Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Anger and murder

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.

I notice that I’ve been thinking that when Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will by no means enter the kingdom of Heaven,” he was saying that it was impossible for anyone to enter the Kingdom of Heaven by means of their own righteousness. But I feel like the next couple paragraphs is him just going on to demonstrate what he means by having their righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees—that is, I think, that the sin is what goes on in the heart, not in the actions. So everything that comes out of the bad set of heart is a sin just the same as the sin that usually identifies it.

But, again here I’m noticing that I think about breaking the law as being binary—you do or you don’t. But Jesus does not seem to phrase it like that, at least it doesn’t sound like it. At least, it sounds like an angry person will be in danger of judgment, but things are a little more serious for the contemptuous person (Matthew Henry says “Raca” is a scornful word, though I don’t know what the council is, but it sounds serious.) And hatred and dismissal of the person’s existence (you fool!) is the worst of all. I’ve heard that to call someone a fool in Jewish culture was to call them apostate (“the fool has said in his heart, there is no god” etc), and it seems interesting and fitting that the punishment for consigning someone else to hell is to be in danger of it yourself. I guess you could also say that when someone is angry without a cause he has passed judgment unjustly, and therefore has made himself susceptible to judgment. I don’t know what the council is, so I don’t know if the same principle applies there. But that’s just to say that I wonder if Jesus meant the different consequences of sin to be intensifiers, or kind of a counterpoint to the beatitudes earlier, ie, the type of currency you will be paid in. Those who mourn will be comforted, those who scorn will be humiliated and who pass judgment unjustly will themselves be judged.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Do Christians still need to worry about the Law?

So what does this mean for our relationship to the Law? I remember reading in Galatians and thinking it very contradictory, that Jesus said he didn’t come to destroy the Law but fulfill it, and that people who break even small commandments are damaging themselves in the Kingdom, but that Paul talks about the Law as slavery. How is Paul not teaching others to break the commandments, when he gets angry at the Galatians for thinking they should be circumcised (ie, wanting to put themselves under the Law?)

Where both agree is that observing the Law is not going to get one into heaven. That is, I think, the idea of slavery that Paul is trying to free them from. Jesus must also see that people will want to try to think that by obeying the Law they can come in to the Kingdom… why does he say what he does about the greatest and the least in the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus seems to be saying here, obeying the Law won’t let you enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but you should still obey it. Paul says, don’t go down that road of slavery, that is denying Christ’s substitution.
One thought: Christ fulfilled the law by obeying all of it, and that we then can follow it by following Christ. This makes sense, I think… ie, Christ has taken the place of the law, and to follow him is to do what the entire law means. So following the law has become binary… you either follow Christ who follows all of it, and therefore you follow all of it, or you don’t follow Christ and you fail at following the law. That makes sense up to a point, but it doesn’t explain why Jesus says that the degree to which we follow the law will determine where our place in the kingdom of heaven is…ie, you break the least of these commandments and teach people to do the same, you will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

I think it really comes down to faith in the Holy Spirit, and developing our power to listen to Him and obey Him. Because if Jesus embodies the meaning of the law, and if the Spirit of Jesus is living in us, then to disobey the law is to disobey the promptings of Christ and not truly to be following him, nor allowing ourselves to be changed (assuming that the Spirit really is prompting us to change). My big concern with this issue is how to prevent our idea of “the Law”—ie, right and wrong—from being dictated by the current trends of society, when the Law is no longer external but internal. Here also I think the later instruction to worry about the plank in one’s own eye before trying to pick the speck out of one’s neighbor’s eye come into play—perhaps it is up to me to make sure I am following Jesus with my whole heart and listening for the Spirit’s promptings as best I can, and if I think that my neighbor is not really doing the same, pray and ask the Spirit, who is also in him, to prompt and lead that person right, and to speak through me to that person if he decides he wants to.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not destroying, but fulfilling the Law

“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

My initial thought is that having told the disciples that they are light, he now goes on to tell them what they need to do to shine. That is not quite accurate, because of course light can’t help but shine. And he is pretty adamant that what he’s about to describe is not really possible for them to do… at least, that is how I always interpreted the line about the scribes and the Pharisees. So, I think what follows is a description of what shining is, of what it looks like. First of all, he relates it to the Law they are used to living under. The old law was something that one did, the new is something that one is. I think that is why he says he didn’t come to destroy but to fulfill. That is, he didn’t come to give a new law, one that was different from the old and made you forsake it. Instead, he came to change people to become more like God, and people that are more like God will fulfill the intent of the Law he created.

I wonder what he means by “these commandments”: the ones they know, or the ones he is about to give them? I feel like he is talking about the ones they know, the Law. That is, they must not think that the Law is less important or that he is saying it is wrong, but that it isn’t what saves and changes them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Salt and light

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

I wonder why he puts in the part about the salt losing its saltiness. Because of course, I don’t think salt can lose its saltiness, unless it goes through some kind of phase change and becomes something else. Salt is defined by being salty, just like light is only defined by being light. What they are is completely identified with what they do, and if theoretically they could stop doing what by nature they do, they would have no point in existing, and no purpose at all. So following Jesus sounds like rather a terrifying thing, and he wants them to understand it. When you follow Jesus and become a carrier of God into the world, is he saying that that is now your sole existential purpose? You maybe used to have many functions, but as a follower of Jesus now you have one, by far the most important and exciting. But if for some reason you don’t perform that, now you have no function at all; you don’t go back to being what you were….? For some reason this does not really ring true, because of the passage about the shepherd always going off to find his lost sheep, but I guess that just means even if you do become good for nothing that doesn’t mean you’ve been abandoned by God.

But why does he give the warning? I can’t get rid of this ..uh… “elemental particles of God” idea. My feeling is that it’s to give an example of the existential nature of the change they undergo by being followers of Jesus. They are now a different substance, with a particular purpose. It’s not like by following Jesus they add some additional responsibilities. I guess it goes earlier with what he said about being a prophet… from what I remember of prophets, it’s something that takes over your whole life and is in every corner of your life, and defines how you relate to people and what you think about etc etc. Jesus didn’t say, you have salt and light, he says, you ARE salt and light.

This is interesting, because it seems like it takes away the element of choice from it. That doesn’t always fit with my experience (once in awhile it does). I mean, usually one has to try consciously and really hard to influence people and to let them know about Jesus. Though I guess that brings me to something that I skipped; what is that influence we are supposed to bring to the world? Jesus says to shine, so they may “see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven”. This suggests that the “shining” consists of doing good works, and by doing so, “illuminating” God to people. If like prophets they are a link between God and people, it is by what they do, it seems, that they will show God to people. I’m reminded of Christine’s theory about the Kingdom of God being on earth or not on earth… that elements of it seen and acted on Earth are not the Kingdom, but are signs for it, showing the world what it is like.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Blessed like the other prophets

Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so also they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

He transitions by going from the general to the specific. He is talking about who is blessed, including those who are persecuted. And then he re-iterates that one, saying “Blessed are YOU, WHEN they revile and persecute you falsely for my sake.” There’s a lot in here. These are people who have started to follow Jesus, and he wants them to know that they made a good decision, that the way they have chosen will result in them being blessed, but also what that involves. Maybe that is why he started out by, if I’m correct in my metaphor, talking about the ..uh.. new currency of the kingdom. Because they have no idea what to expect at this point, probably. They see Jesus and they like him because he has power to heal and his words tug at their hearts, and they think he is from God and expect good things to come from following him. But they have no idea what they are at this point, I think. So Jesus starts out by redefining good things, so they can understand rightly situations they are in.

And the blessing for the people who follow him….Jesus says, if you follow me, you will be like the prophets. And in Israel, that means something really specific… they are treasured and revered as pretty much no-one else is, as being the direct link between Israel and its God, as guiding Israel in the right way, and basically being the ones who always try to save it from going wrong. They are also almost all persecuted and live miserable lives because people don’t want to hear that God thinks they are going wrong. This is the role Jesus puts the people who follow him in, I think, as a link between God and people, showing them what is right. They will be blessed very greatly, but in the same way the prophets were blessed, which certainly does not include worldly possessions, people liking you, etc.

This interpretation makes sense with the salt and light metaphors. If by following Jesus they are a link between God and people, it means they are…a qualitatively different substance from those around them. Going back to Romans 8 this makes even more sense; as the Holy Spirit works in the person who follows Jesus, they are 1) different because the Holy Spirit is living in them and 2) themselves taking on more and more of the family resemblance. So they are, ideally, like little God-filled particles dispersed in the world, influencing people around him just by nature of what they are. This is why he doesn’t command them to be salt and light, he says they are salt and light.

Though this brings up the question, what if I don’t feel like I am being salt or light, or I see other Christians who are, in my view, actively doing the opposite of God’s will? Do I interpret it that we are not really following Jesus?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What does this look like?

So what does this mean for me, ie, Jesus’ disciples today? Insofar as it’s a description, it requires a paradigm shift—to find joy (and become a person that can find joy) in my meekness or peacemaking or when there’s an opportunity to show mercy, to know that I am blessed because of it and ask God to use it to make me into a citizen of his Kingdom. But it’s also a prescription, I think, in that if the choice comes up “ be merciful or don’t be merciful,” I think it says, if you want to obtain mercy, if you want the reward in the Kingdom of which you are a true citizen, you will choose to be merciful. But for the more negative things, should I choose to mourn or try to figure out how I can be more persecuted? That’s trickier because the worldly self so actively says, “No!” that it’s hard to know if it’s also the Kingdom self speaking. But as Bonhoeffer would say, mourning or being persecuted in themselves have no redemptive value at all, the only thing that matters is following Jesus. So for me this would mean, in my mourning, seek Jesus, and rejoice because (even if my mourning is itself for completely unspiritual reasons, unsought, and not for his sake at all) I know that it affords me an opportunity for me to seek him and cry out to him and enrich my experience of his mercy and goodness because I WILL be comforted. And if someone else is mourning and I have the choice to go into their lives and join them in it, I can also take that opportunity and rejoice in it for the same reason (and even more, cause it’s not my mourning!) So I seek to follow Jesus when it means choosing to mourn, and I seek to follow Jesus when I’m mourning because I can’t help it, and in both am blessed.

Changing the currency you're working for

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled,
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so also they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

So back to the question I started with; is it prescriptive or descriptive? A bit of both. I think Jesus is saying, first of all, you need to change the “currency you’re working for”. Then all these things I am about to say about the kingdom will make sense, because a lot of times they might lead you to being stepped on, persecuted, merciful, a peacemaker etc where your worldly value system might say, that is not an intelligent thing to do. So the direction isn’t, “Mourn!” it’s, “Follow Me, even when it leads you into mourning, and trust me you’ll be glad you did, cause that’s how you get the really good stuff.”

Then of course the question is, as it always is for me with the Kingdom of Heaven, “When?” Is this after death, when all safe and blessed, we shall meet at last? Or while it’s happening? The language suggests both, interestingly. Blessed ARE those who mourn, for they SHALL be comforted. Not sure what to make of this; the fact of being blessed is in the present, while the reason is in the future. I guess that makes sense, when you think of it in the way of, “Blessed are those who work, for they shall get paid and be able to eat.” Your job may be pointless and you may hate your work at the moment, and you might not get paid till the end of the month. But you wouldn’t want to not work, or consider that your work wasn’t a blessing, because you know the direct link between working and getting paid. And I mean, it’s one thing if the payment you’re looking forward to is so small you can barely feed yourself. But here the blessings are so extravagant! Be comforted! Be filled! Inherit the earth! Have stake in the Kingdom of Heaven! SEE GOD!!

That said, I think the payday metaphor is a little simplistic, and makes the beatitudes prescriptive again and the kingdom of heaven something we can earn. I don’t think they can be reduced in this way. But again, the prescription isn’t to mourn, it’s to follow Jesus, and know that by his mercy and power everything that comes along with it will become a blessing. Favorite WH Auden line,

“He is the Life/ Love Him in the World of the Flesh/ And at your marriage, all its occasions will dance for joy.”

Beatitudes: descriptive or prescriptive?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled,
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so also they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I never know whose idea to take on this, Bonhoeffer’s or Willard’s. Or maybe neither, who knows. Is this passage prescriptive or descriptive? Willard says descriptive; in the kingdom of heaven, even those of you who are mourning will be blessed, those of you who are meek shall get a large portion, you poor people who are cursed with a hunger and thirst for righteousness will finally be filled, etc. Bonhoeffer says prescriptive I believe; you disciples should be a people who mourn, because only then can you be comforted. You must make sure to be meek, because only the meek will inherit the earth. The question is a good one; are we to try to fulfill the beatitudes, do they call for some action on our part? Or are they said as a comfort, in describing the kingdom of heaven?

So, Jesus goes up on the mountain and his disciples come after him, and to this self-selected group he begins to teach. What does he want them to learn? And, although I think I’ve heard that this is kind of a collection of Jesus’ major sayings rather than a cohesive sermon, why does he choose to talk about this first, or why does Matthew present this first? The way I have always understood the Sermon on the Mount is sort of the manifesto or description of the Kingdom which has drawn near. And this is how he decides to introduce it. But again, is it “this is the type of people the kingdom will be made up of” or “even these people will be welcome and find consolation in the kingdom, (but all you who don’t mourn and aren’t that meek, don’t worry). “ I’m not sure it fits into either of those categories, or maybe some of both. Let’s see how this works… it describes the kingdom of heaven, by describing our response to it? In the kingdom of heaven, every wrong is made right and so you will actually bless all the times that you mourned, because each is comforted and each was an opportunity to experience God’s mercy. (This is empirically true, for me). You will bless every opportunity you had to be a peacemaker, because you will see how God was working through you and how you reflected his image and character and were able to act like his son in that sense. You will treasure each time you were persecuted, because when Jesus’ army wins each wound you received is another evidence that you were on the winning side and makes the triumph more your own. Poor in spirit, I am not sure what that means. The one who gets sat on, who doesn’t fight? That sounds a lot like meek. The ones who don’t have a lot of religious feeling? That’s hard to see too. Anyhow, if this interpretation is correct, what does it mean for the disciple hearing it?

I’m not sure that the things mentioned are necessarily to be sought, but when they come they are certainly not to be avoided, because the correct understanding of the true order of things shows them to be gifts and blessings, making us insiders and marking us firmly “of” the kingdom. I think this also makes sense of the “woes” that I think are in Luke… those are not things to be actively sought, because seeking them is NOT seeking the kingdom and distracts you from it. We are to seek blessings, but as citizens of the kingdom I think Jesus is asking us to redefine what we mean by blessings. As citizens of a different country, his disciples will start earning a different currency, and if they are working for the world’s currency it will become valueless. I think this framework allows for both rather negative things (mourning, being persecuted) and positive things (being pure in heart)on the same list of blessings. These are all things that (to use my favorite phrase) enlarge your capacity to enjoy the kingdom of heaven, whether directly or by giving you an opportunity to experience God’s mercy and know it more.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Who was Jesus talking to?

And, seeing the multitudes, Jesus went up on a mountain, and when he was seated his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them….

An interesting question here is, who was Jesus talking to? I feel like Matthew is maybe deliberately ..ambiguous?... says exactly what he means. Jesus apparently goes up the mountain alone, because his disciples don’t come to him until he is seated. He was addressing the multitude… did he climb a little bit up on the mountain, maybe to stand on a big rock or something, so as to address them better? (Well, for one thing, he was sitting down, so at least it wasn’t to stand). Or did he go into the brush and trees, where the people that were still hungry for more came to follow him? That is more my sense. And who was it that followed him? The way I’ve always interpreted it is that it was a bit of a moment of definition, and that a person that did decide to follow him was, by doing so, his follower. It’s very interesting that he would do this. He’s been healing people and that’s why multitudes are following him. If the point of the healing was to demonstrate the kingdom of heaven, maybe now is the time to tell people some more about it? But the healings are available to everybody; if it’s possible for him to talk to multitudes, why does he withdraw by himself and wait for some people to follow him? The only things I can think of are; 1) he has very complex things to say, and not necessarily easy. He needs a smaller and quieter arena to speak them in, which means they only can be spoken to a few. If microphones had been invented, he would have spoken to everyone. Or 2) the things he wants to say now, he only wants to speak to people who are in some sense dedicated to him, and serious about following him and seeking the kingdom he’s been showing them, not just in the healings any more. The things he says are really hard, also. There may be some in the multitude who, hearing them, would decide he was crazy and have no more to do with him, but who, not hearing them, might continue to like him and regard him as a good healer and teacher and perhaps, when they hear rumors of the resurrection years later, decide to believe. In short, the people who take some work to follow him are the people who are more ready to hear what he has to say. I like this idea. Also, I feel like God works through “chosen people.” That’s just how he does things… not because of favoritism but because he’s introducing very unusual ideas into a world that will be quite hostile to them, and so they need the protective environment of set-apart and extensively taught community, and they will work outwards factorially. I feel that that’s what he did with Israel, and in a sense here is maybe starting to do, to set apart a community for himself that he will intensively teach.

I wonder to what extent, now that the Holy Spirit has come, he does this today? Are there things which we can only really hear when we take a little work to follow him?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sermon on the Mount: what becoming like Jesus looks like

I ended last post with the conclusion that as we become the people Jesus wants us to be, we start to want the things that are important to him and other things become of secondary importance, which is the reason why we don't need to worry about what we eat or drink or wear even when we know that famine and nakedness aren't things that the love of Christ will necessarily protect us from, because they won't separate us from His love, which is the thing we really care about.

I feel like Romans 8 describes HOW we become like Jesus but not really on WHAT we will become, what our characteristics will be. That's why I want to transition to the sermon on the mount. "Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees," says Jesus, "You will never enter the kingdom of Heaven." And then he goes on to expound on the law...what it means to actually not murder, to not commit adultery, etc etc. So how I've interpreted the sermon on the mount, and I think other people have too, is like a description of what a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. At first I almost said, what it takes to get into the Kingdom of Heaven, but this isn't true. Jesus says that to get into the Kingdom of Heaven your righteousness has to be even greater than the scribes and the pharisees, to keep the whole law etc.. this is where Romans 8 comes in, that in Christ, the Law of the Spirit of life makes us free from the power of sin and death and works in us to make us these citizens that Jesus describes in Matthew 5 and 6.

The question that I want to focus on as I go through this is, "How do we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness?"