Propagandist or Prophet?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Nehemiah 9:1-15 (16-25), Revelation 18:1-8, Matthew 15:1-20


After the Israelites returned to Jerusalem from exile and purged themselves of foreign influences, the Levites (priestly class) offered a long prayer to the Lord. This prayer recounted the history of the Jewish people from creation to their current situation, and ended with a plea for help. This history included both the triumphs and failings of the Jewish people. It didn’t attempt to explain or excuse past transgressions; to do so would have been an affront to the Lord. The people’s current condition – better than exile yet not so good as complete freedom – was the culmination of all they had done, and asking for it to be better required a humbling honesty with themselves and the Lord about how they got there.

Nobody claimed, “I was born in exile, so I can’t be held responsible for exploiting those widows and orphans back then.” Nobody pointed a finger at the Ammonites and said, “It’s their women’s fault for agreeing to marry us.” No one interrupted the prayer with an unrelated diatribe about Hittite-on-Hittite crime.

Whether it’s today or 2600 years ago, a nation which truly wishes to embrace justice must come to terms with its past as a nation. The currently downtrodden and marginalized didn’t spring up overnight; they suffer and others prosper because of the violence, oppression, greed, and inhumanity of the past. It doesn’t matter how long ago something happened if people are still suffering the consequences today because it’s more comfortable to forget about how terrible we were and focus on how great we are.

If your palace is built on sand, it’s inevitably doomed until you dig deep to pour a solid foundation.

None of us is excused from corporate accountability for the past simply because we don’t feel individually guilty in the present. No one is asking us to feel guilty anyway; guilt is useless, maybe even detrimental, to national healing because it nudges us away from empathy and toward defensiveness. When we can’t admit (or worse yet try to excuse) what we as a people have done wrong, who was hurt by it, and why we did it, we’re all but destined to repeat it, much like Israel’s cycle of faithfulness, blasphemy, and devastation. To break the cycle, we must abandon the spin.

A nation is rarely short of propaganda, but prophets are in short supply. The former may make us feel good about being on the team, but the latter will tell us how to be a team worth belonging to.

Further reading: for thoughts on today’s passage from Matthew, see Lip Service.

Comfort: The truth sets you free … from a lot of things.

Challenge: Support the communities you belong to by holding them accountable.

Prayer: O Lord, I will be true to you above all others. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been surprised to learn something new or different about history? Did you research to find out if it was true?

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No YOLO Is Solo

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, Ezra 10:1-17, Acts 24:10-21, Luke 14:12-24


Do you find today’s passage from Ezra at all unsettling?

After the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, they confessed to Ezra that they had not observed the Mosaic law’s prohibition against marrying outside their faith. Many of the men of Israel, including the priestly class, had taken wives – and by association their foreign gods – from the various cultures surrounding them. Ezra organized a meeting of these men, and they decided all the foreign wives and their children would have to return to their own lands.

Much commentary on this passage assumes the men of Israel would have continued to support these women and children or that God somehow provided for them, but there is no scriptural evidence for this wishful thinking. We don’t really know what happened to them. Maybe they were watched over, or maybe they grew destitute. God is not answerable to us, but framing this event in divine justice doesn’t erase the potential toll of human suffering.

So what are we to do with this story, besides dispassionately shrugging it off as something which had to be done?

Perhaps this cautionary tale drives home the message that we can’t expect God to clean up our messes for us, and that cleaning them up ourselves can have devastating repercussions for real people. Will they be repercussions we can live with? Surely the men of Israel, even the ones who never saw those wives and children again, never forgot about them.

Coming clean with a spouse after an affair, confessing to a family member we’ve been stealing from them, and turning ourselves in after a hit-and-run are examples of doing the right thing after we’ve already done the irreversible wrong thing. The bitter consequences for us and the people we’ve involved or betrayed may be severe and lifelong, no matter how sorry we are. That’s on us, not God.

It’s sometimes tempting to dodge responsibility with a YOLO attitude. There’s even a Christian version, where we pursue a pharisaical, self-satisfied righteousness that is blind to the harm it causes others.

Doing the right thing may seem difficult at the time, but atonement will be worse, and not necessarily just for you.  Let’s think beyond “right now” to “Right. Now.”

Comfort: You are capable of making good decisions.

Challenge: God forgives us, but when other people don’t it’s our job to respond with grace and love.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14).

Discussion: When are you prone to make bad decisions? What can you do to change that?

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Feed My Sheep

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Daniel 4:1-18, 1 Peter 4:7-11, John 21:15-25


The third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, it was early morning and they were fishing from a boat and he was on the beach tending a fire. When they came ashore he offered them breakfast. After the meal, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” though by the third time he was a little hurt. Jesus replied each time by telling Peter to feed and tend his sheep.

As they walked down the beach, “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the [last] supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’” Peter seemed a little annoyed. Maybe that’s because he felt a twinge of guilt when he remembered the question. While Judas was the obvious betrayer, Peter – after saying he would never betray Jesus – denied him three times on the evening of the crucifixion. Afterward, he expected never to see Jesus again, much less to atone for his denials. In a bit of symmetry, Jesus gave Peter three chances to affirm that he indeed loved him.

We all screw up. Sometimes (parenting comes to mind) we screw up in the very act of trying not to. While apologies (if suitable) and reparations (if just) are appropriate, they aren’t the end of the fix. Jesus didn’t demand an apology or a penalty. Rather, he told Peter – the rock upon whom he would build his church – to take care of business. The best way to make amends to Christ, and possibly to almost anyone, is to listen to what matters to them and do what we can toward that end.

Mistakes don’t define you, but how you choose to recover from those mistakes tells you (and others) who you are. If you feel you’ve let down Christ, love him by feeding his sheep. If you’ve let down someone else, make it less about your guilt and more about whatever feeds their souls.

Comfort: You’ll make mistakes. God will love you anyway.

Challenge: Ask yourself whether you currently need to do any atoning, and what that would look like.

Prayer: God of the resurrection, make my life anew. Amen.

Discussion: What is the best apology you’ve received?

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