Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Priestly Rants discusses how God chose and favored a liar and a schemer who became a polygamist and played favorites among his children

One of the things that Christians like to overlook is that those saints whose names we remember were as famous in their sins as they are now in their sainthood. They are saints in death, to put an overly simple spin on things. They struggled within and through sins, some sins being ones they never entirely overcame. Samson didn't exactly stop being a stupid horndog until his death with the Phillistines and even the most pious imaginative cover-up cannot avoid dealing with the reality that that closing act of genocide was also a suicide.

Yet Samson makes the roster of faith in Hebrews 11 along with Jephthah, who by his rash vow made himself guilty of sacrificing his own daughter. Here was a man who put faith in God's ability to provide a victory and then by the foolishness of his oath immediately put himself in a position where he was stuck offering a human sacrifice. Perhaps even more disturbing is the note that God doesn't intervene to stop that sacrifice. Just as remarkable, the daughter asks that she have a year to bewail her virginity before her life is sacrificed. This is a sadder tale than Christian college dorm residents eluding to "let me bewail my virginity" can even do an injustice to.

And God not only lets it happen in Hebrews the Lord permits the author to discuss Jephthah as one of the heroes of the faith. Peter in his epistles (we'll just skip over the debate about authorship, shall we?) refers to Lot as a hero of the faith who was upset by the rampant immorality of the region. As a certain pastor put it, we just have to take the apostle's word for this because there's no evidence from the text of Genesis that that's even close to how things went down. Which by no coincidence leads me to my next observation.

There are a lot of Christians who believe that God would and should call only those most worthy to accomplish big things for the kingdom of God. This ignores the substantial flaws of Jesus' own followers. It plays well for leadership conferences and training regimes to say we should pick the best and brightest but as many commentaries on the Gospels have pointed out it would often seem as though Jesus hand-picked the worst and dumbest. The best of the worst and dumbest were still doing things like denying they knew Jesus when the chips were down; or petitioning Jesus for the ultimate sidekick roles. The worst by measures of loyalty sold Jesus out to crucifixion but were apparently good at handling money. This may be a "biblical" warning that anyone who is considered a financial guru in your Christian circles is likely to be a betrayer. But never mind that. I am not really here to discuss fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes sold to believers.

Fellow evangelical Protestants like to talk about the scandal of the cross. I like to talk about that, too, but often the scandal of the cross is that it's even more scandalous than I would really like it to be. It's scandalous because out of love Christ bore death to save me from sin and death. But in day to day life the scandal that is brought home is that Jesus did not just die for my sins. That's a covenient thing to forget when I am feeling like I'm sinned against or not getting things I wish I could get because I either feel I deserve them or simply want them. Now for some men and women struggling with resentment against the Lord that withheld thing may be a spouse. In my case I struggle with remembering that just because other people have jobs does not mean the Lord does not provide for me in a loving way (I have much to write about the significance of this at another time).

There are huge themes in scriptural books that can be easily overlooked if we obsess about details. This is most true of prophetic books. Consider all the stupid fantastic notions people will get in interpreting a book like Ezekiel. People will read themselves into a chapter like Ezekiel 8 or 9. They will construe from this that they are like Ezekiel and get to see into the real workings of God's people and God's justice. That's precisely the wrong way to look at it. If you volunteer yourself to have keen insights into hidden workings of the Lord you've joined a legion of nameless and mostly forgotten people known as self-appointed prophets. Most of those prophets didn't even rise to the dubious level of false prophet, still less prophet of the Lord. Most of those people are forgotten in the sands of time, unnamed, unknown, unimportant, and perhaps unconsidered.

God did not pick prophets and priests and kings because they displayed either a competence for that role or qualification for that role. In a time and place where some Christians talk glibly about "kingly gifts" and not so much about "priestly gifts" or "prophetic gifts" this is unsurprising. The idiom "kingly gifts" makes the supposition, it seems, that if one has kingly gifts then one should be a king, or perhaps that because one already is a king of some kind one should have kingly gifts. Not everyone who is a father acts like a good father should, however. Not everyone who is a chief executive officer acts like a good one should. If the Peter principle holds then the idea that people rise as far as their imcompetence will permit them then those who rise to the top are not necessarily those who are fit for the job so much as those who aren't kept from rising to the top because better people for the job simply did not appear--this could have been because they lacked the interest or the opportunity rather than through a lack of skill.

What all of this should lead us to consider is that we, like Israel the man and Israel the nation, were not chosen because we were so very good. We would like to convince ourselves that we got where we are, if we're in a good place, because we did good things and are good people. To deflect this through a less than ideal expression of piety we are not so good at conceding that we are where we are in part because of what would be called dumb luck. The race is not to the swift, nor victory to the strong, nor wealth to the wise but time and chance happen to them all.

The core failing of any kind of prosperity teaching is to deny that time and chance happen to us all and that it can give death and failure to one while conferring success and longevity to the other. The person who has the most kingly gifts may toil away at some lower-level managerial job making things run for the person who runs the show and talks about having kingly gifts he/she doesn't actually have. The world is full of generals who became famous because they delegated and then took credit for the brilliance of their subordinates. The Desert Fox wasn't just some isolated tactical wunderkind, he had a great support team, but it is more convenient for military legends and romanticized notions to imagine Rommel was just this brilliant guy coming up with genius moves on his own.

A Christian, particularly a modern American conservative Protestant, is stuck asking the question of men like Jacob, Jephthah, and David. These are men whose character flaws stuck with them their whole lives. Yet David particularly was permitted to reign for decades when by contemporary evangelical standards he should not have been allowed to even get his job. This is one of the more pervasively disconcerting things I have considered about believers and leadership. It would appear that one of the scandals of the cross is that the Lord lets people carry on in positions of influence--these people are possessed of character flaws they would consider disqualifying in any other person who displayed them to such a degree yet they do not stop holding their positions of power or influence themselves.

No, instead they just keep going on in the certitude that God has appointed them and that this seems to mean not that they should really keep repenting of the things they think disqualify others but that they get to keep on keeping on. That God permits the unfit to accomplish things is easy to understand, but that God permits double standards and hypocrisy to run rampant is troubling, and it is troubling because I can see it in myself even more easily than I could decide to see it in others. Just when "we" as Christians can tell ourselves that we get the scandal of the cross it seems that that is precisely the point at which we probably don't get it.

When you or I operate within the ideas that we have what we have because we have earned God's divine favor we're not operating from a position of gratitude for the Lord's kindness. We are operating within the assumption that because our spiritual ducks are all in a row and that we are not guilty of any sins that disqualify us from being cool that we know about that we are safely in the position to speak up, even if it's only from the generousl sliding of scale of not being as bad as someone else. That God has so conspicuously chosen lying, scheming, manipulative polygamists in the course of founding the family of faith should give us pause.

We find it easy to talk about the wideness of God's mercy when it extends to keeping people in the family of God we want in the family. It becomes a scandal when it extends to people we refuse to even acknowledge place their faith in Christ. It becomes a scandal when God blesses with material wealth and the admiration of others men and women we wish the Lord would smite. Jesus said that God sends rain on the just and unjust alike. Job noticed that the Lord allowed very wicked people to prosper. Koholeth noticed this, too.

Christians in America never tire of talking about how only those who deserve to be in power should be in power. Well, of course, we have a nation with the historical luxury of having defined how we want ourselves to be run by committee. Then we find over time that even our best committees end up leading to people making decisions that doom us. We have no problem invoking covenantal language and analogies to God's people Israel when we are going for Manifest Destiny or going for a mandate to get things we want done. It doesn't even matter if we're talking strictly Protestant or Catholic here since Manifest Destiny was an ideological concept shaped over decades by Christians in America of every stripe. It is too simple to blame the other teams we don't identify with as Christians in imputing crimes to America, if we don't indict our own team where it has failed then we have become Pharisees, able to say we have been enslaved to no one while living in a Palestinian vassal state in the moment of our utterance.

What Jesus and other prophets beneath Him reveal to us is that this has never been true. The role of a prophet is to point to Christ but the role Christ Himself plays as prophet is to remind us, who consider ourselves Israel, who we really are. Not just the idealized child of the promise but the swindling polygamist who plays favorites. We are incapable of realizing what all the flaws we may see in ourselves or, worse yet, in others may yet be in the age to come as the Lord refines and redeems those things within us and others that to our eyes or others' eyes may be considered utterly beyond redemption.

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