Archive for the ‘First Bundle’ Category

MATTHEW 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

To the degree that the portrait of John the baptist in the Gospels is confirmed also in the report on first-century religious and political movements given by the Jewish historian Josephus, we can say that John stood rather squarely in the tradition of what we earlier called an exclusionist messianism.

The Gospels themselves don’t give us any suggestion that John reached out beyond the boundary of Jewish identity, though he did attract a remarkably large following of Jews from just about every walk of life.

Both his geographical and ideological proximity to the sectarian group known as the Essenes places him as a possible one-time adherent of their community. His message marked a strategic departure from the sectarian outlook, however, in that he offered repentance with a requirement of formal sect membership through world-renunciation.

Upon repentance and their ritual washing in the Jordan, those responding to John’s call were sent back into their work-a-day world with a new ethic – not of separatism but fairness, honesty, and charity on behalf of the needy.

John’s concept of how the messianic age would come, and to what effect, was less kind to Pharisees and Sadducees – at least as Matthew tells the story. Their so-called leadership among the Jewish people had only magnified the law’s burden and depressed the human spirit. Both were in agreement that salvation needed to be officially mediated – by the law (Pharisees) or by the temple (Sadducees).

                                                                         

The Gospel writers inform us later on that John eventually grew somewhat disillusioned with Jesus and sent a delegation of disciples to inquire whether he was really the messiah of their expectation.

As far as his original insight was concerned – that the messiah of God’s in-breaking kingdom would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire – John was right on the mark. But once again, he was mistaken over the ultimate outcome.

John was anticipating that Jesus (or the messiah of his expectation) would cast the unrepentant moral reprobates of the world into the “unquenchable fire” of God’s wrath – and that’s where he got it wrong. Jesus did not, in fact, bring God’s vengeance but God’s forgiveness. And forgiveness, at least as Jesus understood and advocated it, is something that does not compute in the calculations of a black-and-white worldview.

But as a figure, John serve as the historical bridge from the moral paradigm of conventional religion (represented in the story of Judaism) to the mystical paradigm of esoteric religion. This move from membership to spirituality, from orthodoxy to enlightenment, and from an ethic of duty to an ethic of compassion, is a passage that faith must make in its progress to maturity and fulfillment.

Advertisements

ROMANS 15:4-13

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
    and sing praises to your name”;

10 and again he says,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

11 and again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
    and let all the peoples praise him”;

12 and again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

There were two streams in messianic Judaism that flowed alongside one another throughout its history, and even down to our day. One stream focused these expectations around a more exclusionist vision of the future, where the messiah’s coming would eradicate Israel’s enemies and secure world dominance for God’s chosen people. In this case, the Gentiles were definitely outside the circle of divine favor and salvation.

The other stream held a greater and more positive interest in the non-Jews of the earth. Not their destruction but their conversion to Torah and fellowship with God was the desired outcome. This second stream, of the more evangelistic type of messianism, is actually the more dominant of the two – if by dominant we mean more generally representing the worldview of the Bible.

In the first century CE these two traditions came into conflict, with Christianity (especially under Paul’s influence) following the path of world evangelism and the inclusion of the Gentiles.

Paul (the author of this dispatch) may begun his Pharisaic career more committed to an exclusionist messianism, but his visionary encounter with the risen Jesus radically changed his perspective. From then on, he became the leading proponent for a truly evangelistic (as distinct from “evangelical”) Christianity – not waging war on unbelievers, spinning out elaborate apocalyptic fantasies of their demise, or simply writing them off. They, too, were loved by God.

                                                                       

One of the most powerful metaphors that the apostle Paul invented to help in the growing self-consciousness of the Christian movement was that of the church as “the body of Christ.” The birth of this body had been the event of the resurrection, when Jesus was delivered by God from the extinction of the grave and granted the status of a “life-giving spirit” for all who seek authentic existence.

This metaphor and its association of ideas added something further to the paradigm of evangelistic messianism: It expanded the notion of the messiah (Greek christos) to the point of incorporating the disciple community in its identity.

In addition, it extended the work of the messiah into becoming the missionary purpose of the church, the disciple community. For Paul, the full accomplishment of Jesus Christ on behalf of the world’s salvation was as yet still pending, as his redemptive suffering seeks its completion in the self-sacrifice of every believer.

This critical move of Paul’s, to internalize the messianic identity of Christ first into the disciple community of the church, and then further into the true self of the disciple him- or herself, opened the Christian imagination to the mystical dimension.

When we proclaim Advent as being about more than just commemorating a miraculous birth long ago, but also about celebrating the birth of Christ-within, we are following through on Paul’s original insight.

Dispatch Two

Posted: December 22, 2013 in First Bundle
Tags: , , , , , ,

PSALM 72:1-7, 18-19

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
    and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
    give deliverance to the needy,
    and crush the oppressor.

May he live while the sun endures,
    and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
    like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
    and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

18 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
19 Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

It may be that David’s humble origins as a sheep herder and the youngest of eight sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite had made him sympathetic towards people of the lower classes. Their culture of hard labor, long days, and heavy taxes – the revenue for top-heavy imperial administrations was typically extracted from the peasant and artisan classes – made life for them nasty, brutish, and short.

As a matter of moral integrity, and out of honor for the memory of his former life, David worked diligently to represent the needs and ambitions of the poor in his policies as king. He knew there could be no prosperity in the land so long as the larger percentage of the people were shouldering the burden for the happiness of the small wealthy upper class.

Which all begs the question: How can wealth and power be more equitably distributed, unless it is taken from the rulers and capitalists by force and given to the underprivileged?

Whereas Jesus would later advocate an alternative program to the coercive measures of deposition and confiscation of property, his principle of human compassion and self-sacrifice in the interest of a more broad-based happiness for all was still only in its early conception phase.

That the wealthy and powerful might come to apprehend their shared identity with the poor and oppressed, to the extent that they measure their own success as human beings by their ability to elevate the quality of life for everyone, is a high ideal for any society, however ‘enlightened’.

ISAIAH 11:1-10

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Because we in the modern West have so divorced religion and its concerns from the political sphere, it takes effort on our part to recapture the power of the kingdom of God as a biblical symbol of salvation.

The prophets especially were grasped by its imagery of equity and justice, righteousness and world peace. Their vision extended beyond the human plane and into the realm of nature, where the future reign of salvation would reconcile the deep antagonisms between predator and prey.

No level or corner of creation would be left outside and untouched by the transforming event. And all of it turned on the axis of the messiah-king, the descendent of David whose arrival and ascent to the throne would usher in the new age.

There is no going back to a time before critical reason, when the mythic imagination was the dominant mode of interpretation and understanding. Just as the development of intelligence in children approaching adolescence must transcend (but not abandon!) the creative magic of fantasy thinking and awaken the capacity for a more objective realism, so our task now is to take up the symbolism of the Bible into an historically responsible worldview.

                                                                        

Jesse was the father of David, the shepherd boy who became king of Israel. As king, David had made his share of strategic mistakes and moral blunders, but his humble and contrite heart before God had left an indelible impression in the Jewish imagination as a truly righteous and godly leader.

After his death, however, David’s magnetic example of leadership integrity was progressively lost on his heirs, as they allowed Israel to drift farther and farther from her intended destiny as a blessing to the nations. When his son Solomon reached the end of his life, the question of succession had become hopelessly complicated, with sons, stepsons, and army generals all vying with one another and hatching assassination plots to improve their chances of success.

By the time of Isaiah (eighth century, BCE) two hundred years of romantic nostalgia for a savior-king and son of David, who would restore Israel to her former glory, had produced a highly charged messianism that would still later become the culture of expectation in which Christianity was born.

For Isaiah, however, the day of God’s messiah would not be an entirely positive experience for everyone. If peace was to come to the earth, then perpetrators of injustice and oppression would have to be uprooted and destroyed. If the world is to be made safe, then every threat and danger must be removed.

This very commonsense logic would eventually turn apocalyptic in the coming centuries.