The Temptation to Define “the Good” as Comfort
The Temptation to Define “the Good” as Comfort
First in a Series on Daniel: “Faith in Trying Times”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
3Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, 4young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. 6Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. 7The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.
8But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself.
Typically, in Eastertide we would study the resurrection experiences of Jesus and the emerging Church. But this year we are turning clocks back to a forerunner of faith: The Book of Daniel. Daniel is a book we look at a little differently from a historical lens than what it presents itself to be. The entirety of the book is presented as written about a Jewish exile named Daniel (and his friends) in Babylon during Jewish exile and early days of the return (from somewhere post 586 BCE (the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians) to the reign of Darius the Great of Persia post 522 BCE).
The first six chapters develop his/their character, and then the second six are apocalyptic visions of Daniel about the future predicting coming evil empires and their fall before the Sovereign God of all Creation (the Ancient of Days). And yet, with a lens to history and critical scholarship we have every reason to believe it is written (or collected and edited) during the reign of Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire – and more particularly around 167 BCE.
Antiochus is the villain of both Daniel and the Maccabean revolt. His harsh anti-Jewish oppression sparks the Jewish underground to recall the events of Babylonian exile. The stories of Daniel then are used to empower the lives of Jews under Antiochus’ reign. And the demonizing of “kings” during Daniel’s time is coded way of talking about the evils of the Seleucid Empire. Therefore, the Book of Daniel comes together as a guide, of sorts, to surviving oppression, exile, and – what I’m calling – trying times.
It is with this in mind that we turn to Daniel for the next 6 weeks to give us guide points in discipleship and faith when we feel overwhelmed by oppressive circumstances… like, say, quarantine during a global pandemic. This week we turn to the beginning. The VERY beginning as first we hear from the “snake” of Genesis. The snake is viewed as crafty. In the Hebrew there is word play between the crafty and naked. These two words are very similar in the Hebrew and the connection is made to illuminate that Adam and Eve are vulnerable to the truth-twisting deception of the snake. They are open to be manipulated.
This is a lesson Daniel keeps close to his own heart. When Nebuchadnezzar offers a table of fine foods, Daniel declines. What’s the harm – we might say – in a good double cheeseburger? I mean, I love some fine foods. But for Daniel this is only the beginning. It is the beginning of defining his “good” as his own comfort. It is the temptation to listen to “crafty serpents” in the society around him redefine his own values and ethics.
Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection, quotes a favorite Slavoj Žižek parable. As the parable goes there is a man who thinks he is seed. Finally cured by a psychotherapist, he shows up a week later paranoid again. His neighbor has bought chickens. And while he knows he is no longer a seed… do the chickens know? Rollins uses this absurd story to illuminate how often we act in ways contrary to our own beliefs. We don’t, Rollins contends, act out of our values and in consistency with what we think is “good”. We act in ways consistent with the oppressive marketing forces around us. So, we say relationship are more important than things… and then we accumulate things left and right because society tells us we should want them.
This is the wisdom of Daniel – resisting the temptation to define our good by what is comfortable for us. And Daniel resists that comfort because once you dine at the Emperor’s table our value foundation is lost and our agency is given over the ethics of the Emperor whose table is now our table.
How many of us right now feel a major sense of loss because we uncomfortable? When we define “the good” by those things that make us comfortable we begin to feel “oppressed” at the slightest inconvenience. We begin to rewire our journey by the social expectations around us… rather than in obedience and faith to the God who gave us life. We trade the good of the Creation we are called to steward for our own comfort. We trade community connection for social norms and marketing defined good.
Resisting the temptation to define what is good by what is comfortable is the first lesson Daniel gives us – and in many ways it will prove to be the most important. A foundational part of our journey then is to ask, what is the good we seek? And as disciples of Jesus’ Way – and the predecessor way of Daniel, the root of our answer must lie not in our comfort, social norms, or consumer goods. It must lie in our identity as God’s good creation and as stewards of that good for all Creation and our trust in the provisions and generosity of God as “enough” against the Empire’s desire for “more”.
This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.