When my girls were young, they banned my reading any book to them that had a dog on the cover. I believe a direct quote was: “In every book with a dog, the dog dies. And then you cry.”
That was true on both counts.
Thus, I never got around to reading the classic, Where The Red Fern Grows, to my daughters. It’s a good thing, because – spoiler alert – in the book, not one, but two dogs die.
Lutheran pastor Julia Seymour was recently reading Where The Red Fern Grows to her son. She was about two chapters in when Billy wants a dog or dogs more than anything. He wants hunting hounds, which his family cannot afford to buy. One day, Billy remembers his mother reading to them from the Bible: “God helps those who help themselves.” (1)
Julia Seymour says she looked up and told her son, Billy’s mother did not read that to him from the Bible because that’s not in the Bible.
At the end of the book, the dogs have died, and Billy is grieving. By way of comfort, his father tells Billy that the family had been planning to leave the farm to move into town and was going to leave Billy behind on the farm so he could be with the dogs. Perhaps, Billy’s father suggests to him, God allowed the dogs to die because God didn’t want the family to be divided.
Seymour stopped reading right there. She told her son that God has no interest in killing pets. God doesn’t execute animals, even to keep a family together.
A lot of bad theology gets handed around. It is passed around as casually as Billy’s mother and father use it.
One in eight Americans thinks “God helps those who help themselves” is in the bible. Probably because they had to read Where The Red Fern Grows in middle school.
Bad theology comes out of the mouths of television hosts and celebrities. It’s preached by politicians and pastors. It slips out into our common parlance.
“God doesn’t give us more than that we can handle.”
“God needed him in heaven more than you needed him on earth.”
“If you only believe, it will happen.”
“Everything happens according to a plan.”
It may be that if you squint and look sidewise at one or two specific pieces of scripture, you can come up with those sayings, but the whole of scripture does not support them.
Worst of all, these theological riffs are used in the face of suffering – not to decrease another’s suffering, but to minimize it. To make it seem less than it is. To explain suffering in a way that justifies suffering.
Our scripture passage includes one of the most heartbreaking stories of the new testament – the brutal execution of infant children. We hear the weeping of Rachel and the women of Israel.
Some have tried to stop their ears from hearing the wrenching lamentation by trotting out “that everything happens for a reason,” as if to fit this into some pattern of meaning. One biblical commentator writes: A foul deed it was. O mothers of Bethlehem! I hear you asking why your innocent babes should be the ram caught in the thicket…I cannot tell you, but one thing I know…it is their honor that the tyrant’s rage was exhausted upon themselves instead of their infant Lord.
Thankfully, that heartless response was spun out centuries after the mourning mothers and fathers themselves had gone to glory, probably from an early death, brought on by trauma and loss. They did not have to hear that platitude that people pass off to one another when times are hard when loss appears when we want to be encouraging, but we don’t know what to say.
Matthew himself is much more compassionate. He writes of the slaughter: “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah…” Matthew does not write, as he does when other prophecies come about: “This happened to fulfill what the prophet spoke,” as if God would bring about such an atrocity to put a seal on the birth of the Messiah.
Matthew holds out the reality that evil behaves so predictably that prophets can predict it.
Matthew lets us sit with the complexity that in the in the midst of God bringing salvation to the world, terrible evil is being done because God is bringing salvation into the world. Matthew wants us to hear the weeping and know that God is still present and still working.
Not to offer bad theology to assuage our discomfort.
Reading what is in the bible is no certain protection from attributing bad motives to God. Take parts of scripture, and you can still develop a lot of bad theology. Study the Bible, without receiving the spirit of God, and you can justify a lot of terrible decisions.
Herod studies scripture and respects scripture, and yet he murders children.
Pontius Pilate studies scripture and agrees to execute Jesus.
Jerry Falwell, Jr.
They all study scripture and yet end up with theologies that either inflict suffering, relish suffering, ignore suffering, or blame people for their own suffering.
The magi and Joseph, on the other hand, are shown to us as people who receive the truth of scripture and the gift of Jesus – the truth of scripture and the gift of Jesus – and so they act in ways that alleviate suffering, rather than adding to it.
The magi – who were not even Jewish – respect scripture enough to recognize the divinity of a holy child, follow prophecy and come to worship. They also allow the Spirit of God to direct them in a dream to return by another road, so they don’t compromise the safety of Jesus.
The gospel writer Matthew expects us to understand that Joseph knows scripture well. We have already had laid out for us how his lineage goes straight back through 42 generations of the salvation story. Yet, Joseph allows the Spirit of God to lead him to act against specific guidance of scripture. Hebrew law allowed Joseph to set aside Mary when she was pregnant with a child that was not his. He could have had her stoned for adultery. Yet, when God directs him, he takes Mary and her child as his own. As Joseph works to protect them, he will continue to be led by scripture and by the spirit of God.
Perhaps the most straightforward method for avoiding bad theology is to protect the truth about the child born in Bethlehem. To know the Bible, but to study, read, respect it, live it, in the light of the great gift of Jesus.
Jesus is the Messiah – who came to save us from ourselves and from one another. God came to us so we would have a fuller theology – that is a greater understanding of God and God’s way. We do not claim to know all of God, to understand all divine mysteries, yet we can at least understand God’s ways by how Jesus acted.
Julia Seymour reminds us: There are no stories of Jesus smiting puppies for the sake of family unity.
There are no stories of Jesus minimizing the grief of parents, by pretending to attach meaning to senseless death.
No stories of Jesus telling people who are heavily burdened to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
No stories of Jesus coming to the bedside of a person who has a terrible disease and saying that God has given them just what they can handle.
No stories of Jesus telling people who are desperate for a new life that God helps those who help themselves.
No stories of Jesus telling people who are in chronic pain that their suffering is part of God’s plan.
No stories of Jesus not offering the gift of his presence to those who are in pain, hurting, grieving, lost.
Matthew’s offers us, from the beginning of his gospel, an unflinching portrayal of a God who is present to suffering.
Jesus– the savior of the people – will be near to those who suffer – who are grieving, bearing up under terrible challenges and oppression, sick in body and spirit.
It is his nearness, his understanding, his quest for justice on their behalf, his willingness to be present in our suffering, to suffer with us that brings about his transforming work.
We are told the gifts the magi offer Jesus are gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold for the coronation of royalty, which Jesus is at his birth. Frankincense to scent the place of worship, which Jesus shall become. Myrrh to anoint his dead body as it is placed in the tomb.
The magi worship – not scripture – but the gift of the One to whom all of scripture points. They worship the gift of Jesus, the Messiah. They honor the divinity of Jesus in all time, his lordship in our lives and his willingness to bear the suffering of the world.
We can do the same.
We can offer the gift of good theology – a saving grace to one another and to the world. We can let Jesus, the savior of the people, direct our lives.
Jesus does not kill animals, pets or people. God weeps with our grief, upholds us and brings about new life. So, we sit with the grieving. Stand, walk, feed and are present to those who are mourning.
God does not want people to suffer. So, we work to alleviate suffering. We care about our neighbors right near us and around the world. We keep working to eradicate HIV/AIDS and Ebola. We do not despair, even when it is a long way to resolution in Syria or the Congo or our own country.
God has provided enough for all people. So, we upcycle and recycle, reduce and reuse, use less and give more. We collect school kits and hygiene kits to help people living through disasters. We share what we have.
Oppression is not part of God plan. So, we protest and prayer. We practice compassion and prepare for justice to come flowing down on all people. We are agents of change in the world.
God has given us the gift of Jesus. Worship him. Honor him.
Live a life of good theology.
Then you will be a gift. A gift of good news.
- The Pastoral is Political: Here is the Reason – RevGalBlogPals. https://revgalblogpals.org/2018/12/31/the-pastoral-is-political-here-is-the-reason/
- Matthew 2:13-23 – The Text This Week. http://www.textweek.com/mtlk/matt2b.htm