God is Not a Vending Machine
In HBO’s miniseries Rome, Roman legionnaire Titus Pullo is imprisoned for breaking ranks. In a scene that perfectly sums up how most ancients understood religion, Titus prays through the list of Roman gods, seeking any deity to unlock his prison cell. “Forculus, god of doors, if you be the right god for the business here, I call on you to help. If you would open this door, then I would kill for you a fine white lamb, or, failing that, if I couldn't get a good one at a decent price, then at least six pigeons. This I vow to you.” Because that’s how most ancients understood religion: I make the appropriate sacrifices… and so the gods hear my prayer. I give A, the gods give me B. It was a transaction to get gods to do what you wanted. That was the deal.
So when they’re defeated in today’s opening battle, the Israelites immediately ask, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines?” That is a great question: you’ve lost, so consider what went wrong so you do better next time, whether it’s a matter of training, strategy, or in this instance making sure God is with you. But after that great opener, the Israelites’ self-evaluation goes haywire: “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that God may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” And for most neighboring ancient religions, that would be sound logic. You input A, then you receive B. The Lord is with the ark, so if you bring the ark, God will help you win the battle. And for many ancients, that kind of bartering between mortals and gods was the norm. Unfortunately for the Israelites, their Lord YHWH is not like the other ancient gods. Here the Israelites realize that God was against them in this last battle. But they never pause to consider why. Instead, they assume dragging the ark of the covenant over will force God’s hand, will pressure the Lord to show up and win the battle lest God’s holy ark be captured. The problem is that God is not a vending machine. The Lord cannot be manipulated or treated as a mere object like that.
A similar pattern happens in our own lives. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber noticed that our relationships are either “I-It”… or “I-Thou.” An “I-It” relationship is one where you view the other thing—whether it’s a person, a dog, a tree, your car, whatever—a relationship where you view the other as an object you alone act upon, an It. In an I-It relationship, the other thing’s own desires, thoughts, feelings, etc. don’t factor into the equation. Instead, you view the other only as a tool to use or good to possess. Consider the pew you’re sitting on or the sandwich I’ll have for lunch: we don’t ponder our relationship to these things but rather merely use them as need arises. And that’s fine: anything more might be odd. In contrast, in an “I-Thou” relationship the other thing—again, whether a person, dog, tree, car, whatever—you treat the other as a fellow subject with its own personality, desires, dignity, etc. that must be considered, a You one must acknowledge. It’s a dynamic, mutual relationship. To put the distinction differently, I-Thou is a dialogue where you and the other each have their own input in the relationship, whereas I-It is a monologue where only my will, my desires, my understanding of the relationship matters. In brief, Martin Buber suggests every relationship we have is either an I-It relationship, where we see the other as an It-object to act upon… or an I-Thou relationship, where we see the other as a Thou-subject who shares the action and relationship-building with us.
So how is that relevant to ordinary life? You have an I-Thou relationship with your dog, as you play and bond together… but an I-It relationship with the dog should it catch rabies, such that all you can do is force the poor thing to have a merciful, painless passing. Or if I’m your best friend, we probably have an I-Thou relationship, where we cooperatively work and relax together. But if we’re at war and trying to kill each other, we have an I-It relationship, where your hopes or desires don’t ultimately matter to me, only whether I can succeed in asserting my will over you through violence. Those are easy to get. It’s far murkier if we’re coworkers: do you see me as a rival to destroy, a teammate to cooperate with, a burden to manage, and so on. Whichever you pick will impact how you treat me, how you interpret my actions. Or if I disagree with you on a hot button issue, am I still a Thou in your eyes… or am I an It that must be kicked out or destroyed? It’s a similar question with our faith. Is God merely a power to bargain with? Or is God a reality to deal with? Is God a Being to have an ongoing conversation with? In short, is your relationship with the Lord about what you can get out of it… or is it about the Lord himself and the relationship you two share? In your prayers, is the Lord a “You”… or an “It”?
Returning to the Bible, the Israelites do treat the Lord as an It, not a You. They try to force God into acting how they want by dragging the ark of the covenant into battle, never stopping to ask why the Lord didn’t help them in the last fight. Long story short, the Philistines defeat the Israelites yet again, the two sons of the high priest are killed, and the ark of the covenant is captured by the Philistines and taken back to their capital city. Now the story gets a bit funny in the next two chapters, where the Philistines in turn realize the Lord isn’t to be trifled with as the ark they kidnapped starts raining curses and plagues upon them… until the Philistines finally give up and ship it back to Israel laden with golden treasures as an apology gift. And so a story that begins with the Israelites treating God like an object to manipulate ends with God delivering his own sacred ark out of captivity back to its rightful place all on his own. It’s a powerful demonstration that God is not a machine to manipulate, a formulaic program to follow, or a mere cosmic force to control… but a creative, thinking, personal Being who acts upon the world and our lives in unique ways. When the Israelites treat God as a mere object, the Lord in power and glory reveals his personal, relational nature and will over and over again.
And that’s what I learn from our scripture today. The Lord is not a vending machine, where you punch in the right buttons and get whatever you want out of it. The Lord is far beyond us in majesty and power… but the Bible speaks of the Lord as a personal, thinking, feeling, knowable Being that desires a relationship with us. The Lord’s original design for creation was for us to live in harmony with God, each other, and all creation. Put differently, the Lord created us to have an I-Thou relationship with all reality: we are meant to see the Lord’s handprint on all creation, to see every other human as created in the image of God, to see the Lord as our source of life and love. The Lord of the Bible is not like the pagan gods of Rome, deities you can barter with or manipulate into getting your way. The Lord doesn’t want to make deals with us: the Lord wants us and to have a relationship with us. Christianity is not about making the best deal with the Lord but rather is about entering into a sacred relationship and sacred mission with God.
We live in divisive times. And with the November election on the horizon, I fear it will get much worse before it’s over. But we are Christians. We’re called to be an example to the world of what is possible through love and mercy, just as God is loving and merciful to us. When we’re told to hate our fellow Americans or are told that certain groups of Americans hate us… that is someone telling you to stop seeing your neighbors as a “You” to love and to instead treat them as an “It” to dominate. When you hear a sentence start with, “all _______ are [insert bad thing here],” that is someone trying to make you stop treating your neighbors as people and instead treat them as animals or objects. Even if someone treats you that way, you as a Christian are called to act better than that, so rise above. For the Lord created us and redeemed us for better than that. We as Christians are called—even in our disagreements and tension—to always remember the humanity of others. We are called by scripture to remember that the Lord is not ours to control or wield but rather ours to follow, humbly and with self-correction lest we stray from the narrow path. The Israelites knew the Lord was not with them in battle, so they tried to force the Lord’s hand, like God was something they could manipulate or barter with… and so they lost. May we have the humility and wisdom… to model our prayers and our living after the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, who once said, “My concern is not whether God is on my side. Rather, my concern is whether I am on God’s side.” That is a posture of repentance, of self-criticism before other-criticism, of desiring relationship with God rather than power over. That is the posture we all will need in the coming months.
So may we have the grace, wisdom, courage, and love… to remember that the Lord—and our neighbors—are never Its to objectify, dominate, or control. They are always You’s we are called to love. May we learn and practice such love in the days ahead. Amen.