Category Archives: SCRIPTURE STUDY
This semester at the GCW, we’re going to look at a series of readings based on the Church’s liturgical calendar–namely the readings which will be used in many churches on the Sundays following our Tuesday scripture study. This is a departure for us, and for me. We typically study a book or a lengthy section of a book from scripture. I still think this is the best way to come to both an appreciation for and a deeper understanding of scripture. But I’m thinking that maybe a change of pace would be nice.
For folks who will be joining us over the course of the next semester, there are a couple of things essential to the way we study scripture at the GCW. My approach to scripture has always been to take the Story seriously as “story”; i.e. that a close reading of the text and attention to the elements of the story will yield a richness of meaning that is otherwise lost in other approaches. Some folks call this “narrative criticism.” The simple and most pertinent reason for this approach is that first and foremost the author wrote what they had to say as a story and therefore meant it to be understood within that framework. Secondly, stories are understandable to all of us. We have an innate ability to understand stories if we but pay attention. This doesn’t mean jettisoning understandings that come out of historical, social, political, cultural and linguistic analysis and whatnot. Rather it takes all of that into consideration within the context of the story itself; certainly knowing something about the history of Israel or having knowledge of Jewish rituals enriches our reading of the story. Together, as a group, we help to ferret out the little tidbits of knowledge that we all have accumulated over the years, enhancing our individual readings of the story with what others bring to light from both their knowledge and their experience.
Here’s a brief rundown of what we keep in mind as we study scripture together.
The first question to ask when approaching Scripture is NEVER “what does it mean?” The first question should ALWAYS be “what does it say?” or “what is written?” The text, albeit in translation, is the fence that hems in the various possible meanings of any particular story or passage. The meaning of a verse like “Love your enemies” can never mean “bomb and destroy your enemies.” The text itself negates that as a possible meaning. This is why we start by taking the text seriously.
The author of a book or passage is in control of the story. Every detail is there for a reason. So again, we need to read closely. At the GCW, we read and unpack a verse at a time.
We have an innate ability to understand stories. Many of us have been taught an overly reverential attitude toward scripture and we come to it doubting our abilities to understand. The truth is that, like when we watch a television show or read a novel, as long as we pay close attention, we usually can figure out what is going on. Same is true for scripture.
So here are some “helps” in learning to read or study scripture seriously as story:
- Read the text closely.
- Read the text with others, mining each other’s knowledge about what is going on.
- Read whole passages or whole books and puzzle out your own ideas and questions before consulting outside sources (like commentaries, which are also interpretations). Use outside sources only after you’ve achieved some of your own familiarity with the story.
- Use 2 or more good translations of scripture (NRSV, New Jerusalem, New American, and more). We’re reading of course in English, translated from the Greek and Hebrew. Translation is also partly interpretation and having translations that sometimes differ on particular words or phrases helps to clue us in to parts of the story which are “in play,” so to speak.
- Write out the text yourself. Write in your bible, jotting down notes, circling words, etc. Fill up the margins. Keep a journal of your study.
- Put yourself in the place of one of the characters in the story. What do they see, feel, think?
- When reading, note the following elements of most stories. These elements help to carry and articulate meaning.
- Where do passages begin and end? (Look for changes in setting, voice, etc.)
- In what order do things happen?
- What words, themes, actions, settings, situations, etc. are repeated?
- What is the setting?
- Who are the characters? And what do we know about them? (status, gender, jobs, ethnicity, etc.)
- What is the relationship between characters?
- What action happens? Who does or says what?
- Is there conflict? Between whom? Why?
- What drives the story? What is the plot?
- Is there a “twist” or “surprise” in the story?
Stories have power. They help tell us who we are, what we value, what is worth living and dying for. These stories in scripture should be foundational for us. And finally, these are the stories our ancestors have passed down to us. There is something here they want us to discover, something good and important and transformative. They want to tell us something. It is to our great joy to listen and to understand what that something is. We hope you’ll join us this semester as we listen and discuss together.
Following the initial Pentecost event, where a new moment in salvation history is signaled by the reversal of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11, Peter delivers a speech invoking Isaiah, Joel and the Psalms of David to interpret the experience of this new fledgling community of Jesus’ followers (Acts 2:14-36). The passage ends with Peter’s claim that ”this Jesus whom you crucified” has been made by God “Lord and Messiah”. The terms “Lord” and “Messiah” when applied to Jesus have now to us lost nearly all of the shock value that they would have had for that first generation audience. The titles “Lord” and “Messiah” would have carried political as well as theological meaning for Jews and others during the time of the early church. They are titles which bring up a tension between Jesus and any other ruling power, party or individual. Especially in Luke’s writing (the author of the gospel and Acts), the “lordship” of Jesus is juxtapposed to the “lordship” of Caesar. To claim Jesus as Lord is to make a political statement that goes against the current political arrangements of the time. And to invoke Jesus as “Messiah” would have also stirred up Jews against the current political and religious status quo, especially Jews who were awaiting a Messianic leader like David to free them from Roman oppression. We cannot take these titles lightly, nor ignore the politically-charged emphasis of such a claim as Peter makes. To call Jesus “Lord” and ”Messiah” is to make a definitive pronouncement against the powers of nation, party, and president as to our deepest allegiance.
The people’s response to Peter is telling (2:37): they are “cut to the heart”, signifying a genuine and passionate guilt and pain over their participation in Jesus’ arrest, sentencing and death (remember the way the crowds were manipulated by the religious leaders against Jesus). Peter’s invitation to them (38) when they ask what they can do is to repentance and baptism, two words that should recall an earlier figure in Luke’s gospel to us–John the Baptist. If we look back to Luke 3:10-14, we see the template for this passage in Acts. The crowds are asking John the same question: What are we to do? John’s repentance consists of this: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the one who has none; and whoever has food should do likewise.” When the same question is again asked, this time by the tax collectors who had grown rich off the people’s misery by accommodating and serving the Romans and cheating their own people, John tells them to “stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” To soldiers, “do not practice extortion. . .” and so on. The sign that one has truly repented is the practice of justice in relationship with other human beings, especially toward those to whom we have taken advantage of because of their relative lack of power and our ability to exercise power over them. What we have therefore in Peter’s answer to the people is not some “spiritual” repentance; rather, Peter calls the people to the practice of justice as evidence of their change of heart.
What we see later in the chapter (2:42-27) is that Peter’s call to an ethic rooted in repentance and evidenced by the practice of justice is the very ethic by which the early Christian community will live. They “devote themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life,” a teaching which we have seen is not esoteric and spiritualized but rather concrete and practiced in relationship. Their communal life is accented by their “bonds of responsibility” for one another. The breaking of the bread together has overtones to the Emmaus story, the Last Supper and the feeding of 5000 in the wilderness. The passage goes on to say that “they held all things in common,” and that possessions and property were put at the service of those who were in need (44-45). Such an ethic puts the “common good” above rampant individualism. Verse 45 also makes it clear that another’s need has a claim on us, a claim that sometimes requires sacrifice from us.
The picture that Acts paints of the early church could easily be dismissed as idealistic, not grounded perhaps in reality. But what cannot be argued is that these are the values and this the ethic and lifestyle that the early church wants to hold up as the goal to which we should be oriented, the world for which we should strive. We have seen and heard of other movements that have experienced periods of rich transformation, profound community, and creative possibility–Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain and its Prague Spring of 1968 is but one example. It is a vision of what is possible–a vision that can carry us, sustain us, and for which we are willing to work and sacrifice and strive, despite the obstacles. The “Jerusalem Spring” of the early Church in Acts 2:42-47 is not a pipe dream or unattainable ideal. It is the prophetic practice of community, in contrast to the surrounding society and culture, to which the Church is called in every generation.
When we last left the apostles, they were holed up in a room, hiding, unsure of what what was to happen next. The book of Acts opens with Jesus enjoining them not to depart from Jerusalem, intimating that this was exactly what the apostles had hoped to do. And who could blame them? Just a few short days ago they had seen their leader arrested, tortured and crucified by the powerful religious and political leaders of Jerusalem. There was a good chance that such a fate might await his followers as well.
But during the appearances to the apostles following his resurrection, Jesus does convince them to stay–and to wait. Something is going to happen.
Chapter 2 of Acts opens with an allusion to “Pentecost,” but not the later Christian Pentecost; rather this is the religious festival of the Jews of Jesus’ time, the “Feast of Weeks,” centered around the harvest and agriculture. As with Passover and other religious festivals, Jews from all over would have come to Jerusalem, swelling its numbers. (Later in the passage, verses 5-11, we’ll hear the breadth of Jewry present in the city.)
The opening of chapter 2, verses 1-13, is rife with imagery that would have helped its earliest listeners to recall their stories about “beginnings.” In verse 2, we have a reference to “a noise like a strong driving wind,” the word “wind” being a cue to the opening verses of Genesis, when God’s spirit swept over the waters of creation like “a mighty wind,”–the pregnant pause, the poised in-breath just before God initiates the work of creating. So with this “wind,” we, as readers, should be alerted to some new “creating” action of God in history.
God’s choosing of this small, ragtag, frightened, marginalized people also recalls God’s action on behalf of the Hebrews when they were an enslaved, disempowered, frightened and marginalized people in Egypt. Both times, God does not enter into history on behalf of the powerful, but on behalf of the powerless.
Verses 5-12 recall another story in the opening section of Genesis–the story of the tower of Babel from Genesis 11. The fact that there are many languages in our world is used to tell a story about vanity, pride, misunderstanding and the ultimate aim of communication. Early in the Babel story, the people all share a common language, but their ability to understand one another leads to an inflated sense of importance and a desire to show off their power. Their attempt then to build a “city and a tower with its top in the sky”, made possible because they share a common language, is an attempt to build a monument to their own greatness. Such a building, like the pyramids of Egypt and the ziggurats of Babylon, would be built on the backs of the poor, enslaved masses. So God strikes down their efforts and scatters them by “confusing their languages.”
What happens in Acts 2:5-13 is then a reversal of the Babel story. Jews from “every nation” are gathered, but each hears the apostles–now emboldened and speaking out, testifying publicly–in their own tongue. At this new moment, the beginning of the Church, understanding despite language barriers (cultural barriers, etc) is possible. Understanding revolves around the content of the message. Unlike their predecessors in the Babel story, the apostles’ testimony is not to their own greatness but to the greatness–the mighty acts–of God.
The apostles had been hiding and afraid. Their leader, despite his promise to them, had left. There was the real possibility of the story coming to an end at this point. But a new beginning has now happened. The gift of the Spirit isn’t the charismatic gift of “speaking in tongues.” The gift of the Spirit is courage to proclaim the mighty acts of God–despite the threats of the powerful–and the possibility of understanding, despite our differences.
I am convinced in reading the opening passages of the Acts of the Apostles that it is Luke’s primary purpose to make sure the early church is oriented to that which is at the heart of the proclamation and passion of Jesus. The central message of Acts 1:1-14 resonates not only in the time of the apostles and the early Church, but for those who would follow Jesus today and the preaching and practice of our churches as well.
The passage opens with Luke orienting the reader to where we are in the overarching story (it is generally agreed that the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts is the same person) and confirming the continuity of Jesus’ message, both pre-Resurrection and post-Resurrection. As he did before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus speaks to his followers about that transformative reality called the “kingdom of God” (verse 3). The focus, therefore, of his proclamation has not changed after the Resurrection. The message remains the same: the kingdom of God.
Now we have to imagine that the disciples are in a tricky position, and we get the idea, when Acts opens, that they are contemplating leaving Jerusalem (4). After all, for the followers of Jesus, his arrest, torture and crucifixion must have not only been emotionally and psychologically traumatic for them, but also a warning as to what the authorities might choose to do to them as well should they stick around and “stay the course.” But Jesus “enjoins” them to remain in Jerusalem, despite their fear and despite the danger. He assures them that the promise about which they have heard him speak is imminent—reaffirming again that that promise has to do with the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, the object of the verse just prior.
The disciples, however, continue to mistake the “kingdom of God” with their own less lofty, more immediate ambitions regarding the “kingdom of Israel.” In verse 6, they question Jesus not about his “speaking on the kingdom of God,” but rather want to know whether he is going to “restore the kingdom of Israel.” Jesus’ response to the disciples is curt and to the point—a good paraphrase would be: “That is of no concern to you.” Jesus instead re-orients them to the task that they are going to undertake in the world (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth)—specifically to be his witnesses, those who will testify as to the truth of what Jesus said and did during his lifetime. And again, the message of Jesus’ actions and words throughout the Gospel of Luke (and now in the Acts of the Apostles) is not the restoration of Israel but the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
Then, like Elijah before him (another prophet that criticized the religious and political powers of his time), Jesus is “lifted up” and disappears (verse 9). Now the disciples are left in a rather awkward posture, standing (maybe mouths agape, slack-jawed?), looking up at the sky (verse 10). Whereas Jesus had been attempting to re-orient the disciples away both their own worldly ambitions and their belief in a limited and ultimately doomed political reality (the kingdom of Israel), two new emissaries (“dressed in white” clues us in to the fact they were representatives of God) will now re-orient their attention away from “heaven” and back to the world around them, the world in which they will play out their roles as witnesses to Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom of God (verse 11).
Implicit in Acts 1:1-14 is the call to give our allegiance to that kingdom which Jesus proclaimed—the kingdom of God—and not to give our allegiance to some partial, flawed political reality, be it the kingdom of Israel for the disciples then or the church’s embrace of U.S. empire in our own time. Secondly, the passage also challenges any interest the church may have in an “other-worldly” theology, a pre-occupation with “heaven,” and its parallels, the after-life and a salvation primarily concerned with what happens after we die. Instead, the passage, like the two men dressed in white in verses 10-11, challenges the church to stop looking up to the sky and to start looking around us—to make this world its concern, to understand our mission as being about the here-and-now, and that through how we live our lives—what we say and do—will we give witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God which he proclaimed: a kingdom where the oppressed are set free, the blind see, the poor have the good news of God’s special attention and concern for them preached and practiced by the church, where we love our enemies and do good even to those who would harm us.
Luke insists right off the bat that the church’s mission has nothing to do with aspirations for worldly power nor a pre-occupation with “heaven” and a “pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die” otherworldly theology. Our churches today would do well to remember this.
Last night, we had our first scripture study, focusing on the Acts of the Apostles, for the Fall semester. It is now a tradition that at our first session together, we don’t even crack open our bibles. Instead, we take the time to learn a little bit about each other, about the folks who will accompany us as we study together. This is no rote task, along the line of “introductions” which typically happen at the beginning of many gatherings. Rather, it is part and parcel of our reading of scripture.
At the GCW, the study of scripture is really the study of the intersection between three primary stories: the story we’re looking at in scripture, but also the story of our own personal history, and the story of the wider society, the culture of which we are a part. We start with the premise that the story we study in scripture will challenge and critique aspects of both our own story and the story/stories of our culture. So we begin by sharing a little bit of where we are coming from–who we are, what is going on with us now, what our background is.
The process of doing this revealed several things, but the most important thing it revealed was the great diversity of people in our room. For me, this is the great strength of scripture study at the GCW. As one of last night’s participants said (to paraphrase), “What I appreciate about studying scripture at the GCW is that we are all so different, coming from different places, different perspectives. Whenever I have studied scripture elsewhere, it was always with a group that had so much in common–same age, race, religion, class, experiences, etc.” In our living room last night, we had people who were homeless and people who had homes; we were black, brown and white and various shades in between; some came from middle-class and upper-class families, and others from working class or poor families; students and parents and workers and immigrants and … You get the picture I think.
Such diversity does not lend itself to easy agreement and quick consensus about what is going on in any particular passage, or what it might mean for us today. We get to wrestle with it some, creatively and vigorously. And for those in the group who share a common background of privilege like myself (white, middle-class upbringing, male and straight, citizen of the world’s greatest current empire), by sitting in a circle with people who have been marginalized or relegated by others with power and influence to a “lower” status in our society, I get reminded about what these stories originally meant to those early generations of Jews and Christians who wrote them and experienced them, and whose experience by and large was more in synch with people on the underside of empire today. Over the years, I have been guided by these folks with whom I am in relationship to understand these stories in ways that have been uncomfortably challenging but deeply transforming for me and my discipleship to Jesus.
It is a favorite dictum of mine that “scripture was written by, for and about people on the underside of history.” The bible is the great exception to the rule that “history is written by the winners.” The fact of the matter is that these stories came from a people (Israel, and later, the early church) which continually found themselves on the margins of power, or more likely, oppressed and persecuted by the great powers of the age (Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Rome, et al)–losers in history’s great game. Our biblical ancestors, as a nation, had more in common with Iraq or Afghanistan, than with the United States. I think this why for those of us in middle-class churches in the United States, the stories of scripture seem to lack the power for revolution that the early church felt, and that millions of impoverished people in Latin America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere experience when they read these stories today. Maybe our own self-sufficiency and comfort, and the stories of Madison Avenue, Wall Street and the Pentagon clog up our ears, muting Jesus’ revolutionary proclamation of the kingdom of God. But like the book says, ‘”those with eyes to see, and ears to hear…”
So this is a standing invitation to anyone who wants to join us. You can come regularly, or just drop in whenever your schedule allows you. We meet on Tuesday evenings, starting at 6pm (usually with a quick simple dinner for the hungry), then go to about 7:30pm. We’ll be studying the rather exciting and action-packed story of the Acts of the Apostles. And we’ll be posting here a few insights each week for anyone who cannot get to the GCW’s Jubilee House but wants to play along at home. Hope to see you next week!
It has been a few weeks since we finished our scripture study on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, but I find myself running across passages from other things that I am reading and studying that keep sending me back, with new eyes, to some of those passages. My daily prayer includes short reflections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945, just days before the concentration camp was liberated. Anyone who spends any significant time with me knows how much I think Bonhoeffer’s life and witness under Nazi totalitarianism has to say to those of us today in the United States who are trying to practice authentic discipleship to Jesus.
The reading from a few days ago, in part, said this: “A faith that really keeps to what is invisible and lives by it, acting as if it were already here, hopes at the same time for the time of fulfillment, of seeing and possessing. We hope for it as confidently as the hungry child to whom his father has promised bread can wait a while because he believes. Yet eventually the child wants to get the bread… A faith that does not hope is sick (my emphasis). It is like a hungry child who does not want to eat or a tired person who does not want to sleep.”
The section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount which intersects these words of Bonhoeffer’s is chapter 7, verses 7-11. It is a simple passage that we most often interpret as being about prayer and the persistence of prayer. Indeed the bold heading in my bible just before the passage reads, “The Answer to Prayers,” directing us to read the following lines in that context. But I think that it is only about prayer incidentally, that in fact it goes to something deeper than prayer, but something that authentic prayer is rooted in, namely, hope. The passage is about hope and how hope invites us to take the initiative.
Up to this point in the Sermon, much of what Jesus has asked of those gathered can be understood as an ethic that went beyond the conventional religious, personal and social responsibilities of the time. He has expressed an ethic that is incredibly counter-cultural, and in some ways counter-intuitive, especially for the vast majority of his audience who find themselves struggling to survive in a religious, economic and political reality which is oppressive–sapping their strength, destroying their spirit, robbing them of hope. The reality in which Jesus’s followers live is not a reality which rewards those who ask, seek, or knock. Asking, seeking and knocking are sure ways to get a punch to the gut or a kick in the head. What an oppressed people have learned to do is to keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and to go about their business.
But this new order of reality to which Jesus is calling his followers is not a reality that will simply assert itself without the action or risk or initiative of those listening to his words. It is a reality that is utterly dependent on the dialectic between God and God’s people. Those who have been taught not to ask must learn to ask. Those who have been taught not to seek must learn to seek. Those who have been taught not to knock at that door must summon the courage to knock. A disempowered people will not bother to knock, or seek, or ask. Experience long ago taught them that there is no response to their asking, nothing which their seeking will find, and no friendly welcome at that door. Those who oppress rely on the fact that those they oppress will one day interiorize that oppression and do the work of the oppressor for them. And therein lies the death of hope. The hope that is essential for change has been beaten out of them.
As Bonhoeffer put it so poignantly above, “A faith without hope is sick.” And Jesus must surely understand that this people, to whom he is entrusting the practice of the kingdom of God which at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, needs to have rekindled in them the fire of hope. Verse 7 states: ”Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” This is not a statement of fact. It is, rather, a promise, a promise that goes against every available piece of evidence in the lives of those to whom Jesus speaks. Jesus has been speaking long to this people, and I imagine that he sees in their eyes a spark of hope, yearning to be fanned into full flame, but all too experienced and disappointed by the way things are in the “real world.”
And so as the Sermon winds down, Jesus reaches out to his listeners, inviting them to shake off their paralysis, their despondency, and all that this bitter existence has taught them. This is a new moment. And it is a moment that needs their initiative, their word, their longing–their hope. No longer slaves, no longer sheep, no longer objects, Jesus invites them to see themselves as agents in their own salvation, and the salvation of the world. He invites them to experience that faith which is no longer sick, a faith invigorated by hope, a hope which inspires and motivates and transforms. In the asking and seeking and knocking, they become the very agents of change which the kingdom of God needs. And they are promised that their asking, seeking and knocking will no longer be in vain; that this God is unlike the powers-that-be of this world which have proven to be unresponsive to their cries and their yearnings and their hopes. And while change may not be immediate, these people can walk away from the Sermon knowing that they are empowered to play a part here, to take the initiative; and that they, like the hungry child, can wait a little while longer because they know their father is bringing the bread and the time of fulfillment is near.
Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners — the community and the magazine — and a best-selling author (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, among others) used to give a stump speech that included a much-told story from his youth that made quite an impression on me. He tells the story of being a seminary student, of taking his bible and systematically cutting out every passage in scripture that had to do with economics, wealth and poverty, money, et al. He then shares that once he had finished, the bible was just tatters, falling completely apart. The lesson he was demonstrating is that the word of God has something to say about the economic relationships between human beings, that it addresses wealth and poverty in depth — as a matter of fact, perhaps more than it addresses any other subject. And most importantly, our own relationship with money and financial security must be held up to the critique and judgement of God’s word. Questions about money and our culture’s virtual worship of it are central to our own understanding of God, discipleship to Jesus, the practice of our faith, etc.
So it should come as no surprise to us that as we get deeper into Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, shortly after Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray (6:9-15), he turns his attention to money, and the supposed security that money offers (chapter 6, verses 19-21, and 24-34). In verses 24-34, Jesus states very plainly and clearly that “mammon” (i.e. money, especially in terms of “wealth” or “property” that assures status, security and power) holds the possibility to master us, and that its mastery of us leads us to serve it, rather than serve God. The juxtaposition is clear and stark: We do NOT master money; but it can and will master us, so that we end up being its servant. Jesus sets “mammon” up as in competition for us with God, personifying mammon, acknowledging it as a “god-like” entity, a false idol competing with God for mastery of us.
We live in a time when talk about “idol worship” or “idolatry” might seem a little stilted, or language best left to hard-core fundamentalists maybe. But the truth is that we today worship at the altar of idols as much as or even more than our ancestors from long ago with their stone carvings and pillars and whatnot. Our idolatry has perhaps become more nuanced, or subtle, but it is there nevertheless. And it is most evident in our relationship to money and economics. We talk about “the market” as an entity, how “its invisible hand” guides our economy. We give our trust to it, profess our faith in it, and we acknowledge the power it has over our lives. The irony is that on most of our money it reads “In God we trust,” but trust in God often runs a far off second to our trust in capitalism, our bank accounts, and our 401Ks.
There is implicit and explicit in verses 25-34 a criticism of a culture which manufactures superfluous needs for us which they then, in turn, promise to fill. It addresses the cultivation of anxiety about not having “enough” which is primary to creating a feeling of insecurity, then finding security in our ability to buy enough clothes, or food, and so on. Such anxiety and concern about the various needs of our lives is especially dangerous, not because needing such things as food and clothing is ridiculous, but because our immersion in worry and concern for ourselves steals our attention away from what really matters. And what is it that is most essential, most primary for followers of Jesus? Verse 33 lays it out: “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” The business of followers of Jesus is not the business of seeing to all our various needs — real or manufactured; but rather, our business is seeking the kingdom of God. And the verse goes on to say, “and all these things will be given you beside.”
Bob Dylan famously said that everybody serves somebody. At the very least, these passages in the Sermon on the Mount force us to examine our own lives, especially in the light of money’s courtship of us, and ask who is it that we really serve.
Matthew 5:33-42 In these passages from Matthew, Jesus continues to speak of the “higher righteousness,” alluded to in 5:20, which is the crux of the new/old teaching he proclaims.
The fourth passage in this series begins with verse 33. It is an interesting passage that not only teaches, but is a demonstration of the teaching itself. The language of oaths and vows may not resonate with us now the way it did for Jesus’ original listeners; nevertheless, the focus of the passage may be even more poignant for us now.
We start with the question: Why does one take an oath? What makes an oath necessary? The answer, of course, is that one’s word is somehow lacking integrity, that there is some doubt as to whether you will do what you say you will do. So to give it more oomph – to emphasize one’s integrity and trustworthiness to another who is doubtful – we “swear” on a variety of things—our mother’s grave, “the Holy Bible”, to God, etc. But the greater issue here is the assumption that a person’s word is no longer good enough, and that integrity is in short supply. Today, it is an accepted fact that we live in a culture of lies, misrepresentations, deception and dishonesty—in everything from politics to marketing to our personal relationships. We have become a culture that lacks integrity and, because of that – when something is really important – we have to rely on various oaths, vows and other expressions to impress on others that yes, we really mean what we say . . .at least this time.
Jesus discerns this lack of integrity in his own time. In a culture of duplicity, Jesus proposes simplicity: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’” (verse 37). No oath or vow can substitute for our consistent, faithful practice of integrity. Jesus’ own directness of speech in this passage demonstrates just such integrity: there is no hedging, no obscuring, no duplicity. The message on integrity takes on the characteristics of integrity—Jesus is simple, straightforward and direct.
The next passage is one that many of us at the scripture study last Tuesday confessed to having wrestled with regularly. Many have come away from this passage (5:38-42) believing that Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to be doormats, to suffer evil without any resistance. But scripture scholars with good social and historical analysis of the Palestine of Jesus’ time have done incredible work with this passage over the past twenty years. The passage starts out by quoting what was a common understanding of justice in Jesus’ time and, indeed, still holds sway with the vast majority of humanity today: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (v. 38). We understand such a mentality today as being primarily about punishment, about seeking “justice” for the perpetrator. For some of us, it even offends our more “developed” sensibilities about a justice that has vengeance at its core. But for the early Israelites, such a law (lex talionis) was actually instituted for its limiting effect. An eye for an eye was instituted to limit revenge, to keep violence from escalating, and to actually break the cycle of vengeance that such actions often invited. Such cycles and escalations rooted primarily in revenge could quickly get out of hand and cease to be about any sort of justice at all. An eye for an eye functioned to limit that tendency.
What Jesus proposes instead of an eye for an eye unsettles some of us though. Is Jesus promoting passivity to evil when he tells us to turn the other cheek? Is Jesus telling us to unquestioningly accept suffering with no thought for our safety or dignity? A quick lesson in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ time is helpful in understanding what it is that Jesus actually counsels.
The culture of Jesus’ time, not unlike Middle Eastern cultures today, was built on the axis of honor-shame. One’s honor was considered of the utmost importance – and not incurring shame was essential. Note then the language of the last part of v. 39: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to them as well.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies that you would strike them with the back of you right hand. Such an act was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Those subservient to you—slaves to masters, wives to husbands, children to fathers, peasants to soldiers, and so on—could be put in their place with a well-placed backhand to the cheek. Additionally, to strike one in this way did not go against Jewish law. So what happens when we “turn the other cheek?” The act, far from being a sign of willingness to accept evil treatment, is actually an assertion of dignity by the oppressed party that put the oppressor in a difficult and shameful position. For the oppressor to strike his inferior on the left cheek, the oppressor is forced to strike with his open hand. To strike with one’s open hand, as opposed to backhand someone, is to acknowledge that the one you are striking is equal to you. Furthermore, to strike with an open hand is prohibited in Jewish law, so turning the other cheek and inviting your opponent to strike you with their open hand is to put the opponent in the unenviable position of acknowledging your equality to them, and then having to either back down in front of others and incur the shame associated with that OR break the law and incur the penalties and shame in that action. So what we have here is not Jesus inviting us to a beat-down by our opponents. Rather what we have is Jesus inviting us to a strategy for confronting and resisting an opponent who is in a position of power over us. It is actually a strategy for winning.
The same application follows in the next two examples. In v. 40, the issue of giving one’s cloak to one to whom you are indebted who has taken your tunic is directly related again to Jewish law. Jewish law states that the one item that a good Jew could not deny to another Jew, regardless of how in debt the other was to him, was his cloak. A cloak functioned in a variety of capacities for the poorest of the poor: clothing, shelter from the elements, and economic opportunity (beggars used to spread out their cloaks in front of them at the gates to the city, asking for alms to be placed in them). A cloak must therefore be returned before sunset to one’s rightful owner. To offer someone your cloak when they are taking your tunic again puts them in an awkward and untenable position regarding Jewish law and the potential for incurring shame in front of one’s peers and others.
In v. 41, Jesus is referencing the common practice of Roman soldiers to press into service civilian help in carrying their various military items. Any Roman soldier could require of any peasant the performance of this task—but the law stated that it could be for only one mile. So to offer to go two miles again turns the table on the opponent, forcing them into a position of breaking the law should they accept.
Great activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi understood Jesus’ words here as a strategy for winning in a situation when the vast amount of power was on the side of one’s opponent. To fight with weapons would be a strategy sure to fail since the opponent has all the power – and better weapons. But in the face of such overwhelming odds, Jesus invites us to think creatively and nonviolently. What he offers us is a strategy for winning—both in terms of asserting our dignity but also in appealing to the best sensibilities of our opponent and especially to the many who may not have chosen sides but are watching closely the interaction between us and our opponents. Calling attention to the deep injustice of our situation through creative resistance, as Jesus suggests, is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of all those watching from the sidelines. What we have here is Jesus inviting us to moral jujitsu—using our opponent’s energy against him to make our point and win the encounter.