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 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?

Women of the Bible (Lyrics)

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/judith.jpg

I don’t actually have a verse about Judith (in the picture above), but I should write one. I’d envisioned this with a sassy lounge jazz tune, minor key for the verses, major for the chorus (so the chorus sounds a bit like “Jesus loves me.”)

I was inspired to write it because the main thing people know and want to discuss about Bathsheba is whether she was David’s victim, seductress, or paramour; but one of the most fascinating stories about her is how she and Nathan hoodwinked the Old Man into making her son the heir to the throne. I was trying to figure out how to disrupt and refocus the narrative in the fewest words possible, and that led to this song.

Bathsheba
Very pretty
Know her story?
Just a little bitty:
Pulled some strings and she got her son
Sitting on the throne; now he’s king Solomon.

Miss Naomi
Was a widow
Taught Miss Ruth
How to use eye shadow
Instructed Ruth in feminine wiles
Now she’s singing lullabies to her grandchild.

[Chorus]
Strong women, these I know
For the Bible taught me so
Mothers, sisters; royal, tribal
Don’t you mess with the women of the Bible.

Queen Esther
In her palace
Had to deal
With ethnic malice
Saved her people from Haman’s plans
Now he’s swinging from a rope tied by his own hands.

Martha and her
Sister Mary
Education
Was primary
Now they’re sittin’ at Jesus’ feet
Buddy, make yourself a sandwich if you want to eat.

Chorus

Listen up now
brothers, sisters,
We got to have some
strong resisters
You don’t have to take any more malarkey
The day’s gonna end for the patriarchy

Chorus

SaveSave

Karen, Your Faith Isn’t Worth Sh*t

Fotothek_df_roe-neg_0006438_014_Genossenschaftsbauer_Grygo_beim_Dungbreiten

If you’ve got a problem with this title, take it up with Jesus. He said salt that has lost its flavor isn’t fit for the soil or the manure pile (Luke 14:34-35). Maybe that doesn’t strike you as offensive. Maybe you are mindful of the wonderfully fertile qualities of shit. People refer to worm shit (“castings”) as “gardener’s gold.” Chicken and cow poo is good, too. But salt without flavor is mostly good for killing things. Even shit has redeeming qualities.

When Karen Handel says her faith “leads her to a different place” on gay adoption, I’m not playing with this toxic manure. Faith that leads you to prevent gay parents from adopting does not bring life. You aren’t “saving” kids from becoming gay, or increasing the probability of them having healthy childhoods, or reducing the suicide rate of LGBTQ youth. Quite the opposite. It isn’t spreading the Good News. You’re doing harm in the name of Jesus, and that’s some serious bullshit. Not the good kind.

And don’t give me this hypocritical tone-policing humbug that has a problem with the word “bullshit” either. I’ve got LGBTQ friends and church members who have adopted kids, and straight parents who have adopted LGBTQ kids. This is not a difference of opinion. This is an attack on people I love. There are much, much stronger words that are appropriate, but they can articulate them better than I.

Mixing your flavorless faith with bullshit doesn’t make it worthy of our community garden. You and Roy Moore can keep that manure in your own yard. I don’t need the stink.

For further reading:

On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt

Text of the Day for 5-30-17

136.The_Prophet_Amos

Today’s text is from Amos 2:6-7:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way… (NRSV)

This is one of those passages that packs even more of a punch when you read it in context. Amos starts in chapter 1 by addressing all the surrounding nations and city-states: Damascus, Tyre, Gaza, Edom, and so on. He uses the same phrase: “For three transgressions, and for four…”

It’d be a bit like if I wanted to deliver a prophecy to the United States, but I started with North Korea, and then Iran, and then Russia, describing all their failures. I’d get my audience nodding along with me, but I’d save the best for last: “And as for you, you United States of America…” The repetition is a set up for a surprise.

Amos says that the guilt of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, is oppression of the poor. I’m going to stick with Amos for a few weeks, and later on we’ll get to the passage Rev. Dr. King made famous more than 2500 years later, but right now I just want to leave you with this perspective on Amos:

First, he lumps Israel in with the other nations in order to make a point: Israel’s special, but they ain’t that special.

Second, their main sin is oppression of the poor. Whatever else you may have heard about God’s judgment of Israel, Amos wants to make it clear—it’s not because of their lack of religiosity. It’s their mistreatment of the poor.

Which raises this question: “How are the poor mistreated?” And how can we avoid doing the same thing?

 


Twice a week (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

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Dear Jephthah

Alexandre_Cabanel_-_The_Daughter_of_Jephthah_(1879,_Oil_on_canvas)
You thought perhaps
it would be someone else—
a servant, or a servant’s child,
or a child’s pet.
You would trade
in someone else’s grief,
while you made sad eyes
and talked about a greater purpose
and collateral damage
and breaking eggs to make omelettes,
and the cost of discipleship
and each of us bearing our cross
and sacrifice.

 

When she ran out of the door,
smiling,
breathless,
almost as tall as you,
long limbs (where does the time go?)
covering the ground in half the time
(where does it go?)
as your wife,
and the servants
and their children
and their pets,
first through the door,
because she was faster than the wind,

 

I saw your face crack;
I heard your heart break.
Only last month
(or was it last year?)
she asked for a story every night,
followed by a song,
followed by a prayer,
and I hoped you would have the sense
to know that God has no need
for anyone to prove their righteousness.

 

When you swore your oath,
to sacrifice the first creature
who ran out of your door
in exchange for victory,
the chance was slim,
you thought;
and if it did so happen
that it was your child,
then you saw yourself as faithful as Abraham.
In your head,
you were already composing the story,
and you were the hero
because you sacrificed so much.

 

(Do not bring God into this.
Your idea
never entered God’s mind.)

 

You told her to go into the mountains
and bewail her virginity, and so
that is what she told you
she did.

 

I heard what she bewailed:
She bewailed a world
where men trade their children
for the image of their own virtue,
where they prize abstinence and virginity
more than life,
where legislators
and preachers
and pundits
and generals
bereave parents again and again and again,
where people in authority
make foolish oaths,
and stupid laws,
and empty promises,
that keep taking the lives
of queer kids,
and straight kids,
and any child
who sprints out of the door,
full of hope, and excitement, and love.

 

Jephthah, God is tired;
tired of parents grieving
so you can prove
how worthy you are
by sacrificing their children
for your holy war.

 

Jeremiah 7:31
Judges 11:29-40