Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Fruits vs Flesh

There is some good advice here, if you can tease it out. The teasing out requires defining words like “Spirit”, “flesh”, “slaves”, and “impurity”. The rest of the Bible is not going to do this for you. It uses these words as if you already know what they mean. It talks about these things, but it’s ultimately up to the individual to understand them.

For “slaves”, I would prefer the word “servant” here. The term “servant manager” is going around as a buzz word these days. It’s what Bob Dylan meant when he said, “everybody’s gotta serve somebody.” This is a continuation of the theme from Luke Chapter 7, two weeks ago, where Jesus shows us that we need to break out of the narrative. If we conquer our masters and then squander our freedom, we are still slaves to the old system.

On the other hand, if you have a team that tries to make their managers look good, and managers that see themselves as servants to their employees, you probably have a department that is accomplishing a lot. Both Jesus and Hillel said “love your neighbor” is the most important commandment, so I won’t attempt to add to that discussion in this brief format. It’s a theme that comes around a lot. If you want to explore more from the Leviticus passage to Paul, here’s a nice commentary from Theology of Work. 

What makes this passage unique is its attempt to sort out the “how” of being a good servant to your fellow humans. When you are in your meetings trying figure out how to spend your tiny budget, don’t waste time biting at one another. That’s a good one to keep in mind, but then it says, “Live by the Spirit”, capital “S”. In a rare Biblical moment, it gives a list to try to explain what to avoid. But like always, it’s ambiguous and unhelpful.

For example, I don’t see why, on occasion, I can’t have some fornication and some drunkenness, responsibly with a committed consenting adult, of course. If by “carousing” it means having multiple partners, I can see merit in saying that’s wrong, but I’m not going to judge others who do that, again responsibly with consenting adults. I realize jealousy is not a healthy emotion to empower, but I am a human and I have feelings, shaming me for being that is not going to fix anything. How about envy? Isn’t it good to want things to be better, to look to someone who has accomplished something and try to figure out what made them a success? The devil is in the details and details are not forth coming in this passage. The only one that’s clear is “sorcery”. I’m not going to waste my time trying to make magic tricks actually work. They are illusions, for entertainment only. That’s probably not what this writer (who was probably Paul) was talking about.

He does a lot better with the “fruits”. We could spend hours discussing what “love” is, but we can at least agree it’s a good thing. One of my favorite short readings on this topic comes from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. His sermon on this is titled, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon On The Mount: Discourse Twelve.” It begins with “Beware of false prophets”. You may not like the religious language from two centuries ago, but push past that, the stuff about “fruits” is near the end.

After having studied that sermon, and from studying people in debates and speaking at political rallies, I noticed the people I trusted showed more from the “fruits” list than the “flesh” list. Showing some anger is fine. There are some nasty things out there that should make you mad. But you need to offer a compassionate response. Sometimes you might also offer a retributive response. Other times compassion should be the only response. All of this is about the show. Underneath whatever you say, if you are confident, if you have studied it and understood the facts and used your own powers of logic to work through the difficulties of the issues, your patience and gentleness will naturally be on display.

There’s one other sentence right in the middle of this passage that is not as important as a modern lesson, but drops a hint about the Biblical narrative. “...if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” The “law” is scattered throughout both testaments and is notoriously contradictory. It’s also ambiguous as I’ve pointed out here. This statement contradicts others that say you are always subject to the law. This could be a statement about the “New Covenant” that Jesus brought, which is another thing that is not well defined. I like to think of it as permission to think for yourself. And I like to think that even 1st century Christians advocated for that.

If you pass the test of being a good person, however that’s defined in your community, you don’t need to worry about rules anymore. Locks on doors aren’t there to keep out good people; they are there to tell good people not to open that door. Bad people will find their way through. Good people will impose the rules on themselves simply by knowing what “good” means. If there was no such thing as good people, security systems would have to be like fortresses and we would all carry weapons. There are of course actual places like this and there have been many of them throughout history.

I should mention Galatians also deals with the issue of Christians getting circumcised or not. Maybe he is just saying you don’t have to do that. It’s hard to say what Mosaic laws Paul wanted us to follow. There is very little reason for the average modern person to be concerned about this. Use good judgment, learn from others, respect those who don’t think like you, listen to your elders, you’ll do fine.

Music suggestions
Gotta Serve Somebody, Bob Dylan


From this, we see Jesus is now setting off for Jerusalem, no more messing around. In the first encounter, he makes a point that this is not a military exercise. The next response is indirect, he doesn't welcome the person who wants to join in or tell them they aren't qualified, but warns them the journey might not be so easy. You will be leaving your nest and may not always have a nice place to rest.

Noam Chomsky once told a story of meeting with people who protest their governments, in the United States and others in Central America. Regardless of how you feel about Chomsky or protesting, the sentiment of how these people approached it relates to this passage. In America, people would ask him what they should do. They had done some high profile action and appeared on the news and got a meeting with an official, but then things didn't change. When he went to Central America, the people would come to the meetings with him and say, "this is what we're doing". They knew, when speaking truth to power, you have to keep up the good fight.

The last two encounters are pretty harsh. He's talking about some pretty drastic actions; giving up your family obligations, even a funeral (or attending to a dying father or maybe just asking for his permission to go on this journey, depending on how you read it), giving up your farm. To make them valid, there better be an awfully good reason. One reason could be that you believe the end of the world is coming before you will harvest this year's crop. Millions of people have believed in thousands of documented accounts of the coming of the end of the world. It is completely plausible that people in the 1st century would believe it.

Even if this is not about the end of the world, it is saying, put Jesus first and drop everything else. I don't see good advice here.  


This passage picks up immediately after the “still soft voice” passage from last week. The lectionary includes the part about anointing Kings, but skips these two verses.

17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

Why do you think they decided to do that? It would be interesting to ask the people who created this lectionary. Lists of scriptures to read have been around for a long time. It would be interesting to see exactly when these two verses were dropped out. It is an example of how we have cleansed our churches of the blood and gore that is prevalent throughout the Bible.

In so doing, we lose our own history. We take a commonly asked question about the relationship of religion and war and we take an important fact about it out of the common memory. We subtly tell our preachers not to talk about these things. Here the Bible shows us a common practice of connecting church and state. The prophet anoints the Kings and tells them God is behind them in putting others to death. It doesn’t matter that this particular war did or didn’t happen. If the Bible is supposed to show us how to act, then why are these two verses plucked out of the middle of the story as if they no longer apply? That is not a rhetorical question.

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