by Fred Plumer, President Progressive Christianity.org
I must admit for twenty three years in the pulpit, I was not a great fan of Lectionary commentaries. The commentaries always seemed too contrived, were overly concerned with nuance and often seemed dated in the scholarship. And now as someone who has spent nearly a decade in the pews in possibly a hundred churches, I have grown weary of pastors struggling to create a sermon out of the lectionary selections, often trying to force two or three of the selections into something meaningful. So when I agreed to do a review for Sea Raven’s second year set of commentaries, I was hesitant. However, I was delighted to discover that Sea Raven has created something of great value here. Drawing on some of the best and latest scholarship available, she brings new life to words and texts that have lost their meaning and their intention for far too many people, including those leading churches. She accomplishes this with clear and even simple language and a clarity that I find rare with scholars.
As in her first commentary, The Year of Luke, Sea Raven frames her commentaries by responding to four questions: 1) What is the nature of God? Violent or nonviolent? 2) What is the nature of Jesus’s message? Inclusive or exclusive? 3) What is faith? Literal belief, or commitment to the great work of justice-compassion? 4) What is deliverance? Salvation from hell, or liberation from injustice?…
The Gospel of John is a narrative, theological proof that Jesus was the Messiah, the One Anointed – consecrated, selected – by God to establish God’s rule – God’s Kingdom – on earth. The Pharisee Nicodemus illustrates the process by which even leaders in the Jewish communities who rejected the whole notion of Jesus as the Messiah might still come to believe. He visits Jesus during the metaphorical night of conventional thought in chapter 3. He reappears in chapter 7 among the temple authorities who threaten to arrest Jesus (John 7:37-8:20). In that scene, Nicodemus challenges his colleagues to abide by the Law and not pass judgment on someone without first allowing him to speak for himself and establish the facts. The chief priests and pharisees are not happy with Nicodemus, but they allow Jesus to make his argument. He says, “I am the light of the world,” which further enfuriates the pharisees, but they do not arrest him because “his time had not yet come.” Nicodemus’ final appearance is with Joseph of Arimathea, who takes Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:38-42). John writes that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus because he was afraid of the other members of the community. Nicodemus, “the one who had first gone to him at night,” brings an inordinate amount of “myrrh and aloes weighing about seventy-five pounds” with which to wrap the body.
An uncritical Christian reading might imply that Nicodemus may still have been holding some doubt about who Jesus was. While he did speak up for him on behalf of the Law, the contribution of all those burial spices may have signalled a sense of guilt for not “believing” Jesus was the Messiah. Perhaps Nicodemus did it because he had a literal understanding of Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus is going to literally come back from the dead (like Lazarus), it might be wise to do all he can to preserve the body! Twentieth century Scholar Raymond E. Brown argues that the “brave action of the hitherto timid Joseph and Nicodemus seems to indicate that Jesus, raised up, has begun drawing people unto himself” (The Gospel and Epistles of John, Liturgical Press, 1988).
But suppose Nicodemus’ gesture is part of John’s continuing proof. Jesus was seriously dead. He was truly executed by the Romans as a terrorist, buried, and as orthodox creed puts it, “descended into Hell.” Then in an act that defied all religious logic and secular expectation, God raised a crucified enemy of the state from the dead into God’s realm. Even more subversive, and missed by most commentaries, the action the two pharisees took with Jesus’ body was an outrageous demonstration that Jesus was indeed the Anointed One. They treated the body of an executed criminal with extravagently greater respect and care than normally due a righteous follower of the Law.
The Gospel of John is fraught with 2,000 years of Christian interpretation that insists “belief” in Jesus’ story means a free ticket to heaven after death, and “non-belief” means an instantaneous condemnation to hell. It has been the raison d’être for the worst excesses of anti-Semitism, and the destruction of aboriginal and non-Christian societies world-wide. It has had a greater influence on Western thought than possibly any other biblical narrative. Reinterpreting the Gospel from the point of view of late 20th and early 21st century Biblcal scholarship requires a willingness to ignore traditional meaning – and of course begs the question: Why bother?
In a recent op-ed published by the Martinsburg (West Virginia) Journal, Sean O’Leary writes about NBA all-American Jerry West. West came from an abusive, dysfunctional family. He used basketball as a way to dissociate himself from the terror at home, and became “the ninth greatest professional player of all time.” O’Leary says that while West was one of the lucky ones, most people caught in abusive situations are unable to get out. Instead they retreat into booze, gambling, junk food, cigarettes, pain killers, and assorted drugs; and it happens more often in West Virginia than anywhere else. “The National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease control rank West Virginia among the leading states for the prevalence of depression, anxiety-related disorders, and . . . suicide. We’re nearly five tmes more likely to kill ourselves than we are to be killed by someone else. And suicide combined with accidental drug overdoses (usually prescription pain killers) kills more of us than even traffic accidents.”
O’Leary calls this crisis “West Virginia’s disease of othe soul.” It is a disease of the soul because the underlying cause of these problems is never addressed: that is, mental illness, depression, and addiction are seen as character flaws: a lack of self-discipline, a failure of resolve, or even a dearth of religious faith, “traits for which they believe people should be admonished or punished rather than treated.” That “dearth of religious faith” goes right back to the misinterpretation of John 3:16-21. Traditional, conservative, and fundamentalist Christians quote John 3:16 as the defining Christian statement of faith:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds shouldbe reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. John 3:16-21 (KJV).
The standard interpretation is if you don’t believe Jesus came back from the dead, you can’t be saved. Even with the latest translation, the same meaning seems inevitable. Jesus explains to Nicodemus how it came about that God designated Jesus as his Anointed One: “In the desert, Moses elevated the snake; in the same way, the Human One is destined to be elevated, so everyone who believes in him can have unending life . . . All those who do evil things hate the light and don’t come into the light – otherwise their deeds would be exposed. But those who do what is true come into the light so the nature of their deeds will become evident: their deeds belong to God” (The Complete Gospels p. 214).
In order to reclaim this metaphor of the religious leader who came out of the darkness, in secret, to meet Jesus and ask him what he was all about, a few points about the nature of God, and what belongs to God must be understood. Jesus tries to remind this learned pharisee of what he is supposed to know: that what comes from the spiritual realms is spirit, and what comes from human realms is human. In order to be part of God’s realm, everyone must be reborn by God’s spirit. Nicodemus takes this literally, and so has just about everyone else for the past 2,000 years.
In order to be “reborn from above,” God’s spirit must be understood as distributive justice-compassion. Throughout the Bible, God acts to establish, restore, and keep God’s law: for the widow, the orphan, the slave, and even the animals that reside with God’s people. Everyone participates in God’s demand for justice. Whenever the people stray from justice – whether it’s refusing to annilhate the Amalekites, or tricking Uriah so the king can take his wife, or worshiping the idols of the conquerors, God withdraws his support and the people suffer famine, war, and exile. Whenever anyone follows God’s rule of distributive justice-compassion – whether or not they belong to the original 12 tribes of Israel – God works for them: they win the battles, reap the harvests, abide in their own profitable, peaceful land. It’s never about belief. It is always about action: radical, outside-the-box, unconventional, anti-imperial action.
Catholic scholar Sandra Schneiders writes:
[T]he textual Nicodemus is actually a type of the true Israelite, who progresses in faith from seeing the signs to doing the truth according to the scriptures, to finally confessing Jesus openly as the one in whom the Old Testament finds its fulfillment. . . . Nicodemus is the very type of the truly religious person, who is, on the one hand, utterly sincere and, on the other, complacent about his or her knowledge of God and God’s will. Such people are basically closed to divine revelation . . . it is only after they have been reduced to the futility of their own ignorance that they can begin the process of coming to the Light not by argument or reasoning but by doing the truth, a process that gradually opens them to the true meaning of the scriptures. Written That You May Believe p. 119.
So when the people of West Virginia or any state, and their governors and officials and social service agencies, refuse to deal with the underlying disease of the soul, and instead throw desperate people into jail for breaches of law, in John’s language, they are “those who refuse the son [and] will not see life; no, they remain the object of God’s wrath”: God’s justified displeasure with and active judgment against those who do not obey God’s law. The strength of sin, writes the apostle Paul is the law (1 Corinthians 15:56) – that is, the conventional law of social organization. That law does not protect and support the widow, the orphan, or the stranger needing hospitality. It supports the rich, the bully, and the political patron.
Nicodemus is the model for moving from uncritical belief to doing what God requires and ultimately arriving at the truth. But as Jesus points out, and as Sean O’Leary laments, that spirit of truth “blows every which way like the wind; you hear the sound it makes but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s headed.” Transformation can’t be spoon-fed; it has to come “from above.” Until it does, O’Leary writes, “the statue of [Jerry] West that stands outside the WVU Coliseum will be as much a monument to West’s and West Virginia’s disease of the soul as it is to the athletic achievements it’s meant to celebrate.”
The Gospel of John is far more relevant to sustainable 21st century life than the 19th century anachronisms of Ayn Rand, or the demonstrably failed economic theories offered by neo-conservative presidential politicians, or fundamentalist literalist theologies – Christian or non-Christian. “God’s rule” does not mean salvation from hell in the next life, but radical fairness on earth in this life. Radical fairness means distributive justice-compassion in ecological, economic, environmental and social policy; it requires a radical abandonment of self-interest, even to the seemingly impossible point of loving one’s enemies. Living under God’s rule means subverting the laws governing all aspects of society, and embracing God’s imperial rule, not Cesar’s. Jesus’ teaching about God’s rule means not only the overthrow of the occupying Roman government of the first century, but the fulfillment or actualization of the law of Moses, and the transformation of what John Dominic Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization” itself.
Nicodemus came out of the shadows, out of the darkness of conventional religious and political social expecation. He later uses the law against those who wanted to discredit Jesus and arrest him. He finally throws the law in its conventional face by treating the violated body of an executed criminal like a king.
Charles Krauthammer has signed onto Carl Sagan’s pessimistic conclusion that there is no intelligent life in the universe (other than Earth Humans) because advanced civilizations destroy themselves. It seems to be the ultimate Cosmic Joke. As Worf’s son Alexander opined at a Star Trek wedding, “the higher, the fewer.” Krauthammer – of course – has no time for the theological implications. He concludes: “Politics – in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations – is sovereign in human affairs . . . Fairly or not, politics . . . will determine whether we live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few – the only – who got it right.”
I would argue that politics is not sovereign in human affairs. …
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick
December 31, 2011, 7 p.m.
This worship service combines the contemplative spirit of Taizé chant with the Celtic liturgy of the Iona Community.
Taizé (“Tayzay”) is a tiny village hidden away in the hills of Burgundy in the eastern part of France, not far from the town of Cluny. Since 1940 it has been the home of an ecumenical community of brothers whose prayer, three times each day, is the center of their life. Today, Taize is a place to which visitors of all ages and backgrounds come on pilgrimage to participate in international meetings of prayer and reflection.
The Iona Community, on the Island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community, and the renewal of worship. The Iona Community leads daily worship in the restored Abbey church, which was originally a medieval Benedictine foundation.
Both of these communities represent places where the veil between the material and the spiritual world is thin. You are invited into that same spirit with this liturgy.
The Invocation of the Graces (Carmina Gadelica)
One: This is the joy of all joyous things,
the light of the beam of the sun
the door of the chief of hospitality
the surpassing star of guidance
the step of the deer of the hill
the step of the steed of the plain
the grace of the swan of swimming
. . .
Another: The best hour of the day be thine
The best day of the week be thine
The best week of the year be thine
The best year in the Son of God’s domain be thine.
One: Encircle us, Giver of Life
All: Keep safety in, keep danger out
One: Encircle us, Giver of Light
All: Keep brightness in, keep darkness out
One: Encircle us, Giver of Grace
All: Keep peace within, keep conflict out.
All: May you be a bright flame before us, A guiding star above us, A smooth path below us, A loving guide behind us, Today, tonight and forever.
Mara Freeman, Kindling the Celtic Spirit
Song Spirit of God (Iona Community)
Spirit of God, unseen as the wind
Gentle as is the dove,
Teach us the truth and help us believe,
Show us the Savior’s love.
You spoke to us long, long ago
Gave us the written word;
We read it still, needing its truth
Through it Love’s voice is heard.
Reading Isaiah 52:7
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Laudate omnes gentes
Laudate dominum. (All people praise the Lord)
Reading Inspired by Love and Anger (Iona Community)
Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain
Informed of God’s own bias, we ask him once again:
How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self interest turn prayer and pity blind?
From those forever victims of heartless human greed
Their cruel plight composes a litany of need:
Where are the fruits of justice? Where are the signs of peace?
When is the day when prisoners dream and find their release?
From those forever shackled to what their wealth can buy
The fear of lost advantage provokes the bitter cry
Don’t query our position! Don’t criticise our wealth!
Don’t mention those exploited by politics and stealth!
To God, who through the prophets proclaimed a different age
We offer earth’s indifference, its agony and rage:
When will the wronged by righted? When will the Kingdom come?
When will the world be generous to all instead of some?
God asks, Who will go for me? Who will extend my reach?
And who, when few will listen, will prophesy and preach?
And who,when few bid welcome,will offer all they know?
And who, when few dare follow, will walk the road I show?
Amused in someone’s kitchen, asleep in someone’s boat,
Attuned to what the ancients exposed, proclaimed, and wrote,
A savior, without safety, a tradesman without tools
Has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools.
Chant Vieni Spirito Creatore (Taizé)
Come and pray in us, Holy Spirit, Come and pray in us
Come and visit us, Holy Spirit.
Spirit come, Spirit Come
Reading Micah 6:6-8
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
Chant Bless the Lord my Soul (Taizé)
Bless the Lord my soul, and bless God’s holy name
Bless the Lord my soul, who leads me into life.
Reading (from “118 Days: How I survived captivity in Iraq,” James Loney, Sojourners Magazine, December 2006)
Peacemakers, who are bound by brick-and-mortar conceptions of peace, inhabit not an enclosed façade, but instead a gateway that offers not only a view to the human scene, but also allows responsible dialogue with it. This open, accessible, and overarching perspective of peace crafts – out of each of us – the will to seek the means to act. – Harmeet Singh Sooden
Tom Fox became the prophet of the present moment. “All we have is the now,” he would say, “The past is a fiction and the future doesn’t exist.” . . . He strained with his whole being to let go of everything – even the hope of release – and just be present to the present. . . . Each day, each hour, each minute I was confronted with a choice: Withdraw, clench my heart into a fist and conserve my widow’s mite of emotional energy, or open my heart, inhabit the moment, be generous with acceptance and conversation and listening . . . This, I began to see, is what it means to be born again. The present moment is the birth canal of incarnation. – James Loney
Chant: Stay with me (Iona Community)
Stay with me, remain here with me.
Watch and pray, watch and pray
Chant: Domine, Dona nobis pacem (Taizé)
Domine, Domine, dona nobis pacem
Reading (from Singing the Living Tradition, #588)
One: Is not this the fast that I choose:
All: To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
One: Isit not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
All: Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
One: If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
All: You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
Chant: Domine, Dona nobis pacem (Taizé)
Domine, Domine, dona nobis pacem
Reading (Singing the Living Tradition #602)
All: If there is to be peace in the world
There must be peace in the nations
If there is to be peace in the nations
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
Chant Live in Charity (Taizé)
Live in charity and steadfast love
Live in charity, God will dwell with you.
Reading (Singing the Living Tradition #505)
One: Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds. Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves.
All: Let us be aware of the source of being, common to us and to all living things.
One: Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion, let us fill our hearts with our own compassion – toward ourselves and toward all living beings.
All: Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be the cause of suffering to each other.
One: With humility, with awareness of the existence of life, and of the sufferings that are going on around us, let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.
All: Amen. (Tich N’hat Hanh)
Chant Live in Charity (Taizé)
Live in charity and steadfast love
Live in charity, God will dwell with you.
One: This is the time of year, when the Universe is reaching its third trimester, and moving toward the birth of light. Just as a woman tends to nest toward the end of her pregnancy, so do we tend to draw in, to attend to our homes and those within, to yearn for the birth of light, color, and new life. Possibly, this is the time of the year when our greatest fears and sorrows are highlighted and therefore it is also the moment when we have the greatest opportunity to reach for and fulfill our true potential. As humans, we can birth new life and light into this dark world. Out of our fears and our darkness we are being invited – by the Universe, by God, by all mothers who have birthed new life, by our children who are born as light, by our prophets of time passed, by our current spiritual leaders, and by the future voices of those to come – to give into the birthing pains and bring to light a new world. This Winter, let us birth the kingdom of heaven both within and without. (Fred Plumer, President, Progressive Christianity.org)
All: Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the infinite peace to you. (Fiona MacLeod)
Extinguish the Chalice
One: If here you have found freedom, take it with you into the world. If you have found comfort, go and share it with others. If you have dreamed dreams, help one another, that they may come true. If you have known love, give some back to a bruised and hurting world. (Lauralyn Bellamy)
Go in peace.
All: Go in Peace
Leave in Silence, taking peace to the world.…
On the final day of the conference, Gregory Jenks conducted a seminar of his own in honor of the 400th Anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. Jenks cautions that there are 4 ways to abuse the Bible:
- Treat the Bible as a Bible – a book of answers; a “manufacturers manual”; better to see the Bible as a set of trial questions – practice for the final exam. (For example, what does it mean in a non-theistic context to “shape holy lives”?)
- Divine mandate for conquest, especially for English-speaking people. Zionism is a current example – the Bible justifies a Jewish presence in Palestine as well as ethnic cleansing of Arab inhabitants.
- Anti-Semitism. Underwritten by supercessionism. Christian Zionism; Islamophobia– xenophobia both invokes and betrays scripture.
- Apocalyptic fantasies – There is a specific apocalyptic eschatology throughout the Bible, the New Testament, and Paul.
Two of the great discourses Matthew attributed to Jesus have defined Christianity: the first is the Sermon on the Mount, which is generally thought to go back to the historical Jesus and to reflect his authentic teachings. The second is the portion of the Last Judgment from 25:34-40:
Then the king will say to those at his right, “Come, you who have the blessing of my Father, inherit the domain prepared for you from the foundation of the world. You may remember, I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a foreigner and you showed me hospitality; I was naked and you clothed me; I was ill and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to see me. . . . I swear to you, whatever you did for the most inconspicuous members of my family [KJV: one of the least of these my brethren] you did for me as well.”
Matthew crafted this out of his own genius. Jesus never said any such thing. If read to the end, this speech is an admonition that contains a threat of damnation. The “goats” know very well who was hungry, thirsty, naked, and in prison, and refused to do anything about it. Therefore, they are headed for everlasting hellfire. What is seldom noticed by traditional Christians is that consignment to hell is not the payback for “sin”; it is the consequence of not believing that Jesus was the one Anointed by God to return the world to God’s covenantal rule. If you don’t believe Jesus was the one – according to Matthew – you won’t follow Jesus’ teachings, and when the transformation comes, you will be found in the company of the goats.
Two thousand years of Western history and thought have testified to the power of this belief in musical compositions, artists’ renderings, and cautionary tales: Dies Irae from the Verdi Requiem; The Last Judgment, by Hieronymous Bosch; and James Whitcomb Riley’s Little Orphant Annie. Anyone who declines to do good works and celebrate with the returning master will be cast into the outer darkness, beyond the mountains that hold up the sky, into the abyss at the end of the flat earth. It’s a satisfying thought. Revenge is sweet – or a dish best served cold. If “God” won’t get you, “karma” will. But – so far as scholars can tell – Jesus was not warning about a violent judgment after death, but was declaring a non-violent feast on God’s holy mountain available to all here and now.
This is very different from traditional Christian insistence on belief that Jesus died to save us from our sins, and rose again to prove that there is eternal life after death. Whether the last judgment is celebrated as revenge against enemies, or claimed as pious reward, Matthew’s apocalyptic vision has been reduced to smug band-aids for the horrors of systemic injustice: soup kitchens, homeless shelters, free clinics, prison visitation – the least possible for the least possible. The same thing happened with the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Commemorations of his birthday and celebrations of “black history month” have become opportunities for school children and guilt-ridden adults to do “community service” – read to kids at the local school; deliver meals-on-wheels; clean up the local park; donate money to the Red Cross. This is not to imply that all those good works are in vain, but the dangers of cheap grace have been made clear over the centuries by the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – among other lesser saints. Donations of blood were liberally collected most recently in Birmingham, Selma, Memphis, and Kent State. More are being accepted today in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, North Carolina, Texas, and Beijing . . . just to name a few.
Matthew (and Jesus and all the other martyrs to justice) was aiming for a transformation that goes much deeper than volunteering with the Girl Scouts or donating unwanted furniture to Purple Heart. Jesus gave his life in the service of distributive justice-compassion. He actively overturned conventional responses to the petty worries and imperial oppressions of normal civilized life. The Parable of the Talants (Matthew 25:14-30) may have been the first in the genre of passive resistance stories in which the help spits in the soup pot. The slave who buried his master’s money in the kitchen garden threw the master’s gross unfairness right back in his face. The peasant who carried the centurion’s cloak for more than a mile forced the emperor’s warrior to break the emperor’s law; the merchant who turned the other side of his face to the tax collector transformed a gross insult into an encounter between equals. But the slave’s subtle act of defiance became an allegory of reward and punishment in Matthew’s hands. “Going the second mile” now means driving the neighbor’s kids to soccer practice again; “turning the other cheek” means putting up with abuse.
Matthew was writing at least 60 years after the death of Jesus. His point of view is Jewish. He bases his stories of Jesus on prophecies from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel. In his mind, the story of Jesus would replace the story of Moses for the new age. Jesus was the one Anointed by God to set to rights the entire universe. Matthew’s is an apocalyptic voice for an apocalyptic time that is coming soon, “like a thief in the night.” Anyone who rejected the message was rejecting God’s own promise of deliverance from imperial injustice. So at the end of his gospel, he has Jesus claim that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (NRSV). The Scholars’ Version is more clear: “I’ll be with you day in and day out as you’ll see, so long as this world continues its course.”
In order for the world to stop its course of systemic injustice and create a world where distributive justice-compassion is the rule, those who would claim the name of Jesus have a responsibility to not only teach others Jesus’ way, but must follow it ourselves. Matthew’s challenge remains a rebuke to a so-called Christian church that makes common cause with the rich against the poor, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled; that blames victims for their plight; that seeks to punish collectively all those who qualify for social benefits, or who work for government agencies, with drug tests, literacy tests, and prerequisites for voting rights. Somehow they never think that if they deny fair and equal treatment to those who lack economic power, they deny fair and equal treatment to the very Lord they claim as their savior.
Perhaps those “Christians” so quick to impose the death penalty and deny clemency, no longer believe the second half of Matthew’s warning: “The second group [the goats] will then head for everlasting punishment, but the virtuous for everlasting life.” Maybe they think that because “Jesus died for their sins” they have nothing to worry about. But they have forgotten the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:20-31). The rich man begs Father Abraham to send word to his still living five brothers and warn them that if they do not share their good fortune equitably, they will end up in a “place of torture” for eternity. But Abraham said, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead.”
Jesus’ resurrection did not provide everyone with a free ticket to heaven. Jesus’ resurrection was the signal that God’s rule had arrived; the normal course of civilization with its inevitable systems of injustice had been overturned. But this is only true if people decide to live that way.…
Matthew 24 and 25 (selections)
This commentary will conclude the exploration of the Gospel of Matthew over the next two weeks, dealing with two doctrines that became fundamental to traditional Christianity, and skewed the teachings of Jesus almost beyond recognition: Apocalyptic eschatology and the Last Judgment.
The process the early followers of Jesus went through that resulted in the Church of Jesus Christ is fairly long, fairly obscure, and full of pitfalls for those who seek to recreate it. One of the key debates among New Testament scholars is whether or not Jesus believed himself to be the “son of Adam” (KJV: “son of Man”) described in the apocalyptic legend of Daniel. For example, see The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (Polebridge Press, 2001, Robert J. Miller, ed.). In the Book of Daniel, written in the 2nd century before the common era, God acts to establish God’s Kingdom (the 5th Kingdom) on earth by designating a savior, who will be “taken up” to God, then returned to earth at a time determined by God to overthrow the wicked empire of Rome. Specific timing is spelled out. The dead will be resurrected so that even they can participate in God’s ultimate justice.
Jesus is highly likely to have known about the legend of Daniel. But he never referred to himself as the hoped-for messiah described there.…
Matthew’s “condemnation of the pharisees,” also appears in Luke, but not in Mark. The source for this diatribe is most likely Q, but Matthew expands on the theme to an extent not found in Luke. Regardless of the original source, or where it appears, the Elves disregard the controversy completely. One verse (Matthew 23:5-7) is read in Proper 26, Year B (Mark 12:38-39):
Everything they do, they do for show. So they widen their phylacteries and enlarge their tassels. They love the best couches at banquets and prominent seats in synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces, and they like to be called “Rabbi” by everyone.
Mark’s setting for this sarcastic description of the conduct of the pharisees is a scene outside the Temple in Jerusalem in which he watches a poor widow drop her last coin into the collection box (see “Widows might not,” which is even more relevant today).…
Matthew 22:23-33; 1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 21:1-8
Much of the end of the Gospel of Matthew is normally considered during Lent and Easter. Commentary on those readings that are included in the Revised Common Lectionary may be found in the highlights for Year A. However, portions of these last chapters are routinely skipped by the Elves either because they are covered more traditionally in Mark and Luke, or because they do not fall into the orthodox belief system promulgated by the RCL. The discussion on the resurrection in Matthew 22:23-33 is lifted word-for-word from Mark, and repeated in Luke. Luke’s version is the only one that is read, as the Christian liturgical year winds down to the triumphalism of Christ the King Sunday, and – insistence on an actual season of Advent notwithstanding – the Christmas season begins.
The “Resurrection” of Jesus is the defining story of Christianity. But what does it mean in a post-modern, post-Enlightenment, even post-Christian world, in which science leaves little room for meaningful metaphor? Logos has been trumping Mythos since Mark first set down the story:…
Mark 11:12-14; 20-25
The Fig Tree parable is never read if the Revised Common Lectionary is followed, whether one uses the version in Mark or in Matthew (Luke left it out altogether). The “triumphal entry into Jerusalem” and the famous incident in which “Jesus cleanses the Temple” are the foundations for Christianity’s “Holy Week.” The accompanying scene in which Jesus curses a fig tree for not having figs out of season is ignored as not important. After all, Jesus is looking at a very bad week ahead, so perhaps he can be excused for taking it out on a stupid tree.…