Archive for the ‘Twenty-Eighth Bundle’ Category

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.

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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.

PSALM 34:1-10, 22

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
    for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

There is a strong current in the Bible, vocally represented in the traditions that promoted the idea of Yahweh as not only supreme among the gods but as the only god there is (monotheism), which regards everything that happens as directly caused or allowed by the divine will. When things go well for us, this doctrine poses no problem at all. But when adversity comes and bereavement leaves us reeling in its wake, the connection between God and our experience is much harder to discern – and much easier to doubt.

We can use the familiar Western “centers of consciousness” as a way of analyzing this conundrum, picturing God as like us in possessing a mind (knowledge), a heart (passion), and a will (action). When it comes to human suffering, then, perhaps God

  1. knows about it, but doesn’t really care and refuses to help.
  2. doesn’t know about it, and would care if the information was provided (suggesting the importance of prayer).
  3. doesn’t know, and wouldn’t care even if He did.
  4. does know and certainly cares, but is afflicting or allowing the suffering so that something else can be realized (such as humility, repentance, patience, fortitude, or wisdom in the sufferer).

As you can see, the first three explanations make God into something “less than God” in the classical sense of an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful authority over human affairs. The deities of other mythologies might demonstrate less-than-perfect qualities, but the unqualified monotheism of the Bible (Judaism and Christianity) and Quran (Islam) has traditionally forced believers to look for God’s hand (active/passive will) in our suffering and loss.

Another response might be to suggest that God names a mystery we cannot understand. Perhaps there isn’t a supreme being calling the shots or letting things slide. Maybe suffering is just part of the burden of existence – neither a punishment for sin or a strategy for our salvation. Sometimes it follows fairly predictably on our own poor choices, as the immediate or delayed consequence of what we are doing to ourselves, each other, and to our planet. Often, however, it defies explanation (even a theological one) and the best we can do is meet suffering with a grounded presence, mindfulness, and grace.

REVELATION 7:9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
    and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

One of our best examples of “dispatches from the edge of empire” is the New Testament book of Revelation. It was written during a time of persecution, when Christians (and other anti-imperial Jews) were being hunted down by Roman authorities for their unwillingness to give proper devotion to Caesar. The presence of such dissidents in an already unstable region would only spur other rebels and freedom fighters to resist the supremacy of Rome. Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 CE) was especially ruthless in his campaign to uproot resistance, particularly in Palestine, and it was during this time that the book was likely written.

We shouldn’t be surprised that a good number of nominal Christians – those attached to the movement out of curiosity, convenience, or personal benefit – did indeed relinquish their loyalty to the movement when their lives were on the line. For obvious reasons, this was a cause of deep concern for those with the larger and longer frame of history in mind. If Rome was successful in killing the kingdom movement of Jesus, his ideals of human liberation, compassionate outreach, and a New Reality of justice, equality, and love would die with it.

In an effort to encourage and strengthen the fugitive Christians, this author (traditionally John) wrote dispatches from the edge of empire, possibly from the island of Patmos where he had been exiled. This writing was heavily encoded with the imagery of myth, metaphor, and apocalyptic fantasy – codes that his Christian audience would have certainly understood, but which would have confounded any imperial interceptor. Many of these local and contemporary correlations are lost on the modern reader, removed as we are by thousands of miles and years of history. But a careful contextual reading of Revelation has helped us move past a simplistic literal (end-time prophetic) interpretation, to one more grounded in its actual setting and intended purpose.

It isn’t hard to imagine the charge of hope and courage a first-century victim of state persecution must have felt when s/he made the identification between the throng, white-robed and gathered in worship around the majesty of God (not Caesar!), and the underground community of Christians to which s/he belonged. I am not alone in this darkness. Many others, just like me, are holding fast to the faith. We will make it together! But even if death should come to me, the torch of our cause will not go out.