Saturday, April 30, 2016

Enter by the narrow gate


 "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven."

- Matthew 7:13-21

Currently we are in the midst of reading through the Sermon on the Mount.  It began with the reading from Monday, April 18th, The Beatitudes.  In yesterday's reading, Jesus taught, "Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye?  Hypocrite!  First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.  Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.  Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.  Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!  Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

 "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it."  My study bible tells us that the description of the two ways was widespread in Judaism (see Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Proverbs 4:14-18, 12:28, 15:24; Wisdom of Sirach 15:17).   It is also prominent in early Christian writings such as the Didache and Barnabas.  Luke's version (Luke 13:24-30) has an eschatological focus and refers to the end of the age.  Because Christ's teachings lead us to wrestle against sins and human weaknesses as well as spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:12), to enter the Kingdom is the more difficult way.

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruits you will know them."   My study bible tells us that because they can easily deceive others, those who put on a show of virtue or religion are more dangerous than those who are evil outright.  Therefore, we must be all the more cautious among those who are outwardly virtuous.  John the Baptist made the same statement as that of verse 19 here: "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."  In this sense, we see eschatological content strewn within the active teachings He gives us; a very picture, once again, of the Incarnation.  In this case, He's giving us words to teach us the importance discernment and an understanding of the heart.

"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven."  Jesus continues with an eschatological theme, thus giving the Sermon on the Mount the fullness of His identity.  Here He calls Himself Lord, which refers to the divine name "Yahweh" of the Old Testament.  He also speaks of the will of My Father, which He fully knows and shares.  And He clearly speaks of Himself as Judge, which reveals His divine nature:  only God can execute true judgment.

The narrow gate and the way that leads to life are the teachings Jesus has given in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus sets a pathway for the "way of life" for all of us, by laying out the way of life of the Kingdom, even as we live in this world.  Life is not meant by this mission of Christ to be divided up into the present and the eschatological future, or a separate heaven from earth.  Rather, the Incarnation itself is a picture of Christ's mission to us:  to teach us to live the ways of the Kingdom as we live our worldly lives day by day, and to anchor that Kingdom in this world, even as He teaches us to pray to God the Father that "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  In today's reading there are notes of eschatology, Judgment, the great "crisis" (in the Greek sense of that word) in which all comes together.  And what that teaches us, though, is the eschatology that is also in the midst of the here and now, not only in the midst of His teachings to us and our awareness of the importance of discernment, but also actively at work in His ministry and mission to us.  Jesus not only connects the divine and the human in His being, but a part of that Incarnation is the intersection of eternity and worldly time.  Everything is connected to this central moment of Judgment and of His return.  We mustn't consider it a "someday" moment, but rather a living part of how we live the life of the Kingdom and how it lives in us.  Clearly the active work of the Spirit is that which will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment as Jesus will say at the Last Supper; something at work in our midst since Pentecost.  To understand, therefore, His teachings about the way of life and the way of death is to understand the truth of the heart and what we choose to love most and best.  Human hearts can be hidden, but as He teaches we are to be discerning, and to understand the fruit of the Spirit -- as well as to observe the fruits of "ravenous wolves."   He calls on us to bear the responsibility for discernment, not to follow anyone that calls us or just "sounds good."  He will give us the Spirit to help.  But once again, as in yesterday's reading, we note the responsibility that He confers on His followers, the trust He invests in us to do this.  We must also take note that this is the same sermon in which He teaches us to "judge not, that you not be judged" (yesterday's reading).   Judgment and discernment are entirely different things; one does not preclude the other.  One He prohibits and the other He commands.  Let us understand the active work of the Kingdom in the here and the now.  Judgment is not a far away, someday event; it is at work among us, within us, proving out all things, actively seeking and knocking, and mingled with the choices we each make even today.  Let us remember this narrow and difficult way, and bear the fruit of the Spirit even as we live the life of the Kingdom in this world.




Friday, April 29, 2016

Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets


 "Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye?  Hypocrite!  First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

"Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.

"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.  Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!  Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

- Matthew 7:1-12

 We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount, which began in chapter 5 with The Beatitudes.   In yesterday's reading, Jesus taught, "Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?   So why do you worry about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."

"Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you."  My study bible says that we'll be judged with our own level of judgment because we are guilty of the very things we judge in others (Romans 2:1).  To pass judgment in this context is to usurp God's authority, and indicates that Jesus is telling us about how we are to see others and refrain from judging with a sweeping indictment of the full person, rather than seeing error or sin (which we all fall into one way and another!).   Jesus repeats the second part of verse 2 in Mark 4:24 and also Luke 6:38, each given in a different context.   Such occurrences give us glimpses not only into Jesus' teaching but also consistency of message and application; this particular message was no doubt repeated many times.  It is an important observation of a kind of reflexive teaching, particularly about judgment.  So much depends on what we see, and what we are blind to.  Just as we have been taught to forgive our debtors so that we may be forgiven, and to forgive others their trespasses against us so that we may be forgiven (Matthew 6:12, 14-15), here we also have a reciprocal teaching by Jesus regarding our own judgment.

"And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye?  Hypocrite!  First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."  This is a teaching about correction within the Church.  To be unable to see one's own blindness is to fail to be a capable teacher or help to others.  And this is a teaching that precludes "judgment."   To know our own weakness is the only way to truly relate to those who also need help with what we have experienced of ourselves, and the spiritual work we've done in following Christ.

"Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces."  Jesus elsewhere uses animal symbolism (serpents and scorpions) to indicate types of demons and devils (Luke 10:19).  Dogs and swine are used symbolically to refer to heathen peoples (Philippians 3:2; Revelation 22:15), but this would also include Jews who do not practice virtue.  According to the traditional teachings of Church Fathers, dogs are those who are so immersed in evil that they show no hope of change, while swine are those who habitually live immoral and impure lives.  The pearls are of course the wisdom of faith, the "inner mysteries" as my study bible tells us, including the teachings of Christ (13:46) and the great sacraments.  Such holy things are restricted from the immoral and unrepentant, says my study bible, not because the holy things need protection, but because faithless people are protected from the condemnation that would result from holding God's mysteries in contempt.  In another sense, this is also a teaching about judgment -- to correct or reprove by giving truthful teachings to those who don't want to hear it is to engage in entanglements that lead to a bad outcome; not only is it failing to cherish what is valuable and good, it will enmesh us with what devalues it.   So there's a double teaching here regarding correction and edification:  they must go where they are appropriate and will be received.  Instead of judgment, Christ calls for our discernment.

"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.  Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?"  Here the verbs ask, seek and knock are given in the present progressive tense:  that is, Jesus tells us to "be asking," "be seeking," "be knocking."  My study bible points out a synergy here -- that our effort is commanded by Christ, but is never separate from the immediate help of God.  A note says, "We ask in prayer; seek by learning God's truth; and knock by doing God's will." 

"If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!"  Human beings are called evil here not to condemn, but rather to contrast our imperfect goodness (mixed with blindness, sin or error) with the perfect goodness of God (see 19:16-17).  My study bible says that if imperfect and even wicked people can do some good, all the more will God work perfect good.

"Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."  This "Golden Rule," says my study bible, fulfills the demands of the Law and the Prophets and is also a practical application of the commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself (22:39-40), a first step of spiritual growth.  The negative form of this rule ("Don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you") was already well-known in Judaism.  Jesus' puts it in positive form -- as action that begins to draw us toward God.  He will illustrate the positive form with the parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as many vivid teachings.  Again, the reciprocal nature of our spiritual being is emphasized.

Jesus' teachings about how our own choices work hand in hand with God's favor or blessings give us a picture of our own participation in salvation.  It doesn't diminish our understanding of grace and its role in our lives on all levels.  Rather, what it does is give us a sense of how our own choices and actions work in synergy with God.  Once again, as we have so often turned throughout our understanding of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a picture of the Incarnation.  As He is both God and man, so He calls on us to recognize the essential nature of our choices in the relationship with God.  We participate.  We are included.  We must watch how we judge:  how we practice judgment will be reflected in how we are judged (and we must infer, how we will come to know our own salvation).  If, after all, forgiveness is already extended in the teachings of Christ, I think His emphasis on our own choices in these teaches really tells us about how we come to realize and know that forgiveness.  Just as we have been taught that we forgive debt and trespass so that we ask for the same from God, clearly the emphasis is on human participation with God in discernment and virtue.   When we are taught to ask, and seek, and knock, Jesus is clearly giving us the "green signal" for our own efforts at coming to know God; to pray, to seek understanding of the teachings, and to do God's will become a pathway to the fullness of communion and relationship -- the real bridge that brings the Kingdom into the world.  Above all, Jesus' teachings suggest an elevation of human beings in our own capacity to be "God-like" -- that is, to embody the virtues of forgiveness, of discernment,  to do good, to come to self-knowledge, as well as our capacity to refrain from unjust judgment.  Our participation in the Kingdom then becomes something bigger, heightened from a kind of isolated individual "good behavior."  It becomes communion and relationship with God and with one another, an extraordinary responsibility we're given that only tells us how elevated we are in the sight of God, and how beloved.  Switching from the negative "do not do unto others" to the positive "do unto others" is a sign of this confidence, it's an entry into a bigger choice, a participation to "be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect."  It's an invitation to initiative, rather than just following prohibition.  Can we meet the challenge?  Are we ready for His confidence in us and in our capacities to live His word? Of course, what we receive in return is so much greater; and yet, so much hinges on our own "little" efforts.







Thursday, April 28, 2016

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you


 "Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?   So why do you worry about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."

- Matthew 6:25-34

We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount, which began with the reading The Beatitudes, last Monday.  Yesterday, we read that Jesus taught,  "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  The lamp of the body is the eye.  If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!  No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon."

 "Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?   So why do you worry about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"  Jesus shifts the focus.  My study bible says this is a warning against anxiety, and not against thoughtful planning.  Physical well-being, it says, is directly dependent on God, and only indirectly on food, drink, and clothing.  Anxiety over earthly things, it adds, demonstrates a lack of faith in God's care.  Jesus both demonstrates the futility of worry, and also gives us poetry in the example of the lilies of the field -- effortlessly beautiful due to God's work.  His reassurance here is of God's great care.

"Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things."  Jesus is speaking about the focus in worshiping pagan idols (as did Gentiles), a consumption by dependence on earthly things.  He offers a completely different relationship; to follow your heavenly Father is to be freed from this kind of dependence and the anxiety of attachment.

"But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."   Jesus gives us His central theme:  the kingdom of God.  God's righteousness, the currency of the Kingdom, is the subject of the Sermon on the Mount.   Christ calls us to be free from excess anxiety about earthly things.  Once again, He points us to our first concern:  the Kingdom.  It is a formula for our lives.  The focus on excess worry about the tomorrow, the future, is teaching us to give up what is unprofitable and to invest trust where it makes a difference to us.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble is a saying worthy of remembering when we are tempted to take on too much anxiousness or efforts at control that only entangle us more deeply in a fruitless kind of toil.

There must be times when all of us feel overwhelmed by events we cannot control, but that we are somehow responsible for.  Worries about what might happen can be paralyzing, overpowering, and endless.  Jesus' call to seek the Kingdom first comes into play for many aspects of our lives, but here He makes it quite clear that worry over material goods demands that we focus on trust in God.  We know the wear and tear that excessive stress and anxiety can take upon us.  Do we often stop to think how much of that destructive stress comes over the excess worry that comes from a focus on things we can't control or change?  If we shift our focus to God, we might find a kind of reassurance that at the very least takes our anxiety levels (and hence the distress that affects health in all kinds of ways) down a notch or two.  Jesus' words here focus us on the importance of seeking first the Kingdom where excessive worry just lets in all kinds of trouble, effort that goes nowhere but to engage us in fruitless wastes of time and energy.  We are told to take a look at the birds, who don't spend their time worrying about the future, and yet are fed.   The lilies of the field arrayed in beauty are signs of God's care even for that which shines its beauty one day, and is withered the next.  Our preciousness to God is assured in today's reading.  What use does our anxiety serve?  Can we really solve problems by worrying about them?  What better thing could we be doing with that energy and focus -- and how much better would that outcome be for us?  Jesus asks, "Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?"  What else could we focus on that would make us so much richer, happier, and enlivened?  I have found that a prayerful and centered focus on God helps me to take on problems when the time is right, and particularly to break them down into a small step-by-step increment for "just this moment" that makes problems much easier to tackle than the overwhelming quality anxiety creates in magnifying problems out of all proportion.  Seek first the Kingdom is essential advice for getting our own interior house in order, and filling it with the light Christ offers.





Wednesday, April 27, 2016

No one can serve two masters


 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

"The lamp of the body is the eye.  If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon."

- Matthew 6:19-24

We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount, which began with last Monday's reading, The Beatitudes.  In yesterday's reading, Jesus gave us what we know as the Lord's Prayer.  He taught, "And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do.  For they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Therefore do not be like them.  For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.  In this manner, therefore, pray:  Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.  For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.  For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

  "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  My study bible says that by attaching ourselves to treasures on earth, we cut ourselves off from heavenly treasures.  There is a distinct conflict between freedom in Christ and being slaves to earthly things.  It says that the heart of discipleship is in disentangling ourselves from the chains of earthly things, and in attaching ourselves to God, the true treasure.  Once again, Jesus emphasizes the life of the Kingdom even as we live our lives in the world; a set of values by which His disciples live in order to bear the Kingdom in the world, "on earth as it is in heaven."

"The lamp of the body is the eye.  If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!"  My study bible explains that the mind (nous in Greek) is the spiritual eye of the soul; it illuminates the inner person and governs the will.  Keeping one's mind wholesome and pure is fundamental to the Christian life.  How we "see" life and our place in it, our identity, is the centerpiece of the call of Christ's teachings.  For proper sight in this sense, we need God's light.

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon."  My study bible says that as slaves who serve two masters, people seek to maintain attachment to both earthly and heavenly things.  But this is not possible, since both demand our full allegiance.  Jesus calls mammon ("riches") a master not because wealth is evil by nature, but  because of the control it has over people.

There's a clear split, a distinction made in Jesus' teaching, between the "worldly" (or "mammon") and the life of the Kingdom.  It's not that He's teaching that the two can never meet.  What He is teaching is that we must endeavor to bring the life of the Kingdom into the world, even as we live worldly lives.    But in order to do that, we need to focus on God first, the life of the Kingdom must be what we really desire.  In yesterday's reading, He gave us the Lord's Prayer, and taught us to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  This is the substance of His teachings to us about how we live our lives, and what we put first as a priority -- even what it is that illumines the eye of the mind.  Our very thinking becomes paramount, as a way to walk in the light of God.  What He's calling for is a worldly life conditioned in that light, following a true desire -- our greatest treasure -- for the things of the Kingdom.  A "worldly" life, in this language, isn't about the world as a bad or inferior place; far from it!  On the contrary, the world is Creation, made for the light of God, for glory.  But if we are separate from God, if our mind is in darkness, then the glory of God is missing from the world, we fail to bear that Kingdom into the world.  In this sense, "worldly" means without the light of God -- "mammon" as object of worship becomes the color of our world, the thing that shuts out beauty, love, and righteousness.   We focus on the light of God so that we may bring it into the world, and live lives that glorify God by bringing everything into right relationship, using and caring for what we have in the world in ways illumined by faith and spiritual truth.  This is an image of wholeness, of a union of God's kingdom and the world, a restoration of who we are, what we are, how man was meant to live and even of the beauty and care of the world.  But there's one way to do it; we must choose what we worship, and God who illumines our way back to the beauty of Creation must help us to find this way, this light, to do so.  The Incarnation speaks to us of this union, and Jesus points the way by teaching us the essential importance of our choices.  As disciples, it is we who bear the Kingdom in the world.  So much depends on what we treasure, how we choose, who we choose to be and who we think we are.  Jesus emphasizes the heart, the center of who we are.  Where our heart is focused becomes the guiding and unifying point of our lives -- or the focus that separates and divides us from the potentials of light and love.






Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Our Father in heaven


"And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do.  For they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Therefore do not be like them.  For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.  In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Amen.

"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

- Matthew 6:7-15

  We are currently reading through the Sermon on the Mount, which began with The Beatitudes, last Monday.  In yesterday's reading, Jesus taught, "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites.  For they love the pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.  Assuredly, I say to to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."  The lectionary skipped over what is given in today's reading, and continued with Jesus' teachings about spiritual practice:  "Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance.  For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."

 "And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do.  For they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Therefore do not be like them.  For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.  In this manner, therefore, pray:  Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  Jesus has just finished teaching about prayer practice:  that it should be done in humility, and not to show oneself as pious to others.  But He takes it another notch forward, by teaching us what we ought to pray, and giving us this gracious prayer that is at the center of all Christian worship.  When He teaches not to pray in vain repetitions, the accent is on vain -- to be heard by many words.  Repetition for spiritual practice is another matter.  But our central focus in prayer, by Jesus' teaching, is the core relationship to God.   This is the foundation of all of His teachings, the greatest commandment, on which rests everything else.  My study bible tells us that the Father-Son relationship within the Trinity reveals our potential relationship with God; that is a sonship by grace of adoption, by which Christ the Son gives us the privilege of calling God Our Father (see Galatians 4:4-7).  That's how strong this relationship is that we must grow within.  As a "son of God," each Christian person is called to love, trust, and serve God our Father as does Christ.  Fatherhood does not belong to God simply as Creator, but Father by virtue of being in a saving and personal relationship, a communion that comes by grace of adoption (see John 1:13; Romans 8:14-16).

"Give us this day our daily bread."  Here is the center of the prayer.  Daily doesn't really convey the true meaning of the Greek word here, in describing what kind of bread He's giving us.  The Greek word here is epiousios, meaning "above the essence," or "supersubstantial."  That means this isn't just daily bread for human earthly physical nourishment.  It is the bread for the eternal day of the Kingdom of God, as my study bible puts it -- for the nourishment of our immortal soul.  The living, supersubstantial bread is Christ Himself; in the prayer we are asking not merely for material bread, but for the spiritual bread of eternal life (see John 6:27-58).  This is the bread of life in the Kingdom, even as we live in this world.

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."  My study bible points out that in the Greek, the request to be forgiven is plural -- meaning that we pray always for the forgiveness of others.  Debts here are spiritual debts, the result of offense or sin.  In a spiritual sense, this is yet another way in which Christ takes us out of vengeance, and into a different and more cosmic sense of justice, in which we participate in the life of the Kingdom even as we are living worldly lives.

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.  For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen."   Temptation to sin isn't from God (James 1:13), but from the evil one.   From the evil one is an appropriate translation of the Greek τοῦ πονηροῦ.  (The root of this word for evil also means "pain," suggesting laborious trouble, misery.)   Temptations are often those things that sound good, promise some form of ease or pleasure, indulgence, or shortcut rather than the steady road or struggle of salvation -- playing to what are traditional called sinful passions of the flesh, which come in many forms.  Going along with pleasing a crowd -- a theme in Christ's talk regarding hypocrisy -- can be a powerful one.  My study bible says that no one lives without encountering temptations, but we pray that great temptations, tests beyond what we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13), should not come to us. 

"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."   We have a reciprocal kind of teaching here:  mutual forgiveness as a precondition for God's forgiveness.  This teaching is illustrated in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:21-35), which also concludes with the same teaching.  It's another way in which we are to be "God-like" as children by adoption.

This prayer is a great gift to us.  It's a kind of blueprint of our spirituality, our relationship to God, and to one another.  It teaches us about the gifts we're given that are necessary for our salvation, notably the "supersubstantial" bread for each day, forgiveness which is counterbalanced by our own active practice of forgiveness, our sincere desire for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and the manifestation of the Kingdom.  The prayer gives us a sense of where we are in the universe, our relationship to God our Father, and our role in sonship by adoption.  It's a way of prescribing the life of active participation in the Kingdom, even as we live our lives in this world.  Repetition of the Lord's Prayer is therefore always a reminder of what we are to be about, and where we are in our spiritual lives.  It teaches us of the love of "Our Father" -- it is impossible to say this prayer without understanding the true nature of our relationship to God, and that it is based in love and through adoption, an active grace for us and through God's love.  When we pray, "Thy will be done," it's not an act of submission to an autocrat, but one of love and desire for the betterment of our entire world.  Let us remember that when we pray the Lord's Prayer, we enter into participation in this Kingdom, through all the things it teaches us:  of our need for God's love, for the Kingdom to manifest in the world (even through our own desire to follow God's will), for our daily bread which is of the eternal day of the Kingdom, our work at forgiveness, our desire to be free from temptations, and liberated from the pain of evil and its effects -- even as we walk in an imperfect world.  It is the perfect prayer, the one that suits all occasions and places us where Christ teaches us to be no matter what the circumstances.


Monday, April 25, 2016

You shall not be like the hypocrites


 "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites.  For they love the pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.  Assuredly, I say to to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."

* * *

"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance.  For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."

- Matthew 6:1-6; Matthew 6:16-18

We are currently reading through the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with chapter 5 of Matthew's Gospel.  (See The Beatitudes from last Monday, and subsequent readings.)   On Saturday, we read that Jesus taught, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.  And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.  You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others?  Do not even the tax collectors do so?  Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."

 "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."  Chapter 6 of Matthew's Gospel gives us aspects of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus speaks about spiritual practice, and how we are to conduct ourselves:  in charitable giving, prayer, and fasting.  My study bible tells us that these three disciplines relate directly to God's righteousness.  Jesus begins in these verses with charitable giving.  In the Greek, hypocrite was a word for an actor:  in the ancient plays, the actors wore masks, and hypocrite means "under a mask."   Those who "play-act" for show seek to please other people more than to please God.  They love the praise of men more than the praise of God, as John's Gospel will put it.   Therefore, one can wear a mask of compassion, while inwardly remaining heartless.  My study bible says that their reward is the applause of other people and nothing more; God is not impressed with what others think about us, nor what we think about ourselves.   Some texts do not include the word openly at the end of verse 4.  Jesus defines a relationship in which love of God is the first priority; this, in turn, gives us righteousness, right-relatedness to others.  This is consistent with Jesus' subsequent teachings on the two greatest commandments

"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites.  For they love the pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.  Assuredly, I say to to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."  My study bible says that the hypocrites miss the spirit of prayer, which is an intimate and personal communion with God, leading to the vision of His glory (1 Corinthians 2:9).  Hypocrisy effectively blocks out this communion and this vision.  Indeed, one can see it is an active form of denial, truly "a mask."  True prayer, says my study bible, is not in telling God what God already knows and then telling God what God must do about it; nor is it appearing pious in front of others.  True prayer is first of all humble (go into your room), secondly it is personal (pray to your Father), and finally it is sincere (do not use vain repetition -- in verse 7, which will appear in tomorrow's reading).

"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance.  For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."   Today's lectionary reading skips over verses 7 through 15, in which Jesus teaches more about prayer, and gives us the Lord's Prayer (they will appear as tomorrow's reading).  Jesus' teachings on hypocrisy are consistent through to the practice of fasting.  Keeping a sad countenance is again "showing off" for external display, the response of others.  Fasting is not about evil foods or bad foods; it is a commitment to making room for God.  Moreover for the Church fasting seasons are not meant to be a legalistic practice, nor does it preclude hospitality, being a gracious guest.  Fasting is for spiritual growth and the glory of God, not for show.  It is seeking God's compassion, an exercise in self-mastery as it includes fasting from all kinds of things that get in the way of relationship to God; a way of building dispassion.  My study bible cites the words of St. John Chrysostom:  "What good is it if we abstain from eating birds and fish, but bite and devour our brothers?"

What keeps us from a true relationship to God?  Hypocrisy, or wanting to be seen by others as "good" or "pious" as our top priority.  As John's Gospel puts it, loving the praise of men more than the praise of God.  Modern forms of "piety" seem to me to include many different kinds of moralism, public morality.  Whether we speak of "political correctness," or of an appropriate show of one feeling or another, a kind of regulation of what is considered group-appropriate behavior, none of these "rules" can really give us true relatedness to God as top priority.  This is why legalistic ways of thinking are not consistent with the teachings of Christ; we can't substitute a set of rules for relationship to God in the intimacy which Jesus envisions here.  Community, in Jesus' model, is that which is formed from sincere and deep connection to God as first priority -- and it is from this basic relationship that love is learned and in which one can grow in that love.  That is, community as distinguished from collective, in which human beings are no longer individual persons whose conscience and free will operate within that choice for relationship to God.  Too often, I find, when we start to define public morality there is too great a demand for conformity as top priority; and how we appear to others becomes the judgment of our character.   All too often, this becomes a problem within churches as well.   In the midst of a very rancorous election season in the United States, we should consider the difference between a political opinion we might not agree with, and a humble and sincere heart.  It really doesn't matter which group or which opinion we're talking about; sooner or later, it seems to me, we are all faced with this choice of whether or not we will please God or seek the approval of our "group."  Our Lord exemplifies this in His own life, culminating in the Crucifixion.  So, let us consider, what is real victory?  It begins in humility, not in the pleasing of the world.  We can cover up our own hearts all too easily by the latter.












Saturday, April 23, 2016

You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'


 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.  And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others?  Do not even the tax collectors do so?  Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."

- Matthew 5:38-48

 We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount (which began in Monday's reading, The Beatitudes).  Yesterday, we read that Jesus taught, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.  Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'  But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.  Again, you have  heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.'  But I say to you, do not swear at all:  neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.  But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.'  For whatever is more than these is from the evil one."

 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.  And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away."  An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth comes from references found in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21.  This is a law that attempts to make the punishment "fit" the crime, and to limit vengeance.  Jesus takes it another step further, introducing us to an entirely new concept which is commensurate with the life of the Kingdom, even as we live our lives in this world, and with witnessing (even "martyrdom" -- martyr is the Greek word for witness), and Judgment.  In contrast to the Old Testament, says my study bible, Jesus warns not to resist violence with more violence.  It says, "Evil can only be overcome by good, which keeps us free from compromise with the devil and can bring our enemy under the yoke of God's love."  

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."  If we look at Leviticus 19:18, we see again the theme of limitation on vengeance, meant to shore up community among the "people of God."  Jesus extends this, just as He has done with the statutes earlier in the Sermon on the Mount.  The question, Who is my neighbor? becomes relevant here, and will be answered in Luke's Gospel, in the story of the Good Samaritan.  My study bible says that if we are freed from hate, sadness, and anger, we are able to receive the greatest virtue:  perfect love.  The love of enemies isn't just an emotion, but includes decision and action.   Loving one's enemies, praying for those who've hurt us, doesn't preclude justice and truth and it doesn't mean covering up or embracing bad behavior:  it means all things are given to God -- and that we may pray that everyone come to God's love.   See also for reference Proverbs 25:21-22, as quoted by St. Paul in Romans 12:20.

"For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others?  Do not even the tax collectors do so?  Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."   Alternative readings give us "friends" for brethren (M-Text), and "Gentiles" for tax collectors (NU-Text).  (For a quick definition of these texts, see this note.)   What does it mean to be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect?  It means we do our best to seek out and to reflect God's love and mercy.  In this way we grow in the perfection of the Father.

Jesus gives us a very tall order in today's Gospel reading.  But we can understand His message of love.  This is not about covering up bad behavior, ignoring real threats and hostility, nor denying harm.  But it is about an active exercise of love, seeking the will of the Father for all things, and finding in God's love and mercy a true guideline for everything in our lives, including all that is painful.  Refraining from vengeance remains an important understanding; righteous behavior asks from us one consistent thing:  to seek God's will through everything, knowing that it is not the injustice that we see in the world that is the final Judgment, but that God's Judgment must be what we seek out even in the here and the now.  There's an important understanding about witnessing, and the proverb cited by St. Paul that by overcoming evil with good, one may actually be more effectively responding to an enemy.  True justice, as most likely any attorney can tell us, rests in God's hands.  When we seek righteousness, we seek the best life we can live in the here and now.  We seek wisdom, we seek a limitation to violence and harm, and we also know and keep our eyes open to truth.  As we will see by Jesus' own example, He doesn't shrink from speaking the truth to those who would suppress it or twist it, but confrontation comes at the proper moment.  To be "wise as serpents and gentle as doves" will be Jesus' teaching to His disciples as they enter into their apostolic mission, and it's in keeping with today's teachings.  How do we best handle conflict and violence?  Jesus gives us a hint of what self-mastery means, effective truth-telling, and above all being our best reflection in the world of God the Father.