Thursday, November 24, 2011

Let Justice Roll Down (Amos 5:24)

Complete: “Let justice roll down like waters, and ________________________________________.” Righteousness like an everflowing stream [or mighty stream] (Amos 5:24)

Amos prophesied in the eighth century before Christ during the reign of Jeroboam II (II Kings 13:13, 14:16, 23, 27, 28, 29, 15:1, 8; 1 Chronicles 5:17; Hosea 1:1; Amos 1:1, 7:9, 10). One of Amos’ major themes is social justice. Even though he categorizes Israel as being unjust, he readily admits that the people have maintained an outward appearance of worship.

Amos argues against such ritualistic religion. In discussing the Day of the Lord (Amos 5:18-27), Amos informs his audience that God will not accept worship from a community that does not value justice and righteousness (Amos 5:21-23). After stating what God does not want but is receiving, Amos erupts with what God does want but is not receiving:

“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24 NASB)
Amos 5:24 has become a well know exhortation. Thomas J. Finley (b. 1945) lauds, “In one masterful stroke Amos summarizes the heart of what God requires (Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah - An Exegetical Commentary, 222).”

Amos, a shepherd in his former life (Amos 1:1, 7:14), drew upon imagery he knew well - the importance of water. The prophet often draws upon the calamity of drought to illustrate his points (Amos1:2, 4:7-8, 7:4). While desert streams would often dry up Amos, like Psalms and Ezekiel (Psalms 74:15; Ezekiel 47:1-12), pictures an ever flowing stream.

Amos’s famous claim that God rejects hollow worship is a bold reiteration of Amos 5:14-15 and echoes Isaiah 1:10-17. James Luther Mays (b. 1921) summarizes: “The hatred of Yahweh against the worship of his people–that is the shock of this word. Righteousness in the courts and markets instead of liturgies and offerings in the shrines–that is the Revelation in this word (Mays, Amos: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 106).”

Simply put, God does not want worship from an unjust people. Thomas Edward McComiskey (1928-1996) reminds that God “wants worship in spirit and in truth. True worshipers of the Lord, who do worship in spirit and in truth, will bear the fruit of the Spirit in their private lives and in their public conduct. In their society, justice will flow like healing waters (Ezekiel 47:1-12) and righteousness like a perennial wadi (McComiskey, The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, 432).”

Do you behave differently in church than you do in society? What is the relationship between righteousness and justice? How do your religious beliefs directly help the most poor and needy in your community?

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), a Baptist preacher by trade, alluded to this passage in his legendary “I Have A Dream Speech”. On August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King called for racial equality and an end to discrimination. In the speech’s tenth stanza, King exclaimed, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Did Dr. King use Amos 5:24 properly? What groups now are as deprived of justice as African-Americans were in 1963? How is your religion helping to eliminate that injustice?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Entertaining Angels (Hebrews 13:2)

Complete: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for ___________________________________________.” Thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2)

Hebrews concludes with a series of exhortations. The first is to love one another, philadelphia (Hebrews 13:1) and is followed by a directive to show hospitality, philoxenia (Hebrews 13:2).

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2 NASB)
The text moves from loving inside of the community to demonstrating love outside its borders. The word rendered “hospitality” (philoxenia) literally means a love of strangers. The word is used only here (Hebrews 13:2) and in Romans 12:13 in the New Testament. Kathleen Norris (b. 1947) writes, “True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) has described it as receiving the stranger on his own terms, and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts’ (Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, 197).”

Hospitality was a primary virtue in the ancient world. Caring for strangers was a solemn responsibility in the Old Testament (Genesis 18:1-8, 19:1-3; Judges 19:19-21; Job 31:32) and practiced by the New Testament church (Acts 10:23, 21:16, 28:7). Hebrews’ mandate fits with Jesus’ teaching that hospitality extends to those who cannot possibly repay it (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 14:1-14).

The ancients placed special emphasis on providing lodging as inns were typically places of ill repute and travelers naturally preferred accommodation in private residences. Peter T. O’Brien (b. 1935) explains, “Among Jews and Gentiles alike, hospitality to strangers was highly regarded, and even considered a religious obligation. It usually involved lodging as well as food and drink (O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 506).”

How would you define hospitality? Who is the most hospitable person you know? Where would you rank hospitality among the virtues?

Hebrews adds an incentive to follow this mandate with a tantalizing potentiality - in demonstrating hospitality, one might be entertaining an angel in disguise (Hebrews 13:2)! Hebrews devotes a section to the cosmic pecking order and includes that humans rank slightly lower than their angelic counterparts (Hebrews 2:5-9). In claiming that a stranger may in actuality be an angel, the author is in effect advising to treat all strangers as if they were God’s direct emissaries because they might well be. The enticement serves the same function as the fable of the king who anonymously inserted his child into the community so that each child would be treated as though they were the prince. People tend to treat someone differently whom they feel is of a superior ilk.

There was precedent for unknowingly entertaining angels. While Gideon (Judges 6:11-21), Manoah (Judges 13:3-20) and Tobit (Tobit 3:17, 5:4-16) all encountered unrecognizable angels, the most notable case is that of Abraham (Genesis 18:2-15). George H. Guthrie (b. 1959) reminds, “The supreme paradigm for hospitality in early Jewish literature was the hospitality of Abraham, shown to his heavenly visitors (Genesis 18:2-15), which is probably alluded to in Hebrews 13:2 (Guthrie, NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, 435-6).”

Despite the precedence, interacting with disguised angels is a rarity, even in the Bible. With this in mind, F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) comments that the author “is not necessarily encouraging his readers to expect that those whom they entertain will turn out to be supernatural beings traveling incognito; he is assuring them that some of their visitors will prove to be true messengers of God to them, bringing a greater blessing than they receive (Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 371).”

What is the purpose of disguised angelic visits? How common do you feel this experience is? When have you been unfamiliar with someone you have entertained? Do you feel you have ever interacted with an angel? If you did, how would you know?

“Insight is better than eyesight when it comes to seeing an angel.” - Eileen Elias Freeman (b. 1947), The Angels’ Little Instruction Book

Monday, November 21, 2011

When Saul was Paul (Acts 7:58)

Who watched Stephen being stoned? Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul)

Saul, who will eventually evolve into Paul the hero of the second half of the book of Acts, makes an ignominious Biblical debut. Almost as an aside, Saul is implicated in the martyrdom of Stephen as the executioners placed their cloaks at the feet of the future apostle while carrying out their task (Acts 7:58).

When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:58 NASB)
Like Barnabas (Acts 4:36) and Philip (Acts 6:5) before him, Luke introduces Paul with a cameo appearance before adding him to the main cast. C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) applauds, “The introduction in the last words of the verse of a young man called Saul is a fine touch of Luke’s dramatic instinct (Barrett, Acts of the Apostles: A Shorter Commentary, 110).”

At the time of the incident, Saul was an upstart Jew and an eyewitness to the dispute between the Jewish mainstream and the new offshoot in Jerusalem. He is described as a neanias (“young man”), a term that indicates that he was “from about the 24th to the 40th year (BAGD, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 534).” Given his involvement in the stoning, it has been suggested that he belonged to the Cilician synagogue that opposed Stephen (Acts 6:9).

Saul is mentioned as the killers laid their cloaks at his feet. The Mishnah (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:3) required a stoning victim to be stripped but here it is the executors who remove their clothing. Like a pitcher removing his warm up jacket before throwing fast balls, this act was to aid them in better hurling stones.

Saul himself did not throw stones as witnesses were to play this role in executions (Deuteronomy 13:9-10, 17:7; Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4). Though Saul guarded the clothes of the executioners, he was far more than a coat check attendant. He was culpable in the action. At the very least, Saul gives approval and not just passing consent (Acts 8:1) and at worst, he supervised. Elsewhere, when Luke uses the expression “at the feet” it carries a connotation of leadership (Acts 4:35, 37). Saul likely aided and abetted in the murder of an innocent man.

This incident of Saul’s life serves as a before picture to show the dramatic change the after snapshot conveys. Saul was a villain. He will lead a systematic inquisition against the early Christian movement, not only seeking followers in Jerusalem (Acts 7:58, 8:1-3, 9:1, 21, 22:2-4, 26:10) but going door to door in foreign cities as well (Acts 9:1, 14, 21, 22:5; 26:1). After his powerful experience on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-19), the persecutor would become the persecuted and the target of the type of attacks he once authorized (Acts 9:23-25, 29-30; II Corinthians 11:23-30).

What youthful indiscretion do you most regret? What impact did participating in Stephen’s death have on Paul’s life? Did Paul’s past as a persecutor in any way prepare him for his ministry? When reading of his later sufferings, do you ever feel bad for Paul?

Though much is made of Paul’s involvement in Stephen’s death, he was also present for Stephen’s final speech.

I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) surmises:

His [Stephen’s] last words were of forgiveness for his executors, and the close collocation of a reference to Saul suggests that we are meant to infer that the words had some effect on him. The reader is being prepared for what is to follow in chapter 9. (Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries),148)
Perhaps Paul’s sudden conversion may not be as acute as it first appears. Perhaps God had been priming him for his experience on the Damascus road. Perhaps Paul’s ministry was a direct answer to Stephen’s prayer for his executioners.

Though Paul never mentions Stephen in his letters, he does recall the martyr in a speech in Acts (Acts 22:20). Paul never forgot his misguided past. Years later, he lamented that “I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (I Corinthians 15:9 NASB).”

How much impact did his brief encounter with Stephen have on Paul? If it was meaningful, why did Paul never write of it? Has a brief encounter ever left a lasting imprint on your life?

“Sometimes the people whom we’ve know for only a short amount of time have a bigger impact on us than those we’ve known forever.” - Maya Angelou (b. 1928)