Hosea 13 – Showing Up When It’s Hard

I cared for you in the wilderness,
    in the land of burning heat. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

 

Woo, God is angry here folx!  As we’ve come up against infanticide twice in a short while, I think it’s time we talk about it.  Unfortunately there’s no two ways around it: this is what happened in wars back then.  Examples abound in the Bible of women and children being killed – by both the “bad” and the “good” guys.

But before we conclude that God is a baby-killing monster and all turn atheist, let’s remember two things: first, that atrocities just as bad as the ones written here are still happening today, and that they are not sanctioned by God.  Though many people turn a blind eye, many others cry out in God’s name against these acts of war.  Second, a lot of this is evocative symbolism.  In other words, Hosea knew this imagery would get a strong response from his readers, and decided to use it.  Killing the children of Samaria also becomes a metaphor for its destruction: for without children there is no future, therefore Samaria itself is destroyed through their death.

Even with these explanations, it’s not a comfortable passage to sit with, especially the Sunday before Christmas.  I wish I had more for you, my friends, but all I have today is this reminder: sometimes our presence is required.  It sounds simple, but it can be one of the most difficult and important things we do:  Showing up, bearing witness, standing by, waiting upon.  Think of going to a funeral: it’s never fun, but it means so much to the loved ones that remain, and can provide a path to closure for ourselves as well.  Or visiting a sick bed: the ill know they are not forgotten and left alone in their suffering.  Or even, on a much more daily level, listening to someone vent their frustrations without trying to “fix” anything. (My husband now asks me from time to time “am I supposed to just be listening right now or did you want a suggestion?”)

By the simple-yet-difficult act of showing up, we create a space for healing, for growth.  Healing and growth isn’t always pretty or pleasant, but it is very necessary. The more that we can help whomever may need it, the less we will be like the wayward nations of Ephraim or Samaria described above. Judging by God’s wrath upon them – whether it was real or metaphorical – that is a good thing to be.

Leviticus 10 – Nadab and Abihu

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:

“‘Among those who approach me
    I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people
    I will be honored.’”

Aaron remained silent.

Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, “Come here; carry your cousins outside the camp, away from the front of the sanctuary.” So they came and carried them, still in their tunics, outside the camp, as Moses ordered.

Then Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not let your hair become unkempt and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the Israelites, may mourn for those the Lord has destroyed by fire. Do not leave the entrance to the tent of meeting or you will die, because the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did as Moses said.

Then the Lord said to Aaron, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, 10 so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, 11 and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.”

12 Moses said to Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “Take the grain offering left over from the food offerings prepared without yeast and presented to the Lord and eat it beside the altar, for it is most holy. 13 Eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is your share and your sons’ share of the food offerings presented to the Lord; for so I have been commanded. 14 But you and your sons and your daughters may eat the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. Eat them in a ceremonially clean place; they have been given to you and your children as your share of the Israelites’ fellowship offerings. 15 The thigh that was presented and the breast that was waved must be brought with the fat portions of the food offerings, to be waved before the Lord as a wave offering. This will be the perpetual share for you and your children, as the Lord has commanded.”

16 When Moses inquired about the goat of the sin offering and found that it had been burned up, he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and asked, 17 “Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the Lord. 18 Since its blood was not taken into the Holy Place, you should have eaten the goat in the sanctuary area, as I commanded.”

19 Aaron replied to Moses, “Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, but such things as this have happened to me. Would the Lord have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” 20 When Moses heard this, he was satisfied.

It is October, the month of Halloween, so I thought we might read some scary Bible stories.  Why I thought this would be a light-hearted idea I’m not sure, because things get real extra-fast.  But I’m going to stick with it, because there are some really thought-provoking stories here.

A little background for this first story about Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu.  Aaron was Moses’ brother, and the first high priest of the New Covenant God made with Israel after delivering them out of Egypt.  He was consecrated as priest, along with his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu.  All three of them literally saw God during a special worship at the base of the mountain.  Now, the first seven chapters of Leviticus go into great detail about how the Lord is supposed to be worshiped in this New Covenant, specifically how offerings should be made.  And there’s a lot: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering – all topics for another day.  Then, chapters eight and nine specifically deal with the ordination of the priests and detail how they begin their ministry in running the offerings.  Everything goes swimmingly – Aaron does all the right things, says all the right words, and the Fire of the Lord comes down to consume the burnt offerings and all of Israel sees his presence and falls down and worships in joy.

Now, the above-mentioned fire from God is important, because it was an unauthorized fire, in other words fire made by man, the Nadab and Abihu brought to altar when it was their turn to make offerings.  As an aside – not only was it unauthorized fire, it was fire all tarted up, if you will, by added incense.  Long story short – actually, short story made longer via explanation, but whatever – by bringing this man-made fire to the altar, Nadab and Abihu were indicating one of two things: either that they held the power to consume the burnt offerings alongside God, or that they didn’t trust God to send holy fire to consume said burnt offerings.

Either way, God literally just established a new covenant with Israel, and can’t have these new priests going rogue so early in the game.  Nadab and Abihu’s deaths were a signal to Israel that God alone is almighty – only God has the power to consume the burnt offerings; and that God is always ready to act – holy fire will always be sent for the burnt offering, and sin can and will be punished when it happens.

That is one punitive God, and I hope not the same one that I’m counting on.  This story has, in fact, opened up some uncomfortable lines of questioning for me, which have lain dormant for some time.  In a nutshell, is God as omnipotent as loving as we would wish Xyr to be?

In college I first came across the idea of the evolution of God in Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God.  I’m paraphrasing like crazy here, but basically there is a line of thought that believes the God of the Old Testament is a different God than the God of the New Testament.  Either a lesser God was overthrown and replaced with a new God, or the old God turned into something new with the arrival of Jesus.  And there is plenty of evidence to support this idea:  The God of the Old Testament looks nothing like Jesus and the Holy Father.  The Old Testament God is vengeful and punitive – wiping entire villages or nations out because they have committed some offense or stand in the way of God’s chosen people.  Additionally, the Old Testament God “hardens the heart” of Pharaoh and others so that they won’t listen to the warnings of holy men, like Moses, which just seems unnecessarily cruel to everyone involved.

The God of the Old Testament kills his priests after one mistake.  Not a warning, not a demotion or removal from office, not even banishment: straight to an abrupt and painful death without warning.  And then, their father isn’t even allowed to fully mourn for them.  Moses, as the mouthpiece of God, makes it clear to Aaron that he and his remaining sons have to keep on fulfilling their duties in the Temple:  No ripping their clothes or letting their hair grow long (traditional signs of mourning), they must keep up their ceremonial dietary restrictions, and no drinking.  They aren’t even allowed to leave and bury the bodies of these two dead sons because that would make them ceremonially unclean. How poor Aaron must feel I can only imagine.  His marked silence in verse three speaks volumes. The words he must be holding back in grief, in fear, in anger are too much for any spoken language.  When he does finally speak, in verse nineteen, we can still hear his anguish.  “Such things as this have happened to me today,” he says, referring to his sons’ deaths. “Would the Lord be have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?”  Aaron is too deep in mourning to provide the grateful heart necessary for receiving the gifts from God’s altar.  He recognizes that in himself, and instead of bringing further wrath upon his own person, he abstains as respectfully as possible.  Additionally, fasting may have been the only way he could actively and outwardly mourn his sons given the circumstances.

What hard, vindictive God would wound a father so?  Specifically a man he called to be the first high priest of a New Covenant with a chosen people?  Clearly, this is a different God than the God of forgiveness, of pure love, that we come to know through Jesus Christ.

So what happened?  Did God change?  Because an evolution of God would imply that God was not perfect and whole at one point, and therefore may not be perfect now.  It also means it might be possible for our God of Love to change again, into something new and even better than a God of Love, or back into something more demanding and vengeful.  The idea of an imperfect, changeable God – or even worse, a God who can be challenged and even overthrown by another deity – is a terrifying prospect.  It would mean the rock upon which we have founded our faith as Christians is not as stable as we were lead to believe.

I’m not ready to believe the foundation of my faith is unstable.  Perhaps some people will call the explanation I’m about to give a textbook example of rationalizing – but really, isn’t any theological talk just rationalizing in some form or another?  There really is no way to know God, that is why faith is required of us instead.  But here’s the conclusion I came to:  God has not changed, but we have.

Let’s go back to parenting again, my favorite long-running analogy.  Your relationship with your parents changes as you get older.  You go from complete dependence to complete independence.  Their authority goes from total authority to varying degrees of influence, depending upon the relationship you have with them.  As hard as the God of the Old Testament seems, perhaps that was the God that Israel needed then.  The punishment of Nadab and Abihu was swift and severe, especially from today’s standpoint.  But remember: the covenant with Israel had just been established – this is a nation brand new in it’s faith.  Yes, the Israelites had been worshiping Yahweh for some time, but it was a completely new chapter with new rules (literally new rules, like the ten commandments) in a new country.  Boundaries had to be established, and quickly.  The extreme reaction to Nadab and Abihu’s unauthorized offering helped establish those boundaries and demonstrate the God was very much in charge.  You know, the more I think about it the less it sounds like parenting (because what newborn is really going to challenge your authority?) and more like training a puppy: as an owner, you have to establish your alpha position early on.  But I think the underlying point is clear:  God was demonstrating Xyr power.

I also want to point out that nowhere are Nadab and Abihu condemned beyond death.  While their brothers and father are not allowed to participate in their funeral rites, they do, in fact, receive funeral rites, officiated by their cousins and uncle.  In this I take great comfort.  I like to think that their death was the only atonement needed for their sin of arrogance, and that on the other side of it God said something to them along the lines of,  “I had to make an example of you two, you understand.  Your presumptuousness could not be the leading example for the new covenant with Israel, and had to be dealt with harshly.  Your deaths have served a great purpose, all is now right and you are fully forgiven.  Come and be with me now, my children.”

I don’t think we’re fully spiritually mature yet, but it’s a phase I’m looking forward to.  I’m blessed with a good relationship with my parents. Getting to know them as adults has been really wonderful. When you think about it, it is an amazing thing to have someone who has known and loved me since before I’ve even known myself.  I’m mature enough now to hear family stories – both funny and sad – that perhaps I wasn’t privy to as a child and allow for a lot of family and personal insight.  They trust me in (most of my) decisions but can still offer sound advice when I need it.  I want that kind of relationship with God, too.  My ardent hope is that we are, collectively, older and wiser than the Israelites wandering around the desert, new in their faith.  I hope that we have grown, and that our relationship with God has grown into one where we are ready for more than just a God of strict discipline, but a God of love and forgiveness.  Like good children, even and maybe especially good adult children, let’s keep working to prove to God that this is true, and in turn I have a feeling that our relationship with God will just keep getting better.  Perhaps one day we’ll even be able to ask God directly about Nadab and Abihu, and fully understand all sides of the story.  Lord, let it be so.

Matthew 13 – The Importance of Preparation

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

31 He told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables,
    I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there.54 Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him.

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”

58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

Just as a marathon runner trains for their sport, just as a musician practices their art, we must properly prepare our hearts for Jesus.  Or, as Jesus puts it, the soil of our hearts must be made ready to receive his message.  Then, and only then, will our hearts (and his message) grow.

I think this is a beautiful idea that illustrates God’s understanding of our fallible human selves.  The disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables right after he delivers the first parable, the Parable of the Sower.  Jesus answers them, “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been revealed to you, but not to them.”  In other words, “y’all already get it, but the others have some catching up to do.”  And Jesus wants to give us the time and the tools to do that catching up.  The parables allow us to come at Jesus’ message from an angle, working up to a full understanding of what he is and what he requires of us.  Because let’s be honest, even after 2000 years of Christian tradition, it can be kind of overwhelming to hear.  Can you imagine how it was to be around, in Jesus’ time, hearing his message for the very first time?  Your sins are forgiven and you shall have life everlasting as a child of God?  What the….

Let’s focus on that Parable of the Sower, because I see the others in this chapter as supporting parables.  Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower to his disciples starting in v. 18.  Seed that falls on the path is an analogy for those who hear the message but don’t understand it; seed on the rocky places is for those that hear the message and rejoice, but it doesn’t “take root;” seed that falls in the weeds is for those who let their faith be choked by the world’s troubles and distractions, and then seed in the good soil is those who hear, understand, and apply Jesus’ message.

Upon the initial reading it sounds a little like predestination: only a special, pre-selected few will receive the Good News, and everyone else is condemned.  But what farmer or gardener do you know that just spreads their seed willy-nilly all over the path, the rocks, the weeds?  Sure, a little bit might get there due to wind or spillage, but by and large they are careful where they plant their seed, making sure the soil is good and ready.  So really, I see this parable as Jesus calling us to prepare our hearts for him.  Are the weeds of life choking you?  Then start weeding-simplify, refocus, whatever you need to do to get to a place where you’re ready to receive God’s message for you.  Is the soil of your faith rocky and shallow?  Build it up!  Fertilize with friendships and community support.  Have you been completely abandoned to the elements, like the seed on the path?  I don’t know what that individual can do, but maybe that means it’s our responsibility, as a society, to see what we can do for them.  So you see, we aren’t abandoned or predestined, but rather being invited to fully prepare ourselves for Jesus’ message and God’s purpose for our lives.

Then, when we are ready, when the tiny mustard seed of Faith is planted in good soil, it will grow to great heights.  It will pervade every aspect of our lives, just as yeast does in a well worked dough.  In the right conditions, Faith is strong, tenacious, and pervasive.  But just like practicing a sport or an art, or preparing a garden, it takes some work to get there.  Jesus knows that and is okay with waiting on us to catch up, he just wants to see us making progress.  Get out there and practice kindness, practice love.  Get out there and weed away whatever is distracting you from doing those things, and you will find your understanding, like a treasure buried in a field or a merchant looking for fine pearls.  What beautiful things you can grow with God’s help, I can’t wait to see.

***

I know there is a lot I didn’t get to here, like the separating of the weeds and wheat or the good and bad fish; and Jesus’ less-than-cordial welcome back to his hometown. But the beauty of the Gospels is these stories are often told in more than one book, so we have a chance to revisit them and examine a different aspect next time we come across them.  So don’t worry, I’m not ignoring them, this is just what I was moved to focus upon this time.