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.

MARK 12:38-44

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

As these middle-class church members filed by, depositing their offerings in the temple treasury and then moving on, Jesus saw a poor widow shuffling in the line, her head down in a socially supported shame, looking almost comically out of place with pressed suits and deep pockets on either side. As she approached the treasury box, the streak-faced old woman opened a wadded handkerchief she had been clutching in her hand, and from it, as if drawing fragile eggs from a bird nest, she took two copper coins and dropped them, reverently, in the depository. And then she, too, moved on.

Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Gentlemen, you have witnessed an act of great sacrifice, for this woman has given God everything she has.” To Jesus, this poor woman had given “more than all those who are contributing to the treasury” because her offering was not from the bottom, after all the bills have been paid, but from the top – that is to say, she gave God the “prime cut” and not the leftovers. It’s not the amount of the gift that matters most, but the level of gratitude and sacrifice that the gift represents. Yes, the others had given more when the numbers are added up, but this destitute widow had put God first.

We are reminded of the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer, about which is “the greatest commandment in the Law.” Love God with all that you are and with all that you have, Jesus had replied. And that is just what this homeless lady did – to the glory of God.

MARK 12:38-44

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

We must be careful not to read a condemnation against the rich into Jesus’ observations by the temple treasury. Nowhere does he condemn wealth or prosperity, not does he anywhere say that rich people cannot enter the kingdom of God. What he does say is that it is very difficult, next to impossible, for a wealthy person to sufficiently detach from the comforts, habits, and values that cohere and soak into his or her sense of identity.

Just as it was impossible for a loaded camel to enter the city of Jerusalem by a gate known as “The Eye of the Needle,” it is likewise impossible for a rich person who has deeply identified with their wealth, along with the lifestyle and worldview it affords, to enter the kingdom of universal compassion and cross-bearing social justice.

What did Jesus see, as he watched the line filing past the treasury box? He saw wealthy people dropping in their offerings, giving to God a percentage of their incomes. The practice was the same back then as it is still today: middle-class church members bringing to God what is left, after the bills have been paid, some spending money set aside, and the pantry stocked for the month. It may not amount to ten percent of their net income (the requested tithe), but what can you expect? You’ve got to live, right? All these things are necessities, don’t you know, and there is just no possible way to put more in the box than what you have in hand at the end of the month. There isn’t (necessarily) any deception going on here; just simple mathematics.

MARK 12:38-44

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Scribes were the scholars of Jesus’ day, who preserved the sacred texts of Judaism by meticulously hand-copying the Torah, Prophets, and historical Writings to new parchments. Since Judaism was popularly known as “the religion of the Book,” these copyists were highly honored and respected in Jewish society. Their task was believed to be both holy and precarious, seeing as how there is a moment in the transmission of the Sacred Word when the legacy of revelation is vulnerable to the fatigue and fallibility of the scribe. Consequently, they were held in great esteem by the common folk – and apparently enjoyed the stage light of public admiration.

Jesus, however, saw right through all this pomp-and-costume display. He likely accepted the functional importance of scribes in preserving the textual tradition, but it was their arrogance in thinking of themselves superior in personal worth and privilege to the average Jew that most annoyed Jesus.

Imagine! Here is a class of folk who daily handle the writings of such revealers as Moses, Isaiah and Amos, and yet in their personal attitude and behavior they contradict the very message they are responsible for passing on. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” Jesus promised, which means that such charlatans will be held more highly accountable for perpetuating such hypocrisy as what undermines the integrity of a perfectly good religion.

HEBREWS 9:24-28

24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Auspicious time is all about alignment: observing life with such attention that you begin to notice rhythms, synchronicities, coincidences and connections that tend to escape ordinary (hurried and distracted). One variety of alignment found in late-biblical Judaism and Christianity is called apocalyptic, where earthly structures and events were seen as temporal-visible replicas of heavenly models.

Typically someone with clairvoyant powers would report on events presently unfolding in the hidden realm, and then make the predictive claim that such-and-such was about to “come to pass” in the historical near future. As messenger, the visionary prophet could prepare the people for coming events before their fulfillment in time, calling the community to repentance, into hiding, or to organized resistance. Frankly, apocalyptic thinking has been wildly abused in religious history, compelling true believers to desperate and frequently violent acts in order to “hasten the day” of the world’s end.

Nevertheless, apocalyptic thinking still has a place in the religious worldview of many. When it’s not being shamelessly abused, this vision of the alignment of heavenly and earthly events can effectively inspire believers to readiness, watchfulness, and moral courage – qualities that Jesus praised in these “last days.” The author of Hebrews believed that his community was alive at a truly auspicious moment, when Jesus, who had offered his life as a sacrifice and then ascended as high priest to make atonement on behalf of the world, was about to return to earth for the worldwide congregation of those who had kept the faith.

Today, Christians are still waiting – and their alertness is keeping watch for us all.

PSALM 127

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
    the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
    and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
    for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the sons of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has
    his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

There is a theory in psychology called ‘misattribution theory’, which states in part that we human beings have a universal habit of taking credit for things we have little or no control over, even as we place blame for our failures on those very same things. If I served an ace just now, it was because of my remarkable talent and athletic skill; but if I next send the ball wide of the line, it will be because the sun was in my eyes or my grip slipped on my racket.

The psalmist is probably saying something even more profound: that in addition to possessing the necessary construction skills and sufficient resources, the ultimate will and intention of the universe (which religion names “God”) must be behind and within the effort for the house to be built or else it just won’t get done. This may sound like we’re making God into nothing more than a personification of fate, but spiritual wisdom doesn’t regard God as just another name for “whatever happens.”

There is, rather, an acknowledgement of God as the creative and organizing intelligence that wills the universe into being and guides its evolutionary process. Why is it that the identical blueprint, materials, strategy, and effort can succeed magnificently one year but repeatedly fail later on? We might say “timing,” and the psalmist would agree. Worrying about it won’t help. Instead, keep your eyes open for God-given opportunities!

RUTH 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”

4 13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The startling outcome of the story is that Ruth, a Moabite outsider, is incorporated into the biblical story of blessing through the motherly grace of Naomi; while Naomi, a Jewish insider, is granted a child by the grace of working through the generativity of Ruth. Think of it: without Ruth hooking up with Boaz and eventually giving birth to Obed, there would have been no shepherd-king David in the future, and perhaps to united kingdom of Israel either.

Who would have thought that Israel’s dynastic glory days would issue from the womb of a pagan foreigner? There’s a wonderful irony in play here that would not have been lost on any reader back in the time when this story was written. And then there is the still more wonderful comedy, that Ruth should be included within the collection of writings considered sacred and God-inspired by Jews and Christians alike.

Ruth is a persistent challenge to our tendencies toward separatism and the elevation of “our people” (race, nationality, class, political party, religion or denomination) over others as superior and divinely favored. With Ruth, the entire future of the Jews would have been drastically different. While the distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders” is probably unavoidable, we are cautioned against making divisions that prevent us from seeing God in the other.

RUTH 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”

4 13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The story of Ruth, when it was originally composed, must have caused quite a stir within its audience, for it challenges a couple of very deep and basic beliefs when it comes to the relationships between insiders and outsiders. Naomi was an insider who had settled with her Jewish husband in the Israeli town of Bethlehem to raise a family. When her husband died, she left for the foreign region of Moab with her two sons, where the boys found wives and settled down to families of their own. Ruth was one of the Moabite women that married a son of Naomi, which makes Ruth a non-Jewish outsider.

Typically the nature of social prejudice is found in just a few but very fundamental judgments about one’s own people and the conspicuous traits that make them superior to outsiders. It may be skin color, language, lifestyle, gender, age, heritage or family history, but such as the ingredients that go into the making of a shared (by insiders) standard of human value. The associated assumption, of course, is that anything good and anything worth hoping for must come with within, from “us” – “our people.”

Jews and Moabites were prejudiced against each other, as all human groups tend to be. But the greater suspicion was in the Jews toward the Moabites, since their privileged status as God’s “chosen people” had historically set them apart from all pagan foreigners. The story of Ruth is a parable of prejudice transcended for love’s sake.

MARK 12:28-34

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

“Love God with all that you are,” Jesus said, “and love your neighbor with the same care with which you love yourself”: these are the first and second greatest commandments in the Law. Again, these phrases were not new, and even the pairing of the two had a history before Jesus. What was different here, however, had to do with his conspicuous interpretation of what these mean and how they are related. (And this is where Jesus came into conflict with the lawyers of his day.)

So when the scribe affirmed Jesus in his answer to the question of the Law’s greatest commandment, Jesus congratulated him with a statement that apparently had some disturbing ambiguity about it: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not far? Yes, very close. But not yet inside. What was missing? It may be that what was missing was action, and behind that the decision to act, and beneath even that the deeper desire that drives our human journey godward.

This is the same will to be well that Jesus listened for in blind Bartimaeus. Without this will engaged, the most accurate and inspired insights into the nature of existence and the meaning of life are only “good answers,” but not saving truths. To enter the kingdom of God you must want it more than anything else, then you must decide to take action, and finally you must act. You take the risk, make the leap, and the story of your life comes true.

MARK 12:28-34

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

What is the single supreme principle under which the complex system of religion can be summarized? Jesus answered with essentially one word: Love. For Jesus, love isn’t merely a warm feeling of positive regard. When directed towards God, love is worship that is passionate and sacrificial, so that everything is “given up” (as an offering of devotion) for the sake of the divine glory and will.

When directed towards the neighbor, love is service that is compassionate and merciful, so that everything is “given over” (as a gift of hospitality) for the sake of human hope and wellbeing. In the spirituality of Jesus, passionate worship and compassionate service are seen as the vertical and horizontal pathways along which must flow the energies of any valid and meaningful religion. One without the other is incomplete, leaving either a socially irrelevant and private piety on the one hand, or a spiritually flat and secular morality on the other.

But even though these two dimensions of the religious life are inseparable, they are not entirely equivalent. Our love of God must provide the “ultimate concern” in our treatment of others. As the Quakers profess, “There is that of God in every person” – which means that our regard for and actions toward our neighbor must begin with an acknowledgement that our relationship to God is implicated or “folded into” our dealings with them.

God is not something else besides our neighbor – above, behind, or outside them in a separate location of His own. Instead, God is our name for That which underlies and energizes existence itself, “inhabiting” our neighbor as electricity inhabits a light bulb. To seek God passionately is to find God compassionately.

HEBREWS 9:11-14

11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

The high priest in Jerusalem entered but once a year through the curtain in the temple separating the Holy Place from the sanctuary commons, wherein the presence of God was believed to dwell in the fullness of glory. Interceding for himself and on behalf of the nation, he offered up to God the sacrificial blood of repentance, sprinkling it upon the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant according to strict ritual procedures.

Of course, what was really going on was a national catharsis of sorts, where Jews sought and received purification for their cumulative guilt over the previous year, and prepared to enter the new year with clean hearts. The atonement ritual in the temple by the high priest was the outward and visible demonstration of an inward and spiritual renewal of the people, made possible by the grace and forgiveness of God.

Continuing with his analogy of Christ as the high priest and sacrifice for our salvation, the author contemplates the contrast between the institutional high priest of Jerusalem and the heavenly high priest who by his own death and ascension has entered the realm of glory and motivated the grace of God on our behalf. Just as the annual ritual in the temple was really the outward display of an inward event of salvation, so the historical drama of Jesus’ ministry, revelation, and martyrdom for the kingdom of God was also the realization in time and location of a truly timeless and universal truth.

To understand this is to have our “third eye” opened to the mystical depths of religion where our heart’s true longing – to be pure, whole, and at peace – is satisfied. The spiritual purpose of religion itself is to instruct and facilitate our human progress into God.