Religious Conflicts

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 — Week of Proper 4, Year One

John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli)

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 968)

Psalms 45 (morning) // 47, 48 (evening)

Deuteronomy 12:1-12

2 Corinthians 6:3-12(14 – 7:1)

Luke 17:11-19

Maybe the most predictable thing that can be said about religion is that there will be conflict about how we practice and what we believe. All three of our readings today are stories rooted in religious conflict.

Deuteronomy is a book focused by its intent on religious reform. The most distinctive demand from Deuteronomy is the centralization of sacrifice at a single national sanctuary. The earlier expectation from Genesis and Exodus was that devout Hebrews would make altars of sacrifice at many holy places where they would experience the presence of God. That was the practice of the patriarchs. Exodus 20 includes instructions from Moses about how to make these various sacrificial shrines. When they settled in the promised land, the various tribes set aside holy places for their own practice of worship and sacrifice.

Deuteronomy intends to destroy those shrines. The writer of Deuteronomy wants every site that had been used by the native peoples and every site that had become holy to the Israelites to be physically torn down and desecrated. Only the one, central shrine is acceptable.

It is easy to imagine the hostility and conflict such a reform might provoke. Ancient holy places were sacred and beloved to the people who had prayed there. Many Israelites resisted the Deuteronomic reforms. (The conflict between centralization and decentralization is so common throughout religious and secular life.)

One other note about Deuteronomy. There is a theology central to the book that provoked the author of Job to write in rebuttal. Deuteronomy is characterized by a theology that asserts that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. The nation’s misfortunes are the consequences of its wrongdoing. If the nation will only do right — including centralizing its worship — God will bless it. In masterful literature, Job denies and challenges that theology.

The reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is Paul’s defensive assertion of his ministry. Paul attempts to refute some Christian leaders in Corinth who oppose and criticize him. Defending himself, Paul goes through a remarkable list of endurances that he has faced, and then he challenges the Corinthians: “There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.”

We also have the option of reading a fragment (6:14-7:1) that most scholars believe comes from a separate letter, maybe the “previous letter” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9. It interrupts the train of thought between 6:13 and 7:2. This fragment is a very conflictive piece. Paul tells the believers “do not be mismatched with unbelievers.” Is he advising divorce? Maybe. Elsewhere Paul moderates this absolute ban (1 Cor. 7). The dualistic language in this passage sounds a lot like the teaching of separatist communities such as in Qumran. There were separatist communities in early Christianity. Paul more characteristically writes about how Christians can maintain their integrity while living publicly in the Roman world.

So in Paul we have three conflicts in this one reading today — the very personal conflict about Paul and his ministry, the question of marriage between Christians and non-Christians, and the question of dualistic withdrawal vs. creative engagement.

And finally, the last reading from Luke tells of Jesus’ healing of ten lepers. The only one who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan, a heretic from a hated tribe. Jesus commends the Samaritan.

Religious conflict is inevitable. A couple of thoughts about that.

First, it is absurd hubris for any human or any theological system to claim it has the only truth or all truth. The Bible certainly makes no such claim. The diversity of beliefs and the debates within scripture testify that we are to be in a perpetual conversation about the deepest things. John’s gospel tells us that there are truths that the Spirit must still lead us into. (John 16:12)

Second, it is a noble heritage we enter when we join the on-going ancient debate about truth. We join the voices of the patriarchs, the Deuteronomic historian, the author of Job, Paul and the Corinthians, Jesus, Jews and Samaritans. We can enter this ancient conflict with energy, integrity, and a bit of humbleness. Only God is infinite truth. The best we can do is to approach the journey with honesty and awe.

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