Welcome to a blog that explores the Bible as a collection of writings from the dark edges of empire and orthodoxy. It no doubt sounds strange, referring to a “book” commonly regarded as a proof text of absolute truth, infallible authority, and the Last Word on Everything, as instead a loose collection of dispatches from the borderlands of disillusionment and resistance. The supreme irony is that this voice of challenge was eventually installed as the unchallengeable Voice of empire and orthodoxy’s official god.

You should probably know a few things about me, since I will serve as courier and your guide to the underground. I was an empire-ordained professional pastor for 16 years, before I got word that my services were needed elsewhere and for a different cause. Since leaving the halls of orthodoxy for the tunnels, I have continued to explore these revolutionary papers and their relevance today.

cropped-bible1.jpgIf you are interested to learn more about my philosophical commitments, I invite you to visit my blog “Tracts of Revolution.” In that blog I contemplate the implications of saying that truth is story-bound (constructivism), relative to location (perspectivism), more a transforming process than a timeless absolute, and which, if we let it, will take us on an evolutionary arc beyond the gods of empire and orthodoxy (post-theism).

In offering commentary on these bible tracts, I do not presume to any kind of special authority. All I can do – all any of us can do – is turn the text and let its words dissolve into the unresolved questions, the burning passions, the dreams of freedom, and the ineffable mystery of living on the falling edge of light.

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MARK 10:35-45

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The “cup” and the “baptism” that Jesus refers to  here are the ordeal and death that await him farther down the road. In fact, these metaphors were widely understood throughout the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ day. We find them in the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, for example. The cup represents one’s destiny, in the mixture and amount of wine one has been given – by fate, according to Aeschylus; by God, according to Jesus.

And baptism, the ritual washing whereby one is submerged in the water in a symbolic death and “raised up” to newness of life, often stands for a particularly profound and severe crisis which deeply transforms and drastically rearranges one’s priorities and perspective in life. Jesus knew that full commitment to the call of God would eventually lead him into the desperate violence of others, of those especially who had vested interests in the present world-system of spiritual abuses and moral imbalances.

The Son of Man came to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. A ransom is what is given up for the sake of securing the release or redemption of something (or someone) else. Jesus “gave up” his life not only on the cross, in his death, but throughout his ministry, as he “gave up” his time, energy, security, and comfort in the service of human hope and salvation. In doing this, he set free all those many who perceived in him the authentic life, who would find the faith and courage, then and now, to take up their cross and follow.

In truth, we are giving our lives up every day for something or other. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not the object of our sacrifice is supremely wholesome and worthy.

MARK 10:35-45

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

James and John were brothers by Zebedee, and are elsewhere named the “sons of thunder,” suggesting they were of the type that bring down storms. At least it is fair to say that these boys were not quiet and withdrawn; when the spirit moved them, they spoke up and acted out. Firebrands might be another name for such personalities. These are the movers and the shakers of the world, and no doubt the early Christian movement benefited from their aggressive involvement.

Another word that can apply to such extroverted and energetic individuals, however, is impulsive, which names their tendency to act on impulses coming up from the place in our human psychology below rational reflection or careful consideration. When James and John cornered Jesus for his promise of their superior positions in the coming kingdom, they were clearly not speaking out of a balanced and accurate understanding of his teaching.

It is as if, after Jesus has just revealed the Diamond Truth of his gospel, about the way of authentic life through the voluntary “death” of self-interest for the sake of another person’s wellbeing, these two then take Jesus aside and demand, “Uh-huh, but we’d like to be on top when everything shakes out.” If they had grasped his Truth they would have understood that as long as such ego concerns as status, power, recognition, and superiority are preoccupations, the call to go past the self in compassionate service, redemptive justice, and sacrificial love will not be heard.

HEBREWS 5:1-10

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
    according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Jesus became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” by opening the path through the jungle of human experience, not to some alien world in the afterlife but into the heart and higher possibilities of our life in the present world. He didn’t say, “Just hang in there, and it will be over soon.”

Rather, the refrain of his good news message was that we are all of us in the evolutionary throes of becoming. He said that by God’s grace we can enter into the fullness of life before we die, but that if our death comes early we can die into this self-same grace, like a child falling asleep in its mother’s arms.

How did Jesus discover that unconditional grace is always and everywhere available, if not for the fact that he outlived his last doubt and out-loved his last fear? Because he was subjected to the toils and mortal condition of our shared human experience, and kept his spiritual balance through the gauntlet of rejection and physical trauma, Jesus was “made perfect” just as we are “made perfect” (finished, complete, whole) in the fire on the altar of life. The author regards Jesus as our high priest who offered his example as our way through and his living spirit for our present comfort and strength.

Melchizedek was the mysterious higher priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem) who offered Abraham communion, with a blessing over his enemies. In return, Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything he possessed.

PSALM 104:1-9, 24, 35c

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
    you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
    fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
    so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
    the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
    at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
    to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
    so that they might not again cover the earth.

24 Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.

35 Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!

When the divine voice answered out of the whirlwind of Job’s suffering experience, it was not in defense of God’s justice or in prosecution of Job’s sin that it spoke. Instead it lifted Job’s attention to the larger context of his experience where far-off supernovas explode and seed new planetary systems, unpredictable weather patterns devastate entire regions with flood or drought,  hungry lions chase down gazelles, and this moment dies to give way to the next.

What would existence be if suffering in its countless varieties were completely eliminated? There could be no life, for life of one thing requires the death of another for its metabolism of energy. There could be no growth, for growth necessitates the termination of one phase for the next to begin. And since to exist is to survive in time, gradually reaching maturity but then winding down to extinction, time itself would have to be removed – leaving what?

Admittedly it’s not a remedy to the vexing problem of human suffering, but a widened view on the universe can be remarkably effective in helping us cope with our own burden of existence. Once the aperture of your perspective has opened up to take in the countless marvels of creation, it almost always happens that wonder, awe, and gratitude awaken in your heart. In wisdom God has made them all. Praise the Lord!

JOB 38:1-7, 34-41

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
    so that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
    and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
    or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods cling together?

39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens,
    or lie in wait in their covert?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God,
    and wander about for lack of food?

Why didn’t God come clean and just confess to Job that He had made a bet with Satan, and that the poor chap had performed admirably throughout his ordeal? “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t let you in on the secret without ruining the game. You did just fine, and congratulations.” Why not? For the simple reason that the heavenly wager between God and Satan was not intended as an explanation of Job’s suffering, but rather as a device for disqualifying the popular theory that people suffer in this life only because they deserve it.

Because Job is presented as a righteous and blameless man, the author needed another way of launching him on his misadventure. And while the opening wager scene offends our modern moral sensibilities, it was really about the only way the author could set the stage without giving up entirely his core belief in the sovereignty of God.

Instead of either an explanation or a confession, the answering voice from the whirlwind raises Job’s awareness from a personal focus on his own troubles, to the expansive mystery and marvelous complexity of existence on the cosmic scale. God is saying in effect that He’s doing the best He can, and if Job thinks he can do better he should step up and take over. As the Buddha in India discovered at about the same time: Life is suffering.

JOB 38:1-7, 34-41

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
    so that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
    and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
    or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods cling together?

39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens,
    or lie in wait in their covert?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God,
    and wander about for lack of food?

If there is a dominant lesson that the Book of Job is trying to bring home to us, it is that life’s meaning will not be found in explanations. An explanation is always and necessarily an abstraction from experience, whereby we step out side of the moving stream of life itself and take hold of verbal formulas that name and assign value to what we are experiencing.

Being the thinking creatures we are, we cannot help but jump to conclusions frequently in order to make sense of what’s going on. It becomes especially profound when we are making our way through tragedy and loss, but the one truth that we must learn in life is that its meaning is not “out there” in some mind-independent reality, but instead is constructed (and subsequently entertained) by our mind.

The whirlwind in this passage is surely a metaphor for Job’s experience: disorienting, confusing, unbalancing, chaotic. Up till this moment in the story, Job’s friends have been advising him on how to make sense of his misfortune and personal illness – by seeing it as retribution for unconfessed sin or at least as due chastisement for insisting on his innocence before God. But all of their explanations and theories amount to nothing more than a piling-up of justifications for God, letting God off the hook by shifting the blame to Job.

Job’s unwillingess to play the scapegoat for God resulted at last in his experience of epiphany. God answered Job out of the whirlwind – not from outside it, but directly out of its chaos of questions and contradictions.

Image  —  Posted: April 11, 2018 in ContraVerse

MARK 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Grasping, finally, the two-edged blade of this difficult passage, we need to ask the urgent question that rushes to the modern mind. Is Jesus here condemning every divorced and remarried person as an adulterer? And if so, then aren’t such people disqualified from grace and salvation because of the perpetual state of their sin?

Well, let’s say something first about grace and its disqualifications. According to Jesus there are none. Grace is not defined in terms of a recipient’s merit or obedient effort for its reward. Grace is God’s outpouring of life and blessing and love, regardless of whom it ‘spills’ on or how deserving they are. Grace is a “God thing.” Jesus invited tax collectors and prostitutes to his meals, not because he approved of their lifestyles or condoned their sin, but because he believed that everyone is sought and loved by God. He didn’t approve of adultery either, but he would not have excluded an adulterer from the fellowship.

But what about his hard words on divorce? To understand what Jesus meant when he called a remarried person an “adulterer,” we must try to appreciate his very high view of the marriage covenant. Marriage is a sacred union under God, the terms and conditions of which are not for the human partners to negotiate. In marrying, they are joining their lives together in a sacrament that constitutes them as a “new being” in the sight of God.

Just because, and for whatever legitimate reasons, the partners decide to divorce, doesn’t nullify the holy union – at least from God’s point of view. And Jesus was trying to help us see marriage, and all of our human relationships for that matter, from God’s point of view. The forgiveness of God, thankfully, means that we can always pick up the pieces of our lives and venture forth under God’s blessing, hopefully with a bit more wisdom under our hats.

MARK 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

There are few places in the New Testament that stand to cause such a fuss in the Christian world as what we find in these remarks of Jesus regarding marriage and divorce. Before we take on the challenge of weighing his words, we should note the thing that links this passage to some other recent Dispatches.

A major idea that we have found has to do with what we might call the world’s habit of falling short of our human ideals. Job’s contemporaries (as well as our own) needed to believe that suffering was capable of being explained away using the model of justice: in short, you suffer what you deserve. And even though the psalmist believes this with all his heart, or at least wants to believe it, life itself will eventually relieve him of this mistaken (because naive) view.

The writer of Hebrews, for his part, admits to the discrepancy between our intended humanity and our present humanity, between our created glory and our fallen (or not-yet-risen, unawakened) condition. In the full and complicated picture, we have things as they appear in the center, with the way we wish things were on one side, and the way things really are on the other. Our task is to embrace and become what we truly are, though this requires that we release our anxious attachment to outgrown beliefs, with is no easy thing.

In this Gospel story, Jesus once again draws a line, this time between the conventional view of marriage in Jewish society and another, one might almost say idealistic, image of what marriage ought to be. Is this mere wishful thinking on Jesus’ part, or is there a deeper truth to be discovered in his challenge?

HEBREWS 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

2Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
    subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

As “pioneer” of our salvation Jesus opened up for all humanity the frontier of our further evolution. Prior to his coming – and that means prior to our personal realization of the essential truth Jesus represents to us – we were confined by a religious orthodoxy that lacked creative depth and saving power, bound fast by our own fear of condemnation. Up to that point, conventional religion had served us well: shaping our beliefs, our values, and our identity as in a great cultural factory.

The time came, however, for a “second birth” – a birth out of the womb of the inherited faith and assumptions of our predecessors, as well as the popular plastic-wrapped platitudes of the wider culture. But the cost was high: something worthy living for must ultimately be worth dying for, and we must be willing to pay the price.

Jesus was “made perfect through suffering,” as the author says, by following the same path as Job. We will recall that Job refused to either dismiss his suffering as insignificant or fixate on it as the only thing that mattered. Instead, he was able to “pass through” his suffering to the higher realization of God’s self-revelation in the midst of and not outside his ordeal.

In a similar way, Jesus demonstrated through his suffering that a full commitment to the Way of Love can help us pass through the curtain that separates us this moment from life in its fullness. To follow him on that path is to die to our former identity with all its threshold guardians, and be reborn into our True Humanity.