Saturday, July 1, 2017

Obscure Men: People and Places Part I

           It occurred to me after posting my last entry that there can be a lot of confusion surrounding the names of people and places in the Bible. It doesn’t help that the history of Israel is hard to follow as it is. To add to that, it gets even more complicated when you take into account that the Bible was not written with historical accuracy in mind. And if you’re reading the Hebrew Scriptures you might wonder who or what they’re talking about. What is Israel? What is Judah? Who are the Hebrews, and who are the Israelites? Is there even a difference?

           To unravel these questions, I thought I’d write a series of posts about stories of origin. So first, let’s begin with a fancy schmancy word to impress your friends: etiology. An etiology is “a narrative that explains the origin of a custom, ritual, geographical feature, name, or other phenomenon.”[1] The Hebrew Scriptures are full of these little stories explaining why things are the way they are. Consider how the Adam & Even narrative explains why serpents crawl on their bellies, or how the Noah story gives an explanation for rainbows. These passages, of course, have much more theological significance than mere snakes or rainbows. Yet woven into the deeper narratives are these mythical interpretations of the natural world.

           Some biblical etiologies are about the origins of peoples. Just as we try to categorize and classify the human race in our day – and I’m not saying that’s an admirable thing – so did our ancient ancestors. Some things never change apparently. For the biblical authors, this was usually done through genealogies and etiologies. The men who are mentioned in these infancy narratives and lists of fathers and sons frequently represent people of a geographical region, language group, nation, or city. So let’s take a look at a handful of these obscure men from the Bible to see how they were identified with various groups of people.

Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gn 9:18 - 10:32)
           Do you know where the term “Semitic” comes from? It is actually not a synonym for “Jewish.” The term encompasses a much broader range of peoples, and it derives from the name Shem. Each of Noah’s three sons – Shem, Ham, and Japheth – is identified as a patriarch for one of the three major linguistic and ethnic regions that concerned the biblical authors. The descendants of Shem are identified with Syria, Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. Ham and his descendants are associated with northeast Africa and regions under Egyptian influence (as the land of Canaan had once been). And Japheth and his descendants are linked with modern-day Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean.
This map is courtesy of Corey Baugher's website I do not have rights to claim this map as my own.

           For the record, the term “Semitic” nowadays is used more to refer to a particular language family that includes Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and Akkadian – just as, say, the word “Romance” is applied to Latin-based languages, such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian.[2]

           There is one interesting thing to note about Ham. The biblical authors and compilers tended to tell the ancestral stories of their national adversaries in rather unflattering ways. Oftentimes the patriarch is involved in some kind of sexual taboo and/or gets cursed. The story of Ham, the ancestor of the Canaanites, tells of how he “saw his father’s nakedness” - a possible sexual euphemism - when Noah was drunk off wine. Noah then curses Ham’s son:

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem!
Let Canaan be his slave.

May God expand Japheth,
and may he dwell among the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.”
(Gn 9:25-27)

           In Scripture, the ancient Israelites took possession of the land of Canaan after the Exodus. If nothing else, this story should give you some indication of how they felt about the Canaanites.

Eber (Gn 11:10-26)
           Eber is a little-known name in Scripture, but an important one. Eber is the great-grandson of Shem and one of the ancestors of Abraham. It is from him that the name Hebrew derives. You can see the similarities in the Hebrew language: עבר (Eber); עברי (Hebrew). But the term Hebrew can be a confusing one. Today it is used as the name of a language, but not of an ethnicity. And it wasn’t used too frequently to speak of the Israelite people in the Old Testament either. Michael Coogan points out two contexts in which the term Hebrew was used in the OT. “First, it refers to Israelites or their ancestors living as resident aliens in another jurisdiction… The other context is for slaves, probably fellow Israelites.”[3] So when the Israelites were living in Egypt, they were known as Hebrews, but the term was not properly applicable once they left. In any case, it seems like Hebrew would have been too generic of a term for the Israelites, since Eber was about eight generations removed from their namesake, Jacob/Israel.

           Coogan also adds some clarification to the way the term Hebrew was used in the New Testament. Occasionally it was applied to the common language of Palestine, which was actually Aramaic. As such, it was sometimes used to distinguish the Aramaic-speaking Jews of Palestine from the Greek-speaking Jews dispersed throughout other parts of the Greco-Roman world.[4]

Moab and Ammon (Gn 19:30-38)
           The last patriarchs I want to go over in this post are the eponymous ancestors of two of Israel’s national enemies. As with Ham, the father of Canaan, the biblical authors weave in a sexual deviance into the origin story of Moab and Ammon.

           After the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, Lot, the nephew of Abraham, settled in a cave in the hill country… far away from other people apparently. Well, after witnessing the calamity that fell upon two populous cities, he probably didn’t want to be around too many folks. It was just Lot and his two daughters. His wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back – you know, ‘cause that’s the sort of thing that happens in the OT – and the men who were going to marry his daughters did not escape. So what are two single girls desperate for offspring to do? Having children was very important in those days, especially for women.

           They decided to get Lot very drunk and sleep with him. Somehow he never noticed a thing, which means they must have gotten him really drunk. In any case, they both succeeded in bearing children. The first gave birth to Moab, which, according to the passage, is a play on the Hebrew word meaning “from my father.” The second gave birth to Ammon, for the words “son of my kin” and “Ammonites” sound very similar in Hebrew.

           Even though these and other etiological narratives were at times used as backhanded slaps to ridicule their enemies, by linking their rivals’ lineages with that of their own the Israelites acknowledged a profound interconnectedness that transcended the conflicts that arose among them. Moab and Ammon were kin to the Israelite patriarch, Abraham. Even in the book of Deuteronomy the Lord stipulates to the Israelites that, unlike the land of Canaan, they are not to try to take away the land he gave to the Moabites and Ammonites. The Israelites may have had contempt for these people, but they were still part of the family.

           My reading recommendations this week are the genealogies and stories of origin regarding the patriarchs above in bold. You can click the passage references beside their names for links on These might be spiritually dry readings, but as you go through them consider that we are all part of the one human family. We are all children of God, and thus all interconnected. Read these passages, and pray for people across the world, in the most obscure places and in the most difficult situations. Pray for the nations we are at war with, and give kind consideration to the cultures we struggle to understand. We are all sisters and brothers to one another, so let us pray that a spirit of unity and solidarity may reign in all of our hearts.

Until next time,
Peace and all good!

[1] Michal D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 562.
[2] Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), G-39.
[3] Coogan, 86.
[4] Ibid.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Wonder Woman vs. Jonah

What do Wonder Woman and Jonah have in common?

Not much, actually. The two characters could hardly be more different. The former so enthusiastic to accomplish her mission that she refuses her mother’s wishes to stay put, and the latter a reluctant schmuck. One matures in her understanding of divine justice, while the other pouts over the ethic of mercy. Yet both stories explore the themes of salvation and human nature with surprisingly similar conclusions.

            Normally, I am not prone to viewing super hero flicks in theaters, but a friend asked me to see Wonder Woman with him, and I was pleasantly delighted by the film. (Thanks Mario!) Not surprisingly, the movie integrates moral and religious concepts. Such is typical of the super hero genre, which grapples with questions about justice, goodness, evil, and love. What!? A secular work of fiction that plays on theological truths!? Sure. “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). See my post on Truth, Mystery, the Bible, and... Harry Potter.

            In one scene of the film, Diana’s ragtag companions drunkenly toast, “May we get what we want; may we get what we need; and may we never get what we deserve!” Clearly, the posse either doesn’t deserve much, or, for some reason or other, they deserve punishment for their transgressions – at least in their minds. But who of us can say that we’re blameless, anyway? Without giving away too much of the movie – nobody likes spoilers – Diana learns an important lesson about who is worthy of salvation. Ultimately, everyone shares in the responsibility of the ills of this world. No one is entirely blameless, and humanity probably does not deserve a hero or savior. But that is precisely why we need one; we’re helpless. And rather than getting our just desserts, we are offered love and mercy instead – even those thought least deserving of it.

            Jonah is taught a similar lesson, although his character sharply contrasts to that of Diana’s. The Book of Jonah is a unique text of the Hebrew Bible– one of my favorites, in fact. It’s short, funny, easy to read, yet deceptively deep and profound. With only four brief chapters, you can easily pick it up after reading this post and enjoy it for yourself. Or better yet, you can read it now by clicking on the link here. As for Wonder Woman, well, you’ll just have to see it theaters or wait until it comes out on DVD or Blu-Ray.

            Jonah may seem like an endearing story to us today, and we probably relish the message of God’s abundant mercy. But this narrative was likely a hard pill to swallow for many in its original audience – as much as it would be today if, say, the U.N. pardoned ISIS of all human rights abuses (assuming its members repented in sackcloth and ashes like the Ninevites). The ending of the story is as startling as it would be if the Boston Red Sox came back from a 10 point deficit in the ninth inning and won the World Series against the Yankees… at Yankee Stadium. I mean, if you’re a Yankees fan or just really hate the Red Sox.

            Jonah was written after the Babylonian Exile, which up until that point was probably the most devastating experience in Israelite history. The Babylonians were merciless to the people of Judah, deporting most of Jerusalem’s population to Babylon and destroying their sacred Temple. Nearly a century and a half before that, the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, scattering many of its peoples. After the fall of the north, the Assyrians laid an excruciating, but ultimately unsuccessful, siege on Jerusalem in the southern kingdom. The suffering they had inflicted, however, would never be forgotten.

            Naturally, Assyria, Babylon, and their allies were venomously hated for their ruthlessness toward Israel and Judah. The returnees from the Exile had nothing but spite for their enemies, even the memory of those who no longer existed. A lot of biblical ink was spilled in order to hurl curses at these nations. As tends to happen after a country experiences unspeakable trauma, a gross, exclusive sort of nationalism developed among returnees trying to reestablish their religious and political identity in Judah. This party was unforgiving toward foreigners and disdained those who had remained behind after the deportations and inter-mixed with their conquerors. They had a narrow concept of YHWH’s favor, believing that only the pure race of God’s chosen people, Israel, was worthy.

            To critique this mentality, Jonah is presented as a satirical figure, a kind of mirror to be held up to the faces of those who subscribed to the postexilic ideology of exclusivity. Yet for all of Jonah’s zealous contempt for the Ninevite pagans, he proves to have only passive faith in YHWH. When God charges him to preach against Nineveh, Assyria's capital, he goes AWOL, wanting nothing to do with the mission. Twice in the same verse the author stresses that Jonah was getting “away from the LORD.” He sets sail for what might as well have been the farthest corner of the world, and later falls asleep in the depths of the ship. Jonah may be a believer in YHWH, but his actions show that he prefers death over engaging his God with whom he seems at odds. So desperate to get away from the LORD, he apathetically volunteers to be thrown into the sea, an ancient symbol of chaos and death.

            This action only highlights his hypocrisy even more, for even though he just confessed that the LORD is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9), he doesn’t seem to realize that the deep isn’t going to hide him from the creator of the seas. By contrast, the pagan crew shows amazing faith in YHWH, begging for his forgiveness, offering sacrifice, and making vows to him.  

            The fish episode, like the sea itself, conjures up more imagery of primordial chaos and death. Jonah wants to get as far away from the LORD as possible, and God takes him to the brink. There is no farther place from God than death and the netherworld. Yet even there God’s saving power cannot be held at bay. There in the belly of the fish Jonah represents perhaps all of Israel, who knew that they had sinned against the LORD in the past and, as a result, had been brought to the edge of death in the experience of exile – almost total alienation from their God. Yet their time of exile came to an end, as would Jonah’s time in the sea creature. Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving is ironic, though. “Deliverance is from the LORD,” he says, but as we see in the end of the story, he’s infuriated that God extends that deliverance to the Ninevites too.

            So Jonah is spewed out on shore, and he preaches throughout Nineveh that they will be destroyed, and, in a shocking twist of events, evil Nineveh repents of their sins in an extravagant display of penance, from the king on high right down to the animals. God relents of the violence he was going to inflict, but this only pisses Jonah off. At first the reader might guess that he’s angry because his prophecy of calamity didn’t come true – a dilemma that might have labeled him a false prophet and cost him his life. But no! He’s mad because God is merciful, and he even admits that that was the real reason why he fled in the first place. Nineveh doesn’t deserve God’s forgiveness! So blinded by his vindictive nationalism is Jonah, that he goes off to brood over the unscathed city.

            But God teaches him a lesson. He provides a plant to grow over Jonah’s head to give him shade, and this makes Jonah happy. But then God sends a worm to kill the plant, and Jonah, being just a tad over-dramatic, becomes so outraged at this point that he prays for death! And with that the LORD nails him with a rhetorical question: You didn’t do anything to merit that plant you liked so much, yet you’re so upset that it died. So why shouldn’t I be concerned about these thousands of pitiful people? Oh and let’s not forget their animals too.
Now, put that in your pipe and smoke it, Jonah!

            Though different in their approaches, it seems that both Wonder Woman and Jonah must grapple with this issue of divine justice. Maybe Nineveh didn’t deserve God’s mercy, and perhaps humanity didn’t merit Diana’s heroic assistance – at least, not in the eyes of Jonah or Diana’s adversary. But, thankfully, this isn’t the way God’s justice seems to work. God's love is universal. The "God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land" extends his care and concern for all of his children, even the seemingly least deserving. This isn’t to say that we are excused from having remorse and contrition for our sins. Salvation is as difficult for those who think they can attain it by their own righteousness as it is for those who cannot humble themselves to ask for mercy with contrite hearts. We can never earn God’s mercy, though. That is what makes it so abundant and free. We can, therefore, only receive it.

            This is the kind of good news we like to hear, but sometimes, like Jonah, we’re faced with applying this ethic of mercy to those persons or groups of people we don’t like. It’s all warm and fuzzy until we realize that God cares as much for our enemies as he does us. God loves those we think, for whatever reason, deserve God’s wrath. Maybe we secretly hope that one day they’ll get their comeuppance, just like Jonah wanted the Assyrians punished. These so-called just desserts may or may not come, but in the meantime, who’s really suffering – your enemies, or you who are brooding over your resentments?

            My reading recommendation this week is, of course, the Book of Jonah. As you read it, though, think of a person or a group of people you might have some bitterness towards. It could be a political figure or party, a co-worker or boss, maybe it’s a national, cultural, or religious group. Or maybe it's the Red Sox. Read the Book of Jonah, and when you get to the last question posed by God, insert that entity you’re thinking of in place of the Ninevites. Pray for that person or group, and open your heart to loving them too. Remember, God loves them as well, and they are as worthy of God’s mercy and protection as you.

Until next time,
Peace and all good!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

For When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

                This Sunday, November 20th, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King. How appropriate it is, given the events that have recently transpired in the United States, that at this time we should be reminded of God's sovereignty. For those that bear the name Christ, indeed, Christ is our king. So it was with little surprise that on the night of November 8th, I saw several posts on social media declaring that, regardless of the election results, Jesus is king. But just what sort of king do we claim to put our faith in? This Sunday's Gospel reading tells us plainly.

                Luke 23:35-43 paints a portrait of a reviled, mocked, crucified man, of one suffering the death penalty, and of one who is silent in the face of persecution. Three times his scoffers needle him to save himself if he is the Messiah, and the last, another damned to the cross, even demands that he save them as well. All the while the reader knows that, despite being intended as a jeer toward Jesus, the sign above the accursed savior's head is, in fact, true – This is the king of the Jews. I wonder if this is the kind of king people imagined when they made their allegiance known on Facebook.

                For all of the ways in which religious values and beliefs influenced voters, I am baffled by how much the notion of making America "great" swayed so much of the population. Oh, don't get me wrong. There were many, many ironies and social phenomena in this election that caused me to make this face:

but I'll restrain myself to one.

                It may come as a shock to some, but the sacred Scriptures are not a code of moral law. There are laws and commandments contained within them, for sure, but the Scriptures are so much more than that. If we truly want to allow God's word to nourish our hearts and consciences, then we must realize that they reveal to us, more than anything else, God's self and the relationship God has with humanity and vice versa. This relationship was ultimately made manifest in the Incarnation – in Jesus, the Word made flesh. Therefore, the Christian tradition is not a set of dogmas, doctrines, and moral obligations. The Christian tradition is an encounter with a person, with Jesus Christ.

                I find it amusing that, when we step back and look at the Scriptures as a whole, we see a God in relationship with really not-so-great people. Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children. Jacob was a deceptive momma's boy. Moses was poor of speech. The prophet Jeremiah even says of himself, "Ah, Lord God! I know not how to speak; I am too young." Samson and Samuel were born to barren women. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was from an enemy nation. David, the youngest (and presumably scrawniest) of his brothers, slew Goliath and supplanted King Saul, the man who "stood head and shoulders above the people." And enemy commanders were brutally dispatched by women, that demographic of society thought to be far too weak and powerless.

                Time and again in Scripture the Lord favors the poor and the humble over the powerful and strong. Addressing the Israelites before they cross into the Promised Land, Moses says,

"It was not because you are the largest of all nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all nations. It was because the Lord loved you and because of his fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your fathers, that he brought you out with his strong hand from the place of slavery." (Deuteronomy 7:7-8a).
And that is just the Old Testament.

                Whom does Jesus choose for his inner circle of disciples? A motley crew of fisherman; men who never seem to understand what Jesus is saying; men who make mistakes but usually learn from them. Who were the ones to whom Jesus first appeared after his resurrection? Women, again that oft dismissed sector of society. Who were the most receptive to Jesus? The sick, the blind, the deaf, the poor, the public sinners and outcasts. Who was chosen to be the mother of Jesus? A poor, young girl from a backwater town; a girl with a heart receptive enough to be filled with the grace to say, "May it be done to me according to your word," and to cry out in the spirit of her ancestors,

"He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty."

                At the heart of the Scriptures – I would even venture to say the key that unlocks the whole of the Scriptures – is the Paschal Mystery, the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. Oh, how that mystery of dying and rising permeates the Scriptures in both Testaments. Life emanates from the barren. The flood waters destroy, and a new earth is made. A people are enslaved, and God leads them through the waters to freedom. They are led into exile, and a highway is made in the desert for their return. The Word of God humbles himself and takes on our humanity, even so far as  becoming a mewling, puking infant. Though innocent, he willingly lays down his life and accepts death – a most humiliating death at that! He hardly says a word at his execution, and when he does it is one of mercy. And it is by dying that he becomes the first born of the dead; through him we have new life, and, indeed, all things are made new: "By his stripes we were healed" (Isaiah 53:5)!

                What is the sign that Christ gives to his disciples of his presence among us? Bread, broken and shared! His flesh as fractured bread, gnawed and eaten together. His blood as wine, poured out and shared among a communion of people. What images does Jesus give of the way of life to which he calls us? A grain of wheat that produces much fruit, if only it falls to the ground and dies; the challenge to take up one's cross; selling all that you have and giving it to the poor; the master washing the feet of his disciples; the first being last and the greatest becoming the least. Who conquers the beast in the book of Revelation? What symbol for Christ does the visionary see? Not just any lamb, but a slain lamb! Even in his glorified body, Christ, risen from the dead, still bears the wounds of the nails and lance, continuously revealing his total self-emptying for the human race he loves so much and with whom he desires to be in relationship. He has given his whole self to us, made himself vulnerable and broken, that we might become whole! That, my friends, is power! That is a true king! That is what it means to be great!

                All this talk about greatness in our times. All this desire for security, to hold onto power. All of these assertions of certainty and self-justification; beliefs that God is on our side because we open up the Bible and follow the rules. Do we, who bear the name of Christ, who have died and risen with Christ in our baptism, allow the Paschal Mystery to continue to work in us today?  Have we traded the wider narrative of the Scriptures for a gospel of wealth? Have we sacrificed an encounter with the crucified and risen Christ for a collection of dos and don'ts? Can we learn from the apostle Paul, who time and again admitted his faults, who recognized that he was a sinner, who repeatedly confessed that he once persecuted the Church?  Paul, the man who exclaims, "I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:9b-10). That, my sisters and brothers, is the power of Christ at work in a man humble enough to be receptive to how much our generous God wants to fill us with his grace! As it was revealed to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9a)!

                I invite you to watch this TEDx Talk by Brené Brown and consider, as the title suggests, the power of vulnerability. Meanwhile, let us ask ourselves, do we have the humility to admit when we have made a mistake, to be like the so-called "good thief" and recognize that we have done wrong and are in need of mercy? Do we have the meekness to let go so that others may have enough, or as Mahatma Gandhi said, to live simply so that others may simply live? Do we have the vulnerability to say, "I don't know your native language, but I want to understand you better because you are my brother, my sister"? Do we have the heart to hope in the midst of fear? Do we have the honesty to say, "I can't do it all"? Can we empty ourselves so that we might be open to encountering Christ in 'the other'? Will we allow ourselves to be free rather than comfortable, to be generous rather than secure, to be totally self-giving and broken rather than unloving and superficially intact?

                For this week I recommend simply reading this Sunday's Gospel passage from the Solemnity of Christ the King: Luke 23:35-43. Read it, and reflect on what it really means to be great. Read it, and consider what true power is. Read it again and again. Read it until you weep. Weep for all the misconceptions our society has of power! Weep for all those who hold onto power by stepping on the necks of minorities, the poor, and immigrants! Weep for our own hands that hold on, white-knuckled, to the things that give us security! Weep for the self-righteous! Weep for those who think the only way to win is to speak loudly, to have a biting comeback for every rebuke! Weep for those who will never know that true victory is in dying – dying to self and emptying yourself totally for others!

Peace and all good!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Praying with Laments and... Steel Magnolias

One of my favorite movies of all time is Steel Magnolias.* I must have seen it for the first time when I was four or five years old and have loved it ever since. If you have not seen this film, I’m not sure why you’re reading this insignificant, little blog and not searching for it right now on Netflix. Be fair warned that there will be spoilers in this post.

One of the best scenes of the film is when M’Lynn, so brilliantly portrayed by Sally Field, is at the cemetery with her friends after the untimely death of her only daughter, Shelby. Her grief is immeasurable, and she breaks down in one of the most gripping and visceral expressions of human anguish to which anyone who has experienced a tragic loss can surely relate. Human suffering such as this, I believe, is inevitable. We only need to turn on the news or read the front page of the newspaper to recognize that people of all races, all religions, and all professions are hurting everywhere – be it from death, war, hunger, natural disasters, abuse, prejudice, or persecution. What help, then, might Scripture offer in times of great sorrow?

I find that the Scriptures contain many comforting messages of hope and salvation and promises of a better future. Christ’s very death and resurrection stands preeminent among them as we grapple with the mystery of suffering. But I am wary of pushing certain hopeful parts of Scripture upon the grieving soul. At the gravesite in Steel Magnolias, M’Lynn’s friend, Annelle, tries to comfort her by expressing how good it is that Shelby is now with her King in Heaven. Not surprisingly, her well-intentioned, though inopportune, sentiment is met with sharp bitterness. Although bringing up the joy and hope of eternal life can be healing in its own right, when it comes to our pain, whatever the cause, we need to acknowledge it, not move it along. We need to sit with it, feel it, exclaim it. And we have a precedent for this in the Scriptures.

The book of Psalms is a collection of ancient, lyrical poems from a wide range of periods in Israelite history. They run the gamut of human emotion and reveal just how personally this people related with their God. In Hebrew, the Psalms are called Tehillim or "praises," and indeed most of the Psalms offer praise in some form or another to God. Some are distinctly hymns of praise, others are of thanksgiving, some refer to the monarchy, to God's anointed, or to the sovereignty of God, and others offer wise instruction. But the largest category of Psalms are the laments, hymns either individual or communal that express deep sorrow and pain, remorse, a dire plea for rescue, or even accusations against God.

There is a Yiddish word that describes perfectly the tone and tenor of many laments, a word we should integrate into our own spirituality and everyday vocabulary: chutzpah (the "ch" as in Chanukah not Cheetos). Defined in Merriam-Webster as "Personal confidence or courage that allows someone to say or do things that may seem shocking to others," this is the kind of boldness that the people of Israel had when speaking with their God in these laments.

You hand us over like sheep to be slaughtered,
            scatter us among the nations.
You sell your people for nothing;
            you make no profit from their sale. (Ps 44:12-13)

And why shouldn’t Israel have the audacity to speak this way? In one of my favorite Scripture passages (Jeremiah 13:1-11), God describes his chosen people as being as close to him as underwear is to a man’s loins! When you are that close and intimate with someone, there are no masks; there are no pretenses. You can say exactly what is on your heart. Personally, I think that the freedom to appropriately argue with an intimate friend or loved one is a sign of a healthy relationship. If God is so near to us, why not have a little chutzpah? Shocking though it may be, it’s okay to be mad at God! At least you're being honest. And as a fellow friar once remarked, “What? You think God can’t take it?"

In that same scene with the grieving mother and her friends, M’lynn screams in desperation. “Oh God, I want to know WHY!!! Whyyy?!” Perhaps it is a cry we are all familiar with. Why did my baby die? Why did our house flood? Why did that man kill all those people? Why did he hurt me? Why did she leave me? Why am I terminally ill? It is no different in the Psalms:

Why, God, have you cast us off forever?
            Why does your anger burn against the sheep of your pasture? (Ps 74:1)

Why have you broken down the walls,
            so that all who pass by pluck its fruit? (Ps 80:13)

Why do you reject me, Lord?
            Why hide your face from me? (Ps 88:15)

The Psalms are not afraid to question God. They are not afraid to wrestle with God and the mystery of suffering. Incidentally, the meaning of the name Israel given in Genesis 32 suggests “one who struggles with God.” But for all of the articulations of misery, anger, and regret in the laments, for all the cries demanding God’s assistance and all the anxious fears of imminent death, there is usually found within them pronouncements of utter trust in the Lord and, quite frequently, irrepressible praise to God.

Psalm 22 – the one Jesus quotes as he is dying on the cross – begins with a cry of despair: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? And while the psalm has some excruciating verses – But I am a worm, hardly human, scorned by everyone, despised by the people (v. 7), Many dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. So wasted are my hands and feet that I can count all my bones (vv. 17-18) – it is punctuated by stanzas with complete confidence in God’s power to save and concludes triumphantly with the sufferer's exultation of God because of his hope for future vindication: Then I will proclaim your name to the assembly; in the community I will praise you (v. 23).

More often than not, the laments approach God in this way. They may be poems of great anguish, and they certainly don’t mind doling out the chutzpah, but they usually give to God due praise. There are a few laments, however, that do not mitigate their complaint against God. Psalm 44, for example, at first gives the impression that God is to be praised for all of the former blessings and victories God had bestowed upon Israel. And while it stands that such were all praiseworthy deeds, the psalmist only uses the examples of God’s past favors to set up his argument that God has now rejected them, that God has unjustly left them desolate. The Psalm does not end in praise of God but in demands, sorrow, and accusations:

Awake! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Rise up! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face;
why forget our pain and misery?
We are bowed down to the ground;
our bodies are pressed to the earth.
Rise up, help us!
Redeem us as your love demands (Ps 44:24-27)

Similarly, the composer of Psalm 88 pours out a heartbreaking prayer to a seemingly silent God. There is no praise of God, only desperate supplication and the belief that the lamenter is suffering for God’s sake and, at times, by God’s own hand. It ends hauntingly: Because of you companions shun me; my only friend is darkness (v. 19).

  As tragic as these laments may seem, the very fact that the psalmists are crying out to God shows that they have some faith, some smidgeon of hope that God will indeed rescue them in their time of need. Though the authors’ circumstances may be different than our own, we can still pray with the Psalms in the midst of our own sorrows, because hopefully, even when everything else is utterly lost, we still at least have a God to cry out to… even when we’re angry with God.

But how does God answer us in our pain? Is there any fulfillment to the pleas in the Psalms for God to rescue us? Sometimes, very much so! Sometimes we are able to see how God has come to our aid. We are healed. Our loved ones are safe. We secure employment. We are reconciled. Sometimes justice, charity, and peace prevail. And I haven't even touched on the notion of Christ's death and resurrection, which is ultimately our salvation!

Yet even still, there are those moments when we are like M'Lynn at her daughter's grave, so grief-stricken, so disconsolate. In anger and sorrow she hollers, "I just want to hit somebody 'til they feel as bad as I do!" – a very honest and human response, no doubt. Isn't it true that in our own moments of suffering it is oftentimes a comfort to be met with empathy, to be near to someone who knows something of our pain? Isn't that why we have support groups? Isn't that why we seek help from those who know what it's like to lose a loved one, who know something about living with depression, or who have gone through a divorce?

God does not always answer our laments and supplications the way we hope. At some point, we and those we love will die. Sometimes we are left with scars that won't heal. I think, however, that God's answer to these Psalms is not always immediate rescue, rather it is that God knows what it's like to feel as bad as we do. God's answer was to become human and live these very Psalms, to be betrayed, to be mocked and abused, to be abandoned, to die. God knows the depths of human suffering, and in Jesus we do not pray the Psalms alone. God is with us in our suffering. God has indeed shown us his face, as the psalmists so desperately demand, and it is the face of the Crucified One.

Naturally for this week, I recommend reading and meditating upon any of the laments from the Psalms. A couple of my favorites are 22, 38, 42-43, 44, 51, 69, 74, 80, 88, 102, 137. Feel free to thumb through your Bible to find a Psalm that you like, one that resonates with you, or one that makes you cringe. Sit with the pain of the psalmist, or meditate on the sufferings of Christ. If you are struggling with something, then make the psalmist's words your own. Cry out to God, and don't be afraid to have a little chutzpah. God is listening. Maybe you're not really feeling too sorrowful at the moment yourself, but pray with the Psalm knowing that there are people out there who are in desperate situations. Pray with it for the sake of their pain. Pray that they may not feel alone in their suffering.

As always, you may post comments or questions to my e-mail, Facebook page or the comment box below. You can share your own thoughts on the Psalms or tell me which is your favorite. I would love to hear feedback. You can also follow the Codega on Twitter. Until next time...

Go watch Steel Magnolias!

And peace & all good.

* Steel Magnolias, directed by Herbert Ross (1989; Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 2000), DVD.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Influence & Interpretation

            It has certainly been awhile since my last post. My apologies. There were many loose ends to tie up in the month of May, and since then I also have been traveling quite a bit on the road – never mind the fact that vacation time has made me lazy. I know: excuses, excuses. In truth, I began a post at the start of June, but I found myself dissatisfied with its content, so, like the potter of Jeremiah 18:1-4, I've started over... and over. After several attempts, I am desperate to post something (anything) on this blog, so I'm keeping today's post a little shorter. I can hear the sighs of relief already.

            The recent attack on our LGBT brothers and sisters in Orlando, as well as the general increase in mass shootings over the years, have weighed heavy on my mind. It has me pondering what sort of influential factors – aside from mental illness – feed the kinds of ideologies that lead to such tragedies. I'm well aware of the powerful role that religion and sacred literature play in our lives – largely for good, but sometimes for ill when they are misconstrued. So, as one who writes about Scripture, it concerns me that poor interpretations of sacred writings sometimes contribute to humanity's worst atrocities, from hate crimes to all out war. I'm not drawing a direct link between the Bible and hate crimes or terrorism, but I do think it is necessary to ask ourselves, Do the Scriptures draw me to love my neighbor? Why or why not? How does Scripture influence my image of God? What, then, does that image of God incite within me? Fear? Hate? Love? Peace?

            One of the reasons why the Bible is often grossly misunderstood is that many people, even very well-intentioned people, take a fundamentalist approach to Scripture. But the Pontifical Biblical Commission (i.e. the Catholic Church's committee to ensure proper interpretation of Scripture – let it never be said that the Catholic Church doesn't care about the Bible) has some interesting things to say about this sort of take on Sacred Scripture.

"Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the Word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by 'literal interpretation' it understands a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development."[1]
But wait, it gets better. The Commission goes on to say,
"The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious and illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide" (emphasis mine).[2]

            The Bible is not a history book. It is not a science book. It isn't even a handbook of morality. True, the Scriptures can be a rich source of encouragement, consolation, moral exhortation or reprimand, and certainly of truths about who God is and our relationship with God. Indeed, short phrases and passages from the Bible are frequently quoted and read in everything from greeting cards to Sunday Mass readings so that the Word of God might touch us in these very ways. But, as we strive to understand what God is saying to us in these sacred texts, it is important to keep in mind that the human authors, through whom the Holy Spirit worked, wrote in a particular time and place in history. They had their own culture, their own language and literary styles, and their own limited understanding of the natural sciences. Therefore, as stated in Dei Verbum (the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation by Vatican II), "in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, [the interpreter] should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words."[3]

            Okay, I've been on my soapbox long enough. (Actually it is the Church's soapbox, as I have spent most of my time quoting Church documents.) If the fundamentalist approach to Scripture is so abhorrent, if we want to avoid "intellectual suicide," what, then, are we to do with Scripture? Knowing that the Bible should not always be taken literally, a number of folks have asked me plainly, "How should we interpret the Bible?" A complex question, indeed, and I said I'd keep this post brief today.

            There is no short answer to this query. Theologians, biblical scholars, and even some of the authors of Scripture themselves have been wrestling with questions about biblical interpretation for millennia. I return to my Shrek-inspired assessment of Scripture: "The Bible is like an onion; it has layers." Layers of meaning, that is. My first inclination, as Dei Verbum suggests, is to explore the historical, cultural, and literary context, but that takes some research, and not everyone has the time or resources for that - though I'd like to draw your attention to some websites listed in the top right-hand corner, particularly "Bible Research" and "Bible Odyssey." But if your reading Scripture for your spiritual benefit, without tomes of biblical exegesis, and want to know how best to approach these texts, I would say look to Jesus, the very Word made flesh, and keep in mind the bigger picture.

            If we want to avoid the kinds of corrupt biblical misinterpretations that lead to prejudice, hate and violence, we should remember that the Word of God tells a story of a God who brings forth life, who wants to be in relationship with humanity, who calls his people to faithfulness, who loves his people, poor, lowly, and faltering though they are. It is a story about how God saves his people, sometimes from outside forces but often from the very calamities they incur from their own mistakes. And if you read the Gospels you find that this story reaches a climax in the person of Jesus. In him the saving God, who desires to be in relationship with his people, becomes flesh and dwells among us, ultimately laying down his own life that we may be saved.

            You also find that this story continues today beyond the pages of Scripture in the lives of those who have united themselves to Christ, who have died and risen in Christ. You see it in the lives of those who suffer, in the poor and those who radically depend on God, in those who long for justice, in those who heal and show mercy, in those who rise up from the ashes of destruction and usher in new life, and in those who love without counting the cost. This is the biblical story alive in our world today!

            If you want an interpretive lens for reading the Bible, examine the life of Christ, and remember that our saving God desires to be near to us, heal us, and make us whole. This is not an exhaustive account of biblical interpretation. Oh honey, there are many, many more layers left unpeeled. Yet if we read the Scriptures keeping these things in mind, perhaps we can curb the hate and violence that is born from ideologies based in literalist and corrupt interpretations of the Bible.

            For this week I suggest reading Isaiah 54, but read it in light of the bigger picture of Scripture, of God's saving and loving relationship with humanity. Behind this portion of Isaiah we have God's chosen people, who have been in exile in Babylon for decades. Whether or not it was due to poor politics and inferior defenses, the people of Judah believed they were in exile because of their infidelity to God. But, at last, the Babylonian empire falls to Persia, and God's chosen are free to return to the Promised Land. Thus the prophet speaks tenderly to the people, revealing to them God's love, mercy, and desire to reunite himself to them despite the sins of their past. You can read innumerable passages in the Bible referring to God's blazing wrath – I won't deny that they're in there – but ultimately it all comes back to God's love for his people. So as you read this, ask yourself, How does this affect my image of God? Do I see myself in this passage? How? How might my relationship with my neighbor be affected by a message like this one? Meanwhile, let us pray and work for peace in our world, for mercy, and for the increase of tolerance. Until next time...

Peace and all good!

[1] Pontifical Biblical Commission, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teaching, ed. & trans. by Dean P. Béchard (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 273.

[2] Ibid., 275.

[3] Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (1965), no. 12, accessed June 14, 2016,

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Getting Our Act Together: A Review of The Acts of the Apostles

           Having just finished reading The Acts of the Apostles last week, I thought I'd have a little fun and write about it somewhat in the style of a book review.

            Luke does it again! Following his break-out success with arguably the most eloquent Gospel to have been written, Luke delights and edifies his readers with an adventurous sequel: The Acts of the Apostles. Admittedly, I was a little surprised by how much I actually enjoyed reading it, but, believe it or not, it's kind of a page-turner in some ways. As when reading an exciting novel, I found myself asking with anticipation, "What happens next?"

            Unlike the rest of the New Testament, which is pretty much made up of the four Gospels and letters to various Christian communities, Acts is kind of a unique book. Most of the NT is naturally centered on the person of Jesus Christ and what the Church believes about him. At other times, especially in the Epistles, the NT speaks more prescriptively about how the members of the Church should behave and function in the world. Acts is different, though. Like the Gospels, Acts is a narrative, but unlike the Gospels the central character is not Jesus of Nazareth. Like some Epistles, it is concerned with the actions of the Church, but it is not written as a letter or exhortation. It's a story, a narrative, about the Holy Spirit and the early Church.

            Here we have the sequel to Luke's Gospel, and, like many sequels, it doesn't match the fame and excellence as the original. But let's face it, what sequel is going to compare to a story about Jesus? Nevertheless, Luke packs in the action: miracles, visions, angelic rescues, shipwrecks, riots, life-or-death soliloquies, and murder! Oddly enough, I'm reminded of The Hunger Games in a way. For me, the sequels could never compare to the first book, where we're introduced to Katniss and the twisted dystopian reality the people of Panem find themselves in. It's mesmerizing, thought-provoking , and chilling. The sequel, Catching Fire, picks up where the former left off but never captivates in quite the same way as its predecessor. But, like Acts, it is full of even more action than the first and explodes the story onto a grander stage. No longer is Katniss' plight a personal matter of survival and protecting her family. It becomes much bigger than just her; it's about the whole nation of Panem and the liberation of all of its districts. Similarly, Luke's Gospel focuses on the character of Jesus. It's gripping, dramatic, and stirs the soul to see life with new eyes. And there is no shortage of astounding events either – not least of all the passion, death, and resurrection narratives. But what began in the Gospel as a local movement focused on an enigmatic figure now launches onto the world stage in Acts, as the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit and risking life and limb, take the Good News of Jesus Christ to ends of the world.

            It's a flimsy comparison, I know – the Hunger Games series and Luke/Acts – but in short, all I'm saying is that Acts has all the page-turning action of sequels, like Catching Fire, which take a compelling narrative and widen its scope to encompass an even greater mission. But The Acts of the Apostles is more than just Volume II of Luke's masterful work. It's a great story in its own right. What I like most about it is that it's both a narrative and a self-examination of what the Church is supposed to be. I wouldn't call it history, but rather Luke's idealized version of who the Church is and how it should live out its mission.

            Today, "church" is all too often confused for a place of worship and/or something one "does" once a week. Others think the "church" is really just made up of the priests and bishops who provide the necessary things for believers to worship and who act as guardians of some moral code. But Acts tells us a different story, a truer story. The Church (in Greek, ekklesía, which means assembly) is that community of believers who are empowered by the Holy Spirit through baptism and who profess that Jesus is the Messiah (a.k.a. Christ) who has died and been raised from the dead and has opened salvation to all. The Church, as the Greek term clearly indicates, is first of all a community. There was nothing individualistic about it. The phrase "I'm spiritual, just not religious" did not exist back then, because it would have denied that essential community component. Am I getting on a soapbox? Yes. Yes, I am. But my point is that Luke paints an idealized picture of what the Church was and is meant to be: a mutually supportive community of faith in Jesus Christ.

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need (Acts 4:32-35).
            But this community also has a mission: to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, to proclaim that salvation through Jesus is open to all. That mission naturally begins with the People of Israel, but, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it soon opens up to the Gentiles. Much of Acts grapples with the tension that is brought about by the inclusion of the Gentiles and whether or not the entirety of the Mosaic law should be an obligation upon them. Let's be real, folks; one of the more critical issues back then was circumcision. But Jesus didn't say anything about circumcision, so what was the community to do? Thus, a council in Jerusalem (often referred to as the first council of the Church) convened in order to discern with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit how the Church should proceed in this matter. Yes, that's right. The first Church council was about circumcision. This is what happens when most, if not all, of the leaders in a community are men.

            I won't spoil the outcome of that council – you can read it for yourself in Acts 15 – but the so-called Council of Jerusalem has more to say to us than whether one needs to follow Mosaic law to be a Christian. It is an illustration of how the Church makes decisions, especially about things not clearly dictated by Jesus... which is a lot. 1.) Decisions of the Church are always made with the guidance of the Holy Spirit – "It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities..." (Acts 15:28). 2.) The Church comes together as a community with open discussion. And 3.) the decision is promulgated, or made known, through a written document to the wider Church everywhere. This is just one example of how The Acts of the Apostles is an excellent reflection of what the Church is and how it should act.

            Even if you're not too interested in trying to figure out the Church's self-understanding in Luke's narrative, Acts is a fun read just as it is. There were moments when I nearly laughed out loud. Like when Rhoda is so excited to see Peter at the door she leaves him standing outside to run and tell the others who it is (12:12-16). Or when Eutychus falls asleep, "as Paul talked on and on," and so falls out of a third story window (20:9-12). Even the time when the Lycaonians mistake Paul and Barnabas for gods is pretty laughable (14:8-18). As far as NT books goes, Acts is probably the most entertaining.

            So hit the road and sail the seas as you journey with old favorites, like Simon Peter, that impetuous fisherman from the Gospels, now an impressive – though still impetuous – leader of the disciples, who preaches fearlessly and heals great numbers of people in the name of Jesus Christ. Revisit other characters that are easily forgotten in the Gospels, like Philip, who draws an Ethiopian eunuch to belief in Jesus Christ by interpreting the Scriptures. Or James, who apparently holds a lot of sway in the Jerusalem Christian community at this point (15:13-21).

            Get to know new characters, like Stephen, the first man to give up his life for proclaiming Christ. Or Saul/Paul, an extrovert and insufferable know-it-all whom God uses to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ even to the Gentiles. Follow his adventures from when we're first introduced to him as a vehement persecutor of the Way, to his blindingly radiant encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. Then journey with him across the Mediterranean up to his mildly anti-climactic testimony before the Jews in Rome. Watch as Christianity's most spiteful adversary develops into one of its most prolific advocates – despite breaking up with his mission partners and boring a young man out of a third story window. Let's just say, it takes all kinds of people in the Church to build up the Kingdom of God, and that should be rather comforting to us all.

            For this week, I recommend reading just about any part of Acts – or even the whole thing if you have the time. But I would especially suggest reading either chapter 7 (Stephen's discourses and martyrdom, which gives a good summary of Old Testament essentials and salvation history) or chapter 15 (the council in Jerusalem). Whatever you read from Acts, just keep in mind that this is your story too. It's a story about us, the Church, so ask yourself how the apostles' experience of living as active, Spirit-led members of that community affects your own experience of being a member of Christ's Body. Do you see your role as a member of the Church differently? How might the Spirit be leading you now in your life?

            To close, I just want to say thank you for all your support in reading and participating with this blog! Last week I turned in my final report for this project, and, barring any unforeseen issues, I will graduate in May. My final project and M.A. degree would not have been possible without your readership. I greatly appreciate all of your help! As always, feel free to post questions or comments via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or the comment box below. Until next time...

Peace and all good![1]

[1] This post would not have been possible without

Harrington, Daniel J. The Church According to the New Testament: What the Wisdom and the Witness of Early Christianity Teach Us Today. Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

            By the way, I just want to add one more thing. I kind of like to stress The Acts of the Apostles, especially chapter 15, because it helps to answer a question a family member once posed to me: How can the books of the Bible be called the "word of God" if human beings were the ones who decided which books went in? My response would be yes, human beings made those decisions, but it was as a community – as the Body of Christ – and it was through much discernment of the Holy Spirit. The early Christians recognized with earnest that through their baptism they were filled with the Holy Spirit and that the Church was led by the Spirit. The Church is still human, of course, and makes mistakes – boy, does it make mistakes – but we cannot deny the power of the Holy Spirit in any of the good that the Church does. And I would affirm that the books within the Bible were canonized through the guidance of that same Spirit.