Paul’s Version of the Nativity

painting of Tiananmen Square image
Image credit: <a href="">Michael Mandiberg</a>

Galatians 4:4-7

But when the time was right, God sent God’s son, born of a woman, subject to the law, so that everyone subject to the law could be reclaimed and adopted into God’s family. And, since you’re family, your hearts share the spirit of God’s son, so you can call God, Daddy. You’re not slaves any more. You’re sons and daughters. You’re God’s children and heirs.

These short lines are as close as Paul comes to saying anything about the nativity. But unlike the gospel’s accounts, which go out of their way to elaborate on the extra-natural character of Jesus’ birth, Paul’s whole point is to show how much Jesus’ lot is the same as everyone else’s.

So there is no reference to virginity. Jesus is born of a woman (Greek: gunaikos), which is as much to say, at least so far as his earthly lot is concerned, he puts his pants on one leg at a time. He’s subject to the same law as the rest of us. And for Paul’s theology, this sameness is the essential link to get the rest of us back to God.

But even if you can’t swallow Paul’s theology, it’s still worth noting that, however you want to construct it, the whole Jesus enterprise is aimed at setting people free. And it’s accomplished by people who put their pants on one leg at a time. People like Jesus and like you and like me.

In that sense, it’s the ultimate democratic movement.

Jesus and Civil Disobedience

Jesus bus
Photo credit: <a href="">Seth Anderson</a>

Mark 2:23-28

One Sunday, as Jesus crossed a field where grain was growing, his students picked some of the grain. The legalists confronted him, saying, “Look! What they’re doing is breaking the blue laws.”

He told them, “Haven’t you ever read the story of King David? How he and his friends were hungry and got the food they needed by taking the bread out of the Temple, from the special holy stash kept only for the priests. David ate it and gave it to his friends.” Jesus continued, “The day of rest was made for people, not people for the day of rest. So, if you’re human, you get to decide about your day of rest.”

Yes, technically, historically, it would have been Saturday. Well, it could have been Friday after sundown. But our Blue Laws in the US were about Sunday. Go to a historically Muslim country and it will be Friday. Many Pastors take Monday as their “Sabbath” and are just as legalistic about it as any Pharisee.

The point is not which day. The point is what the day is about. We need a rest that is truly restful and re-creative. On a personal level no amount of legislation can enact it. Legislation is to protect against business and commerce precluding the opportunity. The 40 hour work week. The requirement that employees get a day off. These are safeguards against abuse. What you do with your time off is up to you.

More broadly, there is another issue. It’s what happens when laws enacted as safeguards are re-interpreted in ways that become abusive. Laws originally meant to provide shelters that will increase opportunity (say that corporations are given some legal protections afforded individuals), are misinterpreted in ways that institutionalize unfair advantages and preclude opportunity (corporations become de facto legal persons).

In other words, what Jesus means is: the law is supposed to serve people; people are not slaves to the law. Even Augustine realized that “an unjust law is no law at all.” (On Free Choice Of The Will, Book 1, ยง 5)

It’s the foundation on which Christian civil disobedience and non-violent protest is based.

Now that You’re Here, What Will You Do?

road in desert
Photo credit: <a href="">Chalky Lives</a>

Isaiah 40:1-11

“Comfort my people,” says God.
“Speak softly to Jerusalem.
And sing to her that she is free,
Her debt paid in full,
And she has received twice as much from God as she deserved.”

So a voice shouts:
“Make a road for God through the wasteland,
Make a highway for God run straight through the desert.
Fill in every valley.
Bring down every mountain and hill.
Level off he uneven ground.
Flatten the bumps.

“When it’s ready, the greatness of God will be obvious,
And everyone will recognize it in that instant,
Because God said so.”

A voice shouts:
“Shout it out!”

And I said,
“Shout what out?”

People are like grass,
They’re as flimsy as wildflowers.
The stalks dry up and the flowers wilt
When the wind of God blows on them.
Surely, people are grass.
The stalks dry up and the flowers wilt,
But what God says is permanent.

Go to the mountaintop,
Messenger of Zion’s good news,
And there shout out,
Messenger of Jerusalem’s good news.
Don’t be afraid to say it loud
To the cities of Judah:
“Here is God!
Here is God coming with power,
Arm upraised in victory,
Bringing the victor’s trophy,
God’s prize is God’s vanguard.

God will tend the flock like a shepherd.
God will gather the lambs in an embrace,
And hug them close,
And God will gently lead the ewes.

In spite of impermanence there is hope.

All we, like the wildflowers are here today and gone tomorrow. All we, like sheep, are just another dot on the landscape. And yet this poem has the audacity to claim that there is hope. Somehow, we are significant to someone somewhere. Someone cares. Cares enough to take up our cause, to make a way to us, and to lead us home again.

It’s an even more audacious claim now than it was then. Now we know that our existence is as one among the 7 billion inhabitants on the planet, and one planet among the billions scattered across the universe. Could it be true that some divine element or being “out there” has marked us, personally, for some kind of special significance? Or is the prophet merely hearing voices in his head?

Consider, though, that the occasion for this poem was the emancipation of a captive people. After being held in exile for a generation, they were being told they could finally go home. And that was, historically, something that happened that nobody had any reason to expect. It was an overwhelmingly fortunate turn of events. The kind of event that happens (or we hear about it happening to others) and we say, “Someone must have been looking out for us.”

A near miss of a traffic collision. A lucky break at work. No fatalities when a plane goes down in the Hudson River. Even the Goldilocks conditions of the universe that makes life possible on this planet seem to collude in a way that appears to replicate intelligence and care. (And this is the basis for the argument of intelligent design.) It’s the dream of hitting the lottery made all the more addicting because someone somewhere does hit the lottery every week with statistical certainty.

But for all the poem’s majesty and exaltation, the most compelling words are the question implicit in what’s sung tenderly to Jerusalem: Now that you’ve hit the lottery, and (however it happened) you’ve showed up on the planet with twice as much as you deserve, what are you going to do with it? How will you exercise your freedom, now that you are free?

Will you pay it forward, and make a road for someone else to get to freedom so they can sing too?

Your Choice: Live Free or Die

protestor taking self portrait
Photo credit: Jason Hargrove

Mark 8:34-38

He called the crowd and his students together and told them:

“If you want to be my follower, you’ll have to put your willingness to be executed for treason against your overlords ahead of your own concerns to follow me. If you’re concerned with saving your own skin, you’re as good as dead. But whoever dies for me and and for the sake of this mission will really live. What’s it worth to have the whole world if you’re dead? Really, what will you trade your life away for? Whoever is embarrassed by their association with of me and what I say because you want to fit in with all the cheating and corruption going on – the chosen one will consider them embarrassments when that one comes with the splendor of God commanding heaven’s legions.”

Taking up your cross is not putting up with your kids’ mess. It’s not having to chair the church supper committee because no one else will do it. Jesus doesn’t care about the mess or the church supper committee.

The cross was a punishment reserved by the Roman empire for a very specific crime: Treason against the empire by a non-citizen. In other words, for rebels convicted of trying to take down the empire. This was what Jesus was convicted of, and Jesus’ sentence: rebellion.

In that context what he has to say about “taking up a cross” makes sense in the same way as New Hampshire’s state motto coined during the American revolution: Live free or die.

What’s the use in living if you’re living as a slave? If you can’t be who you are really meant to be? That’s Jesus’ question. And having a lot of stuff doesn’t change the basic equation of life. People who have so much you’d think they should be overwhelmingly happy lead lonely addicted lives. Michael Jackson. Charlie Sheen. Marilyn Monroe. Elvis Presley. On and on it goes. The whole world eating out of the palm of their hand. And as good as dead.

On the other hand, there are others who don’t have much at all, who change the world. Mostly we don’t know their names. Because by nature they don’t tend to call much attention to themselves. Because they know it’s not about them. But every now and then we learn their names: Cesar Chavez, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa.

The point is what you’re ready to give your life for. You can’t keep it. So what will you do? What meaning will your short span of years take on? Jesus says that to follow him you can’t just go through the motions. You have to live. You have to be free. And you have to make a difference. Even if it means making some people – people who want you to “stay in your place and be quiet” – want to kill you.

Your choice: live free or die.
But Jesus would much rather you live.