In the fall of 1989 I was a first year student at Princeton Theological Seminary. More than once during that first semester (and each subsequent semester), I wondered if I had made the right choice. I felt ill-prepared and out of place. The first time I felt as if I might make it through the three years, in spite of my doubts, was in the first day of the Old Testament class. The professor stood at the podium and recited a list of the things we might learn in his class. One of those was that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. That surprised me. Who thought that Moses wrote anything? Apparently, this was (and is) a popular belief. One of my classmates took offense. They stood up and emphatically declared that if this was the kind of nonsense taught at Princeton, it was not the school it proclaimed to be. And my classmate walked out of the lecture hall with me and many others staring in surprise.
I’d be less surprised now, though. After nearly 30 years in ministry, I think the Bible should come with a warning label: Enter at your own risk. Contents are not what they appear to be. Even folks who identify on the more progress end of the Christian spectrum can’t seem to shake the influence of Bible literalism. No sooner do I finish reminding people that all the books of the Bible were written when people could only explain events, both global and personal, by attributing them to God. If good things happened, then God was pleased and showering blessings. If bad things happened someone’s (or lots of someones) sins were to be blamed; God was displeased and pouring out punishment. The other option was that if a person or community was experiencing tribulation, God had decided to test the strength of their faith. This was the reality all throughout biblical history.
We live in a different world now, though, don’t we? We know that God doesn’t send floods, famines, hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes, and the like to punish peoples for their sins or to test the faith of individuals or communities. In fact, God doesn’t send natural disasters at all. If there is blame to be placed for such occurrences, human beings are likely responsible for messing with the planet in ways that have made all these kinds of events much worse. Sometimes human behavior actually causes disasters to occur (e.g. think of the relationship between fracking and earthquakes). My point is that science can explain how these things happen; we don’t need to blame God.
If God doesn’t make bad things happen to test us or punish us, does God make good things happen to reward the faithful? No. This is absurd. This kind of thinking would mean that God loves wealthy people more than God loves poor people. Or that God loves healthy people more than God loves sick people. Most of the time wealthy people get wealthy because they have come up with something society values more than it values the health and well-being of human beings.
God does not punish the bad, test the doubtful, or reward the faithful. Can we please move on from literalism? There is Truth in scripture and, yet, not a lot of facts. Amos described how events would unfold with amazing accuracy partly because he was inspired by God and partly because human behavior patterns are predictable. When human beings choose serving the wealthy and powerful over caring for the poor and vulnerable, we move away from holy ways toward human ways. The more we forget that holy ways lead toward strong communities, care for the vulnerable, and resistance of Empire, the more we experience division, hopelessness, and oppression of the many by the very few. This “few,” by the way, makes us believe that human ways are better than holy ways while saying that their wealth and power are literally God-given.
Amos was right. There is a famine in the land. It is not a famine of bread or meat. It is, however, a famine of hearing the words of God. God’s ways always tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s ways never value one people over another and would not sanction concentration camps in any era, let alone now. God’s ways do not sanction the oppression of anyone or hold up white nationalism as a form of Christianity. God has demonstrated God’s love for Creation again and again. The prophets (old and new) tell us that loving God means loving others with the same degree of compassion, grace, forgiveness, and love that God has for us.
When Jesus dined with Mary and Martha, he didn’t tell Martha she shouldn’t do her many tasks. He merely pointed out that if you want to offer true hospitality it is essential to take time to sit with your guests and determine their needs, not just do the things because they need doing. Martha’s method forgets that there are human needs in the mix. Mary’s way reminds us that at core we are to love and serve one another in deep, meaningful ways. We cannot serve God or our neighbors if we don’t take the time to be still and listen.
God is still calling us to live holy ways, to bring the Realm of God into the here and now. When we seek holy ways, goodness and hope will follow. If goodness and hope do not follow, the way we travel is probably not all that holy. If we want to stop buying the poor with silver and selling out the needy for a pair of sandals, it’s time to trust God’s love for the whole of Creation and each human being in particular.
Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch. The Bible is not factual. God has better things to do than dole out rewards and punishments. Let’s get on with the business of ending the famine and discovering anew what it means to live in God’s holy ways (before the other kinds of things Amos spoke about come to pass once again).
RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 21, 2019
Amos 8:1-12 with Psalm 52 or
Genesis 18:1-10a with Psalm 15