The Genesis:3 Project
And when his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD lent success to everything he undertook, Genesis 39:3
I have always been conscious of the scrutiny that accompanies an implied connection to God. It is unavoidable when you carry around the title of “rabbi,” or any other kind of pastoral designation. My aspiration (which I am guessing is not much different than most clergy), is to live up to and into the ordination I have earned. I don’t believe that it conveys any special measure of holiness in and of itself. Yes, I know that certain kinds of priests and scholars have authority that comes with their title, but the quality of character is earned, not bestowed.
There is no quicker way to insult and embarrass me than to play the rabbi card. When I hear someone (generally not a rabbi) go into the wind-up before the pitch with words like, “I would think that as a rabbi you would…” it takes every ounce of self-control I have not to (rhetorically) pounce on the speaker. I know my response comes from my knowledge that my every action is a reflection on all rabbis. I know it because so much of my career has been spent mending the frustrations remembered by Jews about other rabbis. Those colleagues were mostly doing their best and had the misfortune to say or do something that struck a raw nerve. I pay the price for them and others will, in turn, pay the price for my fallibility.
Sometimes, however, we “holy people” set ourselves up. The cynics in society love the tales of the televangelists who succumb to the opportunities of wealth, of the strictly observant rabbis who have defrauded the government or been exposed for sexual deviance, of the imams and gurus whose asceticism turns out to have a weak point for drugs or sex. By allowing and encouraging a perception that “the Lord is with him and that the Lord lent success to everything he undertook,” the self-described lowly servant can wind up elevated to a high position in which bad behavior is invited and temptation is almost impossible to resist. Just ask Joseph who – by most accounts – was set up. But cynicism about this guy who was too good to be true led his boss to almost revel in his fall from the pedestal.
I was thinking of these matters as I read of the Department of Justice’s settlement with Hobby Lobby over illegally obtained artifacts from Iraq. If you missed the story, stolen objects from the Fertile Crescent’s rich pre-Biblical an Bible-era history disappeared from Iraq and turned up in suspicious circumstances in Oklahoma, shipped to various addresses of the arts and crafts chain’s headquarters. The reporting on the story has been very careful, but it has not overlooked two details which will be connected by anyone paying attention to the news.
The first is that Hobby Lobby is owned by the Green family whose claim of deeply held religious convictions led them to seek to deny certain kinds of birth control benefits to their employees under the Affordable Health Care Act. (Specifically, they are the kinds that prevent a pregnancy from continuing once conception takes place.) After a long journey through the courts, the Supreme Court ruled that a closely-held business like Hobby Lobby, though worth millions of dollars and structured to protect its owners from legal action against them personally, was an extension of the owners’ religious beliefs.
The Greens, most especially Steve Green, the head of the family, have used a substantial amount of the money acquired through Hobby Lobby to build a new museum in Washington, DC – the Museum of the Bible. It is scheduled to open this fall and is designed to promote Mr. Green’s deeply held religious conviction that the Bible is the most important book in the world, and that if people were more familiar with it our society would be a better place.
Mr. Green has ample evidence to claim that “the Lord is with him and that the Lord lent success to everything he undertook.”
This scandal is far from the indulgences of the flesh that have typified so many other times that the mighty have been toppled. But specifically because it is devoid of prurient aspects it is, in many ways, much more serious. A businessman who very publicly insists on conducting his business affairs in consonance with a comprehensive devotion to the principles of his faith, and who then uses the gain from those business affairs to promote the guide to his presumed righteousness will be hard-pressed to explain the deceptions and illegalities to which he has admitted.
Joseph, of course, was redeemed. Though his presumed offense was never pardoned and his accuser never recanted, he proved his worth again when a stroke of luck put him in Pharaoh’s court. Once again the Lord lent success to everything he undertook. But first, he rediscovered humility and gave up on the notion that his dreams of grandeur as a young man were somehow his by privilege.
The best rabbis learn that lesson, too. The best clergy of all traditions model that humility for the aspiring righteous in their flocks. Let’s keep an eye on Hobby Lobby and the Green family to see what lesson might be learned by them and from them.