Monday, June 25, 2012

The Bible, Jesus, and Same-Sex Marriage

Let’s be honest. Most of the sexual mores in the Bible are skewed because they reflect the customs and practices of a pre-scientific age and a pervasively dominant patriarchal culture.

Consider these examples:

-- Menstrual blood was deemed “unclean” and sexual intercourse during this period was strictly forbidden (Lev. 18:19; 15:19–24).
-- A woman left her father’s dominion to enter the dominion of the head of the family into which she was marrying. In the event of the husband’s death, the woman stayed in the new family, either as the mother of the children, or being passed to another son through the institution of levirate marriage (Gen. 38:7–11; Deut 25:5–10).
-- Polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced in the Old Testament. These practices are mentioned numerous times without condemnation.
-- A woman was expected to be a virgin when she married, while male virginity is never even mentioned. A man could accuse his bride of not being a virgin and the woman would then be subjected to a test. If the test proved false, the man was subjected to a fine and would never be permitted to divorce his bride. If the test proved true, then the woman was to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13–21).
-- A man could divorce his wife quite easily, but a woman had no legal right of divorce, since she was basically the possession of the man, the head of the family (Deut 24:1–4).

Given the assumptions, biases, customs, laws, and practices of a pre-scientific, patriarchal culture, it should come as no surprise that the few times homosexual behavior is mentioned in the Bible it comes under condemnation.

When Paul condemned homosexual behavior in Romans 1:26–27, he would have assumed that these were heterosexuals acting contrary to nature. Paul would have had no concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation. The idea of sexual orientation as a disposition determined genetically or very early in life would have been foreign to Paul and his world. We now know that human sexual orientation is complex, involving genetic makeup and physiological conditions over which one has no control. The possibility of a committed, faithful same-sex union would never have occurred to him.

The Bible cannot possibly supply us with specific answers to questions of sexuality and marriage faced in the modern world and church. To look to the Bible for such answers and proclaim them as God’s will for today is both silly and foolish. To do so is to use the Bible as an instrument of oppression and death.

On the other hand, the Bible gives us the Gospels, and the Gospels portray the theological meaning and significance of the Christ Event, as the early disciples understood it. Jesus is presented as “the authority” for those who would live a Christian life. For Christians, Jesus is Lord and the life of faith is a life of discipleship to the living Christ.

The historical Jesus, of course, would have shared some of the cultural presuppositions of his day and age, but interestingly, there is not a word about homosexuality in the Gospels. Jesus condemns “lust” in Matthew 5:27–28, not as sexual desire per se, but as an exploitive desire to use the other sexually for one’s own gratification.

Jesus opposed divorce and this is subject to different interpretations. The most likely basis for such teaching was Jesus’ desire to provide some equality to the playing field (see Mark 10:1–12). In that culture men could legally divorce their wives for any reason whatsoever; whereas women did not have a legal option. Jesus wanted to give women some leverage by eliminating the male option of divorce.   

What we know for sure is that Jesus embodied and taught an ethic of love and compassion, and considered this ethic to be the heart and core of conformity to the will of God (Matt 22:34–40). We know that Jesus was a boundary breaker. He disregarded and violated Israel’s purity laws, challenged the status quo and the reigning traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures and oral law that he considered oppressive, and overturned barriers that excluded, marginalized, and condemned various persons and groups.

The trajectory of the Divine Will incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth culminates for Christians in the living Christ, who is the archetype for all our relations and interactions with others.

I have no doubt that the living Christ is prodding, leading, and calling us—the body of Christ in the world—to welcome, accept, and approve of same-sex marriages where partners vow mutual fidelity, honesty, responsibility, love, and care for one another.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Joel Osteen and the Scandalous Gospel of Jesus

Joel Osteen has been deemed by many as America’s Pastor. He is the pastor of the largest church in America and his books have sold in the millions. I recently scanned Joel Osteen’s book, Your Best Life Now in search of any serious reflection or teaching on the life, teaching, and death of Jesus and Jesus’ call to discipleship presented in the Gospels. It’s not there.  

That’s not to say that Osteen doesn’t have some good things to say. He talks about developing a healthy self-image, cultivating a positive outlook, and claiming one’s worth and value as a child of God—all very good things. But his emphasis on personal success seems to fly in the face of the gospel of Jesus in the Gospels.

He writes, “If you will keep the right attitude, God will take all your disappointments, broken dreams, the hurts and pains, and He’ll add up all the trouble and sorrow that’s been inflicted upon you, and He will pay you back with twice as much peace, joy, happiness, and success . . . If you just believe, if you’ll put your trust and confidence in God, He will give you double for your trouble.” Really, brother Joel, double for my trouble? Is that what Jesus says?

In the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that because he was persecuted they can expect to be persecuted too, since the servant is not greater than the master (John 15:20). Jesus turns the values of the world on their head when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:11). Jesus rebukes his disciples for desiring upward mobility and worldly versions of success: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant . . . For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:42–44). Jesus tells his disciples, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage: I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33). Jesus overcomes the world, not through worldly success, but through worldly defeat, through the suffering love endured on the cross, through bearing the hate and violence of the world without returning the hate and violence.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:24-26). How do these words fit a gospel of success?

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not knocking anyone’s desire to be successful in work, career, education, or in any other endeavor one undertakes. As far as I am concerned, the desire to be successful within the boundaries of an honest, humble, caring, compassionate, and generous life is a noble aspiration. But let’s be clear: It is not the gospel of Jesus.

Osteen says, “Think big. Think increase. Think abundance. Think more than enough.” After he makes that statement he tells the following story. Years ago, a famous golfer was invited by the king of Saudi Arabia to play in a golf tournament. He accepted the invitation, and the king flew his private jet in to pick him up. After the event, as the golfer was getting on the plane to return to the U.S. the king told him that he would like to give him a gift for making this time so special. The golfer told the king that a gift was not necessary, but the king insisted. So the golfer said, “Well, I collect golf clubs. Why don’t you get me a golf club.”

On his flight back, the golfer wondered what sort of golf club the king might get him. A few weeks later a certified letter came in the mail from the king of Saudi Arabia. The golfer, at first, wondered what this had to do with a golf club. When he opened the envelope, to his great surprise, inside he discovered a deed to a five-hundred acre golf course in America. Pretty nice golf club don’t you think? Osteen writes, “We serve the Most High God, and His dream for your life is so much bigger and better than you can even imagine. It’s time to enlarge your vision!”

Certainly Jesus challenges us to enlarge our vision, but is that Jesus’ vision? A five-hundred acre golf course? Personal success and fulfillment? Is that the greater story and larger vision Jesus intended through his proclamation of the “the kingdom of God”?

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples on three different occasions that he, the Son of Man, is going to be rejected, suffer many things, and be killed. On the first occasion when Jesus breaks the news, he then tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34–35). This call to discipleship comes at a critical juncture in the story and sets the pattern for a life of discipleship to Jesus.

I don’t believe God calls us to be poor; though Luke’s version of the Gospel could be read that that way. Some individuals and communities, like the Franciscans, are called to such a lifestyle. Generally speaking though, I believe God wants all of God’s children all across the world to have enough, not just to survive, but to thrive, to live a flourishing life. That will never happen by following Osteen’s teaching of pursuing your personal best.

Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to pursue the way of the cross. It’s not about gain and glory; it’s not about acquisition and acclamation; it’s not about self-fulfillment and success. It’s about self-denial and taking up one’s cross. That doesn’t mean there is no joy. There’s plenty of joy, real joy, not the kind of joy money and power can buy, not the kind of joy that comes by being successful and happy by American standards. That’s the paradox of the gospel; there is joy and peace and inner contentment in the way of the cross, but it is not found on the path to personal success. It is found on the path of self-surrender, self-sacrifice, and service to others.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Two Foundational Truths

Two constant themes that can be found in the biblical tradition in all its diversity are that God is with us and God is for us. God desires to be in a constructive, healthy, redemptive relationship with human beings. 

God is committed to God’s children, no matter how wayward we are and even before we change. Knowing this truth about God can keep us from despair when we finally have the courage to face our foibles and failures, sins and blunders head on. It can also prepare us for the necessary and inevitable suffering that we are all bound to experience and help guide us through the chaos and confusion of the tragic sense of life. 

In the Gospels, Jesus spoke some hard words, preparing his disciples for suffering, opposition, and judgment. But he meant for these difficult words to be heard in the context of a loving relationship with God and with one’s sisters and brothers. Jesus makes clear that anyone who would be his disciple will undergo challenging circumstances and face hard decisions, but that God would always be with them and for them. Jesus emphasized through words and deeds that the kingdom of God is first and foremost about extending welcome to outsiders, grace to sinners, healing to the sick, peace to the alienated, forgiveness to all, and justice to the poor and downtrodden.

Every time God forgives us, God is saying that the relationship is what is most important. God uses our sins and sufferings to refine our characters and nurture our faith. But regardless of what progress we do or do not make, God never abandons the relationship. God is infinitely patient and welcomes small steps. God’s Spirit keeps wooing, drawing, convicting, and luring us into deeper reflection, intimacy, and love.

This is why forgiveness is so dominant and pervasive in the life and teachings of Jesus. There can be no healing, wholeness, renewal, and redemption without forgiveness. It’s our only way forward.

Whatever life throws at us, we can face it courageously, graciously, and gratefully, if we remember: God is with us and God is for us.