Archive for November, 2014

MATTHEW 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

More kind and reasonable people these days are having difficulty with the classical doctrine of the Last Judgment, where the righteous are granted access to heaven and sinners are thrown into hell based on the moral record of their life on Earth. For some, it’s not so much the incentive system they have a problem with – though it does have a very juvenile feel to it. Instead it’s the idea that someone who sins, even 24/7 over an entire lifetime, might “justly” be punished forever as a consequence. That seems like a very unfair justice system.

Now add to this what we’re told in a prophetic parable put into the mouth of Jesus, where people will be punished for eternity in hell simply because they neglected (overlooked or ignored) the basic needs of others for food, water, clothing and human contact. By not doing something, you can wind up in merciless torment – forever. That’s not just unfair; it’s sick. Who can possibly get into heaven with such standards in place?

But let’s not stop there on our downward slide into the ridiculous and ethically offensive. Later Christians (including the majority today) would even go so far as to say that not holding the proper doctrine warrants everlasting suffering in hell. Conscious refusal to believe a statement of orthodoxy – but worse, not believing because you were never made aware of it in the first place – is apparently grounds for the cruelest punishment imaginable. This goes to show how “top heavy” and gnostic (primary value in head knowledge) Christianity has become – and how far from Jesus it has strayed.

A second look at the parable put in Jesus’ mouth – and there’s too much about it that sounds Matthean to confidently attribute it to Jesus himself – might help us get past the diabolical and twisted sense of justice it seems to be promoting. It’s very likely that Christianity already back then (in Matthew’s day) had started to forget the original company mission of Jesus, which had nothing to do with the arrangement of doctrines in your head, but rather with how far your compassion can reach into the needs of those around you.

Helping a person in need is serving Jesus. A proper Christian is one who loves others and does good in the world. We need to stop complicating things.

EPHESIANS 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

As the decades after Jesus rolled on and Christianity shifted paradigms, from a Hebraic-historical to a Hellenic-metaphysical orientation, the work of Christology (the theory and doctrine concerning Jesus as the Christ) became increasingly other-worldly in focus. Earliest (oral) traditions had tried to continue with the social revolution begun in the life and teachings of Jesus, proclaiming human freedom from guilt and debt by a new dispensation of God’s unconditional forgiveness. As time went on, however, as the religio-political system of oppression continued and grew even more sinister, Christians began turning their hope to other dimensions – first to an end-time apocalypse and then to the realm of metaphysics.

The letter to the congregation in Ephesus (Ephesians) was written in the name of Paul, but not likely by the apostle himself. Its language is freighted with Greek metaphysics, where victory over the axis of evil is less an awaited future event (the Jewish expectation) than a current fact, with Jesus (as Christ) presently exalted over every rule and authority and power and dominion. This is obviously a long way from the gospel guerrilla who was crucified for his perceived role in fomenting revolt against Rome, and a good distance also from the apocalyptic messiah who will come again someday soon.

We’re not saying that a metaphysically oriented religion is bad or wrong, by any means, only that this shift from “what’s ahead” to “what’s above” changed the nature of Christianity in a fundamental way. Indeed Jesus’ kingdom movement, announcing the in-breaking power of God through the surrender of faith, the courageous decision to act, and the generous outreach of love, soon was transformed into an institution of ordained leaders, orthodox doctrines, membership rosters, and operating budgets.

With this shift from history to metaphysics, from the temporal urgency of Jesus to the transcendent deity of Christ, from social revolution in the world to individual salvation from the world, it might be said that Christianity lost its way and became a world religion.

EZEKIEL 34:11-16, 20-24

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

While his contemporary Jeremiah was announcing a New Reality to the Jews left in the devastation of Jerusalem, Ezekiel was rebuilding the hopes of those exiled in Babylon, uprooted from their homeland and heritage. The Babylonian army had swept down in the year 587 BCE, breached the walls of Judah’s capital and leveled its temple, deporting a vast number back to foreign territory. In both locations, amid ruins and in a strange land, the people had similar questions: Why did this happen? What are we to do next? And most importantly, Where is God?

The question of God’s presence is less an inquiry into the whereabouts of a deity than a deep anguished search for grounding in a time of pain, bereavement, and disorientation. By grounding we mean a sense of internal support, a provident uplift of peace, comfort, and healing strength coming up through the very center of our urgent need.

Due to the constraints of language, our effort to speak about and make sense of this grounding mystery inevitably generates the impression that we are talking about something external to us and essentially outside our experience. Soon enough, symbols are mistaken for the mystery they suggest and metaphors are flattened to literal meanings, further elaborating the misunderstanding that God is “out there” and must be called upon to intervene on our experience from outside.

Rather than speaking on God’s behalf and bringing a message from somewhere else, Ezekiel – and this is the peculiar spiritual psychology of the prophets – was himself the very mouthpiece of the grounding mystery and provident uplift of God’s presence, addressing the exiles out of the epicenter of their grief and loss. He lifted the vision of a New Reality and called them to faith in God as a present grace and future hope.

Set Free

Posted: November 14, 2014 in ContraVerse

Set Free

MATTHEW 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Hypocrisy has been alive and well in every age. The active circuit from the doctrines espoused in our heads to the deeds performed by our hands is frequently broken at the fuse of our hearts. If the truth we claim to know is to empower how we live, it must be “taken to heart” – that is to say, it must be embraced and internalized in the values that inspire commitment-in-action. When this critical link is missing, our “talk” and our “walk” fall out of alignment and can even become blatantly contradictory.

The biggest gripe Jesus had with the Pharisees (teachers and upholders of Mosaic law) was not over their beliefs or puritanical religiosity, but their hypocrisy. With the Torah and prophets in their doctrinal library, they had access to a treasury of truth that ought to have been practically evident in their behavior. Loving God wholeheartedly and the neighbor as oneself, lifting the burden of poverty and extending hospitality to strangers, helping the hopeless and promoting community – such directives and aspirations were part of their Jewish heritage. But you wouldn’t know it by observing how they lived.

Hypocrisy is the death knell of any tradition, and is for the individual a kind of character suicide. When leaders of a tradition are unmistakable hypocrites, the consequences are not only devastating for those who look to them for guidance, but they often prove permanently fatal. The contradictions reach so deep into the identity of the tradition that it can no longer hold itself together. Sacred truths may be true again, but only someday, after sufficient time has passed and the canceling effect of hypocrisy has died with the phony leaders who misrepresented them.

MICAH 3:5-12

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
    who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
    when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
    who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
    and darkness to you, without revelation.
The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
    and the day shall be black over them;
the seers shall be disgraced,
    and the diviners put to shame;
they shall all cover their lips,
    for there is no answer from God.
But as for me, I am filled with power,
    with the spirit of the Lord,
    and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
    and to Israel his sin.

Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
    and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
    and pervert all equity,
10 who build Zion with blood
    and Jerusalem with wrong!
11 Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
    its priests teach for a price,
    its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
    “Surely the Lord is with us!
    No harm shall come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you
    Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
    and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

There is a strong (perhaps irresistible) tendency in organized religion to arrange itself around professional services, where administrators (“rulers”), officiants (“priests” and pastors), and ethical agitators (“prophets”) are paid for what they do. So strong is this tendency, in fact, that it’s difficult for us to imagine what a non-professional religion would look like, or if it could even work in our present culture. Just about every role in society has become specialized and valuated to the point where a person can earn a living at it, from presidents to professional parents.

Religion’s primary role is to bridge the inner and outer realms of human experience, to connect our spirituality (inner) to the rest of life (outer). Inevitably religion will get involved in morality and politics, art and science, education and business, working to help coordinate these various arenas and disciplines in a way that honors a deeper sense of the grounding mystery within us.

From one perspective religion begins to fail when its primary role gets overwhelmed by a felt need to occupy and defend cultural market share as an institution. Its tradition rapidly loses currency amid social change, modern innovation, and normal generational turnover. As its worldview slips out of relevance, more emotional investment and less rational scrutiny – in the mental phenomenon called belief – are required to keep things going.  Eventually other people (experts: rulers, priests, and prophets) are employed to manage religion for us and we become religious consumers.

Back in Micah’s day (8th century BCE) religion was already becoming a pay-for-service business. Such an arrangement is a setup for abuse, as religious professionals shift the burden of their livelihoods onto the shoulders of parishioners, and the parishioners, as consumers, start to use their pocketbooks to solicit only what they want to hear. This can give the impression of a religion that’s vibrant and growing, when in reality it may be little more than a personality cult whose roots have lost anchor in the grounding mystery.

Bankruptcy and ruin are its destiny.

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.

Already in the first century Christianity was moving in a very different direction from what Jesus’ kingdom movement had been about. During his ministry Jesus had emphasized the immediacy of God to the individual, without respect of religious membership or moral character.

The religion of his day had inserted a hierarchy of mediators and purity codes between the soul and God which a person would have to wait on, compensate, or satisfy before blessing was granted. Jesus reacted aggressively against this exploitation by religion and its leaders, insisting that God was not only approachable by everyone but had already made the first move by releasing humanity (all of us) of our guilt-debt and dispensing unconditional grace on the righteous and sinners alike.

A vision such as Jesus’ kingdom movement provides not even a toe-hold for hierarchy. If all that’s needed is the turn-around of a willing surrender where the individual gives up trying to please, flatter, impress, or appease God, and instead simply welcomes the good news (gospel), joyfully accepts the gift and shares it with others, then there is nothing more that needs to be done. No special orthodox instruction or creeds to recite. No purification ceremonies or membership fees to pay. No ordained experts to vouchsafe your salvation.

The kingdom movement of Jesus began as a “spreading” phenomenon – proclaiming the good news and touching human need everywhere it was found – but soon became a “stacking” enterprise where ranks of power, privilege, and purity pushed God (at least this religion’s god) up and out of human reach.

At the time this letter was likely written, Christians (still as a messianic sect of Judaism) were being persecuted by order of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) for not honoring his office with proper worship. During this period – and during subsequent periods of persecution and hardship, down to the present day – there was tendency to shift the focus of Jesus’ original vision, out and away from the present reality of suffering, to a heavenly realm up there, over there, and in the next life.

The classical Jewish hierarchy of priests and sacrificial rituals lent itself as a ready analogy to this author. Jesus did his work on our behalf, interceding for our sins. Afterwards he was exalted above the heavens, where he now continues to make God approachable to us and us acceptable to God.

This is where the Christ of orthodoxy made its fateful departure from the Jesus of history.