We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, August 21, 2017

Matthew 6 - Grasping & Striving

In our last last post, on Matthew 6:1-7:7, I claimed that the point of the passage is that the fundamental issue we humans face, according to Jesus, is grasping after things such as honor  and wealth— in other words, self-aggrandizement.  Looked at from a 21st-century context, I think that is one reasonable summation of Jesus' first century message.  But there is an obvious problem that we shouldn't walk past, which is the fine line between grasping after things and striving after them.

If greedy, self-serving grasping after what we want is one crucial element in human nature, so too is striving after what we want.  When we grasp and grab, we are at our worst.  When we strive and struggle, we are at our best.  When we strive for something, we have set a goal for ourselves to better ourselves or our situation.  Working for a new home or striving to serve our community, these are good things.  We grow, improve, and make a contribution to our society by striving after that which is better than what we have now, where we are now.  Progress is built on striving.

The problem is that there is a gray area between grasping and striving where striving morphs into grasping.  The desire to improve morphs into the darker desire to get what we think we deserve, at any cost.  Striving involves an investment in our self, our ego.  But Lord help us when self and ego are involved because they so easily take over and corrupt even our best intentions turning them into self-aggrandizement.  We end up corrupting the very things we strive after.

Sadly, religion is at least as much a victim of this tension between striving and grasping as any other aspect of life.  That is the point of Jesus' teachings about giving, praying, and fasting in secret (Matthew 6:1-18).  It is good to give, pray, and fast—until it isn't because our goal in doing these things has been corrupted with grasping self-concerns.  When we invest our self in something, that self wants something back for itself.  Invest our self in our nearest Presbyterian church and soon enough our good 'ole self wants to be an elder and sit on the session.  It resists changes the pastor wants to make 'cause it likes things the way they are.  It gets caught up in gossip, petty behaviors, and a fearful protection of the institution of the church. It is after all "my" church.

I don't see any easy cure that keeps our greedy, grasping self in check as we strive to do good things for ourselves, our families, and our communities (including our church).  Humility is hard, and even it can be corrupted by an aw-shucks false humility.  The Buddhist idea of non-self, unfortunately, faces the same problem of the self worming its way underneath non-self corrupting one's best efforts to be selfless.  We have to strive.  We are in so many ways defined by what we strive for.  Yet, what we strive for can end up consuming us and an oily, grasping pollution seeps into the very ground water of our striving.

Jesus said this stuff isn't easy.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Matthew 6:1-7:7 - On Grasping

Another way of looking at Matthew 6 is to see it as ultimately being addressed to the early churches, the members of what I've been calling the "Jesus Movement."  It presents a charter for life in the new society they were creating in the first century, which was based on the teachings of Jesus.  Summarized most simply, Jesus taught to cease grasping after things.  Stop grasping after public recognition. Stop showing off your piety.  Stop grasping after wealth.  And in the opening verses of Matthew 7, he taught to stop grasping after self-affirmation by tearing down others.  Stop, in sum, building yourself up so you can feel important and "get ahead" of everyone else.  Jesus' words about God and possessions (6:24-34) sum up the matter: don't stress out over having material goods and enough food.  Stop grasping and grabbing for self-advancement.

In the last posting, I suggested that Matthew 6 could be seen as a dig at the wealthy of Jesus' day who did invest themselves in grasping after just these things.  Jesus himself may indeed have been speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, at least in part; but the author/compiler of Matthew would surely have seen that these teachings were crucial to building faithful, loving Christian communities in the early decades of the Jesus' Movement.  Grasping, greedy individuals disrupt their communities; they are a pain to people around them.  They represent what is most reprehensible in human society, and people resent them for their greedy need for attention and the way they treat people around them.

That is why the author concluded with words from Jesus that warned early Christians to stop judging others including each other.  Stop your greedy, grasping self-aggrandizement by tearing down others.  Get rid of the log in your own eye and then help others remove the specks in their eyes.  To summarise this whole point about grasping, the author then quoted Jesus' teaching that we shouldn't give what is holy to dogs or throw our valuables into a pigsty. That is exactly what we do when we "Grab for all the gusto you can get," as the old beer commercial put it.  Grasping behaviors come back to bite the greedy—and those around them.  They had no place in the new society of the early church.  There was a better way of doing things, and it was to that better way that the compiler/author next turned.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Matthew 6

One way to read the Gospel of Matthew is to imagine its audience, which would have largely been the urban poor of the first century Roman Empire.  Another way is to imagine Jesus' audience, which would have been first century Jews in Judea and Galilee.  Most of them were poor, too, but not all of them; and  Jesus' teachings recorded in Matthew 6 clearly weren't addressed to poor people who wouldn't have had money to give to the poor (themselves!) whether openly or secretly.  They wouldn't have been inclined to show off their piety since it was a basic tenet of the day that poverty was a sign of God's displeasure.  They wouldn't have fasted, worried about storing up their riches, or had enough worldly goods to be slaves to them.  This is not to say that the poor couldn't have learned a thing or two from the teachings collected in this chapter.  The theme here is that the best way, the godly way to live is humbly.  They were already humbled by their low station in society, so they could have heard these words as an affirmation of their own place in the world.  In a sense, Jesus seems to have been saying that the wealthy do best when they behave as if they are poor instead of showing off their wealth and piety.  Poor Christians could have taken a measure of comfort and gained a measure of confidence from hearing these teachings in the gospel.

If we think about Jesus' teaching crowds of people in his day, on the other hand, the gospels do make it clear that wealthy folks did stop by to listen to him teach.  As time went by, they did more than just listen.  They confronted him, tested him, and tried to trick Jesus into making dangerous statements.  We can thus imagine some Pharisees or Sadducees standing at the fringes of the crowd, listening in to these words of Jesus; and we can imagine Jesus taking the opportunity of their presence to try to reach them with a different way of thinking about their wealth.  His central point was that no one can serve two masters.  If these wealthy folks used their wealth to puff themselves up and to thus serve their own ends, then they became slaves to that wealth.

We've heard this tidbit of Jesus' wisdom so often, we take it for granted:  where our attention is, where our concerns are, the things we lose sleep over—these things own us, enslave us, and separate us from the Spirit.  In the first century, it would have made no sense to the wealthy to include wealth among those things that own us.  The very notion would have been startling and even scandalous to the Pharisees and Sadducees.  God had given them their wealth as a sign of divine approval, so how could that wealth enslave them and drive them apart from God?  Nonsense!  Illogical!  And dangerous.

It's no wonder they finally had him crucified.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Matthew 5:43-48 - Love Even Bigots

In biblical times, there was no divide between religion and politics, faith and the state.  When Jesus taught, he taught in a political context and his teachings had political ramifications.  When he told his audiences to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, he was talking about the Romans and the Jewish establishment as much as he was about the neighborhood bully.  In our time and context, we can understand Jesus' teaching concerning loving enemies as advocating an alternative political and personal practice aimed at the peaceful transformation of human life.  Love is thus made holy.  It is not just about sex.  It is not just about family feelings.  It is a manifestation of the Spirit working in our lives to help us to walk toward the Kingdom, which Jesus assured us is just around the corner.  It is peace.  It is dharma (ธรรมะ).

The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the profound, devastating shame Donald Trump has brought on the American presidency by his immoral attempts to place neo-nazis & klansmen on the same level as civil rights protestors throws into sharp relief the fact that faith today is still about politics.  It must be about politics.  And it is still about transformation.  In the 1950s and 1960s, we witnessed the power of the peaceable confrontation of persecution through non-violent resistance.  That resistance, painful as it was, took the United States further down the road toward the Kingdom, if only a little ways.  That was then.  Now, the work has to be done again.  Trump threatens to return us to the 1940s, to give powerful voice to racist bigotry through a shameful play at equivalency between the klan and the civil rights protest movement.  (In late breaking news, A Reuter's report quotes Mike Pence as saying, "I stand with the president and I stand by those words," meaning Trump's take on Charlottesville.  There is no escaping the moment; it is not just about Trump.)  Given the outrage Trump (and now Pence) has sparked, we can hope that the United States, as a whole, does not want to go back to the bad old days of Jim Crow.  But will it discover a new generation of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Kings to carry it forward in pursuit of social justice and equality—in pursuit of the Kingdom?  It looks like we're going to find out sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, the disciples' memories of Jesus' teachings, as recorded in the gospel, remain powerful and pertinent to our turbulent times.  Thank God for their memories.  Thank God our ancestors in the faith had the inspired presence of mind to get them written down.  Amen

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Matthew 5:21-42

Matthew 4:17 quotes Jesus as saying that the core of his message was simple: get your act together, turn our life around, God's rule is right around the corner.  Not in the after-life, but right here and in just a little while.  Then the author starts the sermon on the mount off (Mt. 5:3-12) by setting out the vision of what life in God's coming kingdom will be like for those who follow Jesus and his teachings.  It will be a blessing, a joy.  But, Jesus as quoted in the sermon, goes on (Mt. 5:17-20) to teach that this new life won't be easy.  The vision is a challenging one.  You poor, humble Christians are going to have to live lives more obviously faithful to God than the holiest people (and the most highly educated, wealthiest people) of the Jewish nation.

The compiler/author of the gospel then goes on to quote a series of Jesus' sayings (Mt. 5:21-42) that put real meat on the bones of his message.  They address fundamental sources of human suffering and injustice: anger, sexual lust, family instability, failure to keep one's word, and revenge.  Anger drives people apart and its consequences are serious.  Do whatever it takes, Jesus taught, to escape the ravages of anger.  Sexual lust destroys lives.  It has serious consequences for those women who are its object.  Men are better off blind or mutilated if it will prevent them from so much as looking at a woman with the desire to have sex with her.  Treating the sanctity of the family lightly is equally dangerous, equally fraught with evil consequences.  We break up our family at our own peril.  And, finally, the consequences of the desire for revenge are so great that we must do everything we can to avoid them; we must do anything to maintain good relations with people who oppress us rather than lust after revenge.

The Kingdom that is coming soon, in sum, will be inhabited by a people who know how to control their tempers, treat women with respect, respect the sanctity of the family, keep their word as their bond, and maintain social peace by acting humbly in the face of oppression.  The Kingdom will be a peaceable place.  Its citizens will respect each other.  They will behave in the best interests of the Kingdom itself, which also happens to be in their own personal best interests.

Jesus, his followers remembered, used some pretty extreme language (pull out your own eye!) to make the point that these five values are of fundamental importance.  We shouldn't let ourselves get tripped up over that language.  The points being made are too important for us to let ourselves off the hook by thinking that, "nobody can live up to Jesus' teachings."  That is nonsense.  We can control our tempers.  We can treat women justly.  We can maintain good relations in our families.  We can keep our word.  We can keep from turning others into our enemies.  It isn't easy, and we get caught up in stupid, really mixed up, ambivalent, very human situations all too often.  Jesus, as quoted by the gospel, never said it would be easy.  That being said, the behaviors Jesus called for are doable.  The Kingdom is still just a small ways off.  The issue is whether we want to live in it or not.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Matthew 5 Interlude

There are two basic principles that I have already introduced here but that need to be made as explicit as possible and that we do well to keep in mind as we read the sermon on the mount and the whole Gospel of Matthew.

First, because of the way the Spirit works through human agencies, the text is open to multiple interpretations that may even contradict each other.  We have to discern as best we can those interpretations that seem to make the most sense.  The dangers are obvious, especially that we simply settle in on an interpretation that is convenient to our own personal ideology irrespective of the intentions of the original compiler/author.  There is, however, no getting around this temptation even if (especially if) we choose to think that the text is a holy, infallible text with only one correct interpretation.  Thinking that way is a human choice however much those who make it claim that God inspired them to make it.  And, truth be told, the infallible-ists still fight like cats and dogs over what they think is the actual one true meaning of the text.  The Spirit, rather, works through fallible, broken, gloriously imperfect human agency.  We cannot escape our responsibility to read as responsibly and faithfully as we can, each of us.  Truth is, reading scripture in this way is a challenge and an opportunity.

Second, part of Matthew's message is the way the author arranged his or her material.  Most "readers" of the gospel in ancient times listened to it read aloud as a continuous whole that was not diced and sliced into chapters and verses.  The structure of the gospel carried them along, kept their attention, and made important connections for them.  We have to pay attention to the arrangement of the gospel if we want to understand what the author intended to communicate through it.

In addition to these two principles, I would like to share a personal thought about the gender of the compiler/author of the gospel.  We have no idea who that person was.  It was only later tradition that assigned authorship to Matthew, one of the Twelve.  Some online searching on the subject of literacy in the Roman Empire suggests that upper class women were likely to be well-educated and literate.  Some lower class women, evidently, would also have had some very rudimentary literacy skills.  That being the case, it is entirely possible that the author of this gospel was a well-educated, upper class woman follower of Jesus.  While New Testament (Koine) Greek was not sophisticated, it is still possible that a wealthier woman compiler/author could have used it to communicate her message about Jesus with the churches, which she would have known were composed largely of the poor.  All of this is to say that, however awkward, I will continue to refer to the author as "she or he" / "he or she" in order to preserve the real historical possibility that she was a a woman. (To reinforce this point, I've illustrated this entry with the icon of Saint Nina holding a book rather than the usual one of Matthew.  Using her icon makes the point that the author could be a woman.)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Matthew 5:13-21

Matthew opens the sermon on the mount with a description of the blessings Jesus' followers can expect from their faith in him (5:3-12).  It is important to constantly remind ourselves that Jesus never actually preached this "sermon".  It is a compilation of oral traditions augmented possibly by the memories of those who heard Jesus teach first hand (they would have had to be young at the time).  The key point here is that the compiler/author put these remembered teachings in a certain order.  That order starts out with a vision statement of the blessings of the faith and purposefully goes on with this next section of the "sermon," which contains stark warnings about the consequences of failing to live up to that vision.

So, why did the author put this passage immediately after the vision?  Maybe she or he meant for his or her audience to hear something like this: "You Jesus followers are like salt.  Salt is valuable and useful in a lot of ways.  But there's a danger here. If you only look like salt but don't also taste like salt, you're useless.  If that is the case, you'll get thrown out and be trampled on in disgust!  You're like a bright candle, but you're no good if you can't be seen.  In that case, no one else can find their way to God.  But, don't think living this life in Christ is easy.  It is a challenge!  You have to be more faithful than the rich, educated, and very religious upper class Pharisees and Sadducees!  If you don't live up to this high standard, you won't amount to much and surely won't experience the blessings of the Kingdom to any great extent.  If, however, you do live a quality life of faith, the rewards will be amazing.  But, be warned.  This is not easy.  You really have to be more faithful, more spiritual, and more moral than those who have reputations for such things.  This is not easy, got it?"

We've been reading this gospel for nineteen-plus centuries and have gotten used to it.  It is land that has long since been cleared and plowed over (and over and over and over).  But, it must have been powerful stuff for those who heard it for the first time.  What a vision!  What a challenge!  For most, their previous lives would have been mostly just coping with poverty, trying to get by, while trying to cope with living hand to mouth.  If this gospel's message is any measure, the Jesus Movement looked at them in a very different way, saw them as being valuable (like salt), useful and bright (like light), and worthy of the challenge of being more faithful than the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Worthy!  Not just poor (pick you color) trash.

One other thought:  the very clear warnings of the consequences of failure contained in this passage suggest that there was a need for such warnings.  Some followers of Jesus were not measuring up.  They had lost their flavor and were not leading visibly exemplary lives. Ya gotta walk the walk!  No pain no gain.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Matthew 5:3-10 (The Beatitudes)

Our author had a target audience, namely new and potential followers of Jesus.  The great majority of that audience lived in urban centers of the Roman Empire, and they were poor.  They lived hand to mouth existences.  Life was short, hard, and they saw death up close and personal.  The great majority of them were urban dwellers, and there really wasn't a "middle class" to which they could aspire.  Churches were small and some had wealthier patrons; but the bulk of those who became followers or might become followers were poor.

So, why would they even consider joining a new religious movement that was suppressed (and sometimes violently oppressed) by the authorities?  Matthew's answer is simple: it is a blessing to follow Jesus.  Rather than living in a world dominated by death (physical as well as spiritual), Jesus' followers are blessed with the promise of living in the kingdom of life.  Instead of living in a world of pain and mourning, they will receive comfort; their hearts will be at ease.  Rather than being powerless and afraid, all that is good about life on earth will be theirs.  Instead of living in a constant state of physical and spiritual want, they will be filled—never hungry, never wanting again!  When they live upright lives by being merciful to others, have unselfish motives, and try to spread peace in a violent world—when they do these things, they will gain mercy, purity of heart, and  the peaceable state of being God's children along with Jesus who they thought of as God's son.  Finally, even if the government comes down on them, they will still gain a place in a far better Kingdom.

The Jesus Movement offered the urban poor the prospect of turning their lousy lives upside down.  It was as straightforward as that.  Now, poor people aren't stupid (well not any more so that rich people).  If all of this was just empty churchy rhetoric aimed at hoodwinking them, they would have caught on soon enough.  The Jesus Movement might have gained some foolhardy types—enough to become a looney tunes fringe cult maybe.  But, it would not have sustained the kind of growth that eventually allowed it to become the dominate religious faith of the late Roman Empire.

There is simply no other way to account for the historical fact of the success of the Jesus Movement other than to conclude that people who followed Jesus did experience blessings, real ones in their real world.  They were happier (people of religious faith, as a rule, are).  They were healthier (people of religious faith form habits that are beneficial to them), and so death drifted a little further away.  They experienced the benefits of living more moral lives, which can include improved finances.  Even a little more income would have made a real difference.  And, they experienced all of this in a community that encouraged and supported such living, so that they had the blessing of good friends in a more loving social environment.  They were blessed.  They were happier.  This Jesus thing worked for them.  Now, obviously, it didn't work for everyone.  People joined and then unjoined.  They came with good intentions than fell back into old habits.  They got into fights with each other and not every church was a model Christian community.  And...yet...the "Jesus thing" worked often enough that people did experience the blessings and the happiness of following Jesus and living by his teachings (best they could) just like Jesus according to Matthew said they would!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Matthew 5:3

As best we can tell, Jesus did not go up to a high place, sit down, call his disciples to him, and start preaching the "sermon on the mount."  Instead, the author of Matthew collected the oral traditions of Jesus' teachings, sorted them out, and arranged them according to what seemed most appropriate.  Let us credit this author with a desire to be faithful to those teachings so that this arrangement itself reflects them to the best of the author's ability.

That being said, we need to acknowledge the fact that we face a major obstacle in our reading of the sermon if we want to hear what Jesus originally taught.  Jesus spoke first century Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew.  Matthew is in Koine Greek, which was the language of the common folks in that era.  We read it today in English or in Thai, which are a long, long way culturally and contextually from Aramaic.

Let's take just the phrase, "poor in spirit" in Matthew 5:3.  What does it mean?  Commentators tell us that the ancient Greek phrase, πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, is open to interpretation and they differ in their interpretations.  Similarly, the Thai phrase, บกพร่องฝ่ายจิตวิญญาณ, raises all sorts of questions especially in the cultural contexts of Thailand itself.  And in standard, every day English, the phrase is a bit weird.  It sounds rather churchy.  We could get into a long debate about the word, "spirit," and what it actually means in English.  In all of this, we do not know what Jesus actually taught about the "poor in spirit."  No cameras were rolling, no tape recorders were held up, and no one took notes.  All we have is a Greek version of what he was remembered decades later to have taught, which we then try to push and shove into modern day languages like Thai and English.

This is what incarnation is about.  The Spirit works through our convoluted, complex, often dumb human ways of doing things—like having all of these ancient and modern languages that we are constantly trying to interpret into each other.  Our faith is that the Spirit quietly and persistently communicates deeper meanings through all of this, meanings that are important to us today and are in their own way faithful to the spirit of what Jesus taught 2000 years ago in an obscure West Asian dialect.

What we are left with, then, is the necessity of relying on that quiet tug and pull of the Spirit somehow incarnate in this whole process of conveying first century Aramaic meanings into our modern languages.  We are left with faith.  And when we do our best to listen faithfully in the Spirit, what we first discover is that actually we've been given the gift of a rich variety of potential meanings all of which seem headed in the same general direction.  Those meanings build on each other, inform each other, and bring us in the end to a central truth of our Christian faith: Inversion.  Jesus turned everything upside down—and still does.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Matthew 5:1

New Testament scholars recognize the Sermon on the Mount as being a collection of saying passed down to the earliest generations of churches, which the author of Matthew put together in the form of a single sermon.  This first verse contains a couple of hints that this was the case.  First, Jesus went up a mountain, recalling Moses going up Sinai to receive the commandments of God.  Second, he "sat down," meaning that he was delivering formal, authoritative teaching.  The first generation of Jesus' followers heard him teach in a wide variety of settings.  They committed what they heard to memory and shared what they remembered with others who joined the Jesus Movement later on—and who, in their turn, passed those teachings on to still others.

Studies into oral traditions suggest that they can reliably preserve material over long periods of time.  But variations do creep in.  Moreover, newer church members would have had no way of knowing which sayings really came from Jesus and which were attributed to him but not really his.  Our author saw that it was necessary to assemble an authoritative set of Jesus' teachings, which could be trusted as his, and get them written down so that later enthusiasts and sectarians couldn't mess with them.

The gospel, thus, is not a tape recording.  It does not contain the words of Jesus.  What it does contain are the words the very earliest church remembered him saying.  The principle of incarnation is once again at work here.  The Spirit winds its holy way quietly through human agencies, the carpenter's son being the key, profoundly significant agency for his followers down to the present.  The Spirit, we are convinced, is also present in the stories and teachings contained in Matthew's gospel, but in a human way.

Certain Christian groups have gone to great lengths to try to convince us that Matthew's words are literally God's words.  They invent elaborate theories to that end.  The Spirit, however, doesn't work that way.  It works through broken-ish human agencies to inspire self-understanding, repentance, humility, a desire to serve, mercy, and clean living—all of which inspire Jesus' followers to be peacemakers. The goal is not a set of absolutely True beliefs beyond doubt or reproach.  The Spirit rather works to the end that we take up Jesus' ministry of calling the world to its senses and then getting things turned around so that we together can live profoundly peaceful lives grounded in the Spirit itself.  Amen.