“I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Those are the first words that Peter proclaimed after a huge transformation to his life. Peter didn’t always believe these words. He believed that God was partial to certain people – Peter’s group -- and that meant that Peter could show partiality towards his own group too. And since Peter was a sinful human, he also interpreted that to mean that if God was for certain people, God was against the other people, the people who were not in Peter’s group. It took some serious fasting, praying and some outside intervention to show Peter he was wrong. (See Acts 10)
God does not show partiality; humans do. And when we do, we sin. (James 2:9)
From the moment humans began to walk the earth, no matter where on the earth we walked we’ve shown partiality and favoritism for certain people and against other people. We’re especially inclined to be partial to “our own kind,” people like us, and against people who are different, other, “strange.”
We’ve also claimed God for our own kind, that we are God’s favorite, while at the same time proclaiming that others are less favorite, even bad, in God’s eyes. After all, if God loves us, then God can’t love them or care about what happens to them, right? God might even despise them. That’s the oldest story of sibling rivalry in the book – God loves me more, and if I see a hint otherwise, I have to remove you from the picture. (As I write, my cat is trying to remove the computer from my lap because he’s certain I am partial to it rather than him!)
This belief that partiality, bias, prejudice is okay and even God’s desire has led to horrible consequences. Any honest study of world history shows that no matter the civilization or culture, it has built itself in some shape or form on partiality: we are good, they are bad; we are angels, they are demons; we are God’s favorites, they are God’s enemies or at least don’t matter as much to God as we do. And whenever we do that, suffering, destruction, abuse, violence and oppression follow. No matter what ideologies, theologies, philosophies, ethics or cultural beliefs and customs we try to couch it in, partiality kills, ruins, devastates human beings. And it is wrong.
God shows no partiality. Again and again, scripture states this truth.
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. (Dt 10:17-20)
God also demands that we who would follow Jesus show no partiality, no prejudice, no favoritism over and against one another:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels, I warn you to keep these instructions without prejudice, doing nothing on the basis of partiality. (1Tim 5:21)
But if God requires this, why does it feel to some of us like we are being asked to be partial toward some groups which leads us (wrongly) to think we’re being asked to be partial against our own group? Well, because we screwed things up. We’ve made such a mess of things by living out our partiality against some people that life isn’t equal anymore (if it ever was this side of sin). We have dehumanized, demonized, oppressed, and hated the human dignity right out of some groups of people, often in an effort to humanize, lift up and love ourselves and our own groups before God. Whether we knew it or not, whether we chose to do it or not, we’ve partialized some people over other people and declared it good.
But partiality is not good. And now we need to try make things right. We will fail, but we must try. And we can, participating with God, make things better. And that means standing up with those whom we or our ancestors deprioritized by accompanying, loving and supporting our siblings in Christ so that the “us vs. them” consequences of partiality can be torn down and we can all do our best to live together in a less partial, prejudiced, biased world. That’s justice!
God shows no partiality and, in Christ, God calls us to end our partiality too. (Prov 24:23) God loves the whole world and every person, group, and thing in it and God loves us so much that God chose not to condemn us but to save us from our own partiality. How? By sending Moses to teach us; by sending the prophets to remind us; by sending Jesus to save and redeem us; by sending the Holy Spirit to equip and empower us to live and love without partiality, the way Jesus did.
This is crucial to the message of the gospel: no partiality for any one group or against any other group. Instead, the gospel of love calls us to strive for equality before God and equity amongst humanity, lifting up every human being and ALL human beings as created in God’s image and having equal dignity and worth as we do. We are called to strive to bring about a wholeness that only God can construct in its fullness, yet striving for it nonetheless. And we are called to strive using repentance and reconciliation, in love, faith, and hope, doing compassion (suffering with), kindness and welcome.
No, God shows no partiality. But God does ask, through the command to love, that we all take on the responsibility together of cleaning up the mess that human partiality has created. And in so doing, we will be sharing the life-giving love of God that is ours already with all of our neighbors whom God already loves too.
So how many times have you cleansed your house since the Covid-19 virus arrived at your doorstep? Ten? Twenty? One hundred?!
There have been days when I felt like I was living in a petri dish with those tiny covid cells having a party on everything I touched, even though I hadn’t experienced any symptoms. And a couple of times I gave into the urge and just cleansed the whole house. I washed every item of clothing, bedding, and towel that had touched my body…with bleach when I could. I wiped down every counter, sink, knob and light switch in the house with bleach cleaner. And then I sprayed and wiped Lysol cold and flu killer on every surface I could find…computer, phones, keys, TV remotes, even my car. I felt like I was at war. But there was no way I was going to leave even one of those nasty little cells alive to infect me.
I wonder if that’s a bit like what Jesus felt when he entered the temple in Jerusalem during the Passover festival…like his house, his Father’s house, had been infested by a virus. Only in this case the virus wasn’t Covid or the flu, it was sin: coveting, greed, and idolatry as people were worshipping everything except God. (John 2) Greed and idolatry had infected the temple, God’s sacred house, the place where people were supposed to go to worship, pray to and praise the God who had saved them. Instead, self-centered profiteers were worshipping money and stealing power. And the religious leaders weren’t doing a darn thing about it. In fact, they were in on it, getting kickbacks and feeding their families off the profits.
Time for a cleansing! In fact, that’s what the story in John 2 is often called: Jesus cleanses the temple. In a fit of zeal --- an uncontrollable passion for what is right and good – Jesus makes himself a whip of cords and he begins to cleanse. He chases the cows, sheep and doves out of the temple like a rancher on a wild horse. He dumps over tables and pours money on the ground to be stomped on by the livestock. He shouts and yells at the people climbing over each other to get away from him.
“Take these things out of here!” Jesus shouts, waving his arms and throwing things. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
Now that’s a cleansing! I’m envisioning those tiny covid viruses fleeing my house in the same way, running and screaming for their lives.
I’m guessing we don’t like this picture of Jesus very much. This angry Jesus who’s so passionate about fixing things in God’s house, even God’s kingdom, that he loses his temper. Jesus’ zealous cleansing of the temple is one of those images from John’s gospel we’d rather not watch. I mean, if a man came in screaming about our fancy church building or how we’re misusing God’s house, I doubt we’d listen. We’d probably call the police instead. This is not what we imagine when we think of Jesus.
But in truth Jesus does have something to be angry about. To him a Wall Street bank has taken over God’s sacred temple and is selling salvation. People, especially the poor, are being oppressed and taken advantage of by unscrupulous money changers. Too many people are more concerned about worshiping money or power or their ideology than worshiping God. No wonder Jesus is mad – these people are breaking most of the 10 commandments, particularly commandment number one. They are loving and trusting things before and instead of God.
What things or people are we loving and trusting other than the God of Jesus Christ? Money? Property? People in power or celebrities? What about our ideologies or platforms or politics? Even our self-interest over and against others can be an idol to us?
Thankfully, Jesus’ anger at the moneychangers in the temple is not God’s final word to us. Thankfully, in Christ we are loved, forgiven and called into new relationship with God again and again even as we stray towards the idols we fall prey to in our lives. Thankfully, God’s steadfast love in Christ endures forever with us.
But that love calls us into a life-changing relationship that is different than what the world demands. Our life-changing relationship with Jesus expects us to put the God of Jesus Christ -- the God of faithfulness, mercy, peace, patience, kindness, justice, hope, and generosity – at the center of our lives, first in all we say and do. That is to be our response to the baptismal cleansing we receive day after day. And that is the covenant the Holy Spirit calls on us to keep. So let us put aside our idols and follow Christ into the Kingdom of Love and New Life that the whole cosmos has been invited to enter, living out the gospel in all we do and say.
May God bless and keep you all in the grace of Christ!
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod