Category Archives: NT

The High Holy Days Approach

Last year around the same time that our annual consumer frenzy was reaching a fever pitch I was wrapping up a series inspired by fellow Truett grad, preacher extraordinaire and soon-to-be published author, Kyndall Rae Rothaus, about the nature of our purchases and how they function in the consumer religion (Holy Purchases). I’ve just gone back and re-read these posts and am again struck by how enmeshed we are (I am) in this religious-economic system.

consumerism_project_by_immense

I would love to say that because I have diagnosed these things to an extent, I am somehow immune or above, but that’s always the biggest lie. That is the danger of any purity code whether it’s Leviticus or Fair Trade. You believe somehow that you are able to live up to its perfection by following the letter of that law. Jesus clearly points out that the spirit of the law is more important than the literal interpretation and strict adherence when he repeatedly breaks the ritualistic practices of sabbath-keeping. Purity codes can twist us into valuing holiness for its own sake and devaluing life and creation. We keep ourselves apart and separate so we can believe that we are different.

Maybe this is why Paul writes in Phillipians 2:3 that we are to “regard others as better than yourselves.” It’s not about demeaning ourselves, but rather humbly exalting others and placing ourselves within the greater context of all creation. We are created and loved, but not as special and unique as we would like to think. We are no better or worse than others no matter what we buy or don’t buy. By all means live faithfully and follow your convictions, but don’t believe for a second that this gives you any special status with God or anyone else for that matter. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t.

Hope everyone has a happy and blessed holiday this week. Let’s remember our native brothers and sisters this week. They have given and continue to give gifts to us, if we are open to receive them. Sometimes it looks like repentance and confession, but those are also gifts to be thankful for. 

image via http://www.alexclermontwrites.com/2009/09/14/lifeinc/

Jubilee is Salvation (Leviticus 25:9-10)

The second thing I noticed (Read What Shall We Eat? for the first) in re-reading Leviticus 25 is that the Jubilee is explicitly connected to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This is the pinnacle of the sacrificial system to which Jesus’ death and resurrection has often been compared. While I don’t think that the sacrificial system is the only lens through which Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was or should be understood, it certainly is an important one both in Scripture and in the Christian tradition. So, what does it mean then that the Jubilee is supposed to be initiated by a shofar blast on the Day of Atonement?

If you just google Yom Kippur and Jubilee you will quickly find a lot of nonsense about the rapture happening on Yom Kippur in the year of Jubilee. That is not what this post is about. This is about the connection between the social practices found in the Jubilary code and its association with the cultic religious ritual of Yom Kippur. I would like to explore a series of questions concerning this connection: What is the role of the shofar and its connections to both religious and social contexts? What is the religious significance of Yom Kippur? Why is it connected to the Jubilee (or conversely why do we disconnect them)? Finally, what does this connection tell us about the nature of salvation in terms of Jubilee?

When was the shofar used?
The shofar was used in different contexts, but primarily announced full religious holidays. This was also the case with the Jubilee which was connected to the religious festivals that marked the Jewish calendar.

The sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah announced the jubilee year, and the sound of the shofar on Yom Kippur proclaimed the actual release of financial encumbrances. (from Wikipedia)

It is interesting to note that the shofar was also used as a call to arms when Israel went to war. The most famous instance of this use of the shofar is certainly from the book of Joshua when the blast of the shofar horn brought down the walls of the city of Jericho. M. Douglas Meeks describes the significance of that event in his book God The Economist.

The blowing of the Jubilee horn (shofar) in the story of Joshua is the symbol of what brings down the rotten economy of Jericho. (89)

The theology of war in the Hebrew Bible was that the battle always belonged to YHWH. Often battles were won through some sort of trickery which sometimes avoided bloodshed and often avoided the Israelites committing violence (e.g. Gideon in Judges 7). When Israel ignored YHWH and tried to fight their own battles their efforts were typically thwarted. This is not to excuse the violence in the Hebrew Bible that is clear and difficult to understand, particularly when commanded by God.

My point is that there is a theological thread throughout the Hebrew Bible that says YHWH will fight the battles for Israel. In this context the blast of the shofar that brought down the walls of Jericho could certainly be interpreted as proclaiming liberation from economic domination and oppression and the institution of a new economy. It is also important, as we will see shortly, that there was not the clear distinction between sacred and secular that we try to draw today. Thus, the shofar as a sacred instrument proclaimed Jubilee both in the temple and on the battlefield.

What does Yom Kippur mean?
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the culmination of the Jewish year. In the Hebrew Bible this was the ritual when the High Priest placed his hands symbolically on the head of a goat designating it “Azazel”. This transferred the sins of the people to the goat which was then driven out into the wilderness. This is where the term “scapegoat” comes from. Through this ritual the entire community was purified, their sins atoned for. In other words, this was a chance for the community to start from scratch in their relationship to YHWH. It was also an opportunity for repentance as the community recognized their sins and brokenness. There was now new possibility for living a new way.

What has the Jubilee to do with Yom Kippur?
According to Jubilee USA the practical connection between the Jewish calendar and the year of Jubilee worked like this:

From Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year, slaves would not return home but would not work either. The fields would not return to their hereditary owners, but the owners would eat, drink and rejoice with their crowns upon their heads. Then, when Yom Kippur arrived, the slaves would return home and the fields would revert to their hereditary owners.

So, there is very explicit connection between the practice of Jubilee (theoretically at least) and the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. The Jubilee is announced at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but this is only the beginning. It’s also interesting to point out that the Jewish new year begins in Autumn at the end of the harvest. The new year begins when the possibilities of the earth have been exhausted for that year and we turn to look toward the possibilities of next season. In light of the previous post which talked about the divinely abundant harvest promised prior to the Jubilee, this moment of turning from an incredible provision beyond expectations to the year of liberation ahead is heightened that much more.

The culmination of the Jubilary practices coincides with the culmination of the religious calendar on Yom Kippur when the Jubilee is proclaimed in its fullness and fulfilled completely. Jubilee is a process. It does not occur all at once. It is first declared and the enacted. This is the way many understand the nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. This new order or economy is first proclaimed and embodied by Jesus, but we are now in the process of enacting the fullness of that declaration with the promise that it will someday be complete.

What has the Jubilee to do with Atonement?
So, the very practical social ethic of the Jubilee has been intimately linked to the religious calendar of the Jewish people. This is to be expected from a worldview that did not distinguish the sacred from the secular. The practice of the Jubilee is the enacting of the divine economy within the community and is therefore inextricably linked to Israel’s relationship to YHWH maintained through the temple practices and rituals including Yom Kippur.

The Jubilee, or “Year of the Lord’s favor”, is picked up by Isaiah (61:1-3) and later Jesus (Lk 4:19) and made central to the identity of God’s people in both testaments. Further, Jesus’ work on the cross has been understood in relationship to the sacrificial system in Israel. He is called the “Lamb of God” by John the Baptist (Jn 1:29) and later in another John’s vision in Revelation (Rev 5:6-8; 7:10). So, Jesus identifies his mission with the Jubilee and the Jubilee is intertwined with the sacrificial system by which we have tried to understand the cross. Therefore whatever we want to say about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it must include this understanding that the proclamation of new beginnings on Yom Kippur is also the declaration of the radical new economy of the Jubilee. Salvation is Jubilee and vice versa.

The Shallow Pond Dilemma

It seems appropriate in this time of gluttony and the consumer frenzy of consumerism known as Black Friday, to talk about the ethical dilemmas of the financial choices we make.

A long time ago, I listened to Episode #100 of the Diet Soap podcast and it sparked a lot of thoughts and conversations, mostly with myself, about the nature of charity and justice and how to get from one to the other. More recently at Hope Fellowship we’ve been reaffirming our membership and commitment to the values of our little ekklesia . The last couple weeks has been teaching and discussing the value of tithing and sharing. While we can always do better, I really appreciate that we attempt to tackle one of the most touchy subjects with a little more depth, transparency and thought…how we deal with our finances. So, I thought I’d tackle some thoughts from the podcast and current conversation on the difference between charity and justice and why we should all be Mother Theresa.

The Shallow Pond Gets Deeper
In the podcast the host, Doug Lain, shares an analogy from the ethicist Peter Singer. He imagines that you are standing at a shallow pond where you see a child that has fallen in and is going to drown. The pond is shallow. So, you have no risk of injury yourself, but you have on an expensive pair of fancy shoes that you don’t want to get all muddy. In this situation it seems ridiculous to choose to preserve the muddy pair of shoes instead of the child’s life. But Singer argues that this is what we do all the time through the consumer choices we make. So, his conclusion goes something like, “You should give the money you would spend on fancy shoes to Oxfam or Unicef to take care of a starving child.”

So, Singer has highlighted the ethical dilemma involved in how we deal with our finances in light of inequality in the world. However, there are some problems with Singer’s analogy. The limit of what Singer can imagine people doing is giving lots of money to charity. Charity is the ultimate act of an utilitarian ethic. So, within the confines of an unjust social structure the best we can do is charity. Justice requires something more radical. The guest, Ben Burgis, argues that Singer’s own analogy undermines his ethic of charity,

If you go with Singer’s argument then and embrace his conclusion, then, not only should we give to charity, but even living a comfortable First World lifestyle is morally unacceptable.

Singer’s analogy presents an individual ethical dilemma where you are face to face with a choice, but when you are shopping you’re part of a mass. We don’t really make consumer choices on a purely individual basis. Within our capitalist framework we insist on the individual ethic, but there are spaces where we don’t act as individual agents, but as a collective. The forces of the economy and consumerism that create and reinforce injustice and inequality are not face to face with us when we make purchases in the supermarket or a store. As Doug Lain points out,

If you want to have a more ethical system you can’t stay within the context of that system…To ask people to invest in Oxfam instead is to ask them to do something counter to the ethics of the culture they’re in.

The Counter-Cultural Ethics of God’s Economy
This is partially the purpose of how the church is supposed to function. It intends to be an alternative to the way the world organizes itself. The hope and purpose is to embody the ethic of the reign of God that we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the ways is by committing to share our resources with this particular community. This takes different forms. One is the tithe, where ten percent of goes to the common treasury of the church. Far from absolving us, this practice is meant to invite us further in to how this is used in the life of the church and its mission in the world. But in many ways the tithe is really the lowest common denominator form of economic participation in the life of the people of God.

In a section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus challenges us to engage systems of domination with creative nonviolence, he offers this final, perhaps most radical, word, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt 5:42). This verse challenges our most precious possession, control. When faced with how to best use our resources, this verse challenges our addiction to those resources and the power and privilege of deciding how they are used. Elsewhere, Jesus tells the rich young man that following him requires divesting himself of all his possessions and give to the poor, enacting Jubilee in his own life (Mt 19:16-22; Lk 18:18-30). There is a radical principle here summed up in the Psalms and the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 that God is the only absolute owner. Followers of Jesus are called to hold their possessions loosely as things to be used for God’s purposes and not their own accumulation or comfort.

The next post will attempt to think about ways that we can live out these ideas in our daily lives.

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)

Holy Bread Batman! (Leviticus 24:5-9)

Leviticus 24: 5-6, 8-9 You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD… Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due.

Baking God’s Bread
Bread is one of the most common foods around the world. Almost every culture has some form of it whether it’s tortillas in Mexico, naan in India, pita in Greece or any number of variations across cultures. So, it seems both unusual and obvious that this staple is a part of sacred rituals. The unleavened bread prepared in the Exodus for a hasty departure is enshrined in the rituals of Passover. Later Jesus takes this Passover bread along with wine, another ordinary staple of the time, and institutes a new ritual to remember his life and coming death. These ordinary things are consecrated and made holy in their rituals.

The passage under consideration from Leviticus 24 concerns how to prepare and arrange the consecrated bread “as a memorial portion as a food offering” and for the priests to eat. There is nothing very interesting about the passage that I can see, except that something so ordinary as bread is made into something holy. In my post What’s for Dinner? on Leviticus 11 and the dietary laws I considered the distinction drawn in that chapter between what is holy and what is common. In that post I asked, “So, what separates the holy from the common? What turns bread and wine from a simple meal into a holy ritual? How does this union of the holy and the common teach us to live?” Perhaps we can find some answers in an incident involving this holy bread.

One Order of Holy Bread… Comin’ Up!
In 1 Sam 21 David is fleeing the wrath of King Saul and comes to the priest Ahimelech in Nob. David lies to Ahimelech about being on a secret mission from the king and asks him for “five loaves of bread, or whatever is here” (1 Sam 21: 3). Ahimelech responds, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” (1 Sam 21:4) Notice the distinction of holy and common once again. David promises the men are pure enough to receive the holy bread. The bread is handed over without reservation. It doesn’t seem that David is crossing some sort of religious or ethical boundary by taking the bread, nor the priest by giving it. Perhaps the urgency of a secret mission under the authority of the king made it a situation in which this use of the bread was more acceptable. The text, however, does not indicate that there is any problem with the bread being used for such purposes. The text explains, “So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.” The rationale is simply that there was no other bread available.

This episode is picked up by Jesus when his disciples are rebuked by some Pharisees for plucking heads of grain and eating them on the Sabbath (the same day that the bread described in Levticus 24 and 1 Sam 21 was made). This incident occurs in all of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5) and has very little variation between the Gospels. The Pharisees ask, “why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mt 12:24) To which Jesus responds,

Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him? (Mt 12:25-26)

Leviticus does make it clear that the bread was “a perpetual due” (Lev 24:9) for the priests, but does not forbid its consumption by others in this passage. Certainly that tradition came from the ritual purpose of the bread and its intended consumption by the priests who depended on the sacrificial system for their food. Matthew’s Jesus responds by saying “something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Mt 12:6-7) This recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah concerning the emptiness of sacrifices in the presence of injustice (Isaiah 1:11-17). It raises the question concerning the purpose of sacrifices and things consecrated such as the bread.

I Am The Living Bread
Jesus calls into question the assumptions that had developed over the years in terms of his own mission and vocation. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28). The first part of this statement reorients the Sabbath tradition and practices around their intended purpose. It is not an arbitrary rule which people must follow in order to fulfill some religious law and achieve purity or holiness. No, the Sabbath is permeated by an acknowledgment of right relationships throughout creation. I have previously written about connecting the Sabbath day to the practices of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee as a nexus of practices that are interwoven and interrelated. I have also pointed out previously that the Sabbath is first a practice of remembering and retelling the creation story including and perhaps most importantly our place as human beings and creatures within that creation.

The statement that Jesus is “lord of the Sabbath” is the concluding statement in all of the Synoptic Gospels. In light of our broader understanding of the nature of Sabbath practices this statement is far more than an assertion of religious authority. It gather together the Sabbath practices and asserts that right-relatedness to God, other people and the earth finds its ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus. It is this principle of right-relatedness that governs religious practices such as the Sabbath. On the surface this conflict with the Pharisees and Jesus over his disciples’ breaking of Sabbath observance concerns primarily what is or is not allowed during the weekly observance of the Sabbath day. However, Jesus’ response to the confrontation clearly places it within a larger context and places himself at the center of mediating the right-relatedness at the heart of the Sabbath observance.

Returning then to our initial question concerning what makes something holy, we find that Jesus has, as usual, subverted our questions by shifting the focus. The point is not what is holy or common, clean or unclean. The proper perspective concerns our relationship to our fellow humans and our individual and collective relationship to the earth. The fact that sacred rituals make common elements and objects into holy things teaches us that they are not magic talismans. They remain ordinary staples that can be consumed in a moment of need. The Sabbath can be broken based on its own inherent principle of right-relatedness. This teaches us the principle that our relationships to our neighbor and the biosphere take priority over religious rituals, even when, and especially if, the rituals intended to serve that purpose fail to do so.