Archive for October, 2004

Conversion

Sunday, October 31st, 2004
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

This is a day of many special observances. The text from Habakkuk begins, “O Lord, how long…”; those of you who are here have obviously mastered the transition from Daylight Saving to Standard time. Habakkuk goes on to say that the political and moral situation of his nation is a disaster, but he holds out hope for a vision of a new time; today is the last Sunday before the elections, and more religious fervor has been poured out on this campaign than any in my rather long memory. Some people believe that the affairs of the Red Sox are more important than those of the election, but I dare not comment on that: freedom of speech in Boston does not go that far. The text from 2 Thessalonians is a grand expression of gratitude on St. Paul’s part for the steady increase in saintliness of his little flock in Thessaloniki. Today is the eve of All Saints Day when we remember the saints who have died in the Lord. The secular celebration of Halloween these days seems to have come untethered from the religious holiday, but here in chapel we note the great cloud of witnesses with whom we live in eternity. Finally, to conclude the many special occasions of this day, Protestant churches commemorate the Reformation. Our Chapel Choir and Collegium will perform Bach’s marvelous Reformation Cantata, Ein Feste Burg.

I am going to pass for the moment on all these topics, however, to focus on the point of the gospel lesson, the power of Jesus to convert such a person as Zacchaeus. Religious conversion is an extremely contentious topic these days. American society is based on principles of religious tolerance, which usually means that we should treat people as fine just as they are, in terms of religion. Yet every religion believes that its own way is particularly apt for living out our destiny in relation to what is ultimate. Some religions, such as Advaita Vedanta and Judaism, tend to tie the aptness of their religion to a particular people, a social class or ethnic group. Others, such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, believe their way is apt for everyone, although they recognize historical associations with national and ethnic cultures.

In recent years we have seen the rise of fundamentalisms in nearly every religion, fundamentalisms that go beyond advocating their own path to attack the alternative paths as hopeless with regard to authenticity and salvation. Theologians call this strain of fundamentalism “exclusivism,” the conviction that only one’s own way is apt for the ultimate matters of life. Whereas the dark side of fundamentalism is a militant defensiveness and antagonism toward other ways of life, the bright side is a joyous compulsion to convert the others to one’s own path for the sake of their own good. Nearly all religions accept converts who choose to join them and become worthy of acceptance. For theological exclusivists, conversion of others goes beyond offering them a choice that they can freely accept. For exclusivists, the obligation to convert others is part of loving them. Not to do everything possible to convert the others is like dismissing them as important human beings.

Let me illustrate this with our situation here at the University. We have a complex chaplaincy that aims to serve the religious needs of all our students. Student groups representing a vast array of world religions are recognized and supported with regard to their leadership, facilities, and activities, all with the aim of fostering religious practices and maturity as befits university people. This emphasis on flourishing religious pluralism and tolerance flows directly from the theology of Methodism in the original School of Theology, which in turn founded Boston University. The first president of the University, William Fairfield Warren, was a professor of comparative religions as well as dean of the School of Theology. The rule at the University from the beginning has been that all people are to be supported in the practice of their religion and that no one is to be made to feel inferior because of their religion. This rule did not derive at Boston University from some secular Enlightenment principle of privatizing religion so that it does not count; it comes rather from the theological conviction that God’s grace cannot be limited to any one path and that all may count.

The negative rule following from this has been and still is that proselytizing is forbidden on campus: you can explain your faith and invite others to join, but you cannot put pressure on them to do so. The University Chaplains work hard and cooperatively to encourage the religious practice of all the religious groups while at the same time preventing activities that seem to harass or disrespect people of other religions or no religion. Fine and delicate lines need to be drawn here separating the vigorous witness of a religion from the pressure to make others feel inferior, disrespected, or damned if they do not join it. All theological points can be debated, of course, in academic ways proper to university life. This happens frequently in informal conversation as well as formal discussions in classrooms and special events. But theological debates should not be framed in ways that target people for conversion. Respect for the others’ beginning point is the precondition for intellectual debate in the civil society of the University.

You can imagine how difficult this rule against proselytizing is for students from exclusivistic religions. Converting others is close to the center of their intrinsic religious practice, and this because of imperatives to love and care. Yet they cannot do this here in ways that make the others feel pressured or harassed. Proselytizing is as much in the eye of the proselytized as it is in the intent of the proselytizer. Insistence on foundational respect as the principle of civil society in the University is hard on the evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Muslims who believe that others miss salvation. It is hard on observant Jews who have to be careful not to suggest that secular Jews are inferior as Jews because they are non-observant. In cases like these, genuine religious conviction legitimately can be expressed only in ways that do not seem to be pressured existential criticisms of those who do not share them. The University Chaplains work very hard to help draw the proper lines.

Imperfect as our University system is for insisting on the foundational respect necessary for freedom of religion, would it not be a vast step toward world peace if all the world followed such a policy? Instead of such political idealism today, however, I commend to you Jesus’ approach to converting Zacchaeus. Note that Jesus did not attempt to convert Zacchaeus from one religion to another. Zacchaeus, like Jesus, was a Jew, a “son of Abraham,” as Jesus put it. But Zacchaeus was a failure as a Jew. As a chief tax collector, he worked for the Roman occupation force. Tax collecting in those days was something like a franchise operation: the collector contracted with the government to raise a certain amount of money, and sometimes collectors were unscrupulous about how that was done. So Zacchaeus was a cheat, and he had made himself very wealthy at least in part by defrauding others. He admitted as much. All this was very contrary to even ordinary faithful Jewish practice, not to speak of the religious virtuosity of saintly Jewish people. The technical term for this kind of religious failure is that Zacchaeus was a “schlub.” Every religion has schlubs, usually far more schlubs than saints and spiritual virtuosi.

Despite being a schlub, Zacchaeus longed for something he knew not what. He was so intrigued to see who Jesus was that he climbed a tree to get a bet
ter view; imagine a short, rich, chief governmental official doing something like that. What did Jesus do? He called him down from the tree, treated him respectfully, and said he would take Zacchaeus’ hospitality. Apparently no one had treated Zacchaeus like that in a long time, because the effect was astonishing. People began to mutter against Jesus for associating with the likes of Zacchaeus, but Zacchaeus right there said he would give half his wealth to the poor, instantly becoming a virtuoso of charity. Right there he said he would pay back four times the amount he might have defrauded people. That not only was a confession of guilt and repentance but a saintly work to make amends: the Torah specified returning what you stole plus 20%, not 300%. Jesus said Zacchaeus had been lost, but that salvation had come to his house. That is true conversion, from being lost to being saved within the religion of his house, in this case as a son of Abraham like Jesus.

By no means do I want to minimize differences between religions. Disputing theological differences is my business as a professor. Nevertheless, the existential matters of faith have more to do with the difference between schlubs and saints than they do with differences between religious affiliations and theologies. I have taken part in many inter-religious dialogues, with the universal experience that the leaders of the various faiths who engage one another have more in common with one another, and more mutual respect, than they do with the schlubs in their own religion. As a Protestant I agree with Luther’s criticism of selling indulgences that would buy people a place in heaven, and with his insistence that each individual can be related directly to God, as well as indirectly through the church. So I guess the Reformation movement was preferable to the Roman Catholic establishment of its time. But I regret the vicious divisions it caused with all their wars, and I regret the action of Pope Leo X to excommunicate Lutherans, causing a still permanent schism. I have much more solidarity with and respect for saintly Catholics than I do with Protestant schlubs. No sectarian principle can limit God’s grace to bring people to attention in ultimate matters. Why waste time trying to convert the saints of other religions when the fields are white with lost souls like Zacchaeus for whom many hands are needed for the harvest?

With regard to celebrating Reformation Day, let us do so with studied ambivalence, remembering that in Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the enemy is Satan, not Catholics. With regard to celebrating All Hallow’s Eve, let us lift our hearts in joy for all the saints who attend on God, not only those of our fold. With regard to Habakkuk’s hope for mitigating political disaster, let us remember that it is rich and powerful schlubs like Zacchaeus whose greed and corruption bring it on. With regard to the time, the time is now for us to catch the attention of the greedy and corrupt and bring them to a conversion like Zacchaeus’. The world is such a disaster now that the need for genuine conversion, after the model of Jesus, has ultimate urgency. May God be with us this week. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Humility and Exaltation

Sunday, October 24th, 2004
Joel 2:23-32

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus said, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” No principle is more central to the Christian Way than this. Matthew, Mark, and Luke cite Jesus saying that the first will be last and the last first. The Beatitudes bless the meek and say they shall inherit the Earth. The most radical claim of Christianity, beyond any doctrines of cosmic sin and salvation, death and resurrection, or even of Jesus as judge and redeemer, is that the world’s values are turned upside down. Those who are winners by worldly standards are in fact the losers if they are exalted and not humble. Those who are the losers by worldly standards are in fact the winners if they are humble and do not seek worldly exaltation. Not only was this a powerful, radical teaching in the early church, it was the point of the narrative of Jesus Christ himself. St. Paul put it in the most dramatic way in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name. (Phil. 2:5-9)

Jesus humbled himself before poor, ignorant, corrupt, and oppressive human beings, and thus was exalted by God as Lord over all. Jesus was humble to the point of humiliation on the cross—what could be more humiliating than to be tortured to death as a common criminal, naked, in front of your mother and friends? Yet out of such humility comes new life and a proper exaltation before God. Without humility, our old sins keep us captive and we seek exaltation like the self-righteous Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. With humility, no matter how sinful we are, like the tax-collector, God forgives sins and exalts us like the risen Christ.

As a principle of ethics, humility is a virtue common to nearly all religions and humanistic traditions. The opposite of humility is something like arrogance, and arrogance is commonly thought to be a vice. In Jesus’ teaching, however, the opposite of humility is not exactly arrogance but specious exaltation, the chief example of which is thinking oneself righteous in comparison with others and expecting others to recognize that superiority. In other teachings, being humble is quite compatible with being exalted. After all, some people are more righteous than others, and the educated righteous people know this. They construe themselves to be better, and often are recognized by others as being better, aristocrats of virtue. Good people are often exalted to positions of high power and responsibility. Surely we would not want unrighteous people in those positions. Exaltation to such positions with proper recognition and a proper self-consciousness about one’s virtues is usually though to be quite compatible with humility. In fact, only the humble ought to be exalted to worldly power and recognition.

Yet Jesus took a slightly different approach. He was not against rich or powerful people; he was not against those who had gained the world’s respect. But he was against people thinking that they are better than other people and accepting that self-exaltation. We should “judge not, that we be not judged,” as he said in the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of thinking that we are better than others, even when that is palpably true, we should address the Almighty saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” If we repeat that mantra a hundred times a day—God, be merciful to me, a sinner!—everything in our ethical life will be different. We will be humble, and not touched by any circumstance of exaltation. And we will come to see people, not for their accomplishments, honors, riches, or exalted reputations, but for their humble practice, or lack thereof. Christians exalt the humble precisely because of their humility, not because of their righteousness, power, or wealth.

The principle of humility extends beyond the sphere of personal ethics to politics, I fear. Does a nation believe itself to be especially righteous in comparison with others, labeling them evil? Some nations surely are better than others, but all are sinful. Saddam Hussein was outrageous to invade Kuwait in order to control its oil. But was that motive lacking in the American invasion of Iraq? Saddam Hussein jailed people illegally and resorted to torture. But the American prisons in Iraq have held people secretly without account and the prisons in Guantanamo are filled with people taken while defending their country and religion, and held without due process. The exposure of torture and humiliation at Abu Graib shows, not that a few people misbehaved, but that such treatment is not uncommon in prisons in America whose jailers were hired for Iraq. How can America rail at some “axis of evil” when it should be saying, “God, be merciful to us, a sinful nation?”

The danger of political self-righteousness, especially when we know that America is not as bad as some other nations, is that it emboldens our nation to think it can simply do what it wants to impose its righteous will on the world. To be sure, democracy is the best form of government that we know, and the world would be a better place if it were thoroughly democratic. Yet to impose democracy on a people whose social forms are not fit for it is not itself democratic behavior: it is imperial tyranny. Democracy by definition comes from the self-assertion of the people. How can a nation invade others to impose democracy when its own voting machines don’t work, many of its people are illegitimately disenfranchised, and lawsuits are threatened about election fraud before the election takes place? The humility of democracy means we should say, “God, be merciful to us, a sinful nation.”

A nation moves from self-exaltation to plain arrogance when it asserts and exercises a right to make war on others simply because it has the power to do so and war serves its best interests for power and economic control. Where is the sense of moral limits to the exercise of violent power? When the Soviet Union was powerful, each super-power limited the other. With the demise of the Soviet Union some of our American neo-conservative thinkers have argued that in our current “unipolar” political situation, what is needed is a benevolent American empire. I commend to you a new book by the historian, Gary Dorrien, called Imperial Designs, which traces the development of this neo-conservative political philosophy. That no other nation wants a global American empire, though many want American protection and handouts, suggests more than a little self-exaltation and even arrogance in the neo-conservative proposal. Given the world’s problems of poverty, lack of education, the sleazy theft of wealth by national leaders, and violent clashes between cultures in multicultural societies, who would want imperial power in the hands of a nation whose economic policies widen the gap between its very poor and very rich, whose primary and secondary school systems lag behind those of many other developed nations, whose big businesses associated with governmental leaders are rocked by scandals, and whose government courts the favor of cultural groups that insist their values regarding life, death, sex, and domestic issues be imposed on the rest? America is not Zimbabwe or the Sudan by any means, cesspools of corruption. Neither is it the kingdom of God, as people must think who want to impose some version of the American way of life
on other nations by force.

Only when America can present itself, saying, “God, be merciful to us, a sinful nation,” can it legitimately exercise leadership to stimulate other nations to struggle against poverty, ignorance, corruption in government, and the oppression of other cultures by the most powerful culture. The world does not need to hear from America a hypocritical self-exalting righteousness backed by overwhelming force. It needs to hear that, though we have the power to sin outrageously, instead we restrain ourselves, humbly seek mercy for sins we acknowledge, and turn our power to amending our ways. The world needs to see America as a model of humble continuing self-transformation. Then it can request American help for transformation in other places of poverty, ignorance, corruption, and oppression, with each nation taking responsibility for its own democratic self-affirmation.

None of this is to suggest that the United States should let itself become militarily weak so as to be unable to defend itself when attacked or fulfill its defense treaty obligations to other nations. The international rings of criminal terrorists are an astonishing threat to civilized societies, and America needs to take the lead in international cooperation for gathering intelligence and effective police work. The Christian point about humility is that we should never use military or police force in a spirit of arrogance or self-exaltation, only and always in a spirit of humility that says first, “God, be merciful to us, a sinful nation.”

We should remember that the American government is a secular enterprise in which Christian voices are mixed with many other constituencies. Moreover, not all Christian voices seem to heed Jesus’ remark that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Many Christians seem instead to support the self-exaltation of a policy of imperial manifest destiny for America. Nevertheless, the gospel in its many statements is clear that the worldly values of exaltation are turned upside down in the kingdom of heaven and that humility is the only value worth exalting. Christians should promote humility in public life.

Humility, of course, begins with us individually and in our interpersonal relations. It is no simple virtue to learn. Self-exaltation easily disguises itself in forms of false humility, and we need to discern the counterfeits. We need to learn humility when we are powerful and wealthy with many kinds of resources. We need to learn humility when we are in fact among the elites in scientific, intellectual, and professional attainments, an especially poignant point for a congregation at a university church. The beginning of humility is a consciousness of faults that we present constantly to God, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” To keep ever before our minds the honest need for God’s mercy is a good start to the work of exercising power and attainments with humility, a work that falls to each of us particularly and to Americans generally in this time.

So I invite you to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. Those who exalt themselves saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector,” are yet to be humbled. Those who come to God with downcast eyes and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”, are justified before the merciful God and will have true exaltation. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

A New Covenant

Sunday, October 17th, 2004
Jeremiah 31:27-34

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Luke 18:1-8

No greater homecoming can be imagined than Jeremiah’s prediction of a new covenant between God and Israel. The old covenant, given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, was written down. It had to be read to the people and the people had to study it. The old covenant required leaders who could interpret it to the people. Moreover, the people broke the Mosaic covenant, despite the fact that God was their “husband,” as Jeremiah’s text says. The old covenant was like a marriage and the people, the “wife,” had been unfaithful. With the new covenant, however, everyone would have the proper ways to behave toward God, and the faithfulness to do so, engraved on their hearts. Religious faithfulness would be virtually automatic in all Israel because God would internalize it as the source of their actions, not an option for action. Israel would not need to seek and defend a homeland with God as a liberating mediator. God would come home to Israel.

A little background about Jeremiah helps understand this text. The Kingdom of the twelve tribes of Israel that David had united lasted only through the reign of his son, Solomon. After that it was divided into a northern kingdom, which took the name Israel, and a southern kingdom called Judah, which contained the capital Jerusalem and was mainly the territory of the tribe of Judah. In our text, Jeremiah calls these kingdoms the House of Israel and the House of Judah respectively. Israel and Judah were caught politically between the great empires of Assyria in the north and Egypt in the south. For the most part they were bound as vassals to Assyria, that is, Iraq, but chafed and rebelled against the tribute they were required to pay. Israel, the northern kingdom, was utterly defeated in 722/21 and its leadership deported to Assyria. That was the end of Israel. Through the next century, Judah maintained its balance by appealing to Egypt against Assyria. Assyria overextended itself, however, and was defeated in 612 by the Babylonians, also in today’s Iraq. In 605 the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar decisively defeated the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco at Carchemish and Judah was fully under the thumb of Babylon. In 597 Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem and deported the king, Jehoiakim, to Babylon, installing a puppet king, Zedekiah. Zedekiah tried to revolt in 587 and Nebuchadnezzar returned and razed Jerusalem to the ground, destroying the temple and taking the remaining aristocracy and perhaps many other Jews to Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel had gone to Babylon in 597 with the exiles and Jeremiah fled to Egypt in 587. As things turned out, about fifty years later the Persians, that is, the present-day Iranians, defeated the Babylonians, the Iraqis, and allowed some of the Babylonian Jews to return to Jerusalem to set up a new puppet kingdom and rebuild the temple. (As you can see, the twenty first century conflicts in the Middle East had their origins in the ancient Near East, with the addition of the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century of the common era and the Americans in the 20th.)

Jeremiah was called to be a prophet when he was but a boy, in 627 bce, while Josiah was king of Judah. Israel had been destroyed for nearly a century, but Josiah reconquered some of its territory while the Assyrians were dealing with the Babylonians. Jeremiah came from a priestly family and served in the court of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, between 597 and 587, who rebelled against the Babylonians, contrary to Jeremiah’s advice. The text of Jeremiah’s prophecy is chronologically scrambled, with bits from his 40 years of prophecy mixed around. Usually we can tell from events referred to when most of the passages were written, however. You will note in our text today that Jeremiah predicts that God will help both the House of Israel and the House of Judah, having destroyed them. This means that this passage is not an early writing when only Israel was destroyed but a late writing when both were destroyed, possibly after 597 when Judah first lost to Nebuchadnezzar or perhaps around 587 when the whole city was razed.

Now Jeremiah’s main problem was this: God had promised to protect Israel and to keep David’s descendents on the throne forever, even if they were not faithful. But in his lifetime Jeremiah saw things go from bad to worse with the final destruction of the remaining portion of David’s kingdom. How could a priest and prophet of Yahweh explain this? Jeremiah’s answer, like that of the other prophets, was that the people of Israel had themselves broken the covenant and that their political troubles were God’s punishment for this, like an angry husband punishing a wayward wife. Jeremiah also said, however, that God would restore Israel and Judah after punishing them, “sowing [them] with the seed of humans and the seed of animals,” as our text put it. Several weeks ago the lectionary reading from Jeremiah was about his investing in property to show confidence that Judah’s fortunes would be restored. In today’s text he says that God will give a new covenant in which God’s law is within the hearts of the people.

Of course he lost his investment with the destruction of Israel. Although the Persians did restore the Jewish aristocracy to Jerusalem and let them build the Second Temple, Judah was always a puppet state, first of the Persians, then of the Greeks under Alexander, then of the Romans as at the time of Christ and lasting until the Muslim conquest in the 7th century. The secular State of Israel was established by the European powers in mid-twentieth century but has maintained itself very much as a client-state of America ever since. This was not what Jeremiah had in mind as the restoration of the House of Israel and the House of Judah.

Nor did the new covenant ever take place in the sense of writing the law of God on people’s hearts rather than on scrolls. There were brief periods of Torah purification, as in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah who built the Second Temple under the Persians, but these were very much an external application of the law, not an exhibition of its internal shaping of the human heart. St. Paul, in the second chapter of his letter to the Romans, describes conscience as a kind of law written on the heart, but applies it to Gentiles in contrast to Jews who have the much clearer external written law, and notes that both Jews and Gentiles often fail the law. When Jesus and Paul spoke of a new covenant in the Christian sense, it seemed to be quite different from what Jeremiah had in mind.

How then should we understand Jeremiah’s failed prophecy of a new covenant that would restore Israel’s political fortunes and secure the faithfulness of the people? It is tempting to think a thought that the ancient prophets would never allow, namely, that it is God who was unfaithful to the covenant and its promises. Many Jewish theologians after the Holocaust argued something like this: nothing the Jewish people might have done wrong could possibly justify the horrors of the Holocaust, and therefore there is no God, or God lied in the promises to protect the Chosen People, or God is unfaithful or impotent in the face of evil. Surely this response is understandable. Christians have a similar problem regarding divine promises when Jesus did not return after a very short time, sometime within the lifetime of Paul, as Paul thought. As the years went by without Jesus’ Second Coming, the early Christians temporized with remarks that a day of God’s time is like a thousand years of ours. But that strategy of indefinite postponement dulls the edge of urgency about salvation, and requires repeated and always arbitrary claims that the apocalypse is really tomorrow. The better understanding is to say, with John, Ephesians, and Colossians, tha
t salvation is already here if we but have the eyes to see it.

The problem, of course, is that if we conceive of God only as a very large spiritual person who makes promises and acts in history, the actual course of history refutes the claims of the prophets and apostles. God is not a big person, however, despite the imagery to that effect throughout the Bible. God is the creator of everything that can be imagined, and that includes persons. As creator, God transcends persons and spirits, as well as nature. You might want to say, with many theologians, that God is thus a super-person, a more-than-personal person. That is fine, so long as you do not say that God makes promises and behaves in history in a faithless way. Our theology must be deeper than this.

One clue for making it deeper is contained in the Jeremiah text. “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins.” In other words, people are individually responsible for what they do. One generation cannot do something that legitimately calls forth punishment on the next, nor can the sins of leaders justify punishment of the people. Ezekiel says much the same thing in the 18th chapter of his prophetic book. Although both prophets still accounted for Israel’s disastrous political fortunes by ascribing to them corporate guilt, they also saw that true justice needs to be tied to personal responsibility. This was the beginning of the insight that justice is defined by secular responsibility, personal and social, not by a large cosmic drama in which God is a principal player who turns out to be fickle.

A second clue to a deeper theology is in the parable from Luke about the corrupt judge who is finally swayed by the repeated insistence of the widow for justice. In Jesus’ parable, the corrupt judge is the analogue for God. I would not go so far as to say that Jesus would agree with my view that God should not be depicted as making promises. Nevertheless, he did not draw back from his analogy. The point of his analogy is that we should continually demand justice even when it seems that the controlling powers, ultimately God, are corrupt. The constancy of the demands for justice ultimately wears down a cosmos that seems to reward corruption, violence, power politics, imperial ambitions, and greed. Whereas the widow was seeking just judgment in a law suit, our demands for justice cry against poverty, oppression, terrorism, genocide, disenfranchisement, disrespect of other cultures, the sending of soldiers to fight unjust wars, and the failure to pray for enemies who resist unjustified attack and occupation. Whereas the widow needed someone else to give her justice, our demands for justice take the form of committing ourselves to its achievement, so far as we can, even to the point of sacrifice. This parable in Luke immediately follows Jesus’ prediction that God would come to separate those who practice righteousness from those who will be left for dead. “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather,” he said about those who do not pursue justice. When it seemed that injustice has all the power, Jesus told his disciples this “parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart,” as our text began.

Here is our Christian new covenant, which might indeed be a deeper meaning of Jeremiah’s. The great creator God is not like a super-king who fixes up history so that we win or who magically transforms our hearts to perfection. Jesus, however, shows us that the way through history’s injustices is through a commitment to righteousness that leads up the cross to resurrection into new life. And in that resurrected life, day by day, our hearts can be transformed into a holiness from which righteousness does spring as naturally as love. So I invite you into a Christian new covenant that gently transforms Jeremiah’s utopian vision into a realism of commitment in the face of adversity with confidence that new life comes out of defeat when commitment is unshaken and that with a Spirit of mercy and encouragement leads toward a perfection of heart. The invitation lies before you for a new covenant of Christian faith. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Religion for Reward

Sunday, October 3rd, 2004
Lamentations 1:1-6

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

Today’s gospel from Luke disturbs our sensibilities because of its suppositions about slavery. Jesus refers to slavery as an accepted institution of society and does not speak against it. Moreover, he assumes that many of his listeners themselves have slaves and that they know how to treat them. You would insist, he says, that your slave finish serving you with evening food and drink, even after a long day in the field, before time off for his or her own dinner. Jesus approves the rather harsh and uncompromising treatment of slaves and uses that to make his point about the behavior he expects from the disciples.

This passage has not always been disturbing. It was one of the principal defenses of slavery in Christianity down to the 1860s in the United States. For much of Christian history, slavery did not need to be defended at all because everyone took it for granted. Jesus’ own statement needs to be understood in terms of the social situation of the ancient world, in which slavery was indeed an accepted practice. People could become slaves by being on the losing side in a war, by being sold into slavery by their parents, or by selling themselves into slavery because they otherwise lacked the means to take care of themselves. The children of slaves were slaves. The economies of most Mediterranean societies required slave labor. Much slave labor was menial and some was sexually abusive, but sometimes slaves rose to positions of great responsibility. Slavery in the ancient world did not have especially racial or ethnic connotations except in cases where the enslaved losers in a war were racially or ethnically different from the winners. The Hebrew Bible laid down some rules for the humane treatment of slaves but did not condemn the practice. St. Paul encouraged slaves to be obedient to their masters and in one instance persuaded a run-away slave to return to his master and his master to receive him back as a Christian, though still a slave. He did not suggest abolishing slavery or even that individual Christians should free their slaves.

While it was clear in the ancient world that many slaves were intelligent and responsible, there was also the belief that some people are “natural slaves,” that is, people in need of others to watch out for them while they do work within a limited sphere. Aristotle, for instance, believed that all women are by nature “natural slaves” and need men to take care of them, although they can manage a household. Without using slavery language for women, St. Paul believed that they needed to be subordinated to and taken care of by men, despite the plain evidence before his eyes that some women were paramount leaders in their congregations.

One part of Hellenistic and Roman culture that seems strange to us is the extent to which all human relations were seen in terms of dominance and submission. Relations among social classes were defined in terms of dominance and submission, and the relations between slave-owners and slaves were part of this. Sexual relations could not be conceived as equal, only as a matter of domination and submission. The flip side of the dominance and submission theme in the ancient Greco-Roman world was that everyone except the emperor was supposed to be on the look-out for who his or her lord or master is so as to be of service.

In our time almost no one would believe slavery to be morally tolerable, except perhaps in Africa where it is still practiced in some places. In our time, we are somewhat divided about whether men should dominate women. Most secular Western societies have adopted equal women’s rights, and mainline religions have gone along with that. Many evangelical Protestants, however, as well as Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, hold to the biblical injunctions to keep women in subordinate roles to men.

How should Christians respond to biblical assumptions about cultural matters that are in direct contradiction to what we have come to believe, for good reason, to be the moral course? We should look very carefully at the moral distance between the ancient world and our own. Just as we would not accept ancient science over against our own, so we should not accept ancient social customs regarding slavery or gender relations when we have come to know better. The Bible’s deep principle of the equality of all people as children of God contradicts many of the social customs that the Bible accepted uncritically, even if biblical writers had not drawn out that implication. Jesus’ own practice of treating women with great respect and near equality stood in contrast to the social expectations of his time. The implication of equal dignity for all persons has been drawn out abundantly in the last four centuries and we now believe in human rights; in Christian societies, that belief comes from the biblical principles of love and equality. We need not hold it against the prophets, Paul, or Jesus, that they failed to see the full social implications of the claim that God loves all people as equally divine children and that relations among people should be those of mutual love, to which slavery is a contradiction.

Nevertheless, though our sensibilities are rightly disturbed by Jesus’ positive use of slavery to make a point, we should still attempt to see the point he was making. His point was not about the institution of slavery at all. It was about duty to God that applies to everyone. Just as the ancient world believed that slaves owed perfect obedience to their masters and should not be rewarded extra for merely doing their duty, so everyone should be obedient to God and not get extra credit for being so. We do not enter life on a morally neutral playing field, where opportunities await for doing good that we can take up if we want some special reward, but that we can also simply ignore if we don’t want the reward. No. We are already defined by our obligations. To accept and engage those obligations is simply what is expected of us.

Jesus’ point in this analogy with slavery was to attack spiritual materialism. In his influential book, Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, the Tibetan Buddhist theologian and missionary to America, Chogyam Trumgpa, defined spiritual materialism as the ego’s use of religion to enhance its own gratification. In Buddhist culture this often meant attaining spiritual powers so that others would look up to you. In Western and many third-world cultures a great many people think they should be religious and moral only for the sake of getting to Heaven, a place of infinite rewards. Good Christians are also prone to a kind of spiritual materialism that sees holiness as an ultimate ego gratification. Jesus’ point was that we should do our duty to God and neighbors just because it is our duty. The moral issues of our watch define us, and how we do our duty defines our moral worth, set in the context of God’s forgiveness and mercy. The proper motive for religious practice should be for its own sake, not for the sake of some reward.

Our proper relation to God, as you know, is very complicated, consisting in part of awe and reverence for the glory of the Creator, in part of gratitude for our lives and the bounty of creation, in part of confession of our sins and grateful reception of divine forgiveness, and in part of learning to love God as our Ultimate Beloved even though God gives us unfair lives, unlovely neighbors, pain, and death. Relations with our neighbors are partial versions of our proper relation to the Ultimate Ground of our Being. This complex religious life of holiness is extremely difficult, but it is not for the sake of anything except itself. To learn to live in holy awe, gratitude, repentance, and love collectively is the end and goa
l of life. Should some mastery of awe, gratitude, repentance, and love win respect from our neighbors or an afterlife in heaven is wholly beside the point, and the ego-lure of respect or heaven is likely to corrupt the true Christian path to which we are ordered. Jesus said, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Jesus, of course, was the “worthless” slave, as Paul said in Philippians 2, whose humility so perfected his relation with God that all of us who follow him into the duty of that slavery can come to holy awe, ultimate gratitude, repentant redemption, and the love that perfects human nature. I invite you to the table of Jesus where the slaves come for nourishment so that they can do their whole duty to God and neighbor. Come to the table where God’s glory suffuses humble food, and be in awe. Come to the table where Christ’s presence incarnates God in creation, and be filled with gratitude. Come to the table with confession in your heart to receive the blessed grace of forgiveness, and be empowered to live the unstoppable life of redeemed sinners. Come to the table where the true host is your beloved, and love God as a perfect lover. Come. Amen

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville