APC has instituted a monthly Jazz vesper service. It started last month, but I was unable to attend, so this past Saturday was the first time I could make it. The format of the service is some excellent live jazz music, interspersed with Bible readings. The same text is read each time for a given evening. This past week, the text was Nehemiah 1:5-11, Nehemiah’s prayer as he prepares to request permission to go to Jerusalem to lead in the rebuilding of the city. During one of the reading times, we were asked to allow the text to “speak” to us, to see what words, phrases, or ideas were calling to us. For some reason, I latched on to the word “chosen” from Nehemiah 1:9
but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’
I don’t want to focus too much on the various implications I thought of with “chosen” and “choice,” other than to say that “to chose” implies that there are multiple alternatives available, and sometimes the “correct” or “best” choice might not be obvious. That was in my mind as I was reading the chapter. And it struck me that the people of Jerusalem were presented with many choices. The choice of whether or not to attempt to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; the choice of whom to follow; the choice of how to respond to threats to the project. But there’s one choice that’s only mentioned indirectly, and that’s what caught my attention.
“The Story” mentions parenthetically that, when Ezra came to Jerusalem, he was appalled that the people had intermarried with the locals, and this reaction lead the people to repent of their unfaithfulness. This comes from Ezra 9, which describes Ezra’s position, and Ezra 10, which describes the people’s reaction, wherein the people swear to “send away” all of these foreign wives and their children. The people chose to listen to the priest Ezra.
But them we come to Malachai. Specifically, Malachi 2:13-16
And this you do as well: You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did not one God make her? Both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire? Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lords of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.
Ezra says to “put aside” the foreign wives. Malachai says to remain faithful to the “wife of your youth.” Both are speaking for God. How are the people to choose?
How are we to choose?
As we’ve seen so often thus far in our readings, we see tension and conflict in understanding what we are called to do and be as God’s chosen people. People of faith can and do hold polar opposite positions on important issues. Gay rights is the one most in the news right now, but there have been countless others throughout the years. Who is “right” and who is “wrong,” and how can we be sure to be on the “right?”
The easy answer, of course, is those who say, “Is it Biblical? That’s my test.” That’s all well and good, but “Is it Biblical?” isn’t always such a cut and dried question to answer. Another way to go is to try to parse individual words, looking for loopholes we can slip through, to avoid making a choice at all. In my example above, it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a plausible explanation that shows that Ezra and Malachai are not in fact in conflict. But those “legal gymnastics” I think miss the point.
My own feeling is that we are called to choose based on our understanding of God’s will, tempered by the guidance of the rest of the community of faith. None of us have a perfect understanding, of anything. But my “looking through a mirror dimly,” combined with yours, can help to clarify things. We certainly won’t get it “right,” but we can at least say we’ve done our best to get it “close.” I think that that’s the attitude God wants from us — to strive for God’s kingdom with all that we are, but also with a humble spirit that says, “I need help in understanding. Teach me, as I try to teach you.”
I know I’ve gone very far afield this week. I hope you’ll forgive me.