Archive for December, 2016

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.

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.

One way of undermining community is to focus our critical energies on others, exposing their shortcomings and condemning their sins. Of course, as members in community we need to be morally vigilant and address injustice where it occurs, but when we only look outward in our vigilance we can quickly become saboteurs of the very thing towards which our evolution is aimed.

So James advises the Christian to examine the soul and moral life of him- or herself. It’s been said that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason: so “be quick to listen and slow to speak,” the apostle enjoins. And don’t just memorize and spout off doctrines, but seek to live out the truth they represent.

The tongue is a viper, so the proverb goes. Elsewhere in this same letter, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship: though small and seemingly of minor significance, the tongue can steer the vessel of one’s life into all kinds of peril. So important is the tongue in the author’s estimation that anyone who believes and recites the confessions in church but cannot control their speech during the week is perpetuating a worthless religion.

We’ve all heard the maxim that “talk is cheap,” and surely that is true. But what comes forth from the mouth, as Jesus says, was first formed in the heart, which means that while talk may be cheap, it’s still a dependable witness to the soul’s general health.

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.

James presents us with the portrait and prescription for an authentic humanity, much as the psalmist had in his eulogy of the king as God’s viceroy on earth. This is, in fact, one of the principal preoccupations of true religion: to envision, contemplate, aspire toward, and finally bring to realization the fullness of what we are essentially, if at present only potentially, deep within our nature.

There are many occasions in life where we will be tempted away from this inner truth and evolutionary ideal of our human fulfillment, lured in the direction of something more superficial, convenient, and instantly rewarding. We know when we have left the path for such deceptive promises and hollow pleasures. Our experience in these moments is one of frustration and disappointment, which ought to alert us to the fact that we are diverging from the intended aim of our existence (the literal meaning of ‘sin’), but too often we instead redouble our efforts in the direction of our fantasy and thereby merely amplify our discontent with life.

The evolutionary ideal mentioned above is not something we can attain or actualize on our own individually, for human fulfillment leads inevitably towards and depends on the formation of genuine community for its flourishing. And yet, paradoxically, genuine community itself is only possible as individual members awaken to the life of compassionate coexistence and the cooperative pursuit of peace. How can we begin? The counsel of James is that we start by being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” That way, we make room for the love of God.

PSALM 45:1-2, 6-9

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
    I address my verses to the king;
    my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of men;
    grace is poured upon your lips;
    therefore God has blessed you forever.

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
    Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
    you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
    with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
    your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
    daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
    at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

The psalmist gazed admiringly upon Israel’s king, attributing his unrivaled wisdom and prosperity to the fact that he stood with integrity in the will of God. Other kings outside the nation of Israel, and even most kings in Israel after David, were very often opportunists rather than faithful representatives of God. Because they were more interested in amassing wealth and concentrating power into their own hands, these others fell predictably to corruption and defeat. Only a small number of biblical kings even came close to the ideal picture of the poet’s praise song – David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah – and even they slipped occasionally.

In some Psalms of the Bible, the king is held up is such high regard as to be nearly idealized. He was called a son of God, the divinely appointed shepherd of his people, and the representative fulfillment of humanity itself. It may partly have been due to his especially public presence, but the best of kings was taken to be an example of an authentic human being. When he carried out his responsibilities with the will of God foremost in his mind and heart, his decisions turned out to be wise, his actions effective, and his achievements noble.

SONG OF SOLOMON 2:8-13

The voice of my beloved!
    Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
    bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
    or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
    behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
    looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away.

The love poetry of Solomon’s Song has attracted many with its sexual symbolism and romantic themes, a fact that drove the post-biblical church to interpret it away from its obviously sensual and towards a more hidden spiritual meaning. Thus Christ became the groom and the Church his bride, with the longing between them representing the romance of salvation.

Later mystics used the imagery in the Song to picture the soul’s passionate desire for the divine beloved. Originally (and probably not written by King Solomon himself) the poem was likely a love song celebrating the erotic energy and attraction between a man and woman on their wedding day. It is an inspiring tribute to the natural impulses and physical beauty that are so magical in the romantic interplay of the sexes.

This section of the Song gives an account of the groom’s approach to the place where the bride lies in waiting. Up till now her world has been cast beneath the spell of winter and its grey overcast mood. Hitherto she has only dreamed of this day, and at last it arrives, bringing the rebirth of spring to the land. Everything about the bride – her hope, her imagination, her heart, and her very body – is magnetized by expectation for the one she loves. Such total passion is what makes her experience, and her life in that moment, authentic and vibrant with meaning.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” this is what he meant.

JOHN 6:56-69

56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

What happened that so many of those who claim to be Christians actually become opponents of Jesus’ original vision and way of life? How is it, for instance, that we erect multi-million-dollar church buildings in the name of one who charged his disciples to go out into the world with “no bread, no bag, no money in your belts” (Mark 6:8)?

How did it happen, and when exactly, that we traded a moral vision of universal and unconditional love for a heady and dogmatic orthodoxy? Where did we begin to convert his simple ethic of sacrifice on behalf of the poor and compassion for the outcast into a middle-class morality of  mail-order charities and government programs? When you put it all together like that, it becomes painfully obvious that the so-called Christian West (especially North America) has betrayed Christ more than any other people.

As many of the others were abandoning Jesus for a more manageable religion, Peter declared his allegiance to the difficult path. “Lord, where else could we go? You are giving it to us straight, so I’m with you, come hell or high water.” Peter recognized that his devotion to Jesus and to the cause of the gospel was not about his personal comfort and dogmatic security. In a moment of clarity he understood why he was standing there with this Galilean visionary on the edge of history. Jesus represented real life, and Peter was wanting nothing less.

JOHN 6:56-69

56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

A friend once commented to me how this passage, and in particular John 6:66, reveals a truth concerning the anti-christ – about the one who turns against Christ. Instead of referring to some apocalyptic figure on the future stage of world politics, the real anti-christ is what inside ourselves pushes away the gospel’s total claim on our lives.

We may attach ourselves to a local faith community, give assent to the key beliefs of our tradition, and carry on as decent law-abiding citizens. As long as our religion helps us cope with the stresses of postmodern life and guarantees our beatitude in the life to come, we are willing to stay with it.

But should the deeper message and challenge of Jesus’ gospel break through our defenses, we complain with the disciples, “The teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” We would rather worship Jesus on Sundays than follow him devotedly throughout the week. To identify ourselves so completely with the example, the spirit, the mind, the gospel, and the revolutionary vision of Jesus – “Who can accept it?” we murmur, and turn away.

And that is precisely when we turn against (anti-) Christ. It’s not in hostile acts of aggression but by subtle dissociation that we become enemies of the gospel. The more of us that exempt ourselves from having to “eat the flesh and drink the blood” of Jesus, that is, who pass off the call to discipleship because the personal sacrifice is too great or the challenge of forgiveness demands too much, the more significant a barrier we become, individually and collectively, to the present realization of his vision.

EPHESIANS 6:10-20

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

In addition to the helmet of personal integrity, the breastplate of moral uprightness, and the belt of truth, the Christian disciple is advised to put on the shield of faith, the shoes of witness, and the sword of God’s word. Faith will be able “to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one,” the writer explains, a “flaming arrow” being any number of challenges and hardships that could otherwise, without the protection of a trust reliance on God, overwhelm us and do us in.

Thus free of anxiety, we can have all confidence as we venture boldly forth with the “gospel of peace,” the good news of God’s love revealed in Jesus, as our testimony to others. And should there be times when we feel at a loss how best to share our hope with the world, the word of God (not the Bible as yet, since its writings were still int he process of being composed and collected) will be provided to us at the decisive (from decidere, to cut) moment.

In the tradition of the apostle Paul, this writer exhorts his readers to remain strong and not shrink back in the face of trouble and persecution. Sending his letter from prison, he remained hopeful for an opportunity to share God’s love and the gospel of Jesus even there. And that is true for all of us, no matter our life situation. Indeed, it is frequently in the places we’d rather not be that our greatest opportunities for bearing witness are found.