Thomas A. Boogaart
The picture of God as a Sovereign is found throughout Scripture. In passage after passage, Scripture depicts a God who sits on a throne and speaks words that both create and sustain the world. It witnesses that whether people realize it or not, they stand before this Sovereign (coram deo). This picture is difficult for us in the West to appreciate for a number of reasons.
First of all, our spiritual ancestors were iconoclastic. The reformers distrusted the use of pictures and images that was common in the Catholic Church. This fact became clear to me when I and my family moved to the city of Groningen in the Netherlands.
Rising above all the other buildings at the center of the city is the great and the ancient Martini Church. In 1975, it was undergoing a major renovation and had been closed to visitors for about ten years. Friends of ours knew the custodian who lived in a house embedded in one corner of the large church. On a Saturday morning, he gave us a private tour and lecture. Among other things, he explained how the Protestants assumed control of the church in the 16th century and whitewashed all the frescoes on the walls and ceiling.
The custodian told us that unknown to the Protestants, the whitewash had a chemical in it that leeched into the frescoes and sealed them. Rather than destroying the artwork, the whitewash preserved it for future generations. After the renovators meticulously flaked off the white coating, the frescoes reappeared after four hundred years. I remember the custodian telling this story with relish and gesturing towards the beautiful pictures of biblical scenes.
The reformers were afraid that a beautiful fresco, painting, or sculpture would steal the hearts of believers. Artwork elicited powerful emotions in viewers that all too often attached themselves to the work itself. Such emotional attachments were dangerous because they left people susceptible to idolatry and manipulation by corrupt leaders. Precisely to guard against this kind of corruption, the second commandment warned the children of God not to make any graven images, and Moses' reminded them: "The Lord spoke to you out of fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice (Deuteronomy 4:12)."
Reformed Christians have taken the words of Moses very seriously. They imitate the theophany on Mount Sinai in worship. The windows and the walls of a typical sanctuary are plain; the focal point of the gathered community is the pulpit with an open Bible. Like the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the worshipping congregation hears the sound of words but sees no form. Since my time at the Martini Church in Groningen, it has often crossed my mind that Protestants not only whitewashed images on the walls of churches, they also whitewashed images on the pages of Scripture, one of them the image of God as the Sovereign.
Reformed Christians have grown accustomed over the years to setting word against image, the ear against the eye, the prophet against the priest. This habit of our heart evidences itself again and again in our theological conversations. Walter Brueggemann, for example, in a collection of articles on Old Testament theology, betrays his roots in Reformed iconoclasm when he describes the development of Israel’s understanding of God (Old Testament Theology, Fortress, 1992). He reduces the variety and complexity of Israel's religious affections to a conflict between the liberating words of the prophets and the manipulating images of the priests. He tries to uphold both prophets and priests in some essays, but ultimately cannot hide his distaste for the latter: "…Israel knows images in religion accompany inequities of social power in society, which inevitably result in disproportions of social goods and social access. The location of God in a place or object proposes that the power of life can be identified and located and, therefore, controlled and administered…. Images in heaven warrant monopolies on earth" (124).
While we have grown accustomed to setting ear against the eye, a word of caution is in order. Images are no more likely to corrupt us than words. The Scriptures often speak of the significance of seeing God (Exodus 24:11; Psalm 27:4; John 1:14; II Corinthians 4:18, to name a few locations) and provide us with numerous images. The Bible does not set the parts of the body against each other, but presents them working in concert to enhance our understanding of God. Isaiah's description of his theophany is but one magnificent example (6:1-8). Often overlooked is his full- bodied experience of God. The prophet sees (I saw the Lord sitting on a throne), hears (one seraph called to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”), feels (the pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called), smells (the house was filled with smoke), and tastes (holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs, the seraph touched my mouth). All the senses contribute to Isaiah's understanding of God.
Second, the protracted and unhappy conversation between the Church and the sciences has had the unhappy effect of encouraging Christians to ignore the traditional pictures of how God creates and sustains the world. The discovery of earth as one of nine planets orbiting the sun, the sun as one of myriad stars swirling on the outer edge of the Milky Way galaxy, and the Milky Way as one of countless galaxies flaring forth from a primordial singularity, was not received with religious awe and wonder in the church, but as a blow to its authority and that of Scripture. Rather than examining the biblical picture of the cosmos in the light of the new information and looking for possible points of correspondence, the church made a strategic retreat. Over the course of centuries, it gradually shifted its attention to God the redeemer rather than God the creator, to history rather than nature.
A privatizing predisposition has deeply affected biblical interpretation and theological discourse in Reformed circles. It was carried out under the banner of covenantal theology. For much of the second half of the twentieth century, covenant was lifted up in Reformed congregations as the central theme of the Old Testament. But this covenant was not like the one described in Deuteronomy 28, which had cosmic dimensions—“The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you.” The connection between covenant and creation dropped from view as creation was seen more and more to be an autonomous, self regulating mechanism, and the biblical picture of creation was seen to be less and less defensible. Nor was this covenant like the one described in Joshua 24 which was solemnized in ritual. The need for ritual to reinvigorate the covenant was seen as decadent—“what to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beast; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1: 11).
In my formative years in a Reformed congregation, I was taught that covenant designated a personal relationship that God had initiated with human beings, and that Scripture recorded the history of this personal relationship. When I arrived at seminary, this personal understanding of covenant guided our journey through the Old Testament. True religion was religion of the heart. It began with the call of Abraham—we did not think much about Sarah in those years: “[Abraham] believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15); it was revived by the prophets: “…these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29: 13). We never really discussed what in fact constitutes the largest portion of Old Testament material: the altar, the tabernacle, the temple, the priests, and the rituals. These, of course, are all important pieces of the picture of God as Sovereign.
The Reformed tradition in its various incarnations continues to affirm that God is a Sovereign and that Jesus Christ holds all things together. Reformed Christians still encounter in their Bible pieces of the picture of God as a Sovereign—Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, the hosts of heaven, the angels, the divine council, the star of Bethlehem, etc—but they no longer know how these pieces fit together. They no longer have a picture of the world to suggest how God in Jesus Christ actually rules it. Or perhaps more accurately, Reformed Christians have a picture of the world— a big bang or a coalescing of strings—but they no longer see how Jesus fits into it. Recent translations have even begun eliminating references to the biblical picture of the world. The men behind the New International Version, for example, write in the preface: "Because for most readers today the phrase, 'the Lord of hosts' and 'God of hosts' have little meaning, this version renders them 'the Lord Almighty' and 'God Almighty.'" Translating is extremely difficult and must take into account the world of the reader, but translators, like everyone else, tend to offer up rather easily things which they do not appreciate.
Finally, we have no picture of sovereignty because we have no sovereign. Hated King George III was the last one to hold sway over American territory. The notion that God endows certain families with special graces to rule justly is ludicrous, and even contemptible to us. Despite what the Bible in many places suggests, we have great difficulty imagining how the spirit of God descends upon a chosen one, imputes wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2,3). We associate kingship with tyranny, an antiquated form of governance. The decrees of a sovereign do not bring justice and righteousness to the land, but exploitation and enslavement. We are, therefore, disinclined to pursue to its logical end the claim that Jesus is the Christ, the one sitting at the right hand of God and sustaining the world by sovereign decrees.
If I am at all correct in my assessment of our present situation, we have tended to overlook and underplay the significance of the picture of sovereignty in Scripture. It may prove useful briefly to review the pieces of the picture.
God is a Sovereign who lives in a magnificent palace of many rooms. Heaven in Scripture is the house and grounds of the great Lord of the universe. Earth is God's estate, and the peoples are his servants, working their assigned lands.
In my Father's house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (John 14:2)
On that day Israel will be a third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage" (Isaiah 19: 24-25).
Are you not like the Egyptians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, and the Philistines form Caphtor and the Arameans for Kir? (Amos 9: 7-8)
The Sovereign shines, resplendent and glorious. God’s being is radiant, filling heaven and earth. Power goes forth from God like light from the sun.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. (Psalm 50: 2)
And one seraph called to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)
And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:5)
The Sovereign shines in the faces of his sons. The sons of God, or angels, are the embodiment of God’s glory. They are sent from the palace and assume their place in the world. Each one is called and carries a word from the father to a particular domain. There is constant traffic between heaven and earth with the sons of God coming and going. Collectively they manifest the power of God, and they form the infrastructure of the created order.
And he dreamed that there was a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)
For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38)
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Within the palace is a throne room where God and his sons deliberate over the affairs of the world.
The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake. (Psalm 99:1)
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the elohim/sons of God he holds judgment. (Psalm 82:1)
One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, "Where have you come from?” And Satan answered the Lord, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” (Job 1:6-7)
Then Micaiah said, "Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, 'Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, 'I will entice him.’” (I Kings 22:19-21)
At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. (Revelation 4:2-3)
God gives audience to the prophets and calls them to carry his word to the people. The prophets are intercessors like the angels. They ascend into the council with the people’s concerns, and they descend from it with the word of God. They call the people to obedience.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on the throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple…. And I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isaiah 6: 1)
Remember how I stood before you to speak good for them, to turn away your wrath from them! (Jeremiah 18: 20)
I [God] did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. (Jeremiah 23: 21-22)
God reveals the pattern of the heavenly palace. Moses makes the tabernacle, and David plans the according to the divine blueprints. The temple is the visible manifestation of the invisible palace; its architecture catechizes pilgrims in the truths of sovereignty. The ark represents God's throne, and the holy of holies represents the throne room where the sons gather to deliberate.
In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. (Exodus 25:9)
All this, in writing at the Lord's direction, he made clear to me [David]--the plan of all the works. (I Chronicles 28:19)
The picture of God as the Sovereign is evident throughout Scripture and was self-evident to the people of Israel. It was the starting point for their reflection on the nature of God and laid the groundwork for their understanding of hospitality. They believed that God dwelt in a house and that God’s house was replicated in Jerusalem. In the throne room, God deliberated with the sons of God who in turn carried God’s decrees into the world. Jacob saw their movement in his dream: “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of god were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28: 12). In the banquet room, God prepared a feast and ate with his sons. But this feast was not intended for the angelic sons alone. The Sovereign desired that all the people of the world would enter the house, join him at the table, and become his adopted children. The house was a home; the Sovereign a homemaker. Worshippers at the temple dreamed of ascending, of glorified bodies, and of eating with God at the banquet table. The vision of the end times in Isaiah captured this hope:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples,
A feast of rich food,
A feast of well-aged wines,
Of rich food filled with marrow,
Of well-aged wines strained clear (25: 6).
What follows is an analysis of some of the important, if neglected, texts in the hospitality tradition.
The people of Israel believed that the realm of heaven and earth come together in the house of God. The house in Jerusalem was an image in the material of wood, cloth, stone, and metal of the immaterial house of God. The preparing of this house was Israel’s attempt to do on earth as was done heaven. It was their attempt to imitate God. Throughout the years, the architecture and rituals performed in the temple taught the people of Israel that God was a gracious homemaker and that they were children of this house.
Psalm 23 is an important text in the hospitality tradition. We are so familiar with this psalm and so captivated by its shepherd imagery that we often lose sight of its larger meaning and function in Israelite life. Notice the language of movement in the Psalm:
He leads me beside still water.
He leads me in right paths.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.
The shepherd and the flock are on the move. After lying down in green pastures for the night, the flock gets up again. The sheep are on their way to the house of the Lord, where they anticipate a great feast. The Psalm ends:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Psalm 23 is a song that pilgrims sang on their way to the temple in Jerusalem as they anticipated the great table that awaited them. What images of God did it awaken in their anticipation? You prepare a table before me, they sang. God bustling about the kitchen and banging pots and pans. God scurrying around the table and putting the goblets, plates, and cutlery in the proper order. Perhaps the pilgrims could smell the bread in the oven and the meat over the fire. They could feel the fragrant oil streaming down their hair and face as God wiped away the sweat and grime of travel.
The teller of the stories in Daniel is working out the meaning of God’s sovereignty in the light of the destruction of Jerusalem. Who is Nebuchadnezzar, and what is the relationship between his power and God’s power? How could the God of Israel be the creator of heaven and earth and not be able to defend God’s own house in Jerusalem? How can the great banquet go on without the house of God and its vessels? With the temple in ruins, the fate of its vessels becomes the focus of concern for the people of Israel, their source of hope, and the ultimate test of sovereignty.
Daniel 1 begins with this remarkable claim: “The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God” (verse 2). This translation, “let fall” suggests that the Lord was passive in this defeat. The Hebrew makes clear otherwise: “The Lord gave Jehoiakim, king of Judah into his hand.” The actual language seems to suggest a monarch who hands over some of his own people to the aggressor, a monarch in negotiation with the enemy. Whatever the case, the narrative informs the hearers that the agency of God envelops that of Nebuchadnezzar. Whether Nebuchadnezzar realized it or not, God gave him captives from the royal house and the vessels.
To the Israelite mind these captives and these vessels are related. They view the world as constantly being filled by the glory of God. God fills the king and his entourage with the Spirit of God in the same way that God fills the vessels of the house of God. Both are filled to serve God’s people. Both the leaders and the vessels are means of grace.
The narrative in Daniel 1 begins with Nebuchadnezzar seemingly in control of the vessels. The tension builds with Nebuchadnezzar’s desire to usurp the role of God and to use these vessels, not the ones of gold and silver stowed away in the treasury, the ones of flesh and blood. Nebuchadnezzar plans to fill the captured leaders with the food and the wisdom of Babylon. The narrator in Daniel 1 shows how his desire is subverted unbeknownst to him. Daniel and his friends neither eat the king’s fare (verses 8-16) nor do they receive the wisdom of Babylon: “To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams” (17). According to the narrator, God exercises sovereignty despite the fact that Jerusalem and the temple have been destroyed. God acts to preserve the integrity of Daniel and his friends, for we can only assume that the power of God made them robust on their sparse diet of vegetables.
The teller of the story in Daniel 1 makes clear to the hearers that God maintains the purity of the leaders taken from Jerusalem. The question, however, whether God is able to maintain the purity of the vessels from the house of God is not resolved; its resolution awaits a second story.
In Daniel 5, we hear that King Belshazzar is organizing a great festival to praise the gods who have supported him, gods who are described sarcastically by the storyteller as nothing rising about the material realm: “gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (verse 4). A festival in the ancient world is always a sacrament, for food is understood to be a gift of the gods. The gods imbue the earth with the power to produce food, and they imbue kings and queens with the power to conquer other nations and confiscate their food. Food in all its variety is a manifestation of divine power, and eating transfers that power to human beings. Therefore, eating is a form of communion with the gods. This being the case, the vessels used in these sacraments of communion take on special meaning. They are understood to be the property of the gods, and they become signs and seals in themselves to the people of the gods’ power to provide.
King Belshazzar becomes inebriated and decides to use the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken by his father Nebuchadnezzar from the house of God in Jerusalem. What did they vessels mean to him? Nebuchadnezzar’s knew that his war with Israel was a war of the gods and he could only conclude that his gods had amply demonstrated their power. They had granted him access to Jerusalem, access to members of the royal family, and access to the temple itself. In other words, his gods had allowed him to peal back the layers of holiness that surrounded the God of Israel; they had allowed him to move closer and closer to the Holy One of Israel. But Nebuchadnezzar had stopped short of the last profanation; he never used the vessels he took from the house of God.
This action, or better inaction, is significant both for the conquering king of Babylon and the conquered people of Israel. For Nebuchadnezzar, the preservation of the vessels represents a form of respect and an acknowledgement perhaps of their continued holiness and power. For the people of Israel, the preservation of the vessels represents the hope of restoration. Like the ark of Noah, the vessels hold the seeds of all that is holy to the people of Israel. They float on a sea of destruction and carry the hope of a new beginning when the storm has passed.
Fortified by the wine, Belshazzar calls for the vessels and decides to commit the final desecration. He wants to use them in service of his gods. He essentially puts the power of the God of Israel to the test: “Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand” (verse 5). From other stories of violation, we might expect that the hand appears to strike Belshazzar down, but in this story he is publicly humiliated before he is killed. He is made to experience his finitude in two ways. First, no one appears before a king without being called, as we know from the story of Esther. The king is the embodiment of all power, and that power permeates everything around him. The place on which he stands is holy ground, as it were, and any who violate it are immediately executed. Now a hand appears in the presence of the king, and he neither summoned it nor controls it.
Second, the hand writes in a language that neither the king nor all the king’s men can read. Part of the mystique of kingship is that the king is omnipotent and omniscient. He or she conquers all and therefore knows all. He appropriates the languages and the wisdom of all peoples. That is to say, he takes the Wernher Von Brauns of the conquered peoples into his court and uses their knowledge to advance the interests of his kingdom. The existence of a language that Belshazzar cannot read is evidence of a kingdom he has not yet conquered and wisdom he does not know. If we listen carefully to this story with its impact on the Jewish exiles mind, we realize that the presence of the fingers writing on the plaster of the wall is proof to them that despite all evidence to the contrary Babylon has not conquered them, that in some rarified way the kingdom of God still is intact.
Belshazzar is twice humiliated. When the hand and the mysterious writing first appear, we read: “Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together” (6). When the scholars of Babylon cannot read the writing, he has another episode of the shakes. At this point his wife enters, and tells him of Daniel and his prodigious ability. The king decides to call him.
The call of Daniel is meaningful in this story on a number of levels. First, the narrator suggests a correspondence between the fingers of a human hand that come unbidden into the presence of the king and the man—hands, fingers, and all—that comes bidden. Both are present but completely free of the power of the king. We noted this earlier with regard to the hand, and with regard to Daniel we hear him saying: “Let your gifts be for yourself, or give your rewards to someone else” (17). Both represent the freedom of the people of Israel in the kingdom of God. Perhaps the movement from the fingers of the hand to the person of Daniel, that is, the movement from part to whole, foreshadows the return of this kingdom to its wholeness and place in the world.
Second, the narrator highlights the fact that Belshazzar calls for both the vessels of gold and silver and for Daniel. We know from the narrative in Daniel 1 that Nebuchadnezzar brought two sets of vessels from Jerusalem to Babylon: the vessels from the house of God and the leaders from the house of King Jehoiakim. The question raised by this conquest is whether the Babylonian king will be able to co-opt them and use them in his service. If so, then the God of Israel has been truly vanquished; there would be no trace left of his sovereignty. In Daniel 1, we see that Nebuchadnezzar tried to “fill” the leaders to no avail. His power was subverted. Now his son Belshazzar tries to fill the vessels from the house of God, and he learns that he will soon have neither vessels nor a house. His days are numbered. God may have given the members of the house of Jehoiakim and the vessels of the temple into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand, but God was not through with them. God was preserving them for some future purpose.
The vessels of the house of God are an integral part of the stories of Daniel and the biblical story of hospitality. They served the food and wine that God had provided the people of Israel during the great festivals throughout their history. These festivals were a realization of God’s hospitality both for the people of Israel and the world. Their preservation and purity became a symbol for the people of Israel of their continuity with the past and God’s faithfulness in the future. They were symbols of God’s hospitality. The story of the vessels ends with the decree of King Cyrus: “Moreover, let the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be restored and brought back to the temple in Jerusalem, each to its place; you shall put them in the house of God” (Ezra 6: 5). The great banquet will go on.
Paul knew firsthand of the hospitality of God. He received a personal invitation and was admitted to the house of God. This invitation changed his life and his teaching. We read about all this in Acts 8: 3-6: “Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”
Paul refers to this same invitation indirectly in II Corinthians 12: 2-5” “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven— whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
Like many prophets before him, Paul had the experience of ascending into the divine council. There he had a conversation with Jesus and was sent on his mission. This experience and this conversation were the stimuli for his subsequent theological reflection, especially his reflection on the presence of Christ and on adoption.
First, the presence of Christ. Saul’s question upon entering into the presence Jesus was: “Who are you, Lord?” The answer was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This answer collapses the distinction between heaven and earth in the same way the theophany itself had. Jesus is both in heaven and on earth. To persecute the followers of Jesus is to persecute Jesus himself. Saul learns from the mouth of Jesus that he and his followers are one. These words of Jesus led to the repeated attempts by Paul to explain mystery of Christ’s presence in his believers and the significance of this for them and the world. For example, he wrote to the Corinthians: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (II Corinthians 5: 17). And to the Galatians: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians:3: 27-29).
This last quotation from the letter to the Galatians touches on a second theme that Paul drew from his Damascus road experience: adoption. Paul ascended into the house of God; he temporarily joined the rank of angels or sons of God. If we allow the picture of God as Sovereign to guide our thinking, we realize that in the mind of Paul and in the mind of his fellow Jewish and Christian believers ascension is adoption. Paul had a foretaste of a glorified body and what it meant to be a member of the household of God. He knew in his very being the hospitality of God; he had walked through the door of heaven that Jesus had opened for him. He knew from personal experience that those who were in Christ would be raised with Christ.
Therefore Paul could write: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are [sons] children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Rom. 8:14-16). Or in another letter: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as [sons] children. And because you are [sons] children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a [son] child, and if a [son] child then also an heir, through God (Gal. 4:4-7).
We tend to vilify the Pharisees. We characterize them as legalistic, petty, cold- hearted, and self-righteous, and then we proceed to banish them to the outer regions of our biblical awareness. We do this at our own risk, however. The struggles of the Pharisees to be faithful to God and to create a hospitable world can teach us something about our own struggles. Simon the Pharisee, who is introduced to us in Luke 7:36-50, can teach us much.
The basic truth about the character of Simon is not that he is self-righteous, but that he is a homemaker. From the space available in his world, he marked out his own. Four walls and a roof separated what belonged to him from what belonged to everyone else. He filled his space with all the things that made his life possible. He stored food there and water. He acquired all the clever devises his fellow humans had crafted to make his life more comfortable: chairs, tables, lamps, pots and rugs. He treasured there all the little things that marked the precious moments in his life: the heirlooms passed on from his parents and grandparents, the gifts of loved ones, and mementos of his pilgrimage.
Today we think of a home in terms of stone, brick, mortar, wood, and plaster and consider its value in terms of dollars and cents. But a home is much more than the value of the stuff that went into making it. A home is the stage upon which the drama of living and dying is played out. Simon's world had an inside and an outside. Inside his four walls and beneath his roof was a place of warmth, light, friends, and companionship; outside cold, darkness, strangers, and loneliness. Inside was security and life; outside danger and death.
Six years ago my son called me in the early evening from Gary, Indiana. He was on his way from our home in Holland, Michigan to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. His 1970 avocado Buick Skylark had broken down on what was to be its last commute between Michigan and Minnesota. Quickly we devised a plan. I would drive to where he had broken down and tow him to my friend's house who lived just north of the Chicago loop. There we would exchange cars. He would travel on to Northfield in my car, and I would spend the night with my friend, having his Buick repaired in the morning. The plan went wrong. I took a wrong turn in Chicago, the towrope broke in a desolate, war torn area, and a policeman whom we asked for directions threatened to put both me and my son in jail because towing was illegal in Chicago. I was tense and frightened. Chicago at night had turn into a nightmare. When I finally arrived at my friend's house, I collapsed onto his couch in the living room. Sipping something warm, I looked around and took his house in. I felt in a new and different way what a home and a living room were really all about. Darkness had been replaced by light, danger by safety, cold by warmth, and strangers by friends. My friend's house was definitely more than stone, wood, brick, plaster, and market value to me.
Any homemaker knows something about the drama of living and dying; the ins and outs of survival. Homes are fragile things. They are constantly threatened by an array of forces from the outside. The roof leaks over time; the porch sags; the paint peals; the window frames get soft and spongy; lightening strikes; fire erupts; dirt penetrates on the feet of visitors and through the air. Thieves break in and steal; people call on the telephone and breathe obscenities into the home. And it is a lot easier to wash a dirty floor than it is to wash away the scum of an obscene phone call; it is a lot easier to replace the stolen television than to replace the lost sense of security.
Inside even a fragile home, people can survive; outside is an entirely different matter. Exposed to the elements people die. This is why the problem of homelessness touches some so deeply. While many draw the covers over their shoulders at night and drift off to sleep protected from the power of darkness and cold, others wander the streets and freeze. We all have read reports like this one from the Associated Press: “MORGANTOWN, W.Va. --An 11 year-old boy's frostbitten feet had to be amputated after he and his father were found living in a remote area in an abandoned bus, their only groceries two bottles of ketchup and mustard." Actually, to label people homeless confuses the issue. Street people are homemakers just like everyone else. They build homes with whatever they have available: an abandoned bus, a blanket, a cardboard box, a park bench draped in newspaper. Unlike most of us, they do not have the resources to build homes that will shelter them. When the wolf comes--as children know from the fairy tale--he huffs and puffs and blows down their homes of straw and stick. The homeless end up in the belly of the wolf in whatever form he takes.
While Simon had built a house to keep the wolf out, it was not his intention to keep everyone and everything out. His house did have a door after all. In Luke's story, Simon asked Jesus and other friends to dinner. It is difficult to understand how important dining was to Simon and the people of his day because it means so little to people today. Friends and families seldom eat together or spend time around the table. In our hurry for self-esteem, promotion, excitement, or whatever it is we believe we need, we abandon our children.
When we do eat at home, we eat like we pump gas at the filling station. Food is fuel; our bodies are machines. We want it quick—the successful hamburger chain is called "Hot 'n Now"--so we can scarf it down and be on our way. Wendell Berry in his book, What are People For, calls this industrial eating:
We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry though our work on order to “recreate” ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation--for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hellbent on increasing the “quality” of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and the purposes, of the life of the body in this world (147).
For Simon dining was quite different. It was a sacred and life-giving act. A banquet passed life on to others in at least two ways. It offered food to nourish the body and friendship to nourish the soul. In preparing a banquet, Simon was imitating his God and fulfilling the demands of his faith. Just as God had a house in Jerusalem and shared there the abundance of the land with the people, so Simon, the good Pharisee that he was, had a house and shared his abundance with others. Simon desired that people would say of him the same things they said of his God:
They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights (Ps. 36:8);
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps. 23:5-6).
Simon was inviting people to dinner and doing his part to build the hospitable community he believed God desired. He was letting people through the door. And this brings us to the central issue of Luke's story: who gets invited to the table and who gets left at the door.
We all have pretty strict rules that govern the door of the house, and other openings to the world for that matter. Homemakers divide the world into insiders and outsiders; people who belong and people who do not; people who are safe, and people who are dangerous. We set people apart, and we do it on a daily basis. Apartheid, after all, is not something just the white South Africans did. Some people are not welcome in our homes; others have to knock and request entrance; still others walk in the back door and call our name. I keep Jehovah Witnesses at the door; I usually let the child selling candy or cookies in; my friends enter with a perfunctory knock.
Simon the Pharisee had some pretty strict rules about who could enter his house. He believed that cleanliness was next to godliness and that he had successfully swept all the dust and dirt from his domicile. He spent his life cultivating the right thoughts and the right friends. The prophet and teacher from Nazareth was the right sort to have at his table. The woman who followed him in was definitely the wrong sort. She was riffraff from the dark, outer world; she was a sinner. Sin was a contagious disease as far as Simon was concerned. Like tuberculosis, it spread by social contact. He did not want to get in coughing range of this woman.
Not only was she contaminating Simon's house by her presence, but she was contaminating Jesus' body by touching and kissing him. Jesus could not be the person everyone said he was. Simon thought to himself: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
Simon thought that Jesus lacked the insight of a prophet, but Jesus saw more deeply into this situation than he could ever have imagined. Jesus passed on his insight to Simon with a simple question: “Simon do you see this woman?” On one level, this question is literal and direct. Jesus is pointing Simon to this woman as a prelude to what he has to say about her. On another level, this question is rhetorical. Jesus is confronting Simon’s view of reality. Simon has constructed a social world in which certain people do not gain entrance and therefore are never seen. This is the moral dilemma facing every homemaker at every level of society. Busy building a home or a city or a state for themselves, homemakers distinguish between the inside and the outside, and eventually between insiders and outsiders. The outsiders all too quickly lose their visibility and identity--their place at the table--and all too easily become the object of the insiders' fears and their verbal and physical abuse.
In the summer of 1983, I traveled to Exeter, England with my family to spend a year there studying and teaching the Old Testament at the university there. The trip over was a complicated arrangement of plane, boat, and train. We made all our connections until we came to London. There we missed our train and sat down on a bench in Paddington Station to wait five hours for the midnight train to Exeter. With time on our hands and little to do, we listened to the music of life being played under the huge, open-air canopy of the station and took in the sounds and movements of the people and the trains.
At about 11:00 p.m. the music changed. The prim and proper people drifted off to a comfortable destination, and the ragged and grimy people clamored into the station. The street people were looking for a place to spend the night. A tattered man approached our bench pushing a grocery cart with a crooked wheel. In it was slumped a woman. The man tilted the cart and dumped the woman onto the bench next to us like a bag of foul laundry. She righted herself. Her teeth were gapped; her hair was streaked with grease; and her body reeked of urine and other smells I could not identify.
My seven-year-old daughter was sitting between me and this woman so that the gentle lines of Rebecca's youthful face were framed by her old and shriveled body. The contrast was more than I could bear. I felt a revulsion for the ugly woman. She offended me. My eyes and nose sent danger signals to my brain. I wanted to protect my daughter from her foulness, but for some reason I could not move.
The woman turned to face my daughter and smiled tenderly at her. I watched their eyes meet. And from someplace deep inside of me came a strange urge. I felt an urge to embrace the ugly woman. I thought I was going mad; I had to get control of myself and break free of this spell. So I stood up, gathered my family, and removed them from the woman's presence.
There is a direct link between homemaking and apartheid, between gathering your family and friends around the hearth and leaving strangers out in the cold. There is a link between something everyone would recognize as good and something everyone would recognize as evil. We would like to think that good and evil have nothing to do with each other and that we can sort them out like moral accountants. But moral living is not that simple. Our motives are mixed and mixed up. This is why evil is so difficult to isolate and root out of our lives, and why we have such a difficult time confessing our sins. We can always come up with good reasons for doing what is wrong. For example, Simon and his friends can say, "We are maintaining the purity of the home; we are not discriminating against that woman." When we Americans go to war, we can say, "We are defending our national interest, we are not killing innocent civilians."
As homemakers we begin to think that our survival depends on keeping certain people out, but Jesus teaches us that our survival depends on letting them in. The people we have left out in the cold belong. In the house of God, outsiders not only belong, they have something to teach the rest. The unnamed woman in this story understood love in a way that Simon never could have. Her devotion to Jesus was deeper than anything Simon would ever achieve. Jesus said to Simon:
I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
This woman could teach Simon and the rest of us Pharisees something about setting a beautiful table and creating a hospitable world.