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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

To the Prophet, God and Neighbor Are Equal

By on June 8, 2009

I’m home sick today (nasty head cold) and mostly lying in bed, listening to Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus Is the Way on audio.

Much of the book is striking me as a practical/pastoral meditation on the implications of the cruciform ethics laid out in a series of posts by Fuller NT professor Daniel Kirk (start here, then look for other “cruciform ethics” posts in the May 2009 archives on his site). The introduction to the book has a fascinating and convicting discussion of “ways and means” (and the sad results when they are kept separate) in the church. Peterson sees no way to separate being “in Christ” from some kind of “way of walking.”

You might expect a book on “how Jesus is the Way” to dwell on the Gospels, but instead Peterson spends much of the book looking at the lives of some of the significant figures of the Old Testament (Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah of Jerusalem, and Isaiah of the Exile) to examine how they (imperfectly, only foreshadowing) worked to prepare the way for The Way by showing what it means to “walk in the way of the Lord.” Along that journey, Peterson has some interesting things to say about the use of language and literature in the Bible, the power of story and metaphor, etc.

But I’m writing this now because something I heard in the audio presentation made me get up out of bed, grab my hard copy of the book, and fire up the laptop. Discussing Elijah’s coming confrontation with Jezebel over Naboth’s vineyard, he says,

“For the prophet, God is as real as the next-door neighbor; the neighbor is as real as God. The neighbor, in fact, gets equal–well, maybe not equal, but equally serious–billing with God. Elijah brings the same unrelenting intensity to the cause of Naboth as to Yahweh.” (p. 120)

A refresher for those a few years out of Sunday School: Naboth owned a vineyard that was lusted after by the evil, idolatrous king Ahab. His wife Jezebel arranged for Naboth to be executed on false charges so she could seize his land and give it to her husband. Peterson points out that Elijah’s indignation and anger was every bit as strong for this afront to a neighbor, a “mere man,” as it was for the honor of God earlier on.

A bit later…

“When you have a god that is a thing, a god you can use, an object, neighbors also become things, something to use, objects. With an impersonal god, you end up with and impersonal neighbor.” (p. 121)

It concerns me that we could easily hear “god that is a thing” and think only of primitive peoples bowing before stone statues. But we in the church can be every bit as much in danger of turning Yahweh, the Living God, into “a god that is a thing.” When our god is neatly wrapped up in tidy systems of fully-comprehensible and nicely-coherent theology, he becomes little more than a thing. We’ve got him analyzed, disected, pinned to a board, labled and named. And then we turn to do the same to our neighbor.

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