Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mike: Closing Comments

Do you remember the genesis of "Mount and Mountain?" We fell to talking about how we might partner to write about the Ten Commandments and The Sermon on the Mount. We knew, I think, what we did not want to attempt: yet another doctrinal study, diatribe, or something suitable only for academics. Instead, we wanted to practice and model a genuine conversation between two friends from quite different yet historically intertwined religious traditions.

At some point in the conversation, one of us mentioned reading the collected letters of a well known author from another era. Many of the letters featured the author's ongoing conversations with close friends. The conversations ranged over a host of topics. Each matter received serious treatment. Sometimes the author or his correspondent changed their minds in light of a given argument. More often, they simply enriched one another's thought and deepened their understanding and appreciation for one another.

We knew we had found our model. So began the exchange which became Mount and Mountain.

I've learned a few things along the way.

First, I believe you're correct. Trusted friends reading, wrestling with, and commenting on each other's sacred texts may prove to be the most fruitful model for interfaith conversation in the years to come. For one thing, friendship may enable us to hear some things we would rather not hear! Perhaps friendship should become the prerequiste to interfaith conversation.

Second, our two voices did emerge and take on consistency, even as we sought to remain open to one another's insights. We often discovered that we have much in common, especially with regard to the power of story, ethical and other practical applications of a given text, and recognition of the complexity of humans. Differences also emerged, ranging from the nature of God and the identity of Jesus, to how hard to press a metaphor.

Third, I suspect our respect for and knowledge of one another's traditions grew. The journey taught us, I think, that we need one another's perspective(s)if we are to find our way through our complicated lives and complex world.

Thank you, Rami, for investing so much of yourself in the conversation. No doubt, the two of us will continue the conversatin, albeit in other ways.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Rami: Closing Comments

At the heart of rabbinic Judaism is the notion that the reader co-creates the text with the author. While it may be that the Torah comes from God, its meaning comes from us. I am not inclined to take this literally. I don’t think God writes books. But as a metaphor it is a very powerful insight.

There are some texts that come from the highest levels of human spiritual consciousness, pointing (given the limitations of the author’s time, space, and cultural biases) directly to timeless principles that need to be applied in each generation. We have been dealing with two of these texts: the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. While each speaks in a specific language, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and to a specific people, the Jews, both boldly articulate some of the timeless principles by which all peoples in all times can live effectively with love, compassion, and justice.

What made this project so rich for me, Mike, was having the opportunity to hear these texts filtered through your heart and mind. If it is true that we co-create the texts we read by interpreting them in light of our own experience and knowledge (as well as our own ignorance and bias), then the pleasure I have found in reading these texts with you was in discovering your version of them.

But there is something else to be found in these blog posts, something that is far more important.

Interfaith dialogue is not new, but most of it takes place on the level of doctrine. Rarely do you find people of different faiths reading one another’s holy books together. Granted, the Ten Commandments are no less a part of Christianity than they are of Judaism, our traditions do understand them differently. And when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, the rarity and import of our dialogue becomes all the more clear.

What I hope we have modeled here is a new avenue for interfaith conversation: trusted friends reading, wrestling with, and commenting on each other’s sacred texts. I would like to see this repeated over and over again with clergy and texts from as broad a religious spectrum as can be mustered.

When we started this project so many months ago I had no idea where it would take us, and I have been surprised by some of the avenues we have travelled together. I was also taken with how clearly our two voices emerged. There is a consistency in our respective approaches that reflects the fundamental differences between our traditions, and yet suggests that no one way is sufficient. We balanced one another, I think, and did so in ways that enriched my understanding of the text and our traditions.

It has been a blessing and an honor to work on this with you, Mike. What’s next?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 6/30 Post

God is a gardener? No way! Genesis 2:4-5, “When the LORD God made earth and heaven— when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no earthling to till the earth.” So much for God the Gardener. God had to invent that job and then create humanity to do it. Enough levity, on the text.

•••

I cannot read this parable of the builders without thinking that Jesus is retelling the teaching found in the prophet Ezekiel (13:10-16 NRSV):

“Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break out. When the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?” Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: In my wrath I will make a stormy wind break out, and in my anger there shall be a deluge of rain, and hailstones in wrath to destroy it. I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the LORD. Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash; and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it— the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace, says the Lord GOD.”

The “whitewash” is a coating that gives the illusion of strength, like the houses of those who build on sand.

Jesus rabbinic contemporaries made the same point. In Avot de Rabbi Nathan Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah says, “A man who does good deeds and diligently studies Torah is like a man building a house with a stone foundation and a shingled roof… When a flood comes the house does not move. But a man who studies and yet does evil, is like one who builds a house with shingles for a foundation and rock for a roof. Even a slight rain causes the house to collapse” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 24).

What interests me is that Jesus is, like the rabbis before and after him, preaching the gospel of the deed rather than the gospel of faith. It isn’t enough to hear the words of Jesus or even to believe them, one must live them, do them, for it is our action that is the rock while mere faith is sand. Luke makes the point even more clearly when his Jesus says anyone who hears his words and lives them is like the builder whose foundation is rock, but anyone who hears his words and does not live them is building a house on sand (Luke 6:47-49).

Most of us build on sand.

The closing part of the Sermon is challenging to me personally: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matthew 7:24-28, NRSV)
The first thing I notice here is that Matthew seems to have forgotten that Jesus withdrew from the crowd and spoke the Sermon to his inner circle: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them,” i.e. the disciples, not the crowd (Matthew 5:1-2).

If this is true, the crowd never heard the Sermon on the Mount, and this closing line is a later editorial gloss added to the text to highlight the idea (false in my opinion) that Jesus taught something drastically new. While Jesus puts his own unique spin on his teachings, he is still teaching Torah whether or not Jews and Christians want to admit it.

As to his manner of teaching, Jesus does violate a major tenet of Judaism: cite your source. While rabbis can be very innovative in their interpretations of scripture and law, we consider it an act of respect to honor those teachers who came before us by citing their teachings in their name. This continues today. We delight in showing the evolution of our thinking by quoting our teachers even when we know we are going to put a spin on the teaching that these teachers never imagined and with which they might not even agree.

So, yes, Jesus’ seeming lack of respect for his rabbis would shock people. It still bothers me today, which is why I spent much of our conversation citing sources that may have been in Jesus’ mind when he taught. I say his “seeming” lack of respect because it is hard for me to imagine him not citing sources. It was and is such a central part of rabbinic culture that I cannot help but believe that Jesus did honor his rabbis and that the Gospel writers simply chose not to include those references.

The reason why the Gospel writers would make this choice is not hard to fathom. To them Jesus was not speaking for an ancient tradition but for God, perhaps as God. God is the source of these teachings, and since God is speaking them there is no reason to cite sources. If they were to include the early teachings from which Jesus shaped his own message this would tie Jesus too strongly to Judaism and make the emergence of a largely non-Jewish church all the more difficult. Once again, politics shapes religion.

• • •

I like way you sum up your take on the Sermon, Mike. You seem to suggest it is, in today’s world no less than the world of Jesus’ time, counter-cultural. I heartily agree. What would it be like if people built their homes on rock and actually lived the Sermon, rather than build on the sands of power, politics, and the theological veneer that seeks to pass these off as religion?

Prophetic religion should always be counter-cultural when the culture is rooted in exploitation, greed, ignorance, anger, and violence. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all started out as counter-cultural revolutions and each ended up as the bearers of culture and excusers of the violence to which their respective cultures fell prey.

I may have mentioned this earlier, but I once watched Larry King interview a panel of Evangelical Pastors on the eve of the second Iraq War. He asked them how they reconciled Jesus’ “Blessed are the peacemakers” with President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive war. One of the women on the panel answered him saying, “Our soldiers are the peacemakers. As soon as they kill all our enemies there will be peace.” Couple this with the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll that found that 60% of Evangelical Christians supported torture of terror suspects while only 40% of the unchurched did so, and we have to wonder if Christianity is still counter-cultural.

As always, Mike, you are clear and insightful: it does take a leap of faith to embrace and live the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The leap is not so much the belief in the divinity of Jesus, but in the possibility of mere humans being capable of living the life he prescribed for us. With the rise of fundamentalism in all three Abrahamic religions I am doubtful that any of us have this faith.

On the contrary, our faith is in the very things Jesus rejected, the very things that are bringing us and our civilization to the brink of disaster. We need to do more than hear the Sermon. We need to live it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:24-28

Aside from your (occasional) penchant to try and treat a metaphor as a subject for scientific inquiry, I think your "improvisational jazz" suggestion is useful. It certainly provides a metaphor of life and creation as experienced in any given moment. When my sense of humor kicks in, I sometimes imagine an encounter with God when all history has played out. He greets us and agrees to take a few questions. When we mention the various music metaphors, God exclaims: "Music! What music? Me, I'm a gardener!"

We've arrived at the final paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount. It reads: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on the that house, but it did not fall. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was the fall." Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:24-28, NRSV)

A childhood chorus first imprinted the story on my mind. Repeating lines about the falling rain and the rising flood, coupled with appropriate body movements, led to a conclusion in which the wise man's house stood but the foolish man's house "came tumbling down." We were easily entertained in that era!

In the context of The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' words constitute both warning and invitation. Listening to, digesting, attempting to structure life in accordance with his words matters. Many Christians over the centuries have taken the injunction to imply that the Sermon on the Mount is the literary core of Christianity. Those who do so, tend to read the remainder of the gospels and the rest of the New Testament in light of The Sermon on the Mount. In short, the sermon becomes a "canon within the canon."

It's worth recalling how counter-intuitive the sermon feels to most of us. In an era when many, perhaps most, believe safety is found in violence, even pre-emptive violence, the sermon speaks of loving an enemy, of doing unto others as we would have do unto us, and the like. At almost any point in the sermon, we find ourselves confronted by an alternative vision of personal and community life. Frankly, I find it requires a bit of a leap of faith to attempt to embrace and practice the sermon's core teachings.

With regard to the parable itself, it assumes a setting in which heavy rain and floods are rare enough to enourage short-cuts or complacency. The parable's images are heavy-handed, designed to contrast the stark difference between foolishness and wisdom. As I have noted before, it seems to me he draws upon the tradition of the two ways, in this case clothing it in talk of two ways of selecting a home site.

The Sermon on the Mount closes with a summary statement of the crowd's reaction to the entire speech. Christian scholars have invested a great deal of ink and paper in the attempt to understand the text's contrast between the scribes and Jesus approach to teaching. More often than not, they suggest the "scribes" tended to teach on the basis of an inherited tradition, relying on the authority of those cited. The same scholars suggest that Jesus, in contrast, spoke as one with a word from God, whether in a sense similar to that of earlier prophets or as the Messiah. Frankly, I doubt we can discern the gospel writer's intent at this historical distance, other than to say he believed Jesus taught with a authority his listeners found novel.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 6/22 Post

You are right, Mike—metaphors are always risky. Especially when shared between friends who delight in tweaking each other’s metaphors. So, with all due respect, let the tweaking begin.

First, I love the symphonic metaphor. Second, I agree that there are various movements that flow through the piece to create dramatic point-counter point essential to the quality of the music.

I’m not so sure about the conductor. Who would this be? God, I assume, is the composer, and while the composer could also be the conductor, I assume that since you didn’t say that, you didn’t mean that. So maybe Jesus is the conductor. But Jesus, having left the symphony in the hands of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, makes for a poor conductor. So perhaps it is the Spirit who conducts.

Even if we could agree on who the conductor is, we still have the problem of the orchestra rebelling against the conductor’s direction. A good symphony follows the conductor’s lead. If they don’t, the orchestra devolves into chaos and the conductor is out of a job.

Maybe the problem is solved if we shift from symphonic music to improvisational jazz. As I understand it, jazz has a core theme off of which jazz musicians improvise riffs. The riffs cannot ignore the theme, but they may oppose it and offer contrast to it. Such music is often highly discordant, and that would make the metaphor all the more apt. It is also created on the spot. In this metaphor there is no conductor, and God the Composer only sets the theme and waits to see where the musicians will take it. Maybe this is why God refers to himself in Exodus as Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I will be what I will be. Even God is surprised by where the music goes.

What I like most about the music metaphor (regardless of musical style) is the need for rests and the goal-lessness of play. Music without the silence of the rests is just noise. Organized religion (as opposed to mysticism) makes little room for silence, the deep silence that frees us from the fixed notations of theology and ritual. The music metaphor would allow us to honor the silence more.

As for the sheer joy of playing, unlike most things we humans do in life, getting to the end of a piece of music is never the goal. The play is the goal; the journey is the thing. Otherwise the best symphonies would be those that played the fastest, and the greatest composers would only write endings.

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/10 Post

I agree with all you say about the ambiguity of goodness, the ways in which we justify evil by appealing to a greater good, our tendency to develop narrow definitionsl of human community, and our bent toward selfishness. I even agree with your take on the golden rule.

Metaphors are always risky, but here's one I find useful. Think of the human story as a piece of music. All of the horrible themes we've identified comprise a major movement within the piece. At times the movement dominates, sometimes it recedes into the background, but it is always there. Still, it is not the only movement. There is another one, a second one, and it plays the great themes of an all-inclusive humanity, humility, sacrifice and deeply shared interests. The two movements play, contend, rise and fall--but they go on playing. Some of us hear one movement more clearly than the other; some of us hear only one theme. We often think we've mastered the music, though truth to tell no one ever really does. Still the music plays on, and neither theme is eliminated.

Now...in my view there is a Conductor who never ceases to try to bring the second movement to the forefront. This may well be the core difference between us. I don't know. In any case, though, I believe the Conductor is involved, though he operates within the limits set by the role he has assumed.

I choose to pay attention to the second movement, to allow its cadences and runs and pace and tone to become the music which is my life. I may well mishear a note, sing along off key, get out of beat--but so long as the second movement plays and so long as I try to listen, I ulitimately will be drawn back into the movement.

So I dare to sing or play or simply beat time to the second movement. So long as the second movement plays, I will not lose hope.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 6/9 Post

I agree with you, Mike, we must choose. And we always choose the good and the right. Regardless of which side of an argument we are on, of which policy we back, or which side of a war we choose to fight, we always assume we are on the side of the good. The good excuses more evil that does evil itself. Slavery, oppression, genocide, torture are rarely done in the name of evil, but most often done in the name of good. The argument continues on CNN and Fox right up to this morning. Those who support torture do not do so because it is evil, but because, in their minds, it serves the greater good.

Given the ambiguity of goodness, let me respond to your guidelines, holding your second for last.

(1) Does the prophet’s teaching, or proposed action square with persons being created in the image of God? The challenge here is to hold on to the idea that our enemies are in fact created in the image of God. The first stage of evil is always to dehumanize those we wish to abuse. Once that is done, once we are convinced that the other is in fact not human, then we are willing to do unto others any horror we can imagine.

(3) Will the agenda, teaching or action contribute to the enhancement of human community or instead farther fracture it? Again the issue is our definition of “human community.” Once we define “us” as human and “them” as gooks, huns, nips, kikes, niggers, baby-killers, and the like we can excuse incredible evil perpetrated against them. And then there is the argument current during the days of American enslavement of Africans that it was in the best interest of the enslaved to be slaves. Better a Christian slave in America than a free pagan in Africa. There is no end to the power of humans to rationalize evil.

(4) Does the agenda, teaching, or action require some genuine sacrifice on my part, or does it mostly serve to protect my interests (economic, career, comfort zone, etc.). This works for you and thoughtful people like you, but most of us put “keeping what’s mine” at the top of our agenda. American foreign policy, regardless of the party in power, is about keeping what is ours and expanding what is ours often at the expense of others. This may bother you, but not the majority.

Now let me come back to your second point, Would I want to be on the receiving end of a given prophet's agenda? This is, of course, the Golden Rule, and at the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, I think this is the only guideline that might work. Would I like to be slaughtered? Would I like to tortured? Would I like to be abused or enslaved? At least on the level of personal ethics this works. And if people would hold to such an ethic our communal ethics might come to reflect this rule as well.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/2 Post

Your take on the difficulties associated with false prophets, "fruits," God's will, and vigilance strikes a chord with me. At times I rather despair of our being able to discern false prophets. We have trouble enough sorting through our own self-deceptions! Your closing lament (if you will grant me the term) captures the contemporary challenge: "I don't know how we can protect ourselves against false prophets...there are prophets of one faith or sect who argue against those of another faith or sect but there is no way to tell which is the truer."

Your words remind me of an episode in the novel The Two Towers. Aragorn encounters a young nobleman who is confused and frightened by the competing claims of the time. The nobleman (I'm paraphrasing, not having the novel to hand)cries out: "How is a man to choose in such times as these?" Aragorn's reply (again, paraphrased from memory) braces him: "As he has ever chosen. Good and evil have not changed in a day."

The key point is: Nothing absolves us from the burden or responsibility of choosing. So, when it comes to false prophets, truth, right, wrong, and the like I may be confused but still I must choose, either deliberately or by default.

Given that cheery thought, here are the guidelines I follow. I draw on the Christian tradition, mix in a dash of what I hope is wisdom gleaned from experience, and leaven the whole thing with intentional humility (i.e. acknowledging that I will make mistakes and resolving to try to admit mistakes when they happen and rectify them as I can). Here are my guidelines.

(1) Does the "prophet," teaching, or proposed action square with persons being created in the image of God? If I follow up, will I find myself according others the freedom and responsiblity and dignity inherent in their being made in the image of God? It's surprising how many times this simple guideline leads me to choose not to enlist in a given "prophet's" agenda.

(2) Would I want to be on the receiving end of a given prophet's agenda? If not, I become very cautious about embracing such agendas.

(3) Will the agenda, teaching or action contribute to the enhancement of human community or instead farther fracture it? If division seems to be the likely result, I grow cautious.

(4) Does the agenda, teaching, or action require some genuine sacrifice on my part, or does it mostly serve to protect my interests (economic, career, comfort zone, etc.). I tend to be suspicious of anything that essentially promises to help me "keep what's mine."

Obviously, my decision making is more complicated than such a simple list implies, but still I find the four guidelines help challenge me to take seriously the matter of choice.

Equally obviously, I've not answered the common question: "But how can you know what is true and take actions accordingly." I'm not sure that's the best question, frankly, even if it does appeal to folk reared in the scientific era. Instead, I think aspiring to guide my actions on the basis of seeing God in others, putting myself in the other person's shoes, building community, and embracing sacrifice for the sake of others offers a more productive approach. Mind you, my approach does not provide surety of any kind! But it does preserve me from paralysis.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 5/29 Post

There is so much in this section, Mike, and it is one of my favorite passages of the Bible, but it is also one of the most troubling.

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

Who are the false prophets? I have heard preachers claim that Jesus is referring to the Pharisees, but this is hardly convincing. When denouncing the Pharisees Jesus and the Gospel writers always refer to them as Pharisees not prophets. And the Pharisees would never refer to themselves as prophets. So who is Jesus talking about?

Some scholars suggest that this reference to prophets was added long after Jesus’ death and refers to Paul and his followers, but I don’t think we have to stretch so far. It is not difficult to read this passage as Jesus imagining the future of his teaching when teachers use him and his words to further their own ends. How can we protect ourselves against being fooled? “You will know them by their fruits.”

This sounds right on the surface, but it is far more difficult than it seems. Take the preachers of the Prosperity Gospel, for example, those who use the teachings of Jesus to line their own pockets with gold. Their fruits are their own riches, yet their followers see those fruits as proof of the authenticity of the teaching. In other words, when bad fruit is defined as good fruit it is impossible to tell one from the other.

This is true in every religion. The people are convinced, ala George Orwell, that war is peace, slavery is freedom, and falsehood is truth. And once they are, the wolf can abandon the sheep’s clothing and no one will know the difference.

Shortly after George W’s revelation of preemptive war, Larry King hosted a panel of Evangelical Pastors to talk about war in Christian terms. When asked to explain how justify preemptive war with Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” one guest said that our soldiers were peacemakers because once they killed all our enemies there would be peace. No one challenged her. This was a wolf who no longer needed sheep’s clothing.

Jesus is warning us against placing our faith in human beings and human institutions. Jesus is warning us against the seduction of words and miracles. He tells us to look at the fruits. But what if we no longer know good from bad fruit?
“Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” But what is that will? Every religion claims to be doing God’s will. The rampant torture and abuse of thousands of innocent children in Ireland’s Catholic orphanages was no doubt done under the aegis of God’s will. The murder of the doctor in Kansas, the slaughter of Shias by Sunnis and Sunnis by Shias, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the oppression of Palestinians in Israel’s occupied territories are all excused as God’s will.

False prophets are not without power. They “prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your power?” So, again, how are we to tell the true prophet from the false when the works of both are identical?

I agree, Mike, that we must remain vigilant, but according to what standard? Jesus may be able to say, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers," but the rest of us cannot be so sure. When the church (synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.) itself is the source of so much evil, in a world where church, state, and marketplace have educated us to the point where we can no longer distinguish grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles, the only option we have is radical doubt. Trust no one. Not even yourself.

Five centuries before Jesus the Buddha warned us against listening to teachers simply because they are called wise, or following books simply because they are old. He admonished us to test every idea against our own experience: to see for ourselves what is wise and true; to trust our capacity to find enlightenment for ourselves. He may have had too much faith in humanity, but the idea that we must test teachings against reality rather than accept them on faith and insist reality conform to ideology is a sound one.

The problem today, however, is that ideology is reality. There is no objective standard against which to make a sound judgment. I always come back to Micah 6:8, “You know what God requires, Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly,” but the truth is justice, mercy, and humility are so open to interpretation that this text, too, is no longer sufficient.

Bottom line: I don’t know how we can protect ourselves against false prophets. In fact the very label “false” may no longer be meaningful. There are prophets of one faith or sect who argue against those of another faith or sect but there is no way to tell which is the truer.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:15-23

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the 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. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord,Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your power?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers.'" (Matthew 7:15-23) (NRSV)

What are we to make of these two related yet distinct scripture paragraphs? Both look ahead in time to a movement or community after Jesus. While well respected scholars often ascribe such passages to the early church rather than Jesus, I think it reasonable to assign Matthew 7:15-23 to him. With due respect to those who prefer to restrict Jesus' perspective to the apocalyptic, I find him to have been more complex. In particular, he often seems to have anticipated that a community would develop in his aftermath. Such a community, while informed by his teachings and life, would be subject to the dangers of deception and self-deception. It seems to me Matthew 7:15-23 addresses these matters.

Many a modern tale and animated feature has drawn on the image of the wolf in sheep's clothing. In the passage, the core message is to beware of would-be leaders who claim to follow the Good Shepherd but who actually aim to ravage and fleece the flock! I can't speak to Jewish history, but Christian history provides numerous examples of sheep-skin wearing wolves. Some sought to divorce Christianity from its Jewish roots by discarding the Hebrew Bible (or the Hebrew Bible as mediated through the LXX). Others pushed forms of antinomianism, gnosticism (no matter how ill defined the term), expanded membership requirements, and the like. In recent centuries false teachers have tried to lead the Christian movement to endorse slavery, racism, discrimination, sexism, greed,preemptive war, and torture. Both of us could cite numerous specific examples. The end results (the fruits) are division, pain, suffering and death for many--a fracturing of the community of the human race, and the subversion of the church.

Jesus indicates we need never let matters go so far. If the church will practice a kind of tough vigilence, it may discern the fruits of false leaders and move to stem the damage. It's interesting to me that Jesus assigns the community and those within it the responsiblity for discernment. We are to tend our own fruit grove!

Self-deception also poses an ongoing threat. Verses 21-22 speak of the all too human tendency to confuse lip service with reality. "Lord," of course, became part of the earliest Christian confession, by which one not only signaled one's commitment to follow Jesus but also one's entry into the Christian community. Here Jesus gives clear warning against reliance on confessional or other religous language. Such language, while useful, must line up with one's inner orientation, or it means nothing.

In like fashion, good deeds, such as the two examples of inspired preaching and exorcism, may or may not reveal a genuine commitment to God. Something more is needed: alignment with God. The Sermon on the Mount captures much of what that might be. I suspect 1 Corinthians 13 does as well.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 5/19 Post

It's true that I like to think of myself as an individualist, but I admit that I belong to the individualist club and conform as much to the conditioning of that community as anyone else conforms to the conditioning of her or his own communities. And I agree that the journey of the alone to the Alone is never really travelled alone. In fact there is no alone for we are always in the community of the One.

The other day I was asked why the Hebrew name for God as Creator, Elohim, is written in the plural. It is clear that the name is meant to be understood as singular since all verbs and adjectives attached to it are in the singular, but this only begs the question, Why use the plural. My answer at that moment (all my answers are limited only to the moment in which they are given) was that the confusion of singular and plural points to the fact that the creativity that is God is plural, giving rise to many life forms, some lasting but moments, all of which are expressions of the One Divine Reality. God creates the community of living and dying, and we are residents of it.

I think the idea is less about being alone and more about not imitating others. We honor God when we are true to our own uniqueness. Otherwise we are denying God's creativity and rendering ourselves redundant. Just as each snowflake is unique yet all snowflakes are nothing but snow, so you and I and all living things are unique and yet nothing other than God.

I think walking is such a central term because the act of walking is intrinsically capable of awakening us to this truth and the reality of God in, with, and as all things. I have been leading walking meditation workshops both locally and across the country, and integrating walking meditation (using labyrinths wherever possible) into my other workshops. Walking with God, in God, and as God is the gift that such a practice offers us. And as we so walk we discover we never walk alone.

I appreciate your deepening of my understanding of the Prodigal Son parable. I have nothing to add. So let's walk on.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/6 Post

I find your take quite interesting. At the same time, I am not at all certain we are very far apart. In fact, I suspect each of us has hold of a piece of a single garment. That being said (and meant), I want to respond to a few matters.

Like you, and the majority of modern western thinkers, I resist herd mentality in favor of radical individualism, by which I tend to mean a kind of lonely and responsible individualism. We always enter the narrow way alone, if we enter it at all.

Once on that way, though, I think we may well find others walking it as well. This is a new community in the making, made up of individuals who share the experience of entering through the narrow door and walking the narrow way. At this point it is not so much that we are coming to God as that we are walking with God. Strangely enough, there's room on the way for all those who choose to walk there.

Walking is a key term. Those who find and walk this way may well not share a language, culture or era. They may well have quite different concepts of God and very different belief structures as well. But they find themselves walking the same road, and over time they find they share a deepening commitment to continuing to walk, helping one another, and even coming to care for one another.

Strangely, and sometimes to our aggravation, the narrow way combines radical individualism with community.

Now for some particulars. Your take on the Prodigal Son is apt, insofar as it goes. The beauty of a story, even a parable, is that it offers many sides for our inspection. I certainly agree your take is real and powerful. If we start with the end of the story, it makes sense. Does it grasp all the possiblities in the story? I do not think so. It seems to me that the prodigal could well have found his way without leaving home, but he did not choose to do so. Had he done so, his personal story would have played out differently, and his way to God would have been easier, at least with regard to physical, economic and emotional suffering. Either way required that he accept his father's love as a free gift.

Repentance or metanoia has never been about a creed or set of beliefs, though at any time strands within Christianity act as if it were so. Metanoia means to turn around and look a different way, walk a different direction, put on a different mind, and the like. Paul, in his better moments, saw this rather clearly. When we do so we increasingly see life with the perspective of Jesus and live accordingly. What that means for each follower, Christian or otherwise, must be discovered and fashioned as a individual. Again, though, as we do so we often find a community of others who share the perspective and the journey.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 5/5 Post

Before we move on, Mike, I want to revisit the narrow way issue. My intent with the Kafka connection was to suggest that the Way itself isn’t narrow, only that we imagine it to be so. Reality is just wide enough for each of us pass through—alone. This is what "narrow" suggests to me--that we must each find our way in and enter alone, and that no two people can share the same point of entry.

The radical individualism of the Way makes it difficult for us to follow. We humans are social creatures, pack animals if you like, and we follow the herd. We imagine that if most people are flocking to something it must be something worth flocking to. Our entire civilization and culture rests on this herd instinct. Kafka and Jesus are telling us something else.

The Way is narrow. It is your way only. Judaism teaches that each of us is a unique expression of God, and that imitating the ways of others is a kind of idolatry. This is why, or so the rabbis teach, Jews always pray to the "God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" rather than to the more succinct "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." The repetition of the phrase “the God of” reminds us that each of us comes to God in our own way.

This works well with the parable of the Prodigal Son. He came to God (his father) in his own way. Had he not left home, had he not squandered his fortune, had he not hit rock bottom, he would never have been ready to accept the radical nature of his father’s love. It was only when he realized he was unworthy of that love that he could accept it as the freely given gift it was (and still is).

If I am on the right track, what then to make of Jesus’ call to “Follow me”? In this I would say Jesus isn’t referring to himself as a person but to his actions. In other words, to follow Jesus is to do what Jesus did: to live the Kingdom in the face of oppression. Jesus is revealing a paradigm to be lived rather than a creed to be believed. When we make Jesus an object of worship we excuse ourselves from having to live the Kingdom—all we have to do is believe in it. Metanoia isn't really repentence but a literal getting beyond the egoic mind and putting on the mind of Christ— seeing the world as Jesus saw it, living in the world as Jesus lived in it, and dying for the Kingdom as Jesus died for it.

The narrow Way is the way of living the Kingdom. The wide way is the way of conforming to beliefs about the kingdom. I realize, of course, that such a view runs counter to everything many Christians believe Christianity stands for, but then, not being a Christian, this may not be surprising.

I imagine you have much to say on this point, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/29 Post

Interesting, isn't it how our minds see different connections between the biblical passage in question and other scriptures or traditions. I regard such differences as a benefit derived from our ongoing conversation.

I am not at all sure that saying "the way is narrow," (etc.)is the same as saying God makes salvation difficult. Rather, I read such language as descriptive of the reality of human life. We seem to have a remarkable capacity to select intentionally or by default self-defeating ways. You write, "It seems to me that a loving God would make finding Him easy," and I agree. We humans do not so much imagine that finding God is hard as we make it hard for ourselves. From my perspective, Jesus may suggest that most of humanity will fail to find their way, but if this so, it is by the choices we make.

Certainly, God wants us to come to him. You're right. That's the major point of the Parable of the Loving Father (or Prodigal Son). Still, the son has to come to his senses and choose to take the path home to his father and trust his father with his life. As for your point about Luke 13:25 (the owner shutting the door), don't you think you might be pushing metaphor a little far? It seems to me that all Jesus is saying is that we should choose and act as if all opportunities may come to an end.

I've always loved the Kafka parable! It's written, partly, in reaction to the Christianity Kafka knows, but the point about walking through the gate seems apt. Certainly, the parable's injunction against bribery is on target. Bribery is but one of the false solutions to the quest for "salvation." It's on a par with fleeing to a far city to find one's freedom and self, when all the time real freedom and the real self could only be realized in the presence of the loving Father.

We agree, of course, that if we engage the given moment loving God, neighbor and self we enter the gate, walk through the door, or find our way. My hunch is that we differ in our estimate of human wisdom and strength.

In my next post, I'll open discussion of another passage, unless you wish to continue to explore the subject of our last two posts.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/28 Post

The first thing that strikes me in this teaching is its parallel in Luke. Replying to the question, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" Jesus says "Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able." (Luke 13: 23-24). While you are right to preempt any notion that Jesus is saying only Christians can be saved (after all there was no Christianity when Jesus taught), he does seem to be saying that most of humanity will be damned.

Why is salvation so difficult? When I ponder this question I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer. At least not as long as I posit a God who consciously set up a system of salvation. Why would God make it so hard to find him? Why not make the gate to God as wide as possible? Doesn't God want us to come to him? This would be the message of the Prodigal Son, at least as I read the parable. Has Jesus changed his mind?

I can imagine a system of salvation in which people can opt out. If someone decides they prefer hell to heaven, fine. But why set it up so that most who desire heaven are denied entry?

In Pure Land Buddhism, Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, puts off his own salvation until he has facilitated the salvation of all sentient beings. All you have to do to get his help is call his name. Sure most people try to make it on their own, but when they finally realize they can't succeed they sincerely call for help, and Amida is there. This seems much more Christ-like than Jesus' notion that "the owner of the house [who I assume is God] has got up and shut the door" (Luke 13:25) leaving millions clamoring to get in. Where is the love and compassion in that?

It seems to me that a loving God would make finding Him easy, and that it is only us humans that imagine the way to be hard. Which leads me to Franz Kafka's parable of The Law. In this parable Kafka imagines a man who finds the gate to the Law (God) but fears to enter because the gate is guarded by a giant. The man spends his entire life trying to bribe the giant to let him in, but the giant never grants him entry. At the end of his life he asks the giant to explain why no one else has ever come to the gate. The giant explains that this gate was for him alone. No permission to enter was every needed. All he had to do was walk through it.

In other words, the narrow gate is the gate made just for you. It is narrow because only you can fit through it. It isn't narrow to keep people out, for each person has her own gate. The challenge is to find our gate and walk through it. What is our gate? It is this very moment; it is whatever life asks of us here and now. If we engage this moment loving God, neighbor, self, and stranger then we enter the gate. If we engage the moment with something other than love (and I would say compassion are justice are the two ways of love) then we do not enter the gate. The choice is ours.

In this way of understanding salvation, the way to God is universal. Each person has her or his own gate. There is no attempt to keep people out. True, you have to find your gate and walk through it, but it is right there in front of you. Walk on!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:12-13

Matthew 7:12-13 reads as follows. "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." (NRSV)

Let's clear away one matter upfront. This passage is often used in American evangelical and fundamentalist circles to argue that Christianity is the only way to salvation. Matthew 7:12-13,taken in context, is not concerned with such a question. Instead, the passage fits neatly into a strand of Jewish tradition and also serves as the opening volley in a concluding challenge.

For example, when I read the passage I am reminded of Psalm 1: "Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night." The idea of two ways, one leading to life and the other destruction, has deep, old roots. The Christian tradition absorbed the image, first from Jesus then through various reformulations, ranging from the Didache to The Pilgrim's Progress. It even crops up in The Lord of the Rings, when Galadriel warns Frodo that the quest walks on the sharp edge of a knife, in other words on a very narrow road.

The tradition assumes human choice. We decide which way to take. In my view, this is not so much a single decision as a series of decisions. We choose who to take seriously, who to believe and so set the course of our lives. Our choices shape us. Over time we become more and more nearly like that upon which we focus. That being so, Jesus' warning and promise is apt.

A related question arises: if our lives are shaped by the road we choose to walk, by that to which we pay attention, what is it we're called to take seriously? Context helps answer the question. The two of us have covered much of the content. It's summarized to a great extent in the golden rule. The Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer contribute additional particulars. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, it would go something like this: "The way of life is to love God, neighbor and yourself well and take the consequences!" Based on our past interaction, I would guess you might prefer a phrase that employs terms such as justice and compassion.

Jesus challenges his listeners to take the matter seriously, as something of transcending importance. In subsequent verses, he will illustrate some of the challenges faced by those who do so: false teachers, false self-perceptions and the like.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/21 Post

Mike you covered this well, so let me take a few detours.

Regarding the positive and negative versions of the text, Judaism has both. While Hillel states the Golden Rule in the negative, Leviticus 19:18 is positive, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as is Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, “Let your neighbor’s honor be as dear to you as your own” (Avot 2:15). These are just two examples, but the idea is simple enough, those who make much of the positive and negative forms of the commandment are probably making too much of them.

* * *

We have been following the Gospel According to Matthew in which Jesus concludes his version of the Golden Rule with “for this is the law and the prophets." It is interesting to me that Luke’s version drops any reference to the Law and the Prophets. Since Matthew is the older gospel I assume Luke was aware of the original, but left it off since his largely gentile audience had no connection to Torah and Prophets.

From a Jewish perspective, it is the older version that is more compelling and challgneing. Matthew’s version parallels the older saying of Rabbi Hillel, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another. This is the whole of the Torah. Go and study it” (Shabbat 31a). What interests me is not so much the positive or negative articulations of the Golden Rule, but the claim that both Hillel and Jesus make that ethics is the whole of the Torah and the Prophets.

Given the overwhelming amount of text devoted to ritual, holy days, and other nonethical material in the Hebrew Bible, it is quite radical to argue, as these two great sages do, that God’s instruction (the proper translation of torah) can be encapsulated in this single call for justice and compassion. And yet that is what they have done, and rightly so.

This is what matters: doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Hillel and Jesus are affirming this prophetic challenge to priests and priestcraft ancient and modern. How did the religion of Hillel and Jesus get highkacked by legalists and theologians? What would it take to reclaim the true message of Torah and Prophets? What would Judaism and Christianity be like if Jews and Christians actually followed the teachings of these sages rather than the myriad rabbis and theologians who try to complicate matters?

Mike: Matthew 7:12

The "Golden Rule" reads: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)(NRSV)

Versions of the golden rule abound. No doubt you can share examples from several cultures. In the ancient Roman world, negative versions may be found in Tobit, Philo and Hillel. Jesus offers a positive version.

The negative versions seem to me to be akin to the old medical dictum: "Do no harm." That is, they call us to avoid hurting others. The rule of thumb becomes: "Don't do anything to someone else you would not want them to do to you." I admire the insight into human nature which lies in back of such formulations. Most of us, I suspect, have little trouble envisioning what others might do to harm us. Identifying and refraining from such actions provides the makings of a workable social order (assuming, of course, that we are healthy people in most respects).

Such a dictum finds particular expressions in the Ten Commandments ("Don't murder, etc) and the prophets (don't misuse the justice system to steal from the poor, etc.).
In short, the negative formulations of the golden rule, if applied, serve to regulate destructive human behavior.

Looking back, I find I've made use of the negative formulation in my personal life. To make a long story short, I grew up in a home dominated by an alcoholic father. A good bit of the first three decades of my life was shaped by a core idea: "Don't do to anyone else what my father did to me." Frankly, the commitment sufficed for a long time, though I must confess it was not sufficient for the long run.

Which leads me back to the positive, or as I prefer proactive, formulation Jesus offered. Taken seriously, it forces us to ask a hard question: "Just what would I really want others to do for me?" Some of us may well be inclined to say, "Nothing." In more nearly sane moments, though, I think we realize that's not so.

Assuming we are reasonably healthy persons, and taking into account "the law and the prophets" plus Jesus, I suggest most of us want at least the following from others.

...to be taken seriously, to be treated as if we matter
...to be "kept company" when life crashes in
...to be accorded opportunities to discover and use our gifts
...to be given opportunity to help others
...to be treated with dignity regardless of economics, health, race, gender or age
...to be offered friendship

Obviously, the list may be applied at the personal level. I think it provides a reasonable guideline at the societal level as well.

I do not regard the list as complete, and I'm keenly aware that such a list is conditioned by our living in relative economic security. A person in dire circumstances might well make a different list and include items such as food, clothing, shelter and the like. Still, having studied and experienced a variety of human cultures, I think the first list captures some of our deepest yearnings.

Jesus' formulation pushes his followers to be proactive toward others, to intentionally offer such gifts to one another. In his worldview, behavior restrictions are fine but not enough. From my perspective, he has much in common with several of the prophets at this point.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/16 Post

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that you agree with my notion that spiritual practices are designed to lead us to surrender. I don’t believe we can surrender, for that is still an act of will, but I do believe that we can be surrendered, and this is the great goal of authentic spiritual practice.

I also appreciate your taking this even further. The great discovery one experiences when surrendered to God is that we are loved just as we are. This is the parable of the Prodigal Son. The fallacy of religion is to think that we need to bring the Kingdom of God in the future, when in fact all we need do is live it here and now.

I still have trouble with God granting or denying my requests, however. First of all, if God agrees that what I desire is good, why doesn’t God just give it to me in the first place? And if what I desire is wrong, why entertain the request at all? And then there is the problem of God playing the role of parent or potentate. In the first case we are reduced to children, in the second to serfs. I’m not happy with either.

While I continue to share my life with my dad, and ask his advice, I don’t ask him for things, nor do I want him to tell me what to do. I want his love, his respect, his pride, and if this is what I want from my earthly father, all the more it is what I want of my heavenly Father. It just seems too anthropomorphic for my tastes.

As I have said many times, God for me is reality: all that was, is, and will be. Reality is creative and open to change, indeed reality is change, and so I am not fated to do one thing or another. I don’t ask reality for anything (though I can and do thank it for everything). Rather I engage what is to the best of my ability and then move on to engage what is next. The quality of my interaction in this moment will influence (though not control) the quality of the next moment, and religion at its best teaches me how to live out of the highest qualities—justice, compassion, and humility.

On to the Golden Rule?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/15 Post

Taking up your first observation, I am not sure if the passage sounds Pauline or if we hear it as Pauline because we know Paul. I think, for example, that Augustine read the gospels through the lens of Paul. I am certain Martin Luther and Calvin did so, along with many of their theological descendents. I prefer to try to reverse the order and read Paul in light of the gospel accounts. All of this is only slightly related to the main thrust of your point! I simply could not resist taking the detour.

As to your idea that Jesus, like other spiritual genuiuses, sets out a plan of salvation designed to fail, so that we might be driven or led to surrender the ego, etc.--it parallels a long-standing approach adopted by Christians of various stripes. In the tradition I refer to, the core idea is that both the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount taken seriously teach us we cannot achieve God's standard of perfection. Ideally, the realization delivers us from pride (i.e. ego gone amuck, ego in charge, etc.)and we turn to God to do the transformative work only God can do.

I tend to adopt the insight, but I think to stop there is a mistake. Once we begin to surrender our ego (or self-righteousness, to use Pauline and Christian language)and depend upon God, we find God has loved us all along. The way to God and life with God has been blocked by our own ego. Freed of "the need to transform ourselves," as you put it, we become free to live into transformation. Changing metaphors, we become free to be as children for whom watching, learning from, and imitating a parent is both natural and a form of healthy play. For us, the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount become not an end but the ethos of our home, an ethos we take with us into any external environment.

With regard to the second point, I did not mean to imply that God always responds but never in the way we like. Even if that were my position, I'm not sure it would amount to a cop-out, but it surely would be bleak, akin to the old Norse resignation to fate. That is not my position.

Instead, I believe God may grant or deny what we request, in accordance with his wisdom and within "the rules" of the created world. Children ask for many things, all of which they want in a given moment. Being the parent of two, I know this is so, not simply in theory but in practice. That's why the analogy Jesus used speaks so strongly to me. My intentional responses to such requests have included silence, explanation, denial of the request, granting the request, granting a modified version of the request, requiring something of the child he or she did not expect or especially want, explaining why the request was impossible to fulfill, and delay of the request. In each case, though, I responded as I thought best and possible. Let's face it: I had a much larger frame of reference than my child and a greater responsibility as well. I tend to think God plays a similar role with regard to us.

The story of Job can be interpreted along the lines outlined in the preceding paragraph. In that case, both Job and his "friends" have much to learn, though Job is farther along than any of his friends and asks much tougher questions. His questions are so good, they provoke a divine answer! We, of course, are starting to grapple with theodicy. My hunch is the subject would require a book of its own.

A minor point of clarification before I end: The "nonsense" I had in mind is any version of "name it and claim it" theology. This particular passage is one of the classic prooftexts for what I can only regard as theological nonsense.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/14 Post

This teaching of Jesus is right out of the Hebrew Scriptures. Asking hearkens back to Deuteronomy 32:7, “Ask your father, and he will show you;” and Psalm 2:8, “Ask of me, and I will give you.” Seeking suggests Proverbs 8:17, “And those who seek me diligently shall find me;” and Jeremiah 29:13, “And you shall seek me and find me.” Knocking may be unique to Jesus, though he may have the passage in Song of Songs that says, “It is the voice of my beloved that knocks saying, open to me” (5:2). So there is nothing in the teaching itself that is startling to Jewish ears.

Your notion that Jesus offers us this teaching to calm our fears that the program of action prescribed in the Sermon is impossible to live up to, however, is intriguing.

First, I am struck at how Pauline it sounds. Paul saw the Torah (or Law as he insists on mistranslating the Hebrew for “instruction”) as an impossible burden designed to condemn rather than save. For him faith in Jesus was the antidote to damnation under the law. Now I hear you saying that asking, seeking, and knocking are the antidote to the impossibility of living up to Jesus’ Way set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. This may not be what you meant, but before you correct my misunderstanding, consider for a moment that you may be on to something.

My reading of Jesus suggests that he is imagining people on the edge of total despair who franticly cry out, grasp, and tear rather than respectfully ask, calmly search, or politely knock. I think that Jesus, like other spiritual geniuses, sets forth a plan of salvation (enlightenment, God-realization, etc) that is designed to fail. Why? Because we cannot transform ourselves. The very ego that needs transforming is the ego that is asked to make the transformation. It cannot be done. The ego must be surrendered by our failure so that God can transform us through grace.

Paul was right about the commandments—they are designed to condemn, for only the condemned are ready to be transformed by God. His mistake was to offer the condemned another escape from the reality of condemnation.

Just as you cannot meditate yourself into enlightenment, or earn your way into heaven through the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah, so you cannot get to heaven through the Sermon on the Mount. What you can do in all these systems is exhaust yoiur ego, and bring yourself to the point of absolute despair. Here you have no choice but to cry, grasp, and claw at Heaven’s door just as a drown man cries, grasps, and flails. And then God changes everything. To me Jesus is saying, “When you finally realize you can’t walk the path to Heaven, storm the gate! God will let you in. He doesn’t care how you get to Him, just come home, come in!”

This is similar to Kafka’s parable of The Law. A man spends his entire life waiting to be invited into the Gate of the Law (salvation) only to find at the moment of his death that there is no invitation, this gate was for him alone to walk through. He just lacked the desperation needed for him to do it.

Of course all this may be another example of the nonsense written about this section of Matthew, but it speaks to me. Nonsense always does.

Your second point is also interesting, but no less troubling for me. To say that God always responds to our beseeching, but not in the way we like, seems like a cop-out to me. All I hear is that life happens regardless of what I want and don’t want. I have no problem with the theology. I believe God when he says he creates light and dark, good and evil (Isaiah 45:7). But if I ask for a bike and God sends me cancer, what’s the point? If I didn’t ask for the bike, would God not have sent me cancer? Did my asking for what I want trigger God to send me what I need?

Ascribing reality to God’s will adds nothing to my experience, unless I assume that God always acts for my good, something that Job and I cannot accept.

This is not a problem unique to Christianity, of course. The ancient rabbis also believed in that “whatever God does is entirely good,” (Berachot 60b); and that “God never deals harshly with his creatures,” (Avodah Zarah 3a). So you are in good company, but I’m not among them. I find Job’s God more accurate and comforting: God does what God wants, and human ideas of good and evil have nothing to do with it. What I have to learn is how to live gracefully without knowing which is coming my way next.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:7-11

"Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, adn the door will be opened foryou. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you the, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:7-11) (NRSV)

Let's start with the literary context. Jesus has challenged his followers on many fronts throughout the sermon. Even a partial list is daunting: the Beatitudes, taming the heart as well as behavior, loving enemies, meaningful prayer, laying aside materialism, discernment versus judgementalism, and the like. It seems to me that any sane person might well have asked himself or herself: "Where will I find strength and wisdom enough to begin and follow such a life's path?"

Matthew 7:7-11 addresses the matter. Jesus once again calls his followers to rely upon God. He uses active language: ask, seek, and knock. One may ask, seek and knock via prayer, but also through study, reflection, and conversation. Seeking God's way is not a passive affair!

Lots of nonense has been written over the years regarding the phrase "and it will be given you." Given the fact that Jesus did not always receive what he prayed for, we cannot accept the idea that we shall receive whatever we request. I prefer to link the phrases "will be given," "will find," and "opened to you." Here I think Jesus practiced parallelism, stacking similar phrases atop one another in order to drive home his point: God is prepared to give you what you most or really need.

That's the point of Jesus' language about human parents and their children. If a human parent (assuming a "normal" relationship) can be trusted to try and give good things to his or her children, surely God can be trusted to do so and to get it right.

My experience (and that of others) is of a God who often does not answer the question I ask but instead another question. God frequently does not give me what I seek but something else instead. As for doors, God most often does not open the one I want opened but instead leads me through another. It can be quite frustrating. Here's the thing, though: Such experiences reshape us, given time and acceptance, from self-centered urchins into adults more willing and able to flex, give of ourselves, appreciate others, and walk in faith.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/7 Post

I am good! And the advantage I have over you is ignorance. You have spent your life studying these teachings and 2000 years worth of Christian commentary on them, while I once read a book about that. But this is America, and here ignorance trumps scholarship almost every time, so on to the next text.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/7 Post

You're good!I especially appreciate the way in which you pull together several scripture passages which present similar challenges. Let's stipulate that you clearly cover one of the standard interpretations. As you know well, it's an option articulated by a number of Christian interpreters.

Jesus certainly was not always polite. He could be, and often was, blunt. In addition, I would add he strikes me as having been a realist with regard to human nature in practice--some will listen and accept, others will not--so what's a disciple to do? We've already discussed our differences over judgement/discernment and judgmental.

Both of us know "dogs" and "swine" are not to be taken literally but instead as powerful metaphors. Whatever Jesus might have in mind, neither term was complimentary in his culture. Both of us are aware of the debates over the place of "the gentile mission" in Jesus' mind. We differ over how this passage might apply to the matter. You focus on the question of Jesus' attitude toward gentiles; I focus on the passage's possible application to the work of those who took Christianity to the gentiles and some first century Jews. Strange and interesting, isn't it, how the two of us look at the same words yet ask different questions of them?

Several factors seem to me to be in play and to fuel our different responses to the passage. The first relates to how each of us chooses to deal with the "rough" aspect of the passage. Let's face it. I sometimes take understatement past all reasonable limits. When I briefly wrote of the passage's harshness and the like, I automatically "felt" as if I had said a great deal. What you took to be an effort to "clean up" the passage did not feel that way to me. That's a mistake on my part, by the way. I assumed too much on the part of potential readers and should have taken more space to unpack the terms.

Second, it's probably impossible for me not to interpet a scripture passage without taking into account most of 20 centuries of interpretive work in the Christian community(ies). The long tradition no doubt affects me in ways of which I both aware and unaware. One feature of that tradition is a tendency to apply scripture passages to one's own slice of life--hence, the pastoral life story.

Third, it seems to me both of us may be reacting to Christian sterotypes of Jesus we encounter. We've discussed one or more of these in recent posts. In this particular case, I deal often with people who believe Jesus (or a disciple of Jesus)could never "move on" from anyone in order to deal with someone else more open to Jesus' teachings or potential lordship--hence my tendency to read and apply the proverb the way I did in my posting.

Reading back over the preceding paragraphs, plus your post, I have no difficulty understanding why so many trees have had to die that endless commentaries might be written!

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/6 Post

I agree, Mike, that Matthew 7:6 is a proverb, but that only begs the question: who were the dogs and the swine. Nobody literally tosses holy objects to dogs or throws pearls to pigs, so Jesus doesn’t mean for us to take him literally. It seems to me that the “dogs” and “swine” are either Jews who reject Jesus and his teaching, or Gentiles in general. So much for “do not judge” (Matthew 7:1).

The first reading is on par with Jesus calling his rabbinic opponents “hypocrites” and “children of hell” (Matthew 23: 13-15). It might not be much of a stretch to imagine Jesus calling them dogs and pigs as well.

If we don’t want to stretch at all, we can look to Matthew 15:26 where Jesus uses similar language to refer to Canaanites. The Canaanite woman beseeches Jesus to heal her daughter, but Jesus at first refuses. His rationale is that he has come to teach the lost sheep of Israel, and that “it is not fair to takes the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).

Here the “children” refer to the Jews, the food is the teaching of Jesus, and the dogs are the Canaanites.

The Canaanite woman understands Jesus is talking about her and her people, and says “even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s plates” (Matthew 15:27). Jesus is impressed with her faith and does heal her daughter. This does not spark a change of heart in Jesus, however, and he instructs his apostles to refrain from entering gentile cities (Matthew 10:5), again suggesting that Jesus’ mission is to the Jews and the Jews alone.

Jesus’ reference to “swine” is more problematic. He never calls anyone “swine” or uses pigs in a parable. He does cast demons into swine (Matthew 8:32), but I doubt Jesus is admonishing us from casting his teachings to the demon possessed. So “swine” escapes me.

In any case, I understand the need to clean this up a bit, but I don’t think Jesus was talking about the five percent of the people who take up ninety-five percent of a pastor’s time. Jesus wasn’t always polite, and I think we have to allow him his biases and judgments. Just imagine how much pressure that would take off those who try to live up to his example.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:6

Matthew 7:6 (NRSV)reads: "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you."

What might we make of this neglected brief statement, sandwiched as it is between Matthew 7:1-5 and Matthew 7:7-11, classic, oft-cited passages?

The passage sounds like a proverb, and it certainly is so structured. If so, I think it best to treat it as a kind of wisdom saying. The sayings found in the book of Proverbs often sound jarring to Christian ears. For the most part, they lay out tactics for a stable, productive life. There is little "high sounding" about a proverb. Some, in fact, come across as harsh. In the context of first century Judaism, I suspect the terms "dog" and "swine" did so.

When I treat Matthew 7:6 as a kind of proverb, I interpret it as a necessary corrective to a tendency often found in Christians. I call it the "argue with a fence post mentality." It's characterized by a inability or unwillingness to recognize when someone simply is not open to the Christian way. Wise Christians drop the subject and move on. Many Christians, though, insist on forcefeeding their version of the gospel to the reluctant, closed or openly hostile person. The results are never good, either for the Christian or the person they've cornered.

In like fashion, Jesus counsels his followers to be gentle as a dove and wise as a fox. He tells them not to spend their time with villages immune to his message but to move on to another village.

Put positively, Jesus' point is this: Invest your time and message with those who will receive it, that is listen carefully and respond. Note, he does not promise such persons will always accept what you have to offer, but they will display an willingness to listen and interact.

This kind of wisdom finds its way into pastoral ministry. Many years ago, a well-known pastor often told young ministers: "Don't allow five percent of the people to take up ninty-five percent of your time." He meant we were to focus our time and energy on those receptive to our ministry, rather than burn up time trying help those who refused help. For the most part, I've found his insight on target.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/3 Post

You refined my thoughts quite nicely, Like, thanks.

I am multi-lingual to be sure. Sometimes I wonder if I am not my own private Tower of Babel. i think we are able to find such richness in our conversations on and off the Internet because we share so many languages. While this may not be rare among peoples of faith, admitting it seems to be. So many people find being bi-lingual dangerous, let alone multi-lingual. I find the more languages of faith I know the richer my understanding of Reality becomes.

I also agree with your final comment that the experience of God Presence is a gift. Contemplative practices can prime the pump and help make us receptive to the gifts of the Spirit, but in the end it is always a matter of grace.

Next text?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/3 Post

I think we understand one another, at least insofar as is possible via words on a screen. That being said, I want to add a few more words to our conversation.

First, I appreciate your points about what it means to be Jewish and the room afforded you within the tradition. For what it may be worth, Christian mystics often make room for a wide range of ways in which to experience God and articulate the experience. Thomas Merton, for example, comes to mind. Systematic theologians have more trouble doing so, not least because they (as a group)major on precision and distinctions. Experience does not lend itself to such treatment.

Second, you speak of testing matters in light of experience and reason. We're on common ground here. Within the limits of a single blog post, it sounds as if you refer only to your personal experience and reason. I'm fairly certain that is not the case, but that's for you to say. As for me, I try to pay attention to a mix of things: personal experience and reason, the experience and reason of others as found in their stories and in general human history, the experience and reflection of the church over the centuries (this includes but is not limited to the scriptures), modern science, the arts, and the like. Again, my hunch is that our approaches are similiar, though we might weight various elements differently.

Third, naturally we try to make sense of such experiences by calling upon the language(s) we know. You say this is Judaism for you. Actually, though, wouldn't it be more accurate to say that it is Judaism, one or more other world religions (or philosophies), modern science, and the arts? You are multi-lingual, so to speak. So am I. In both our cases, we try to distinquish between the language(s) we use and the reality we're attempting to describe. What I have learned for myself is that Jesus best describes the presence and its implications for me, insofar as I comprehend.

One quibble. I appreciate your perspective when you write: "Religion is vital when it preserves the event story as a reminder of what each of us can discover for ourselves." We agree, I think, that we can discover a good bit for ourselves. In the case of the particular experience I described, though, I have no sense that I had set out to find or discover anything. Instead, I should say it was given me.

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/31 Post

Thank you so much for sharing this, Mike. You raise at least two issues on which I would like to comment.

First is your assertion that “Were I not Christian, I suspect I would adopt such a view.” The view in question is my understanding of God as the source and substance of all reality, and Jesus as paradigmatic of the God-realized human that each us can become.

If I were to say this in the context of my own life, I would say, “Were I not Jewish, I suspect I would adopt such a view.” But I am Jewish, and I do affirm this view! I do not affirm it because I am a Jew. I affirm it because every fiber of my being tells me it is true. If Judaism insisted on something different, I would have to be something different. I manage to stay within the Jewish fold for two reasons. First, because being a Jew is a matter of birth and/or tribal membership, and there is no one theology that defines us as a people. And second, because the Jewish mystics do allow for just such a theology.

I place truth, as best as I can perceive it, above theology. That is to say a thing is true for me not because the Bible says it is true, but because my experience and reason tells me so. The Bible may affirm what I know to be true, but it isn’t the source of that truth. For example, I believe it is true that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. I believe it not because God says it (Leviticus 19:18), but because when tested against my experience I find it to be true. God also says we should avoid mixing linen and flax in our clothing, but I do not find this compelling at all, and do not worry about it. But God says both things. If one is true because God said it, the other can be no less true, seeing as how it comes from the same source. The fact that I pick and choose among God’s teachings makes it clear that I place my own sense of right and wrong above God’s as presented in the Hebrew Bible.

Regarding your experience in college, I have no doubt that you were both working on a paper and touched by the presence of God. What is interesting to me is that this Presence wasn’t identified as Jesus until later. This, I think, is the norm among most of us who have had similar experiences. This Presence is Nameless, beyond religion and theological niceties. This Presence crushes (Muhammad, too, felt the Presence of Allah as a crushing weight) and loves. But it isn’t Jesus, or Yahweh, or Allah, or Krishna, or any of the thousands of names we humans invent for the Ineffable. It just is.

When the experience passes and we try to make sense of it we draw upon the language with which we are the most comfortable. For you that language is Christianity. For me it is Judaism. For others the language might be Buddhism, or Islam, or art, literature, or science. The key is to distinguish the ineffable experience from the words we use to describe it.

Religion goes wrong is when it mistakes the word for the event. Religion is vital when it preserves the event story as a reminder of what each of us can discover for ourselves.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 3/31 Post

You know my love for classic science fiction, so you'll not be surprised that your take on God inevitably jogs my memory and calls to mind Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein probably did more than anyone else to introduce the idea of "Thou art God" and so is everyone and everything else to mainstream American culture. (And,yes, as you know I'm aware of the ancient roots of the perspective!)

Were I not Christian, I suspect I would adopt such a view.

That being said, I want to turn to your specific question: why I believe what I believe. You phrase my belief as "Jesus is God." That's good shorthand, but of course what I believe is a little more complicated. That being said, though, let's take up your question.

Experience drives my belief. For example, during my childhood the stories of Jesus which I read caught my imagination. I experienced God through Jesus. Looking back, I regard such experience as preparation.

An intense experience during my sophomore year in college strengthened my conviction. While minding my own business in my room, in fact while working on a paper, I suddenly felt myself in the presence of something far greater than myself. At first it felt as if a great weight lay over the entire room, including me. Then the weight lessened. I felt small, unworthy, more than a little frightened (think Isaiah 6:1ff). Then something changed. I felt known yet loved. I had never before felt that anyone knew me to my depths, and I had always believed no one could love me if they actually knew the real me. Now I found myself known and loved without condition, though all the help I might ever need to become more fully myself was offered freely. I relaxed, I let down my guard, I surrendered to the embrace of the presence. Subsequent experiences have not been as dramatic, but they have been real to me, reinforcing and informing the initial experience.

Afterwards, as I reflected on the experience I found my mind returning to the stories of Jesus, and I realized I saw in him the presence I had experienced. I think that's when I decided firmly and for myself the Incarnation had happened, was real. Obviously, all this can be written off as a typical young adulthood matter or as being solely conditioned by religious culture. In my own case, I think not. My inner skeptic is alive and well and always has been.

Jesus has proven to be the focal point or lens through which I continue to experience the presence, love and guidance of God. Its fair to say that experience drives my belief. The stories of Jesus help shape my response to experience, both in terms of my private life and my life in community.

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/30 Post

Nice to get back to this, Mike.

I’d like to take a moment and explore a bit more the place of our most fundamental disagreement: that Jesus is God. Actually I have no problem affirming this. Where we differ is that I would add to the affirmation “Jesus is God, saying, “and so are you.”

God, for me is reality in all its manifestations. When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” I say, “Mazal tov! You get it! You and God are one, and so is everything else.” If God is infinite there cannot be anything that is not God. I have no problem accepting Jesus as a fully awake and God-realized manifestation of the Divine, far beyond my meager knowing. I just take him as paradigmatic of what all humans can achieve and not, as Christians do, the one and only such manifestation.

Ok, so much for my theological stance. My question is, Why you believe what you believe?

My own conviction comes from an initial experience I had at age sixteen. Meditating on a lakeshore in Cape Cod during the summer of 1967 I suddenly knew the absolute nonduality of all things in, with, and as God. I was everything and everything was me, and there was only this One Thing which I call God. Subsequent experiences have reinforced this knowing, and I cannot deny it.

So, if you don’t mind, please tell me a bit more about your experience of Christ.
Where does your faith conviction come from? Did you have (and do you continue to have) a deep encounter with Jesus Christ? What was it like? In what way is Jesus a living presence for you?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's March 16 Post

Both Rami and I have been snowed under by a variety of engagements, but we're back now. Over the next few weeks, we hope to post regularly and work our way to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. That being said, I'll launch our writing spree by responding to Rami's previous post.

We're in agreement that Jesus argued against judgmentalism. I want to nuance the point a bit. In the passage, Jesus calls us to healthy self-awareness and humility. The more we become aware of our own sin (or whatever you prefer to call it), the better the chance we may not rush to pass judgment on others. We might even develop empathy and its companion virtue compassion.

As for the role of Holy Spirit in "log removal," I appreciate your point. From my perspective Holy Spirit (Spirit of God, etc.)most often works through others to help us see the log in our own eye. Such a community of friends and advisors keeps us honest. If we listen only to the voice within ourselves, it's all too easy to deceive ourselves. In fact, we have to move beyond our circle of friends and learn to listen well to those with whom we disagree. This provides a safeguard against the kind of "group think" which too often characterizes human communities.

Regarding Jesus, I suspect our faith perspectives place us on different pages. Seeing Jesus through the eyes of the Christian faith, I believe him uniquely qualified to judge others on the basis of their deeds. It seems to me he consistently does so. If I accept the premise of the Incarnation and all it implies, then Jesus has the right and wisdom to judge, forgive sins, and all the rest. In short, Rami, I doubt we will come to agreement on this particular point.

Thanks for the way in which you nuanced my statement: "we're no longer out to remake the world and others in our own image." I strongly agree with your statements. That being said, I want to clarify my own point. When we live without awareness of the log in our own eye or in denial of the image of God within us, we tend to try to shrink the world to fit us comfortably. A racist wants to remake the world into a racist world, and so it goes. The greatest danger we pose to the world and one another rises from this kind of tendency. Your comments point to the opposite side of the coin: the hope we may offer the world insofar as we reclaim the image of God and live accordingly.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/9 Post

I agree that we should not take Jesus’ blanket prohibition against making judgments literally. Otherwise Jesus is being illogical, for simply to place not judging above judging is a judgment. So I understand Jesus to be arguing against becoming judgmental.

Jesus’ teaching should be compared to those of his rabbinic colleagues. The rabbis taught, “Judge all people by their deeds,” (Pirke Avot I:6). Judging a people according to the quality of their actions provides a sound foundation for good judgment, and avoids playing God and trying to judge a person’s heart. The rabbis also taught, “Those who judge according to deeds will in turn be judged according to deeds,” (Shabbat, 127b). While the rabbis believe “God desires the heart,” (Sefer Hasidim, 5-6) it is the quality of one’s actions that determines one’s fate because actions are controllable while feelings or thoughts arise of their own accord. Lastly we can see parallels to Jesus’ log and speck analogy in the rabbinic teaching, “Those who condemn others see in them their own faults,” (Kiddushin, 70a).

One question I would raise regarding these teachings of Jesus is whether or not he himself lived up to them. Clearly he did not. Jesus not only judges, he is often judgmental. To cite only one example, Jesus regularly calls people hypocrites. The word occurs only once in the entire Hebrew Bible (Psalm 26:4 NRSV) and twelve times in the Gospel According to Matthew (6:2; 6:5; 6:16; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13; 23:15; 23:23; 23:25; 23:27; 23:29; and 24:51 NRSV)! I have no problem forgiving Jesus his log, and in fact it makes him all the more human and accessible, but it is still important to note that he himself had work.

Regarding personal log removal, I think I understand what you are saying about the Holy Spirit, though I prefer to place my faith in trusted friends and a good therapist. When it comes to helping me see the log in my own eye, I suspect that the Holy Spirit is often my ego in Holy Spirit clothing excusing the log and exaggerating the other person’s speck.

My last comment speaks to your notion that “we're no longer out to remake the world and others into our own image!” I know what you mean, and I don’t disagree, but in the interest of creative dialogue let me suggest that when we realize our true image, meaning God in whose image we are made, we are indeed out to remake the world in our/God's image. The entire Jewish enterprise is one of tikkun hanefesh tikkun haolam, reclaiming the image of God in our souls that we might remake the world in that image as well, applying justice and compassion as best we can on every level of human interaction (personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal), as well as in our interactions with other species and nature as a whole.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:1-5

"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye, while the log is in your own eye?' You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." (Matthew 7:1-5)

What kind of judgment does Jesus have in mind? Our answer determines our response to the passage. For example, when we say someone has good judgment, we usually mean he or she possesses discernment, whether when dealing with decisions or with others. They make wise decisions. If Jesus is calling us to refrain from discernment and decision-making, we have a problem, don't we?

Insofar as I can tell, that's not what Jesus has in mind. Instead, he speaks of the all too human tendency to label others negatively. We too often think we can categorize others as wrong or right, good or bad, and the like. Frankly, we may subject ourselves to the same kind of self-evaluation. Theologically speaking, the Christian tradition generally teaches only God can rightly judge the heart of a human and that only God has the "right" and wisdom to do so. When we judge, we in effect try to take God's place. We cannot bear such a burden well, so inevitably we wind up hurting others and ourselves.

More subtly, such judgment may mask our desire and need to control our environment. We want to keep others "in their place," deprive them of power, or eliminate them as "players." We're afraid of certain aspects of ourselves, so we project our dark side on others and attack it. We judge because it makes us feel safe, though in reality the practice puts us in grave danger of alienation from God, others and even ourselves.

Discernment generally engenders humility and compassion. Judgment, on the other hand, breeds pride, disdain and violence.

How might we remove the log in our own eye? I think we need help. In my religious tradition, we believe Holy Spirit undertakes to help us see the log and remove it. As you might expect, this is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. Personally, I've found it helpful to meditate on scriptures such as Matthew 7:1-5, read how others have identified and dealt with the matter, and listen to a handful of close friends who sometimes know me better than I know myself.

I must say the reward of pursuing discernment while dropping judgment is considerable. Our need to win, be right, dominate, and determine who is in or out diminishes. We indeed become able to be more honest about our own dark side, which in turn enables us to more readily accept and enjoy our gifts. As humility grows, we relax. After all, we're no longer out to remake the world and others into our own image! Instead, we learn how to appreciate the individuality of others. Our task is redefined. Now we seek to discern and nurture the gifts of others. We also learn how to enjoy others and be enriched by what they bring to the table.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/3 Post

I admire your synthesis of these passages, Mike, but I’m going to take the more traditional approach and comment on various teachings as they come up.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume. This reminds me, as it would Jesus’ audience, of Ecclesiastes who teaches that everything “under the sun” (Jesus’ “on earth”) is hevel, transient as morning dew (a much more accurate translation that the conventional “vanity” or “futility”). Ecclesiastes says, “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is impermanent” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Everything on earth is in the process of dying. Nothing is permanent, and so trying to overcome our fear of mortality with things always fails.

I especially like the line, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. We treasure that which we imagine will save us from the fate of all life—death. Some of us imagine that this treasure is on earth, others that it is in heaven. I am not much of a believer in heavens and hells, nor do I think there is any way to escape my own transience. Jesus, unlike Ecclesiastes, seems to hold out hope for a better world in heaven. I tend to side with Ecclesiastes taking comfort in living life as best I can without clinging to anything or anyone.

If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness. To me Jesus is saying this: Use your eyes to pierce the fa├žade of permanence; see, as Ecclesiastes saw, that all is hevel havalim, transient and insubstantial as breath. Then you will be free from clinging, from storing up treasure. But do not think treasure is material only. Ideas, too, can blind the eye and leave us in darkness. Wrong thinking is more subtle than material wealth for it leads to mistaking error for truth, and darkness for light. Take no refuge in thoughts or things, but only in the unknowable God alone. Taking refuge in the Unknowable you hold to nothing. When you are free of material and spiritual clinging you are at last in the kingdom of God.

You cannot serve God and wealth. It didn’t take long for the followers of Jesus to forget this teaching. By equating wealth with God they deftly finessed Jesus and established a church whose wealth is the envy of even the super rich. But this is not unique to any one religion. I read all sacred texts and teaching and ask, Who does this teaching benefit? Jesus’ teachings, like those of the other Hebrew prophets, most often benefit the poor and powerless, and because they do I believe they are from God. Texts and teachings that sanction the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few are most likely the product of those hands as well.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. Or as the immortal Alfred E. Newman says, “What? Me worry?” Worry adds nothing to life. On the contrary, it distracts us from living it. Living without worry isn’t living with the bliss of ignorance, for as Jesus says, tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. Trouble and suffering are as natural to life as tranquility and joy. When we worry about these things (having too much of the former and not enough of the latter) we distract ourselves from dealing with the troubles and enjoying the pleasantness that is before us right now. Worry takes us out the present, and Jesus, like Ecclesiastes, is challenging us to live in the present (though not for it).

Living without worry allows us to engage life fully and righteously, doing what is right because it is right and not because we imagine it will earn us some reward in the great by and by. The kingdom of God, as I understand it, is not heaven but this earth and this very life lived with justice, compassion, and humility (Micah 6:8).

Jesus, I believe, anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom on earth in the lifetime of his followers. When it failed to come these very same followers put it off into the future. When the future too proved too soon they projected it into the afterlife where it can never be too early or too late. Unfortunately, removing the kingdom from this world allowed the teachers of the kingdom to store up treasures in this world, deliberately misrepresenting darkness as light, and exploiting the fears of people in the name of God.

For me the challenge of Jesus is not faith but action. Striving first for the kingdom of God and his righteouness means living this moment with an open mind, an open heart, and an open hand. This I believe is what Jesus modeled, and this is what we must try to do in our own lives as well.