Posts Tagged ‘action’

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.

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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.

JOHN 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” It would be easy to get distracted into a discussion on “the meaning of suffering” here, whether looking behind for a cause (in this case someone’s sin) or ahead for a purpose (“so that” God’s works might be revealed).

Let’s just say for now, that suffering doesn’t have to have a meaning at all. However cognitively disturbing or intellectually unsatisfying it may feel to just let it be, suffering – disability, illness, chronic pain, abuse, personal loss, relentless hardship, and even the mortal condition in general – might well be inherently meaningless.

Your spirituality and faith are no less genuine if you choose to regard suffering as absurd. The key thing in any case will be your ability to be present in the suffering and not explain it away, to be present to others in their suffering without reaching for one “justification” or another.

This passage is not really about suffering and its meaning (or absence of it). The man’s blindness is operating metaphorically as a condition of disorientation and being “in the dark” – a spiritual diagnosis of the human condition, according to many of the world’s wisdom traditions.

Every person is separated from the light-world of reality by a screen of ignorance, a condition which is compounded over time by the layering of additional veils with such names as assumption, belief, and certainty.

Physically blind people in the ancient world were commonly reduced to begging for their daily needs. This put them in a passive attitude with respect to the reality around them, as they awaited the charity of others. The ignorant certainty of many also keeps them in a position of passivity, laziness … even entitlement. They get to a point where they have resigned and turned in their key to the door of awakening and the liberated life.

                                                                                              

Instead of saying to the man, “Hocus, pocus, I command you to SEE!” Jesus made a mud paste and daubed it on his eyelids. “Go and wash.” 

The path out of darkness and into the light – from ignorance to understanding, from captivity to freedom – would require the man’s active effort. He needed to get on his feet and make his way to the Pool of Siloam to wash the mud from his eyes.

Once there, the man rinsed in the water – and was able to see!

Jesus performed this healing on a sabbath, which according to the rules was supposed to be a day for avoiding work, and making a mud poultice would have classified as “work.” This represents another tangent that we will forgo for now. One of the things that got him in trouble with the orthodoxy of his day was his insistence that human well-being always trumps religious obedience.

A cross of some kind typically awaits people like that.

The progression from darkness to light, then, called on the blind man – and on all human beings insofar as we are trapped behind our screens of ignorance and conviction – to take an active role in his liberation. Jesus wouldn’t let him sit there in passive expectancy, waiting around for something to happen.

Whatever fear he may have held concerning the risks involved in going on the unconventional prescription of a stranger – losing his begging post during rush-hour, getting lost in the streets, being ridiculed and shamed for his behavior – the man needed to step through the fear and do his part.

The religious leaders, still blind behind their orthodoxy, were unable to accept, much less comprehend, what had happened. This story is still playing out today …

MATTHEW 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

John’s baptism was for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, although the developing traditions of New Testament Christology tended to dismiss it as irrelevant in the case of Jesus. The mainline tradition had already captured the metaphor of sacrifice as the key to interpreting his crucifixion, which in turn required that the sacrificial victim (Jesus) be sinless and pure.

Consequently the baptismal episode in the Gospel narratives becomes more an ordination and empowerment scene than the resolution of commitment that it likely was for Jesus originally. In the conversation between John and Jesus there at the river we get the strange impression of a photo-op being staged for our viewing than a real moment of decision on Jesus’ part.

The important thing at any rate is that we see this as one more epiphany – another occasion where the truth of Christ is made to “appear through” the man from Nazareth. He wasn’t a mere man, but one who was chosen by God, ordained from above, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and appointed for the work of world salvation.

                                                                                                

Of all the Gospel storytellers, Matthew will make use of Isaiah’s suffering servant motif to the greatest extent, time and again making the comment that Jesus’ passion and death were the fulfillment of this ancient “prophecy.” (We put the word in quotations because prophecy, in the sense of predicting some far-off future event, was not how Second Isaiah himself intended his metaphor to be used.)

The point of it all is that we understand Jesus as God’s servant, as the one through whom the higher purpose of God’s will was fully realized. This means that not only did Jesus accomplish something of strategic and saving value on humanity’s behalf, but that in him we can see God’s purpose for humanity itself.

What is the human being intended to become? How can we envision human fulfillment? Matthew’s answer is: Look at Jesus.

This is a point of such importance that we must be very clear in representing its implications for the spiritual life. What is “seen through” Jesus is a sanctified humanity, an incarnated divinity, the glory of God in the human being – fully alive.

Beyond the several ways the story is told, whether we start from above or from below, whether its axis of meaning turns on the symbols of Pentecost, resurrection, baptism or virgin birth, it is always this image we are being invited to contemplate. But then our contemplation must deepen into faith, our faith must come to focus in decision, and our decision must move us into action – to see, to trust, to choose, and to follow.