. It is an application of the very principal enunciated by Obama: when you spread the wealth around it is good for everybody.

Of course, Obama’s critics have taken his simple statement as a prescription for socialism and even communism. “Taking from some and giving to others,” they say, their words dripping with derision.

But, as former General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed out on Sunday, all taxation is—in some sense—taking from some and giving to others—or giving to everyone, as in the case of public projects, like roads and bridges.

I for one am glad about this national policy of the many helping the few. My mother died in February and was buried in a military cemetery; there was no cost; all expense was born by the tax-payers. My dad has Alzheimer’s disease, lives in a nursing home, and draws a Social Security check. My grandson Sam is being raised by a single mother; he has a medical card from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. There are all very common examples of people in need being cared for by those with means.

Taxation helps to maintain some sense of fairness in the distribution of wealth in the country. It is not right for a few to live in luxury while the many live in want. The disparity between the rich and the poor, either in a country or between countries, is the chief cause of social instability in the world.

Taxation is one way to adjust this inequity; charity is another—as when governments give foreign aid or participate in international relief efforts; but the way described in the Bible is the Year of Jubilee.

Some denounce this as socialism. The Christian gospel simply calls it justice.

A Prayer for Yom Kippur

My, what important, interesting things are going on all around us in the world: wars in the Middle East, economic collapse from New York to Singapore, political campaigns and baseball playoffs, and in the cracks all the cultural clutter—O.J., Caylee, and the like.

And right there in the middle of all this really important stuff comes a day of prayer, reflection, and turning toward God.

Today is Yom Kippur.

That is a Hebrew phrase for Day of Atonement. It comes from the Bible: Leviticus. “The priest who is anointed and ordained … is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the people of the community.”

It happens once a year on the tenth day of the seventh month (of the Jewish calendar). That is today, starting Wednesday evening at sun down and concluding Thursday evening at sun down; it is the blowing of the ram’s horn, the shophar, which officially signals the end of Yom Kippur.

These days Yom Kippur is a day of prayer. In the old days it involved a lot of blood: a bull and a goat were killed and the blood was sprinkled here and there. This is all odd to us, of course, but it is the third animal that plays the most curious role. “The priest is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat.” The Lord’s goat is sacrificed; but the scapegoat is brought before the priest. “He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert….The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place.”

You always wanted to know the linguistic origins of the word scapegoat and here it is.

These days, it is only a metaphor, but it is significant that right in the middle of all our really important stuff—see above—there is a day of prayer, a day set aside to meditate upon God, and sin, and change, and forgiveness. One day when we don’t read the stock ticker, the news bulletins, the poll numbers, or even the political blogs.

We need days like this. They puncture holes in our inflated sense of significance. They pull us away from all these worldly cares and cultural crises. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist wrote.

It is a Jewish holy-day (that is, holiday) but it is not only for Jews. It is for all of us—how does the text above read: “all the people of the community” and it is right and proper to insert the word “human” right before the word “community.”

In the small collection of cds that ride with me in the front seat of my yellow ptCrusier is one entitled “A Hymn for the World.” It features Andrea Bocelli, the incomparable, blind Italian singer. His most famous offering is a duet with Celine Deion of the Foster-Segar song, entitled “The Prayer.” I will play it today, on Yom Kippur, and forget for these few hours all the stuff we think is so important.

Listen to “The Prayer.”

Bad Moon Rising–or Not

I’m not the only one who is humming the tune and muttering the text of that old Creedence Clearwater hit “Bad Moon Rising.” The lyrics written by John Fogerty are once again the commentary of choice on these turbulent days:

I see a bad moon arising. / I see trouble on the way./ I see earthquakes and lightnin’. / I see bad times today. CHORUS: Don’t go around tonight, / Well, it’s bound to take your life, / There’s a bad moon on the rise.

This is the mood of our time.

For decades preachers have declared the decline of morals; few listened. For almost as long diplomats have described the impending clash of civilizations; nobody cared. Since 9/11 politicians have warned about the energy crisis; we packed up the SUV anyway and drove across the country. It was hard to get the attention of anybody.

But now: there is real fear of nasty weather. Or in the words of the song: I hear hurricanes ablowing./ I know the end is coming soon. / I fear rivers over flowing. / I hear the voice of rage and ruin.

I feel it in my bones. Now that the economists, the stock brokers, and the bankers are losing fortunes and losing faith we are all paying attention. Not to the things we normally do in the most pleasant month of the year: baseball playoffs and political campaigns and weekend football. We are all paying attention to our shrinking resources. All of a sudden we are glad to have a job and working hard just to keep a job. Who knows what lies right around the corner.

Yesterday the song played out in a home in California. Here is the AP press release: “LOS ANGELES — An unemployed accounting industry worker who was despondent over financial problems shot and killed his wife, three children, mother-in-law and then himself in an upscale home in a gated community.”

Remember stanza three? Hope you got your things together. / Hope you are quite prepared to die. / Looks like we’re in for nasty weather. / One eye is taken for an eye.

There is another text, though, that countermands this despair; and I quote from Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with her surging….Nations are in uproar; kingdoms fall; the earth melts. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge….Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth.

A musical setting of this sturdy psalm was the theme anthem at the church where I preached for six years. It still resonates in my soul, more loudly now and more frequently. Just the singing of it is a mercy and a grace. It helps me forget about the rising of the moon good or bad and give thanks for the One Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, who made the moon and the stars and the heavens above.

O give thanks to God and give glory to his name.

Amos in New York

All sorts of questions come to the mind of this preacher as I contemplate the implosion of Wall Street. Like: what might Amos say in such a situation?

You recall he was not one of the religious hired hands in ancient Israel. That person’s name was Amaziah. He was pastor of the church—or, as they would say, priest of the sanctuary—at Bethel. It was the king’ sanctuary, so prophets—what we call today preachers—had to be careful what they said. It was more important, evidently, what the king thought than what God thought. That is a tough spot for any proclaimer of the Word.

Amos thought the king should protect the poor, care for the widow, give justice to the weak, and distribute the material goods of the kingdom so all might share in the prosperity of the land.

You can read all about this in the small book of Amos. It is part of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. We also call him a Minor Prophet, which is a misnomer if ever there was one. It is a short book, just nine chapters. But that makes it minor in the same since that the Gettysburg Address is minor.

The little book of mostly poetry was a favorite of Martin Luther King, Jr. who liked to quote chapter five and verse twenty-four: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Amos would ask questions of the king: in this massive billion-dollar bailout, are you helping the rich or are you helping the poor? Are you more concerned about the people who might lose their life savings or the executives who might lose their salaries?

I read today that Lehman’s Brothers Bank in New York filed for bankruptcy; but before they did they set aside $2.5 billion dollars in a bonus pool to pay workers at the New York office. Last year their chief executive made $34 million.

Police in New York will spend hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to fight street crime: robbery, drug use, bad checks, unpaid rent, parking fines. These are normally the offenses of the poor, street people who have little to eat and often nowhere to sleep. They will be arrested and prosecuted.

But at Lehman Brothers, and a dozen other high and mighty firms, the white collar criminals will escape prosecution. Instead of losing their freedom for bringing the world to the brink of chaos or even losing their jobs for mismanaging billions of dollars, they will be bailed out and evidently receive rewards. The American government, led by the former executive at Goldman Sacks, will pay them handsomely for their work.

I think Amos would have something to say about some of this. But he would be told to shut up. “This is the king’s sanctuary,” he would be told. “You know nothing of the intricate rules of international finance. Go read your Bible and stick to your own business.”

But today, it is Amos that we quote, and Amaziah whose name we cannot remember.

The Moral Life of the Unborn

Yesterday I registered my resistance to calling an unborn child a “person.” Today I want to address the subject of the moral state of the unborn child.

But first, let’s begin with a text of Scripture, Genesis 2.7: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.” The created thing becomes a living soul when he starts to breath.

In the Bible the “soul” is often a synonym for what we today call the self. I am a soul and you are a soul; a soul is the union of flesh and spirit. It is the soul that makes the human animal so different from all other animals; we are a soul, whales are not. (I would say dogs are not but that would generate more heated protest than anything I might write about a person!)

It is the soul that falls into sin; it is the soul that is redeemed; it is the soul that rejoices in God; it is the soul that struggles between right and wrong.

Is an unborn child a soul? The book of Genesis seems to teach that he or she becomes a soul only when he or she emerges from the womb and begins to breath: that is, takes on a life distinct and increasingly independent from the mother.

So is an unborn child a soul? Before you answer too quick consider this: is the unborn soul a moral being, capable of good and ill, subject to condemnation and in need of redemption?

Historically, the Christian church has taught that moral agency begins with birth or sometime after birth. Many Protestants have the idea of “the age of accountability.” Many Christian theologians—not this one—have taught that children are contaminated with (original) sin from birth; this is why they advocate baptism soon after birth—to remove the taint of sin.

But does this contamination extend into the womb? If so, why has there been no teaching on the moral state of the unborn? If so, why do we wait until birth to baptize or christen?

These are not silly questions. The debate about life, choice, and abortion has generated political and theological assertions that push us to think about these things. Just as I rejected “personhood” yesterday, today I reject the notion that unborn children are moral agents, not a soul in the biblical sense of the word.