Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Don't just do one

I used to hang out with a group called the Navigators. In those days you could always tell a Nav by the little packet of cards they carried. These were Bible verses that we would review from time to time -- I have a verse-pack in my pocket right now in fact, and having those verses in my head (if not my heart) has been very helpful to me over the decades.

The Navs had a bunch of these cards pre-printed by topic: there was the "Beginning with Christ" pack to start with, then the Topical Memory System... and there were a bunch of others. Each card had a topic or title written at the top, and the passage (sometimes just one verse, sometimes a bit more) below. The topic at the top of the card usually had something to do with the passage, but occasionally it was a total miss. Today's New Testament reading includes this passage. What do you think verse 15 is talking about?
14Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.
Hebrews 12:14-16

Is it talking about bitterness, as Ephesians says, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice"? Well, maybe, but it doesn't really fit; we have
  • live in peace
  • be holy — without holiness you won't see the Lord
  • don't miss the grace of God
  • (something about a "bitter root" that may defile many)
  • avoid sexual immorality
  • don't be godless like Esau, selling birthright for food (or pride)
I'm going to go out on a limb (though I think it quite sturdy) and say that the "bitter root" stuff in verse 15 is talking about worshiping false gods. The words 'bitter" and "root" don't appear close to each other very often in the Bible; one place is Deuteronomy 29:18, which says:
Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.
Aha! The most likely interpretation of the phrase "bitter root" in Hebrews 12 is that it's an allusion to this Deuteronomy 29 passage; readers of the book of Hebrews would have been very familiar with it. And they also would have been familiar with the history of idolatry -- that it spreads in a community, defiling many.

So I think this is right, and that the title on the little card was wrong. What do I take from this? Well, as good as it is to memorize passages of Scripture, the benefit is greatly reduced when it's an isolated sentence and you don't know what it's talking about. People memorize John 3:16, but how many of us know 3:15? 3:17? Do most of us know what the chapter is talking about?

I think that if you're going to memorize a verse, it's most effective to take a good look at what the surrounding verses are about -- even better to study and meditate on an entire paragraph or chapter.

And as for this particular verse, it's good to be very careful to avoid worshiping false gods: money, prestige, "stuff," sensual pleasures, etc. -- and to be able to say "no" to them. Not that these are bad in themselves, but we have to be careful to be masters of them, not mastered by them. How to make sure?

To break the power of a potential idol, we can repudiate its power: if money is the issue, give some away (to the needy, to a gospel ministry). If prestige is the issue, deliberately forgo the opportunity to promote yourself; don't take credit for something you did; do something to bless someone but do it in secret. And so on. Counter-cultural? You bet!

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