Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bible Challenge Day 191: Job’s Challenge (Job 31)

Job and his “friends” have been going at it for several days now. Job’s friends keep insisting that Job must have done something to deserve his sufferings. Job keeps responding that he is innocent. Based on chapter one, we know that Job is more right than they are.

What we see in chapter 31 (not only here, but especially here), is that Job and his friends agree on one thing anyway: the world is supposed to be fair. They have been saying that the world is fair because anything else would imply that God, the governor of the world, is unjust. Job says that the world is supposed to be fair, but is not. That is the basis of his protest. So, in chapter 31, Job says over and over again, “if I had sinned, my suffering would be acceptable” (verse 5, 7, 9, 13, 16, 19, 21, 24, 25, 26, 29, 31, 33, 38, 39). But because he has not committed those sins, his suffering is NOT acceptable.

Job therefore issues a challenge to God: “Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me! O that I had the indictment written against me by my adversary! Surely I would carry it on my shoulder; I would bind it on me like a crown; I would give him an account of all my steps; like a prince I would approach him” (31:35-37).

Like his friends, Job assumes the world is supposed to be fair. Unlike them, Job believes he is innocent of any wrong-doing. So Job calls God to account. He demands the right to prove his innocence. Then, presumably, God will correct the injustice done to Job.

Job turns out to be wrong, as we will read in a few days. But the power of the book depends on us taking seriously Job’s challenge, and the assumption on which it is based: the assumption that the world is supposed to be fair and God is supposed to make sure that it stays that way. It is an assumption that Job shares with the friends he has been battling for nearly thirty chapters! It is also an assumption that most of us make most of the time.
Fr. Harvey

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bible Challenge Day 180: God’s Justice? (Job 4-6)

Job has always been one of my favorite books in the Old Testament. And today we get into the central question of the entire book: is suffering always fair or just?

Job has just cursed the day of his birth (3:1-3). His friend Eliphaz feels obligated to challenge Job. Job has often counselled others who were suffering, says Eliphaz, but now he seems unable to benefit from the very lessons he has previously taught (4:3-5). And the most basic lesson of all is that God is not unjust. “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (4:7-8).

Eliphaz does not make the obvious conclusion explicit. He leaves that for the other friends later in the book. But the implication is clear enough. Job is suffering. God is too just to impose suffering on innocent people. Therefore, Job deserves what he is getting; Job must have sinned somehow.

For now, Eliphaz accentuates the positive. He says “How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up” (5:17-18). That is, Job should learn his lesson, do right, and experience God’s forgiveness and blessing.

Job will have none of it! He reminds his friends that he did not ask for their help (6:22-23). He accuses them of withholding kindness and becoming treacherous (6:14-15, 21). And he ends with bitter sarcasm: “Teach me, and I will be silent; make me understand how I have gone wrong. How forceful are honest words!” (Wait for it . . . . ) “But your reproof, what does it reprove? . . .  You would even cast lots over the orphan, and bargain over your friend” (6:24-25, 27). With his very last words, at least in this chapter, Job again asserts his innocence (6:29-30).

So the positions are taken, and will only harden for the rest of the book. Job’s friends claim that God is just, so Job must deserve his suffering. Job responds that they are jerks and that he is guiltless. At stake are competing theologies and competing visions of our world. Is God just and our world ultimately fair? Or is the world sometimes unfair and—one must say this with caution—therefore God not always just? The seemingly pious answer is the first. And yet we know from chapters one and two that Job is in fact innocent and that his suffering comes from a kind of bet between Satan and God. That certainly challenges easy and conventional pieties!
Fr. Harvey

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bible Challenge Day 170: The More Excellent Way (1 Corinthians 13)

Like a lot of couples, my wife and I used part of today’s reading from First Corinthians in our wedding ceremony. I remain glad we chose it. Paul gives us a beautiful description of what love can and should be: patient and kind, and so on.

But there is some irony in using this passage at weddings, given Paul’s stated preference for celibacy over marriage. And given Paul’s preference for celibacy, it is not surprising that this passage is not about love in marriage, but rather about love between Christian brothers and sisters.

Two things strike me as particularly important about this chapter in the context of First Corinthians as a whole. First, this chapter is the solution to the basic problem of the entire letter. From the beginning of the letter, Paul has worried about divisions in the Church. The divisions in Corinth take many forms, but a big one is a kind of rivalry between people with different spiritual gifts, particularly the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues (chapter 14—tomorrow’s reading). What Paul says in chapter 13 is that the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and all the rest are worth nothing if they are not used in love (13:1-3). Love is what makes the gifts valuable because love is what pushes us to use our gifts “for the common good” (12:7).

That is a good lesson for Christians today, just as it was for Christians in the first century. Being right is not as important as loving each other. Better to defer than to insist our own way. Better to seek the good of our neighbors than to promote our own agenda, good though our agenda may be. That is easier said than done, but the principle is clear enough.

The other thing that strikes me is Paul’s treatment of love as itself a spiritual gift, indeed “the greater gift,” “the more excellent way” (12:31). Our capacity to love comes from God. As we grow in our relationship with God, we should grow in our capacity to love as well, no matter what other spiritual gifts we may receive. It is probably not true that “all you need is love.” But it is certainly true that you need love!
Fr. Harvey

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Bible Challenge Day 163 Again: More Sex (1 Corinthians 7)

Paul’s discussion of sexuality and marriage can, it seems to me, be extended to same sex marriage. He generally prefers celibacy, so he has to make an argument for sexuality and marriage of any sort. As I wrote in my blog yesterday, his basic argument is that (1) not all are called to celibacy; (2) those who are not called to celibacy will be troubled by sexual desire unless they can find some legitimate sexual outlet; (3) marriage is the legitimate outlet for sexual desire. Therefore men and women should marry and should meet each other’s sexual needs in marriage.

Paul only mentions heterosexual couples. And in Romans 1, Paul is pretty negative about homosexuality (though that passage can be read in more than one way). But in principle, Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 7 could be extended to same sex couples.

Perhaps some gay or lesbian people are called to lives of celibacy, but most appear not to be, as is true for most straight people.  To suggest that those who are not called to celibacy must remain celibate anyway is to condemn them to being “aflame with passion,” precisely the reason why Paul thinks people should marry. Celebrating gay marriage seems like a better and more faithful option.

This argument does not mean that anything goes. On the contrary, it presumes that the same standards of sexual ethics apply to heterosexual and homosexual marriages. The couple should intend a loving, mutual, lifelong, monogamous commitment. That couples often find themselves unable to fulfill their intentions calls for compassion rather than judgment. But it doesn’t change the ideal, regardless of the gender of the spouses.
Fr. Harvey

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bible Challenge Day 163: Sex (1 Corinthians 7)

Today’s chapter from First Corinthians is all about that most fascinating topic: sex. And what Paul has to say about sex in this chapter is pretty surprising, given his reputation as a misogynist and a prude.

Paul does state a clear reference for celibacy, which partially justifies his prudish reputation. He says that he wishes all could be like him, i.e. celibate (7:7). And he ends the chapter by saying that “he who marries is fiancĂ©e does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38). In between, he makes the same point in other ways.

But Paul is clear that not all have the gift of celibacy. And those who are not called to a life of celibacy should marry. After all, “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion,” i.e. to be driven by unsatisfied sexual desire (7:9). So marriage is an acceptable alternative for Christians, even if it is not the highest calling in Paul’s view.

The thing that interests me most is Paul’s clear linkage of sexuality and marriage. On the one hand, he assumes that sexual activity should be confined to marriage. In today’s culture, that is a conservative stance. But Paul is clear that one reason for marriage—indeed the only reason he mentions—is sexual satisfaction. It is striking that Paul does not mention children. Paul talks about sex as the satisfaction of human desire, not as a means of procreation. This flies in the face of the argument that procreation is the primary—sometimes people say only—legitimate reason for sex.

Paul is also startlingly egalitarian in this chapter. Everything he says about men’s sexual rights in connection with their wives, he says in virtually identical language about women’s sexual rights with regard to their husbands. “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time . . . .” (7:3-5).

Today the language about a wife not having authority over her own body sounds jarring, but in Paul’s day that was obvious. What was revolutionary was the next clause—the husband does not have authority over his own body. And the husband cannot unilaterally decide against sex any more than the wife can. Temporary separations are by mutual consent. Then the spouses must again fulfill their obligation to provide mutual sexual satisfaction. That is a more modern, more pro-sex and pro-woman position than is normally associated with Paul!
Fr. Harvey

Friday, June 12, 2015

Bible Challenge Day 152: Conscience (Romans 14)

The reading for today from Romans contains a set of extraordinary statements.

5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.

22 The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. 23 But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; l for whatever does not proceed from faith m is sin. n

Paul talks about two issues: observing the day (e.g. calling some days particularly holy); and clean and unclean food. In the first, he does not say what he considers right. In the second, he does. But in both cases, he mainly says that people should do whatever they think is right.

Honor the day. Do not honor the day. Abstain from certain foods. Eat all foods. If you have doubts, do not do it. If you don’t, feel free to go ahead (as long as you do not harm your brother or sister).

It is a remarkable ethic, putting a remarkable responsibility on each of us to determine what we believe is right and to do it. I presume that Paul would say some things are intrinsically right or wrong. But in this passage, Paul is all about the Christian conscience.

Fr. Harvey


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Bible Challenge Day 149: Christians, Jews, and Others (Romans 11)

I often get into conversations about salvation. Perhaps oddly, it is not a question I worry about. I assume that God will handle whatever happens after death. And, because God is good, I am confident that what happens after death will be good. The details are fuzzy in my mind, but that seems OK.

But salvation is a big part of the issue in the chapter for Roman for today. Paul is distressed that so many Jews are rejecting the gospel. He seems to want to say two things: Faith in Christ is how salvation works; and the Jews who are rejecting Jesus are not necessarily out of luck. He puts it clearly in verse 28-29: “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your [Gentiles] sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

Paul simply cannot believe that God will reject the Jews. He begins this chapter, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11:1) He speaks of their “full inclusion”, which will be life from the dead (11:12, 15). He says “all Israel will be saved” (11:26).

Having now made it through nearly half the Old Testament as part of the Bible Challenge, this all makes sense to me. Routinely the Israelites disobey God. And even if God punishes them, God forgives, and the covenant endures. Surely Jesus does not make things worse for his people! As Paul says, this time speaking about Jews and Gentiles alike, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that [God] may be merciful to all” (11:32).

What is actually most striking to me in all this, however, is a different point. For salvation, different ethnic and religious groups somehow depend on each other. Paul is interested in Jews and Gentiles. He says, in effect, that the rejection of the Jews opens the door to the salvation of Gentiles. The salvation of Gentiles will in turn inspire the Jews to greater covenant loyalty (11:11-24). Jews and Gentiles are saved together, even if the particular dynamics of salvation differ. That is a striking claim with important implications for Christian-Jewish dialogue!

I take it from all this that the covenant between God and the Jews remains intact, that Jesus has expanded the covenant to include Gentiles, and that we are all in this together. And I wonder if the same kind of expansion could not include other religious groups as well. Might it be the case that our salvation is somehow wrapped up with the salvation of, for example, Muslims, without requiring Muslims to convert to Christianity?
Fr. Harvey