Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48

On Palm Sunday, Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem surrounded by adoring throngs. By Good Friday, many of the same people were clamoring for his death. What happened?

I think many of the people who threw down their cloaks and waved palm branches were expecting a coup. When they cried “Hosanna”, which is best translated as “save us!, they meant that literally. They thought Jesus would be a military leader in the style of David or the Maccabees. He would defeat their oppressive Roman enemies and Jerusalem would rise again to its fabled Solomonic glory. When Jesus didn’t do what they expected, their emotions turned to the dark side. Their hope turned to fear; their joy turned to anger; and their love turned to hate. Since Jesus wasn’t going to “save them” in the way they wanted to be saved, they wanted to see him destroyed.

Anyone who was paying attention to Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount ought to have figured out that Jesus wasn’t going to use force to establish his kingdom. God’s kingdom will come not by power and control, but through love and self-giving.

He, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

People are by nature tribalistic, which was probably a helpful evolutionary survival trait at one time, but I think Jesus was teaching that it’s time for us to evolve beyond that programming. God’s love is inclusive, and ours ought to be too. How do we fight our natural tendency to divide everyone into “us” and “them” categories? By prayer, which doesn’t work to change God or others, but to change us. By behaving kindly toward others whenever we have the chance, even if it’s just to offer a friendly greeting. Power and control may subdue an enemy, but they cannot defeat it. Only love has the ability to change hearts and transform an enemy into a friend.

It can be dangerous, and lonely, to swim upstream against currents of tribalism and self-interest. Jesus walked his talk….all the way to the cross.

 

Advertisements

The Heart of the Matter

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. -Jesus

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.– Moses

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of God’s upside-down kingdom in the Beatitudes, followed by the commissioning of Jesus’s followers to be the light that shows others the way into it. Then it really gets interesting. Jesus says that “not a jot or a tittle” should be expunged from the Pentateuch, and that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That sounds an awful lot like “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” But right after that, he proceeds to repeatedly say “You have heard it said of old (Scripture quote) but I say to you (different spin on the Scripture he just quoted)

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What’s going on here? How can the Law of Moses both be timeless and open to such dramatic reinterpretation? I think Jesus is saying it is the principles underlying the Law which are timeless, not the rules themselves. Rules are always incomplete; they can’t prescribe what the most appropriate behavior is in every possible circumstance, and they can be twisted and misused. Any good lawyer knows that even the most carefully written rules are subject to misuse and exploitation. “Don’t lie” is a good example. A person can literally “not lie” but be quite untruthful by the skilful use of misdirection and omission. The rule may be followed, but the principle is violated. As Bill Clinton rather infamously noted, “it depends on what you mean by the word “is”.

The Law is fulfilled when its principles are followed and not just its rules. It is the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that matters.  Obviously, murder is a bad thing and therefore “thou shalt not kill” is a good rule. But Jesus, like Yoda, reminds us that bad actions often have their genesis in the heart and mind. It is only through understanding and applying the principles behind the Law that it can be internalized, as Moses exhorted the Israelites through the use of colorful metaphor. The Bible is pretty consistent about what the two great principles of  the Law are: love of God and love of neighbor.

I was never a great fan of the “Because I said so” approach to parenting. I wanted my children to understand the “why” behind any rules I imposed, because I wanted them to develop internalized behavioral controls. Externalized controls are temporary, dependent on whether the authority figure is watching, and easily manipulated. Internalized controls are more permanent, function independently of supervision, and are can be generalized to apply to novel circumstances.  I think Jesus was saying that’s how God thinks, too. That’s what it means when Moses commands the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart“, or when Jeremiah says that God  “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”, or when Paul tells the Corinthians they are living letters “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 

Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill the law; that is to complete its purpose and to lead us to internalize its principles. It is not a static thing written in stone, but a living thing written in receptive hearts. That living principle is love, and as Hillel is reported to have said, “That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”

 

Go Light Your World

darkness-cannot-drive-out-darkness

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. –Matthew 5:14-16

Jesus uses a number of metaphors in the Sermon on the Mount to describe the Kingdom of God and those would follow him into it: salt, light, leaven, a growing plant, a city on a hill. They are not metaphors of power and control, but of the gradual transformation that comes through the power of love. When God’s people are behaving in the way God intended for them to behave, others can’t help but be attracted to God. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” Sadly, many Christians don’t seem to put these words into practice very well, and I’m afraid that is the reason many people aren’t interested in, or have abandoned a faith they once held dear.

It is impossible for the Kingdom of God to come by force, and, as history is my witness, I think those who think they can use force to bring it about only drive it further away. I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he observed  “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subject to violence, and the violent lay claim to it.”  The Kingdom of God will come “not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit” The Kingdom of God will come when enough of God’s people start being the people of God, and Jesus seems to think that good deeds are an inseparable part of that. And by “good deeds”, I tend to think of the things Jesus did while he was on earth, not the things some of his later followers have done in his name. I doubt that God was too pleased with Charlemagne’s baptisms at the point of the sword, or the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials, or quite a number of other bad things people have done in the name of God. In fact, I’d go so far as to say those who do such things are guilty of violating the third commandment.  It’s also interesting to note that Jesus uses the metaphor of leaven in two ways, one positive and one negative. He compares the Kingdom of God to the small amount of yeast that a woman would work into a large amount of dough in order to make bread, but he also warns his followers against “the leaven of the Pharisees”.  The defining characteristic of leaven is that it grows and spreads. It can be used to spread light, or to spread darkness.

I agree with Dr. King that the only way to dispel the darkness of hate is with the light of love as demonstrated in positive actions. One of my favorite contemporary Christian songs is “Go Light Your World”, by Chris Rice. In the album liner notes he observes that “You are the light of the world! Don’t hide! Don’t waste your batteries in the broad daylight. Let’s not spend our flames impressing each other, admiring each other, outshining each other .Instead, find some darkness and show someone the way out. Exhaust yourself lighting up dark places. That’s what light is for.”  Jesus didn’t tell us to sit around in our comfortable pews and admire each other’s candles, or to argue about whose candle was brighter, or hotter, or more pure, and he certainly didn’t tell us to use our candles offensively and burn people who are not of our tribe. Instead, we are to take our candles out into the world and be a source of light for all to see.

The Beatitudes: Alternative Blessings

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5)

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6)

There’s been quite a bit of talk this week about “alternative facts,” an unfortunate choice of words coined by Kellyanne Conway to describe President Trump’s understanding of the size of the crowd attending his inauguration. As I understand it, “alternative facts” are based on a perception of reality that differs from observable evidence to the contrary. “Alternative facts” are not objectively true, but reflect the point of view and/or political purpose of the person promoting them. The whole brouhaha reminded me of Pilate’s question to Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?”  Is there such a thing as objective truth, or is truth malleable, and like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

The whole Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes in particular, seem to run counter not only to observable realities of life, but to theological understandings which equate God’s blessings with material well-being and comfort. Luke’s retelling of Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Plain is even stronger than Matthew’s version.  It describes not only blessings for things people wouldn’t normally think of as blessings, but woes for those things that people normally do think of as blessings. And of course the Beatitudes are only the beginning: Jesus goes on to say that “the last shall be first and the first last”, “the greatest among you will be your servant” and “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but he that loses his life will find it.” Clearly the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus does not follow the same rules as the kingdoms of the world as understood by Pilate. The Beatitudes are a window into an alternate universe with different rules and different expectations.

In much of the Old Testament, material prosperity was seen as God’s blessing for the righteous. If someone was poor or sick, it was because they had done something to deserve their misfortune. There are plenty of Bible verses that support this view, with the book of Job being a notable exception. The Pharisees of Jesus’s day certainly seemed to understand the world in this way, for when the man born blind was brought to Jesus, they asked “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responded, “Neither one” and proceeded to heal the man. What the Pharisees saw as a result of God’s curse, Jesus saw as an opportunity to offer God’s blessing. Whose perspective is the correct one?

“What is truth?” asked Pilate. As John later writes in his gospel, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth isn’t malleable, but is personified by Jesus. So I’m inclined to believe Jesus’s description of what it means to be blessed, not that of the proponents of the prosperity gospel. If Jesus is the truth, we can safely assume that his perspective is the correct one, and we’d better pay attention to what he says. Following Jesus is the doorway into the alternate universe we call the Kingdom of God, an upside-down kingdom  that is the opposite of the survival-of-the-fittest world in which we live. There the weak are made strong, the poor are made rich, the wounded are made whole, and the hungry are filled with good things.

Jesus opened the doorway to the Kingdom of God, which is not pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by-when-we-die. It is here now, among us, like an alternate universe visible to those with eyes to see reality from Jesus’s perspective. It’s up to us to follow him in, and to hold the door open for others, until at last the wall of separation dissolves, and earth and heaven are one. Who’s with me?

Joshua, Jesus, Constantine, and Christ

It’s interesting to me that Joshua and Jesus have the same Hebrew name (יְהוֹשׁ֫וּעַ in Hebrew; Ἰησοῦς in Greek, meaning “Yahweh saves.” The meaning of the name accurately describes both Joshua and Jesus, but their approaches to carrying out God’s salvation were quite different. Joshua is portrayed as a military leader who led the conquest of Canaan, killing every man, woman, child, and animal in cities under the ban, along with those of his own people who did not follow those instructions to the letter. Jesus is the suffering servant and good shepherd who  taught nonviolence  and demonstrated God’s love by “dying for us while we were yet sinners.” The two approaches seem quite opposite to me, and I wrote about this in an earlier post on the book of Joshua. How exactly does God save? Through power and control, or through love and service?

One of the reasons many first century Jews had such a hard time accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah is that he did not fulfill their expectations of a conquering military hero who would toss the Roman bullies out of Israel and re-establish a Davidic dynasty. Instead of using his divine superpowers to control people and perhaps strike a few of them dead, he healed the sick and fed the hungry. Instead of living in luxury in a palace and demanding obeisance from cowed subjects, he lived the lifestyle of a homeless itinerant teacher who told his followers that the first shall be last and “the greatest among you shall be your servant”   Instead of calling down ten thousand angels to rescue him and strike down those who tortured and mocked him, he prayed “Father, forgive them.” Paul makes the contrast clear in his letter to the Philippians when he describes Jesus as someone “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;  rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

It’s pretty clear to me that most of the early Christians tried to apply the example and teachings of Jesus to their own lives and situations.  In fact, that’s where the descriptor “Christian” came from, and it was not originally meant as a compliment. “Christians” were people whose first loyalty was to Christ, not Caesar, and that was a very dangerous thing to do in the Roman Empire. “Christians” also tried to emulate the behavior of Jesus in their interactions with others, and that was considered a very foolish thing to do. In spite of, and probably also partially because of, continuing antipathy from those in positions of power, the faith continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire.

By the turn of the fourth century, political factions threatened to split the Roman Empire into East and West components, with several contenders jockeying for power on both sides. There were two schools of thought on the part of these would-be emperors on how to deal with the exponential growth of Christianity: doubling down on persecution, or assimilation.  In 312 AD,  legend has it that Constantine, one of the contenders for the Western throne, had a dream of a cross and the words “In this sign you will conquer”. He directed his soldiers to paint their shields with a sign of the cross, the battle went his way, and he converted to Christianity. Although the historical jury is out as to whether his conversion was genuine or practical, Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, and assimilation began. The persecuted were now the powerful, and Constantine was their Joshua, the hand of God who saved them and led them into the promised land.

However, in the retrospect of centuries, it seems to me that Constantine’s conversion was one of the most spiritually dangerous things that ever happened to the church. Those in power generally want to stay in power, and the threat of hellfire and damnation became quite a useful  tool to ensure forced obedience. Christianity and Christendom are not the same thing. Christians are followers of Christ, whose ultimate loyalty is to God alone. Christendom is a conflation of Christianity and empire, and its subjects have divided loyalties. The way of Christ is the way of love and service. The way of empire is the way of power and control. Where Christ transforms, empire compels. They are not compatible. There’s a (probably apocryphal) quote attributed to Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” I can’t help but think that the Christians to whom Gandhi was referring were more ambassadors for Christendom than ambassadors for Christ.

Joshua is recorded as saying in his farewell speech to the Israelite people, Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house I will serve the Lord.” Jesus warned his followers, “No one can serve two masters.” Which will it be, the way of power and control or the way of love and service? The way of Constantine or the way of Christ?

As for me and my house, I choose Christ.