Food for Thought-Late Lent Without Sadomasochism

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I’ve been thinking about Lent. We are over half-way through this most sacred season and I’m wondering what we’ve accomplished. As Holy Week looms over the horizon, I’m also considering what comes next. Up to this point, things have been relatively easy. We may have missed a few sodas, candy, or internet time. But as we turn the corner toward the home stretch, things start to change. The Lenten expectations became darker and the language you hear around church becomes harsher. Without realizing what we’re saying or doing, we’ve become involved in the confusing emotional melee which marks our memories of the final days of Jesus of Nazareth.

For understandable and historic reasons, the end of Lent has been the time that Christians want to talk about and focus on the sufferings of Jesus. Isn’t it all about the suffering, one might ask? I don’t know. Discussions of Jesus’ sufferings can very easily deteriorate into a sadomasochistic-like blow by blow depiction of torture which focuses on blood, pain, and soldiers beating a man to death with leather whips. Those kinds of sermons, Bible studies, and presentations aren’t about the Gospel. They are about those who enjoy fear and those who are exploited by such fears. You cannot preach about hope by forcing people to stare into the face of fear and pain. Yet, we force ourselves to submit to this lie year after year.

We have grown to thrive on the blood and the brutality of Lent. As the days wind down and we approach Palm Sunday, the imagery of violence increases exponentially. This is not only in the Biblical text but in the way we decorate (draping the chancel in black) our churches (nails, hammers, whips, crowns of thorns on the altar) and in the language of the “bloody” hymns we sing. It does seem that if Jesus is being tortured for our sins, we’re going to pull out all of the stops and enjoy the show. We want to experience the fright in a first hand way as teenagers do when they go see “the” big horror movie of the summer season. Jesus is dying for our sins and we want front row seats, we want to see it, feel it, and experience because it’s all for us! We want to enjoy, with as much reality as possible, this innocent man’s death! He died for you, sit back, watch, and enjoy this man deal with your pain. This, for all of its absurdity, is the message of our Lenten celebrations. Something has gone horribly wrong.

Or, does the yearly reminder of the physical mutilation of Jesus’ body (on Maundy Thursday/Good Friday) have nothing to do with dying for our sins? Does it have everything to do with why we misunderstand why Jesus was about to die? Yes. We’re confusing decisions the church made about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection years after the actual events (long after people with any first hand memory were dead) with the actual cause and effects related to Jesus’ execution. What did people understand at the time?

Jesus was a serious threat to the Roman Imperial Government and their puppet Jewish regime. Jesus was killed because he was a political threat to the Roman government, not because he was saying he was going to forgive the sins of humanity.

We need to move beyond our fascination with torture.  If we were as appalled by the Roman government’s use of capital punishment as we our own state’s, this would be a different nation indeed. Lent needs to be about something else.  Lent is too short to culminate after six weeks in a sadomasochistic lie.

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Food for Thought-God Sent Snakes-Numbers 21:4-9

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Numbers 21:4-9 Common English Bible (CEB)

4 They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea[a] road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. 5 The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” 6 So the LORD sent poisonous[b] snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.
7 The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.

Who knew the Book of Numbers could be so controversial? I do not like to look at snakes, living or dead. I’m not fond of serpents, real or fake. This passage would have been hard for me to digest in antiquity. As it is, I’m squeamish as I type.

Here’s what happens when you complain against God, hungry and thirsty in the middle of desert: God sends poisonous snakes to kill you. Many people all around you die from these snakebites. In turn, the way to be healed from the snakebites is to worship a hastily made bronze snake idol; a snake “God”, a snake on a pole. The answer, according to scripture, is to look at the fake snake, because you complained about being hungry and hot (a seemingly natural thing to do in the desert even for the most devout believers) and were subsequently bit by a venomous snake.

I don’t care how you slice it (whatever your interpretative method may be) this is a strange story. As the Israelite nation (God’s chosen people) you’ve gone from being a sedentary group of craftspeople into nomads, literally, overnight. Wondering around some of the harshest desert terrain on Earth, you’ve become hungry, tired, and frustrated. These are all natural human reactions. As an outgrowth of expressing what would be normal in any setting, you are set upon by venomous snakes by the benevolent creator God who has just freed you from captivity in Egypt. Yes, take me back to Egypt. At least we weren’t being eaten alive by snakes! Because the Israelites act like normal human beings they are going to be tortured to death by snakes? Really? I don’t know much about God but I’m certain this God, as described here in Numbers, is not a God with whom I want to be in a relationship. This is not the action of a benevolent deity who loves their children. The God of Numbers 21 is an abusive parent who enjoys causing pain and watching people crawl back to beg for forgiveness.

Is this our God? Should the quid pro quo, passive aggressive God of Numbers be assigned to the dustbin of history? Is a God who so willingly inflicts pain upon God’s beloved for speaking out of their humanity, worthy of our attention and praise? I would argue no. Is this not the God who died on the cross? The God of snakes, sadism, and poisonous bronze serpent idolatry died on Good Friday. Who are we trying to bring back to life this week; a God of flesh and blood, of healing and restoration, or a God of guilt and venom?