When I saw it, I thought apartment building. When she saw it, she thought Swiss cheese.
Climbing the ridge I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!”
So, who was right? Were either of us right?
In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.
She? I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at Swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.
Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.
We all do this. A lot.
We use our own frame of reference to describe and understand things we encounter. The words and pictures and thought patterns we use when we do this reflect as much about us as the object or event. In other words, how we describe and understand things reflects who we are. It’s true of tree stumps, of our politics, and of the Bible.
There is no such thing as a fully objective reading of scripture. We can mitigate the risks of eisegesis. Eisegesis is the fancy term for reading our own ideas or desires into the Bible rather than allowing the meanings of the text to be drawn out.
That is, we impose our ideas on the Bible instead of letting it speak to us.
We can lessen but never eliminate these personal and cultural biases from our understanding of the text. This is one of the reasons it is helpful to read scripture together in diverse community. Each of us hear slightly different things.
By bouncing thoughts off of one another we can more accurately hear the voices of our ancient kindred describing how they understood God. We also — and most importantly — can more accurately perceive God’s still speaking voice and dream for our lives in the twenty-first century.
I tell you this because too often our personal history and our preconceived ideas block us from the power, the depth and the radicalism of God’s dream for humanity.
Our life experiences change what we think the Bible says regardless of what meaning was intended by the original writers. The only way around this is to build our own self- and cultural awareness within diverse community.
Consider, as people of relative means, when we hear Luke’s report of Jesus preaching,
Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Luke 12:33 CEB
As people of relative means, when we hear Jesus preach this, we tend to view it as a suggestion or as hyperbole because it demands a lot of us. It demands that we live differently than our culture and capitalism tell us to live. And, so, we interpret away our obligation.
Sometimes, we talk about spiritual poverty and pretend that Jesus was more concerned about how you and I feel about God than about physically feeding the poor or economic injustices in our world.
OR we say it is unrealistic and surely SURELY God doesn’t expect us to give up everything, not really. Sometimes we act like Jesus said, “clean out your kitchen cabinets and give the canned goods to the poor.”
Not bad to share food but not exactly what Jesus said.
OR we just dismiss it because, well, because we don’t want our faith to inconvenience us.
We can intellectualize away passages like this if we are not poor. However, it is more than just being able to intellectualize passages away. We actually hear what Jesus is saying differently because of our relative wealth.
Imagine if you can, how this same event sounds if you’re impoverished. Imagine you work three jobs and still keep falling behind on your bills.
Imagine that people look down their noses at you on the street.
Imagine your body is growing old before its time because you’ve lived most of your life without adequate health care and it’s hard to take a sick day even now because it means losing pay.
Hear how Jesus’ words might sound if you were poor. Listen as the poor person I described. I’m reading from Matthew’s version of the event this time.
Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.” Matthew 19:21 CEB
I don’t know about you but I hear Jesus affirm God’s favor for the poor.
And this is just one passage. Depending upon how narrowly or widely you define the terms, the Bible either addresses the needs of the poor and needy three hundred times or over two-thousand times. Either number is significant.
Either number is far, far above the number of times the Bible talks about, oh I dunno, homosexuality or abortion (zero) or unfaithfulness in marriage. The significance of the number is true no matter how widely we define our terms to do the counting of references.
If the biblical witness reflects the experiences of our ancient kindred with God, than God is deeply concerned about economic injustice in human society.That is, if our claim that the Bible is a collection of the stories, experiences, and theologies of our ancient forebears and that God speaks through the scripture, shouldn’t one of our chief concerns as Christians be the poor?
Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the Bible’s sheer numerical and thematic concern for the poor God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Says Gutiérrez:
But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.
Does God play favorites? The short answer is yes. Jesus didn’t make this stuff up himself, though he clearly taught and preached it. God’s concern for the poor is embedded in Jesus’ lived Judaism. It was ingrained in his day to day faith.
Recall that as a good Jew, Jesus’ own Bible was roughly our Old Testament. Not only would Jesus have known what we number as Psalm 113, scholar James L. Mays points out that as a traditional psalm sung at Passover,
The psalm would have been the first sung by Jesus and the disciples in the celebration of their last supper… (Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching by James L. Mays, Kindle loc. 7104)
Listen again to the first two verses:
Praise the Lord!
You who serve the Lord—praise!
Praise the Lord’s name!
Let the Lord’s name be blessed
from now until forever from now!
Psalm 113:1-2 CEB
As you may recall, the Book of Psalms is a collection of writings and songs. More than any other book of our Bible it directly reflects the words of the people in relationship with God.
This particular psalm is a praise hymn that, along with 114, would be sung at the start of Passover. Notice how as this hymn progresses, the writer not only calls the people to worship but also gives reasons for doing so.
The LORD is high over all the nations;
God’s glory is higher than the skies!
Who could possibly
compare to the LORD our God? Psalm 113:4-5a CEB
Then in this hymn of praise, God’s particular concern for the poor is restated. Imagine as you hear this, Jesus and his disciples singing this on that last night of Jesus’ life.
God lifts up the poor from the dirt
and raises up the needy
from the garbage pile
to seat them with leaders—
with the leaders of his own people Psalm 113:7-8 CEB
As they sang it, they would have appreciated the poetry in the language in ways which we lose in English. The Hebrew verb yashav which is repeated in verses five, eight, and nine
suggest[s] that when God condescends from on high to raise up the lowly, God is exchanging some part of God’s nature and character with the humans that God is saving. (Beverly Roberts Gaventa & David Petersen, Eds., New Interpreters Bible (One Volume) Commentary, p. 341)
Jesus and his disciples understood God’s “preferential option for the poor” and reflected it not only in their teaching and healing and other daily actions but in their liturgical practices.
Does God Play Favorites? Yes.
It makes me squirm as it should you. It means that my wealth is a hindrance to my faith. It means that I ought to be doing more to unravel the sinful tapestry of our economic system, the one that keeps too many citizens of our world in poverty.
It means Jesus was serious.
We are called to live with less — to give away our possessions — and share with the poor. We’re called to follow the teachings of Jesus, to mimic his life by living like and among those without. In so doing, the poor, the needy, and the oppressed will be lifted up.
Jesus was serious. God is serious. It’s time that the church get serious about fundamental social change that benefits the oppressed and impoverished.
This is our great sin. This is our great hypocrisy. We sing songs of praise but too often leave out the verses that talk about how God comes down from on high to lift up those in need. We gloss over or forget that we are called to be God’s hands and feet in the world.
We keep waiting for God to fix the church or lift up the poor or end all manner of sins in the world but fail to respond to God’s beckoning voice calling us to be God’s hands and feet in the world.
We ignore what it means for God to play favorites for the poor and oppressed while we ignore the the teachings of Jesus calling us to let go of our wealth and dismantle the systems of oppression under which poor people are trapped.
We fail to do what the prophet Micah tells us God requires of us,
“to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8b CEB)
Sometimes we fail because our wealth and preconceived ideas keep us from hearing God’s still challenging voice. Sometimes we fail because we don’t like what Jesus teaches or what our ancient kindred heard God saying.
Often, it is just too much for us — me included — to admit that God favors the very people who we feel uncomfortable among. And, so, we alleviate our guilt by alleviating the symptoms.
But God calls us to radicalism.
Jesus teaches a new social order in which the poor are lifted from the dirt and the needy are raised from the garbage pile and seated among the leaders, the very leaders of God’s own people. (Psalm 113:7-8 CEB)
In the words of Gustavo Guitiérrez,
the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.
Does God play favorites? Yes, yes God does. The difficult question is the next one: what are we going to do about it?
Are we prepared to align our interests, our favorites with God’s priorities? As individuals and as community, as church, are we prepared to embrace the radicalism of the faith we profess?
This sermon was preached at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, July 5, 2015.