Archwood United Church of Christ- Cleveland OH
February 28th 2016
Ten years ago I boarded a bus in Asunción, the capital city of my native Paraguay, to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina. That is a 24 hour road trip to cross the almost 1300 miles of distance. I had traveled internationally before but that ride was a special one. I was going to meet with Kati in that city. At that time we were both campus pastors in an evangelical ministry. She was living in Chile and I was living in Paraguay. When we fell in love months before we had decided to cut off all communication because we thought the way we felt was a sin, coming from the conservative perspective we used to share. After one year of not seeing each other, however, we decided to meet in a neutral-ish space. We were going to meet with lgbt christians leaders there in Argentina that were helping us to reconcile our faith with our sexual orientation.
Everything was new for me and I was learning, but so many thoughts and ideas came to my mind during those long 24 hours in the bus. The most vivid memory is that I was terrified. I was afraid that God was going to punish me for seeing Kati again. I thought that there was going to be an accident provoked by God's anger to stop me from sining. I really thought that God was going to punish me.
My theology at that time came primarily from the interpretation of the hebrew bible where we can see this pattern: God promises blessings to Israel if they honor their covenant, then Israel fails, then God punishes them, then Israel repents, then God forgives them and institutes a new covenant or agreement. Later Israel fails again and the cycle repeats.
One particularly well-known part of this is the text about blessings and curses in Deuteronomy chapter 6, which says: “3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.”.
Before moving forward let me give some context on this; here I am quoting from the lectures of Presbyterian theologian Dr. Meredith Kline: “In the Ancient Near East, treaties between kings [were] common. These were treaties drawn up among equals and mostly outlined agreements to honor each other's boundaries, to maintain trade relations, and return run-away slaves. These treaties are preserved in the Mari Tablets and in the Amarna texts. Also preserved in these collections are treaties drafted between a superior and his inferior. If the relationship was familial or friendly, the parties are referred to as "father" and "son." If the relationship is bereft of kindness and intimacy, the parties are referred to as "lord" and "servant," or "king" and "vassal," or "greater king" and "lesser king." The greater king is the suzerain and the lesser king is a prince, or a lesser lord in the service of the greater king. The lesser lord is a representative of all the common people who are under the protection of the greater king. He enforces the treaty among the masses. “1
So, the language that we find in the hebrew bible is that same language found in these Suzerein treaties I just mentioned. The people of God understood the power of God through the lens of the relationships of power used among the earthly leaders of that time.
That is why God is called “king” in the Bible, because kings were the most important kind of people that existed, and in many cultures they were taken as gods. If there was a covenant between this human king and a servant or “vassal”, and the servant failed at what he was supposed to do to keep that covenant, then there would be a punishment for him. The superior and more powerful party to the covenant never “broke” it, because whatever he did ended up being justified by his wisdom. You can see it was an oppressive situation for the servant. But that was the way that those societies worked, and we can see clearly how the writers in Exodus and Deuteronomy made good use of those customs. As Dr. Kline said, “The entire book of Moses is saturated with Suzerain Treaty language and structure. It is not properly the treaty document itself, but it is based upon such a treaty, making reference to it often”.2
It was a way to understand the world. It was a way to make sense of bad things that happened to Israel thought its history. In that context, I can see why they decided to create parameters and claim they were put in place by God, and the same with subsequent punishments if anyone made the mistake of not following the rules. I get why they did it... but I don't have to believe it's really what God would have wanted.
Let me explain why: for me it creates a very bad public relations disaster for God's character! Living as we do thousands of years after these treaties were created in the ancient near east, we can see that there exist other ways to understand God and the kinds of relationship we can have with the divine that are NOT based in fear and terror of his wrath.
On the other side of the same coin: I also don't believe that everything is going to go phenomenally for me, that I am going to have tremendous prosperity and happiness only if I am obedient and follow all the rules. No, I don't believe that, because the bible itself shows me that not only good things always happen to good people.
If we read through our bibles we'll see that almost all the prophets were persecuted and killed. John the Baptist, about whom Jesus says that there was no more important man than him, died decapitated after living as a homeless person in the desert. And then the apostles and followers of the way of Jesus in the first and second century of our common era were killed under the authority of the Roman Empire. Once christianity was institutionalized and became the official religion of the empire things changed; it became powerful. But that is another story.
Let's keep thinking about the blessings and the curses mentioned in the text and that we Christians try to understand as a part of our lives. Remember back to my story at the beginning, of taking the bus ride to see Kati. I was afraid of being punished during that ride because I wasn't completely sure that being a lesbian was ok. I had internalized homophobia because I had been taught that way and it takes years to clean our minds from such powerful, dangerous ideas.
Kati and I finally moved to live together in Buenos Aires in 2006 and I started seminary there. Some evangelical acquaintances of mine didn't know about my relationship with her but knew I was studying theology, and they wrote to me saying: “what a blessed journey you have started! You are so blessed!”. Then they heard about me and Kati and they took back what they said, instead to warn me about the doom that was coming over my head if I didn't repent.
Around that same time there was a pastor that cheated his wife and left her to live with his lover, and then a few months later he was walking on the street and was assaulted and killed. The christian people, aka the evangelical people, saw that tragic event as a clear message of God. God punished him. Meanwhile another important leader did the same cheating and came back to church with his new wife, the congregation accepted them, made excuses about the pastor's marriage, and now they are preaching the prosperity gospel loud and strong.
People interpret the same actions with different perspectives, and it always has to do with the context. If a person who is considered to be a sinner by those christians is diagnosed with cancer, then it is God's punishment, but if the illness comes to a devout member of their congregation then the interpretation is that God is testing his/her faith.
For many people, I am completely lost and deceived because I am married to a woman. They see my years of theological studies as a slap in God's face. But when they see a straight married person doing a 1 month course on the bible they write long effusive messages on facebook about how BLESSED that person is. It is relative. Blessings and curses depend on how people perceive their reality. The same is true about the writers of the scriptures that talk about blessings and curses; they were using a hierarchical structure to try to understand the Divine. Remember, that all the words and thoughts, and ideas that we have about God come from our human, limited, narrow mind.
And now let's address the text of today in Isaiah 55. The context of this scripture is when Israel is coming back from their exile by Babylon in the 6th century before the common era. Israel was besieged by the king of Babylon for 7 years and then were defeated and many of the population were deported. When Babylon was invaded by the Persian Empire, Israel was granted to come back to Judah.
Think about this: some of the people that had suffered the siege with hunger and thirst years before are now being promised water and food. People and their descendants that lost everything 70 years ago were coming back in a caravan through the desert and are being told that everything is going to be there in abundance and it will be free. No money needed.
This didn't turn out to be exactly true, unfortunately, because their land was taken by other authorities and very few Israelites stayed. So does that mean the text isn't “true”? Or could it be that we are just misunderstanding its purpose? This text is an spiel with a specific intent for its listeners: it is to infuse trust and hope. It is to energize the people that were coming back to start over.
Three centuries later Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and Israel was colonized again. And later came the Romans. Again, is it really the people's fault that all these invasions happened? Is it really true that only good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people?
There is a psalm where David asked God to punish one of his enemies that was so prosperous and successful that David was jealous. What can I say about Donald Trump, then, for example? He is super rich, and according to the logic of “be good and you will be blessed”, then he must be a super good christian, right?
Listen to this verse again: “55:1 Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Now think about Flint, Michigan and the situation there that has recently unfolded in the news. Think about the contaminated water that they have been drinking for years, and I quote Michael Moore: “you cannot reverse the irreversible brain damage that has been inflicted upon every single child in Flint. The damage is permanent. There is no medicine you can send, no doctor or scientist who has any way to undo the harm done to thousands of babies, toddlers and children”.
Are the residents of Flint bad people? Do they deserve this? NO, NO, and NO!
This is a catastrophe created by politicians. It happened because of greed, and racism, and lack of scruples.
Like in the context of being in captivity by your captors in an strange land, the text is intended not as a contract guaranteeing certain types of material wealth but rather to give hope amidst what looks like a lost cause.
“Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”
Life is possible in this difficult time. Maybe not the way that we envision with our human understanding of being blessed when we obey the rules. But it is possible by walking the path that is new for us. Thinking in a different way. Leaving behind those ideas of who deserves what and realizing that EVERYBODY should have the minimum necessary to have a dignity in their lives.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways”.
The scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit but they were written by human beings and many of our human ideas are used there to represent God and her divine will. But maybe God found a crack there in this text, and maybe she is saying between the lines: “Hey, this is not all I have to say; I have new ways, other ways that you need to find by walking in community. Come and try!”
Ten years ago I arrived safe and sound in Buenos Aires after my long bus ride. I started thinking about God in a better way. I started on a new path to get to know the divine through Jesus' life on earth and putting behind the violent vengeful god (lower case “g”). It is a process to start seeing how these different biblical perspectives of God can refer to the same divine person based on the realities of each person writing and reading the different parts of the bible. It is a process, it is made step by step we can travel together in community, and I invite you to consider attending the bible studies based on the gospel of Luke starting in few weeks here at Archwood. Let's try to find God's ways together! Thank you.
1Notes from lectures of Dr. Meredith Kline.