Sleight of Hand

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Genesis 27:1-29, Romans 12:1-8, John 8:12-20


Sometimes the Bible reads like a soap opera. In Genesis 27, Rebekah convinces her son Jacob to wear goat skin on his neck and hands to fool his blind father into thinking he is his older, hairier twin brother Esau. He does this to secure his father Isaac’s blessing, which will mean he inherits leadership of his clan. Isaac does indeed (and improbably) grant his blessing to the “wrong” son, in an apparently irrevocable act. When the real Esau demands things be made right, all Isaac has left to offer is a meager consolation prize of a blessing that basically promises Esau the things Jacob didn’t already get.

To our modern sensibilities, developed in a culture of upward mobility, it seems unfair that deception is rewarded thusly. In Jacob’s time, though, people couldn’t earn authority based on merit; authority was inherited or taken by force. If Jacob (or his mother on his behalf) wanted equal opportunity without resorting to outright violence, he had no other choices but to scheme his way to it.

Many cultures have a “trickster” figure: Loki in Norse mythology; Raven in Native American lore; Anansi in West African folk tales. Jacob is a similar figure who outwits his brother multiple times, and even outwrestles an angel physically and mentally. Trickster figures, despite having questionable ethics, often bring benefits to mankind despite the will of the gods. This is where Jacob differs: God had already chosen him to continue Isaac’s lineage, and the tricks seem to support that.

For the most part we want and expect people to play by the rules. Deception rubs us the wrong way and leads to chaos. But what if the rules are not the same for everyone (as they almost never are, especially the unspoken ones)? The Bible has many stories of oppressed people who use the methods available to them to overcome. Deception is not a virtuous act, but sometimes it takes a trickster to turn oppression around. Someone who, say, subverts Roman and Jewish expectations and leads us to eternal life by sacrificing his own. The difference between a hero and a villain often depends on who writes the history book.

Comfort: God’s will eventually plays out.

Challenge: It may not play out in ways we like.

Prayer: Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. Amen. (Psalm 16:1)

Discussion: “The ends justifies the means” is a sentiment which can cut both ways. Do you think questionable means are ever justified?

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Sense and Ostensibility

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, 1 Samuel 28:3-20, Acts 15:1-11, Mark 5:1-20


Ostensible:
adjective, outwardly appearing as such; professed; pretended:
an ostensible cheerfulness concealing sadness.

Quite often people conceal the reasons for their actions from other people (and possibly also from themselves) by offering reasonable-sounding explanations to cover their tracks. One such example is the history of Jim Crow laws enacted after the Civil War. Ostensibly, literacy tests and proof-of-residency requirements were instituted in many states to make sure voters could comprehend the ballot and were qualified to vote. Of course the real reason was to disenfranchise black voters who prior to emancipation had often not been allowed to learn to read, and whose residency documentation was at best a bill of sale. The true intentions were revealed when the voting rights of illiterate white voters were grandfathered in. ‘

The legacy of Jim Crow continues today, as evidenced when the Supreme Court overturned recent North Carolina voting laws which were ostensibly about preventing voter fraud but blatantly targeted African-American and Hispanic voters.

This kind of behavior is neither particularly modern nor particularly American. As more and more gentiles began to convert to Christianity, many of the Jews who became the first followers of Christ didn’t believe they were legitimate. They began to demand that gentile converts be circumcised, as Jews were. After some deliberation, Peter said: “[I]n cleansing their hearts by faith [God] has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” On the surface their concerns may have sounded legitimate, but scrutiny revealed them to be little more than cultural bias against the gentiles.

Part of being “innocent as doves and wise as serpents” is knowing when reasonable explanations like tradition, cost, loyalty, or practicality hide unsavory motives. One big clue is when a group who has been historically marginalized – particularly if they have been gaining ground – suffers disproportionately as a result. The Pharisees had “good reasons” to crucify Christ; let’s be wary of smooth talkers who are readying the nails.


Additional Reading:
Read more about today’s passage from Acts in Entrance Exams.
For additional thoughts on Mark, see The Devils You Know.

Comfort: You’re smart enough to figure out what’s really going on.

Challenge: Don’t play dumb.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to see hard truth and resist attractive lies. Amen.

Discussion: What are some examples of good reasons for not-so-good actions?

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Trust, But Verify

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Daniel 6:1-15, 2 John 1-13, Luke 5:12-26


A dedicated employee – or more specifically an overly-dedicated employee – can be a red flag to fraud investigators. That accounts payable manager who never takes vacation and works nights and weekends to make sure checks are getting cut may be doing those things so no one has a chance to notice the details. Such activity can go on for years until a change in pattern – such as a forced vacation – exposes the truth.

Former con-man and current FBI consultant Frank Abagnale Jr., whose story inspired the movie Catch Me If You Can and television show White Collar, pulled off many of his cons by presenting people what they expected or wanted to see. We expect someone in a pilot’s uniform (one of Abagnale’s many impersonations) to be a pilot. We don’t expect a long-time, dedicated employee to be a thief. Even if we are naturally skeptical, if we aren’t regularly practicing or studying deception, we probably aren’t skilled at anticipating it.

The Persian King Darius wasn’t anticipating deception from his appointed presidents and satraps (governors), but they were jealous of Daniel’s distinguished and reputable service. They trapped Daniel by flattering the king and convincing him to forbid, upon pain of being devoured by lions, that any of his subjects pray to any god or deity but Darius for the next thirty days. The conspirators knew Daniel would keep praying to God, so they reported him to Darius, who was reluctant but bound by his own law.

When Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the gospel, he advised them to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” It doesn’t take much wisdom to be skeptical of people we don’t like or agree with, but it takes some to determine at what level we should place our bar for “too good to be true.” Let’s avoid the trap Darius and Daniel fell into by not letting people or organizations exploit our ego, faith, or desire, perhaps by keeping in mind the Russian proverb: “trust, but verify.” We must love people, but that love is only blind when we close our eyes.

Comfort: You are allowed – even morally obligated – to think for yourself.

Challenge: No matter how much you respect someone, don’t trust them more than your conscience or your God.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me to find the balance between love and wisdom. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever fallen for a con because someone said what you wanted to hear?

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