Wednesday, February 17, 2016

"Is not this to know me? says the Lord"

In my new Lenten Bible study book (available here), I have a lesson on Jesus and the poor. Several of the book's lessons have to do with "fulfilled prophecy" and other connections of Jesus with Old Testament persons and institutions. Care for the poor is a strong Old Testament theme connected to Jesus. I thought it was an important theme to study, because so many of us have a kind of prejudice against the poor; we assume the poor are lazy and refuse to work, or spend their benefits on illegal drugs or luxury items. It's such a gross generalization, but one that many of us hold. I wanted to help jar readers to a better and kinder view. "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him" (Prov. 14:31, NRSV).

Sometimes the most significant events of our lives are quiet moments of awakening to truth. One such event for me was a course I took from B. Davie Napier at Yale in the spring semester 1981. I needed one more Bible course for ordination requirements and, after taking the core curriculum, I signed up for this elective about the prophets.

It was  a wonderfully low-key, informal class at his house on campus. He was master of one of the Yale colleges---the same one that Jodie Foster was attending, though I've forgotten which one---and we met in his living room. Among other insights from the course (and there were several) was the class when he pointed out Jeremiah 22:15-17 (NRSV).

Are you a king
   because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
   and do justice and righteousness?
   Then it was well with him. 
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
   then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
   says the Lord. 
But your eyes and heart
   are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
   and for practising oppression and violence.

In the passage, Jeremiah condemns the king of Judah, Jehoiakim, by comparing him to his righteous father, Josiah. Jehoiakim has oppressed people by using them to build his fine palace, a distressing echo of Egyptian oppression of the Israelites in the days of Moses. Josiah, in contrast, had a fine life but still embraced God's will for righteousness, the cause of the poor and needy. 

The sentence, Is not this to know me? says the Lord struck me in particular. It changed my way of thinking about the Bible. Amid all the ways I was at the time (and since) learning about the knowledge of God---biblical hermeneutics, traditions of mysticism, worship styles, serving people via pastoral counseling, and others---I was confronted by a very fundamental kind of epistemology. Knowing God is doing God's will for the poor and needy. If one does not take the side of the poor---and even disdains and generalizes about the poor---one does not know God at all. 

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