Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What DOES God Want? Lectionary Meditations

Micah 6:1-8



1 Corinthians 1:18-31


Matthew 5:1-12

What DOES God Want?

What is it that God wants from us? Is it our money? Our obeisance? Our unwavering belief in the Bible, without having any doubts whatsoever? Is it esoteric knowledge or hidden wisdom? Down through the centuries we have asked the question – what does God want? In the course of time, we’ve also been given lots of answers, some of which are conflicting and some to the minds of many, especially in this modern age, purely nonsensical. Consider the practice of child sacrifice – what kind of God would demand child sacrifice? (Oh, I may need to be careful with this one!) What of temple prostitution? Is God some kind of voyeur who needs to get sexually aroused to give us children or bless our fields? I realize that the Law offers strict guidelines as to which sacrifices should be offered, when they should be offered, and in what manner they should be offered, but the prophets all seem to be of one mind even though religious ritual and offerings of grain and oil and even the fatted calf might have their place, what really matters is that we act with justice, mercy, and loving kindness. Yes, God is less interested in our religious rites and more concerned with how we treat one another.

The three texts that stand before us this week, all of which in one way or another are well known to Christians, seeks to answer the question: What is it that God wants from us. Micah 6:8 is, of course, a favorite of the social justice crowd, while 1 Corinthians 1:18 would seem to speak to those who have put the atonement high on their list of important doctrines. As for the Beatitudes – shall we spiritualize them or should we understand that the poverty and the meekness, the persecution and grieving is all too real?

We begin this reflection with the reading from the Hebrew Bible. Its closing verse is well known to many Christians for it answers quite directly the question – what does God want? There in seemingly bold print, Micah 6:8 declares that God wants justice, mercy, kindness, and humility. But while this passage speaks powerfully to us, we need to hear it in context.

The prophet begins this chapter with a listing of God’s charges against Israel. God tells the people to plead their case before the mountains and the hills. Yes, God has a beef with you them. God says to the people with whom he’s in this dispute – How have I wearied you? What have I done to you that you respond this way? Don’t you remember that I brought you out of Egyptian slavery? Don’t you remember that when things were difficult I sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to you? (I need to point out here the inclusion of Miriam). Remember how Balaam undermined Balaak of Moab’s plans against you? Do you remember? So, why are you not following my precepts?

The people respond – with what shall I come before you? Do you want burnt offerings? Do you want an offering of fatted calves? What about 1000 rams or 10,000 rivers of oil? Indeed, will an offering of my first born – the “fruit of my body for the sin of my soul” -- suffice to turn your anger from me? In other words, what religious rituals do you demand?

The response from God cuts in a very different direction – religious rituals and sacrificial offerings are irrelevant. Here is what the Lord wants from you – “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This is all God asks – love your neighbor and you will show your love for God. And with this call I’m reminded of Tom Oord’s definition of love:

“To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God, to promote overall well-being.” (The Nature of Love, p. 17).

What does God want from us? God wants us to be committed to promoting the overall well-being of the Creation.

In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul continues the conversation about what it is that God desires from us, though the language changes somewhat. Here the target isn’t religious ritual, but worldly wisdom. Paul speaks on behalf of God: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (1 Cor. 1:19). This is a passage that some, including me, will struggle with, for it seems to suggest that the Christian faith is anti-intellectual. That is, however, not what Paul would want us to hear (I don’t think – hopefully). Instead, he suggests that what the world considers foolish – the cross – God considers wise. He notes that while the Jews want signs and the Greeks wisdom, all Christians have to proclaim is the cross, which is a stumbling block to one group and foolishness to another. And yet, to those who wish to have their lives transformed, the message of the Cross is full of the power of God’s wisdom. You may not be powerful, you may not be strong, you may not be of high estate, but that need not be a problem, for God’s wisdom, strength, and stature is sufficient for righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. So, if you must boast, boast in the one who was crucified – the one who experienced complete powerlessness, and yet in this reveals the righteousness of God.

Finally we come to the Beatitudes, and return to the mountain. Jesus is depicted here in this moment as the new law-giver, the new Moses, the one who brings God’s directives to humanity. In Micah, the people are commanded to make their defense to the mountains, and here the mountains bear witness to God’s new word. Actually it’s not a new word, but a reaffirmation and reapplying of God’s longstanding commitment to the well-being of the creation. Now, we can, if we wish, spiritualize these first statements of blessings into the “Be Happy Attitudes,” but to turn these into expressions of positive confession would be a mistake. It would also be a mistake to turn these blessings into requirements – so that we must earn God’s blessings by experiencing poverty and grief, persecution and humiliation. It is not something that we pursue, as if we’re seeking after martyrdom, but it is a description of reality in the world. As God engages this world, Jesus promises us that God has chosen to bless those whom society relegates to the sidelines (at best).

The blessings that Matthew presents are the gifts of God bestowed on those who are not rich and powerful in this life. It is a statement that in contrast to the way the world usually works; God isn’t inclined to bless the strong and the powerful, the acquisitive and the violent. But instead, God reaches out to bless the poor and the meek, those who mourn and those hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, pure in heart and those who seek to be peacemakers, those who are persecuted – whether for righteousness or for the sake of the Christ. And the blessings are all wrapped up in experiencing firsthand the realm of God. The phrase in Matthew is Kingdom of Heaven, but we make a mistake if we assume that these blessings of the Kingdom are reserved for some other life, beyond this one. Consider the promise that the meek “will inherit the earth.” And if we understand the prayer Jesus taught the disciples, God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven – there is therefore no bifurcation between the two. To follow Jesus is not an opiate, but a call to live out the new law of love that Jesus is revealing from the mountain of God. But remember, walking humbly with God means that suffering may likely continue. There may be blessing and happiness, but it is to be found in the midst of this life, with its suffering, even as we work to transform the world in which we find ourselves? For as Jesus says, if you’re persecuted, remember that you stand in a long line of those who have experienced persecution, a line that takes you back to the prophets of old. .

So what DOES God want? God wants us to remember that we live in a world that is filled with suffering and injustice and unhappiness, and God wishes us to devote our lives to transforming this reality. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk who has thought deeply about the relationship of the Buddha and Jesus points out that both the Buddha and Jesus understood that life involved suffering, and that both sought to provide a way out of it. He writes:

We too must learn to live in ways that reduce the world’s suffering. Suffering is always there, around us and inside us, and we have to find ways that alleviate the suffering and transform it into well-being and peace. (Living Buddha, Living Christ, Riverhead Books, 1995, pp. 48-49).

 
In this we will find blessings, for that is the promise of God, who has been revealed to us in the crucified one – Jesus the Christ.

2 comments:

David said...

That's one thing I like about Paul- he admits believing Christ died, was risen and is God appears absurd (foolish) to the casual observer. On the other hand, following God's law to treat others with love is a no brainer, not easy, but obvious.

UB said...

All about love. Begin with viewing everyone as equal.