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SCRIPTURE STUDY: Luke 9:28-36, Shut up and listen to him

transfiguration_icon

This upcoming Sunday’s gospel reading is from Luke, chapter 9, verses 28-36, the transfiguration episode. Immediately when we begin the passage in v. 28, “after he (Jesus) said this,” a notation that should spell out that this episode is connected to and to be understood in relation to the passage that just preceded it. So what was it that Jesus just said? In 9:22-27 Jesus predicts his suffering and death at the hands of the religious authorities and lays out some hard words about what is in store for those who will follow him: denial of one’s self, taking up the Cross, losing one’s life, and so on. His words to his disciples and other would-be followers come on the heel of Peter’s announcement that he is “the Christ of God,” the Messiah—a term fraught with cultural, political and religious baggage that all point to a Messiah who is like David was, i.e. a warrior-king. Jesus’ words in 22-27 are the beginning of his work to undermine the traditional understanding of Messiah and craft a new one.

So we have Jesus, with three of his disciples, ascending a mountain to pray in v. 28. The setting on a mountain should conjure up for us memories of other important events and figures related to ascending a mountain—not the least being the Exodus story, Moses and his various encounters with God. Throughout Scripture, the mountain is an “in-between space,” rising up from what happens below in ordinary life toward the skies and the realm of heaven. In Luke it functions here as a place of revelation, but also a setting for prayer. And for both these reasons, as well as additional ones, it is a contrast to the Jerusalem Temple, a different sort of place for prayer and revelation. It is interesting that the whole following scene unfolds on the mountain, perhaps purposely chosen as a contrast to the Temple where God’s presence was “officially” supposed to reside, amidst the official authorities and the cultic system and the economics of sacrifice.

On the mountain, Jesus is joined by and converses with Moses and Elijah. The question for us is why these two? Why not David? Or any of the patriarchs? Jesus’ association with these two should give us a clue as to which tradition Jesus stands in within the Judaism of his day. He doesn’t stand in the tradition of David the warrior-king, the quintessential Messiah figure, but rather with Moses—the liberator of slaves and opponent of Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire—and Elijah—the prophet par excellence who challenges the Israelite King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel over their greed and injustice. Like these two, Jesus in Luke’s gospel will be cast as one who challenges the powerful.

As Moses and Elijah begin to depart, the disciples awake, glimpse what is going on, but as Luke tells us in v. 33 in reference specifically to Peter, “he did not know what he was talking about.” Peter has misgauged what is happening and his attempt to “capture” the moment by erecting three tents or booths to memorialize the episode is emphatically shot down in the most ominous way possible: a voice from a cloud interrupts his nonsense in v. 34.

The voice speaks in a way that should recall the earlier passage after Jesus’ baptism, the revelation that he was God’s beloved son—a revelation that sent Jesus off into the wilderness to figure out exactly what that means (click here to read our reflection on that passage from last week). The voice this time speaks not to Jesus, but to the disciples: “This is my chosen Son! Listen to him!” The exclamation points belong to the passage, because the voice here speaks with power and emphasis. And it is the second part of what the voice says that catapults us back again to what Jesus said just prior to this passage in vs. 22-27, taking us full circle. Listen to him. Don’t get caught up in your tent-building Peter, or building statues or monuments, or tabernacles or worship. Don’t get excited about Jesus being the new David, ready to kick the Romans out and set up a new monarchy. Don’t get lured in by the miracles and healings. The important thing here is to listen to him. Pay attention to what he says, and then go live it. So difficult for the disciples then; difficult for those of us who call ourselves followers of him now. Do we really listen to Jesus? Do we take his words to heart and stand in that tradition with him, Moses and Elijah, speaking truth to power and advocating in behalf of the poor, oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized?

The verse ends with the disciples doing that first action that might lead to listening to him. They fall silent. And as the road turns toward Jerusalem for them and for Jesus, maybe we’ll fall silent too and start listening.

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Jesus’s vision quest in Matthew 4

At the end of chapter three of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus (and us as readers) hears the voice of God proclaim, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” This proclamation sets the scene for what happens in chapter 4.

Following his encounter at the Jordan with John, Jesus retreats to a place by himself, left to figure out what this means, this proclamation that he is the beloved son of God. In some sense, Jesus’s retreat to the wilderness calls to mind the Native American idea of a “vision quest,” a turning point in one’s life where a young man figures out whom he really is and what that means. So we have Jesus, at the beginning of chapter four, fasting and alone in the desert, possibly unpacking what has just happened in his encounter with John.

The eleven verses that make up the “temptation” passage are rife with Exodus imagery. Jesus being led into the desert where he spends 40 days and 40 nights fasting should recall to us the story of Israel, a people freed from Egypt and led by the spirit into the desert for a time of testing that lasts 40 years. But whereas Jesus’s ancestors spent their time in the desert complaining about there not being enough food or drink (and God answering with manna and flowing water from the rock), fashioning a golden calf and worshipping it instead of God, and so on, Jesus will meet the challenge of his testing. The Israelites are tested and falter time and time again during their 40 years, but Jesus will recapitulate their time in the desert with his 40 days—but he will meet the tests and remain faithful to God.

The devil starts the questioning of Jesus with an interesting conditional phrase: “IF you are the Son of God…” This phrase is attached to the proclamation at the end of chapter 3, connecting the two passages, and hinting to us that the very thing which Jesus was contemplating while in the desert was indeed what happened in the Jordan with John and what does it mean. And the devil has some easy ways for him to unequivocally answer the question of his identity. “IF you are the son of God…” well, then, do this and you’ll know for sure. Right? But Jesus doesn’t take the bait, recalling instead the words from Deuteronomy, words that again recall the manna passage and the Israelites own crying out for God to give them something to eat.

In the second temptation, the devil evokes in Jesus a powerful emotion—fear. He perches Jesus on the top of the temple and again suggests that a way of being sure about his identity is to throw himself off, even quoting scripture (the devil can quote scripture too!) as to how the scenario should unfold. But Jesus resists again, quoting Deuteronomy.

The final temptation offers us some interesting political analysis. The insinuation in verses 8-9 is that the kingdoms of the world belong not to God, but to the devil—they’re his to give. These verses should cause all of us to be skeptical of aligning any kingdom, any political ideology, any economic empire, any nation or state, with the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not equivalent to any political reality we might find here on earth. And no matter what good we think we might be able to do by wielding the power that comes along with positions of status and influence within such systems, we would do well to remember Jesus’ refusal to make any deals with the devil to be the master of such power (again by quoting Deuteronomy).

Whereas the Israelites time of testing and preparation as the chosen people of God was a series of failures and mistakes, Jesus realizes his identity as God’s chosen son by meeting each challenge and remaining faithful.

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Mark 1:29-39 – Irrelevant widows, to be sick and poor, and when religion goes rogue

In this middle section of Mark’s first chapter, we’re seeing early scenes from the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. There are three distinct, short passages contained in these eleven verses, which continue the 24 hour period which began in verse 21 and sort of represents “a day in the life of Jesus.”

In verse 29, as the passage opens, Jesus is moving from the synagogue–a public, sacred space and the domain of the scribes, elders, et al–to a more private, intimate space–the house of Simon and Andrew. The shift in scene takes Jesus from a place of tension and conflict (in the passage just prior, Jesus was confronted by demons and the people openly privileged Jesus’ teaching over the teaching of their professional religious leaders) to a more relaxed, comfortable setting.

Upon entering the home, Jesus is told that Simon’s mother-in-law in sick. This verse has a few clues for us to consider. One, Jesus has not demonstrated his power to heal up to this point in Mark’s gospel (the earlier passage is an exorcism, distinct from healing), so to assume that Simon or Andrew bring up her sickness as a request for Jesus to heal her seems a little bit of a stretch. One person this week suggested that maybe the assertion that the mother-in-law is sick with a fever functions more as a warning to Jesus, i.e. Jesus should steer clear of her.

The second consideration is the status of Simon’s mother-in-law. Since she’s living with Simon and her daughter’s family, we can assume that she has no husband to care for her. As a widow then, she fits into that specifically Jewish list of those who are consistently the most marginalized and vulnerable in society–the widow, the orphan and the stranger/foreigner/immigrant.

So when Jesus touches her in verse 31–even though he has been warned to stay away, and even though she is a widow, i.e. a person of no account–it seems to be less about any miraculous healing and more about Jesus’ preferential option to see those who are typically rendered invisible, touch those who are typically deemed untouchable, take account of those who are typically considered of no account. Even the muted nature of the miracle–she’s in bed with a fever, not blind or lame–asks us to look elsewhere for deeper significance in the action. The passage asks us to consider how much sickness is intertwined with the feelings of being discarded, ignored, or uncared for by others, as much as it is about the actual physical discomfort. Jesus has not allowed the people’s astonishment or amazement toward him [verses 21-28] to inflate his own sense of self-importance that he would dismiss the sickness and loneliness of this silent widow.

Finally, we should also note that the Greek word interpreted here to say that the widow then “waited on” Jesus and his disciples is the same Greek word used later in Mark that is specific to the “service” that is associated with discipleship (see 15:41). The work of seeing to another’s need is recognized as an authentic exercise of discipleship, not devalued as “unimportant” work to be done by those of lesser status.

The next passage opens by noting that the Sabbath has ended (“after sunset”) and that a large number of people were being brought by their friends, families and others to the door of the hosue where Jesus was staying. The people being brought before Jesus are identified as “ill or possessed by demons.” So what does this identification mean?

Historically, these stories are circulating probably around the time leading up to the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 AD. It is a time of increasing political and economic instability, helping to lay the foundation for the short-lived success of Jewish zealots and others who are able to temporarily drive the Romans out. In times of political and economic distress, the ranks of the poor swell with those who once were able to get by losing what little they had and those who had next to nothing to begin with reaching an even more severe level of destitution and desperation. For the increasing number of poor, to be sick meant much more than to be physically disabled. There are also emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions to poverty, similar to what we saw with Simon’s mother-in-law. But we also know that illness holds more devastating consequences for the impoverished than for people of means and status.

First, the poor are more likely to get sick and to stay sick. This is directly related to their access to healthcare, their ability to pay for medicines, their lack of access to those things which lead to good health (healthy foods, clean living conditions, networks of social support) and the likelihood of lifestyles or jobs (lack of a home, hard or dirty manual labor) which expose them to greater risk of sickness.

But sickness has social and cultural, and certainly in Jesus’ time, religious dimensions as well. To be sick was to be in a “socially devalued state.” Sickness was a symptom of sinfulness, of ritual impurity, and it meant being excluded from worship, from one’s social networks, and in extreme cases, from one’s community or town. Besides suffering from an inability to access or pay for cures for the physical symptoms of an illness, the sick also could only return to worship and their various social units upon making atonement for their ritual impurity or sinfulness–which meant also having the economic means to satisfy the prescriptions of the sacrificial system which was administered by the priesthood or their proxies. The business of sickness (and at that time, ritual impurity) was big business, as it is now. And such a system put undue and sometimes impossible strain on the poor.

In summary then, those who are coming to Jesus in verse 32 are most likely overwhelmingly the poor and destititute sick, those whose physical condition have marginalized them socially, politically, economically, religiously and culturally as well. The ways to physical healing and social health have all been closed to them. They do not have recourse to the systems built and maintained by people of status, means, and power. What Jesus then represents to them is so much more than the simple curing of their physical symptoms. Yes, we can acknowledge a physical dimension to these stories of Jesus’ healing; but so much more than that is taking place. The act of healing includes the possibility of restoration to the community, the reopening of relationships, a chance at a new life, the ability to work and to worship, and the reclaiming of dignity. There is a social dimension to these acts of healings that we miss entirely if we narrowly attune our eyes to the “miracle” of a blind man seeing, or a deaf woman hearing.

Our passage transitions again in verse 35, with Jesus again withdrawing from a very public scene (masses of people at the door of the house where he is staying) to a private one, a deserted or “lonely” place where he goes to commune with God. His disciples “pursue” him or “hunt” for him in verse 36, telling him that everyone is looking for him in verse 37. Jesus’ reply to them is interesting. In verse 38, he does not answer that he will go back with them, but rather that they will “go on to nearby villages.” And for those of us who have maybe gotten too hung up already in the gospel on Jesus’ miracles of healing, Mark notes succinctly that Jesus’ purpose is “to preach,” an assertion which throws us back to the verses 14-15 where Jesus states unequivocally the message of that preaching: the good news of God, that the kingdom of God (as opposed to all the partial and fallen kingdoms of this world) is at hand. All of Jesus’ word and actions are aimed at this good news: that the poor will hear good news, that the imprisoned will be released, that the oppressed will be liberated, the blind will see, and the Jubilee will commence (return of lands, forgiveness of debts, etc.)

The passage ends on an ominous note. Referring back to verses 21-28, Mark now makes clear what was murky. The religious institutions of Jesus’ time have become possessed, no longer serving God or the needs of the people, but rather serving a corrupt and demonic power (greed? wealth? power? the market? nation? empire?) So Jesus embarks on a campaign, preaching and driving out the demons which have taken up residence in these places of worship and education and in the people who run them. His campaign is from synagogue to synagogue, liberating each of them, throughout all of Galilee.

Next week, we’ll look at the last passage from this opening chapter in Mark, 1:40-45.

SCRIPTURE STUDY: A Church pre-occupied with neither heaven nor politics

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.

-John

ROUNDTABLE: And They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our …

That was the title Diedre Houchen gave the Roundtable discussion she led last Thursday.  After sharing some of her own faith journey, she invited others to share a bit of their own.  Many had similar tales of finding connection with a particular community or way of being “spiritual,” then leaving to move on to something else.  The two ends of the Christian spectrum that folks moved along seemed to be the personal encounter with Jesus and vs. the mandate to follow Jesus’ “Way.”  This is a well-documented divide: Evangelical (conservative) vs. Progressive (liberal). Diedre wondered if there was any commonality, any way for the two to “talk.”  We didn’t come to any conclusions, but hopeful ideas like humility, openness, honest debate, and recognition of a common search for meaning were discussed.  In the end, it seems helpful to recognize that each of us comes to “faith,” or seeking faith, from a place of vulnerability that should be honored – regardless of our own conclusions (or current resting place).

Diedre recommends an episode of Krista Tippet’s “Speaking of Faith”- Evangelicals Out of the Box - as a great follow-up.  It’s a big subject and one that causes a lot of heartache between people who call themselves followers of Christ.

 

SCRIPTURE: When we pray as Jesus taught us, do we know what we are asking for?

Matthew 6:9-15

For most Christians, it is the most familiar passage of scripture, the one part that nearly all of us have memorized – Matthew 6:9-15, commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father,” or “The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us.” Despite our familiarity, despite the fact that this prayer is said in Churches every Sunday, despite the fact that it is prayer in small groups, prayer meetings, in the morning when we rise and at night as we lay down to go to sleep – despite all this, I would hazard to guess that the vast majority don’t realize what we are really saying. Taking this prayer apart line by line, paying close attention to Jesus’ words here, reveals just how deep this revolution is that Jesus is stirring up.

We start at the very beginning, “Our Father.” The first emphasis is on the “our,” the plural possessive. The first word in the prayer reveals first of all the communal nature of the prayer, that we come to God as a people, in a group, with others. This is no individual, between “me” and God prayer. Jesus’ “our” places us alongside everyone else in our relationship to God, making our faith about “us,” not about “me.”

And the title Jesus chooses here for God is literally “Abba,” closer in many ways to “Dad” or “Daddy” then “Father.” What it denotes is a level of intimacy and closeness to God, but it is an intimacy that is still rooted in authority—the relationship is child to parent, not sister to sister or brother or brother. Such a relationship implies God’s claim on us, and our accountability to God, albeit a God who is intimately involved in and aware of his/her responsibility to us as well.

Moreover, perhaps the most important thing about the emphasis on “Our Father” is not the relationship it defines between us and God, but rather the relationship it defines between us and other people, between me and all of these other human beings I come into contact with everyday. Approaching God as “Our Father” implies that all of us, every human being, that we are brothers and sister to one another, family; and therefore, each human being also has a claim on us and we a claim on them. Despite the forces of society and culture and creed that endeavor to separate and divide us, we are, under this Parent God, brothers and sisters to one another, responsible for each other, a reconstituted family. This is especially true for those of us who claim discipleship to Jesus, membership in the Church, but also to all people everywhere, by virtue of God’s “parenting” of them too. The implications that such an insight—that we are truly brothers and sisters, one family—in terms of our lifestyles, our political participation, our economic decision-making, and more are astounding. If we are truly brothers and sisters, then imagine how much we must change in how we see those whom our country is killing in wars or those who are in economic distress because of our nation’s policies? The implications of being “one family under God” are far-reaching and incredibly critical of the status quo.

In verse 10, we read: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In many ways, the notion of “kingdom” is anachronistic in our world. The time of nations ruled by monarchies is pretty much over. So we need to get behind the reality of what the word kingdom is all about. Kingdom refers to a political reality in the world; a kingdom is a people or place over which another has authority or reign. In praying this prayer, after acknowledging God’s intimacy to us as “Father” and our relationship to one another as family, we then acknowledge our hope and longing for God’s authority over this world, this reality here and now, as God rules in that other reality we call “heaven.” But if we are calling for God’s rule here on earth now, then we are also tacitly acknowledging the illegitimacy of any other “kingdom” or rule on earth. At the very least, we are implying that the kingdoms of this world (the authorities, the political system, the governments) are NOT equivalent to God’s kingdom and that we long for them to be replaced by God’s kingdom. Again, the implications for us and for our way of being in the world—not just as individuals or as the church but as states and nations—are revolutionary. Our prayer pledges us to God’s kingdom, not whatever nation we live in or have citizenship in. We are saying, in fact, that we are citizens of the kingdom of God FIRST, not of the United States, or England, or Brazil, or China—that our first loyalty is to God’s kingdom, indeed to God, not to our political leaders or systems or nation. And most poignantly, we are praying that God’s will be done—not the will of our country or elected officials, not our national interest or self-interest be done. Praying that God’s will be done implies that we already are aware how little of God’s will is done, and so we must pray for it, invite it, yearn for it and be about the business of making it happen here, now, for the benefit of our entire, reconstituted family, the human family.

Then we pray that God gives us “our daily bread.” This verse conjures up for us the story of the Exodus, of the Israelites recently freed from Egypt finding the manna in the wilderness. We remember the prescriptions about the manna: Take only what you and your family need for TODAY. And those who took more than they needed for one day found it turned wormy and rotten. This is again a radical understanding of what type of security we ask God for. We do not pray for perceived needs or needs that we may have a week from now or a year from now or for that time after we retire in 20, 30, 40 years. Our security is in our God who takes care of us for today. And if we take only what we need for today, we find, like the early Israelites wandering in the desert, that there is ENOUGH for everybody; No one is hungry, no one dies of starvation, everyone gets what they need when each of us only take what we need for today. This is a radically contrary ethic, one that believes there is enough as long as some of us don’t take too much; and that the reason we find that there isn’t enough is because some in our world are taking more than they could ever need. In essence, when we take more than we need for today, we are stealing from others and contributing to a system where some have way too much and others die because they cannot even get what they need for today. Praying for daily bread is an indictment of an entire system predicated on manufacturing “needs” and encouraging us to get as much as we can as quick as we can before someone else takes it from us. An ethic based on God’s provision of daily bread where there is enough for everyone would be a drastic change in the way our society works now.

This section, which is at the center and the heart of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (both thematically and structurally), ends with two reminders about forgiveness—first in verse 12 and then again in 14 and 15. Jesus seems to be telling us just how central forgiveness should be to humanity. This emphasis on forgiveness should give us pause, especially because Jesus intimates that our own forgiveness is dependent on our willingness to practice forgiveness toward others. This is no simple “please forgive me God” and we find ourselves forgiven. It is, in fact, a quid pro quo: God will forgive us ONLY if we forgive others. And again the reality of what we are praying should strike us to the heart. Whether as individuals or churches or communities or nations, we can only be assured that our own mistakes are forgiven if we forgive the mistakes of another. It is an ethic of reconciliation based on reciprocity, rooted in the basic reality that our relationships to other human beings are reflective of our relationship to God.

So when we pray this prayer, do we really have any understanding of what it is that we are praying? And if we do, do our lives give testimony to what it is that we are really praying here? If the millions of Christians who prayed the “Our Father” every day really did understand and believe this prayer, our world and our relationship would look radically different I think.

-John

SCRIPTURE: Almsgiving as a Social Corrective

Matthew 6:1-4 

The sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel opens with Jesus addressing what have become the three hallmarks of Lenten observance in the Roman Catholic and other Christian traditions: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Interestingly, the first of these that Jesus addresses is almsgiving.  

The first thing that strikes me about the passage is the assumption Jesus makes that performing “righteous deeds” is part of one’s life of faith. There is no “If you are going to perform righteous deeds, then. . .” Jesus asserts simply that any disciple of his WILL perform righteous deeds; it was part and parcel of sincere Judaism during Jesus’ day and it can be assumed that for those who follow Jesus today, righteous deeds are a regular practice of sincere discipleship. 

But it begs a further question: In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, who was almsgiving aimed at? The Hebrew Scriptures suggest that almsgiving was a practice focused on a particular class of people usually referred to as “the widow, the orphan and the stranger,” three archetypes of people within ancient Hebrew society which would find themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position. Widows, orphans and strangers (i.e. foreigners within Israel) were particularly vulnerable to financial and physical threat because they had no one to speak for them, or to defend them. They were outside the stabilizing and protective circle of “family” or “tribe” or later, “nation/state.” So it is important for us to recall the context for almsgiving during Jesus’ time, and to ask ourselves whether our “righteous deeds” today are performed for the uplift of those who are most vulnerable among us and least protected by our circle of family, community, society or nation.  

Those words—“alms” and “almsgiving”—are not words we use much anymore. Many would substitute today the word “charity.” But the first verse employs a Greek word—Dikaiosynē—which translates to “righteousness/righteous deeds” or “justice/just works” which connotes that what happens in this practice is not simply “charity” in the way we have come to understand the word today. Rather, there is also a note of “justice,” of redressing the wrongs that play themselves out in our political, economic and religious systems. Acts of charity today are often done with an implicit quid pro quo—sure we do something nice, but we also get something back for it. Sometimes it is a tax break; others it is the admiration or acknowledgement of friends and community. But in Jesus’ sermon, the “rightness” of the act is sufficient in and of itself as far as things go here on earth; any reward here too easily leads to a corruption of the goodness of the act apparently.  

The thrust of the passage – that doing good in order to be praised or rewarded for it— is a warning to those who are listening to Jesus. It is a “false pride” that ensnares us when we receive adulation for our good work. Such adulation and the false pride it engenders takes away from the importance of “doing justice” in and of itself. The issue is that we have directly or indirectly benefited at the expense of others in our society who go without enough food, or care, or love, or security; and our “almsgiving” is not to be praised, but rather the simple practice of healing our societal brokenness, correcting inequities among us, redressing wrongs. This isn’t something to be praised; it is simply something that good people—including those who would follow Jesus—should do. 

The final point in this opening passage of this section is that Jesus also puts on the listener the responsibility for performing such acts. The act of doing justice, giving alms is not left to one’s church or one’s government or some other institution. It is a personal responsibility of each and every person who walks this way with Jesus. It cannot be passed on to another level but must be practiced oneself. Such practice, if it becomes second nature to us, fulfills the meaning of verse three: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Our practice is rooted in our integrity, it becomes natural to us, without thought eventually, simply part of who we are and what we do.

- John  

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moral Jujitsu – A Strategy for Winning

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.

-John

SCRIPTURE STUDY: In the Circle with All the Other Killers and Adulterers

Matthew 5:17-48, part one 

“Inside-outside” is a game we all play. It seems to be taught to us from the beginning of life. Some folks are inside the circle (good); others are outside the circle (bad). This past week we started looking at a passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seeks to obliterate those circles we draw, boundaries between ourselves and our friends and the dreaded “others” who are somehow not like us. 

This section of Matthew, 5:17-48 is made up of 6 antitheses introduced with the common, “You have heard…But I say to you…” The antitheses are responses to (more or less) Torah-based pronouncements on killing, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and attitudes and behaviors toward one’s enemies. [Note: When Jesus states, “You have heard…” the following predicate is not necessarily a quote from Jewish law, but it probably was what passed for conventional wisdom and practice at the time.] 

The section begins with a short passage (17-20) which situates the antitheses that are to follow. Lest anyone get the idea that Jesus is proposing a radically new teaching, he makes the case that what he is about to address is consistent with the best of the Mosaic and prophetic tradition in Judaism. The “Do not think…” that opens verse 17 points to what is probably a common reaction his teaching has already raised among his disciples and others: that his teachings are a challenge to or even a repudiation of the Torah. But while his teachings may question the what is passing as legitimate interpretation of Torah and certainly the authority of the teachers and interpreters of Torah in his day (Pharisees, scribes, others), his teachings should not be understood as inconsistent with or counter to the highest expressions of justice and morality already revealed in the tradition.  

Another concern Jesus seems to have is that the misunderstanding of his teachings will lead not to a more rigorous practice and higher level of integrity among those who hear him, but rather some might be thinking his teaching allows for greater relaxation in matters of justice and morality. His acknowledgement of the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (v. 20) points to a more challenging discipline and a greater integrity to be the rule for his disciples. Making these things clear, Jesus turns to several examples of this “higher righteousness” in the following passages.  

In verse 21, Jesus begins with the injunction against killing (Ex 20:13 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures). The truth of the matter is that the injunction against killing really only encompasses a very small number of us. Few of us will actually kill another human being (at least directly, but that is for another time…) during our lives. The injunction thus draws a small circle, encircling and setting apart a small group for whom the rest of us suppose the injunction is intended. But Jesus decides to draw the circle larger. He pushes the boundary out, including inside the circle all those who experience anger toward another, who ridicule others with taunts like “Raqa” (imbecile or “blockhead”) or “fool”. He connects that impulse—the impulse toward an anger directed at other humans, an anger that “dehumanizes” another human being through ridicule or disdain—with the most extreme of actions which flow from that impulse, namely, killing.  

Killing happens because we have learned to dehumanize the other—to no longer see the other as human. This happens all the time in war. To get a soldier to kill, the soldier must devalue the enemy’s humanity, to see them as less than human. But killing is only the most extreme expression of the impulse. Jesus pushes that circle out until we are all inside of it, cognizant that each day all of us move along this same spectrum of dehumanization (of which killing is at the far end) in our actions and behaviors. And so the injunction against killing becomes not an indictment of a few who are somehow set apart from the rest of us, but rather an indictment of all of us and a warning to take seriously our own attitude and actions in our daily interactions. 

The interesting second part of this passage is the prescription of reconciliation as an antidote to the anger that leads to dehumanization and severs our relationships to other human beings. In verses 23-24, Jesus recognizes that we all will fall into the very type of anger he cautions us about, so he offers a practice to heal the rift that dehumanizing anger causes: the practice of reconciliation. But the rub here is that he connects right worship with right relationship, and asserts then the converse: there is no true worship where there is division caused by anger within the worshipping community. As the prophets before him said again and again, the neglect of mercy, justice and reconciliation individually and communally nullifies our worship of God. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. Those who dehumanize their opponents, worship falsely.  

The same widening of the circle of indictment takes place in the next two passages (verses 27-30, 31-32) as well, this time regarding the injunctions against adultery and the process of divorce (tied together by their common reference to adultery). Again, the adulterers among us may be relatively small in number compared to the number of us that have looked on others as simply objects for us to use to satisfy our desires. The lust referred to here has the same end as the anger referred to above: dehumanization. Objectification of another human being is dehumanization; their value is reduced to how they can be used. If adultery is the result at the far end of the spectrum, the motivation for adultery—to see others for their value to us and not their value in and of themselves—broadens the circle until we all find ourselves within its boundaries. The injunction takes on new life and is directed at all of us, not simply those few who commit only the most extreme act of what lies in all of our hearts. 

Additionally, adultery, especially in Jesus’ time but in our own as well, cannot be simply understood in the sense of “unchastity” but also incorporates an element of justice, or right relationship, as well. Adultery in Jesus’ time placed women in particular in a state of jeopardy—one simply thinks of the situation of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel, surrounded by a crowd intent on stoning her. A patriarchal society run by and for men elevated a man’s value and denigrated a woman’s value. And so women often bear, unfairly, the greater punishment or consequences of adultery. The indictment of the interior process of dehumanization over the act of adultery itself leaves all of us, like the crowd in John’s story, examining our own precarious sense of being “sinless” rather than focusing on the sin of another. 

Perhaps most importantly, in examining the first three of these antitheses, we notice that Jesus’ widening of the circle changes the focus of our attention as well. If the injunction is simply aimed at killers and adulterers, then our eyes focus outward on and toward the others encompassed by those injunctions. But Jesus’ turns our eyes away from others and squarely back on ourselves. While we were intent on the sins of others, Jesus erased and moved the line so that we suddenly find ourselves in the circle too. Now we ask why it is that we are here in the circle too. We stop considering others sinfulness and we start considering our own. Such consideration is perhaps the first steps to learning how to live more fully this higher righteousness that Jesus called us to back in verse 20.

-John

SCRIPTURE STUDY: Worthless Witness – Christianity Without Contrast

There is a short—but incredibly rich—passage which immediately follows the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 5:13-16 holds several familiar sayings of Jesus, using the metaphors of salt, light and a city set on a mountain. The essence of the passage, which really sets up the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, is that following Jesus is about offering a contrast to the dominant culture or society in which we live. It is the assertion that Jesus’ followers—the Church—are to be a “contrast” society. 

The Beatitudes already are leading us in that direction, but it is in Matthew 5:13-16 that this becomes really straightforward. What is most striking about the Beatitudes is how they go against conventional wisdom and basic religious assumptions, both of Jesus’ time and of our own. Now Jesus directs his words to those closest to him, using the second person “you” for emphasis: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to thrown out and trampled underfoot.” 

What is salt? What does salt do? Salt adds flavor; its primary property relates to taste. That which is bland can be spiced up with a little salt. We add salt to give flavor to something. In essence, we use salt because it provides a contrast; it adds flavor. The implication for those who follow Jesus is that we are here on earth to provide a contrast to the world in which we live. And if we, as those who call themselves Christians, don’t provide that contrast? Then Jesus states clearly that we are no good to his mission, we are useless to him. Individually and communally, if our witness and way of life in the world fails to offer a contrast to the ways things are in the larger society, then what does our Christianity matter? The Church’s purpose here is to provide a contrast to the larger culture; if it does not, that it has no value at all.  

If we think about this for a second we know that it is deeply, profoundly true. We live in a culture that celebrates rugged individualism, an individualism that states “me first,” “I’m number one,” “it’s all about taking care of me and mine.” But the gospels tell us over and over again that we are to care for others, even at a sacrifice to ourselves, that the common good and especially the rights of the most vulnerable (the widow, the stranger, and the orphan) are to be preeminent in our society. The gospel tells us that we are to love our enemies, but our society says bomb our enemies. Our society encourages us to worship and long for power, status, and privilege – and to find our security in money; the gospels tell us to seek to be the least ones, the ones who serve, the ones who find their security in God and each other, in relationships. The Church is supposed to be that society of people who are living these things out—in contrast to the larger society that surrounds us. 

Two other things stand out in this passage. We need to remember that this passage comes on the heels of Jesus’ promise to his disciples that they will be persecuted, that they will stand in the line of those prophets who took to task the kings of Israel and Judah and suffered for it. So when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden,” the disciples must have had mixed feelings. Any thoughts that they had about hanging low, trying to do their thing under the radar have just been addressed. Jesus first tells them they’re salt, now they’re light (another metaphor for contrast) and finally that they are a city of a mountain, nice and high where everyone can see them. Through the values of the Beatitudes and the promise of persecution, he has assured them that if they follow him, they will find that they will not “fit in” in this world. But not only will they not “fit in”—they also are being told that they must “stand out.” Their contrast is not just for themselves; it is for the world. So essentially he tells them: “You won’t fit in, and you’re going to have to stand out.” Any hopes of quietly following Jesus and muting or avoiding the persecution part have just gone out the window. The Church will be that city on the mountain, exposed for all to see, for both good and bad. Verses 15 and 16 echo too that the Church’s witness is not for itself, but for others, for all.  

This idea of the Church as a contrast society seems to me to be at the heart of the crisis we find with our Church today. We longer look or act differently. We are just like our neighbors. There is little about being a Christian that seems to separate us out today from the society around us. There is little to no contrast between the Church and the larger culture in which we live. This is certainly not how it was for the early Church, and we find that it certainly is not how it is for those segments of the Church throughout history which have taken Jesus most seriously, and therefore conflicted with the societies in which they found themselves: from anti-slavery abolitionists in the 1700s and 1800s, to the black churches of the civil rights movements; from St. Francis and his movement which eschewed the trappings of power and wealth which gripped the church of his day to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany which resisted Hitler’s rule; to the churches of Latin America that speak out for the poor and suffer martyrdom to the U.S. churches today shielding and protecting undocumented workers.  

But for the the majority of Christians in our nation today, the contrast is simply not there.  

As the great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote in the 1800s, critiquing the Church of his time for the very same thing: “There was a time when one could almost be afraid to call oneself a disciple of Christ, because it meant so much. Now one can do it with complete ease, because it means nothing at all.”

-John

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