Monday, March 24, 2014

David and Goliath: Five Stones and One Shot

          Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures somewhat differently than do their Jewish friends.  Christians read those writings to find Jesus Christ there.  We read the sacred text and learn not only of the historical events themselves, but also their hidden prophetic meaning.   The narratives thus contain not only history, but typology.  That is because the God who manifested Himself through Israel’s sacred history and whose Spirit inspired the Hebrew writers of the Scriptures also manifested Himself through Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus’ life was the true and hidden goal to which all that Hebrew history was leading, so it is not surprising if God dropped some clues along the way. 
            The story of the contest of David with Goliath contains one such type.  The narrative can be read on several levels.  At its first and most basic level, it is the story of a huge seasoned Philistine soldier coming onto the field of battle to psyche out the opposing Israelite army with what today we could call “trash talk”.  The talk worked, and the Israelite army trembled behind the lines not wanting to rush into battle.  Then came David, a young shepherd boy, fresh from guarding his father’s flock and having no battle experience whatever.  He was filled with holy indignation at how the “uncircumcised Philistine” dared to defy the armies of the living God, and was prepared to do something about it.  The Israelite king Saul thought the contest was ludicrously and suicidally one-sided, but he had nothing better to offer, and so he allowed David to try.  He dressed David up in the best armour, only to find that David was not used to such weaponry and could not move in it properly.  David went out to meet the Philistine in one-to-one combat armed only with his shepherd’s staff and his sling—and with five little stones.
            The giant Philistine Goliath was less than impressed.  “Am I a dog that you come out to meet me with sticks?” he roared.  “Come closer, little boy,” (I paraphrase), “and I will give your body to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.”  David was unbowed and unafraid and did the giant one better:  “You come to me decked out with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the Name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the Lord will deliver you to me and I will cut off your head and give all the bodies of your whole army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”  The fight was on. 
            Every Sunday school child knows the rest.  David took one stone from the five in his shepherd’s bag, put it into his sling and landed the stone squarely in the forehead of his foe.  Goliath fell to the ground, David took the Philistine’s own sword and with it cut off his head.  When the Philistine army saw this, they were the ones who were psyched out.  They fled, and Israel pursued.
            When an ancient Israelite read that story, he read not just about how David proved stronger than Goliath.  He also read about how the army of the little nation of Israel could prove stronger than the many huge and mighty nations surrounding them, if only Israel would trust in the Lord as David did.  Goliath, for the first Israelite readers, was an image of the towering foreign enemy, and David was an image of Israel.
            When we Christians read the story, we find a different and deeper meaning.  The Church is not a nation; it is transnational—and eschatological.  That is, it does not belong to this age with its tribalisms and nations and boundaries.  It belongs to the Kingdom of God and the age to come.  Accordingly we have no national enemies as Christians.  As St. Paul said, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, not against people, but against the demons, the spiritual armies of wickedness in the heavenlies (Ephesians 6:12).  For us, Goliath is not a foreign foe; he is an image of Satan and sin and death.  And David in this narrative is not an image of Israel, but of Jesus, the Messianic Son of David.  Christ slew Satan and sin and death with one blow—one single death on the cross.  After the defeat of our spiritual foe, victory was assured for the People of God.
            And what about those five smooth stones?  Why does the sacred text specify that “David chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s bag” (1 Samuel 17:40)?  After all, he only needed and only used one stone.  Reading the text with Hebrew eyes gives us no clue; it seems like a meaningless detail.  But Christian eyes can see why that detail is mentioned.  Look at an icon of Christ on the Cross.  Count the wounds.  How many are there?  They pierced His hands and His feet, and a soldier pieced His side with a spear:  five wounds.  Five small wounds, like five smooth stones.  Christ slew our foe with a single death on the Cross, but that single death contained five wounds.  Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures somewhat differently than do their Jewish friends.  And in those Scriptures, we find the saving victory of Christ our God.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cake and Compassion in Arizona

          Not so long ago, voices were raised and lawyers were sharpening their swords in America’s latest battle in the ongoing culture war.  The owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado was threatened with a fine and up to a year’s incarceration for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding.   In New Mexico, a photographer was similarly threatened for refusing to photograph a gay wedding.  In Arizona, a bill was put forward which aimed at protecting the rights of those who wanted to opt out of participating in such weddings if such participation would violate their conscience.  The governor of Arizona vetoed the bill.  Owners of businesses now have no legal right to decline to provide their services for gay weddings, however abhorrent the weddings may be to their consciences.   
            As a foreigner who sits quite happily north of the forty-ninth parallel and who participates in fewer discussions about “rights” than do my neighbours to the south, I am aware that many nuances in this culture war escape me, especially the legal ones.  I have never been sure that “rights” has been the most helpful prism through which to view such disagreements.  But even apart from the quintessentially American discussion of the rights of religious persons vs. the rights of gay persons, it seems to me as if much of the present discussion misses the mark.  Instead secular people are giving in to the now perennial temptation to self-righteousness and to use this issue as yet another welcome stick with which to beat the Christians.  They always thought that the Christians were an intolerant, uncompassionate, judgmental, and bigoted bunch, and here is another proof of it.  Such self-righteousness often seems to overcome thoughtful analysis. 
            One writer, for example, suggests that the Christians attempting to refuse their services at gay weddings do so because they think that homosexuality is sinful, and asks rhetorically if these same Christians will be consistent and also refuse service to people who curse, or commit adultery, since these things also are sinful.  The rhetoric makes great reading, but is not helpful, since it compares things not truly comparable.  No one openly promotes cursing, nor is society taking increasingly draconian measures to justify and normalize adultery.  That is, a predilection to cursing or adultery does not constitute an ideology in the way that gay marriage does.  More to the point, a store owner cannot tell if someone who walks into his store is given to cursing, or promotes adultery as morally on par with fidelity.  If the potential customer is given to cursing or promotes adultery, their sin is not immediately apparent to the store owner, and moreover it has little to do with the service he is trying to buy.  But when a gay couple asks for a catered cake or a photo shoot at their gay wedding, their sin (for so the Christian store owner regards it) is immediately apparent.  And let us be clear:  the point is not just that homosexual marriage is sinful; it is that by providing the service the store owner is forcibly involved in promoting an ideology he regards as morally abhorrent.  The store owner’s concern with his own moral purity is not the issue, nor is the necessity of extending compassion to gays.  At issue is the possibility of conscientious objection, and whether or not society’s determination to normalize a certain lifestyle should trump the individual consciences of a minority.  The whole issue of gay marriage is not just one of sinful acts (as in the cases of those who curse or commit adultery), but of ideology, and the attempt to offer a rival view of sin and human nature. 
            Some try to blunt this imposition of tyranny by pointing out that everyone is involved in moral impurity and rival ideologies in some way simply by living in society.  Thus, according to this reasoning, whenever we buy a product whose makers fund a television show with whose message we disagree, we are giving our money to support that message, and since we cannot avoid this by removing ourselves from society, we should cease trying to impose our standards of purity on others.  Thus, it is argued, the sinner cannot be separated from the sin, and Christians should stop being concerned with maintaining their purity, and become more concerned with simply being compassionate.
            Like I said, all this makes great reading, since everyone wants to be thought compassionate, and no one wants to be stigmatized as a judgmental jerk whose only concern is with personal purity.  But perhaps it would be helpful to our moral analysis of the situation if we stepped back from society’s heated preoccupation with gay rights and imagine other scenarios instead.  Then it might become more apparent that the dichotomy between purity and compassion is a false dichotomy.  We need not choose between purity and compassion; the Scriptures would insist upon both.
            Suppose, just for example, a customer walked into a bakery and asked that the Afro-american store owner cater a meeting of his white supremacist group.  Assuming that the Afro-american baker found this event morally abhorrent, may he legally refuse his services?  Or suppose a group of neo-Nazis walked into a Jewish photographer’s studio and asked the photographer to cover their upcoming neo-Nazi rally—something in the spirit of, say, Leni Riefenstahl?  Assuming that the Jewish photographer found the event morally abhorrent, could he justifiably refuse his services?  Note that this is not on par with refusing service to someone who happens to be privately sinful, someone for example who secretly loves to curse or sees nothing wrong with adultery.  The morally abhorrent element is present in the event itself for which the service is sought, not in the secret heart of the buyer.  For the baker or the photographer to participate would be to give inner assent to the morality of the event and its ideology.  Their refusal to participate would not be motivated solely by their desire to keep themselves pure, nor would it necessarily indicate a lack of compassion for individual white supremacists or neo-Nazis.  Compassion is not the issue; conscientious objection to the ideology is.     
 Please note that I am not hereby equating homosexual marriage with either white supremacism or neo-Nazism.  The point of the comparison is that the Christians wanting to decline participation in gay weddings find the event every bit as morally abhorrent as Afro-americans find white supremacism and Jews (or anyone else, come to that) find neo-Nazism.  Like it or not, homosexuality is not a private proclivity like other sins; it is a powerful movement, and one that now demands the surrender of Christian conscience. 
            Some would suggest that the culture wars are over, and that such refusal of service at gay weddings is a form of kamikaze self-destruction, so that Christians refusing such service run the risk of losing all credibility.  I agree that the culture war is over, and that (north of the forty-ninth parallel anyway) we Christians have lost.  But that is no reason to sell out our conscience.  In the early centuries of the Church, we lost the culture war between idolatry and monotheistic purity, for idolatry was everywhere culturally ascendant and the Christians lost credibility for continuing to insist that idolatry was wrong.  Indeed, we lost credibility so much so that we suffered persecution and death for that insistence.  But our insistence on hating the idolatrous sin while we loved the idolatrous sinner did not result in our going into oblivion, as some think our present insistence will.  Rather it resulted in our saving our souls, and eventually, in the providence of God, of saving the Roman empire.  The World will of course remain the World, and with the Flesh and the Devil continue to war against us.  The crucial question is:  will we Christians become like salt which has lost its savour, or will we continue to live differently than does the World?


Friday, March 7, 2014

The Tomb of Lazarus

It is easy to find the Tomb of Lazarus depressing.  For one thing, it lies behind a formidable thirty foot high barrier, separating Palestinian Bethany from Israeli Jerusalem.  Until recently, Bethany was an easy one and a half mile direct walk from Jerusalem, so that after our Lord left Bethany to enter Jerusalem in triumph and cleanse the Temple, He returned to spend the night there (Mk. 11:1-11).  Ever since then, pilgrims have retraced His triumphant steps from Bethany to Jerusalem.  But no longer:  since the erection of the barrier, pilgrims must now drive the much longer way around to enter Bethany, and the venerable route followed for centuries is now cut off.  This isolation of Bethany behind the barrier impacts directly upon its welfare, and fewer and fewer now come to venerate the tomb of Lazarus.  Bethany seems to be living up to its name, which means (according to St. Jerome) “house of affliction”.
            There is another reason why sensitive souls might find the tomb of Lazarus depressing—it is in a depressed state.  Formerly the tomb was splendidly adorned by a Christian church.  In the pilgrim Egeria’s day in the fourth century, the tomb part of a large basilica structure and was the center of excited pilgrimage.  In a record of her visit there, she writes, “[On Lazarus Saturday] the archdeacon makes this announcement: ‘At one o’clock today let us all be ready at the Lazarium.’  Just on one o’clock everyone arrives at the Lazarium, which is Bethany, about two miles away from the city.  About half a mile before you get to the Lazarium from Jerusalem there is a church by the road. It is the spot where Lazarus’ sister Mary met the Lord.  All the monks meet the bishop when he arrives there and the people go into the church they have one hymn and an antiphon and a reading from the Gospel then after a prayer, everyone is blessed and they go on with singing to the Lazarium.  By the time they arrive there so many people have collected that they fill not only the Lazarium itself but all the field around.”  The Lazarium visited by Egeria is no more.  The building is now in Muslim hands, and not surprisingly they take no pains to beautify a Christian site.  One comes upon a small orange sign announcing in Hebrew, Arabic, and English “LAZARUS TOMB”, and asks oneself, “Is this it?  This is the historic Lazarium?”  Yep, this is it.
            One reaches the tomb itself by climbing down a steep set of steps, facing backwards as if descending a ladder.  One wonders how the Christians of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia make their annual procession there on Lazarus Saturday, since the climb cannot be done with any kind of liturgical grace, especially in a cassock.  At the bottom of the steps, one finds an ante-chamber and must again crawl through a kind of manhole in the floor to reach the actual burial place of Lazarus.  Some have suggested that originally both the tomb and its ante-chamber were on the same level, but that with the passage of years limestone from the ceiling fell down and thus raised the level of the ante-chamber.  My diaconal companion and I made the long climb down and at the bottom found absolutely nothing of note.  We sang the tropar for Lazarus Saturday “By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your Passion You confirmed the universal resurrection, O Christ God” in a kind of devotional defiance, trying to adorn with mere words a place tragically lacking any other fitting adornment.
            Perhaps there is a lesson for us even in the depressing state of the former Lazarium.  

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014


The worst thing, I thought, was the traffic.  That and a sign we passed in our taxi announcing “Nazareth Baptist Church”, for these things loudly proclaimed that we were in a modern city, which like any modern city of my acquaintance had traffic jams and Baptist churches.   
           Intellectually, of course, I knew this.  The modern city of Nazareth itself had a population in 2009 of over 50,000, with greater Nazareth boasting a population of 210,000, so the traffic jams really came as no surprise.  But whatever my head told me, my heart had come to find the Nazareth of the Bible, and in that rustic village, there were no traffic jams and no Baptist churches.                                                                                                       
            Indeed, the Nazareth of the Bible didn’t have much of anything.  Its population in the time of Christ was about 500, and it was so small and insignificant that it was not even mentioned in the Old Testament.  Even in Christ’s day, Nazareth’s neighbours didn’t seem to think much of the town.  When Nathanael from nearby Cana heard that the Messiah had been found in Nazareth, he could scarcely believe it.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he scoffed (Jn. 1:46). 
            So, what’s the story with Matthew’s citation of the Messianic prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Mt. 2:23)?  Bible expositors have long puzzled about this, since they could find no such verse in their Bibles.  Did Matthew maybe mean that Messiah was to be not a Nazarene, but a Nazirite, not a citizen of the town of Nazareth but someone pledged to holy continence such as mentioned in Numbers 6?  Even this is pushing it a bit, since nothing in the Old Testament which mentions the laws for a Nazirite vow are the least bit Messianic.  It seems that Matthew was reading his Bible in a typically Jewish way, and looking at the Hebrew text itself for deeper significance.  In Isaiah 11:1, the prophet refers to the Messiah as coming forth in humility from the ruined House of David, like a little twig growing out of a felled stump:  “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  The word here translated “branch” is the Hebrew nezer, with the same consonants as the Hebrew word “Nazareth”.  Matthew was making a verbal connection (a pun, if you will), linking the insignificance of the town to the fact that its name sounded like the word for a tiny little twig in Isaiah’s prophecy.  The image of the future Messiah coming as a little branch or twig is found in other Old Testament prophecies too, such as Jer. 23:5 and Zech. 3:8 (though there the Hebrew word for “branch” is semach), and this would explain why Matthew refers to “prophecies” about Nazareth (in the plural).  So, even in Matthew’s citation of the Old Testament, we find an emphasis on the insignificance of Jesus’ hometown. 
            As wonderful as I’m sure Nazareth Baptist Church is, I took the taxi to town to find only two sites:  the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation and the Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel.  Both were well worth the time squeezing through traffic. 
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