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 7:24-37

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Both of the miracles reported in this passage were performed in a geographical region (from Tyre in the north and southward into the area of the ten federated cities of eastern Palestine, the Decapolis) populated primarily by non-Jews. In light of what we noted in D-257, in considering the episode of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman as a possible breakthrough moment in his own mission strategy, it is interesting that the second miracle, healing a deaf-mute, was performed by him without the need to be persuaded.

If we accept the developmental theory of Jesus and his gospel, then these two miracles in the foreign territory of the gentiles were his first with a universalist intention behind them. He had come, he now understood, for the sake of all people. His philosophy of mission had penetrated below the ideological divisions of insiders (Jews, “the children”) and outsiders (gentiles, “the dogs”), to include all of humanity.

In line with what James cautioned concerning a faith that is inwardly removed from the sphere of practical challenges, social issues, and moral choices, we can see that the developmental crisis in Jesus’ life and ministry had to do with the fact that his deepest spiritual insights were as yet inner realizations and not ethically mature. In particular, his conviction about the universal love and unconditional forgiveness of God needed to break through certain traditional prejudices and personal habits of mind in order to find its fulfillment in action. Until he relented to the woman’s protest and then reached out to the deaf-mute’s human need, his faith, on that level at least, was, practically speaking, dead.

MARK 7:24-37

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Recent studies of the Gospel that approach both the narratives as well as the personal life and career of Jesus from an evolutionary perspective have compiled textual evidence suggesting that Jesus grew into his enlightened vision of the kingdom of God by steps, or developmental crises, along the way. A couple instances, for example, portray Jesus early in his ministry operating by the conviction that his “good news” was intended exclusively for the Jews, since he was himself a Jew and had caught hold (so he believed) of the key to its essential truth and future hope.

As in the case represented in this episode from Mark’s Gospel, this conviction was challenged externally by non-Jews who, perhaps better than he at the moment, had grasped the implications of his message and personally challenged his assumptions regarding its broader relevance. This gentile woman perceived in the gospel of Jesus not just a program for Jewish reformation, but a universal vision for the whole world.

Jesus’ distinction between “the children” (Jews) and “the dogs” (gentiles) was common in the ideology of his day, a prejudice in favor of those who saw themselves as the chosen people, God’s elect. The teachings and promises of Judaism, in this view, was not for everyone – only the children. When this Syrophoenician woman protested on behalf of “the dogs,” Jesus had to reconsider.

JAMES 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Faith and works (or deeds) are the soul and body of the spiritual life. Just as the soul animates the body and the body incarnates the soul, so faith energizes our good works and good works actualize our faith. This dynamic relationship between faith and works was kept in focus so long as faith itself retained its critical position in Christian belief, as that which believes (in Latin, fides qua creditor: faith as basic trust and surrender to God) rather than that which is believed (fides quae creditor: faith as a point of church doctrine).

When the confusion set in, as it did already by the time James is writing, the avalanche towards a more dogmatic orthodoxy had begun – a deviant momentum from the original spirit of Jesus and his gospel that we have not yet been successful in correcting.

Typical characteristics of dogmatic religion are that it is excessively weighted on the side of doctrinal purity, is largely disengaged from the practical-ethical complexities of real life (evidence by general and absolute judgments on contemporary moral issues), and is aggressively exclusive in its ideology. Early Christianity was showing signs of degeneration in this direction, and despite the writer’s good efforts, the trend continued in the post-biblical period.

Of course, we are not suggesting that doctrinal clarity and a more or less systematic understanding of spiritual matters are unimportant. Faith as a simple and fundamental total trust in God needs the mind as much as the will for its full development. James’ point is not that faith  must become less intellectual, but that it needs to be more ethically relevant. In short, it needs to be morally productive. Faith that lacks a strong efferent nerve to the limbs and muscles of practical choices and actions is (as good as) dead.

JAMES 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

There must have been some in the Jerusalem church who countered the protest against privileging the already-rich with the argument that, compared with other transgressions of the Law, this one was minor and barely qualified anyway. By ranking the trespasses thus, ordinary folk who thought of themselves as basically good people could build a top-heavy list of sins, tapering off on the descent to where their own meager vices were nearly neutralized by comparison. “So I curry the favor of the well-endowed,” we can hear someone saying, “but at least I’m not a murderer!”

But to assign greater value to the rich member over the visiting poor was tantamount to violating two of the most basic principles of biblical ethics: equality of all before God, and responsibility of one for another. So attributing superior worth to a wealthy benefactor over a poor vagrant is no mere slight in the eyes of God. In the ethics of the Bible, to honor the dignity of another human being, however low they may be on the social scale, is to give the greatest glory to God. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had put this equation to work.

Something more: the author reminds us that even the smallest violation of the law is nevertheless a violation of the law, which puts us all on equal standing in another sense.

JAMES 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

“Money talks,” the old adage goes. It doesn’t very often tell the truth, perhaps, but it holds a persuasive power that can be nearly impossible to resist. Just as today, the church in Jerusalem had tended to tilt in favor of the wealthy over the poor, giving them best seats in the house and more volume to their preferences and complaints. Even back then, ministry was supported through congregational stewardship, and the biggest givers frequently got the largest votes.

Thankfully, behind church politics and denominational greed there is the charter document of the Gospel, which tells the story of Jesus whose words on the accumulation of wealth and the societal division between the rich and the poor are anything but sympathetic to our temptations toward money. Jesus consistently came down on the side of the poor against those whose lifestyles, social prejudices, and religious self-justifications perpetrated abuse and neglect on the backs of the disadvantaged majority.

Since those with money often put forward the capital investment to fund the church’s mission to the poor and others in need, it is sometimes (mistakenly) believed that the investors are more important to her ministry than the beneficiaries. Which brings up another question: As church property and the technology of ministry become increasingly expensive and elaborate, what becomes of our responsibility for the humble poor?

PSALM 125

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people,
    from this time on and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
    on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not stretch out
    their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
    and to those who are upright in their hearts.
But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways
    the Lord will lead away with evildoers.
    Peace be upon Israel!

As a monotheistic religion of high moral standards, the way of life prescribed in the Bible centers around an image of God as Creator, Lord, and Judge of the universe. Whereas today we might take a  more naturalistic approach to morality and say that where you end up is a function of where you started and the decisions you made along the way, the Bible sees this matter of where you end up as more a matter of divine retribution than natural consequence.

The difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” may not be obvious now, with our difficulty in seeing into the hearts of persons, but in the future the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer – that’s when we’ll know. And it’s all because God is just and fair and will give out due recompense for every good or evil life.

Even before the ink was dried on the scrolls, however, the Bible itself began to record a gathering voice of dissent to this straightforward retributional morality. Sometimes good people are the ones who suffer, and with no recompense – at least in this life. And sometimes mean people prosper. Who can make heads or tails of it? In the end, the Bible’s view was deepened to say that godliness is inherently rewarding for the human.

 PROVERBS 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
    for they share their bread with the poor.

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Deep in the spirituality of the Bible is a moral insight, that one’s choices and way of life are productive in bringing forth a future harvest of consequences. It’s not simply the fact that every action produces a consequence of some sort, but that one’s quality of life tomorrow, along with one’s moral destiny in the longer term, are determined by the faith and responsibility by which one lives today.

The religion of the Bible is not alone in this belief. Indeed, all of the religions teach that personal destiny is in large part a function of moral character and whether one’s choices and commitments are inherently self-interested or rather performed with a higher good in mind.

The Bible went still further, however, in its unique and revolutionary concern for “the poor of the land.” Beyond just being a “good person,” it was imperative that a believer in God actually share in the divine compassion for those who suffer and who are outside the social circles of power and privilege. With a beginning recognition of equality before God between the rich and the poor, the bible’s compassion-driven morality went on to predict that neglect of the poor would result in one’s own calamity.

This wasn’t a you’d-better-or-else motivational stick, but instead reflected a deep understanding of the plain fact – and you really have to work hard not to see it – that we are all, the rich and the poor, connected in an interdependent web of relationships. In other words, we’re all in this together and it does no good to drill a hole in your neighbor’s side of the boat!

MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It’s time to ask about the dividing-line between what is essential and what is conditional or secondary in the religious life, according to the teachings of Jesus. Lest we deceive ourselves, we must not assume that for Jesus spirituality was merely a matter of what one feels inside, or how pure and noble one’s intentions might be. Jesus was intensely interested in the “fruit” of our lives, that is, in what is produced by the hands and the mouth in the form of ethical behavior. You can tell the tree by its fruit, he said on a number of occasions.

But Jesus also knew that fruit is only part of the tree, a trusty witness to the internal health of the tree, but it’s not everything. Moreover, you will frequently find when you bite into an apparently wholesome piece of fruit, that it’s mealy and rotten inside. Just so, good works may be more about the visual display than genuinely benevolent motives.

The heart, while maybe not the birthplace of our motives (that’s probably farther down), is where they gather emotional energy as attitudes and convictions. The heart is also the center of consciousness tuned into that most mysterious of all our human frequencies: love. On the continuum of human consciousness, the heart-center is situated midway between the mind-center above, which responds to the frequency of truth, and the belly-center below, where the survival concerns of life are dominant.

Between the life urgencies we carry in our bellies and the truth-claims we defend in our heads are the desires and aspirations we hold in our hearts. Our lives tend in the direction of what we love most. Is it God?

MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

We are each aware of our life as it unfolds through time, with an exterior facing out to the world and an interior opening to the depths of the soul’s inner space. The ego, our center of self-conscious identity, toggles this boundary between objective facts and subjective feelings, between matter and value, between sensory perceptions and subtle awareness, between what we appear to be and what we really are.

To be perfectly honest, it is far easier to manipulate appearances than to live authentically, and much to be gained as far as the acceptance, respect, envy, or fear in others we are hoping to impress is concerned. Jesus didn’t put much weight in appearances, and he was sometimes caustic in his criticisms of those who fluff their feathers and strut around for the glamour value of their knowledge or social class standing.

The real tragedy – and this is what disturbed Jesus so much – was that these appearance-and-protocol obsessed legalists were not only duped themselves, but were pulling others into their delusion. For them, you’d better follow the rules and pay your dues to tradition if you hope to be in God’s favor. All the purity and dietary laws prescribing how and what one could eat were taken to be the “fundamentals” of their religion, and to transgress on these was a crime against God punishable by exclusion from the community.

Jesus looked at them and saw not only a hollow piety but a dangerous deception for the multitudes as well. And so, for the sake of their liberation, he spoke out against it.

JAMES 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The tongue is the organ of the soul’s testimony to the world. Our professions of belief, our statements of promise, our agreements in community, and our advocacy on behalf of those who have no voice are together the creative agency through which the realm of human meaning (the cultural cosmos) is generated and sustained.

Conversely, the word can also be an agency for destruction if we use our speech to deceive, condemn, flatter, gossip, or justify our prejudices against others. There is something to the popular practice of making affirmations, where declaring forth one’s positive convictions and aspirations serves as a kind of attractor for their outward manifestation in the world.

When it comes down to it, however, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” is more than doctrines and verse. Yes, our actions will tend to follow the direction of our speech, but in the end the only deeds that will finally matter are those performed for the health and salvation of the world. To be deeply invested in the world for its awakening and coming-to-wholeness, but without forfeiting or forsaking the will of God for the world, is the narrow ridge of our spiritual journey. On one side is the ravine of an other-worldly religion of no earthly value, and on the other is the gulch of a worldly religion with no spiritual vision. Walking the ridge can be lonely and dangerous at times, but it’s the path of the world’s true hope.