Doing the Right Thing
Text: Philippians 1:1-4; Matthew 21:23-32
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
September 28, 2014
Many people have said, over the years, “As it says in the Bible, “God helps those who help themselves.” To find this verse in the Bible, I suggest you look at Matthew 29:10. I’ll wait while you look.
Looking at my watch.
Okay, by now you may have looked in the Bible and searched for Matthew 29:10 and found, to your amazement that I have either misquoted, or do not know my Bible, or was pulling your leg. I do know my Bible pretty well and I didn’t misquote.
The phrase is not Biblical. It mostly dates back to ancient Greece, the philosophers, and Aesop’s Fables. Shakespeare used it. Ben Franklin used it and published it. The phrase has been around a long time; it even pre-dates much of the Bible.
It is also not without wisdom. Actually, it’s a pretty wise statement. It’s reminiscent of the words of St. Augustine that I try to live by, “Work like it all depends on you and pray like it all depends on God.” The statement, though not Biblical, is a good one.
What I like about “God helps those who help themselves,” is that it’s a reminder that we are not called to be slackers. The Bible is full of statements in the Wisdom books about loafers, idlers, and slackers. St. Paul makes a point that people should work for their food. Stating that phrase, “God helps those who help themselves,” is not Biblical does not indicate that people believe no one should work or do anything productive. Far from it. Productivity in life is a good and vital thing. We need people to show up and put in effort. The world spins and things take place because people work hard and help themselves.
Good words? Yes.
Wise words? Yes.
God’s words? No.
Yet, people believe it is Biblical; even a central teaching of the Bible.
In Wikipedia it says:
The beliefs of Americans regarding this phrase and the Bible has been studied by Christian demographer and pollster George Barna of The Barna Group. To the statement "The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves"; 53% of Americans agree strongly, 22% agree somewhat, 7% disagree somewhat, 14% disagree strongly, and 5% stated they don't know. Of "born-again" Christians 68% agreed, and 81% of non "born-again" Christians agreed with the statement. In a February 2000 poll, 53% strongly agreed and 22% agreed somewhat that the Bible teaches the phrase. Of the 14 questions asked, this was the least biblical response, according to Barna. A poll in the late 1990s showed the majority (81%) believe the concept is taught by the Bible, another stating 82%.
Despite being of non-Biblical origin, the phrase topped a poll of the most widely known Bible verses. Seventy-five percent of American teenagers said they believed that it was the central message of the Bible.
While I like the wisdom of the statement, it concerns me that so many people think it’s a part of our faith heritage. It’s not. The reality is that if one reads the Bible and one reads the first priority of Jesus, the Bible would more likely say (and mean) “God helps those who help others.” Jesus tells us, constantly, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. We are called, repeatedly, as Christians, to help others. There is no distinction on who we help either. There are no ‘worthy’ poor or ‘unworthy’ poor in the Bible. There is no distinction between the people who have hit hard times or the slackers. There is only the word ‘poor’ that hounds us constantly. “God helps those who help others,” is actually a consistent Biblical theme.
The phrase, “God helps those who help themselves,” while filled with wisdom is not Biblical.
So, the next time someone tells you, As the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves,” refer them to Matthew 29:10 and tell them what, exactly, that reference means.
I’ve heard many people say, “Well, you know what the Bible says, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Does the Bible actually say this? Yes, but before you cite it, there are some facts to learn about it.
It is stated in Exodus 21:
23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
This is part of unofficial Jewish Law, after the giving of the 10 Commandments. A long list of things were being given out to the people of Israel, giving them a sense of depth and breadth of the Mosaic Law. This particular statement is based on the principle is sometimes referred using the Latin term lex talionis or the law of talion, means a retaliation authorized by law, in which the punishment corresponds in kind and degree to the injury. It comes from the Code of Hammurabi which was a Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to about 400 years before Moses.
The lex talionis is based on retributive justice, which means that people can retaliate in a restrained way. An eye for an eye means that if someone attacks you and destroys your eye, you can destroy their eye; you cannot kill them. It is based on a premise of justice as opposed to revenge. It was, for the time, a very enlightened and progressive perspective. In Exodus, Moses is saying that this old law of a different culture, should still be a part of Israel’s existence. It’s in the Bible, but it’s not necessarily a Biblical principle. It comes from ancient Mesopotamia.
Alas, that’s not my point, so before you say, “Thank you for the proof text, thank you for this verse,” and go on your merry way extracting eyes from people who have harmed you, please recognize something. Jesus disagrees with the Code of Hammurabi.
In Matthew 5 he says:
38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46
To summarize this quickly, Jesus was not a fan of the Lex Talionis. He is replacing the old law with the new law and the new law is complex.
One of the great challenges Jesus gives us is something most of us would prefer to not deal with. Jesus was a pacifist. Passages like this reveal it. His behavior in the garden revealed it. His comments to Peter, who was willing to defend Jesus, reveals it. Jesus was a pacifist.
In early Christianity, before Constantine, all Christians were pacifists. It was forbidden to join the Roman Army and it was forbidden to take up arms. It was seen as acceptable to die for one’s faith, but never to kill for one’s faith. When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire this changed. Now Christians could and did, fight for Rome. Since that time most Christians are not pacifists. There are exceptions. The Religious Society of Friends are pacifists. Churches from the Anabaptist tradition are pacifists. Most Christians are not.
I’m not going to make an argument for pacifism. I’m not a pacifist. I say that reluctantly as I wish I could be, but the world around us does not really allow for this. I say that knowing this is my opinion, nothing more or nothing less.
Jesus was opposed to the Lex Talionis because he could not or would not physically harm another person. He strove for mercy in everything he did. In our society we recoil when we hear of other cultures cutting the hands off thieves; yet we lament when we determine that prison conditions are too good. (The reality is that most people in prison live in deplorable conditions.) The simple reality is that most of us have little to no objection to having pain inflicted on wrong doers----as long as we are not the wrong doer or we are not related to them, of course.
There are tons of questions we can wrestle with. Jesus does not make this very easy for us. But there is one thing very clear. Jesus was opposed to the Lex Talionis. Next time you decree it to be Biblical, you may need to contrast the views from Exodus and Matthew. For Christians, we really do not believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. For Christians, that is not a Biblical principle.
A minister was preaching to her congregation one Sunday and she told them that next week’s sermon was going to be based on Matthew 29 and she asked everyone to read Matthew 29.
The following Sunday she began her sermon with the question, “How many people read Matthew 29? Most of the people in the congregation raised their hands. She said, “Today’s sermon is about honesty; Matthew has only 28 chapters….”
I decided to do a blog serious on things that people think are
biblical, but really aren’t. I’m beginning with the Sodom and Gomorrah story. The story is, in and of itself, biblical. The narrative begins like this in Chapter 19.
1 The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2 He said, "Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant's house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way." They said, "No; we will spend the night in the square." 3 But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5 and they called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them."
While the narrative refers to them later as ‘men,’ presuming these are male angels, the very start of the story begins by telling us who these characters are. They are of heavenly, not earthly origin according to the writer of Genesis.
Lot had extended the two of them hospitality and the men in town called them out with the intention of gang raping them. Lot’s family escapes because of a miracle by the angels, casting the town folks temporarily blind.
So, the gang rape of angels has turned into a proof text against homosexuality. A story about hospitality (and lack thereof) in a book filled with stories about hospitality is turned into a proof text against homosexuality. A story leading into another book, about God’s retribution on a nation (Egypt) that turned hospitality into slave-keeping is made into a proof text about homosexuality.
Jesus referred to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Gospel of Matthew:
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
Take note of something. Jesus, in his reference to Sodom and Gomorrah was speaking in terms of the lack of hospitality and lack of welcoming apostles as being sinful.
Ah, but the word sodomy…
The word sodomy and the accompanying word sodomite (used in many translations of the Bible) do not show up until 395AD in a letter from St. Jerome to people. Jerome began using a ‘new’ Latin word at the time. The difficulty is that he did not articulate exactly what he meant. What is obvious, however, is that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not about homosexuality. John Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis, does not define the Sodomites' sin as homosexual acts. Instead he prefers the social meaning of sodomy, reminding his readers that the Sodomites were "in the habit of vexing strangers," whereas Lot had offered them shelter and a meal.
We may use the word ‘sodomy’ all we want and while we may see it in the Bible or see the word ‘sodomite’ in the Bible, these are words that did not exist when the Bible was actually written. One would be hard pressed to say that the original texts said, on this subject, what many people state they say.
Not long ago I was listening to the pastor of a megachurch. He was preaching on the evils of same sex relationships. He made two points that were, frankly absurd.
The first one could be used on Saturday Night Live. It was that funny. Seriously, I don’t mean to mock, but I understood why I was required to major in Philosophy for seminary and how logic comes into play. He said that one of the leading causes of same sex relationships was experimentation. He even said it with a straight face. What he seemed to be missing, however, is that gay people experiment sexually and usually begin their experimentation in heterosexual relationships. The percentage of gay people who have engaged in opposite sex behavior is way higher than the percentage of straight people who have engaged in same sex behavior. His ‘experimentation’ theory was absurd.
What got me really rankled, however, was that he said, “Let’s face it, Sodom and Gomorrah was about homosexuality.”
I do not find this particular statement even remotely amusing.
The ‘men’ in the story, we are told, are of angelic origin.
The narrative is about a looming gang rape. Gang rape is an act of violence, it is not even remotely related to sexual love.
The gang rape of angels, in the context of Genesis, and in the interpretation of those who wrote it and read it, was a story telling us what happens to those who are welcoming of God’s people. Jesus very much saw it this way and we should as well. If we are going to read the Bible with any sort of faithfulness, we need to learn what it really says
Sodom and Gomorrah as a proof text is not about homosexuality. It never was and it shouldn’t be used in that manner.