June 30, 2019 Harry Potter #3, The Problem of Evil,
In the seventh and final book of the Harry Potter series, Rowling inserts two scripture verses into the story. She has said these verses sum up and represent the message of the books in their entirety. The second of these verses will be the focus of next Sunday’s message. Today let’s look at the first verse, Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. These words appear on the tombstone of Dumbledore’s mother and sister. But it’s the way in which the following verses in Matthew unpack verse 21 that really caught my attention this week. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
The Message translation makes you sit up and pay attention – “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have.”
Have you heard of the “evil eye”? This is an ancient belief encompassing many cultures around the world and is still prevalent today. The general idea seems to be that a person can curse someone by giving them the “stink-eye”. The “evil eye” actually makes several appearances in ancient Jewish Rabbinic literature. According to commentary writer and theologian Douglas Hare, these verses from Matthew seem to contrast a “good eye” with the age-old idea of the “evil eye.” But it’s the scriptural context for good vs. evil in this use of the eye that I really want to highlight here.
A year ago I did a sermon based on a scriptural interpretation approach Bryan Moyer Suderman presented at last year’s WDC annual assembly. Suderman pointed out how Jesus buried clues within his teaching that led his hearers straight back to the Old Testament. Jesus was, of course, an Old Testament scholar. And he is at it again in this whole passage from Matthew, dropping a bread trail of clues within these verses that lead us to the book of Proverbs.
Now, I don’t tend to use the King James translation because I find the language, while beautiful, also kind of cumbersome. I prefer newer translations. However, I was caught up short again this week at how the King James version often stays to a more literal translation of the actual text rather than trying to modernize and put things in today’s vernacular. So this idea of a good eye and an evil eye first makes its scriptural appearance in Proverbs.
Proverbs 22:9 – “He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor.” In contrast, we have the evil eye…Proverbs 23:5-6 – “Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven. Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats.” And Proverbs 28:22 – “He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him.”
As Christians, we love our social issues: the environment, abortion, sexuality, capital punishment. Most of these issues receive very little attention in scripture as a whole. I’m not saying they aren’t important. I think they definitely are. But if we want to use scripture as our guide for how we prioritize, then I’ll tell you the issue the Bible is all over, from beginning to end. Justice. And specifically, economic justice. I mean, it would take days…weeks to go through the Bible and lift out all the references to economic justice and injustice in the Bible. And guess where scripture finds itself consistently, over and over again. Our Bible, our God, always goes to stand with and among the poor, the marginalized, the outcast. Even further, Matthew 25 makes clear Jesus comes to us as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the prisoner and tells us “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me (Matthew 25:41-46).”
Buried here in this Matthew 6 passage we find yet another example of God’s stand on justice. About verses 23-24, Hare writes, “Just as a blind person’s life is darkened because of eye malfunction, so the miser’s life is darkened by failure to deal generously with others. The person who extinguishes compassion, ‘the lamp of the body,’ consigns himself or herself to a twilight existence.”
And that last line is perhaps as good a definition of evil as anything else I’ve heard. A person who knowingly and intentionally extinguishes the lamp of compassion, aka Love, consigns himself or herself to a twilight existence where darkness reigns.
In the world of Harry Potter, Voldemort serves as the personification of evil. Once a penniless and unwanted orphan named Tom Riddle, he discovers within himself exceeding gifts for magic. And already as a 10 year old, he is using his gifts to knowingly cause harm to others and he has become a thief, drawn to items of value above his station. When he turns 11, Dumbledore visits Tom’s orphanage and Tom leaps at the extended invitation to begin attending Hogwarts. Once at the Hogwarts school, Tom is given opportunity to choose good, to do right. This he does not do. But blinded by their appreciation of Tom’s natural abilities, he manages to fool most of his teachers into believing he is indeed not only an exceptionally promising wizard, but also an exceptionally upstanding young man. Only Dumbledore views Tom with increasing suspicion. And rightfully so.
Tom’s appetite for pretty and valuable things coupled with his desire recognition in time evolves into a relentless quest for self-glory, for power, for immortality. Though people are easily drawn into his web, attracted by Tom’s charisma and vision, he uses people as mere pawns, expendable means in the pursuit of his evil ends. His is a life intentionally devoid of Love. Last week we reflected on how the nature of God is best understood as the personification of Love. What is the opposite of Love? Evil.
And Voldemort envisions a world where purebloods reign. Here Rowling utilizes a thinly disguised metaphor for the evil of white supremacy, racism and systemic prejudice and oppression. A pureblood is a wizard whose parents were or are both wizards. Half-bloods are wizards who have one wizard parent and one muggle parent. A muggle is a wizarding term for people with no magical abilities, who for the most part remain blissfully ignorant of the magical world playing out around them. And Rowling also introduces a very derogatory and offensive term used for wizards who are born to two muggle parents. They are called “Mudbloods” – a word not uttered in civilized conversation. But Voldemort is attempting to overthrow the old order and replace it with a world in which Mudbloods are enslaved, imprisoned, murdered – half-bloods curry favor and serve the pure bloods who will supposedly reign forever.
And in his quest for immortality, Voldemort severs his soul into 7 pieces and attaches each piece to a material possession he treasures, then hides and surrounds these horcruxes with powerful dark magic. Only when all 7 pieces are discovered and vanquished does Voldemort once more become mortal.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Voldemort’s treasure is not in his relationships, and is certainly not in his capacity to live in Love. Voldemort’s treasure is in his prized possessions and in his own power and glory. This calls to mind the well-known verse from Timothy, again from the King James, “For the love of money is the root of all evil.”
Now money, on its own, is value neutral – it isn’t good or bad. But you can see how a love for money could and too often does totally wreck a person’s capacity for good, for light. Love of money can very easily lead to a desire for recognition, for admiration. What good is money if you can’t show off a little? And that appetite for admiration and respect, well that can lead to a desire for power. And power is pretty addictive. A taste so often leads to a hunger for more. All of us have seen how this works, up close and personal. It plays out in small communities, in organizations, in schools, in societies. To a degree, I’d even guess most of us have either experienced part of this progression within ourselves or we’ve been secretly envious of those who do have the money and power in our lives. In part, this is human nature.
This is just one example of a universal dynamic Paul speaks about in Romans 7. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
The danger here is in not recognizing and confronting the danger. That longing for more is insidious. The more we have, the more we want. And as “more” accumulates there is a grave temptation to justify ourselves, to find ourselves deserving, to see ourselves as better than, to believe we are more blessed and therefore more loved. And in the process to totally lose touch with a God who is Love and a Holy Bible that over 200 times consistently lifts out the poor and underprivileged as those who are most deserving and most favored.
And this seems to be exactly what we as a nation are doing right now with these mass detention centers. This isn’t a partisan issue. In Texas you have state Republicans and Democrats alike decrying the abuse and neglect of immigrants fleeing desperate situations in their own country and seeking refuge here. But the question must be asked, how have we got to a point where we are separating children from family and warehousing them without adequate water or food? How is it that children are going weeks without access to a bath or a clean change of clothes? How is it that people are getting arrested for putting out food and water for yes, illegal immigrants, attempting to make it through the desert alive? How is it that ICE is detaining citizens and legally documented immigrants? We’re looking at evil today, and what we are seeing unfold here in our own country, is evil personified.
These are the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty when we as a nation were perhaps a little more in touch with God and His greatest commandments. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Our Holy Book and our Living Word speak so openly and honestly and clearly about welcoming the stranger; showing kindness and mercy and justice to aliens, widows and orphans; loving our neighbors as ourselves. This proclamation on our Statue of Liberty rings with God’s Truth. But what we are doing now, well this is knowingly and intentionally extinguishing the lamp of compassion, of Love.
How did we get here? I think it has a lot to do with the evil eye of the stingy and the miserly, those who love money more than people. Those who have been seduced by a quest for more. Those who think what we have is of far more value than the dignity of people who desperately need more. Those who would rather build walls to protect and defend our right to wealth, to privilege, to security at the expense of the poor, the marginalized the outcast. And I am not standing up here spouting idealogical and pie in the sky dreams or wishful thinking. The Bible is full of teachings that are uncomfortable for us wealthy Americans to hear. But either these foundational Christian principles apply in all of life or they apply in none – we don’t get to pick and choose.
And I suspect one of the best things that could happen to us as a country is to have a whole lot more immigrants make their homes among us and help us learn from them. Help us learn how to let go of some of what we take for granted. Help us let go of some of the security we’ve always known. Help us let go of the privilege and power we have inherited with silver spoons in our mouths. Help us become genuinely more invested with our choices, with our priorities, with our love in the lives and hopes and dreams of those who come to us with little money, with little prestige, with little power, but with great blessings and promises and favor from God. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
God, give us good and bountiful eyes and may the lamp of compassion and the love of God guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus forever. Amen.