Tuesday, December 30, 2008

lopsided interpretations of Malachi 4

I hope to never see Malachi 4 invoked as a text that fathers should have regard for their children. Sometimes I have seen this chapter used and the passage about Elijah being sent to turn the hearts of fathers toward their children and the hearts of children toward their fathers is used as some kind of moralistic gibe to motivate Christian parenting.

Crap. Utter crap.

Malachi is a prophetic book and while it is true that it is considered good that Elijah would come to turn the hearts of fathers toward their sons and the hearts of sons toward their fathers how would a Christian interpret Elijah's relevance today? We do not have any teaching from John the Baptist that fathers and sons should turn their hearts toward each other.

Guess what? Though Christians have often taken Malachi 4 to prophecy the coming of John and I accept that interpretation to take the last verse of Malachi and make it prescriptive does violence to the text. It is not a prescription for what fathers or sons should do of their own accord, it is a prophecy about what Elijah would be sent by God to do. Incidentally we could spend a bunch of time on what smiting the earth with a curse might mean but for now that does not interest me.

No, what interests me is what God designs and promises. Christians see that John fulfills the promise but John simply points to Christ. Jesus notes that John was Elijah and yet the gospels never really indicate that John preached a lot about turning the hearts of the fathers toward their sons or vice versa.

So what does this thing in Malachi 4 mean? I am not here attempting to exegete the text down to the Hebrew or Aramaic, I am considering that John finally was pointing to Christ and that Elijah was the instrument used for a particular generation. But now someone greater than Elijah is here. Now someone greater than John the Baptist is here. John the Baptist was the greatest among prophets and yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. So ... about this Elijah fellow who turns the hearts of fathers toward their children.

Here's my hunch, Christ accomplishes this. The Christ who divides mother and daughter who declared that a person's enemies would be in their own household is the one who can turn the heart of a father toward his child. I have started to think that many a Christian invokes malachi 4 as a prescription for what Christian parents are SUPPOSED TO DO without considering the flip side, that Elijah will turn the hearts of the children toward their fathers.

I have sometimes noticed that a kind of pop psychology suffuses evangelicalism, often unobserved. Perhaps because of a whole generation of baby boomers who thought they had to rebel against the ideasl of their parents' generation this came about. Perhaps all the beatniks felt they had to forsake the legacy of their parents to find their true selves and find the true way. Perhaps all the hippies felt it was the path to enlightenment and true, unfettered humanity. Many Christians desire families where the children display love and affection and loyalty and honor to their parents and Malachi makes that look good. Malachi makes it look good saying that fathers should turn their hearts toward the children,.

Dude, guess what? Prophecy. If people were able to do that of their own natural abilities and never screw it up would God send Elijah to begin with? Would God send Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord? Would God promise to spare people in the day of the Lord in MALACHI 3? Yeah, go back and check that out. it's not that prophets never prescribe ethical teaching, of course, it's that the more I consider Malachi as a prophetic book the more apparent it is that some people have missed that this is a promise from God to His people, not a list of things He expects people to do as though they were naturally inclined to do so.

So why does this matter?

A while back I read a blog entry of sorts by a Christian who was lamenting the loss of fathers. The loss of fathers is a grievous thing in society (and not like the robot in the Star Wars movie) and the problem in society is that fathers are not to be found and not given the seriousness of consideration or responsibility that they have. And so on. I read an entry where a person lamented that their father did not love them as they needed to be loved. Even in evangelicalism there is a sort of lament raised for the father who wasn't good enough or wasn't what he should have been or wasn't around.

One of the more memorable jokes on this trope about the lost father, for me, is the gaggle of sharks in 12 step in Finding Nemo. The great shark laments, "I never knew my father!" and starts to sob. And why is it funny? Because it is thought by the shark that if he laments this loss of something never had that it will keep him from eating other fish, which is his natural inclination. Paradoxcially we, as Christians, could laugh at a joke like that and yet use Malachi 4 to the same effect as the giant shark supposing that if he admits he never knew his father he wouldn't be tempted to each fish. The smell of blood reveals his real appetite.

And so it is with us in America, when I consider how the narrative of the parents who betrayed us and let us down and weren't what we hoped is invoked by Christians. This is not to say parents, to say nothing of fathers, aren't abusers, rapists, killers, slave-drivers, liars, users ,manipulators, tyrants, drunkards, and every other sort of sin known to man. I heard a testimony from a woman a few years ago that made my blood cold. My heart went out to her and I have prayed for her regularly since. What we tacitly shared in common was something I shared in a group where she and I seemed to be the only people who appreciated something from blunt experience. The group had discussed how family can be a wonderful thing to rely on in times of trouble. I replied that that was often true but that on the other hand no one has the power to destroy you and maim your heart like family.

Solzhenitsyn once wrote that millions become statistics, you fail to have the framework from which to understand the magnitude of the horror. You might need photos of every person whose life was destroyed to begin to grasp the significance of at all. In the age of the internet we have that sort of capacity and yet it paradoxically numbs us. There is a reason Dostoevsky's Ivan reduced the staggering scope of evil in the world to the voice of one desperate child. What I fear we may have in our age is the strange paradox that we ignore that child as another statistic or consider ourselves the child against who all the injustices are done rather than see what we ourselves do to the child, for the child is not merely ourselves but those we sin against.

So, then, there is Malachi 4. This is, again, not a prescription of what Christian parents should do or expect from their children. It is a promise from God that through His servant He will incline the heart of a father toward his child and the heart of the child toward his father. It is a promise for mothers and daughters as well. This promise presupposes a rift in the natural order of things. After all, what God has made crooked no one can make straight. Yet it seems Malachi 4's last few versers are popular verses to invoke so that people can make straight what God has left crooked.

This speaks of the coming terrible day of the Lord whom no one could survive without God's mercy. So when the prophet promises for God that Elijah will turn hearts of generations toward each other we have gotten to a point where Ezekiel has said that fathers alone will be punished for their sins and not the sons, a change in things if you consider earlier punishments.

As a considerable aside, I once made a suggestion that when Jesus said that Moses allowed divorce because of hardness of men's hearts that this is something to consider in the following way, Moses received the laws from God so is Jesus suggesting Moses added a proviso or two in the Law that God did not intend? No, so then if God through Moses permitted that which He did not approve of what was the purpose? I wondered, probably to the dismay of some, if this wasn't a demonstration of God making some concessions even in the Mosaic law to some aspects of humanity in a certain epoch that were so far gone there was no point in prohibiting it. It is probably disturbing for Christians to consider that there are certain types of reprobation in a given time and age that God simply grants that in that epoch there is no changing it.

Rather than merely horrify us we must consider how this grace from God may manifest itself toward us in our time. This is not an observation that should lead us only to damn earlier generations whose sins repel us yet who might damn us with equal fervor for sins that we consider the acme of decent behavior. The generation that condoned child labor would still be right to condemn the generation that created and used the atomic bomb. If you don't think I have any grounds to say that go read Barefoot Gen. This point I have made obliquely and I am sure many will not catch what I am getting at. But I am content to let it be what it is and suggest that we consider that what may seem the cruelty of God permitting wickedness may, paradoxically, be more merciful than the justice we would demand He bring forth. And so here the aside is finished. Trust me, it is not so tangential as might appear.

We live in a society that idolizes youth. Preferably adult, sexualized youth of course the way our society works, but children are the future, as Whitney Houston sang so long ago. Children are held up as innocent. Children in Disney films are held up as the heroes over against blundering parents. We have a culture suffused with a belief that children will discern failures their elders missed and Christians certainly believe this, too, and it has more than a kernel of truth to it. It is often truth. We live in a society that makes children both heroes in narrative and also victims. So much so that the Comics Code prohibits the depiction of any child being struck by an adult and there is a whole stupid subgenre of horror about demon children who adults don't harm because of societal taboos. Believe me, there would be no possibility for such an absurd genre of narrative in earlier epochs of even Western history. Certain kids who were bad enough really would get killed. But that is yet another aside getting to the next one.

Scripture at various places attests that evil is indeed locked up in the heart of a child (and the parent, as well, since Scripture condemns various forms of child sacrifice). Focus on the rod and you'll miss what even Piaget observed, that children are capable of nearly limitless self-regard and truly believe the cosmos revolves around them. This does not make them guilty in any adult sense of guilt and their eternal fate is hardly my concern. I don't know, I don't pretend to know. But I am just jaded enough by what I have seen of children that I believe many Christians who take up Malachi 4 about parenting don't realize how hopeless that is and do not consider how Elijah, not them, will turn the hearts of children toward their fathers.

Things like infanticde and killing children were not considered a priori goods in Jewish society. Yeah, you could stone a kid for being rebellious but unlike Greco-Roman culture you weren't supposed to dump the aby over a hill if you didn't want another one.

Having taken many diversions by now I come back to the mourning shark. I have read things to the effect of people grieving for their father not being good enough but what if Malachi 4's promise is read as the eschatological promise that it is instead of as a prescription for a social agenda? What if we read it not as a prescriptive moralism but as an apocalyptic promise? Remember the words of God given through His sevent and He will send His servant to give you the hearts to fulfill it.

In this light I suggest that while there is nothing necessarily wrong with grieving for the failures and sins of your father when I consider Malachi 4 I notice that it addresses the children, too. God not only enables the fathers to grieve over their sin but the children to grieve over theirs. Who might they sin most against in this age? Each other, of course? You cannot manufacture what only the Spirit of God can produce. Your grief over your father's failure will not turn his heart toward you and his grief over your failure will not turn your heart toward him.

Yet if the Spirit gives you and your father, or you and your child conviction that you have sinned against each other and in that grief you reach out to each other and find ways to grieve together THEN I suggest that Elijah has truly spoken to you and prepared the way for the Lord. So often Christians would be eager to take Malachi 4 and prepare the way themselves! They want either their parents or their children to grieve and be turned back to them. That's not how it works.

It may be too simplistic to say this but legalism always seems to be some case where we insist on accomplishing for ourselves out of impatience what only Christ can accomlish within us. We do not realize how helpless we truly are because we think that we can help ourselves. We do not realize how depraved we are because we consider first the depravity of others. Malachi 4 does not say that Elijah will turn the hearts of fathers toward children only or the hearts only of children toward their fathers.

We must be skeptical when we find ourselves tempted to lament not because there is nothing to mourn. Jesus said that those who mourn are most happy for they will be comforted. We must be skeptical when we find ourselves inclined to lament because we should ask what we are truly lamenting. Not all sorrow is godly sorrow. Strangely, perhaps, mourning the loss of things we did not have can become our greatest pleasure and becomes our comfort. But if you lament what you did not have how would you know what it was?

A blind man can lament that he has never been able to see but what is he really lamenting? He is not lamenting the lack of sight so much as those things he would be sure to have, he trusts, if he had ever been able to see. That is often how our mourning is--we are blind men who are mourning the things we do not have because we cannot see even though we do not understand what it is like to see them. Indeed we mourn having never seen and the things we could have had had we seen. This is not itself truly mourning that we are blind. No, that is a different thing altogether.

Think of it this way, the man born blind may not lament that he is unable to see his wife if he can touch her. He has never seen anything but he can touch his wife and be touched by her. The man who has seen his wife and is then blind can surely mourn that he can no longer see his wife. He can praise her beauty as beheld in his eyes from memory alone and not see how she grows and changes yet remains beautiful over time.

We are blind men from birth whom Christ can give the gift of sight. We can mourn those things we believe we should be able to see yet we do not see them. But if Christ comes to us and heals us then perhaps we may weep in a new way. We are allowed to weep not for the things we never saw that we wished we could see but to weep with joy at the things Christ gives us sight to see that we have never seen before.

So mourn, yet do not make mourning your comfort or you have received your comfort already. Mourn without comfort and then Christ can come and comfort you. Mourn without comfort and Christ can bring forth people who can mourn with you. You may even be surprised to discover that those who Christ may bring to mourn with you are the people you were mourning about, the people who you were mourning over that they did not mourn. Only be alert so that when the moment comes you may be given grace by God to see and hear it or it may come and be unappreciated, just as Elijah was!

That is how, if I understand God's promises and their fulfillment in Christ rightly, the hearts of fathers are turned toward sons and the hearts of sons are turned toward fathers. Christians are so busy being zealots attempting to bring the kingdom of God in by force, being violent men grasping violently at the kingdom, that they do not see how it arrives meekly, on a colt, and do not recognize it when it speaks to them. It is no wonder to me now that Jesus so often says, "Let he who has ears to hear hear." Elijah came to point to Christ and Christ alone inclines your heart to the child or the father.

Why do so many Christians transform a startling promise from God into a command they must fulfill? They do not believe the promise. Fortunately God's ability to fulfill His promise is not dependent on their belief.

O Light who makes the cosmos shine
Please fill our minds with light divine
That with Yourself our hearts may glow
And You our darkness overthrow.
O Light in Whom no shadow lies
Give sight to all our blinded eyes
That we may see You are the Word
True light and life to all the world.
Amen.

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