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 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.

PSALM 146

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
    the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
    he upholds the orphan and the widow,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

The counsel to “not put your trust in mortals” should not be heard as a justification of suspicion and mistrust. A better translation might read “don’t place all your hope in human beings who are naturally imperfect, passing away, and short-sighted” – else you’re just setting yourself up for abuse and disappointment.

To trust someone and to put your trust in them are two different things, the first meaning to depend on and risk confidence in another, while the second is putting in them all your hope for happiness, meaning in life, and personal fulfillment. The first is necessary for healthy relationships; the second is setup for disillusionment and bitterness. If you elevate another human being to the extent that they become your constant obsession and idealized picture of everything you hope for and long to be, you must expect (although, of course, you will refuse to accept) that your life will have a cyclical rise-and-fall effect, since every idol faithfully disappoints its worshiper.

For U.S. President Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust everyone, but cut the cards.” That is to say, trust others as far as you need to (and that’s pretty far when you carefully consider) but don’t set yourself up for needless exploitation and ongoing injury. Put your trust, rather, in the God “who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.” Beneath and beyond, above and within all things is the One whose grace is ever sufficient to your deepest need.

RUTH 1:1-18

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
    or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
    where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
    there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
    and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

Ruth’s confessed loyalty to Naomi was of the all-or-nothing variety that Jesus later exhorted in his disciples for the kingdom of God. There are no conditions against such a commitment – “I will love you if” or “I will follow, but” or “I’ll stick by  you until” – and it is characteristically sacrificial in nature. Unconditional commitment determines not to allow changing circumstances, unforeseen risks, personal failures, or even breeches of trust to completely and permanently destroy the relationship.

Just as Jesus called his disciples to give up, leave behind, and move beyond the securities and attachments of this world for the sake of the gospel, so had Ruth determined that her love for Naomi would survive every conceivable loss. The quaternity of land, home, nation, and god (verse 16) names the intersection of forces that most powerfully shape a person’s identity in the world. Ruth was ready and willing, therefore, to transcend her very identity in faithfulness to Naomi. Once again, the parallel with the story of Jesus is both remarkable and instructive.

The shadow side of this lesson is that we all have a hell of a time (literally) breaking free from these identity-defining influences, and often decide in the interest of security over fulfillment. We will take up membership in a church, for instance, but when the urge to grow and change comes upon us, we might hide behind a wall of excuses or create a diversion of complaints and accusations.

When commitment is hedged by conditions and escape clauses, it’s not genuine.

RUTH 1:1-18

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
    or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
    where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
    and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
    there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
    and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

An earlier Dispatch highlighted blind Bartimaeus’ will to be well as the significant and deeper cause of his restored sight, according to Jesus himself. This passion for (physical) health, (personal) wholeness, and (spiritual) wellbeing was identified by Jesus on a number of occasions as the saving power already present and at work in the soul of the earnest seeker.

His role in such instances was to serve as midwife to the individual’s new birth at a higher level of self-understanding, helping the person see his or her struggle for what was not yet, as labor contractions in the liberation of something present yet hidden within them. Jesus invited Bartimaeus to name that for which he longed so passionately – and as parable, the object of his longing expands from physical eyesight to spiritual insight, from the sensory world of temporal forms to the suprasensory realm of eternal Truth itself.

In our story for today, it is Ruth’s personal loyalty to Naomi that breaks through her mother-in-law’s attempts (from the higher vantage point of the story over all) to separate their individual destinies and, in effect, remove her from the providential plot line of biblical history. Legally their relationship had been terminated when Ruth’s husband died, but her commitment to Naomi was fueled from a deeper source than social obligation. She loved her as she loved herself.

MARK 10:46-52

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Society saw no value in the likes of Bartimaeus, except perhaps as a convenient “drop box” for middle-class charity – providing the chance to pay off some of the guilty neglect and self-centered ambition with a few bucks. When he cried out for Jesus, the crowd was offended that he should want anything more than they had already been generous enough to give him (again, largely for themselves).

Beggars are not to have a voice; they are not to be noticed. Certainly it is unacceptable that they should become a nuisance. “Shut up, you damned rag!” they cursed. “Don’t you dare ask for more than you deserve!” But Bartimaeus persisted, even increasing his volume and pitch: “Jesus! Please have mercy on me!” And when Jesus called for him, the annoyed crowd said to the blind man in a scolding tone, “Lucky dog. Don’t blow this one.”

When Bartimaeus arrived at the place where Jesus was, he was confronted with a question that is critical to the advance of the spiritual life: “What do you want me to do for you?” The question of want (or longing, aspiration, or spiritual hunger) brings the matter of salvation to a profoundly personal focus.

The return path to the heart of God has been cleared of such impediments as penance payments or orthodox procedures, but progress down that path needs to be a voluntary effort – an ongoing act of decision and will – on the part of the one seeking salvation. Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus was his invitation to name precisely that for which he was yearning most deeply in his life. Once named, Bartimaeus’ own faith in its possibility became the effective agency for its realization.

MARK 10:46-52

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

As a humorous aside, “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus” was read by the author of Matthew, as he reviewed his sources (Mark’s Gospel being one of them), as indicating two individuals – Bartimaeus and the son of Timaeus – a confusion caused in part by the fact that the name Bar Timaeus in Aramaic translates as “son of Timaeus.” Not wanting to tamper with his source, Matthew simply copied the story into his own narrative, but with two blind beggars instead of one!

Here in the original story there is only one man, Bartimaeus, whose blindness is surely, on the level of symbolic meaning, representing our human condition generally: reaching out under the dark veil of spiritual ignorance for the Light and Love we need.

As a blind beggar, Bartimaeus was about as close as one could come to being a societal “bottom feeder.” Without social value or influence, his kind was forced to live off the scraps of charity the well-to-do might toss their way. As in our own day, back then the homeless and invalid beggars stationed themselves along the rush-hour thoroughfares and congested intersections of the middle-class rat race.

There were many like him who had no other recourse but to beg off the small change and stale bread of those who rushed by, their only ambition to get enough for now. Beyond that, however, they had little clarity or hope for more. But when Bartimaeus heard that Jesus the healer was coming by, his heart leapt within him. Here was his chance for what he had never dared imagine: to spring from his dark prison and see the light of the Day Star. “Jesus,” he cried out, “have mercy on me!”

HEBREWS 7:23-28

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

Even though a permanent fixture for world redemption has been set in place with the ascension of Jesus to God’s right hand – let us not forget that we are speaking metaphorically and in the language of myth – something is still required of the one seeking salvation, which is the will to be whole.

In Christian mythology, the everlasting intercession of the risen High Priest on behalf of us all is picture language for representing  the “good news” that Jesus revealed while on earth: that God loves the world unconditionally and has already forgiven the sinner, providing a free and clear path for our return. However – and here’s the point – God will not save us, indeed God cannot save us against our will.

We must want to be whole, or else we will persist in our inner divisions and contradictions. We must want to be free, or else we will continue in captivity and emotional paralysis. Yes, the universe is set up for salvation, but whether or not we will be saved is up to us, not God.

What does it mean, to want salvation? Well, just as we said, to desire and strive for wholeness – within ourselves, healing the split between body and soul; as well as between ourselves and others, restoring relationship where it is bogged or broken down with distrust, suspicion, resentment, or neglect. We might have added “reunited with God,” but in truth our reunion with God is accomplished in and through these other two paths – the paths within and between.

HEBREWS 7:23-28

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

The writer of Hebrews, likely writing in the decade following the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans (70 C.E.), is deeply engaged in spiritualizing the familiar parts and practices of temple sacrificial worship. As the apostle Paul had earlier transferred the identity of the temple itself from the physical building to the spiritual community of believers, so now this author (in the tradition of Paul) interprets the identity and saving achievement of Jesus Christ according to the earthly function of the Jewish high priest. But, of course, the heavenly High Priest is superior in every way, perpetually interceding for all those who call on his name.

The historical role of the Jewish high priest was to serve as chief mediator between the people of Israel and their God. On the high holy Day of Atonement he first purified himself and then offered a sacrifice of repentance (“returning”) on behalf of the nation, removing its guilt and wiping clean the slate of its sin-record against God. Although he had been raised up from among the people and (here was a sore spot for many Jewish purists) appointed by Rome, the high priest was fallible, in his own way sinful, and naturally mortal. In other words, he was neither perfect nor permanent.

But Jesus, according to this spiritual re-reading, was indeed perfect, and, what’s more, lives even now in everlasting beatitude with God. So, while there may have been legitimate questions over the certification and virtue of some of his former and earthly counterparts, Jesus represents a permanent fixture in the universal process of salvation. Now there is no need to travel to Jerusalem, or any other religious center for that matter, to have access to God’s saving grace.