God in Context

Background  

Last Thursday in our Episcopal 101 class we began to look at the Bible. In everyday speech we often refer to the Bible as a book. One of the things that people are often surprised to learn is that name Bible comes from a Greek word that does not mean book, but library. The Bible is more properly a library of books in a single binding.

All the books of the Bible address the core themes of our human experience of God. I am fond of the comment that everything in the Bible is true, and some of it actually happened. The Bible expresses truth, not because it is the product of divine dictation, but because its truth speaks directly to our difficult and painful human struggle of being in relationship with God.

Not everything in the Bible agrees with everything else in the Bible. This confuses modern people shaped by a scientific approach to the use of language. How can we know what to believe?  Amidst competing claims, how can we decide what is true and what is not?  Some Christians solve this dilemma by casting doubt aside and insisting that everything agrees with everything else under the cover of it being God’s divinely dictated word. Other Christians explain the Bible away as a series of interesting myths, the product of past pre-scientific cultures, having as much value as Greek mythology as a practical guide for living life in the 21st Century.

As Episcopalians our approach to the Bible has been strongly influenced by our understanding that the relationship we have with God never takes place within a timeless vacuum. Christianity, like Judaism is a historical religion, meaning that the relationship with God is shaped by events in time and space. God communicates with us through becoming involved in the events not only of our history, but the events of our present-day lives. The reason for the huge variance between scriptural writings is that each book is the product of an exploration of human relationship with God as seen from within a particular social, political, and economic context. Rather than timeless, scripture is contextual, and herein lies its truth value!

The problem with context is that it is always relative. This is one of the laws of the universe with which we just have to live. Context allows for both a discovery, and a concealing, of God. Our context allows us to discover important elements in our relationship with God while at the same time hiding from us other perspectives on God. That is why we need the Biblical record. It communicates tradition to us. As the living past, Tradition is the Church’s interpretation of the record of Scripture.

Tradition works to keep our experience and perspective on God wider than our own context might otherwise allow. Yet, the task in each generation is to sit in the tension of having to interpret the Tradition of the living past in a way that equips us to meet the challenges we face living in our context of 21st Century America.

Each Sunday, through the Lectionary of readings given for the particular day, God speaks to us as we gather as the people of God in worship. Through hearing how context has shaped the different ways the people of God, Hebrew as well as Christian, have grappled with their experience of relationship with God, we are invited to do likewise; to grapple with the demands of being in relationship with God within our own time and place.

Application I

In the Old Testament Reading from Job,  Job in the strongest possible terms, challenges God. Who is this God whom Job challenges? This is the God of Job’s culture and context. This is the God of easy answers and trite explanations for complex matters. Job is undergoing a devastating experience of loss and persecution and the wisdom of his friends rests on a conventional view of God, who says to Job: if disaster befalls you it must be your fault so suck it-up!

Job is the example of a human being able to breakout of the straightjacket of his religious and social conditioning. In confronting God, Job uses an element of his context to expand, through direct challenge, his understanding of God. Job expects his redeemer to vindicate him.

The term redeemer is so familiar to Christians that we automatically assume that although Job would not have been aware of doing so, he was implicitly referring to Christ, the redeeming second person of the Trinity. However, in Job’s time a redeemer was usually a human guardian whose role was to offer protection for an individual against the harsh impact of economic misfortune. Using his contextual understanding of redeemer Job pits his culture’s limited view of God against an expanded expectation of how God should be in relationship with him.

I am attracted by the idea that Job is breaking free of his world’s social construction of God – a God who amuses himself by giving and taking with equal capriciousness. Job expands  his expectation of God challenging God to give an account of their relationship. That is the audacity of Job’s demand. Job breaks new ground and moves well beyond the limitations of his culture’s social imagination of God.

Application II

Luke gives us another story about Jesus in argument with the Jewish authorities. Usually, Luke presents Jesus in argument with the Pharisees. Here, Jesus is accosted by another group known as the Sadducees. For once the Pharisees are his supporters.

The Sadducees were the aristocratic, priestly class whose political power centered in the Temple and its rituals. There were significant political and religious differences between Sadducees and Pharisees. Politically, the Sadducees collaborated with the Roman Occupation in order to protect their privileged status and power. The Pharisees were stridently nationalistic. Religiously, the Sadducees and the Pharisees differed on the belief in resurrection.

Both the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus shared a belief in resurrection, which at the time of Jesus was a theologically progressive doctrine. It emerges out of the Pharisees acceptance of the oral tradition of Prophets augmenting the Torah. Both Pharisees and Jesus’ followers saw resurrection as a sign of the in-breaking of God’s reign through the coming of the Messiah. What they disagreed on was the identity of the Messiah. The Sadducees, being religiously conservative held firmly to an interpretation of the Torah that did not allow any theological development.

Using the inheritance practices prescribed by the Law of Moses where a widow became an inherited item of property, passing like other pieces of property to her husband’s brother, the Sadducees sought to entrap Jesus in a scenario that made the concept of resurrection seem ridiculous. Jesus does not argue with them he simply replies that the laws of this world do not apply in the world to come.

Context

In any society there are religious groups who are very happy with the status quo and see God as supporting the maintenance of the status quo. There are other religious groups whose hope is for God to reverse the injustices of this world in the world to come.

The content of Luke’s story is particular to 1st Century occupied Palestine. But the context is the universal struggle between those whose religious perspective imprisons God in the limitations of the status quo, and those like Job, whose religious perspective challenges the status quo leading to an understanding of God that breaks free of social and religious constraints.

How does our context shapes our perspective of relationship with God? The authority of the Scriptures is honored, not when the solutions of past are imposed upon our experience, but when we struggle to expand our picture of God as appropriate for our own context, just as previous generations did in theirs.

In this period of stewardship renewal we are called upon to question our social assumptions that the fruits of our labor are attributable to our own efforts and are therefore, ours to control. When gratitude replaces pride of accomplishment as the source of our reflection on the best use of our resources in support of our Trinity community we are directly challenging the social assumptions of our materialist society.

Job expected God to give an account for God’s actions. This is a two way street. From the relative security and privilege of our own social location God likewise asks that we also give account for our willingness to see, or to remain blind, to the expectations of the Kingdom of God in our own time and place.

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