Friday, November 20

The Poverty of Sodom and Gomorrah

One of the stories often cited from the Scriptures in relation to human sexuality is that of Sodom and Gomorrah. The two have become so associated, in fact, that the very term "sodomy" refers to a particular sexual act. Indeed, Sodom and Gomorrah has been connected with sexual acts for a long while, but I would suggest a different way of reading the text. Although the threat of sexual violence may be present in the text, Genesis 19 is not demonstrating that God condemned the cities because of homosexuality, but rather, because they did not fulfill their sacred duty of hospitality - and indeed, greatly violated it. There are other passages in Scripture which speak of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaiah 1:9-10 and 3:9 refers to their lack of social justice, Jeremiah 23 refers to their general immorality and Ezekiel 16 refers to the lack of care in Sodom for the poor and the needy.

In fact, Ezekiel 16:49 says, "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." Later Jewish authors wrote that people of Sodom had laws which prohibited their citizens giving to charity or helping the poor. Through modern eyes, we would see this as a social justice issue. When we look at the same passage in Isaiah which speaks of Sodom's sin, it entreats each person to "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow" (1:17). This was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah - they failed to carry out social justice and failed to help the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the orphans and the widows - and Jeremiah indicates that their leaders were unfaithful in marriage.

But this was not the only sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Many scholars over the past few decades have put forth the idea that the cities were penalized because of their lack of hospitality. The Ancient Near Eastern practice of welcoming strangers, gifting, clothing, feeding and housing them was extremely important at the time of Genesis 19. We see this echoed in other literature in another part of the ancient world - in Greece. The Homeric tale of The Odyssey focuses on several episodic adventures wherein Odysseus and his men are welcomed, given gifts, clothed, fed and housed. The story can be read as a series of stops to those who are hospitable and those who are not hospitable to travelers. For those who were not welcoming or hospitable, they were penalized or suffered a punishment, as in the case of the Cyclops. This Greek concept of hospitality was called xenia.

Hospitality is also a theme that runs throughout the early chapters of Genesis, especially those pertaining to the Abrahamic lineage - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Bear in mind that the early Hebrews were a nomadic people roaming arid and dry regions, which made the hospitality of others a welcomed rest. It seems, then, that God had a problem with Sodom and Gomorrah not being hospitable to strangers as they should have been in antiquity. In Wisdom 19:13-14, we read that "the men of Sodom did not receive the strangers when they came among them." These strangers include Lot and his family as well as the two angelic messengers, and other. It is clear from Genesis 19 that they were not seeking to be hospitable - but to be hostile. Further, in Matthew 10:14-15 and in Luke 10:7-16, Jesus tells his disciples to accept the hospitality of others and to offer peace to their households as they enter - and he also heavily indicates that the sin of Sodom was their lack of hospitality to strangers.

According to ancient Jewish texts - the Babylonian Talmud as well as the Genesis Rabba - the citizens of Sodom were well known for their widespread cruelty, their lack of support for the poor and the needy and their lack of charity. There are also other stories wherein the Sodomites torture wandering travelers, and another story in which they burn a young woman who had attempted to share her food with a hungry family. This fulfilled the injunction of Isaiah 58:7 to "Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help." It seems evident that those in Sodom, at least, were very inhospitable to strangers. But when their moral and social behavior is compared to that of Abraham's nephew Lot or that of Abraham and Sarah in welcoming the three strangers (Genesis 18), we find the contrast of extreme hospitality and extreme in-hospitality.

A further point is worth noting. The author of the book of Hebrews cautions Christians in regard to hospitality, saying, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). This is what transpired in Sodom when Lot and his family welcomed in the two angels, but the townspeople displayed radical non-hospitality through their actions. 2nd Peter declared that in their actions, these individuals were both ungodly and lawless, and St. Jude refers to their condemnation for wanting to gang-rape strangers, specifically, angels. This is a direct violation of the later command in Hebrews. The act of intended rape would have been an act of radical inhospitality, violence, and not helping the oppressed and the marginalized - not necessarily related to homosexual activity. Instead of welcoming travelers and showing them hospitality, the people of Sodom in Genesis 19 instead - parallel to what is also seen later in the book of Judges 19 - seek to gang-rape, and seek to do violence.

Hospitality was a hallmark of the ancient world, prized above many things. For those living in such areas as the ancient Hebrews, as aforementioned, hospitality was a much-needed and much-welcomed respite from difficult journeys. But the people of Sodom - and other texts indicate Gomorrah as well - directly and consistently violated this sacred duty and became radically inhospitable, even to the point of threatening sexual violence. Their lack of hospitality and Lot's example of hospitality do indeed stand in contrast with one another, and viewing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah through the lens of social justice, one can begin to understand God's discernment over what to do concerning said cities. Let us then be reminded again of the words of the prophet Isaiah, as we go forward in our own lives, "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.... Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help." 

Tuesday, November 17

Confession: The Sacrament of Reconciliation

The doctrine underlying the sacrament of Confession - also known as Reconciliation - found in the Catholic Church and in various forms in the Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican and even Mormon churches is easily one of the most controversial among other Christians. Many in other Christian denominations point out that in Mark 2:6-7 we read, "Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 'Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'" (emphasis mine). Based on this verse, the general understanding is, "why would I go to a priest for forgiveness since the Bible says that God alone forgives sins?" This is a bit of a complex question, yet at the same time, a very simple one. So in order to understand why the various Christian denominations continue this practice of Confession or Reconciliation, we turn to the Christian Scriptures. One of the most prominent things found in the teachings of Jesus as seen in the New Testament is the forgiveness of sins. The word "sin" comes from a Hebrew word, haramatia, meaning "to miss the mark" (as if one's arrow would miss its target). Now, it seems that nearly every page or every other page in the New Testament has something about forgiveness. In fact, the first words we have from Mark’s gospels are about forgiveness. Forgiveness is the key concept in Christianity, just as the main theme of the Christian Scriptures is that of forgiveness or reconciliation to God through forgiveness.

We read in John 20:21-23, "Again Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, I am sending you.' And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'" Before Jesus grants them the authority to forgive sins, Jesus says to the apostles, "as the Father sent me, so I send you." As Christ was sent by the Father to forgive sins, so Christ sends the apostles and their successors forgive sins. The Lord then "breathes" on the apostles, and then gives them the power to forgive and retain sins. The only other moment in Scripture where God breathes on man is in Genesis 2:7, when the Lord "breathes" divine life into man. When this happens, a significant transformation takes place. Here too, a significant transformation occurs. Lastly, Jesus says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained." In order for the apostles to exercise this gift of forgiving sins, the penitents (those being forgiven) must evidently orally confess their sins to them because the apostles are not mind readers. This is why the disciples would have had oral confession. That being said - there is nothing in Scripture or in history that says that the successors of the Apostles lost this gift.

In Matthew 18:18, Jesus says something similar - "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." This is more clearly seen in Matthew 16:18, "I tell you you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." St. Peter is considered the first Pope (“Papa”) by the Church. Historically and Scripturally, we know that the disciples appointed successors whom they laid hands on. This transfer of authority also transferred the ability to bind and loose, to administer sacraments such as Anointing, Confirmation, Confession, Eucharist (Communion), and Marriage. We may not question why a Priest or Pastor performs a marriage ceremony, but we do if he administers another sacrament of the church, it seems.

There are other New Testament examples. In 2nd Corinthians 2:10 - St. Paul forgives in the presence of Christ (some translations refer to the presences of Christ as in persona Christi - priests always forgive in the person of Christ, they do not themselves forgive the sins). In 2nd Corinthians 5:18, the ministry of reconciliation was given to the ambassadors of the Church. According to the Church, at least, this ministry of reconciliation refers to the sacrament of reconciliation, also called the sacrament of confession or penance. Then we have James 5:15-16. In verse 15 we see that sins are forgiven by the elders (the bishops, deacons or priests) in the sacrament of anointing of the sick. This is another example of man's authority (through Christ) to forgive sins on earth. Then in verse 16, James says “Therefore, confess our sins to one another,” likely in reference to the men referred to in verse 15, the priests and elders of the Church, although also to your brothers and sisters.

St. James seems to teach us that we must “confess our sins to one another,” not just privately to God. James 5:16 must be read in the context of James 5:14-15, which is referring to the healing power (both physical and spiritual) of the priests/elders of the Church. Hence, when James says “therefore” in verse 16, he is seemingly referring to the men he was writing about in verses 14 and 15 – these men are the ordained priests of the Church, to whom the Church believes sins are to be confessed to, as Jesus gave his power to the disciples, who, through succession and the laying on of hands, have passed this on to priests and bishops of the present day. This, then, is the basic notion behind Confession. In Acts 19:18, many came to orally confess sins and divulge their sinful practices. Oral confession was the practice of the early Church just as it is today. In Matthew 3:6 and Mark 1:5, we see people confessing their sins before others as an historical practice, here to John the Baptist, who is - as priests are considered to be - a representative of Christ, but not Christ himself. 1st Timothy 6:12 seems to refer to the historical practice of confessing both faith and sins in the presence of many witnesses.

It comes as a surprise to some Christians, but in the ancient Jewish church, confession was also a practice. For example, Numbers 5:7 shows the historical practice of publicly confessing sins, and making public restitution. In Nehemiah 9:2-3 we see the Israelites standing before the assembly and confessing their sins publicly and interceded for each other. In the apocryphal works (useful to show historical practice of the time), we find examples of the historical practice of confession. In the Wisdom of Sirach 4:26, God tells us not to be ashamed to confess our sins, and not to try to stop the current of a river. We see this also in another writing from that time period, Baruch 1:14 - again, showing that the people made confession in the house of the Lord, before the assembly.

There are other considerations as well. When I sin, I am not only sinning against myself and against God. I am part of the Body of Christ, so when I sin, I also sin against the Body. When a priest and an individual engage in Confession, he stands in as a representative not only of Christ but of the Church. This brings up another point. Perhaps one of the main reasons we have confession is the psychology of it all. When I sin against somebody, and then confess that to them and ask for forgiveness it feels good to get that off your chest. If you have done something wrong, it can weigh on you. We therefore need someone to talk to, to confess our sins to. This was commanded in James' letter and elsewhere, to confess our sins to one another.

This sacrament is the culmination of psychological research, centuries of Jewish and Christian history, the variety of Scriptural considerations and other such things. It has become Reconciliation between you and the Body of Christ, reconciliation between you and God, and between you and your inner self, so to speak. The Church never says that there is anything wrong with confessing to God directly. Indeed, that is encouraged. Further, public confession was not just an ancient Jewish and Christian practice (also recorded in early Christian literature not cited here), it was picked up by the Irish missionaries early on and made prominent who then developed penitential books and made the sacrament into private confession. Interestingly, today, in Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Anglican worship books that are under twenty years old, in the back is a section with the Rite of Private Confession or the Rite of Communal Confession.

The Second Vatican Council changed the emphasis on private confession, and sometimes a penance service would then come into play when there were not enough priests to fulfill confessional duties. However, by the 1960s many Catholics had stopped going to confession, so the change was not entirely noticed. There have been a number of possible reasons put forth as to why this has happened, such as the opening rite and prayer at mass being seen as forgiving the sins of the community, ecumenical councils and dialogues with other Christians who did not use regular confession and a number of other factors. Although there are still those who go to confession, the Eucharist has seemingly replaced penance or reconciliation as the primary way in which the forgiveness of sins is enacted for many. Protestants hold differing views on forgiveness, but both Protestants and Catholics tend to agree that forgiveness on any level is central to our Christian faith, and that reconciliation between us and God as well as our fellow men and women is crucial to living as the best versions of ourselves.

Sunday, November 1

Finding Meaning in All Saint's Day

All Saint's Day, also known as All Hallow's Day, is the celebration held in the West on November 1 commemorating and celebrating the lives of all saints. It is celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican and United Methodist churches, as well as several other Christian denominations. In the West, November 2 is All Soul's Day, making October 31 (All Hallow's Eve), November 1 (All Saint's Day) and November 2 the triduum of Hallowtide. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates this feast on the first Sunday after Pentecost - called All Saints' Sunday. In the United Methodist Church, it is celebrated on the first Sunday in November, but is held to remember both saints and former members of the local church who had passed away. However, in Catholic theology, All Saint's Day celebrates all who have attained the Beatific Vision.

The theology behind All Saint's Day is based on the doctrine of the Communion of Saints - believed to be the great cloud of witnesses referenced in Hebrews 12:1. This "communion of saints" was referred to in Christian tradition as early as the Apostle's Creed, which is recited by Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and others. It is the idea that all of God's children - those in heaven and those on earth - are connected. Thus, they are all in communion with one another. These saints are not divine nor do they have any divine capabilities, but as we are all in communion with Christ (Romans 8:32; 1st Corinthians 6:17; 1st John 1:3), our earthly prayers join their heavenly prayers. The idea that there are individuals who heaven who are given the task of presenting our prayers before God is seen in Revelation and elsewhere (in Job, for example). The essential point is that Christians - those from every century and up to the present day - are all part of a large family or community. For some in heaven, Scripture shows that they are given this ability to present our prayers before God not because they can hear it themselves, but because God is giving these “saints” a role to play in the development of the family, a participatory role.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 350) refers to this belief: We mention those who have fallen asleep: first the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition..." (Catechetical Lecture 23:9). The celebration of All Saint's Day goes back to the ancient Christian practice of celebrating saints and martyrs. In the AD 100s, the Martyrdom of Polycarp 18 said, "Accordingly, we afterwards took up [Polycarp's] bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps" (18).

Early on when persecutions increased as did the number of martyrs, local dioceses (a district under care of a bishop) began feast days in order to celebrate all martyrs. The date of this celebration was sporadic and moved around quite a bit, and initially the common feast days were more about honoring local saints rather than the larger communion of saints. But over time the feast day became more and more universal in purpose and intent. St. Ephrem the Syrian (AD 373) refers to a universal feast day for saints. St. John Chrysostom (AD 407) provided a day to the feast - the first Sunday after Pentecost, which, as aforementioned, is when the Eastern Orthodox church still celebrates. The feast, likely around the 8th century, became celebrated more and more on November 1.

On its most basic level, All Saint's Day should be a reminder to Christians that we are all part of a much larger family, and that we should all strive to become saintly and holy in our words and deeds. Following his conversion in 1930s, Thomas Merton was asked by his friend Robert Lax what he wanted to be, now that he was a Catholic. Merton said that he wanted to be a good Catholic. “What you should say,” he told him, “is that you want to be a saint!” “How do you expect me to become a saint?,” Merton asked him. Lax said: “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let him do it? All you have to do is desire it” (from Seven Storey Mountain). Every Christian should desire to become saintly. Often when we think of saints we may think of the early apostles, the martyrs, St. Francis of Assisi with his austerity and dedication, Mother Teresa and others. But we can all be saints, by living out the Beatitudes and becoming more humble, more loving, and more giving of ourselves.

"All Saints' Day." Catholic Online. Web. 

Bennett, David. "The Solemnity of All Saints Day." All Saints Day. Church Year, 28 Oct. 2015. Web.

Mershman, Francis. "All Saints' Day." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 1 Nov. 2015 .

Richert, Scott P. "What Is All Saints Day?" Religion & Spirituality. About. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Smith, C. "Feast of All Saints" in The New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1967, 318. Print.