Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Case Study

Starting now texts of Daniel Harrell's sermons preached at Historic Park Street Church on the Boston Common will be posted here. The audio files can be downloaded at the Park Street Church site. Feel free to interact!

So, are you sick of Leviticus yet? As you know, 21 people from this congregation spent the month of January living by the book of Leviticus, and we chronicled our adventure on Facebook and on the church blog (both of which can be accessed through the church web site). I initiated the experiment partly so that I could stock up on sermon illustrations, but mostly to try and make sense of what God meant when he said in Leviticus “be holy because I am holy, keep all my laws and decrees.” As Christians we may be used to asserting that since Jesus fulfilled the law, we’re free to disregard it somewhat, but that still doesn’t account for all the crazy laws that showed up on the books to begin with. For instance, if you haven’t watched it on Facebook yet, Andrew made this video about affliction in the house.

Now we covered household affliction back when we looked at infectious skin diseases in chapter 14. Here’s something you might not know: the word translated household affliction or mildew is the same Hebrew word as infectious skin disease. Interesting. Here’s something else. In the case of household mildew, as you just heard Andrew read, God was the one who put it there. This may explain why the stuff is so hard to remove. But it still leaves the question as to why God would put it there. As I argued regarding infectious skin diseases, it may be that mildew served as some sort of object lesson about how impurity gets into everything. It’s the closest mention we have in the Bible to cleanliness being next to godliness. But here’s the thing. If your house was found to have spreading mildew, you had to tear it down and haul it away. Even though God planted it. It’s like the police giving you a ticket even though they drove their car into yours.

A member of our congregation stopped by last week and laid it out plain. “I don’t get the Old Testament,” he said. It’s as if the Bible presents two totally different pictures of God. On the one hand you have a Lord who gets cranky about the littlest things, seems punitive to the point of petty, and condemning things that would hardly raise an eyebrow in our day. But then turn to the New Testament and suddenly he’s playing nice, eager to shower the people with love. In Leviticus eating unclean food gets you cut off from your people, while in Matthew Jesus wonders why the religious leaders are making such a big deal about food. In tonight’s passage we read “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,” but then in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, no, what I meant was turn the other cheek. “Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden,” Jesus says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” But in Leviticus coming to God cost you a head of your best cattle twice a day. And that was just the cost of getting into the tabernacle. Catch one of those ordained infections and that’d cost you a month’s pay. And don’t even think about deliberately sinning. There was nothing you could do to remedy that. Living near the tabernacle was like living next to a nuclear power plant. You appreciate all the free energy, but one wrong move and you’re doomed.

Take tonight’s passage. A man from a mixed marriage mixes it up with a pedigreed Israelite. In the heat of the scuffle, the biracial man lets loose a cuss word with God’s name in it. Violation of Ten Commandment number 3. Immediately the foul-mouthed man is hauled off to Moses. We’re not given the details on what the man specifically said, only that he “blasphemed God’s name with a curse.” Now when I was growing up, saying a cuss word with God’s name in it got you grounded, but here in Leviticus the ground gets you. Moses waits for the Lord to pronounce sentence, which the Lord does, saying: “Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin,” verse 15. “Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him.”

Brian, one of our Levites for the month had this response: “Dag yo ... that’s pretty durn serious. Put to death? Stoning? No wonder why the Israelites and even modern Jews took such reverence in avoiding uttering the Name of the Most High. Unfortunately, somehow this has failed to translate so well to modern Christians, and maybe more aptly to me. Do I have the same reverence to God in all things? In my work? In my driving? In my relationships with those that I love and love me? Not really.”

Here’s one of those places where you’re really glad there’s a New Testament. In Leviticus, God commands that the blasphemer be taken outside the city limits so as not to pollute the population. Everybody who heard the man curse laid their hands on his head, ostensibly to testify against his sin and allay their own culpability. They then picked up stones and killed him. It’s a troubling passage, radically different from the one in the New Testament where Jesus cautions those eager to stone an adulterous woman that they’d best check their own records first before throwing any rocks. This despite Leviticus’ command to stone those caught in adultery.

So why does the Old Testament God sentence the blasphemer to death while the New Testament son of God cut the adulteress mercy? The answer is found in both Testaments. In verses 17-22 of our Leviticus passage, God frames blasphemy in the context of what is known in Latin parlance as lex talionis, the law of retaliation. Or better, the law of proportionate justice. “An eye for an eye” was a metaphorical way of saying let the punishment fit the crime. Few if any people literally poked out another’s eye if their own was lost. But lex talionis did assure proper recompense and compensation. For instance in Exodus, a servant loses an eye and as compensation is granted his freedom. Lex talionis saw to it that punishment never exceeded what was deserved, as revenge would dictate, nor would it fall short, as indulgence would desire. The only instance where lex talionis literally applied was in cases of premeditated murder. Verse 17: “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death.”

But why does the blasphemer lose his life? Shouldn’t the punishment have been curse for curse? Should not God have simply badmouthed the blasphemer back? Leaving aside that to be cursed by God is to die, note that by Leviticus places blasphemy alongside murder, implying that to curse is to kill. Verse 16: Anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. And then verse 17: “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death.” God puts showing contempt for his name on par with murder.

The best analogy in our day to this danger of speaking contemptuously might be the current Roger Clemens steroid circus. If he’s lying about steroid use, it’s one thing for him to lie to the media and to baseball fans, but quite another to lie to Congress. The blasphemer in Leviticus didn’t just say a cuss word, he cussed God. The punishment of the lie has to do with whom you lie to. Remember the New Testament story of Annanias and Saphira? They cheat the nascent Christian community in a real estate deal and then lie about it. Peter confronts them, “How is it that Satan has so filled your heart? You have lied to the Holy Spirit. What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to people but to God.” And with that Annanias and Saphira drop dead. Jesus could forgive adultery, but he said that anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. In a way it’s the reason that perjury is such a serious deal. You not only lie under oath, but the oath under which you lie is an oath you took in God’s name. The shadows of Leviticus loom. No wonder Jesus said simply let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no and that anything more comes from the devil.

Wait a minute. If eye for an eye still applies. Why then does Jesus argue the opposite? “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. Turn the other cheek.” What’s that about? Understand that what Jesus repudiates here is not proportionate justice, but vigilante justice—the wrong of “taking the law into your own hands.” The very thing that those people with rocks in their hands tried to do with that adulterous woman. She gets mercy from Jesus as well as instruction to go and sin no more. OK, but then what does Jesus mean by “do not resist an evil person?” Is self-defense a sin? No, I like the way the Good News Bible translates it better: “do not retaliate against an evil person.” Because our hearts and our hurts deceive us, we cannot do justice justly as individuals. The injustice we suffer blinds us to the injustice we inflict. And thus Peter writes, “As Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, follow in his steps. …When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Paul concurs, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.

And as Leviticus 24 frightfully demonstrates, God will repay. He will execute justice against those who show contempt for his name. But if you think the Old Testament is harsh on this point, the New Testament is more severe. Turn again to the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone insults his brother is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” To curse is to kill. In Leviticus, curse God and get stoned. In the Sermon on the Mount, curse anybody and burn in hell.

Dag yo ... that’s pretty durn serious.

And it is. Words have power. The Bible enjoins us in worship to “bless the Lord,” which when you think about it is an odd notion. How can one confer blessing on the one who is the source of all blessing? The answer may imply that to curse God is such a powerful thing it could actually have an effect on the Almighty himself. If this is true, then the power it has to injure those made in God’s image is exponential. No wonder the Bible has so much to say against saying too much. The apostle James compares the tongue to a bridle and a rudder. A little bit and horses go where you direct them. A little rudder and huge ships change course. In the same way the tongue is just a little thing, but it can do big things. “The tongue is a fire,” James writes, “a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” You can come to church, angry with someone, sing the songs and say the prayers but then leave as angry as before. It’s as if your relationship with God has no implications on your relationship with each other.

We’ve all been cut to the core by hurtful words. But we’ve all done our own share of hurting too. I used to teach a graduate school course in learning theory and would employ dialogical give and take method in doing it. One day the topic of “anger” came up and I asked the class for a definition. A student responded with “mad.” I quickly retorted, “Well yeah, duh, it’s easy to throw out a synonym, but is that really a definition?” To which she seethed, “Then how about this? Anger is that feeling you get when your professor mocks and belittles your attempt to participate in front of the entire class.” Uh, yep, that would be anger.

Proverbs declares, “He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles.” And then “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” And one more, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” It’s been said that the reason God gave us two ears and one mouth is that we might listen twice as much as we speak.

“Listen and understand,” Jesus said, “it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles.” Watch your mouth and you’ll see the spiritual temperature of your soul. Speech serves as a reliable thermometer for what’s going on inside.

Early on in the Leviticus experiment, Kristi realized that, “Following Jesus is difficult indeed. And I’m finding that G-d is much more patient with me than I’d ever imagined. And because of that patience, He doesn’t just wipe me out right now, but enables me (when I don’t prohibit Him) to actually follow His commands. Yesterday I had dinner with a friend, and in the course of conversation I almost “went about as a slanderer among my people”. Because of the many references to speech in Leviticus, I’ve been focusing on what I allow myself to say. I certainly do have a tongue that “is a fire, the very world of iniquity”. It “defiles [my] entire body, and sets on fire the course of [my] life. BUT, even as those slanderous words were on the tip of my tongue something stopped them. I’m sure that this small victory is partly thanks to Leviticus. I’m becoming aware that when I slander/gossip, when I speak against another by saying things about them that will damage their reputation in another’s eyes, I not only sin against that person, I also “defile myself.

“Listen and understand,” Jesus said, “it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles.” Watch your mouth and you’ll see the spiritual temperature of your soul. Speech serves as a reliable thermometer for what’s going on inside. But speech also serves as a reliable thermostat for controlling what’s inside too. “Whoever guards her mouth and her tongue,” Proverbs declares, “guards her soul from trouble.” Watch your mouth and you’ll see your soul. Watch your mouth and you’ll save your soul too.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Your sermon got me thinking about the practice of stoning, and what a cruel and gratuitously violent punishment it seems to be. The point is not just death, but death with pain and suffering. One might say (which, I think you did) that cursing God deserves an equivalent punishment, and this is justice. But doesn't it seem that a punishment like stoning is just cruelty for cruelty's sake? For that matter, that eternal suffering in the form of hell is cruelty for cruelty's sake as well? That, in fact, God who is Good is not only allowing evil, but is perpetuating it?

It's hard to see how this eye-for-an-eye attitude is actually "righteous".