I know Lent is supposed to be a time for self-examination and all, to look at ourselves and see if we might take our baptismal covenant a bit more seriously, but seriously, these are the readings that supposed to help us do that? As our second reader Meghan wrote when I sent her the second reading from Paul, “Yoikes!”
Yoikes indeed… We could boil down a paragraph from Paul today to something like: sexual immorality = death; unfaithfulness to Christ = death; complaining = death.
And it’s not just Paul: In probably the goriest passage in Luke’s gospel after the crucifixion, Jesus is commenting on a tragic accident —a tower falling down and killing 18 people— along with a grotesque act of imperial abuse— Pontius Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans he executed with his Roman sacrifices. I wanted to tell the kids to cover their ears while Sue was reading.
Jesus is at pains to point out that the victims of those events hadn’t been more sinful than anyone else, so they didn’t deserve it—but then goes on to say unless his hearers repent, things will be even worse for them! I’m not sure that lovely parable about the fig tree can save it. How’s that for Lenten encouragement?
Even the first reading, with its amazing vision of God in a bush that burns but doesn’t burn up, its revelation of the divine name, and its promise of freedom to an oppressed people, has within it a problem: The land that I AM is going to give to the Chosen People already belongs to someone else, with consequences that extend all the way to the present day in the land where Jesus walked—and not just there, but in many places where Christians have landed and decided that God had promised the land to them, no matter who was already there.
And there’s the rub: These difficult passages aren’t just hard by themselves. They echo still today in the way they are used and interpreted. The HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s may have faded from our popular imaginations (though that crisis continues) but those of us who remember it probably remember the ways in which a passage such as the one we heard from Paul today was used to explain why so many gay men had a fatal illness. It was a divine punishment for sexual immorality. That was an interpretation with catastrophic consequences for the faith of many of those gay men and those who cared for them and journeyed with them all the way to death.
And that line about complaining has been used against poor people for a long time—something like they should stop complaining and work harder. When I was a Roman Catholic seminarian in college, I remember my faithful evangelical neighbor explaining to me that in his experience most people who were poor were poor because they made poor choices. I remember first thinking that it was probably a little more complicated than that. Then I thought if I was poor and needed help, I sure wouldn’t want to run into him, but it also struck me that this faithful Bible-focused Christian had evidently missed all those parts in the Bible where blame for poverty falls not on the poor, but on the rich, both for their dereliction of duty in relation to those in need and because their selfishness and injustice are borne by widows and orphans.
These unhelpful approaches to unhelpful passages in the Bible all seem to boil down to something like: People somehow deserve the suffering they are experiencing. In various forms it’s used to make sense of addiction and illness and poverty and war and so on, usually to the detriment of persons actually experiencing them. Maybe sometimes we even turn that interpretation on ourselves: I am suffering because I deserve it, and God is punishing me.
Paul tries to save this a bit by suggesting that God may be using these experiences to test us and help us grow, and won’t give us anything too hard for us to bear. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m terribly interested in being in a relationship with, much less worshiping, a God like that. Life is hard enough without God making it into an object lesson. That’s not the God I experience and know.
What’s that God like? I think a dear friend of mine summed it up best. After years of struggling with what he saw as a mistake in his past and wondering whether God was punishing him or trying to teach him a lesson, he was driving to work one day and had his Eureka moment: God isn’t punishing me, he realized, because God doesn’t punish anybody. And almost immediately it followed: And I shouldn’t punish anybody either. He told me it was like God had unplugged one idea, and plugged in another, and that he almost wrecked his car when he realized what God had done. When he told me that story, I wanted to take off my shoes, because I knew I was standing on holy ground.
Will you seek and serve Christ in every person, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being? Those two questions from our baptismal covenant are a mouthful, and there are countless ways to live them out. But I wonder if, in light of the these readings, we might start to renew our commitment to them by first repenting of those scriptures and their interpretations that get in the way of loving our neighbor or ourselves, or produce the very opposite of justice and peace because they do not lead to respect for the dignity of every human being.
It seems to me that living out the demands of our baptismal covenant may start with remembering the God who called out to Moses: the God who appeared as an oxymoronic bush that burned but did not burn up, the God whose name is the refusal of name, more like an invitation than an identity. This is a God beyond any human certainty or knowledge, a God who invites silence and wonder before any speech.
And if we want to be a part of this God’s mission of freeing people and honoring human dignity, and partnering in God’s work of justice and peace, that likely begins with remembering that every person we encounter is an image of that ungraspable God, with that same holy fire burning within them.
When we stand facing one another, we stand where Moses stood. “Remove the sandals from your feet,” I AM warns us, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”