30 April 2021

The Sermon on Flat Ground

While Matthew's Gospel tells a story of Jesus giving a long sermon on a mountain, Luke records a shorter version of this sermon occurring "on a level place" (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6:17-49). Luke's sermon is not only shorter, but it includes two stories which Matthew's sermon does not.

Jesus opens his sermons with the familiar beatitudes. Blessed are his disciples who follow in the way of the prophets, but woe to those who seek an easy path (6:17-26). He then tells them what the path of the prophets will entail. He tells them to love their enemies, lend without expecting repayment, answer mistreatment with mercy and generosity, and offer neither judgment nor condemnation, but forgiveness and compassion (6:27-42).

You can tell Jesus' disciples by the message they preach, "for the mouth speaks what the heart is full of" (6:43-45). Those who offer condemnation, easy answers based on law, and whose generosity is limited to only those they deem worthy do not speak the message of Jesus. They are trees bearing bad fruit. Those who live the message of Jesus, who see with compassion, offer to help bear a burden, who are generous to even those who are undesirable, and forgive those who mistreat them, they are trees bearing good fruit.

Jesus calls his disciples to be generous, not only to benefit others, but for their own sake as well (6:46-49). When trouble comes and shakes the lives of every individual, those who stand together find that they can whether the storm. A generous community can even afford to help a selfish few. But a "community" of individuals, who want only for themselves, who care nothing for their neighbors will find themselves swept away by the storms of life. This is why it is better to be generous than selfish.

While it is not a very long passage, it is a very important lesson. It is not obvious why we should love our enemies, give generously to everyone in need, and refrain from judging others. In looking out for the good of others, whether we approve of them or not, and in tolerating those who look out only for themselves, we build a community that people want to be a part of, a community which will only grow. When trouble comes to that community, it will survive and even thrive on the great stores of goodness which it has built up for just such a time as this.

16 April 2021

Tiny Parables

Jesus closes his sermon on the mount with a selection of short parables. I will only briefly analyze them, because these parables are dense with meaning. The common thread running between them is judging what is good or evil, though that is not necessarily the meaning of each parable. Read separately, each parable lends itself to a deeper meaning, which is why many speculate that the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 was probably not a singular, historical event, but a narrative frame for collecting the teachings of Jesus.

The first collection of parables are hedged by two sayings, "Do not judge or you too will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" and "do to others as you would have them do to you," which Jesus explains "sums up the Law and the Prophets," which is to say, the entire message of scripture (7:1-12).

This idea of equal measure has already shown up in the sermon. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy in measuring "eye for eye and tooth for tooth." There he urges his followers to give freely to anyone in need, even those who would take what they have forcibly (5:38). In his parable, Jesus answers Deuteronomy's passage more directly. He shows that, when turned toward introspection, can lead to a way of solving issues between people (7:1-5).

Jesus advises that you must solve your own problems before helping to solve the problems of others. It is easy to be quick to help others, much less easy to be responsible for yourself, and far less easy to ask others for help. Yet this is exactly what Jesus is calling his disciples to do. If one possesses wisdom, it should not be given freely but reserved for the one who asks for help (7:1-6).

Jesus advises that his followers help each other, not by busily offering judgment, but by solving their own problems and helping others who come to them for the wisdom they earned in doing so. He then goes on to tell them that the same is true of God, that while they can help each other in this way, the wisdom of God transcends all their understanding, so that the whole is greater than the sum (7:7-14).

Jesus then tells them that they will recognize good teachers by what their teaching produces. A wise buider can build a house that will weather storms. Their teachings will hold in good times and bad. A moral teacher will not advise evil, but those who follow his teaching will produce virtue. But even a good teacher can have bad students. Jesus warns his disciples to put in the work and not depend on his name alone for their salvation. If they wish to be his disciples, they must accept his teaching (7:15-29).

15 April 2021

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09 April 2021

Good Done in Secret

The Gnostics of the first and second centuries believed that salvation came by way of knowing the "secret teachings" of Jesus. While Jesus did not, at least in Matthew's gospel, appear to value secret teachings, that is not to say he placed no value on secrets. In fact, secrecy is largely what preserved the Christian religion through Roman persecution. By the direction of Christ himself, Christian teachings were made public, but their actions, both good (Matt 6:1-4) and bad (Matt 18:15-20), were kept private.

Jesus advocated for this kind of secrecy, that his followers not be "as the hypocrites," but perform works of charity for God's pleasure alone. Similarly, Jesus directs that prayer is between each person and God, not for the ears of others. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus focuses every sentence on God, asking for God's will to be revealed in, for the basics of life, and for the justice that comes from being forgiven as well as we forgive (6:5-15).

Although rarely practiced today, fasting was a common religious practice in the first century. Jesus tells his followers to hide that they are fasting so that no one will notice that they are dedicating themselves to God (6:16-18).

But what is the payoff to all these good deeds done in secret? What is the point? Jesus places this on two levels. Firstly, is to store up "treasure in heaven" (6:19-24). By doing these things, we are not banking on human kindness, charity, or even forgiveness, but on God's kindness, charity, and forgiveness. As Jesus says, "you cannot serve both God and money."

Secondly, is the assurance that God will not forget those who do good deeds in his name. God is like a Father who is responsible for his children. He knows what each one needs and provides generously (6:25-34). Jesus assures us that God provides for the flowers and the sparrows, and also for the pagans who greedily consume all they receive. God provides for every one of them, and certainly for his own children whom he called by name.

Because God provides, "therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself." God will see to the troubles of tomorrow just as he sees to today, for "each day has enough trouble of its own" (6:34).

God is not far away, but is near. God is not distant, but provides. That is why we can give without expecting any return, why we can forgive debts before being forgiven our own, why we can pray in secret and go unrecognized for the good we do. All these things we do for God, and God provides in abundance.

God's abundance is why we can live our lives as if we did no good deeds at all. Of course, not all of us have such abundance, but Jesus tells us that the needy are even more blessed (5:3-11), because they can receive the abundance that God calls every Christian to give.

02 April 2021

Relearning the Law

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes plain his theology. He says he has come to "fulfill" the Law, not abolish it (5:17). Not only that, Jesus seems to expand upon the Law, raising the bar for his and future generations.

What seems to be a raising of the bar is actually a contextualization of scripture. When the Law of Moses (the Torah) was originally written, it was the law of the nation of Israel, a guide for the priests of the Tabernacle and later the Temple, a moral code for those living in Israel, the cornerstone of Hebrew culture, a history of Israel, and a moral code which applied generally.

All of these things were mixed together in the five books of the Torah. However, by Jesus' day, Israel had been conquered by Rome, its currency was the Roman currency, its laws Roman laws. Carrying out its own laws required Roman approval.

Jesus does not accept colonization means it is time to put aside the Law, instead, he places it in its proper context, focusing not on its role as the law of the land or even a moral code, but as an ethical guide to every kind of relationship.

When Jesus says, "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (5:20), he is foreshadowing that righteousness does not depend upon a list of rules but upon valuing our connection to others and treating our fellow human beings as equally sacred.

To prove that this is the true heart and purpose of the Law, Jesus draws not upon its moral teachings, as we might expect, but gives examples from its criminal code. In doing so, he demonstrates how a common moral teaching runs through the entire Law of Moses.

Murder is wrong (5:21-26). It's something we can all agree on and Jesus makes this his starting point. However, long before a person commits murder, they become angry. They may then dehumanize their neighbor, in Jesus' example, by calling them names. There is an escalation which leads to murder.

It is that escalation that breaks the relationship and it needs to be addressed before the relationship is lost. Jesus recommends that if you are in danger of losing a relationship with another person, you should even neglect your offering to God in order to reconcile your differences. Don't worry, God will wait for you; you can make your offering whenever you are ready.

Jesus addresses a similar situation in the case of adultery (5:27-30). Here he addresses the intention to do wrong from the perspective of a man lusting after his neighbor's wife. Often, readers place the emphasis on the lustful thoughts, but Jesus is pointing to the intention. By allowing lustful thoughts to change the way a man interacts with his neighbor and his wife (to continue the example), he has already broken his relationship with both of them.

Here, Jesus focuses on self control as a solution, saying it is better to "cut off" a body part, and thus preserve control at any cost, than have one's whole body thrown into Gehenna (sometimes translated as Hell). To be clear, Gehenna is a garbage dump where trash was burned, not a place of torment. Jesus is telling people to not be trash.

Speaking of treating people like trash, Jesus rejects the idea that it is acceptable to divorce a wife just to marry someone new (5:31-32). A divorced woman would often be left with no support, even though a certificate of divorce meant she was not in the wrong. Still, it is wrong of her husband to cut her off financially and leave her destitute just so he can marry someone new. Jesus says this is the same as adultery.

In dealing with others, it is not enough to simply keep your promises, Jesus says that you must be truthful at all times (5:33-37). If people cannot trust you to tell the truth, then there can be no relationship. If some outside force is necessary to keep you honest, then even your oath (or contract) is worthless because honesty is the cornerstone of trust.

Finally, Jesus addresses our very idea of justice (5:38-48). The Law requires equal restitution be made when a wrong is suffered. However, Jesus calls the person who has been wronged to forgive rather than seek justice. Not only that, he calls each person to recognize and seek to meet the needs of others.

Jesus tells his followers to "give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (5:42). He then asks them to go even further and "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (5:44). Jesus recognizes that even hatred comes from a place of need. He urges us to meet unkindness with generosity, hatred with goodwill, falsehood with honesty.

Jesus reminds us that we can default to the rule of law, but where love reigns, there is no need for law. When we recognize each other's needs and seek to help our neighbors, whether friend, enemy, or stranger, we transcend the need for law and are duly recognized as "children of our Father in heaven."

This is not a lesson that comes in spite of the Law, but one that Jesus draws directly from it. What other lessons might we learn when we stop looking for a list of rules and focus on supporting each other in the way of Jesus?

Peace be with you.