Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Follow Up, the Source of Ethics, and the Reason for Sabbath

Let me begin today by following up from yesterday.  In one of my posts yesterday I was thinking about the nature/purpose of the Law.  The point I was trying to get across was that the Torah is about developing character, not following rules.  I'm afraid some might read my post from yesterday and think, "He's one of those liberals that think rules are pointless."  Well, in some areas I may be liberal, but I do value the place and purpose of rules.  N.T. Wright wrote a book last year titled After You Believe.  I just got it over Christmas and I'm not very far into it yet, but you can listen to a lecture given on the same content of the book here.  The point of the book is Christian development.  He begins the book by discussing two myths Western culture seems to hold about the nature of good/valuable behavior.  One myth is the myth that being a good person is about following the rules.  The other is the myth that being a good person means being genuine.  Both of these myths miss the mark because both of these myths actually fail in forming individuals into better people, or in a Christian context, helping individuals form into the image of Christ.  An obsession with rules shows a valuing of framework over function.  An obsession with being genuine or "being yourself" assumes that there is no need for growth or change.  Neither is acceptable because what God seems to be up to in his interaction with humans is helping us develop our nature and character.  What God is focusing on is developing Christian virtue.

That having been said, here's a few musings from yesterday's reading (sorry on getting this out a day late).  Exodus 22 continues on from chapter 21 with more instruction from God.  Part of the chapter deals with social expectations.  Specifically, I appreciate this:

"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.  If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans."

I love how God roots the source of Hebrew ethics in what he has done for them.  Why uphold the rights of the resident alien?  Because you were resident aliens.  Why protect widows and orphans?  Because I protected your widows and orphans.  Ethics cannot exist without a standard of comparison, and God does not provide that standard willy-nilly.  His behavior is the standard.  God is not asking the Hebrews to do anything he has not already done for them.  Which brings up another interesting point: rescue comes with responsibility.

Christianity has lost a sense of this, I think.  We focus on salvation as gift so much that we refuse to think that God might actually expect a response for saving us.  Is salvation a gift?  Absolutely.  I have done nothing to earn it; however, that doesn't mean God doesn't then say to me, "Great!  I saved you!  Now go act like it."  Or to use Jesus' words to the woman caught cheating on her husband, "Has no one condemned you?  ...Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."  Gift, yes.  Grace, yes...but with an expected response.  My rescue comes with responsibility.

 One last thought, in Exodus 23 God repeats his desire for the Hebrews to keep the Sabbath, including a Sabbatical year every seventh year.  What I find interesting about this is his reason why.  Every seven years the Hebrews are not supposed to farm their fields so that "the poor of your people may eat.  ...You shall do the same with your vineyard and with your olive orchard."  As far as a Sabbath day, the purpose is related, "so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed."  For the most part, when I hear people discuss the idea of Sabbath, it's mostly in a self-centered way.  I am very guilty of this.  I'm stressed; I'm tired; I want a break.  And don't take my rhetoric too strongly, I believe I do need a Sabbath.  It does have personal value.  At the same time, where does God place the focus of his Sabbath?  He says the purpose behind the Sabbath is for the other.  Sabbath is for other people.  Part of keeping the Sabbath means letting go of our expectation that others serve us.  The purpose behind letting the fields go fallow for one year wasn't to let the land rest, but rather, in a time when seeds weren't hybrids and germinated, the poor who had no food source would have a feast year.  The Sabbath, both as a year and as a day, forced people to stop thinking in economic terms and start re-humanizing the people around them.

When's the last time your prayed Walmart would be closed on Saturdays so those workers could rest too?

Stopping point: Exodus 24

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