Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ever Before Me

Based on Psalm 51:1-12; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

A friend in Maine has a bumper sticker – one of many – on her pickup truck that reads: “If you’re not OUTRAGED, you’re not paying attention.”
According to the BBC, in March, 2011, pro-democracy protests erupted in the Syrian city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who had spray-painted revolutionary slogans on a wall.  By July, nationwide protests demanded President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation.  One thing led to another and the country descended into civil war.  Since then, some 200,000 people have been killed; 11,000,000 displaced from their homes; and 3,900,000 live as refugees in other countries.
CNN reported in April that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had ordered the executions of 15 government officials so far this year, based on information provided by the South Korean National Intelligence Service.  For example, one senior official with the Ministry of Forestry was executed for expressing dissatisfaction with the country's forestry program.
Neither Assad in Syria nor Kim Jong Un in North Korea can afford to allow any dissent or challenges to their authority, and so their default position is to crush it completely.  How might things be different in their respective countries today had they a Nathan of their own to tell them parables about the abuse of power.
Psalm 51 is one of about a dozen psalms that respond to a specific situation in Scripture.  Thus, the context for Psalm 51 comes from today’s reading from Second Samuel, and it is a psalm of David, not by David.  But let’s forget David for a minute; these twelve verses become highly personal and affecting when we hear them with our own situations in mind.
The root of Sin is a distorted or broken relationship with God, and we know it when it happens, as in verse 3: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”  We tend to be pretty quick with our Sunday assurances of pardon, but we can’t just wave our sin away with words.  We need to face up to our sin as David did.  Our confession of sin implies the need for a clean heart and a new spirit.
This is God's judgment: that we need purging 'with hyssop;' we need wisdom; we need to acknowledge our iniquities, our transgressions.  Only then can forgiveness and reconciliation with our neighbors occur.  Only then can God create in us a clean heart and a new spirit.
Imagine how difficult it must be to continually dodge the truth that we have sinned before the Lord; how much physical and emotional energy that must take.  Do you think Bashar al-Assad thought at all about the toll the civil war must be having on Syria's people, or is the enormity of his sin so great that he can't even speak about it?  Closer to home, do we ever wonder about the toll exacted upon our homeless population by policies that seem to be helpful when all they actually do is frustrate and make the problem worse.  At what point do we lose our compassion and fall into the sin of complacency and inaction?
Nathan tells his parable in such a way that David becomes outraged by the rich man’s behavior only to realize that they are his own actions, his own sin.  And it is a rude awakening.  I think it would be quite humbling, not to mention shaming, to hear Nathan say, “You are the man!  You are the one without compassion!”  When do we become outraged by our own behavior?
The Bible scholar Patrick Miller wrote that Psalm 51 “bids us open our eyes to look for evidence” that wickedness leads to its own destruction “in a world that is shaped and governed by God’s moral order.”  The al-Assad’s of the world will be defeated by the weight of their own sin.
Psalm 51 is a reaction to Nathan’s parable and David comes up against the hard truth that his sin is ever before him.  Thomas Long, a professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, wrote in response that “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall tear you apart.”  This truth is only bearable by God’s grace and willingness to judge us and restore us.
There is a moment in reading Psalm 51 when we know ourselves to be forgiven.  That moment represents a new beginning which we owe to a faithful God of steadfast love and abundant mercy.
Which brings us to Jesus: today’s Gospel reading from John finds Jesus in Capernaum immediately after the feeding of the five thousand.  The crowd continues to follow him, Jesus said, “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  Who wouldn’t follow a prophet who also provides a buffet?
So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?  What work are you performing?”  Of course, Jesus himself is the sign.  And the connection to Psalm 51 is this: the work Jesus is performing, then and today, is to cleanse us from our sin; to put a new and right spirit within us; to create in us a clean heart; and to reconcile us one with each other.  Through Jesus, our relationship with God is restored.  That’s what I hear when I read the psalm and the gospel together.
Psalm 51 includes tension, challenge, and promise.  It speaks of places within us where we don’t want to go.  It also celebrates redemption and God’s steadfast love.  The afflictions we deal with in this psalm are spiritual.  Our bodies are not broken but our relationships with God and our resistance to God are.  The psalm also gives us an awareness of God’s saving action and cleansing ways.  When we say “thy will be done,” we free ourselves to be filled with the will and grace of God.
The good news here is that God can and will restore the relationships we have broken.  We are not doomed to remain in a cycle of sin, repentance, and forgiveness followed only by more sin.  Through this psalm, we can see both our past and God’s future for us with new understanding.  God will create in us a new beginning, sustain us in times of spiritual drought, and restore to us the joy of God’s salvation.
Maybe it’s time for our friend to get a new bumper sticker that reads: “If you’re not paying attention, God have mercy.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Unintended Consequences

Adam Kirsch recently published a series of articles in Tablet magazine (here, here, and here).  One article, ‘Why Taking Vows Is a Wicked Act,’ raises questions about how ‘taking a vow’ might not be such a good idea.  Kirsch delves into the Talmud’s Tractate Nedarim, which is devoted to oaths, vows, and the problems associated with them from the rabbinical point of view.  He quotes both Ecclesiastes and Rabbi Meir, both of whom believe it is better not to take a vow at all.  Why not?
The Bible insists that a vow, once taken, must be kept: “When a man takes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not profane his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth,” says Numbers 30:2.  But Ecclesiastes says, “Do not let your mouth lead you into sin” (Ecclesiastes 5:6).
One reason not to take a vow is that by doing so, you potentially set yourself up for failure by, according to the Talmud, placing “a stumbling-block” in your own way.  These obstacles encourage people to use dishonest methods to get out of their vows; it is in the making of the vow, then, that leads you into the sin of dishonesty.
This led the rabbis to decide that the courts should not punish people for trying to get out of their vows with bad excuses.  In order to teach people not to take vows lightly, they would often try to provide a better excuse to dissolve the vow, on the theory that a person wouldn’t have made the vow in the first place if they could foresee the unintended consequences resulting from it (think of Herod’s vow in Mark 6:17-24 to give ‘whatever you wish’ to his wife’s daughter only to realize it would mean the end of John the Baptist).
Kirsch tells us the following story: ‘In Nedarim 22b, we hear about the time Rabbi Shimon came before the sages asking for the dissolution of a vow.  However, when the sages offered him various ways out, he kept refusing them: “They said to him: Did you vow with the knowledge of this particular fact?  He said: Yes.”  This happened over and over again, so that the sages had to puzzle over the case all day long – “from sun to shade, and again from shade to sun.”  Finally, a rabbi called Botnit came up with an ingenious solution.  Would Shimon have made the vow if he had known that dissolving it would cause so much trouble to the rabbis?  No, Shimon said, and so the rabbis dissolved the vow.’
The Talmud makes clear that it will go to great lengths to release a Jew from a vow, rather than force him to break the vow and commit a sin.
But what about those times when someone makes a vow for us in our name?
Consider Samson.  It was the angel of the Lord who told Samson’s mother, “Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son.  No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth.”  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Samson has none of these vows in mind as he tears apart a lion, bashes the Philistines up and down Gaza, and enjoyed a seven-day wedding feast.
The one vow he does keep, ‘his whole secret,’ the one he keeps literally until the end, has everything to do with his hair: “If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else.”  Susan Niditch points out that ‘the “hair growing” aspect of the Nazirite vow is central to the narrative, its plot, its hero’s characterization, and its central themes.’[i]  Samson seems aware that the source of his great strength lies in his hair.  The other vows – the ones not made by Samson for himself – matter little to him and to the story.  So, in essence, when the writer of Judges associated ‘the Nazirite vow’ with Samson, it was really just a plot device to help build a contrast between nature and culture, and had nothing to do with vows per se at all.
And yet, in Numbers 6:1-21, the Bible goes out of its way to provide the legislation for Nazirite behavior.  In fact, this is the only place where the Bible mentions taking a vow to become a Nazirite.  Two questions arise for me, then: were Nazirite vows different from any other kind of Biblical vow, and are vows in the Bible different than modern-day vows?
Short answer: No and Yes.
Tony Cartledge did some work[ii] and concluded that Nazirite vows, like most Biblical vows, ‘were most likely conditional promises of special service,’ of the ‘if you do this, Lord, then I will do that’ variety.  For example, in Genesis 28:20-21, “Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.”
In 2 Samuel 15:8, Absalom said to the king, “If the Lord will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will worship the Lord in Hebron.”
Other Biblical vows were made under duress during war time:
In Numbers 21:2, “Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will indeed give this people into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns.’”
And in Judges 11:30-31, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.”  Talk about unintended consequences: the first one out the door to greet him was his daughter.  Do you think Jephthah might have wanted to take that vow back?
Some vows are masked somewhat.  Psalm 35 includes a petition that says, basically, “Rescue me and then I will thank thee, Lord!”  Essentially, though, in the Bible, promises were made conditionally in the prospect of receiving an answered prayer.
Today, we think of vows as binding promises, solemn and unbreakable.  The Canadian Mounted Police vow to always get their man and they do, because they will not rest until the goal is reached.  Institutionally, we understand modern vows, for example, wedding vows, to be unconditional.  Our understanding of vows is shaped by societal and cultural forces.  No one today would make a vow like Jephthah’s and if they did, they would probably work pretty hard to avoid fulfilling it.
On the other, every day, people vow to stay together “for better or worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health” unconditionally and just as often, they break their vows and/or dissolve the marriage union.
So when we debate issues such as who is entitled to marry whom, or whether the enacted law ought to be defined by those who wrote it or by those who interpret it, perhaps we ought to consider the unintended consequences of any kind of vow-taking.  After all, as Adam Kirsch points out, a vow is a promise to go above and beyond, to make a personal sacrifice in the name of God.  Are you ready for that?

[i] Susan Niditch, “Samson as Culture Hero, Trickster, and Bandit: The Empowerment of the Weak,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990), 612.  Gregory Mobley expands on this.  He writes that Samson becomes alienated from God “only when he allows himself to be domesticated;” that is, as long as he maintains his connection to nature in the form of his uncut hair, he is connected to God.  “The Wild Man in the Bible and the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116/2 (1997), 230.
[ii] Tony W. Cartledge, “Were Nazirite Vows Unconditional?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989).  He further concluded that Samson, who had made no vow of his own, was paying a debt incurred by his mother.