Proverbs 14:15 MSG
Lectionary for August 20, 2017 -- Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Romans 11: 1-2a,29-32; and Matthew 15:21-28
The British produced Welsh police procedural television drama “Hinterland” begins each week with the credits running over a montage of extreme close-ups that are more than a little off-putting and even a little bit, well, gross. After seeing these images a few times, however, the viewer begins to realize that as sinister as they seem up close, they are actually just harmless, everyday junk.
When the camera backs away and we see the objects in their context, we observe that one is a rusty door hinge, another is an old wasp nest, a third is a child’s tooth, another is a seed pod.
They are the same things we have seen before, only now we see and maybe even define them differently because we see them from a perspective that allows us to take them in their proper context.
Our study and examination of scripture often fails due to a malady that I call the micro-focus.
We take a few verses and we dissect them and examine them and try to squeeze as much meaning and application as we can get out of them, but the answers we discover seem simplistic or they run counter to other things we have read in and about the Bible, and we wonder why we have run dry so early in our exploration.
There is another way of looking at scripture, however, and it is what I call that of “macro-focus.” That is, we step back from the text so we can see it in all its surroundings. Passages of scripture which seem to mean one thing when taken by themselves can often mean something completely different when we use a macro-focus that lets us see them in their historic and literary context.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
Lectionary readings listed above, if we are to take them at all seriously, must be taken not just in their individual contexts but in their literary context as well. That is, they need to be seen in the light of all the other things that have been written in the Bible.
Each passage, today, is about love, forgiveness, and/or reconciliation.
In Genesis, Joseph, after toying with his brothers for a short while, finally reveals his true identity to them, forgives them for the shabby way they treated him, points out that, thanks to God, everything has worked out for the best and then “he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” (v. 15)
In Psalm 133 the psalmist reminds us how “very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity,” forming a footnote or commentary upon the story we have just read in Genesis.
Isaiah gives his readers a mini-sermon on inclusion and acceptance as God accepts not just Jews but gentiles as well and declares the temple to be “house of prayer for all peoples.” And then God shares the plan to gather “the outcasts of Israel” and “other…besides those already gathered.”
In Paul's letter to the Romans he reminds the Jewish and gentile Christians of Rome, who are in conflict with each, other that God has come to us in Jesus Christ so that we may be reconciled to God and each other.
And, finally, in Matthew’s gospel we hear about Jesus, who was sent as a savior for the Jews, enlarging his mission at the behest of a gentile woman who is so desperate for her dying daughter that she is willing to go to a Jewish rabbi and ask him for a miracle.
In every passage we see the common threads of forgiveness, acceptance, and reconciliation being woven together into a beautiful tapestry of love.
And it doesn’t stop with these five passages.
The word “love” appears in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible 488 times and the word “forgive” appears 58 times. But if we do more than just a word search and undertake a topical search of scripture and we find that the topics of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace are addressed more than 600 times.
This is not just a trend, my friends. It is a juggernaut.
The very real and undeniable fact is that scripture, as a whole, moves inexorably in the direction of love.
There are those persons, however, persons who call themselves Christians and even pastors, who would not have us believe this.
IN THE NEWS
Back when President Donald Trump was still “presumptive Republican nominee” Trump, he invited about 25 fundamentalist and evangelical Christians to serve as his “evangelical advisory council” and most, if not all, of them still serve in that capacity.
The implication of this seems to be that all Christian evangelicals back Mr. Trump and support his policies. That, of course, is not the case. Many do not, Max Lucado, Jim Wallis, Peter Wehner, and Eric Teetsel, among them. Be that as it may, however, he is still getting advice from some who many consider to be prominent evangelical pastors and leaders, one of which has been lately in the news.
Robert James Jeffress, Jr. is an American Southern Baptist pastor, author, and radio and television host. Jeffress hosts the program, Pathway to Victory, which he claims is broadcast on more than 1,200 television stations in the United States and 28 other countries. He also has a daily radio program, Pathway to Victory, heard on 764 stations. He is the pastor of the 12,000 member First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.
While a pastor in Wichita Falls in 1998, Jeffress sought to have two children's books about children with gay or lesbian parents removed from the public library by checking out the books and paying for them rather than returning them to be recirculated.
On October 7, 2011, he provoked a national controversy when he introduced Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, by indicating that one of Perry's rivals, Romney, of Massachusetts, is opposed to Christianity.
Lately, he has been quoted saying that, “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil.” He adds that, “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”
He says that he was prompted to make the statement after Trump said that if North Korea’s threats to the United States continue, Pyongyang will be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
The biblical passage Romans 13 gives the government authority to deal with evildoers, Jeffress said. “That gives the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un,” he said.
Amy Black, a political-science professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois, isn’t so sure. She would remind us that theologians and church leaders have debated the interpretation of Romans 13 for millennia. Most mainstream interpretations of the passage, she said, would suggest that God works through governmental leaders, but ultimate authority comes from God.
Paul was writing to the Romans in a place and time where there was only one government and one political leader and that was Caesar. He would not have imagined that his words could be applied to other political leaders as well. What if the political leader was Adolph Hitler? Would Christians be compelled by Romans 13 to obey him? What if the political leader was Chairman Mao, or Idi Amin or, well, Kim Jong Un?
“If anything,” Black says, “Romans 13 creates a conundrum, because it could be interpreted that Kim Jong Un has authority to govern.”
Jeffress’s error is that of micro-focus, sometimes referred to as cherry picking or proof texting. He has found a piece of scripture and interpreted the verses to support his own point of view completely disregarding their historical, and literary context as well as the contemporary context to which he is trying to apply them.
Paul’s words in Romans 13 were written to the Christians in the Roman church which Paul had never visited or met. A few years before this letter (49 C.E.) the emperor, Claudius, had expelled all Jews from the city of Rome because of the civil unrest that was being created between orthodox Jews and Christian Jews over who was more authentically Jewish and who should control the synagogues. When Claudius died in 54 C.E. the edict expelling the Jews lapsed and they began returning to the city. In the intervening five years, however, the Christian churches had become almost totally gentile in their rituals and practices and this caused no small amount of tension between the gentile church leaders and the returning Jewish Christians.
Paul wrote the epistle to the Roman church to introduce himself and his theology, a theology of love, reconciliation and salvation, “to the Jews first and also to the Greek.” (1:16) If the Christians of Rome would take Paul’s words seriously they would avoid the kinds of conflicts that had prompted Claudius’s purge of 49 and live together in peace. That is the historical context.
The literary context of the few verses in Romans 13: 1-7 finds them sandwiched between Romans 12 which calls for Christians to “let love be genuine,” and “Bless those who persecute you,” and “Do not repay evil for evil,” and Romans 13: 8 ff. which calls on Christians to, “Owe no one anything but to love one another.”
Romans 13: 1-7 is a coda in the ongoing symphony of love and charity which makes up the totality of the Biblical narrative. It must not, indeed, it cannot be responsibly interpreted in any way that contradicts that story, that rents the beautiful tapestry of love that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
ANOTHER EVANGELICAL VOICE
I can add nothing more to this commentary so I will let another evangelical, some say, fundamentalist, preacher speak the closing lines.
This is the Reverend Mr. Billy Graham in a 1978 interview in Sojourner’s magazine:
Sojourners: How does your commitment to the lordship of Christ shape your response to the nuclear threat?
Graham: I am not sure I have thought through all the implications of Christ’s lordship for this issue — I have to be honest about that. But for the Christian there is — or at least should be — only one question: What is the will of God? What is his will both for this world and for me in regard to this issue? Let me suggest several things.
First, the lordship of Christ reminds me that we live in a sinful world. The cross teaches me that. Like a drop of ink in a glass of water, sin has permeated everything — the individual, society, creation. That is one reason why the nuclear issue is not just a political issue — it is a moral and spiritual issue as well. And because we live in a sinful world it means we have to take something like nuclear armaments seriously. We know the terrible violence of which the human heart is capable.
Secondly, the lordship of Jesus Christ tells me that God is not interested in destruction, but in redemption. Christ came to seek and to save that which was lost. He came to reverse the effects of the Fall. Now I know there are mysteries to the workings of God. I know God is sovereign and sometimes he permits things to happen which are evil, and he even causes the wrath of man to praise him. But I cannot see any way in which nuclear war could be branded as being God’s will. Such warfare, if it ever happens, will come because of the greed and pride and covetousness of the human heart. But God’s will is to establish his kingdom, in which Christ is lord.
Third, of course, Christ calls us to love, and that is the critical test of discipleship. Love is not a vague feeling or an abstract idea. When I love someone, I seek what is best for them. If I begin to take the love of Christ seriously, then I will work toward what is best for my neighbor. I will seek to bind up the wounds and bring about healing, no matter what the cost may be.
Therefore, I believe that the Christian especially has a responsibility to work for peace in our world.
To that, I can add only, Amen.
Dean Feldmeyer is the author of 5 novels, 4 non-fiction books, three plays, and over 100 essays, articles, poems, and short stories, some of which can be found on this web site.