Monday, October 06, 2008

Reading Grace In The Old Testament

So, ER has an anonymous correspondent who does not seem to understand what "grace" is. I was thinking last night about my response and how it seemed an easy objection to it could be summed up as follows: "What about all that wrath of God in the Old Testament?"

That only works if one only reads selected passages, and does so without any sense of the whole body of work of the Hebrew Scriptures, and without taking in to account the broader context of the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments together.

There is quite a bit of Divine Anger aroused at Israel and Judah (mostly Judah, because the northern part of the divided kingdom was absorbed by Assyria and disappeared three and a half centuries before the southern kingdom was conquered), and one can read about it in any of the prophets. Yet, if one stops there, one gets an incomplete picture. Even those books that contain the most violent prophetic language usually come around to say something like, "How can I stay angry with you, my child? I have loved you for so long, and even in your transgressions, I still love you?"

The earliest stories in Genesis - of Adam and Even and the expulsion from the Garden; of Cain and God - are stories of Divine Grace (the "Mark of Cain" is not a sign of divine wrath but of divine grace, the protection Cain asks because he knows he will be hated by those who encounter him).

The story of Sodom is a good one to scare the kiddies with, but is more a way to get Lot out of the city, get his wife out of the way, and get his daughters impregnated so the traditional adversaries of the early kingdom - the Edomites, etc. - can be created.

The entire story of the Bible, if one is reading through the lens of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, is one not so much of divine wrath as it is of divine wrath transformed by love in to grace. The idea that we have "to get right with God" in order to call ourselves Christians misses the point; we can't get right with God, but that's OK because makes us right before God. Being a Christian isn't about getting a bunch of words right, or even whether or not we curse, drink, smoke, support gay marriage and abortion rights, but whether or not we love our neighbors as ourselves. Being a Christian isn't about listening to contemporary Christian music and having fish bumper stickers on our cars. Being a Christian is about living for others, and remembering that we are followers of Jesus. Being a Christian isn't about getting a free pass through the Pearly Gates, but living our lives so that, as the prophet said, justice can roll down like water.

We can get sidetracked by all sorts of things in the Bible if we allow ourselves. It is far more important to remember that we Christians have a key to understanding the story of God and humanity not in the story of Noah, or Sodom, or the life of Elijah/Elisha, or even the first two chapter of the prophet Amos. The key is the story of Jesus, and what his life means for us, and how we remember what he taught us and how he taught us - that love for others, even love to the point of a humiliating death - is far more important than adherence to any creed or set of practices, no matter how "religious" they may be. This is so because, as the first epistle of John says, "God first loved us."

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