Is God Unfair? Text Of the Day for March 16, 2018

Does God break God’s promises? Is God unfair?

I’m sure most believers will reflexively reply, “No.” I think it’s important to linger over the discomfort of this question, because it’s a central problem in the Bible. Theologians call the problem of struggling with God’s justice “theodicy.” Job is probably the most explicit in his struggle with the goodness and reliability of God, but plenty of other authors raise the question.

Before we get to today’s text (in Jeremiah), it’s important to get a little history: Israel and Judah were destroyed by invading armies (in 722 BCE and 587 BCE). Most of the prophets attributed their nations’ destruction and exile to the judgment of God. They said that the Israelites and Judeans had turned away from God to idols, or had failed to do justice to the poor. Invasion and exile was God’s punishment.


Tissot’s 1896 depiction of the Babylonian Exile, “Flight of the Prisoners”

But what about all the people who hadn’t worshiped idols? What about the children who were collateral damage, who were “dashed against the rocks” (Psalm 137:9) by invaders? Biblical authors struggle with a God who would do such things. This is why Abraham chides God: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). This is also why the same scene plays out with God and Jonah, but with roles reversed: now God reprimands Jonah: “…should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).

The standard history I was taught in Sunday school was this: Israel sinned and turned away from God, so God punished them with invasion and exile. This is a stunning attribution of violence to a God of love. But there are plenty of voices in the Bible who object to this version of history. One of my favorites is in Psalm 44.

You have made us like sheep for slaughter,
    and have scattered us among the nations.
You have sold your people for a trifle,
    demanding no high price for them…

All this has come upon us,
    yet we have not forgotten you,
    or been false to your covenant. [my emphasis]
Our heart has not turned back,
    nor have our steps departed from your way,
yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals,
    and covered us with deep darkness.

If we had forgotten the name of our God,
    or spread out our hands to a strange god,
would not God discover this?
    For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Because of you we are being killed all day long,
    and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

“God, you are being unfair!” says the Psalmist, before concluding, “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep!?” This is pretty gutsy stuff to say to God, reminiscent of Elijah taunting the priests of Ba’al: “perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27).

It’s important to hear this background rather than the trite moralizing we’re often taught in church that trivializes oppression, the trauma of war, and human suffering. The question “does God break God’s promises” is a question about history. It is a gut-wrenching “why?” asked of the universe. It’s important to acknowledge this pain before hearing the lectionary text for this Sunday from Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:27-34).

Jeremiah, like other prophets, is struggling with the justice of God. While he accepts the standard interpretation of history, he says God is about to do a new thing, something which is both more just more profound. Rather than punishing children for the crimes of their parents, God will evaluate us on a case-by-case basis. Rather than punishing a nation for the sins of its leaders, God will have an intimate covenant with all people, “from the least to the greatest.”

I don’t think Jeremiah’s answer satisfies the problem of God’s justice, but he makes a major theological shift: God will forge a new, more humane, and more personal relationship with human beings. God is doing something new.

Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

We Are Seeds: Text Of the Day for March 13, 2018

The upcoming lectionary text for Sunday contains one of my favorite metaphors:

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.

(John 12:24-26)

We say the bit about wheat falling to the ground and dying during the funeral liturgy. The seed metaphor has been stated beautifully by poets, activists, and musicians: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.”



A biologist would point out that a grain of wheat doesn’t technically die, but it’s a lovely description of the way we bury something in order to create more of it. Jesus lays the symbolism on thick, here: what he is doing will be replicated many times over. He will die, and create a movement. The members of this movement will do the same. All of this illustrates the love-it-and-lose-it paradox: that we only find meaning and purpose outside of ourselves. Our lives are fulfilled when we realize our lives are not the most important thing. We find our selves when we lose our selves for a greater purpose.

The “hate/love” language can be difficult for modern ears, but it was a staple of ancient rhetoric. Modern folks are also more aware of two great distortions of this teaching. The first is a social distortion: the church has sometimes used doormat theology to oppress others. It has said, “You should hate your life so you must accept unfair treatment. You are a sinner and deserve hell, so be grateful for what you get.” The second is a personal distortion: individuals use passive-aggressive selflessness to shame and humiliate others. In many toxic relationships, someone plays the martyr or hero. Both of these distortions, social and personal, involve self-deception and sleight-of-hand. We can use the language of selflessness to massage our own egos or build our own power.

It helps to place the metaphor in context: Jesus’ revelation about his identity and character. He ties it to the movement he births, he describes it in terms of a cosmic battle with the “prince of this world,” and he restates one of John’s favorite themes: that those who follow Jesus will be with him. If we give ourselves in love to others and to God, we will recognize Jesus is with us the whole way. Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. ” Jesus is about to voluntarily walk into a cosmic conflict with the forces of evil and oppression that will play itself out in his very body, and although it is terrifying, he is more alive than ever.


Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Not by Willpower: Text Of the Day for March 8, 2018

There are several references in the Lenten readings to Ol’ Scratch and temptation:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

(Ephesians 2:1-3)

I keep a folder of hate mail that people send me informing me that I’m going to hell (in loving, Christian terms, of course), so I understand why some progressive Christians are allergic to the language Paul uses above. “Following the desires of flesh and senses” sounds like Puritan condemnation of sex, chocolate, beer, and dancing, and “the ruler of the power of the air” like fundamentalist obsession with the devil.


By the way, the Greek words for “trespass” and “sin” here literally mean “falling down” and “missing the mark.” In the Greek philosophy in which Paul was steeped, the passions were like wild horses which, without a skilled driver in the chariot, would gallop to destruction. The will, human reason, was the driver who directed the passions toward their proper goal. Paradoxically, we are not truly free if we give our passions free reign. Seeking life, we become dead. Our passions become our masters.

But Paul makes a break with Greek philosophy here. We do not overcome the passions by exerting the will or employing our reason. We are made alive by the grace of Jesus Christ:

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 

(Ephesians 2:4-6)

Lent is not about controlling our passions with willpower, but opening ourselves to grace.

It is easier to believe than ever, I think, that there are forces of systemic evil in this world led by ego-centric human passions: xenophobia, greed, racism, and superficial status. “Children of wrath” seems apt. Paul says all of us were once this way, immature in our actions and thinking, following a “spirit of disobedience,” a power as invisible and pervasive as the air.

What sets us free is grace. It is not earned or achieved by force of will. There is nothing to be smug about. So, if we’re inclined to tsk-tsk at the state of the world, we remember that the only thing that will save us is not our own enlightenment or force of will, but the action of God in Jesus Christ.

Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Jesus as a Snake: Text Of the Day for March 6, 2018

It’s not the most famous wilderness story, but it’s the one Jesus references when he talks with a religious leader:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

(John 3:14-18)

The story is that when the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness, they had a poisonous snake problem. God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake-on-a-stick, and when people would get bitten by poisonous snakes, they could look at the snake and not die. 


The old story from the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews depends on a kind of sympathetic magic, a bit like drinking “the hair of the dog that bit you.” Somehow just looking at the image of the snake would mitigate the effects of snake venom.

The author of John uses this as an analogy for Jesus. Somehow, looking at Jesus on the cross and understanding him as the son of God mitigates the effect… of what? Apparently we’ve been bitten and poisoned by something, and seeing it exposed and lifted up saves us from death.

In both stories, something scary is transformed into medicine. Many people have a fear of snakes and react to them with horror and revulsion, so it is counter-intuitive to make the image of a snake into a healing symbol. Likewise, the cross was a form of Roman propaganda, a tool of oppression that terrorized occupied people. But seeing the Son of Man lifted up in this way also becomes a healing symbol. We need fear neither snakes nor human evil. God can save us from such poison.

Many Christians focus on the personal pain and torture that Jesus endured on the cross, as though the redemptive act is made efficacious by how much he suffers. But in this passage Jesus seems to be saying that it is in being lifted up, and in being seen and believed that God saves the world from death. God has no interest in killing, only in saving us from our self-imposed systems of death and power.

Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Whip It: Text Of the Day for March 1, 2018

In John, one of Jesus’ first dramatic acts is to cause a riot in the temple:

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

(John 2:15-16)

In the other three gospels, Jesus waits until his final week to riot in the temple. In John, he kicks off his ministry with this protest.


Caveat #1: This tends to be a go-to story for authoritarian Christians who really like the image of Christ using a whip on sinners. You can tell a lot about someone’s theology by the context in which they deploy this story and whether they ever connect it to other kinds of public protest: Black Lives Matter, for example, or Occupy Wall Street. If someone uses this story to illustrate “how much God hates sin,” then you know they see Jesus as a riot policeman with a baton—not a revolutionary of love. Tellingly, the text never says he used the whip on people, but only on sheep and cattle. He did pour money on the floor and flip tables, but the action he takes toward people is speech: “Take these things out of here.” He never hits anyone.

Caveat #2: These were not kids trying to raise money for a mission trip by holding a bake sale at the door of the church. It helps to know some context. Members of the priestly class could rent space at the temple to make money on the side. Because the priests also judged which animals were worthy to be sacrificed, it was a bit like going to a movie theater or a ball game where no outside food is permitted. In that context, you know your favorite watered-down carbonated fizzy drink will be five dollars, and a candy bar will require a second mortgage. Sacrificial animals could cost ten times the fair rate. So, no, this is nothing like fundraising for the youth group. I’ve heard adult congregation members complain about youth group fundraising by using this scripture, and it makes me want to use a whip on the adults.

This text is a warning about the the way our religion becomes institutionalized: Religious profiteers will certainly try to hijack your mission and distort your values. They will take your focus off of love of God and love of neighbor in order to make a buck. The proper response is to make it impossible for them to do business.

Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia.