Lent, Day 28 — Ask, Seek, Knock

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Ask, Seek, Knock

Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives, [and the searcher finds, and the knocker has the door opened.] Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. (Matthew 7:7-12, NRSV)

  1. One thing that strikes me about these verses is how emphatically universal they are. Everyone (πᾶς, pas) who asks receives. Not just some. Everyone. For example: The seeker? Finds. The one who knocks? The door gets opened. Jesus speaks with certainty. Whether you are asking, seeking, or knocking, God will act.
  2. The analogy Jesus uses is powerful. You are God’s child, and God wants good things for you.
  3. Jesus also calls back his earlier language of our parent “in the heavens.” The creator of the cosmos wants to give good things to us.
  4. “If you who are evil…” Jesus is not calling us evil. He is using an ancient rhetorical form called “from the lesser to the greater”—if X is true under these conditions, how much more is X true under greater conditions. God’s goodness is so complete that God want to meet our deepest needs.
  5. These verses often sound disjointed, like a collection of random thoughts. But I believe there is a consistent thread here. I will paraphrase to show how they are related: “Don’t judge others, because you’ll be judged in the same way. Sure, you may think you are helping by taking the speck out of someone’s eye, but you are not qualified to be their surgeon. And you may think you are giving them something holy, but they probably won’t appreciate it, the way swine won’t appreciate pearls. So don’t judge. Everyone who asks, including the person you want to judge, will receive what they need most. The one who seeks will find, and the one who knocks will be let in. So look after yourself. It isn’t your place to tell someone they aren’t seeking properly.”
  6. Jesus seems to be saying, “Seek your own path, instead of worrying so much about your neighbor. Let them seek their own.” Do it with confidence, trusting both your neighbor and yourself to God. Everyone who is seeking will find what they are seeking.
  7. I’m willing to consider that Matthew has just taken a grab bag of Jesus’s sayings and dumped them in this last chapter in no particular order. But I prefer reading these as related statements.
  8. Later, in Chapter 18, Jesus will tell his disciples, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you” (18:19). Like here, these words follow instructions on judging or correcting our siblings. So I don’t think Jesus means God will give us money, fame, or whatever we ask, like some “Name it and Claim it” pastors say. I think he’s talking specifically about spiritual truth—the kind that has to do with correction and community life.
  9. Jesus said earlier to seek the kin-dom. Seeking, asking, knocking — these are verbs we use about enlightenment, about “The Way.” From context, I don’t think the “good things” Jesus mentions are things we can possess. I think they are more like enlightenment, or places we arrive on a shared journey.

Lent, Day 27 — Of Pearls and Swine

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Of Pearls and Swine

You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Matthew 7:5-6, NRSV)

  1. It’s important to connect this famous phrase “pearls before swine,” to what comes immediately before: a command not to judge.
  2. This is the second of two analogies. The first was about taking a speck out of someone else’s eye, and the second is about giving away something valuable. Both are ways we try to help! It’s like Jesus anticipates our objection: “I’m not judging! I’m just trying to help!”
  3. Trying to correct a neighbor may be like taking a splinter out of their eye: You may have good intentions, but your own issues make you unsuitable as a surgeon. On the other hand, your neighbor might not be a willing patient! Maybe you do have something good to offer, but they won’t be able to appreciate it. You may think you’re offering something holy and good, but it’s not likely to be received well, and you’ll only bring pain on yourself.
  4. So even if you don’t see yourself as judging, even if you see yourself as helping, there are two problems: you aren’t qualified, and people don’t want your help.
  5. Jesus has said not to judge, and not to call people fools. But he calls people dogs and swine, both of which were fightin’ words in the ancient world. Is this another case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” Or is it okay for him because he’s Jesus? Neither: he’s getting into our heads.
  6. I’ve seen a quote floating around the internet: “Jesus never gave up on anybody.” Whoever said this has never read the Bible, especially Matthew 10:13, or all of chapter 23. In the first case, Jesus tells his disciples not to waste their time on people who will not welcome their message, and to “shake off the dust” from their feet when they leave town. In Matthew 23, he tells religious leaders that they are worthless, “Tying up heavy burdens for others and not lifting a finger to move them.”
  7. While theologically, I do not believe that God gives up on people, I am not God. And while everyone is worthy of God’s infinite love, not everyone is worthy of my finite time, energy, or attention. Jesus knows this, and tells us to behave accordingly.
  8. Since I am called to work with people who feel alienated from church, these verses mean a lot to me, because I face criticism and obstacles both from church folks and from non-church folks. Sometimes I need to leave people alone. And sometimes I wish religious people would consider me swine and leave me alone!
  9. The Bhagavad Gita says, “It is better to strive in one’s own dharma [duty, truth, or path] than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma, but competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity” (3:35)

This May Hurt a Bit

CN: Death and dying.
“This may hurt a bit.” I prefer it when health professionals—dentists, doctors, nurses—tell me up front. And that’s what they’ve been telling us for weeks.
I think saying these words is the kind thing to do. It’s one human being letting another know that we are all familiar with pain, that we are together in this even if we are having separate subjective experiences. It’s sympathy in advance. (Is there a word for this? Because there should be.)
The only way I know of to prepare for what is coming is to breathe, and enjoy every breath, knowing that pain is coming, and is already here. To breathe with the full knowledge that some of us will not be able to breathe when we are on a ventilator, and many will die for lack of breath. The only way I know of to prepare is to find joy where I can, and gallows humor where I cannot, because even dark humor is a form of resistance against the powers and principalities who consider some of us expendable.
When I read that Madrid designated an Olympic ice skating rink as a morgue, somehow it makes the amorphous dread concrete. I know what a skating rink is. I know, when this crisis passes, there will be medical professionals who will avoid skating because they will not be able to disassociate the two. But somehow it helps me to have a visual image of what is coming, to give it specific measurements and boundaries. It allows the horror to be contained, even as it expresses it.
The only way I know of to prepare for mass death is to frame it in the context that this isn’t the end, but a beginning. I mean this both in a hopeful and a scary way. Scary in that this is only the first pandemic of the modern age, but not the last, and only one kind of mass death among many in the shadow of climate change. Hopefully in that It isn’t the end but the beginning of humanity learning a new set of skills, of us reframing our own mortality and how we will live together.
Buddhism teaches us to meditate on our mortality. I am from a tradition that preaches and practices resurrection. I read it as God embracing our mortality, but I fear too many Christians do so as a form of death denialism.
I hope we can look at it squarely, not just as individuals, but as a society and a species. Death denialism is what has allowed our economists to act as if eternal growth is a law of nature, to build temples to wealth. By contrast, when confronted with the plague, people in the middle ages built whole churches into ossuaries, decorated with human bones. That was their version of an ice skating rink as morgue.
I don’t know what our response to this first of many mass deaths will be as a culture or as a species. (Especially because so many are walking around in denial still.) My hope is that we build something more hopeful and humane in a post-capitalist society that recognizes we are all in this together, that my neighbor’s health and well-being is tied to my own, that our separate-ness is an illusion. But my fear is that the disaster capitalists who are always working on a 20-50 year plan to increase their power and place more burdens on the rest of us are already organizing to make the most of this crisis, while the rest of us are reacting instead of responding.
But that’s looking years down the road. And most of us aren’t even looking at the next few months.
So I don’t know how to prepare except to breathe, and believe, as Jesus said, that tomorrow’s troubles are enough for tomorrow, that I am more than my body or my thoughts and feelings or my fears, that I am something breathed by God and that I am not somehow separate from the rest of the universe and my neighbor, but part of the same event. I trust that the grassroots power of the Holy Spirit keeps leading from below. And I hope what’s coming leaves us all wiser, kinder, and more determined to live fully.
Peace be with you. Those of you in the medical field, including my sister and many friends, please know that I’m praying for you many times a day.

Lent, Day 26 — Judging

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Judging

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
(Matthew 7:1-5, NRSV)

  1. Jesus turns from how we should live for today to how we relate to each other.
  2. Again, Jesus indicates that forgiveness and judgment are reciprocal: what we deal out comes back to us. As I’ve said, I don’t think that God is keeping score in a ledger. Instead, we are opening or closing ourselves off to grace when we let other people be. Can you see how this relates to “letting tomorrow worry about itself?”
  3. We have such a need to be seen as superior to others that we try to recruit God into our scheme. This is also rooted in our fear of the future and in our own insecurity.
  4. Jesus notes a tendency we know to be true: we recognize and hate in others what is true about ourselves. Whenever we encounter someone whose activity grates on us, it is because there is something unresolved in us. Often the people who annoy us most are the kinds of people we are trying very hard (and often failing) not to be. That’s why our neighbor’s splinter bothers us more than our own log or beam.
  5. How many virulently sex-negative and anti-gay politicians and preachers have been caught in affairs? How often does our president condemn corruption? Judging others is often a form of projection. I see it everywhere because it is true of me.
  6. And yet even here we need to recognize: what we most dislike in these public figures is what we dislike in ourselves. Why does the president’s behavior get under my skin? Is it because I remember all the times I’ve been caught and embarrassed in my own lies? Or is it because he gets away with it?
  7. I’ve switched back to the New Revised Standard Version here for one reason: Jesus uses the word hypocrite, actor, again. It’s a call back to the last chapter about giving, praying, and fasting. But in this case, we’re not necessarily acting for the approval of others. Who are we acting for? We put on an act for ourselves. We need to see ourselves as righteous. But we cannot see the log in our own eye. Our self-image is important to us.
  8. The phrases “virtue signaling” and “moral licensing” are modern terms that describe a) how we try to appear virtuous to others and b) how we “let ourselves off the hook” with minor infractions if we think of ourselves as generally good people. Jesus is rounding out his description of hypocrisy here. Religious actors are ones who keep up a front not only to look good to others, but to convince themselves of their own righteousness.
  9. But Jesus isn’t done yet. He’s got something important to add to this mix. We’ll look at it tomorrow.

Lent, Day 25 — Recap of Chapters 5 & 6

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Recap of Chapters 5 & 6

We’ve read through two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, and we are a little over half way to Easter. This is a good time to pause and summarize. See if you can follow the thread of what Jesus is saying in what we’ve covered so far.

  1. This Sermon on the Mount is a spiritual manifesto, a charter for the community that Jesus wants to create. For the first decades of its existence, this community was simply called “The Way.” Jesus is setting out The Way in these verses.
  2. This called-out community (ekklesia, or church) is to live with an unearthly happiness, as a prophetic community (Matthew 5:1-16).
  3. They are not throwing the Bible out of the window (5:17-20), though fundamentalists may be jealous of their freedom. Instead, they are letting their attitudes and relationships be shaped by a deeper reality to which the Biblical rules are pointing. Jesus is not lowering the bar; he is raising it (Matthew 5:21-42).
  4. All of the law and prophets point to the ethic of impartial love (5:43-48) for all people and for all creation. We are meant to love completely, and are fulfilled as humans when we do.
  5. Complete love means we don’t perform religiosity for social acceptance. Giving, praying, and fasting are between us and God. We are neither like the religious hypocrites nor like those who do not know God (6:1-18).
  6. Because we are one with all of humanity, we recognize that grace and forgiveness is the only thing that sustains us. We must free ourselves from karma—we cannot function on a theology of deserving (6:12-15).
  7. Attachment to wealth is a trap. Our relationship to money can distort our hearts, our perception, and our relationship to God. It can skew our vision of the world, and compromise our inner light (6:19-24).
  8. Our attachment to money is not simply greed; it is a symptom of our fear. By keeping our attention on the present moment and the life around us, we can free ourselves from worry about the future (6:25-34).

Since so much of what Jesus is saying is about attitudes, thinking, and emotions, we often hear these words as if they are addressed to us as individuals. Certainly Jesus means all of this to apply individually. But all of these instructions are also supposed to be characteristics of the community as a whole. When he describes conventional “being nice,” Jesus asks, “Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? (5:46-47). Y’all are supposed to be different, Jesus implies—not to get praise from others (6:1), but to shine a light into the world (5:16), the way God’s sun (and love) shines on everyone regardless of who they are (5:45-48).

Jesus doesn’t describe how we should implement these ideas. He leaves the details up to us.

I recommend going back and reading the first two chapters again. As you read, ponder the fact that Mahatma Gandhi said he read the Sermon on the Mount every day. What do you think he saw in it that brought him back so often?

Lent, Day 24 — Living at Peace in the Moment

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Living at Peace in the Moment

Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
(Matthew 6:25-34 CEB)

  1. Reading this passage is like medicine. If there’s one thing that characterizes modern life, it’s worry. I can’t help but wonder at how much life has changed in two thousand years, to consider that our worries are both like and unlike theirs: famine, war, the daily struggle to stay alive. Yet the advice doesn’t change.
  2. Part of me wants to rebel against these words. “What are you talking about, Jesus? Lilies and birds!? People have bills to pay! People are chronically hungry!” But deep down, I know he’s right.
  3. Let’s pick up the thread: Jesus is talking to his students (including us). He’s told them they will be a prophetic community. He tells them he’s raising the bar on scripture, not lowering it; that we need a transformation that is heart-deep. He tells them it’s not about seeking social or religious approval. And he has just finished telling them life is not about acquiring stuff.
  4. He has just been talking about money and our relationship to it. He said a) our hearts follow our treasures, b) we need clear eyes to aid our inner light, and c) we wind up serving either God or money.
  5. But Jesus recognizes our relationship to money is not just motivated by greed. It’s motivated by fear. Jesus is not being judge-y, wagging his finger at our materialism. He knows we’re scared. We seek money because we seek security. It’s a hedge against all the bad things that could happen to us in the future.
  6. “Gentiles long for all these things.” Jesus has told us several times not to be like those who do not understand the character of God, both the Gentiles and the religious leaders. This is a reminder he is speaking to a prophetic community. “Y’all are supposed to be different!” he says, speaking to his Jewish contemporaries.
  7. “Your heavenly Father knows you need them.” Jesus seems to understand Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: water, food, clothing, shelter. But generally speaking, there is plenty of all of it to go around. If nobody was hoarding, there would be no poverty. “Live simply so that others may simply live” is a quote variously attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and to Mother Seton.
  8. “Stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has trouble enough of its own.” This is a great truth in all wisdom traditions. Buddhism and Hinduism make meditating on the present moment, on your own breath, a daily practice.
  9. This is a transformative truth. Once we realize that God is always calling us to the present moment, we have courage to do what needs to be done. It isn’t even courage, actually. It is simply the path presented to us. Those who walk it do not feel particularly brave. They simply recognize the present moment is all they really have.
  10. A people who lived this truth would be dangerous.

Lent, Day 23 — Eyesight

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Eyesight

The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be! No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:22-24 CEB).

  1. Two metaphors in this section: Eye/body and masters.
  2. The eye is the lamp of the body. Some people argue that Jesus was schooled in Eastern philosophy, and this statement certainly resonates that way. The Bhagavad Gita talks about the body as a “field” of senses, elements, and mind. It says “As the sun lights up the world, the Self dwelling in the field is the source of all light in the field. Those who, with the eye of wisdom, distinguish the field from its Knower and the way to freedom from the bondage of [attachment] attain the supreme goal” (13:33-34).
  3. Jesus just finished talking about our attachment to wealth, so when he starts talking about eyes and light and body, he seems to be saying that the way we see affects our whole being.
  4. There are two ways the light gets into us: There is the inner light of the Self, and the external light of clear seeing. If Jesus were Hindu or Buddhist, he might talk about this clear seeing as “non-attachment.” We might have a strong inner light, which can compensate for our poor perception. Or we might see clearly, but have a weak inner light. Either state is better than the one whose inner light is dim and sees poorly: “How great is the darkness!” Strive to correct your vision, Jesus says, so that your field, your body and internal world, can be full of light.
  5. Listen: First you start talking about inner light and wisdom, and next you’re doing hatha yoga and chanting. Alabama just passed a law that makes yoga legal in schools, but kids can’t say “Namaste.” It’s no wonder the Western church has such a perverse relationship to capitalism. We’ve rejected Jesus’s philosophy of light and clear seeing in favor of the God of the Invisible Hand.
  6. The second metaphor is about servant-master relationships. And I can’t hear this without hearing Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody.
  7. Jesus creates a stark contrast, and presents us an either-or decision. You cannot serve both God and wealth. The word for “wealth” here is a loan-word from Hebrew, which in English was translated as “Mammon.” It’s just a colloquial word for money.
  8. To recap, Jesus has so far made three arguments for putting money it its place: Where you locate your heart and treasure, the quality of light in your body, and who you will serve. It seems like our relationship with money is important to Jesus, doesn’t it?

Lent, Day 22 — Treasure

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Treasure

Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in [the heavens], where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 CEB)

  1. Before we talk about these verses, let’s summarize: Jesus is still talking about how his followers need to be different from the rest of the world: More invested in changing their hearts than their religious leaders are (“y’all’s righteousness must exceed the scribes and Pharisees”), but not for the purposes of showing off (“as the hypocrites do”). I believe that one reason people claim to be “spiritual but not religious” is actually because we’ve done a good job teaching the previous part of the Sermon on the Mount! They look at the institutional forms of religion around them, the fundamentalism and hypocrisy, and say, “That ain’t Jesus.”
  2. Here he pivots to talk about money, and spends the next half-chapter telling us how to relate to it. While I think many people hear and understand Jesus’ critique of institutional people-pleasing religion in the previous sections, we are all challenged by this next section.
  3. Stop collecting treasures, or “You can’t take it with you.” These verses are not just an abstract theological statement. The ancient Egyptians and Chinese, for example, believed that you certainly can take it with you. Their tombs were filled with treasures that the dead would need to conduct business in the afterlife. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried with eight thousand terra cotta soldiers to protect him. King Tut was buried with a golden chariot.
  4. Moth, rust, and thieves. Three kinds of destroyers for three kinds of ancient wealth. Back in the day, all clothes were handmade and expensive. Jesus’s tunic was valuable enough to be gambled over. But moths chew through clothes, rust ruins weapons and tools, and thieves take money, jewels, and gold. That pretty much describes anything in the ancient world worth hoarding. Today Jesus’s destroyers might include hackers and financial bubbles. Much of our society’s wealth is virtual and conceptual—it doesn’t even really exist!
  5. Hear this phrase: “Collect treasures for yourselves in the skies.” Say it with me: “Heaven” is not a place you go when you die. Jesus is inviting us to remember that we are citizens of the universe. We don’t need to invest ourselves in things we put in a closet or vault, but in the expansive skies.
  6. Some religious people hear this literally. Every good deed is a star in your crown, an extra room in your mansion, another number in God’s ledger. But we don’t need a transactional God.
  7. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Wow. What a sentence. Every time I read it I wonder what it would mean to meditate on this line every day. How would my life change?
  8. This is a core principle of the spiritual life. It doesn’t tell you what do, like “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and body,” or “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Instead, it describes a spiritual law, like gravity. What you pay attention to grows in importance. Who you are becoming depends on where you are investing yourself.

End-of-Civilization Stories

I’ve always enjoyed end-of-civilization stories* whether they involve zombies, asteroids, aliens, nuclear war, or ecocide. There’s something primal about these stories, and we’ve been telling them since before Hebrews and Babylonians told of a Great Flood.

But too often, in modern times, the cliché moral of the story is, “Human beings are worse than the zombies.” In the dystopian aftermath, roving gangs become violent and (almost always) super-patriarchal. Any institutions that do survive are authoritarian and dehumanizing.

Cory Doctorow made a point several years ago, after seeing the Snowpocalypse in Birmingham: what if, in a disaster, your neighbors are more likely to show up at your door with a casserole rather than a shotgun?

I think the steady drip-drip-drip of these end-of-civilzation movies trains us to see the world in a particular way. That’s why some people, in the midst of this crisis, feel it necessary to go stock up on guns and ammo. They believe our natural state is nasty, brutish, and short. They believe in the old-fashioned understanding of evolution or Social Darwinism, “survival of the fittest” (where “fit” simply means “strong” instead of “appropriate”). They believe that, if left to our own devices and without government oversight, our society will become the worst aspects of ourselves, and they will either have to kill and take, or be victims.

(It’s odd that these are often the same folks who pontificate on how we should shrink government to the size we can drown it in a bathtub. But maybe not so odd when you consider how they fetishize and look forward to the collapse.)

But we know better, now. Evolution isn’t just about “survival of the fittest.” It’s also about who can cooperate with others and create the greatest flourishing. We know that altruism, even between and among different species, can be adaptive. “Survival of the fittest” applies to “fitted-ness” of systems, whole forests and biomes—not just to individuals. Organizations, not just organisms.

We certainly do face many existential crises in our future. This pandemic is only the first ripple of many to come, thanks to climate change and growing economic inequality. But I think we, as a species, have some choices on how we prepare for them. We can rehearse hatred and fear toward the rest of humanity, preparing ourselves for hell and the hell we will need to unleash on others; Or we can rehearse an alternative future.

Don’t get me wrong — I think there’s always a need to defend our communities; especially against people who express the hell in themselves by inflicting it upon others. But survival isn’t going to be about who has the biggest guns or the most homogenous tribe. Guns can get you meat and protect you against people, but you can’t eat them and they can’t make you well. And homogeneity isn’t safe, because you’ll be missing the critical strategy or perspective that allows you to survive in a rapidly-changing world.

Just for the record, my interest in this is more practical than spiritual: I think civilizations that rehearse cooperation and altruism will survive better than those civilizations that rehearse violence, xenophobia, and social Darwinism. We’ve been trying the hateful one for awhile, and it just ain’t working.

I guess we’ll find out!

—————–

*”End-of-civilization” is better than “post-apocalyptic,” because “apocalypse” just means “revelation.” And I think if we the true nature of reality was revealed, we’d find it more funny than terrifying.

Lent, Day 21 — Fasting

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Fasting

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

 

  1. Traditionally, Lent is a season of fasting and repentance. But fasting as a spiritual practice is not as widespread as it once was. People in our religious context do not generally go out of their way to demonstrate that they are fasting.
  2. Perhaps this is partially due to our relationship with food. Ironically, as our society has become less dependent on agriculture and food production and less prone to famine, we no longer see hunger as something to be conquered or endured. The Great Depression, our last period of widespread hunger, was nearly a century ago.
  3. It may also have something to do with the way we think of hunger as a poverty issue. It is unimaginable to many of us that the wealthy, too, could starve. But that is exactly what happens in famine. Class doesn’t protect you. You can’t eat money. There’s a story about Joseph in Genesis (click the link to read it), when the famine got so bad that even the wealthy nobility became Pharaoh’s slaves because of hunger.
  4. Fasting is a way of reminding oneself of one’s radical dependence on rain, on insects, on fertility, on God. Hunger is not a poverty issue, but a human issue. It is a way to focus on God and remind us of our solidarity with each other, including those who are chronically hungry. You are not convincing God of your dedication, but transforming yourself and changing your perspective. You are enhancing your gratitude.
  5. Fasting, like sabbath rest, puts us at odds with capitalism.
  6. Some pundits, eager to judge, say that the whole season of Lent is problematic. They say people should not talk about what they are giving up for Lent, or wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, because of these verses right here. I receive that critique, but need to point out how different our context is. Most Americans today don’t even know what fasting is.
  7. In South Korea, it is a different matter. Because of the Korean War, the memory of famine is more recent there. Today, entire retreat centers are devoted to fasting prayer. The cafeterias even have special meals for those ending a week-long fast to gently wake up their digestive system.
  8. To place these verses in context, look at the word “whenever.” Like whenever you pray, and whenever you give to the poor. These are regular acts of devotion that people did all the time, not just during a season when it was expected. This is why I believe criticism of Lenten practices is overblown. (In fact, some criticism is just another way of performing one’s religiosity, of being a hypocrite).
  9. A few chapters after this, students of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (9:14). They are making a comparison: “Jesus, your disciples don’t seem as religious as we are.” Jesus replies that the wedding guests shouldn’t fast while the bridegroom is with them. But who knows? Maybe Jesus’s disciples were fasting, but simply were not “disfiguring their faces?”