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
Thursday, August 31, 2017
Scholars struggle to answer these questions, but at the end of the day there's something a little unsatisfying about this story whatever their explanations. There is just one loose end too many however we cut it. It helps, I think, to check out the earlier version of the story in Mark 1:40-45. There the tale is much the same except for the ending. In Mark, the guy who is healed went off and, having been ordered to be silent, proceeds to tell everyone and their uncle about Jesus. In fact, he talked so much to so many that Jesus couldn't walk through town without being swamped by the crowd. Instead, he had to go out into the country-side, and even then large crowds flocked to him.
Some scholars argue that Matthew drops Mark's ending because it is disrespectful of Jesus, a kind of undercutting of his authority. The healed guy is more or less shown to be the star of the story, praiseworthy for his faith in Jesus and for his enthusiastic evangelistic endeavours in spite of the fact that he failed to do what Jesus instructed him to do. The compiler of Matthew, so this argument goes, simply couldn't accept this diminishing of Jesus,' authority. We don't know if this speculation is correct, of course, but if it is it only serves to underscore a point I made in a previous post (here) that Matthew reflects the thinking of a particular party within the early Jesus Movement. It was a party that was already moving toward a more exalted view of the person of Christ.
But I like Mark. Jesus' sanctity didn't need defending; and what is impressive in the story is the kind of fearless, open faith he excited in the man. And Mark's story makes more sense. The reason it has Jesus admonishing the guy not to tell anyone he's been healed is to highlight the extent of his subsequent elation. Being healed of a "dreaded skin disease" was a big deal. He had been exiled from home, family, and community and forced to live a degraded existence. Suddenly, he could go home. He was free! Amazing! Awesome! He was so fired-up, so elated that he just couldn't keep what happened to him to himself. He had to tell the story.
Piety isn't all it is cracked up to be. It can be so straight-laced, so worried about right thinking, and so protective of its doctrines that it quashes things that matter because they don't seem to be pious enough. Mark is ambiguous. Matthew isn't. And it is in Mark we get a happy, almost hilarious description of true faith in Jesus—a faith so exuberant that it won't let even the Rabbi himself silence it. That seems contradictory. It is counter-intuitive. It is so typically human. Mark thus celebrates what Matthew frowns on as wrong, bad, un-Christian. Spoil-sport! Mark's version is better. Amen.
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
Where Matthew 5-7 summarized Jesus' teachings to those in need, we now move into a section of two chapters (8-9) that show how Jesus responded to their needs, which was to alleviate their suffering. In our terms, Jesus was both a prophet and a humanitarian. The point of concern here is not with miraculous healing per se. In the first century, people believed in such things and concerned themselves with miracles for what they demonstrated, which was (holy) power and authority. In this case, his miracles actually demonstrated a deep concern on Jesus' part to alleviate suffering, and if the author's portrait of him is correct Jesus does not seem to have been concerned with proving anything about himself. He exercised holy power and authority on behalf of people in need.
In later years, Christians became fixated with the power and authority of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. They pointed to his miracles as proof of his divinity. Then, still later, doubters and skeptics ridiculed the whole idea of such miracles as being largely Christian propaganda and superstitious nonsense. The first century message so clearly set out in Matthew that Jesus taught and healed out of a prophetic and humanitarian concern for the Jewish people of his day was largely lost, especially when it came to the healing miracles. Insisting, thus, that the miracles "really happened," literally, as described in the Bible misses their point entirely. They are not a proof of the truth of the Christian religion and the Bible. In the first century, they knew that miracles took place and nobody argued that point. In our age, whether we "believe in miracles" or not is irrelevant to the message of the gospel and obscures its original intent, which was to emphasise that Jesus was not your ordinary attention-grabbing charlatan. If Matthew is an accurate portrayal of Jesus, he was not motivated by power or the desire for attention. He was "the real deal" because of his compassion for others, demonstrated both in the way he taught and in his ability to heal others in dire need. Amen.
Monday, August 28, 2017
As we read through the gospel, I've been making some noise about its political nature and implications. Partly, we need to be reminded that it contains real world stuff, CNN headlines material. Partly, as we can see here, Jesus' political context clearly mattered to the compiler/author . These two verses are not from Jesus himself. They are editorial material that claim to represent the thinking of "the crowd". They don't have to be here, but here they are; and 7:29 makes it clear that the public was comparing Jesus to the religious big shots and finding the big shots wanting. Those big shots were as much political leaders as they were religious teachers, and very soon they would begin to react to what they perceived as Jesus' challenge to their power (see Matt. 9:3). If the author didn't think this political stuff wasn't important, he or she wouldn't keep reminding us about it.
One thing that made Jesus so politically potent was the mind-blowing way in which he spoke. The Greek word that I've translated as "mind-blowing" here, according to Biblehub.com, is ekplésso (ἐκπλήσσω), which means being utterly amazed, dumbfounded, or left at a loss for words by something that causes one to gape in astonishment. In first century Palestine, a country-bumpkin self-appointed rabbi stepped out on thin ice when he blew the minds of his audience. That made the powers that be look bad and, more importantly, suggested that the rabbi could become a political player, an agitator of the public.
We can imagine that small church in some city in the eastern Mediterranean listening to the gospel being read for the first time and thinking to themselves right about now, "Oh, oh, this could be a problem." Their interest would have been piqued. They knew the outcome, but not the details. Now, things started to make sense. The gospel was revealing to them the first steps on the way to the cross.
Sunday, August 27, 2017
The author, in this section of the gospel, wants her or his readers to understand that the Jesus presented in the gospel was the real Jesus. Don't listen to other renditions of him! If you do, you are not walking through the narrow gate. You are building your house on sand. You are eating sour fruit, and on That Day Jesus himself will reject you. Not everyone who proclaims Jesus' name is worthy of listening to or following after. Follow the Jesus you find here in this gospel!
Matthew was a party document. It was a reasoned, persuasive presentation of one understanding of who the "real" Jesus was, which eventually became part of the basis of orthodox Christianity in the early church. It's Christology became an expression of the standard theology about Christ, which is why we still have it today.
The point is that Matthew can be (and was) a "party document" and a place in which we hear the Spirit speaking to us. We believe that God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, but that does not mean that God was/is/will be incarnate only in Jesus. Incarnation, instead, is the way God the Spirit is present with us, working in an amazing array of ways to inspire us forward. I know I've made this point already, but we need to remind ourselves regularly that the whole idea of incarnation means that the Spirit works through human beings and their institutions, languages, cultures, and life ways to the end that we willingly, independently have faith in God.
So, among other things, the Spirit is present in and speaks through a first-century document written originally to put forward one faction's views of Jesus. Thank God.
Saturday, August 26, 2017
Speaking personally, one of the things I find difficult is the dualism of the whole of the Bible, both testaments. We see that dualism in today's passages. There is a narrow gate and a broad one. There are healthy trees and fruit-less ones. There are those who will enter the Kingdom and those wicked people who will not. Wise individuals build on rock, stupid ones build on sand. There is good; there is evil. Nothing in between. Right - Wrong. The Kingdom - hell. Wisdom - Folly. Nothing in between. This is dualism, and dualism is a human ideology. Dualism is about building walls. Dualists deal with opposition through judgment, pointed debates, oppositional politics, and even violence "when necessary." Dualists do not compromise because compromise is a sin. They do not dialogue, because the "bad guys" have nothing to say that they want to hear. Their goal is victory, often enough at any price. Us vs. Them. That's all there is.
So far as I can see dualism, as a human ideology, is often the antithesis of the teachings and actions of Jesus. In his acceptance of the poor, he violated one of the fundamental dualisms of his day, the distinction between the wealthy/righteous and the poor/sinful. He took pity on and healed the sick—in a time when illness was understood to be a symptom of God's displeasure. He touched lepers. He called a "sinful" tax collector to be one of his inner circle of disciples. He had a very different attitude about another one of the basic dualisms of his day, the distinction between ("superior") men and ("inferior") women. He even let women sit as his feet, a place normally reserved for male student/disciples.
Now, we take the point in these passages: there are wolves among the Jesus Movement sheep, advocating untenable moralities and theologies. False prophets were making Jesus out to be someone he wasn't. But we can't help but wonder who the compiler/author thought fell on the negative side of these dualities. Who were the bad guys who took the easy way out and built their houses on sand? Baptists, maybe. Catholics? Buddhists? LGBTQ'ers? Democrats?
My beef with dualism is that, for one thing, it simply doesn't reflect our human reality which is much more complex and where everything falls along continuums rather than at the two polar opposites. For another thing, it leads to prejudice, arrogance, a contentious spirit, judgmentalism, meanness, bigotry, and a whole lot of violence. The ultimate symbol of dualism is the Klan hanging black males for crimes they did not commit. It is the horrific ideologies that led to World War II.
Dualism was a fundamental, unquestioned, supposedly common sense ideology of the ancient world. It is hardly surprising that we find it in the Bible. That doesn't mean we have to buy into it. So far as I can see, at least, the Spirit of Christ transcended it. Amen.
Thursday, August 24, 2017
What did the author think that the churches need to hear? What did Jesus have to offer the people of the Roman Empire in the first century? According to the sermon on the mount, they needed a vision. They had to be instructed that Jesus' way is not easy. They needed to be warned about injurious behaviors that cripple lives. They particularly needed to be warned about false pieties that only make matters worse.
And this brings us to Matthew 7:7-12 and the crux of the matter. Jesus taught that the way forward was to trust God and then do for others what we would have them do for us. That's it.
It may help us to comprehend the power of this passage and of the whole sermon if we imagine a small-ish chamber with a band of a dozen or fifteen first-century followers of Jesus in a city of the Roman Empire, probably in the eastern Mediterranean, listening intently to a reading of the gospel. They were poor and the worries of life burdened them every day. They coped as best they could. What attracted them to Jesus of Nazareth was that his teachings provided them with a better way to cope, a way of living that was something more than a hand to mouth existence. Trust God. Do a better job of treating others with the respect and attention that you want from them. You don't need tons of cash. You don't have to go through useless rituals. You don't have to be educated. Jesus, speaking to them through the gospel, gave them a clear path to walk, one they could place their confidence in; one that, when they thought about it, made a lot of sense—and actually worked. There was more to it than that, but not much. Stay tuned.
Monday, August 21, 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Monday, August 7, 2017
The story of Jesus' calling his first disciples must have be heard with particular interest. It was about them. It connected them to Jesus. It helped them understand how the whole "Jesus Movement" got its start and how the first generation of its leaders attained their positions of preeminence in the movement—particularly Peter who the story has being the very first disciple called by Jesus. They were a small congregation composed of mostly common folk who lived a hand to mouth existence. The story of Jesus calling the first members of the movement, who were also working class people, had to have been enlightening, precious, and a source of pride. In the world's eyes, we're nobodies; but in God's eyes, we are followers of his child, Jesus.
The story also reinforced the sense that as members of the movement they had a responsibility to share the Jesus story with family members, friends, and neighbors. Jesus called them to fish for other followers, just as he had called the first disciples to that holy calling. This explained why the sign of the fish, easy to draw, was the symbol of the movement.
After 1900 years or so of hearing this gospel read and, in recent centuries, reading it for ourselves, it is all but impossible for us to capture the way its first auditors must have heard it all those centuries ago. But, we can at least sense the profound impact it would have had on many of them, giving them both a sense of identity as Jesus' followers and a sense of purpose in sharing the good news about him with people they cared about. They and we owe a huge debt of thanks to whoever it was that thought up the idea of gospels, an amazingly important literary development in the life of the earliest church.
Sunday, August 6, 2017
What does seem clear is that Jesus was preaching a message about a coming Kingdom that had political implications. Both Matthew and Mark state that it was a political event that marked the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, namely the imprisonment of John the Baptist. And maybe Jesus wasn't into politics as such, but his detractors sure thought he was. They saw him as a threat to established political power, and they hounded him until eventually they had him arrested. The Romans executed him with the sarcastic appellation, "King of the Jews," nailed above his head on the cross. His disciples, furthermore, argued over their places in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-26) as if they were a matter of power and influence. We always have to keep in mind as well that back then they did not make a distinction between religion and politics; the two were fully intertwined with each other.
Even if Jesus wasn't proclaiming a political kingdom, people of his day sure thought he was.
His message certainly had political implications, which are important because of what those implications were. Anticipating Chapter 5, which presents something of a charter of the Kingdom, we are going to find that Jesus advocated a different way of looking at power, one that stood things on their head. He preached a topsy-turvy politics based on the premise that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" (Matthew 20:16). Wising up in Jesus' sense meant learning to think in new ways, seeing things from a very different perspective, learning new habits of living, and practicing a politics very unlike the way others play it. No wonder they strung him up! And no wonder that his approach to the politics of life continues to challenge our thinking and judge our behaviours right down to the present.
Friday, August 4, 2017
In Matthew 4:17, Jesus began his public ministry with a deceptively simple message: "Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!" Part of what makes it deceptive is the English word, "repent". It is the word that the King James Bible (KJV) and its literary descendants including today's New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) use to translate the Greek word, metanoia (μετάνοια). The problem with the word is that in English it means a feeling of remorse or regret. It calls to mind the 19th century tradition of emotional crises where one falls on one's knees in trembling fear of sin and remorse over being a sinner. Repentance was a stage on the path to conversion and salvation. That's fine as far as it goes, but that was not what the first century author of Matthew had in mind. Other versions, reflecting that fact, render metanoia in other ways, such as: "turn away" (Today's English Version); "change your life" (The Message); "change your heart" (Phillips); and "turn your lives around" (Laughing Bird Paraphrase).
The word used in Thai Bibles to translate metanoia is klubchai (กลับใจ), which in Thai Christian circles is usually thought to mean something like "repentance" in English. It doesn't. Literally, it is made up of two words, "return" (klub) and "heart" (chai), which is itself a word difficult to translate exactly into English. It really means something like the "seat of consciousness," which the Thai language assigns to the heart rather than the mind. Most literally in Thai, then, metanoia means changing one's mind and heart, the whole ball of wax. There's nothing in the word about feelings of remorse; and that seems to be the way metanoia is used in Matthew and in the other gospels. The classic parable here is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) where the son returns home because he is starving in a foreign country and calculates that he can get fed at home. He even rehearses a line that he thinks will get him back in his father's good graces—a line in which he doesn't ask for forgiveness, just for a job so he can get fed. In other words, using the word, "repent," to translate metanoia in this verse just messes us up. It obscures the actual meaning with what amounts to theological jargon or, better still, religious-speak.
So, then, how do we understand what Jesus meant when he called on his auditors to "repent"? It is helpful to go back to the 3-point message of the story of Jesus' temptation (Matt. 4:1-11), which in context provides the actual definition of metanoia here: focus on what matters, humble yourself, and worship and serve God. Get a grip! Figure things out! Come to your senses! Wise up! The path to faithful discipleship doesn't begin with "repentance," so called. It begins with wising up, getting a grip, and figuring things out.
Thursday, August 3, 2017
This story, in its place here, is commentary on the affirmation in the story of Jesus' baptism that he was the child of God (Matt. 3:17). Now, we begin to understand what the author meant by that title. He meant that Jesus was the one who had his priorities straight, who knew the true heart of the scriptures, and who had the power to order the devil to worship and serve God alone. So, we better pay attention, the author is telling us. This story is important.
The author thus uses the story to teach three fundamental points: first, focus on what matters in life, which is not finances or pleasure; second, don't mess around with God esp. by using scripture in ways it wasn't intended to be used; and, third, give your first and ultimate allegiance to God, the Beyond that is Present. In other words, for the first time in the gospel Jesus is here presented as our model for what it means to be his follower. The story was just as much about Matthew's audiences as it was about Jesus, otherwise it wouldn't even be here. We are pretty much convinced that we still need to hear the same message today, which is:
- Focus on what matters.
- Be humble about trying to live according to that focus, including be humble in the use of scripture.
- Put trust in That which is worthy of trust and then live according to that trust.
Wednesday, August 2, 2017
The story of Jesus' baptism is a brief summation of that faith. The earliest church believed that Jesus was an actual person. They believed that a holy prophet of God of the time affirmed that Jesus was much closer to God than he was. They believed that Jesus still insisted on being baptized by John as an act of humility. Jesus didn't just allow himself to be immersed in water; he was immersed in humanity. And they believed that Jesus had a special connection with God, symbolized by his vision of the heavens opening and the Spirit "like a dove" descending upon him. Later, church councils and theologians would wrestle with how to express Jesus' relationship to the divine, eventually working out the doctrine of the Trinity. Matthew wrote centuries earlier.
In short, the earliest generation of Christians were convinced on the basis of their own personal experiences that when they had been with Jesus they had been in God's presence. For those who never met him, the similar conviction arose that when they put their personal trust in him as the guide for their lives they were putting their trust in God. To seal and symbolize that faith, they were baptized too—and the heavens opened for them, the Spirit descended on them. Jesus' baptism thus was the first Pentecost, which was later replicated and affirmed in the second Pentecost when the earliest church received the Spirit (see Acts 2).
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Why? Apparently, one important reason was to demonstrate that Jesus also stood in that prophetic line although he was superior to it. He, according to Matthew, was really the sum total of the prophetic tradition distilled into one life. He was not, thus, alien to the Jewish tradition but, rather, it's truest expression. At the same time, Matthew was able to pin point exactly who was the object of prophetic judgment—the religious/political establishment headquartered in Jerusalem. John calls them, "snakes". They are hypocrites who are facing grave danger for their sins. He doubts their sincerity in receiving his baptism.
This is dangerous stuff, spiritually. Right here, is where Christian arrogance takes root. Matthew divided Jesus' world into good and evil. They were clearly distinct, essentially different from each other. One is life, the other is death. The Jewish establishment, he judged, was evil. Jesus was the essence of good. We Christians, we are on Jesus' side. The Pharisees and Sadducees were against God. We are good; they are evil. The slope from here to antisemitism is a short, steep one. The habit of dividing Others into two camps, Us (on God's side) and Them (against God), is just as easily learned from stories like this one. It is a simple fact of history that Christians have habitually practiced the dark arts of prejudice since ancient times—not all of us nor all the time, but most of us and most of the time.
That is to say, we haven't learned the lesson the gospel actually teaches: Jesus did something different with the things that divide us and cause us to judge each other than we do with those things. Practically speaking, most Christians most of the time, proclaim to their neighbors a God of Wrath that will send their neighbors to hell if they don't become Christians. That was not what Jesus did with differences. That is not what he proclaimed. To see what he did do and did proclaim, we have to read on.