Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Samuel 15) transports me to the Church of Corpus Christi, a Roman Catholic parish between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenues in the Morningside Heights section of Manhatten. It is the church where a Columbia University student, later to become the distinguished Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, was baptized and first received Holy Communion in 1938. Just a few months earlier, another celebrated writer of a different ilk, George Carlin, was born and received the rite of baptism in the same church font by the same priest. It’s too bad Merton didn’t stick around the city long enough to hear the teenage George Carlin torture the priest with his comically contrived questions around what he called the “heavy mysteries.” I remember hearing Carlin describe these antics on his famous Class Clown album. He and his friends would spend all week thinking up trick questions for the priest. They might take a simple sin and surround it with bizarre circumstances, like the one involving the command to take communion at least once during the Easter season, between Ash Wednesday and Pentecost Sunday. Hey Father, Carlin would begin. Suppose that you didn’t make your Easter duty, and it’s Pentecost Sunday, the last day, and you’re on a ship at sea, and the chaplain goes into a coma, but you wanted to receive. And then it’s Monday, too late. but then you cross the International Date Line. . . Or my favorite, Hey, hey, hey Father! Hey, uh, if God is all-powerful, can he make a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?
I imagine George Carlin and his buddies had a hey day when their church school took them through the early history of Israel, and they ran across passages like this one in I Samuel, where Saul is rejected as King. Here’s poor old Saul, destined for tragedy because he fulfills the people’s wish to be like other nations, which is in itself a rejection of God’s direct leadership. And the newly crowned King gets his first call on the red phone – the direct line from God, and hears the command: Go wipe out all the Amalekites. All of them. Don’t spare a soul. They asked for it. Saul and his military go to work, and nearly complete the genocide order. Nearly is the operative word. They spared the Amalekite King; who knows why? And the soldiers took a bit of plunder, a few fatted calves and some sheep. So the prophet, who also has a direct line on the red phone, hears of it and calls in Saul to let him know the consequences of his failure to follow orders. He’s lost the crown. Saul tries to justify the looting with a lame excuse that it was brought back for a burnt offering to the Lord. Samuel soundly rejects this rationalization with the famous retort: Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. Here’s where George Carlin’s heavy mystery questioning connects: According to the Levitical law, from the first chapter we see that the Lord does indeed delight in burnt offerings and sacrifice, and is very specific in the commands of how to perform these sacrifices. So what does the prophet mean, to obey is better than sacrifice, when sacrifice is part and parcel of obedience? It sounds a lot like God creating a rock so big he himself can’t lift. And we haven’t even gotten around to God’s law, Thou shalt not kill, a plain and clear command with no qualifier, which is difficult to obey if you hear another command to go and commit genocide (forget trying to justify it with arguments about self-defense and just war theory; we’re talking wholesale slaughter of every man, woman, and child).
Given that we won’t be able to untangle these heavy mysteries any better than the Corpus Christi priest, let it suffice to illustrate a basic challenge in biblical ethics. Obedience to some precepts trumps obedience to other precepts. Some levitical mandates are superior to others. Love thy neighbor as thyself, for example, seems to be on a higher plane than dietary and sexuality restrictions (after all, not eating shrimp and not touching your wife during menstruation don’t make it into the verses of Trust and Obey). In the end, according to Thomas Merton, the challenge behind sorting through the heavy mysteries of ethical contradictions is to be who God created us to be. He wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation that A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be, it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree. That makes good sense, if we are talking about being a tree, or being a faithful monk, as Merton was, or being a funny stand-up comic, as Carlin was. It ceases to make sense when we are talking about being a soldier following genocidal orders.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.