16 November 2010

Nov 16

Reference links:
Old Testament

Today's reading is relatively cheery for Ezekiel.

Ezekiel is declared to be Israel's watchman. His responsibility is to declare the coming doom. Following this, we read a repeat of declaration that the righteous will be punished if they turn to sin and the wicked will be rewarded if they turn to good.

The essence of this idea, individual responsibility, is clearly an improvement upon the idea of group guilt that seems to have characterized most of Israel's past. However, taken to the extreme, or even put up against reality, it becomes brittle. No person is all righteous or all wicked. So by this explanation, they will be forever flip flopping between righteous and wicked, marked for destruction or marked for life. And if you believe that these consequences become fixed after death, then it's semi-random whether someone is in a good phase (and lives) or a bad phase (and is destroyed). Taking this idea of personal responsibility too far also seems to defeat the idea of personal responsibility. To have true individual responsibility you have to have some amount of continuity between the past and present.

After a brief interlude about the fate of Jerusalem and those who come to listen to Ezekiel, we read an extended analogy between Israel and a herd of sheep. The leaders of Israel were like bad shepherds who neglected their sheep and let them suffer. God is like a good shepherd who will take care of his sheep.

The analogy starts to fall down a bit when God talks about how he will punish the fat sheep and take care of the thin sheep. These are meant to represent, respectively, the people who take advantage of others and those who were taken advantage of. The analogy falls down because no shepherd would punish his best sheep even if they did crowd out the other sheep. They might, I suppose, isolate them or something, but sheep are dumb creatures and cannot be held accountable for their health. Since humans can be held accountable, the analogy suffers.

In any case, God will eventually bring peace and prosperity to his people again. Since he supposedly gave them that the first time around, one wonders why God thinks things will turn out any better this time.

New Testament

We finish Hebrews today. The book ends with a number of suggestions for good behavior, a warning against being attracted to new ideas, and a revisiting of the core idea of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice.

The suggestions for good behavior include a command to
Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say.
Although a reasonable statement on its own, I have seen this statement used to disturbing ends where churches use it to teach their members that they should obey the church leadership even if it goes against the best judgement of the church member. Any church that teaches that is, in my opinion, immediately suspect.

The book ends with a fairly standard letter closing. Some scholars believe this closing was added to the book to make it seem more letter like (and, perhaps, through its reference to Timothy, to make it seem like Paul wrote it).

Psalms and Proverbs
Fire tests the purity of silver and gold,
but a person is tested by being praised.
This is an interesting proverb. Upon reading, one immediately notices that being tested by fire is generally considered painful but praise is not. Thus, the connection between the two lines cannot be that pain tests a person. Instead, it seems that the emphasis is on the idea of how pure silver or gold responds to fire. Like with these metals, this proverb seems to be saying that flattery is a tool that can be used to reveal the true nature of a person. I am not quite sure I buy it, but the comparison is interesting.

The second proverb highlights the first, although it may not seem so at first:
You cannot separate fools from their foolishness,
even though you grind them like grain with mortar and pestle.
Together, I read these two proverbs as saying that there are tools for testing the purity of a person, but there are not tools for separating out impurities. This says nothing, however, about whether or not a fool can change himself.