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 façade 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.

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