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.