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Wherever You Go, There You Are


Old Testament 2 Kings 5:1-19a

17Then Naaman said, "If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the LORD.
This is the story of Naaman being healed of leprosy by Elisha. Naaman was arrogant and stubborn at first, wanting to be healed according to how he thought it should work. His servants convinced him to try it Elisha’s way, which tells me two things: First that Naaman’s servants and slaves loved him in spite of his cantankerousness, and second, that Naaman’s attitudes were practical and flexible. That’s probably why he was such a good war-leader. Anyway, after he was healed, Naaman wanted to give gifts to Elisha, but Elisha would have none of it. I couldn’t figure out what the two mule-loads of dirt was all about, and had to look it up. Naaman wanted earth from Israel to take home to his own country so he could build an altar to the God of Israel on top of it. I was reminded of how my sister and I pick up stones and other natural objects from places we visit that have some kind of spiritual importance to us. The breathing air of those places seems to be carried along with those objects somehow.  (On a side note, Naaman asked for a dispensation from Elisha so that he could continue to accompany his own king into the temple of the god Rimmon, and bow down there. Elisha gives this without a second thought. Think about that for a minute!)

I sort of fell in love with Naaman in this story: forthright, loved by his servants, quick-tempered, loyal, honest, fair-minded, and generous. I can almost see him in my mind’s eye. Not young, but not old; with a penetrating gaze, a straight back, callused hands, and laugh wrinkles around his eyes. A man you would follow into battle without hesitation, because he trusted you to. I had a sergeant like that once, who just by being himself, convinced me that I was up to the job. He used to end his briefings by saying, “Fight crime; cheat death.” The air seemed clearer around him somehow, and the little things never bothered me when I was in his company. I think Naaman must have been like that too. 

New Testament 1 Corinthians 4:8-21
(NRSV)
8Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you! 9For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals.
(CJB)
8 You are glutted already? You are rich already? You have become kings, even though we are not? Well, I wish you really were kings, so that we might share the kingship with you!  9 For I think God has been placing us emissaries on display at the tail of the parade, like men condemned to die in the public arena: we have become a spectacle before the whole universe, angels as well as men. 

Sarcastic much?  Paul is a master of derision. I can’t help it, I keep hearing him in a Yiddish accent. That’s why I put in the translation from the Complete Jewish Bible. “Again with the complaints? Enough already!” He’s fed up with those schmucks in Corinth. I just wish I felt better about Paul’s certainties. I read a bit about ancient Corinth, which had a reputation as a town full of prostitutes, drunks, and sailors. It was pretty much ‘anything goes’ in Corinth. Maybe it was a bit like modern Las Vegas. Anyway, the problem seemed to be what modern scholars call an “over-realized eschatology.” The Christians in Corinth thought they had already inherited the Kingdom of God, and thought that meant that the authority to rule over that Kingdom had been conferred on them personally. Therefore they had no need to think in terms of sin and salvation, and they were free to do whatever they felt like doing.
My problem is that I personally subscribe to a form of realized eschatology, and I don’t think that was the real problem at Corinth. I think the problem was that each person thought only in literal, personal terms, without reference to anyone else. They didn’t include everyone in their understanding of what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. They thought that if they had inherited the Kingdom, then they could rule over it as dictators, having literal authority to administer it. They turned a blind eye to much of Jesus’s teachings, but in their defense, they probably only had oral stories about Jesus to rely on, and a few letters and treatises that were being copied and passed around. They didn’t have the advantage of the whole collection of writings we now call the New Testament. Paul couldn’t point to the Sermon on the Mount, or Jesus’s saying about how you shouldn’t put God to the test. So all he could do was go back to the basics: Love one another, and show it by treating each other right, with respect and dignity and courtesy. I think if I had been in Paul’s shoes, I would have given up on ever getting them to change. I mean, these were people who thought that because Paul was poor and humble and subject to mistreatment by others, that he couldn’t represent the dignity and power that should belong to the emissaries of God. I also found out that Paul was being very snide about the “tail of the parade.” He was actually comparing the Corinthians to those victors in war that Rome honored with a triumphal procession. They wore a crown of laurel and the colors of royalty, painted their faces red, rode in a chariot, and displayed all their spoils of war including captives that were destined for death in the arena. Those captives marched at the tail of the parade. Paul was telling them that they couldn’t have their cake and eat it too. If they were going to lord it over other people, then they better pay attention to just who they were dragging to death as captives at the tail of their parade.

Gospel Matthew 5:21-26
(NRSV)
22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool," you will be liable to the hell of fire.
(CJB)
22 But I tell you that anyone who nurses anger against his brother will be subject to judgment; that whoever calls his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing!’ will be brought before the Sanhedrin; that whoever says, ‘Fool!’ incurs the penalty of burning in the fire of Gei-Hinnom!
 
I got frustrated with the commentaries on this one. I would rather interpret this passage as follows: “If you are constantly angry with other people, you’re likely to get fired from your job; if you constantly insult them and call them names, you’re likely to get hauled into court; and if you think other people are stupid and useless and you go around telling them so all the time, it’s likely people will think your whole life is a waste, and you might as well get burned up in the incinerator with the rest of the trash.”
My research taught me that in the Jewish judicial system of the time, there were three levels. For civil cases, a court of three judges was enough. They could enact a kind of temporary excommunication called a rebuke or nezifah. Because there was no separation of church and state back then, I compared that to getting fired from your job. The second level was to get hauled before a council of judges, a partial Sanhedrin, who could actually enforce penalties like corporal punishment and fines. I compared that to a modern day court of law.  In Jesus’s day, the Sanhedrin could not execute people, the Romans wouldn’t allow it, and so the third level of penalty could only be analogous. However, the people who did get executed by the Romans were generally criminals who had done reprehensible things. The Bible uses the word “Gehenna,” which didn’t mean at all what we mean today by the word “Hell.” Rather, it was a sort of burning landfill where the carcasses of executed criminals and other people who didn’t rate a decent burial were burned along with the rest of the rubbish.
As far as the word “liable” goes, my grandmother used it as a synonym for “likely,” and would say things like, “You’re liable to get in trouble in a minute, young lady!” I don’t think Jesus was using the word as a synonym for “guilty of.” That definition is way down the list anyway. “Liable” means ‘accountable’, or ‘responsible for’. Basically, Jesus is saying that if you act like a jerk, it’s nobody’s fault but your own if people end up thinking you are a waste of skin.
So this passage is not about supernatural penalties for cursing, it’s about plain old everyday consequences for being a jerk. I think it’s evident that is exactly what Jesus meant, because he goes right on to talk about what to do if you are getting hauled into court and how, if you start being nice to the other guy and manage to work things out, you can avoid being taken to court. Jesus also says that you shouldn’t make an offering to God if you have something against someone. He says, go make up with them first, and then your offering will be acceptable. Think through the implications. Jesus is saying that you can’t compartmentalize.
If you are mean and nasty to other people, you can’t make nice with God, because he will see right through it. (Duh!)
You can’t say, ”Well, I’m one sort of person when I’m around God, and another kind of person when I’m not.” Because God is always around. (Hello-o!)
It’s kind of like that saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” So, don’t be a jerk.

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