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Posts Tagged ‘reconciliation’

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

Our lesson this morning finds the great patriarch Jacob with his family. He sends them across the shallow ford of a river, spending the night alone. At least, at first he is alone, but he ends up wrestling an unnamed man all night long. The man figures out that Jacob is a fierce competitor, so injures his hip. Even with that, Jacob persists, telling the man: “I will not let go of you until you bless me.”

We are never told the identity of the man, but by virtue of everything else that happens in the story, we learn that he was some kind of angel or manifestation of God. He tells Jacob that his name is now “Israel”, which means “God-wrestler.” And Jacob names the place “Peniel”, which means “face of God.” Whatever it was that happened in the encounter, Jacob saw it as something holy, worth remembering and preserving, devoting the whole episode to God and his relationship with God.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

We have spent the last two months taking a closer look at worship: what we do, why we do what we do, why we do it in the order we do…In short, worship is meant to flow seamlessly from beginning to end. It begins when we gather – when we meet up in the parking lot, in the lobby, in the pews, as the music plays.

Somewhere along the way, we move from gathering to preparing: we praise, we confess and come clean, we are reminded of the absurd gift of undeserved grace, and share that peace with each other.

We encounter the Word of God: read in Scripture, sung in anthem, interpreted in sermon, made visible in baptism and communion, present in the Word made flesh, Jesus himself. From there, everything we do is our response to this meeting with the living Christ: we pray, remember what we believe in creeds, recommit our resources and ourselves to the work and desires of God.

And from there, we are sent. The hour or so of worship draws to a close so that the service begins. We go out to serve God in Christ, reaching out to a broken world in need of healing. And then, one week later, the people gather, and the drama begins again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What this overview fails to account for is the fact that faith isn’t always easy. As the popular phrase puts it, one of the goals of faith is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. In other words, this whole act of worship is one that is meant to take on both our brokenness and our complacency. Worship should be where we find both healing and prodding.

At least, that’s the hope. That’s my hope. If we spend the whole time agreeing with each other, then all we have done is luxuriate in self-righteousness, self-centeredness, and self-justification. On the other hand, if we only remind ourselves of how imperfect, how far off the mark we are, then we end up denying the God-crafted beauty that lies within each of us. Worship, instead, ought to be a balance between these two extremes: meeting us and embracing us as we are, but not content to leave us there, and so nudging, pushing, pulling us into other and better and more faithful ways of being.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

Each of us has our own encounters with the challenges of faith. Whether it’s the personal pain of broken relationships or undeserved hurts, or the desperate cries of “why me” in the hospital or by the bedside, or the glimpses of agony at a culture, a society, a world so full of injustice and wrongdoing and cruelty…if we take faith with any level of seriousness, we know it’s not a “happily ever after” fairy tale. It is, instead, a reality complicated by both joy and heartbreak, sometimes in the very same moment.

A few years ago, my friend Jim was driving his father to his sister’s rehearsal dinner. His father required the assistance of a cane to get around, and had been in poor health; but none of that was on their mind as they made their way to the celebration. Suddenly, Jim’s dad was having extreme discomfort. It turned out that he was having a heart attack. Jim pulled the car over and called 911, but it was too late. The next day, as the family gathered for the wedding, Jim took his father’s cane and walked his sister down the aisle.

I can only imagine the swirl of emotions at that moment: rejoicing at this celebration, but grieving the devastating and sudden loss; overcome with the agony of physical absence, but comforted by the symbolic presence of what is unseen.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think God visited this suffering on Jim and his family. I don’t, for a moment, pretend to understand why the world works the way it does, but I know that God’s desires good and wholeness and peace. And when the world is troubled by evil and brokenness and wrongdoing, God’s heart is the first to break. God does not cause suffering; but if the cross at the center of our faith means anything, it’s that God is at work anyway, shaping that moral arc of the universe as it bends toward justice.

In their moment of pain, Jim and his family grabbed a firm hold of God, refusing to let go, no matter how much they were hurting. Their faith had taught them that God had joy in store for them ultimately. I am sure it didn’t feel like it at the moment; but they knew to hold tight for that blessing.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

There is a larger story that surrounds our morning lesson, one that helps to frame it in surprising ways. Jacob’s encounter with the wrestler comes as he prepares to face his twin brother Esau for the first time in ages. If we remember, Jacob had twice betrayed Esau, getting both his inheritance and his blessing. The night of his wrestling is the night before he is to meet Esau face to face. He is understandably terrified. He knows he has wronged his brother, and he fully expects revenge. No wonder he spends the night wrestling with the divine, if not with his own conscience and history.

The next day, as Jacob limps his way across the expanse toward this unknown fate, he sees Esau coming toward him with 400 men. Fearing the worst, Jacob went first, bowing down to the ground as a sign of his contrition. What Esau does next is the gift: he runs to Jacob, throws his arms around his neck, and kisses him. The brothers embrace and weep. In an amazing twist, all is forgiven. Esau is overjoyed to meet Jacob’s family, this incredible collection of nieces and nephews. He rejects Jacob’s attempts to give him cattle, saying that God has already blessed him greatly. After this tender reunion, the two brothers go their separate ways, now reconciled through Esau’s gracious mercy.

In a sense, Jacob had to come to terms with himself before he could come to terms with his brother. The night-long wrestling was, in many ways, a manifestation of Jacob’s wrestling with who he once was and what he had done. Expecting to meet Esau the next day, there is no doubt that all that had transpired between them had come flooding back in overwhelming anxiety, fear, loathing, humiliation, embarrassment. It’s no wonder he slept little, if any, and came away in pain. Even so, through it all, he demonstrated fierce tenacity to his faith, holding on for dear life. Not only would he have to come clean to Esau; he would have to do so with God as well.

Friends, there is a gift of faith in the struggle with faith. It would be one thing to face reality and come away hopeless, with the sense that God has given up on the world, that humanity is doomed, that the planet will cure us as the virus we behave like. That kind of pessimism, as honest and realistic as it might feel, is actually the cop out, the easy route. Because if we are really doomed, what’s the point in being faithful? Why bother with any of it? Why waste an hour on Sunday morning? In fact, why eat well, exercise, befriend, volunteer, be kind?

The harder path, the faithful path, is the path of Jacob and Esau. Like Jacob, it is real honesty, the soul-searching for the wrongs we have done, even if we have to wrestle them through the night. It sends us to our knees, begging for forgiveness when we have wronged another.

And like Esau, it recognizes that past wrongs pale in comparison to the blessings God has given. It forgives – not because doing so is an easy way to forget the past, but because it is the hard work of coming to terms with what has been. And, in so doing, we find amazing freedom!

Faith is not always easy. But it is always worth it. There will be times when we emerge smarting, limping; but the promise is that we will come away singing, rejoicing, worshiping, praising.

Amen.

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ImageAt table with our enemies.

The scene shifts in our 23rd Psalm this morning. The Lord, Yahweh, is not only our shepherd, but also our host. We are welcomed into the heavenly abode, where a table has been spread before us.

The meaning of the phrase is not immediately clear. Is the table spread before our enemies so that we might sit together? If so, that’s a radical notion of reconciliation. Or is it that this is all done so that our enemies might see how beloved we are, a kind of meal-based rubbing it in their faces? If so, that seems to be petty, but also pretty satisfying.

Keep in mind that the psalms are, by and large, prayers. Whatever you might think about their authorship or the purpose and meaning of Scripture, these prayers were prayed by people. Human beings, like you and me. That doesn’t take away from their power at all, or that they were Spirit-led in their writings. Each week, we gather as a community to read and re-read these passages, assuming that they have meaning not only for the time in which they were written, but also for the time in which we live. And I don’t think this is possible unless God is intimately involved in the writing – and the reading.

If we are honest, though, we know that our prayers are not always on the mark. We pray for things all the time that we should know better than to pray for. Like any obsessed Braves’ fan, I know I have asked God to intervene in playoff action every now and then. Do I really think that the balance of the universe hangs on whether or not Craig Kimbrel gets another save? Probably not…

The point is this: the prayers of the ancients were no better or worse than our own. And there were times when they prayed for the vanquishing of a foe when, perhaps, they ought to have been praying for something a little more eternal, lasting, holy.

I think that might be the case with our Psalm text today. While the meaning may be unclear at first blush, a deeper look clarifies that the author is writing about retribution. The table is prepared for me – not me and my enemies, just me. And the table is prepared in the presence my enemies – the word in Hebrew does not mean “near”, but against them. What the psalmist wants to say is that this table is mine, and nobody else is even gonna get so much as a crumb from it. That may be the case, but I’m not sure that’s what God wants to say.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. When we look at the whole of Scripture, there are lessons that point to God giving victory over foes and against incredible odds. And when that happens, the victory is God’s. And there are lessons that point to God’s presence even in the midst of defeat; because the victory is still God’s, no matter where we might be for the moment.

What we also see, time and time again, are incredible stories of unlikely forgiveness and reconciliation. Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury their parents. Jacob and Esau’s bitter sibling rivalry gives way to the embrace of brotherly love. King Cyrus of Persia frees the Israelites from their Babylonian Captivity, and the Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt with the help of Assyrians and Phoenicians. Judas, the betrayer, is at the table when bread is broken. Jesus prays for forgiveness for those who put him to death. Saul, the persecutor of early Christians, becomes one of their leaders.

Whatever the psalmist might have intended, the overarching story of salvation is that enemies do sit at table together in the kingdom of God.

Some of you have heard of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini. In 1943, his B-24 bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He spent 47 days on a life raft before he was rescued from the sea…by his Japanese captors. He spent the next two years being tortured in a POW camp. That experience tormented him for years, and his life story was all too familiar to those who have ever experienced the horrors of war and post-traumatic stress: nightmares, addiction, broken relationships…Somehow, along the way, he was convinced to go to a Billy Graham revival. Right then and there, he became a Christian and began to understand what forgiveness means. Since then, Zamperini has returned to Japan several times, seeking out former captors so that he could experience that forgiveness face to face. And at the 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, he was invited to carry the torch, as the Japanese crowds cheered him on.

I don’t know what Louis Zamperini is made of. But I do know that his life story finds its inspiration in God’s story. And that is the story we see in our Scripture lessons today, where enemies meet in the most unlikely of ways.

Take the amazing story of Naaman, the head of the Aramean army. Ancient Aram and Israel were rival nations – we read about that in our lesson, as an Israelite girl is taken captive by an Aramean raiding party. Through their prisoner, the Arameans learn about the powerful Israelite prophet Elisha, who might just be able to cure the general’s leprosy. Much to the chagrin of the Israelite king, he does. There is no requirement of a non-aggression pact, no cease fire is signed. Elisha provides for Naaman’s healing, and he refuses to take payment for it.

To get an idea of how insane this is, imagine for a moment that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Al-Qaeda, comes to Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City for free cancer treatment. It’s unthinkable – and yet, here it is: an enemy general is healed of leprosy. And the purpose is to give witness to the holiness of Yahweh, the divine shepherd.

Even though the scene in Luke is less military, it is no less unbelievable. Jesus is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. A crowd gathers to catch a glimpse of the infamous rabbi. Among them is diminutive Zacchaeus, the tax collector. He is well known, and despised, by all around him. Tax collectors, after all, were Jews who took money from other Jews and gave it to the hated Roman occupiers. He is, in short, a traitor. When Jesus calls him down from the tree, I can’t help but wonder if the crowd think Zacchaeus is going to get his come-uppance. Instead, Jesus wants to be his guest, elevating Zacchaeus’ status right there in front of God and everybody. And, perhaps most importantly, he does all of this before Zacchaeus offers to repay everyone he has swindled. A relationship with Jesus does not come as a result of righteous living. Instead, a relationship with Jesus paves the way for doing what is right.

The kingdom of God, therefore, operates very, very differently from our own world. Enemies sit at table together: Barack Obama and Edward Snowden; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; Alex Rodriguez and anyone on the planet. It is a concept that absolutely baffles the imagination. If God is the host, then God is the one who gets to send the invitations. We may not like everyone on the guest list, but remember: it’s not our party.

Where does this leave you? Imagine yourself in the place of the psalmist. You are ready to sit down at this fantastic spread. You are looking forward to rubbing it in the face of your worst enemy. Suddenly, you realize that God has set another place…for them. Who is it? An ex? A former neighbor, or co-worker? A nameless, faceless other? What is it that wells up within you? Repulsion? Anger? Surprise? Joy? Forgiveness? Are you already looking for another table or calling for the check?

Friends, this faith stuff is not for the faint of heart. And don’t misunderstand me: there is much, much more to reconciliation than simply sitting down at a table together, “letting bygones be bygones.” If you have read any of the stories of those who have experienced such a healing, you know the courage and pain it involves. From South Africa’s post-Apartheid challenges to prison system programs here in the U.S. for victim-offender reconciliation, forgiveness is hard, hard work. And there are times when reconciliation can only possible beyond the grave, because it needs God’s first-hand involvement that badly. No matter what, if we want to call ourselves Christians, then, at the very least, we need to recognize this: at the heavenly banquet, there is room for all. No matter the distance that might lie between you and your enemy, the distance between you and God has already been bridged; because the victory belongs to God, and God alone.

Amen.

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The Lord is my shepherd, who restores my soul.

As we continue our summer look at the 23rd Psalm, we suddenly find out that this shepherd is much more than just a shepherd. Not only do the sheep have their needs met and find themselves in grassy places and beside calm water, but this shepherd is also apparently in the business of nothing less than soul restoration.

The word “soul” in Hebrew is not all that precise. “Soul” could just as well be translated “self”. And the word for “restore” is also translated “return”. So the meaning of this phrase lies somewhere between “restores my soul” and “returns myself.” And even though the latter makes it sound like we’re being dropped off at the great central library, the implication is the same: we have become less than ourselves, and the shepherd wants us to be whole again.

Part of that purpose is reflected in our lessons this morning, reminding us of both the command and the need for Sabbath. If this feels like familiar ground, that’s because we were just here two weeks ago, talking about Sabbath. And rather than belabor the point, I’ll simply review and summarize. Sabbath keeping is one of the Ten Commandments, and we seem to revel in breaking it. Sabbath is about rest: we work hard, we play hard, and we give our bodies and souls time to recover.

In short, we need Sabbath; but we act like we don’t. And that’s why I think it’s worth returning to this topic so soon again. It is very easy to fool ourselves into thinking we are capable enough to handle everything that comes our way. But when we do finally stop, when we sit, rest, listen, we know the truth: we need Sabbath it because our souls, our very selves, require it. Life demands many things of us, and these things chip away at our truest self. Over time, we become less than who we were created to be. We feel that need to be whole, and this is the promise that Sabbath holds out for us: restoration; healing; wholeness.

What strikes me about today’s lessons is that they uphold the need for Sabbath. Our reading from Exodus is from the Ten Commandments, so that’s not surprising. But the letter to the Hebrews was written at a time when early Christians were struggling to understand their relationship to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish identity. Some practices, like circumcision and keeping kosher, fell by the wayside. Given that we are talking about people who followed Jesus, who seemed to relish not playing by the rules, that’s also not surprising. But Sabbath keeping is still recommended as a faithful practice – not only so that we bind ourselves with God, but also so that we do not tempt others to disobey. In other words, we have obligations to strengthen and encourage each other.

Do we do that? In some ways, I think we do. There are churches where the time before and after worship is prime time for business connections, comparing notes on vacations and cars and the like. But none of that seems to matter here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. I have described us as a church that is in Brookhaven, but not of Brookhaven, if that makes sense. In other words, we are a church of our community. And we love and serve that community. At the same time, we know that there is much more purpose to life than the rat race, the bigger, better, faster, stronger that too easily infects our society. We put a high value on service. We prioritize relationships. We have unconditional welcome.

But…do we encourage one another in the rhythms of faith? Do we put in time to study? We say we value Sunday School, and yet, we don’t attend. Do we build our schedules so that we have a regular habit of prayer? I would like to believe so. Do we give one another permission to say “no”, recognizing that there are a multitude of demands for our time? Most of our meetings and events end up being on Sunday – worship, education, committees, session, meals, and so on – meaning that we maximize the one free day that many of us have, but those who are actually working those events end up just as exhausted on Sunday as on any other day.

I know full well that I’m much better at asking the questions, than suggesting the answers. That said, I’m not sure the problem with Sabbath troubles us as much as I think it should. If we in the church cannot encourage one another to honor the Sabbath, where are we going to get that encouragement?

So I hope you will hear this from me, and despite how it sounds, I mean this as a word of grace: the world does not need you as badly as you think it does. It will keep on turning whether you attack that endless “to do” list or not. And though the world may not need you, God does. But the way God needs you and the way the world uses you are two very different things. God, our Lord, the shepherd of the Psalm, is the one who commands you to rest. More than anything else, the shepherd desires your restoration. Trust it. Trust yourself to that same God, because with the God we know in Jesus Christ, all things are possible!

Amen.

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In developing policy statements and actions relating to critical world issues, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has always held it essential to study the biblical and theological concepts that establish an ethical foundation for our positions. As our denomination once again addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, four biblical concepts and their interrelationship require specific examination: Justice, Zion, Covenant and Land, and Reconciliation.

The Middle East is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and followers devoted to all three religions have continued to live there to this day. In the biblical and theological reflection below, care has been taken to include detailed references to “the Older Testament”1—first, because these books are held to be authoritative by both Judaism and Christianity;2 and second, because it is there in the Bible that one sees most clearly the struggle of a nation’s leaders and people to exercise power with justice. And because the concept of justice is also central to the morality of Islam, references to the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition have been included in the first section immediately below.

Justice

“Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: By three things is the world sustained: by justice, by truth, and by peace, as it is said, Truth and justice and peace judge ye in your gates (Zech. 8:16).”3 This profound interpretation of a verse from the prophet Zechariah, spoken by a rabbi of the second century C.E. living in Roman Palestine, was in turn commented upon with great wisdom some two centuries later by another Palestinian rabbi, Rav Muna. He said, “These three things are actually one. When justice is done, truth is served, and peace is achieved. … Wherever there is justice there is peace (and wherever there is peace there is justice).”4

“Justice” is central to the Older Testament (including Zech. 8:16), the Newer Testament,5 and the scripture of Islam, the Qur’an.6

First, in both testaments of the Bible justice is presented as an essential attribute of God’s own nature as Sovereign of the universe. “For the Lord is a God of justice” (Isa. 30:18c); “… I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth” (Jer. 9:24b); “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, … who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry” (Ps. 146:5–7); “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all injustice” (1 Jn. 1:9); “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the scepter [of straightness (i.e., justice)] is the scepter of your [reign]” (Heb. 1:8b–c); “You are just, O Holy One …” (Rev. 16:5b); “Just and true are your ways, [Sovereign] of the nations!” (Rev. 15:3c); “[The Mighty One] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk. 1:51–52). And in Islam, one of the ninety-nine “beautiful names” of God is al-‘Adl, “The Just,” or “Justice” (itself).

Second, based on this identification of justice as central to God’s sovereign role, the Bible also presents justice as essential to the role of human monarchs and of earthly governors in general. “At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for [justice (mishpat)]” (Judg. 4:4–5); “So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and equity to all his people” (2 Sam. 8:15); “… For time would fail me to tell of … David …—who through faith … administered justice … (Heb. 11:32b–33a); “Give the king your justice, O God … May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice” (Ps. 72:1–2); “… as [Paul] discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix [, the Roman governor,] became frightened …” (Acts 24:25a); “[King] Jehoshaphat … said to the judges, ‘…Now, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes'” (2 Chr. 19:4a, 6a, 7). This same extension of the justice of the sovereign God to the role of earthly governments is found in Islam—for example, in this saying of the prophet Muhammad (or, hadith): “The Government (al-Sultan) is the shadow of God on the earth; all of His servants who are oppressed shall turn to it. When it is just, it shall be rewarded…”7

Third, the Bible identifies the practice of justice as essential not only for those who govern but also for all of God’s people. “… I have [known Abraham], that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19); “Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times” (Ps. 106:3); “… what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8b–d); “… let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Am. 5:24); “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his [justice], and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33); “… justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced …” (Mt. 23:23c–d); “… in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is [just] is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35); “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of [injustice], but … present your members to God as instruments of [justice]” (Rom. 6:13a, c); “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but [justice] and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17); “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of [justice]” (Eph. 6:14); “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes … . Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:19a, 20). In like manner, the Qur’an reads: “O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor…” (Sura 4:135).8

Here an all-important question arises: “To whom is due this ‘justice, and only justice’ that, according to Deuteronomy 16:20, must be practiced by all God’s people? Is justice due only to persons of our own ethnicity and/or religion, or is it due as well to others different from ourselves?” How Jesus would answer this question seems altogether clear. For the Gospel of Matthew, drawing upon Isaiah 42:1, describes Jesus in this way: “Here is my servant, whom I[, God,] have chosen, … and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles” (Mt. 12:18a, d). And within the Jewish tradition, the second-century rabbi already cited above, Simeon ben Gamaliel, is quoted as having said while reflecting on Deuteronomy 16: “Justice must be accorded to non-Jews as to Jews; the former should have the option of seeking judgment before either a Jewish or a pagan court.”9 And in Islam, Yusuf Ali cites a case in which the prophet Muhammad ruled in favor of a Jew over against a nominal Muslim, “according to the strict principle of justice,” and resisted communal pressure to do the contrary.10

Thus, “justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” on behalf of all persons and not just your own people. But what exactly constitutes the “justice” that is due to all? The Bible in general and Jesus in particular answer in this way. Justice is: promoting truth;11 upholding the cause of the poor, the weak, and the needy;12 loving those who are “other” and providing for their needs;13 restoring what has been stolen;14 humbling the proud;15 issuing fair and equitable judgments in court;16 ending oppression;17 keeping God’s statutes and commandments;18 following God’s will rather than one’s own;19 fostering peace;20 and not pursuing dishonest gain, not shedding innocent blood, not practicing violence, not trusting in military might.21 In Islam, according to John L. Esposito, “The Quran envisions a society based on the unity and equality of believers, a society in which moral and social justice will counterbalance oppression of the weak and economic exploitation…. Exploitation of the poor, weak, widows, women, orphans ([Sura] 4:2; 4:12) is vividly condemned… False contracts, bribery, abuse of women, hoarding of wealth to the exclusion of its subordination to higher ends, and usury are denounced.”22

As shall soon be seen, “justice” understood in biblical ways came to underpin ancient Israel’s beliefs about a person’s right to enter the temple precincts of Zion or even to live within the city of Jerusalem.

Zion—and Justice

The name “Zion” evolved and multiplied in its ancient applications. Originally, it designated the fortress of the pre-Israelite city of Jerusalem captured by David around the year 1000 B.C.E.23 “Zion” then came to designate the rather small “City of David” of which the fortress was a part.24 When the Ark of the Covenant was shifted to the new temple built by Solomon, the name “Zion” was transferred from the confines of David’s city to the new sacred space lying to its northwest—the temple precincts,25 the place on earth where God most fully dwelled,26 the “touchpoint” between heaven and earth.27 Next, by metonymy—a figure of speech in which the name of one thing stands for the name of another thing with which it is associated—”Zion” came also to designate the entire city of Jerusalem together with its residents,28 and then, with the destruction of that city in 587 B.C.E., it came also to serve as a name for the whole people of Israel.29 Then, too, in the developing eschatology of ancient Israel’s prophets and psalmists after 587, “Zion” named the about-to-be rebuilt (or, for somewhat later prophets and psalmists, the recently rebuilt) city of Jerusalem and temple that served as a focus of hope—hope for the restoration of God’s people after exile,30 hope for the advent of peace throughout the world,31 and hope for a renewed covenant with God.32

Persons’ right to enter God’s presence within the temple precincts of holy Zion or even to live within the city of Jerusalem was closely linked to their living justly—that is, to their living in accordance with the demands of covenant law. In the eighth century B.C.E., the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that the people of Zion would be spared from judgment only through repentance and the leading of just lives (Isa. 1:27–28). Since justice and righteousness were divine attributes with which God had filled Zion (Isa. 33:5), justice would be the line and righteousness the plummet by which the people of Zion would be measured and weighed (Isa. 28:16–17). Only those in Zion “who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil” would be able to abide in the presence of the God of justice (Isa. 33:14–16; cf. 30:18). A contemporary of Isaiah, the prophet Micah, condemned the rulers and leading citizens, “who abhor justice and pervert all equity” and thereby “build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong” (Mic. 3:9–10). Because of their actions, “Zion shall be plowed as a field” (Mic. 3:11–12). Nearly 100 years later, the prophet Jeremiah called upon the refugees from the former northern kingdom of Israel to repent their evil so that God might again bring them to Zion (Jer. 3:14), and he denounced those of Judah who entered the temple to worship the Lord without having amended their ways and ceased their violations of God’s commandments (Jer. 7:1–15). Two psalms also state explicitly that those who enter the temple precincts—which is to say, Zion—should be persons who practice justice.

” O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is [just (tzedeq)], and speak the truth from their heart, who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.” Ps. 15:1–3, 5c33

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and [a just reward (tzdaqah)] from the God of their salvation.”
Ps. 24:3–534

Thus, the Older Testament closely connects the concepts of “Zion” and “justice,” for Zion is the principal earthly dwelling place of the God of justice.

The Older Testament also speaks of Zion as a place to which not only Jews but also other peoples and nations will come both to worship God and to receive God’s teaching. Toward the end of the sixth century B.C.E., the prophet we call Third Isaiah proclaimed to those who had returned from exile in Babylon to the holy mountain that is Zion, “Maintain justice, and do what is right” (Isa. 56:1a). And he proceeded to tell his fellow Jews that what is just and right includes joining God in welcoming to the holy mountain and its sacred precincts those from other lands who love God and strive to keep the commandments, for God’s temple “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:6–8). And according to Psalm 87, “Zion is the mother city of all who know the Lord, wherever they are born”—be that Canaan, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, or any other place.35 Other passages as well share that vision:

“Let this be recorded for a generation to come, … so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem, when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.” Ps. 102:18a, 21–22

And:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
Mic. 4:1–4 (see also Isa. 2:2–4)

Thus, according to the Older Testament, the final effect of the exiles’ return to Zion will be the dawn of an age of peace and a joining with other peoples and nations to worship and study the teachings of the one true God. It is thus noteworthy that while Jerusalem has indeed become a place holy not only for Jews but also for Christians and Muslims36 the longed-for age of peace and reconciliation has yet to come.

In the Newer Testament, “Zion” occurs just seven times. Four usages designate not “earthly” Jerusalem but instead “eschatological” Jerusalem. Two of these four arise from quoting the book of Isaiah. According to First Peter, God lays the solid cornerstone of Jesus Christ for all believers in eschatological Zion (1 Pet. 2:6, quoting Isa. 28:16), and from there also, according to Romans, the Deliverer for all of Israel will yet come forth (Rom. 11:26, quoting Isa. 59:21 from one particular manuscript tradition of the Greek Septuagint). Then, too, according to Hebrews, it is to eschatological Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, that Christians have worshipfully “come … to God, the judge of all, … and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 12:22–24a). Finally, a vision in the book of Revelation describes eschatological Zion as the launch point for God’s end-time action to rid the world of evil. The Lamb (Christ) takes his stand on the solid high ground of “Mount Zion,” surrounded by 144,000 righteous faithful (Rev. 14:1), while the dragon (Satan) takes his stand on “the sand of the seashore” (Rev. 12:18), viewing from there the two beasts that are his proxies (symbolizing perhaps Rome’s emperors and priests of the imperial cult, Rev. 13:1–18). This vision of the Lamb on Mount Zion affirms Zion as the seat of justice for the world and anticipates Revelation’s later vision of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:9–22).

The other three usages of “Zion” in the Newer Testament do designate “earthly” Jerusalem. Two of these occur in gospel accounts of Jesus’ dramatic entry into that city on “Palm Sunday” (Mt. 21:5, quoting compositely from Isa. 62:11 and Zech. 9:9; and Jn. 12:15, quoting compositely from Zeph. 3:16 and Zech. 9:9). In calling to readers’ minds Zech. 9:9–10, both gospel texts affirm that Zion’s peaceable Messiah is the one who creates true shalom for the nations. The third “earthly” usage occurs in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom. 9:33), where he uses the same prophetic image found in First Peter (Isa. 28:6) but employs it quite differently. Paul, interpreting this Isaian image through the lens of Isa. 8:14, speaks of God’s laying in Zion, earthly Jerusalem, “a stone” that is a stumbling block to Jewish faith—namely, the crucified and risen Christ. All three of these instances of “Zion” arise from quoting books of the prophets.

It appears that during the first century C.E., Christian authors rather fully transferred the locus of God’s concrete presence in the world of space and time from the place of Zion—that is, Jerusalem—to the person of Jesus, who had been crucified and raised from the dead just outside Jerusalem. The Roman destruction of Zion—that is, the temple in Jerusalem—in 70 C.E. doubtless hastened that process. So what do Christians make of the claim that a link endures between God’s covenant with Abraham and the promise of land?37

Covenant and Land—and Justice

Nearly ten years ago, four American Jewish scholars offered as a basis for Jewish-Christian dialogue a set of eight propositions entitled “Dabru ’Emet.”38 The third of those read, “Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel.” That proposition went on to present as part of its brief rationale this comment: “As members of a biblically-based religion, Christians appreciate that Israel was promised—and given—to Jews as the physical center of the covenant between them and God.”

So, do we Presbyterians—collectively and/or individually—”respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel”? Do we Presbyterians “appreciate that Israel [geographic Israel? biblical Israel? political Israel?] was promised—and given—to Jews as the physical center of the covenant between them and God”?

Any answer to that question will be complicated and will most certainly prove controversial. At least five issues are involved in framing a context for reflecting on “Dabru Emet’s” third proposition and its rationale, and all of these issues are ones very much on the minds and hearts of many Presbyterians today.

First, most Presbyterians accept that the promise of offspring and land is in fact found throughout the book of Genesis39 and that that promise is conceptually central to God’s covenant with Abraham.40 Yet most Presbyterians also hold that this promise is conditioned by concepts found elsewhere in the first five books of the Bible, such as: (a) the Jubilee theology found in the book of Leviticus, according to which the land belongs fundamentally to God and is a gift from God given to ancient Israel as a leasehold (25:23–24, 38); (b) the Sinai-covenant theology found in the book of Deuteronomy, according to which God’s gift of the land is dependent upon the people’s adherence to justice and obedience to the commandments (e.g., 4:40; 16:19–20; 30:15–20)—including the prohibition against subverting the rights of “strangers” and the needy (27:19);41 and (c) Genesis’ own warning about the potential loss of the promises through deeds of injustice (18:19).

Thus, most Presbyterians hold that the “land-grant” to Abraham’s offspring described in Genesis is not so much a matter of “rights” as it is a matter of “responsibilities,” that “the land” is a place whose residents God holds responsible for what is being done in and with it, including dealing justly with “the stranger” and the poor.42

Second, Presbyterians believe that the boundaries of ancient Israel varied throughout its history—first in the days of the patriarchs and matriarchs, then under the judges and kings, then in the aftermath of exile and diaspora. Furthermore, the boundaries of “Greater Israel” that are described in the book of Exodus (Ex. 23:31), are surely not to be taken literally, for those would extend Israel’s borders from the “Sea of Reeds” in the south—that is, deep into the territory of modern Egypt—to the Euphrates River in the north—that is, deep into the territory of modern Syria. And as the Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna has observed, “At no time in Israelite history, even at the height of the Davidic-Solomonic empire, were these boundaries a reality.”43

Thus, Presbyterians believe that one cannot define “the land of Israel” with any kind of religious specificity. The varying boundaries of “the promised land” have always been more a matter of “Realpolitik” than of theology.

Third, most modern Presbyterians read not with approval but with something approaching horror the theology of the accounts in Deuteronomistic literature that describe the taking of “the land” from those who had long been dwelling there by means of “holy war.”44 One cannot evaluate as “moral” deeds that achieve a concrete realization of “land promise” through extreme “land violence.”45 And a number of Jewish scholars agree that the acts of “holy war” described in these biblical narratives are, at the very least, morally problematic. For example, Jon Levenson has written that the narrative tradition in which the Canaanites are demonized and dismissed offers an unsavory parallel in Israel’s sacred texts to the strand of anti-Semitism that runs throughout Christians’ Newer Testament.46

Thus, most Presbyterians believe that “land promise” ought not to be realized through “land violence” and that the claiming of “promised land” does not justify the displacement of “the others” who have long lived there.

Fourth, most Presbyterians agree with the apostle Paul (Romans 9–11, esp. 11:26–29) that Jews remain to this day heirs of God’s covenant with Abraham. That, and not supersessionism, is what most hold.47 Yet many Presbyterians also believe that Jews are not today’s only heirs of that covenant with Abraham—that we Christians, too, are heirs of that covenant. This understanding was stated first and most authoritatively by the apostle Paul, who, in the first century C.E., wrote in his Letter to the Galatians (Gal. 3:29), “… if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” And in modern times it has been restated this way: “Two vital communities, Judaism and Christianity, claim direct descent from those who lived by and preserved the biblical stories; [and] a third, Islam, treasures the tradition as well.”48

Now, it is true that most Christians at most times and in most places have not strongly linked the concept of our descent from Abraham to the concept of the promise of “the land.” Still, a number of Christians throughout history have made that strong connection, and among them are some who are living in “the land” today—Palestinian Christians. Neither they nor their Palestinian Muslim cousins view themselves as filling the role of the “strangers” or “aliens” mentioned in the Older Testament.49

For at least 300 years, between the fourth and seventh centuries C.E., the majority of those who lived in the Roman province of Palestine were Christians, and the city of Jerusalem, which had been the site of the death and the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, was viewed by these residents as “the Christian city par excellence.”

Also, many monks throughout the wider reaches of Christendom were taking to their own hearts God’s words to Abram, “Go up … to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Yes, many monks were interpreting these words as a command that God was now directing to them. So a great number of them began to pick up and move to what they were beginning to call “the Holy Land”—where Jesus had been born, had lived, had died, and had been raised from the dead.50

Now, “Byzantine Palestine was, for Christians, a Holy Land but [it was] also a homeland, a place where men and women tilled the ground and planted orchards, built homes and raised families, bought fish and sold olives, buried parents and grandparents.” And “when Jerusalem was captured by the Persians in the seventh century of the Common Era, it was the Christians, not the Jews, who sang a lamentation over the Holy City.”51

Then shortly after the Persian conquest came the Arab conquest—and Islam. Yet most of the Christians who were indigenous to that region continued to live there—carrying on with their everyday lives, learning to speak Arabic either in addition to or instead of Aramaic and/or Greek,52 and continuing to worship the God made known to Abraham and made known in Jesus. Many of today’s Palestinian Christians are direct descendants of these for whom Roman Palestine had become both their homeland and their Holy Land, where the central mysteries of their Christian faith had taken place.

So, no matter how many centuries have passed since the end of the Byzantine Christian hegemony over “the land,” and no matter in how many other countries the Christian religion has since set down roots, there are in the world Christians who remain strongly wedded to the land that gave birth to both Christ and the Christian religion, and none are more strongly wedded to “the land” than those who are Palestinian Christians.53

Then, too, of course, as early as the 6th century some Muslims considered Palestine to be their home, and from the late-7th century onward Muslims constituted the majority of Palestine’s population. Indeed, since the end of the 7th century, two of Islam’s holiest places have stood in Jerusalem—the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.54

Thus, Presbyterians confront a dilemma. What are Presbyterians to do when Jews and Christians and Muslims find that their continuity to the past is in part dependent upon living in the same land and in the same city, the land and the city in which both Judaism and Christianity are native and Islam has had such a significant presence for more than 1,200 years?

Fifth, Presbyterians believe that God is sovereign over all nations, states, governments, and peoples, and that God calls upon persons of faith to be critical of those governments understood to be violating God’s commandments and God’s standards for justice and compassion. American Presbyterians believe that God urges us to stand ready to speak “like prophets,” to stand ready first and foremost to speak to our own government but also to speak to other governments. For the prophets of ancient Israel addressed their words-in-the-name-of-God not only to their own nation but to other nations as well.

Thus, if American Presbyterians are to speak “like prophets,” we must stand ready to speak not only to our own government but to others as well—including the government of the State of Israel and the governments of the Palestinian people.

Throughout the sixty-two years since the British mandate over the territory of Palestine ended, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has spoken out a number of times concerning the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. Although each of these themes has prompted spirited discussion, there have run throughout these statements four strong commitments:
1) To the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and legitimate borders,55 borders that are not contended for on the basis of some literal reading of “biblical” geography and that are arrived at through peaceful negotiation with the Palestinians. And accompanying this commitment have been two calls: first, one to Palestinians and other Arabs to recognize Israel’s existence within secure borders; and second, one to Israeli Jews to fulfill their “land responsibilities,” responsibilities that include the covenant obligation to extend to “others” in their midst—that is, to Israeli Christians and Muslims—a full equality of civil rights and a full measure of justice.56
2) To the right of Palestinians to self-determination and to have their own separate, contiguous, economically viable, sovereign nation-state within the wider borders of “the land.”57 Arising from this second commitment has been our denomination’s steady call for the government of Israel to put an end to its military, political, and economic occupation of Palestinian land after 1967 and its practice of establishing and expanding settlements there.
3) To a nonviolent resolution to the conflict.58 The PC(USA) has continuously called upon all parties in the Middle East to settle their differences peacefully and also upon both Palestinians and Israelis to end all acts of violence against each other.
4) To the concept that Jerusalem, like “the land” as a whole, does not belong to any one people alone, but is rather to be shared by two peoples (Israelis and Palestinians) and three religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).59

In 1987, the 199th General Assembly (1987) also received and commended to our congregations for study and reflection the paper entitled “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews.”60 It is the content of this paper that undergirds the paper “Christians and Jews: People of God,” which is now also before the 219th General Assembly (2010). The sixth affirmation of the 1987 paper reads, “We affirm the continuity of God’s promise of the land along with the obligations of that promise to the people of Israel.”61

In the explication accompanying that affirmation are these sentences: “because land is God’s to be given, it can never fully be possessed”; “the blessings of the promise were dependent upon fulfillment of covenant relationships”; “those in possession of ‘land’ have a responsibility and obligation to the disadvantaged, the oppressed, and the ‘strangers in their gates'”; “we disavow any teaching which says that peace can be secured without justice through the exercise of violence and retribution”; and “no government at any time can ever be the full expression of God’s will. All, including the State of Israel, stand accountable to God. The State of Israel is a geopolitical entity and is not to be validated theologically.”62

In addition, the final draft of the 2010 paper says: “God’s gift of land, and the potential and responsibility that goes with that gift, pertains both to the Jews and to the Palestinian people who live alongside them in what was the ancient, biblical land of promise. Both peoples have claims on the same land. Jews and Palestinians give voice to incompatible historical narratives and political claims, each assumed to be ‘correct’ by its narrators. What is not often clearly said in the midst of the conflict is that both people, in different ways, are recipients of God’s gift and responsibility.”63

Finally, the 1987 paper states: “to understand [the] promise [of land] solely in terms of a specific geographical entity on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean is, in our view, inadequate. ‘Land’ is understood as more than place or property; ‘land’ is a biblical metaphor for sustainable life, prosperity, peace, and security. We affirm the rights to these essentials for the Jewish people. At the same time, as bearers of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we affirm those same rights in the name of justice to all peoples… . Thus we affirm our solidarity with all people to whom those rights of ‘land’ are currently denied.”64

We have set forth the biblical emphasis on Zion as a place for all nations and peoples to worship the God of justice and learn war no more and as a place where people’s covenant responsibilities are to be fulfilled and God’s justice is to be practiced toward all persons. We have also highlighted central emphases of our denomination’s past statements and of two of its study papers. We now turn to a consideration of one other biblical concept related to the present Israeli-Palestinian crisis: reconciliation.

Reconciliation—and Justice

The Newer Testament proclaims that humankind’s alienation from God existed from the primordial time of Eden to the historical time of Jesus. But through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God accomplished a reconciliation with all of humankind—indeed, with the whole of creation. We note these passages, for example: “Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself'” (Jn. 12:23, 32).65 “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19–20).66

Furthermore, the Newer Testament proclaims that this reconciliation between God and humankind accomplished through Christ is also the ground and empowering force for reconciliation among humans—between one person and another, between the individual and the group, between one group and another—in fulfillment of the eschatological vision of peace, of shalom, found in both Micah and Isaiah: “[T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Mic. 4:3b, Isa. 2:4b). Ephesians says, “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us” (2:14). In its first century context, Ephesians was speaking of Christ’s death having broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles within the Christian community. But in the twenty-first century, we are led by the Spirit to find in this verse, especially when viewed through the lens of Col. 1:19–20, a wider application—Christ’s death having broken down the dividing wall of hostility between any two peoples or groups within God’s creation.

And Second Corinthians says, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all … . So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation … ! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation … . For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the justice of God” (2 Cor. 5:14a, 17a, 18, 21). Interpreting this last passage, J. Paul Sampley writes: “Reconciliation is at the heart of life’s business. If the most important single factor about any of our lives is God’s having reconciled us to God’s very self, then the proper celebration of our reconciliation is to share it with others by fostering reconciliation … wherever and whenever we can.”67 It is in light of all this that we can hear afresh Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23–24). By so reconciling, we do become, as Paul says, “the [justice] of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

A number of biblical accounts illustrate the processes of human reconciliation—whether frustrated or successful. We will focus here on just two: the narrative of the twins Jacob and Esau (especially Gen. 27:1–45, 33:1–17),68 and Jesus’ parable of The Man and His Two Sons (Lk. 15:11–32).

Stolid Esau was his father Isaac’s favorite son, while wily Jacob was his mother Rebekah’s. Jacob had already duped Esau, the first-born twin, into selling his birthright (Gen. 25:27–34). Then, through an ancient version of identity theft, Jacob tricked blind-old Isaac into bestowing on him the paternal blessing Isaac intended for Esau (Gen. 27:1–29). When Esau learned of his lost blessing, he hated Jacob, yet bided his time until the opportune moment to kill him (Gen. 27:35–41). Rebekah warned Jacob of Esau’s plan and sent him away to the home of her brother Laban outside Canaan, far to the northeast in distant Haran (Gen. 27:42–45).

Twenty years passed (Gen. 31:38–41), during which Jacob married first Leah and then Rachel (Gen. 29:1–30), begot eleven sons and a daughter (Gen. 29:31–30:24), and prospered at Laban’s expense (Gen. 30:25–43). Laban’s sons became angry at Jacob, so Jacob started to flee back to his home country of Canaan with his wives, children, and great wealth of livestock (Gen. 31:1–21). Laban chased them down, for one of the party had stolen his household gods (Gen. 31:22–32). Laban never found the gods (Gen. 31:33–35), yet in the end he made a covenant with Jacob that let him depart in peace (Gen. 31:36–55).

Jacob now feared that when he got home Esau would exact revenge; and when Jacob learned that Esau was coming to meet him accompanied by 400 men, he thought the worst and, to appease his twin, sent ahead a huge offering of livestock (Gen. 32:1–21).

That same night, when Jacob was alone, a “man” came and wrestled long and hard with him, finally at daybreak throwing Jacob’s hip out of joint (Gen. 32:22–25). The “man” then bestowed on the exhausted Jacob a new name, Israel, and, after blessing him, departed (Gen. 32:26–29). In the end, Jacob came to believe that the “man” was really God (Gen. 32:30–32).

Jacob next saw Esau and his retinue approaching. He arranged the women and children of his caravan defensively and limped ahead to meet his twin, bowing submissively to the ground seven times as he proceeded (3 Gen. 3:1–3). “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Gen. 33:4; compare Lk. 15:20!). Having thus shown his forgiveness of Jacob, Esau greeted the women and children and told Jacob he would not keep his offering, for he already had quite enough livestock (Gen. 33:5–9). Jacob, however, insisted that Esau keep the gift, and Esau at last agreed (Gen. 33:10–11).

Esau, far from harboring bitterness or exacting revenge against Jacob, had initiated a model reconciliation, and it would seem that Jacob had completed it. Jacob, reflecting on his previous night’s wrestling with God, had even said to Esau, “[T]o see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (Gen. 33:10b). Yet in the end Jacob remained characteristically untrusting and wily. In spite of having seen “the face of God” and received a new name, he had had no experience of “new being,” of “new creation.” So when Esau first volunteered to travel onward with him and then offered to lend him some men for help along his way, Jacob refused both offers, preferring that Esau’s future not be linked to his (Gen. 33:12–15). So the two parted and went their separate ways (Gen. 33:16–17).

Thus, Jacob kept Esau out of his future life, and they met only once more—coming together to bury their father Isaac (Gen. 35:28–29). Basically, theirs was but a partial reconciliation, its full success having been frustrated—perhaps by Jacob’s continuing suspicion of Esau, perhaps by his inability to accept Esau’s forgiveness, but most certainly by his insistence on going his separate way.

Family dynamics, sibling rivalry, and offered reconciliation also lie at the heart of Jesus’ parable of The Man and His Two Sons (Lk. 15:11–32). Like all of Jesus’ parables, this one lends itself richly to multiple interpretations. For example, the “man” can be seen variably, and correctly, as either a God-figure or a model human parent. The latter reading is followed here, where the parable is interpreted as a story of both successful human reconciliation (father and younger son) and frustrated human reconciliation (elder brother and younger brother, father and elder son).69

The younger son asked his father prematurely, and insultingly, for his inheritance, yet surprisingly he was given it. He went off to a far country and there wasted it “in dissolute living” (Lk. 15:11–13). So this Jewish lad was reduced to slopping and feeding the hogs, while he himself, in the midst of a famine, had nothing at all to eat (Lk. 15:14–16). Finally, “he came to himself” and realized he would be far better off at home, even as a hired hand. So, feeling quite contrite, he thought through his speech of repentance and headed back to his father (Lk. 15:17–20a).

While this son was still a distance away, his father caught sight of him “and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Lk. 15:20b; compare Gen. 33:4!). The son began his speech of repentance, but the father interrupted him and commanded the servants to bring for this son a robe, ring, and sandals and to prepare a special feast. A joyful celebration followed, completing the reconciliation between father and son, a reconciliation brought about through the son’s humble acts of repentance and truth-telling and the father’s gracious acts of forgiveness and amnesty (Lk. 15:21–24).

But the elder son had received no speech of repentance from his brother. Instead, upon returning from his work in the field, he encountered an unexpected feast of celebration. Puzzled, he learned secondhand of his younger brother’s return and restored sonship (Lk. 15:25–27). Angered at the injustice of the whole situation and jealous of what he perceived to be his father’s favoritism toward his brother, the elder son refused to enter. So his father came out and pleaded with him. The elder son spoke angry and jealous words to his father, yet the father answered him with words that proclaimed both his enduring constancy toward his elder son and his newborn reconciliation with his younger son (Lk. 15:28–32).

Jesus’ parable concludes without any resolution between these two figures but with the ball in the elder son’s court, so to speak. Would he remain unreconciled to his father, either resentful forever or leaving the ranch altogether? Would he remain unreconciled to his younger brother, either entering the party sullenly and unforgivingly or turning on his heel and walking away? Then, too, would the younger brother ever have the chance, or the desire, to apologize to his elder brother and tell him the truth? Would the elder brother ever take the opportunity to forgive his brother and, like their father, offer him amnesty? Could a reconciliation between these brothers succeed without “justice” being done, and what would “justice” look like in this situation? Jesus left the answers to all these questions to our imagination—or rather, for our discernment.

It is tempting to apply the first of these two narratives to the present situation in the Middle East by identifying Esau with either the Israelis or the Palestinians and then Jacob with the other. One of the “brothers” has wronged the other, has never asked for forgiveness, and, despite the best overtures of the other, has perpetuated a separation that frustrates reconciliation and the realization of justice. Yet perhaps the real-world complication to such an application is that the historical parties have in fact been continually switching roles, in one instance playing the part of Esau and in the next playing that of Jacob.

Likewise it is tempting to apply the second of these biblical narratives by identifying the younger brother with either the Israelis or the Palestinians and then the elder brother with the other—acknowledging with regret that neither party seems to display the full virtue of the father. One of the “brothers” has wronged the other and has not yet acknowledged that wrong to the other and asked for forgiveness. Meanwhile the other brother is intent on demanding the kind of justice that is retributive rather than restorative. Again, perhaps the real-world complication to such an application is that the historical parties have in fact been continually switching roles, now playing the elder brother and then the younger brother.

Still, these two narratives frame for us ever so importantly the theological elements involved in human reconciliation—the needs for speaking truth, acknowledging wrong, accepting responsibility, asking pardon, offering forgiveness (and even amnesty), finding a just way to live side by side, and becoming “the [justice] of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

Keeping in mind all four of the biblical and theological emphases studied in this opening section—justice, Zion, covenant and land, and reconciliation—and the relationship of each of the latter three to the first, we will now provide perspectives on the contemporary situation in the Middle East.

Footnotes
1 The terminology for the two testaments of the Christian Bible used throughout this paper is “Older Testament” and “Newer Testament,” following a suggestion made in another paper that is before the 219th General Assembly (2010), “Christians and Jews: People of God.” “Older”/”Newer” emphasizes that the relationship between the two testaments is one of chronology, not of supersession. That is, the Newer Testament has not superseded the Older and has not rendered the Older obsolete and without authority.
2 In Judaism, these books are divided into three sections: the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy), first in its hierarchy of biblical authority; the Prophets (the books of the major and minor prophets, excluding Daniel, plus Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings), second in its hierarchy of biblical authority; and the Writings (all the other books, including Daniel), third in its hierarchy of biblical authority.
3 Mishnah, Tractate Abot 1:18, as translated by Judah Goldin in The Living Talmud (Mentor Books, 1957), p. 75.
4 From “Perek Ha-shalom,” an appendix to “Derek Eretz Zuta,” a minor treatise in the Babylonian Talmud, as quoted from Avi Weinstein, “My Truth or Our Peace, You Choose!!,” p. 3 of 4. Weinstein also provides a Hebrew text of the saying. His paper was accessed on October 26, 2009, at the website: http://www.hillel.org/NR/rdonlyres/729CB895-1832-4F6A-9585-3944D435E190/0/truth_or_peace.pdf.
5 Please note that in the Newer Testament, the Greek word dikaios may often be translated “just” even in texts where the NRSV translates it “righteous,” and that dikaiosune may often be translated “justice” even in texts where the
NRSV translates it “righteousness.” In many of the NT texts quoted below, “just” and “justice” translate dikaios and dikaiosune. In others, “justice” translates the Greek word krisis.
6 See, for example, Suras 4:58, 4:105, 4:135; 5:9; 7:29; 16:90; and 57:25.
7 As preserved by Bayhaqi from ‘Umar’s son, according to the anthology of hadith entitled Mishkat al-Masabih (Niches of Lamps), compiled by al-Khatib al-Tibrizi. Translated by John Alden Williams, in Themes of Islamic Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 67.
8 Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, in The Holy Qur’an (Islamic Propagation Centre International, 1946), p. 223; not printed stichometrically here, unlike Ali’s translation.
9 Sifre Deut. 16 (ed. Meir Friedmann, Vienna, 1864, p. 68b), as quoted by Wilhelm Bacher, in “Simeon (Ben Gamaliel II),” The Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnalls, 1901–1906): accessed on October 26, 2009, at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=732&letter=S.
10 Footnote 621 (p. 214) in Ali’s translation of The Holy Qur’an [see above, fn. 11].
11 Isa. 28:17; 59:14–15; Hos. 10:13; Mt. 22:16; Jn. 18:37–38.
12 Ex. 23:6; Deut. 10:18; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Pss. 72:2–4, 82:3–4, 140:12, 146:7; Mt. 1:19, 25:37–40; Lk. 4:18–21, 7:22, 14:13, 16:19–31.
13 Deut. 10:18; 24:17, 19; Mt. 7:12; Lk. 7:1–10, 10:25–37.
14 Jer. 21:11, 22:3; Lk. 19:1–9.
15 Dan. 4:37; Mt. 23:12; Lk. 1:51.
16 Deut. 1:16–17, 16:19; Ezek. 18:8; 2 Chr. 19:7; Lk. 18:2–5. Unjust judgments are illustrated by Herod Antipas’ beheading of John the Baptist (Mt. 14:3–12) and Pilate’s crucifixion of Jesus (Lk. 23:13–25).
17 Isa. 1:17, 58:6; Jer. 21:12, 22:17; Ezek. 18:7; Pss. 72:4, 103:6, 146:7; Mk. 12:38–40; Lk. 1:51–53, 4:18, 19:1–8.
18 1 Kings 11:38; Ezek. 18:5–9; Ps. 19:9; Mt. 5:17–20; Mk. 12:28–34; Lk. 1:5–6; Rom. 2:13, 8:4; Phil. 3:6b.
19 Lk. 23:50–51; Jn. 5:30; Eph. 5:9–10; 1 Jn. 3:7b.
20 Isa. 9:7, 32:16–17; Mk. 9:50; Lk. 1:78–79; Jas. 3:18.
21 Jer. 22:3, 17; Mt. 6:24; Lk. 19:1–8; Isa. 1:21, 5:7; Mt. 27:3–4; Lk. 13:1; Mt. 11:12; Acts 12:1–2; Hos. 10:13; Ps. 33:16–17.
22 Islam: The Straight Path, expanded ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 30–31.
23 2 Sam 5:6–7a.
24 2 Sam. 5:7b; 1 Kings 8:1.
25 Pss. 20:2–3, 76:2; 78:68–69.
26 Isa. 8:18; Pss. 48:12–14, 65:1–4, 74:2c, 76:2, 132:13–14; cf. Deut. 12:5; 1 Kings 8:28–29.
27 Pss. 50:2; 84:7; cf. Isa. 6:1–8.
28 2 Kings 19:20–21, 31; Ps. 87:1–3; Isa. 10:24, 30:19, 33:20; Lam. 2:8–10.
29 Isa. 51:16; Zech. 2:7 NIV/KJV, 9:13.
30 Isa. 35:10; 46:13; 51:3, 11; 61:1–4; 62:1, 11–12; Joel 3:17; Zeph. 3:14–20; Zech. 1:14–17, 2:10–13, 8:3–8; Pss. 69:35–36, 102:12–22, 126:1–3.
31 Isa. 2:2–4; Micah 4:1–4; Zech. 9:9–10.
32 Jer. 50:4–5; Zech. 9:11–13.
33 Cf. Gen. 6:9, 17:1; Deut. 18:13 NIV. Zeph. 2:3MT (Masoretic Text). Jer. 9:5; Zech. 8:16. Jer. 32:31–32, 44:2–3. Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:37; Deut. 23:19. Ex. 23:8; Deut. 16:19, 27:25; Prov. 17:23. Ps. 125:1.
34 Cf. Deut. 24:15MT (Masoretic Text); Hos. 4:8MT; Ex. 20:7MT, 23:1MT. Lev. 19:12; Jer. 5:2, 7:9; Mal. 3:5. Deut. 6:25MT, 24:13MT.
35 Quoting from the note on Ps. 87:4–6 by Patrick D. Miller, a professor emeritus of Princeton Theological Seminary, in The HarperCollins Study Bible, fully revised and updated edition, edited by Harold W. Attridge et al. [HarperSanFrancisco, 2006], p. 803.
36 Jerusalem is holy to Muslims primarily because of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey (al-Isra’), during which: he was transported on the winged beast Buraq from Mecca to Jerusalem; he prayed there with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets; and he then ascended from the rock of the Jewish Temple Mount to the Divine Presence through the seven heavens (al-Mi’raj). Both the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock were built at the end of the 7th century to commemorate that journey and experience.
37 This section has addressed only the biblical uses of the term “Zion” and does not at all address the phenomenon of either Jewish Zionism or Christian Zionism. Jewish Zionism is too complex and diverse a set of historical movements to be defined or described in brief. For a Jewish perspective, go to: http://www.mideastweb.org/zionism.htm. For a Palestinian perspective, see the presentation by Professor Munther S. Dajani, “Judaism and Zionism and Human Rights from a Palestinian Perspective.” Do a Google search by entering “Munther S. Dajani” and “Judaism and Zionism”; then click on “(Cached)”. For a PC(USA) document describing Christian Zionism, go to: http://www.pcusa.org/worldwide/israelpalestine/resources/21christianzionism.pdf.
38 The date was Sept. 10, 2000, and the four scholars were Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, and Michael Signer. The text of “Dabru ’Emet” can be found at: http://www.jcrelations.net/en/?item=1014.
39 Gen. 12:2, 7; 15:5–7, 18; 17:3–8; 24:7; 26:2–5; 28:4, 15; 35:11–12; 48:3–4, 21–22; 50:24–25.
40 Cf. Ex. 2:24–25; 6:8; 32:13; 33:1; Lev. 26:42; Deut. 1:8; 34:4; Ps. 105:7–11; 1 Chr. 16:14–18.
41 The Hebrew word “ger,” translated “stranger” or “sojourner” or “alien,” designates foreigners who live among the Israelites. “Strangers” were not full members of ancient Israelite society and were considered to be of lower status, but they were afforded a measure of legal protection. Needless to say, Palestinians do not consider themselves to be “strangers” in the land, and this term should not be interpreted as in any way describing them.
42 See, for example, the book by W. Eugene March, former dean of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, entitled Israel and the Politics of Land: A Theological Case Study (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), pp. 53–57.
43 In the Exodus volume of the Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, 1991), p. 149.
44 E.g., Deut. 2:31–36, 3:3–7, 7:1–6, 13:12–18, 20:16–18; Josh. 6:20–21, 8:24–29, 10:34–42, 11:10–12, 11:18–20; Judg. 1:17; 1 Sam. 15:1–3.
45 See the preface to the second edition of The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), by Walter Brueggemann, a professor emeritus of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, p. xiv.
46 “Is There a Counterpart in the Hebrew Bible to New Testament Antisemitism?” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 22 (1985), 242–260.
47 “Supersessionism” holds that Christians have supplanted Jews so that now Christians are the only legitimate heirs of God’s covenant with Abraham. See also fn. 1.
48 March, Israel and the Politics of Land (fn. 45 above), p. 68.
49 See the text above at fnn. 44 and 45.
50 Robert Wilken, in No Religion Is an Island: The Nostra Aetate Dialogues, ed. Edward Bristow (Fordham University Press, 1998), pp. 128–129. For much greater detail, see Wilken’s The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
51 Wilken, in No Religion, pp. 129–130.
52 See Sidney Griffith, “From Aramaic to Arabic: The Languages of the Monasteries of Palestine in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Periods,” in the Dumbarton Oaks Papers 51 (1997), 11–31.
53 See Wilken, in No Religion, p. 133.
54 See fn. 39.
55 See, for example, the General Assembly statements of 1974 (Minutes, UPCUSA, 1974, Part I, p. 584), 1978 (Minutes, UPCUSA, 1978, Part I, p. 276; Minutes, PCUS, 1978, Part I, p. 39),1987 (Minutes, 1987, Part I, p. 870), 1995 (Minutes, 1995, Part I, pp. 688–89), and 2003 (Minutes, 2003, Part I, pp.635–37, Item B.1.). The phrase “the right of Israel to exist” is a source of pain for some members of the 2009–2010 Middle East Study Committee, who are in solidarity with Palestinians who feel that the state of Israel has denied them their inalienable human rights.
56 See, for example, the General Assembly statements of 1974 (Minutes,UPCUSA, 1974, Part I, p. 584), 1978 (Minutes, PCUS, 1978, Part I, p. 39; Minutes, UPCUSA, 1978, Part I, p. 276), 1982 (Minutes, PCUS, 1982, Part I, p. 93), 2002 (Minutes, 2002, Part I, p. 732, Item 1.b.), and 2003 (Minutes, 2003, Part I, pp.635–37, Item B.).
57 See, for example, the General Assembly statements of 1978 (Minutes, UPCUSA, 1978, Part I, p. 276; Minutes, PCUS, 1978, Part I, p. 39), 1987 (Minutes, PCUSA, 1987, Part I, p. 870), 1995 (Minutes, 1995, Part I, pp. 688–89), 2002 (Minutes, 2002, Part I, p. 732, Item 1.c.), and 2003 (Minutes, 2003, Part I, pp.635–37, Item B.1.).
58 See, for example, the General Assembly statements of 1978 (Minutes, PCUS, 1978, Part I, pp. 79, 190), 1997 (Minutes, PCUSA, 1997, Part I, pp. 560–84), 2001 (Minutes, 2001, Part I, pp. 54–55), 2002 (Minutes, 2002, Part I, p. 732, Item 1.a.), and 2003 (Minutes, 2003, Part I, pp.635–37, Item B.2. and C.).
59 See, for example, the General Assembly statements of 1974 (Minutes, UPCUSA, 1974, Part I,, p. 584), 1995 (Minutes, 1995, Part I, pp. 688–89), 1998 (Minutes, 1998, Part I, pp. 655–56), 2000 (Minutes, 2000, Part I, p. 498), and 2002 (Minutes, 2002, Part I, p. 733, Item 1.f.).
60 For the text, see http://www.pcusa.org/oga/publications/christians-jews.pdf.
61 See p. 17 of 40 in the pdf file (p. 13 of the paper).
62 See pp. 18–19 of 40 in the pdf file (pp. 14–15 of the paper).
63 See the final draft of “Christians and Jews: People of God.”
64 P. 19 of 40 in the pdf file (p. 15 of the paper).
65 See also 2 Cor. 5:14–15; 1 Tim. 4:6.
66 Intriguingly, several ancient witnesses to the text of John 12:32, quoted just above, reflect the same “cosmic” theology found here in Colossians, reading panta (all things) rather than pantas (all people).
67 “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 98.
68 Within those congregations that follow the Revised Common Lectionary strictly, neither ch. 27 nor ch. 33 is ever read or preached on during worship. In fact only one passage about Jacob and Esau (their birth and Esau’s lost birthright) and three other episodes from the life of Jacob (his dream of the heavenly ladder at Bethel, his marriage to Leah and Rachel, and his wrestling with the “man” at Peniel), are ever read. For this reason, the story of these twins is summarized rather fully in the following paragraphs.
69 This parable is well known to Presbyterians. In churches following the Revised Common Lectionary it was just read on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2010, along with 2 Cor. 5:16–21 (see below, at fn. 70)! Still, the interpretation of the parable offered here may not be familiar to many.

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I don’t know why I haven’t posted this before.

Back in August of 2007, I started an amazing journey with three fellow pastors in the Presbytery. We applied for, and received, a grant from the Lilly Foundation to enroll in the S3 (Service, Study, and Sabbath) program. Since then, we have gathered around the themes of the arts, reconciliation, and retreat in moving and powerful ways. We are getting ready to wrap up our time together officially, though we are eager to continue in whatever way we can.

The video below is a bit of fun from last August. We had five minutes to introduce ourselves and our project to the other S3 recipients. We decided to riff on the idea that we were ordinary mild-mannered pastors who were suddenly granted super (artistic) powers. There’s also a surprise cameo in there.

Enjoy!

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