Tuesday, September 27, 2011

O Where Are Kings and Empires Now

during the last couple of weeks, i have been investigating the culture into which Jesus was born. when i first began writing this post several days ago, i reviewed the history of the jewish people from the period of Alexander's conquests to the time of Jesus, but i don't want to write a history lesson. anyone who is interested in this period can easily find the information, as i did. what struck me about the milieu of roman palestine was the great contrast between the rich and the poor, and it was to the poor that Jesus chose to minister.

the wealthy lived in luxury in the cities--in sepphoris, tiberias, caesarea maritima, jerusalem--while the rest of the population supported them. the government was corrupt and unmoved by the plight of ordinary people. none of the major population centers of palestine, except jerusalem, are mentioned in the gospels. jesus grew up in the shadow of sepphoris, yet there is no record that He ever traveled the few miles between nazareth and this home of one of herod antipas' palaces. instead, He visited small fishing and farming villages, He saw the great needs of the people and had compassion for them, He taught them that the kingdom of God was not a kingdom like that of the romans or that of herod, but a kingdom whose citizens care for the poor, the hungry, the naked, the defenseless, in stark contrast to the way life was conducted in roman palestine.

Jesus taught a religion that was lived out in day-to-day life, not the religion of burdensome rules intended to lead to ritual purity as the pharisees taught. He taught that the religious compromises of the sadducees, made to protect their positions of power and privilege and to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy and the romans, were just as wrong. He taught that the withdrawal from life to live in monastic communities to wait for the coming of the messiah like the essenes had done was not the way of true religion. only living out one's religion in love for others was and is the way to the kingdom of God.

the example of Jesus' life, His ministry to those who were forgotten by the rich and the roman conquerors, is striking. no other teacher in His time lived out such a religion. it is my prayer that we learn from the example of Jesus, that we see the parallels between His times and ours, that we confront the growing gap between the rich and the poor and that we work to minister to those who, like the ordinary folk of Jesus' day, are forgotten by those in power.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When Israel Was in Egypt's Land

last Lord's Day, one of our pastors preached about the first observance of the passover. as she spoke, i tried to place myself in the shoes of an israelite slave in ancient egypt. during the passover meal, i would be sitting with my family, hastily chewing my food in our miserable shack with lamb's blood smeared on the door frame. i would be fully dressed with my walking stick in one hand as i ate with the other hand. i would be ready to leave at a moment's notice. how excited i would be to think that i am almost free of the cruel slavery that has been my lot since birth!

then i began to think of the resurrection. shouldn't i be just as excited to think of the freedom that Jesus showed us is ours? for many generations, human beings feared the finality of death. with Jesus' resurrection, we are free from that fear. we are free to live life, relishing every moment of this life and, all the while, we can look forward to the transition that death brings to another life.

what sort of life will that new life be? we can't know until we experience it. maybe we will be born again to experience life in a different body and to have another chance to make right some of the wrongs we did in this life. maybe we will be in another place where we no longer experience the trials and sufferings of this life. whatever happens after death, Jesus demonstrated that we can be free of the fear of death. death is not the end of our existence.

my prayer today is that we live our lives mindfully, experiencing each moment as fully as we can, because we need not fear the future. we are free of that fear.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Like the Brightness After Rain That Brings Grass from the Earth

we are experiencing a severe drought in our part of the country. grass is brown; trees, especially small ones, are dying; livestock and wildlife are in dire straits. in many areas, though not in our town, water is being rationed. we are beginning to hear calls for prayer services to implore God to send rain.

as i rode on my morning bike ride a few days ago, i looked at the brown vegetation and thought about these calls for prayer. do i believe that God is the cause of the drought? no. if i, as an individual, or we, as a collective, pray for rain, and it doesn't come, is God refusing to listen to me (us) or punish me (us) for some great sin? no. then, is it appropriate for any of us to pray for rain? my conclusion is that it is not. the drought is part of a natural process, or perhaps it is the result of our indifference to the environmental harm that we are doing by emitting great quantities of greenhouse gasses. in any eventuality, God is not the cause of our suffering.

for what, then, should we pray? perhaps wisdom to stop our damage to the atmosphere? perhaps wisdom to deal intelligently with the results of the drought? perhaps wisdom to know the priorities to choose in saving what we can and allowing other living things to perish? do i believe that God could send rain? certainly, but i also believe it is wrong to ask for God to interfere if the drought is caused by natural forces and wrong to ask God to intervene if the drought is caused by our own selfishness. those who are praying for rain will eventually see the rains return and will credit their prayers for ending the drought, but i believe that God has set nature in motion and lovingly helps us deal with the effects of those natural forces.

my prayer today is that we will have wisdom to deal with the effects of the drought intelligently and compassionately and that we neither blame God for the drought nor ask God to intervene miraculously to end it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Silence of Eternity, Interpreted by Love

this week i've been doing some study about topics i mentioned in my last post: i've been exploring the history of the jewish nation in palestine in the period leading up to, and during, the roman occupation, i've done some reading on the saducees, pharisees, and essenes, i've learned a little about jewish scriptural interpretation, i've begun reading the gospel of thomas, and i've read all of the passages in the four gospels, acts, and romans that mention "sin" and related words. as i've read jewish history in the period of the Hasmonean dynasty and the Herodian dynasty that followed, i've begun to think of the intrigues and cruelties that were the norm in the leadership of the jewish nation and of the difficulties common people must have experienced, especially in galilee, as they dealt with the demands of the roman occupiers, of the herodian tetrarchy, and the minutiae of rules that made up the expectations of the religious leaders. this was the world in which Jesus lived, and one can begin to see what Jesus meant when He spoke of taking up His light yoke.

in contrast to the demands of the prevailing interpretations of the law, Jesus taught that one's actions must flow from love, that the inner life is more important that outer ritual actions. He taught that the ultra-nationalism of the dominant religious parties and the zealots was counterproductive, and He encouraged His followers to transform society by looking to the common good rather than plotting against the romans. how remarkable His teachings must have seemed to those who listened to Him! in the face of the oppresive demands of the government and religious elite, some of whom were collaborators with the romans and herod, Jesus spoke of a way of life that honored love for God and others, one that gave women a new and prominent role, one that set aside prejudices that divided people of differing nationalities and religious backgrounds.

my prayer today is that we walk in the way that Jesus taught, practicing the religion of caring for one another and treating each other with kindess and respect. may we see the light of God in each person we encounter and remember that what we do to and for others, we do to and for Jesus.